20 Years of Courage in Vermont

David Leo-Nyquist is an educator, co-founder and longtime co-facilitator of the Vermont Courage Cohort. As we prepare to celebrate twenty years of “Courage work” here in Vermont, he paused to reflect on that history.

David Leo-Nyquist is an educator, co-founder and longtime co-facilitator of the Vermont Courage Cohort. As we prepare to celebrate twenty years of “Courage work” here in Vermont, he paused to reflect on that history.

In the summer of 1998 Ken Bergstrom was a teacher-educator at Goddard College and I was a teacher-educator at Saint Michael’s College. Ken had just returned from a “Gateway Retreat” for a newly-designed model of teacher professional development connected with the work of Quaker educator, writer-activist, and retreat facilitator Parker Palmer, who had just published his powerful book about “the inner landscape of a teacher’s life” entitled The Courage to Teach. I stayed up most of the night reading Ken’s loaned copy of the most insightful book about my own life’s work that I’d ever encountered, and I was hooked.  

Ken and I were thrilled to be able to offer to school-based friends and colleagues the highest-quality form of personal/professional transformation that either of us had ever been associated with during our long teaching careers. We recruited an initial group of 24 teachers who shared our enthusiasm for reflection, silence, community, and self-care.

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As word slowly spread nationally about the new form of teacher professional development we were pioneering, Parker Palmer published A Hidden Wholeness (2004) that describes the “Circle of Trust” process that creates occasions for reflection and “inner work” within a retreat space characterized by a strong sense of community. The book marked a transition from a retreat process intended exclusively for teachers into a support structure equally suitable for other groups of professionals, including clergy, doctors, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, and others. 

Together, this evolving group of cohorters has collectively constructed a sustainable Cohort community that each fall welcomes a new group of participants into its ranks along with participants who have remained in the Cohort for six, eight, ten or more consecutive years. So far as we know, our particular Cohort structure is unique in the country among 300 Courage facilitators, including in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Korea.

We had fantasized for years of bringing Parker Palmer to Vermont in order to give greater visibility within our region to what we were offering, and in May 2010 that fantasy became a reality. Two years in the planning, Parker’s Vermont tour included a long interview on Vermont Pubic Radio, a “Courage to Lead” luncheon for a group of fifty public school administrators, a standing-room-only public address at Saint Michael’s College and a day-long retreat facilitated by Parker at All Souls Interfaith Gathering in Shelburne for a hundred curious and eager participants from throughout New England. This visit put us on the regional map in terms of visibility, and launched our second decade of “Courage Work” here in Vermont.


Co-facilitators, trained and certified by the Center for Courage & Renewal added to our team including Carol Egan, Jim Sims, Caroline Fairless, Jim Varn, and Holly Wilkinson. In early 2013 Ken passed away after a long struggle with his failing kidneys, and we have continued to honor his legacy in every Courage Cohort since that time. Ken was a free spirit, an iconoclastic educator, a charismatic presence, and a truly wild-and-crazy guy who brought Courage work to Vermont and initiated many of us still involved with the Vermont Courage Cohort into the intricacies and magic of a Circle of Trust. We miss him.

From our very beginnings in 2000, our Cohort home has been Rock Point Center (until recently known as Bishop Booth Conference Center) on the shores of Lake Champlain in Burlington. Simple, reasonably-priced accommodations with easy access to forest, rocky coastline, hiking trails, and magnificent views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks have provided us with a welcoming space that we return to with each new season.  


Over the years the Vermont Courage Cohort has had several short-term institutional home bases, but until recently we’ve lacked the organizational infrastructure that would allow us to spread the word and reach more people.  When Holly Wilkinson transitioned from Cohort participant to facilitator-in-training to Cohort co-facilitator, she was also transitioning to a new position as the Executive Director of a nonprofit, WholeHeart. “Courage work” in Vermont has found a stable home with a local nonprofit whose vision is ”a world with a global operating system based on love.”

A full twenty years after Ken and I first envisioned a Vermont Courage Cohort as a vehicle for personal and professional transformation—the Cohort is still going strong at Rock Point Center under the thoughtful leadership of Carol Egan and Holly Wilkinson.  We invite you to explore joining the Vermont Courage Cohort or additional related opportunities. 

Read more about Courage & Renewal and join us!