Tumultuous times require new ways of thinking about daily life. The COVID-19 pandemic, reinforced for New Brunswickers just how fragile our import-driven food supply chain is. On top of that, many of us have experienced varying levels of social isolation and even more have had their regular education routine interrupted or greatly modified.
Is there a way to solve these problems in tandem? Michelle Davidson-Legere from Rogersville thinks so. She works with the Roots to Table, a good food community collective that works to eliminate hunger through action; by sharing, training, teaching, and funding; and by connecting growers to communities in the Northumberland Region.
She explains that her motivation in learning about the folk school model was “to gain a deeper understanding of the land that I steward here in Pleasant Ridge, and how it connects us all. I wanted my learning of permaculture, growing tree guilds and fostering healthy eco-systems to be a shared experience with whomever wanted to learn alongside me.”
She reached out to Life.School.House in December of 2020 to learn more about their programming and was very happy to hear that they were in the process of starting new schools. She then started sharing the idea of teaching people much needed food skills and social connection through the folk school model and was soon joined by garden and art educator Elaine Mandrona who created the YouTube channel 10,000 Barefoot Bees with husband Archie Nadon who is based in Moncton and myself, in Taymouth, where I work with the RAVEN Project on rural food security. The three of us have in common that we are all trained Community Food Mentors.
The Community Food Mentors program is run by Food for All NB, and trains community mentors how to teach others about growing, cooking and storing food in ways that are inclusive of all members of our community. Maïna Béland-Rahm, the current Coordinator for the Community Food Mentors Program with Food for All NB, says, “Roughly 700 people in our province received this training since it began in 2011.”
Our working group sees the Community Food Mentors as a great resource that we can utilize with very short notice and no further costs as part of the folk schooling initiative.
Mandrona says, “What I like about the folk school idea, and in particular, Life.School.House., is that you can work locally, addressing very specific interests, but at the same time you are part of a bigger network, and can share resources and ideas. You are provided with training, social media and publicity support and it’s all very accessible and encouraging.”
Although folk schools may not be well known in this part of the world, they have been around since at least the 19th century. Danish Pastor N.F.S Grundtvig created the philosophies for the first organized and modern folk school in the 1860s. These ideas were later put in place by Christen Mikkelsen Kold of Norway. Grundtvig thought that people were meant to learn from each other and wanted the teacher/student hierarchies to be diminished. All social classes were to have the same opportunity for higher learning and intellectual exchange. Today, most schools focus on a particular specialty like music or writing.
Folk Schools are actually not new to the Maritimes, you may have heard of the Antigonish Movement, led by Father Moses Coady. His work began in the early 1920s supporting fishermen, coal miners, and the rural working class in Cape Breton in attaining an adult education that could help to lift their families and communities out of poverty. You may have heard about the Coady Institute, which is seated within the St. Francis Xavier University an provides advanced degrees to adult educators from across the globe.
Also located in Nova Scotia, Life.School.House. was the inspiration of Jennifer and Scott DeCoste, who opened their Dartmouth, Nova Scotia home to offer free workshops and maker swaps that might decrease social isolation and build an inclusive community. Since 2018, they have hosted 124 workshops in their home.
The idea is that a host gets trained at no cost in the Life.School.House process of running a workshop and they offer up space and organize workshops. The host may teach a workshop, but they may just facilitate it for another teacher. Workshops might happen in a private home, a community space or outdoors. Participants register and bring a barter item as an offering instead of paying a workshop fee.
Decoste explains, “What makes the Life.School.House. model different from most folk schools is that it is focused on community development – not just the preservation of traditional skills. We also use a barter-based trade system; which breaks down the financial barriers many people face when trying to access education”.
Simply put, neighbours meet each other neighbours and exchange skills in simple, but meaningful ways. Those who join in Life.School.House workshops might be brand new to the community or they may be longtime residents who maybe have never really connected with their neighbours.
Another important aspect that DeCoste emphasizes is that, “the learning also happens in a neutral and welcoming environment. Some folks have not had great experiences with schools and institutions, but our space doesn’t feel like those places”. Our working group sees a lot of value in this for New Brunswick communities where literacy levels can be low and formal education limited.
One of the appeals of a folk school is that it is adapted to the local culture. We can create learning that fits lots of ages and backgrounds. In planning meetings, DeCoste was careful to explain that while there are set criteria for those working under the Life.School.House umbrella (like the barter only payment policy), anyone can set-up a folk school. If for instance, a First Nation wanted to start their own folk school, they could set it up in any way that fits their cultural needs.
There have been 13 Life.School.House hosts in the past. There are seven active hosts in Nova Scotia right now and a few that are on hold until the pandemic is over, as well as current or potential hosts in NB, Ontario and others in British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories. They are also working on training 20 hosts in Mexico in June through a partnership with Fundacion Share and will hopefully partner with a Danish folk school in August to do some local programming in their community as well.
With DeCoste’s support, the New Brunswick working group’s hope is to initiate workshops focused on growing, foraging, preparing and preserving food and to foster the setup of trained hosts and sites in their own geographic areas. With the Life.School.House model already in place, the instructors can just concentrate on teaching, while community “hosts” organize the workshop advertising, registration and space.
Davidson-Leger, was eager to get going in 2021 and has already organized workshops. “We’ve had two barter-based events, Birch Tree Tapping and Winter Sowing and one MakerSwap. Everyone says they feel like a real part of the experience and so many stories are already emerging. The MakerSwap, even though it was virtual, gave us windows into each other’s lives and hearts with the sharing of those handmade gifts. There is something very special about creating something yourself and sharing it. Some of the early feedback was that the stories that accompanied the items were just as special as the gifts themselves. People are already planning their makes for the next one!”
You can find out more about these events online.
In partnership with the Peter McKee Food Centre, Elaine Mandrona is initiating a Community Food Action Grant to link organizations and individuals in the greater Moncton area with the Life.School.House model to share food knowledge. She is also targeting other Community Food Mentors to participate as instructors to hone their teaching skills and upgrade their knowledge.
Davidson-Legere, Mandrona and I plan to continue their collaboration until we fulfill our vision of having a network of folk schools throughout New Brunswick. If you have an interest in learning more or becoming a host, you can contact Life.School.House for resources. If you are interested in supporting this work in New Brunswick, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be happy to help you get started.
Amy Floyd lives in Taymouth, New Brunswick and works on food security, community development and rural issues.