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by Travis Tennessen

Here are a few notable inspirations that have shaped my philosophy and approaches to education and community development, including my contributions to Community Engagement Fellows:

The Wisconsin Idea


From 2000 to 2012, I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


I studied Geography, History, and Environmental Studies as an undergraduate, and earned a master’s and Ph.D. in Geography.


A key piece of the university’s identity and tradition surrounds  “The Wisconsin Idea,” the belief that university resources should be accessible and beneficial to everyone.


I was taught to practice it through many experiences, including my undergraduate research with Professor Jim Knox, graduate mentoring from Professor William Cronon, and many activities with the Center for Culture, History and the Environment.

Wisconsin Idea Plaque

Plaque celebrating The Wisconsin Idea at Muir Knoll in Madison

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement


Inspired by Gandhian philosophy and social movements in India, in the late 1950s Sri Lankans began organizing community development work camps, or Shramadanas, that involved people of all social classes, educational backgrounds, and religions.


Their goal was not charity, but rather “the awakening of all through the sharing of labor.”


They model that communities already have the resources they need to thrive, if people develop a humble, collaborative mindset and organize themselves effectively.


In 2014, I gave a TEDx talk called “Creating Universities of Life” that focused on the ways this Sri Lankan movement can inform community development and educational programs elsewhere.


I’ve also taught using John Ruskin’s Unto This Last, which was a key inspiration for Gandhi’s activism and remains highly relevant today.

Shramadana in Sri Lanka



Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimics the relationships found in natural ecologies.


It was first developed practically by Austrian farmer Sepp Holzer on his own farm in the early 1960s and then theoretically developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren and their associates during the 1970s.


I learned about and discussed permaculture ethics and design principles in my sustainability courses at Penn State University in 2012-2013, and took a permaculture design certificate course in June 2014 from Midwest Permaculture.


I keep the twelve principles of permaculture in mind, and encourage the Fellows to consider them when designing campus-community collaborations.

A memorable moment during

my permaculture course

John Heiser


My friend John is a rancher, poet, environmental educator, and national park ranger at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.


I met him when I was an undergraduate in 2004 while doing research in the area, and he has been a friend, mentor and co-educator since.


One of John’s sayings is “PhD’s need to be out leading nature hikes.” He means that knowledge belongs to everybody, and that it needs to be shared.

John also admonishes people to "walk the talk," meaning it's no good to say you value something if your actions don't align.


His words influenced my choice to develop programs like Community Engagement Fellows that aim to live out the values outlined above.


I'm trying to walk the talk.


John Heiser


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