Traditional skills foster deeper connections

Fermentation, food cultivation, bread-making, herbalism, sewing and weaving are just a few of the skills you’ll discover if you attend a folk school.

“Folk schools, a cherished tradition rooted in communal learning, have emerged as powerful tools to cultivate a sense of belonging and combat the rising tide of loneliness in our modern world,” says Jennifer DeCoste, founder of a network of barter-based folk schools called LifeSchoolHouse (LSH) in Nova Scotia.

DeCoste says that at their core, folk schools seek to create inclusive environments where diverse people can come together to teach and learn from one another — and that through this symbiotic exchange, connections blossom, friendships form and the “isolation that often plagues us recedes, replaced by a renewed sense of true community.”

The concept originated in Denmark in the early 19th century as part of a growing democratic movement. It’s now spread across the world as a form of community development.

Nonetheless, Nova Scotia wasn’t exactly awash with folk schools prior
to the launch of LifeSchoolHouse.

Since 2018, DeCoste, with participation from volunteers from across her Dartmouth community, has opened up her own home to restart folk schools in Nova Scotia. They initially offered various craft- and food-centered workshops, and after more than 50 workshops in the first year, when LSH began to flourish, they shared the model so others could embark on their own journey.

Over the years, LSH has had many partners and co-creators, locally and from folk -school networks around the globe. In 2021, students with Dalhousie University’s College of Sustainability decided they wanted to learn more about safe practices for community-led evaluation and connected with the LSH community. Through their research, these students gathered a clear picture about how community-led folk schools boost participants’ mental health, and used what they learned to foster new folk schools.

Debra Ross, Manager of Outreach, Partnerships and Communications at the College of Sustainability at Dalhousie, acts as the liaison between fourth-year capstone students and the greater community, businesses, government, NGOs and public groups. She helped organize and facilitate an Environment, Sustainability and Society capstone project with LifeSchoolHouse titled Sharing the Model: Data Collection Supporting the Growth of Folkschools.

Students gleaned their information from interviews with eight LSH participants as well as a survey of hosts and attendees.

Partnerships between community- led organizations and academia are rare but so important because they give an important perspective to students who are working to convert academic knowledge into practical applications. In the case of the
Dalhousie students on this project: “… they did actual observations and then, you know, used various quantitative statistical methodologies to code the interviews and combine the results,” said Ross.

They also collected demographic data about the typical profile of volunteers who engage as hosts of folk schools for their own communities, and created a profile for
typical participants who engage in community-led programming. This helped coordinators discover what made the LSH crowd tick, which spurred future outreach and recruitment efforts.

Among all study participants, the most frequent motivator for joining was related to community. Interest in community included “the desire to identify and join one’s community, to nurture an existing community relationship, and/or take a more active role in building and engaging their community.”

One LSH host quoted in the capstone report put it this way: “The sense of community and belonging and the wanting to take everyone in and make them feel at home. The friendliness, generosity, and abundance that goes with it fills me up.”

And while the project found that LSH was achieving its goals, it did reveal that many LSH participants felt cultural diversity among hosts and attendees could be better.
Another takeaway was the recommendation to further promote LSH, especially within racialized communities.

Nonetheless, many participants and hosts still felt supported and valued.

“I’ve never felt like I had to act in a particular way to fit into the concept of what a host is, and I’ve really appreciated that,” said one LSH host.

Since the Dalhousie students’ project, LSH has expanded to multiple locations across the province, including Spryfield, Enfield, Sydney and Antigonish. Since 2018, LifeSchool-House has successfully hosted more than 750 skills-sharing workshops.
Ross hopes to see folk schools keep thriving — and that they will continue to defy the capitalist model of education.

“Specifically in the areas of food, particularly in terms of old agricultural methods and knowledge from Indigenous and elder groups, [seeing us] sort of getting back to things that worked for hundreds of years that were then discarded in favour of the profit motive, it excites me that we won’t lose all of that wisdom.”

The LifeSchoolHouse model is shared freely and anyone interested in learning how to start a folk school in their own community.
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