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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

Introduction Letter from Jenny

Greetings to you and your families! My name is Jenny (she/her/s) and I will be one of your instructors (alongside Jac, Bradford, and Liz) this summer during our time together in Payahuunadu (“place of flowing water”), a beautiful valley that I was first introduced to by its colonial name, the Owens River Valley. I have spent five summer solstices at the campground where we will be staying and am so happy to be returning in a few short weeks to share this magical place with all of you.

Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire under a night sky brimming with stars after sharing a delicious dinner that you and your cohort helped cook. You can smell pinon pines and hear a great horned owl in the distance. The moon is just starting to rise over the hillside behind you. For the past week, your fingers have lost the habit of touching a screen or a keyboard. Your eyes have not squinted at many tiled faces on a Zoom call, and your posture is starting to un-hunch from leaning over a screen for hours at a time. The fresh air and sleeping outside have made you beautiful and strong. The tension in your muscles has drained away, no longer coiled tightly, no longer anxious for the shot of dopamine that comes with the “ping” of a phone notification.  You’re noticing what’s going on with yourself for what feels like the first time in a long time. You’re noticing the people you’re with. You feel at peace, connected with rhythms of land and sky. You’re in Payahuunadu.

A little bit about me: I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, near the intersection of 55th and Arapahoe Road (more about that later). Growing up, I felt a deep love for Mother Earth, the mountains, land, and water that surrounded me. Much of my younger years were spent hopping a forbidden fence to go play near an irrigation ditch, the closest source of flowing water near our house. 

As I grew older, I began to understand that every moment that water is irrigated, controlled, or diverted, it happens at the expense of people and land. For a year after college, I worked as a hiking guide in the Southwest, taking French tourists along the Colorado River and Green River, ranging from Yellowstone to Yosemite and many of the beautiful and magical places in between. Every couple of weeks we would pass Glen Canyon Dam or Hoover Dam. I slept under the stars as often as I could. I kept a worn copy of The Monkey Wrench Gang in my backpack and dreamed of becoming a more radical environmentalist.

In my early twenties I moved “off the grid” for several years to volunteer at a wolf sanctuary in Southern Colorado. It felt like the only possible way to live. I slept in a tipi warmed by a wood stove. The sanctuary ran on solar power and well water. Our Dodge pickup ran on vegetable oil recycled from local restaurants. In the winter we were snowed in for weeks at a time. In the summer we gave tours to visitors.  We respected the wolves and horses there like we would people. We had relationships with them. We sang and prayed at their funerals.

I eventually left the wolf sanctuary to travel the world, study, and explore all the things I was curious about (a journey that eventually brought me to my current home of Senegal, where I now live with my husband and daughter). I am particularly interested in how we tell stories. I feel like much of my adult life has been about unlearning histories fed to me by conventional education and slowly uncovering the “real” histories of people and places I encounter.

Which brings us back to Arapahoe Road. As a teenager, I never thought much about the street names near my house. I used to catch the bus that runs down Arapahoe Road to go see my friends downtown. When we names streets after a displaced people, it turns them into a part of the landscape, freezing them into an imagined past. 

Freezing people in the past silences their voices and makes it impossible to talk about injustices that are happening to them today. The county where I grew up is made up of the territories of the Numinu (Ute), Tsitsistas (Cheyenne), and Hinóno’éí (Arapaho) peoples. The southern Arapaho people, who called Boulder Valley their home in the winter, lost many elderly, women, and children to the painful tragedy of the government-led Sand Creek Massacre. Today, although the tribal headquarters of the Hinóno’éí is now in Oklahoma, they still relate to Boulder Valley as their homeland.

Some people want to keep these histories hidden on the margins… after all, stories like this threaten the existence of systems and ideologies that give certain people power at the expense of others. For a white, documented US citizen like myself, learning the real history of where I grew up brings up grief and even shame. It can even feel like an existential threat to everything I’ve been told is true. The bright side is that people like me, who come from a majority or “dominant” culture, are also particularly well-placed to elevate these stories to help disrupt the status quo.

I once had a professor who said: “Really good learning is transformational, and transformation is always painful.” Or, as a  student of mine once said: “This whole thing left me shook… but like, in a good way.”

I am excited to meet all of you and learn your stories. We all have so much to learn from one another. I am counting down the few short weeks that remain until we can cook and share meals together, gaze up at the stars, and sit in circles talking about anything and everything in the world. I hope our time is awesome and beautiful and fruitful and mind-blowing and yes, I hope it leaves you “shook… but like, in a good way.” Most importantly, I hope you and your loved ones all stay healthy and safe until we meet!


Until then,