Cassandra Sheffman

I Am a Humane Educator: Cassandra Scheffman

by Marsha Rakestraw

IHE M.Ed. graduate Cassandra Scheffman was raised with a love of animals and the natural world.

She has worked in the environmental nonprofit sector, taught high school and as an environmental educator, and now works as the associate director of adult programs at the First Unitarian Church of Portland in Oregon.

Cassandra lives with her husband, Matt, and their adopted three dogs, three cats, and parrot. We asked Cassandra to share about her humane education experiences.

IHE: What led you to the path of humane education?

CS: My mother is a passionate animal lover, so our house and yard were always full of animals, mostly unlucky souls who found their way to our door. I immediately loved and appreciated animals, both our domestic companions and the many birds, insects, and other critters I enjoyed discovering at every opportunity. I always knew that I wanted to do good work for animals and the natural world, a dream that has evolved over many years from my early childhood wish to become a zookeeper.

As an undergraduate student at Prescott College, I worked on a project to learn about the relationships between dogs and people across different cultures, a project stemming largely from my concern for “street dogs.” This project took on much greater meaning over time as I bore witness to extreme poverty and human rights injustices occurring in the U.S./Mexico border region. I grew up on the U.S. side, a white kid with so little awareness and understanding of these issues.

Luckily, my reverence for animals and the natural world was nurtured at home, because this was rarely the case in school.

My college experience laid the groundwork for my interest in the interconnectedness of (in)justice issues for people, animals, and our planet. After college, I worked in various roles in the nonprofit and education sectors, where I often experienced personal struggles with organizational tendencies to compartmentalize or ignore “other” issues that I had come to recognize as deeply intertwined. I wanted to find a way to bring this concept into my work, as well as to expand my skills and credibility as an educator. All came full circle when I discovered a name for this paradigm: Humane Education. I quickly discovering that this was the path for me. Connecting with the graduate program, other students, and faculty at IHE felt like coming home.

IHE: Share how you’re currently manifesting humane education.

CS: My professional role involves developing and coordinating classes, retreats, and special events open to adults in our church and the larger community. Our programming is divided into a wide array of categories, from spiritual growth to creative arts, but holistic social justice is at the heart of our work. As a humane educator, I am always looking for facilitators and offerings, or creating programs myself, that give participants the opportunity to explore issues related to human rights, animals, and the earth. A few examples of programs we have offered include a speaker event and discussion panel about human trafficking, a class on ethical eating, and nature connection retreats.

Because our programs follow a discussion-based, high-participation format, I believe we offer exceptional opportunities for people to gather information, connect and ask questions, learn from one another, and act according to their deepest values. I think one of the most powerful ways that humane education is successful is through nurturing a safe, supportive, and kind-spirited community where each voice is valued. I have found this to be important foundational work, critical for allowing each person to learn from one another with an open heart and mind.

Creating a space like this can happen when participants are invited to describe the type of experience they hope to have, how they want to be together, and the commitments they are willing to make to one another and themselves. From this point we are free to search for our truth and goodness and anything is possible.

IHE: Share a success story.

CS: Recently at the church I was excited and honored to lead a first-time class for adults based on the “Most Good, Least Harm” concept. Mostly activists, participants came to the class with different backgrounds and different issues of interest. Bringing these caring and conscientious thinkers together to explore a vast array of ethical issues involving earth, animals, and people was an incredible way to cross-pollinate and gain more awareness and understanding for each other’s main concerns. Participants discovered new ways to support one another and advocate for causes they were most passionate about, while learning about the deeper connections between issues.

IHE: What are your future plans for your humane education work?

CS: I’ve had a dream, perhaps since I was a kid myself, to write and illustrate children’s books. Someday I hope to bring this to realization and create humane education-based children’s books.

IHE: What gives you hope for a better world for all?

CS: We are bombarded with disturbing and painful news items, stories, research, and perhaps interactions with others on a daily basis–enough so that feeling discouraged, apathetic, or even hopeless can be common. Even when I learn about the many wonderful good works being done in this world and the success stories and transformations taking place, I still struggle to find hope in the shadow of so much suffering. Therefore, I prefer to embrace the concept Joanna Macy refers to as active hope–something we do, rather than have. I know what kind of world I wish for and must act with intention to be part of the process of bringing it about.

IHE: What would you say to others interested in IHE’s graduate programs?

CS: If you decide to take the journey which is the IHE graduate program, you will never be able to look at the world or any part of it in quite the same way. You will build new pathways and connections for examining and responding to the critical ethical issues of our time and learn how to reach out to others in profound new ways. Along the way, you’ll meet the best people you’ll ever know, laugh a lot, cry too, and embark on a path which will be as personally significant as it will be for your community and the world.