Life.School.House in Nova Scotia demonstrates how we “make the road by walking.”
Four years ago, Jennifer DeCoste, was feeling unconnected in her community of Fall River, Nova Scotia and in need of a “village.” She was co-parenting 2 young children, interacting with a wonderful group of friends/parents, but still feeling a gap between her personal world and a more “connected” network of service agencies, libraries, small businesses, and other community organizations.
Jenn describes Nova Scotia as a region with a century-old “mindset of scarcity,” the “have-not” province of Canada, and yet with remarkable, long-standing demonstrations of resourcefulness, connection, and a subtle “spirit of knowing.” As an experienced organizer, Jenn sat with this frustration long enough and decided to gather some friends for informal conversation. It didn’t take long from their sharing and brain-storming to decide to take action.
With an extended family in Antigonish, which has a remarkable piece of people’s education history, Jenn was vaguely familiar with the Antigonish movement of the 1920s and 30s - her grandfather was a prominent leader in it, though she never met him (he died when her mother was young). So she had heard about folk schools. Despite knowing little about what they were, the group decided to start one.
They had the instinct to “keep it simple,” and so, invited folks to attend an evening 101 workshop on fermentation and making kefir. Three people showed up. They were elated - and most importantly, felt validated. 60 more workshops followed that year. They happened in people’s homes, organized and led by volunteers, and using mostly donated materials.
Interestingly, Jenn had no interest in being a teacher. But she kept on gathering acquaintances into conversations, staying focused on their original intent - to make connections. They wanted to hear each other, to tell their stories, to discover their common identity, language and experience. Making kefir was secondary. This central premise provided the foundation for their unique form of folk school. At the center then, they put a “connector,” and called her the Host.
They found “teachers” too in the traditional sense - all local people who brought a variety of practical skills, which attracted people probably not thinking consciously about “connecting.”
The role of the Host grew quickly. Jenn was partly inspired by her previous experience with the Art of Hosting, an international community which uses elements of “circle practice,” also found in the non-hierarchal practices of “World Café.”
Her team developed these components for the Host role:
- Outreach: She knocks on doors, seeks out local organizational partnerships (libraries, for example), and finds creative ways to encourage “word of mouth.”
- Greeting people as they arrive, helping them settle in, orienting to the space, and offering refreshments.
- Facilitating introductions and conversations to help participants connect and orienting everyone on the nature of this different kind of workshop.
- Supporting the learning environment by encouraging questions, and sharing experience with the topic. This includes working with the Teacher toward those ends - so they understand the need to go lightly on “being the expert,” performing or entertaining.
- Follow up with evaluation of the experience and gathering information about interest in other topics or more in-depth of what was just learned.
As Jenn and her team gained experience, they continually reflected and deepened the ideas behind their approach. A fundamental starting point for Life.School.House connecting is to learn about personal and community need. She particularly talks about grassroots-based elements of “change-making,” also kin to Circle Practices. “We want to support the development of different patterns of thinking that lead to more creative living … to free ourselves from commercial and corporate systems we are addicted to … To find our own power and create our own opportunities, through a quiet, peaceful movement. Community conversations are the work of what we’re doing. At the same time, we are on the constant lookout for not getting to “institutionalized” or locked into a particular way or structure.”
Throughout their work, there are 2 principles: practicality, that is learning topics and ways of organizing are keys to putting people in charge to better take care of their needs. And of course, connection. Together, they create the flexibility and creativity that gives participants “permission to dance.”
And what about N.F.S. Grundtvig? “I never heard of him,” says Jenn. “I barely knew about what a folk school was. I suppose there was this “epigenetic connection” we had here in Antigonish (that we’re learning more and more about).” She read (through FEAA’s journal Option) about Alex Sims’ folk school work in Ontario in the mid-twentieth Century and resonated with the people struggles his networks were striving to provide learning for. She also drew inspiration from the Trade School International.
In its second year, Life.School.House trained and supported a wider team of Hosts, with over 500 people participating. Now in their third year, Jenn is working with start-up teams in British Columbia, Alberta, and 2 sites in Ontario.
This past summer, Jenn was awarded a prestigious “Ashoka Changemakers Fellowship” that will support her in her work and share its unique approach around the world. In its own original way, LifeSchoolHouse reflects a path familiar to the best of folk and people’s schools for almost 2 centuries. It is rooted in a local community - and in this case perhaps watered by the “spirit” of the Antigonish Movement - and springing from a new time, providing fresh innovation to meet the needs of age old challenges.