Mountain Stewardship and Outdoor Leadership School

Mountain Stewardship and Outdoor Leadership School

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Monday, April 6 2015

Editor's note: We asked 2000 Fellow Jen-Osha Buysse to tell us about the lessons she has learned from building Aurora Lights' Mountain Stewardship and Outdoor Leadership School (SOL) in Morgantown, West Virginia, over the past year.  Below are her leadership lessons, followed by the non-profit's press release about the school.


The biggest leadership lesson I have learned through starting Mountain SOL is the importance of finding a group of leaders who can capitalize on each others strengths and support each other without judgment in each others’ weaknesses.  Our leadership style at Mountain SOL is collaborative:  we have three strong and passionate women who co-lead Mountain SOL.  We each have different responsibilities and tasks that we move forward independently, as well as support each other in our different roles.  I learned this type of leadership through my decade of work within the movement against mountaintop removal coal mining, where we intentionally stepped up within spheres where we had the most experience, and stepped back into a supporting role when another had the skills and/or resources to more effectively complete the goal.  The emphasis through our shared leadership is therefore more on evolving roles to meet the task at hand, rather than staying within a particular position.  I have found that we all flourish when we also support each other to take leadership in areas where we desire to learn and grow.  It is a blessing to be able to work with two women in an environment in which we are self-aware of our areas of development and consciously include our work as part of our life journeys.

As Director of Mountain SOL, I am in the role of an administrator for the first time.  One of the most difficult lessons has been how to create the same sort of support and interdependence with new staff as we have within our leadership triangle.  Among Hannah, Liz and me, we easily juggle our roles and responsibilities.  However, I struggle to learn the balance of structure versus freedom needed by each new staff person to thrive.  I often search for guidance in the natural world.  In my new role I remember Kipling's line, "For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."  By cultivating our strengths and supporting each other as we overcome our weaknesses, the Mountain SOL leadership and staff are stronger as individuals and as a team.


Aurora Lights, a West Virginia environmental non-profit, has taken the next step in nurturing future generations of environmental leaders with the opening of the Mountain Stewardship and Outdoor Leadership (SOL) School in Morgantown in Fall 2014.

Mountain SOL builds on the outdoor, afterschool programs that Aurora Lights’ co-founder, Mountain SOL Director and part-time Morgantown Learning Academy (MLA) instructor and Jen-Osha Buysse (2000 Fellow) started in 2011.  Jen brings 15 years of experience and state/national recognition for environmental and social justice education, as well as over 10 years of organizing experience within the environmental justice movement.

Since 1998 Aurora Lights has been leading programs in a variety of environmental stewardship and outdoor leadership topics.  Aurora Lights originally formed in Ecuador, and since moving to West Virginia, has led “International Perspectives on Environmental Issues” for WV college students, survival and stewardship classes for high school youth, basic survival skills for elementary and middle school students, and adult education classes in wild edibles and preserving food.  Aurora Lights was one of the leaders in the response to the water crisis in southern West Virginia in January 2014, organizing donations and deliveries of water and other essential needs to the small coalfield communities impacted by the coal chemical spill.

Mountain SOL is an outdoor education program focused on nature awareness, stewardship, and outdoor leadership. We offer in-school classes for students at MLA that meet state curricular standards and operate an afterschool program for all local students that enhances the academic experience by connecting skills to practical applications. We also offer internships for youth and young adults in leadership and grassroots organizing.

Mountain SOL is about connection – connection to self, connection to friends, to community and to a greater circle of life.  Classes are hands-on and allow for unstructured time in the woods as well as experiences in stewardship and self-led exploration.  Classes are more than just lesson plans taught outside -- they’re fun, fully immersed experiences.  The emphasis on passion, personal responsibility and leadership skills equips Mountain SOL students with the tools to make real changes in their communities and the world at large.

We believe the first step to stewardship is cultivating a connection with the earth, whether it be through finding a wild turkey feather, growing fresh vegetables, or restoring the natural qualities of a stream.  To support that belief, we provide children as young as 3 years old with opportunities to experience, first hand, the wonders of nature.

In addition to the values of stewardship and outdoor leadership, Mountain SOL classes and programs also teach the values of environmental and social justice.  In every class, walk and conversation, students learn the importance of equality and rights of all peoples to health and happiness.  Older students have the opportunity to be mentored in community organizing, and provided internships with local non-profits.

"You can’t protect anything until you love it.  The spirit of Mountain SOL is based in fun and adventure, so kids learn environmental stewardship and social responsibility from a place of passion.”

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