People's Future Lab

Global folk high school movement aims to make an impact on the future

Publiceret 12-05-2023

It requires change, experience, and global political friendships, but it's not too late to fight for a sustainable future. Here's what we learned at the People's Future Lab Festival!

Photo: Aimie-Lee Bliem

By Anna Sofie Lisbjerg

The festival site is bathed in sunshine, while the main stage leans towards a picturesque view of Kolding Fjord. The camping area is located in the hilly terrain and has housed high school students and practitioners from around the world for the past few days. They have gathered at the Houens Odde Scout Center to discuss, explore, and develop visions and solutions for a shared sustainable future.

The initiative is called People's Future Lab, and today it culminates in a festival after three intensive camp days, during which the participants have contributed to completing the festival program with a focus on the role of Folk High Schools in sustainable transition.

About People's Future Lab

What: A project where 10 Danish high schools and 10 high schools and similar institutions from around the world collaborate to develop and strengthen the contribution of the educational form to the sustainable transformation of society. The project was started by the Association of Folk High Schools in Denmark in 2021 and will be concluded this year. The project is supported by CISU (Civil Society in Development).

Represented countries: Japan, Kenya, Tanzania, England, Brazil, Mexico, Palestine, the Faroe Islands, the USA, India, Poland, and Denmark.

The People's Future Lab Festival was held on May 12 at the Houens Odde Scout Center. From May 9th to 12th, there was a camp leading up to the festival. Among the participants were researchers, students, and practitioners.

From cultural encounters to political friendships

Developing political friendships that are not naive and not solely focused on having fun but rather on supporting each other in everyone's struggles and concerns is of great importance.

Juan Mayorga, journalist and instructor at Unitierra, Mexico

In a nearby, semi-naked pine forest, a group of students has exhibited art installations with various political messages. And in line with the questions raised by the works, you can either pass them by unnoticed or make an active choice to leave the path and follow the more impassable route into the darkness to engage with the message of the art.

Under the title "Are you ready?", a Ukrainian student, along with a group of fellow students, has dug a long grave next to a cross and placed a mirror down there, so you'll discover your own reflection when passing by the grave. It is a raw example of how the participants not only represent themselves but also carry the history, conflicts, and successes of their own countries. It gives the festival gathering a noticeable depth, and one can sense that there is room for both small and large battles, as well as a desire to learn from and support each other.

This point, according to Juan Mayorga, an instructor at Unitierra in Mexico, is one of the project's most important lessons:

"Last night, as I watched the French, Canadians, Palestinians, a guy from Australia, and my colleagues from Mexico sit around a hookah, dance, and eat baklava, at first glance, it was difficult to see the formative element in their meeting. But upon closer inspection, the five nationalities trying to communicate in languages other than their mother tongue while building a relationship. It may seem silly, but it is not. It is of great importance to develop political friendships that are not naive and not solely focused on having fun but rather on supporting each other in everyone's struggles and concerns. For example, when you establish a relationship with a Palestinian during these days, it is difficult not to support the demand for a free Palestine in the future. That is why these informal meetings are incredibly important."

It has made a big impression on me to speak with someone who has a different background than myself and realize how privileged I am.

Asta Svoldgaard, a student at Gerlev Folk High School.

21-year-old Asta Svoldgaard from Gerlev Folk High School had a similar experience, as she was moved by meeting a Ukrainian student during the workshop "Check Your Privileges" with Trina Jackson from the Highlander Research & Education Center in the USA.

The participants had to agree/disagree with statements such as "I can walk home safely at night" and "I can count on my parents' support if I'm in need." It clearly illustrated how the workshop participants transitioned from being a homogeneous group to branching out and becoming a more diverse picture of individual life stories, conditions, and perspectives.

"It has made a big impression on me to speak with someone who has a different background than myself and realize how privileged I am," Asta explains.

Photo: Aimie-Lee Bliem

Open laboratory

The Danish Folk High School movement and similar institutions abroad have repeatedly shown how this form of education can serve as a powerhouse for engagement, agency, and democratic formation.

These qualities are highly sought-after in the context of the green transition of our society, both locally and globally.

So, how does the movement respond to the responsibility that comes with this ability?

"The work on sustainability has been budding at individual folk high schools for a long time. What we have done with the People's Future Lab - and several other new initiatives - is to structure and invest more energy into strengthening it so that we can have an even greater impact on the future. We have allowed it to grow from the grassroots, as folk high schools have always done," says Lisbeth Trinskjær, Chairperson of the Association of Folk High Schools, as we meet her on the premises.

In the festival's educational tent, alongside the interactive workshops, pedagogical debates and presentations by researchers and practitioners engaged in topics related to the practice and sustainable education of folk high schools can be observed.

Among the speakers is Marie Holt Richter, one of the authors of the upcoming publication "On Shaky Ground" - a book on sustainable education based on empirical evidence from danish folk high schools:

"The role of folk high schools, has from the beginning been about preparing Danes to be in the present that is unfolding. That was the motivation. Now we have a new situation in the world, and the folk high school provides many of the competencies needed: democratic education, solidarity, the ability to reflect on others' and one's own perspectives, visualize alternative futures, and think outside the box in terms of living one's life," she explains and continues:

"Living in community at a folk high school plays a crucial role: You cannot hide. You cannot give passionate speeches about reducing meat consumption and then go to the cafeteria and eat a large steak. You learn to be a part of the community and be responsible to the community, but also that the community has your back if you fail or feel insecure. Many sustainability students say that here they have a community to share their concerns without being a killjoy. So, there are many things that make the folk high school an ideal framework for sustainable education," she concludes.

We must learn to change

While the principle of 'living together' is theorized in the tent, it is happening in real-time at the festival site where students play music, chat, and share a cotton candy in the sun.

Linking the potential of folk high schools to community living and the free, playful approach to learning that is unique to this educational form is not an opinion held solely by Marie Holt Richter:

"It is crucial that we learn to change ourselves and learn how to transform our social practices, local communities, and society as a whole. Sustainable transformation is not easy. Many efforts fail because people do not know how to navigate in it. That's where education needs to help us become more skilled. But for that to happen, educational institutions themselves need to adapt. This is where folk high schools can play a special role because their free learning methods allow for experimentation," emphasized Jeppe Læssøe, Professor Emeritus from Aarhus University, during his speech at the opening of the festival earlier in the day.

And Peoples' Future Lab is a prime example of experimenting with the form. Over a two-year period, the project has worked to strengthen the pedagogical practices and global networks of folk high schools by connecting 10 Danish folk high schools with 10 similar institutions from around the world.

The schools have visited each other with their students, and the teachers have simultaneously participated in a teacher training course aimed at gathering experiences, inspiration, and insights across the educational form globally.

Mette Skamris is a teacher at the International People's College (IPC) in Helsingør and, together with her students, she has teamed up with Fircroft College of Adult Education located in Birmingham, England.

Throughout the process leading up to the camp days and the festival, the schools have specifically been able to exchange experiences regarding school gardens and have also had an overall focus on creating connections with nature:

"Many of both their students and ours haven't spent much time in nature, so it is somewhat unfamiliar yet absolutely necessary to see oneself as part of the sustainable transformation and as a change agent who cares about these matters," she explains.

Strong Roots - New Branches

One person cannot move the world, but movements can.

Lisbeth Trinskjær, Chairperson of the Folk High Schools

With its thorough initial work and the execution of an innovative festival format, Peoples' Future Lab has manifested that the idea and form of folk high schools - both historically and today - have tremendous potential in creating dialogue about common global agendas. The Grundtvigian educational principles have taken root worldwide, including countries such as India, Poland, and Kenya, where the need to nurture democratic values is crucial.

Just as folk high schools have historically been advocates for enlightenment and democratic education, it seems likely that in the future - and now - folk high schools will have a similarly important task in working towards sustainable education.

And that is the task that the global community, which forms the framework for Peoples' Future Lab, has initiated on multiple levels.

The ambition is to facilitate the conversation so that the young, adults, and elderly who come into contact with folk high schools leave with courage, hope, and opportunities to take action.

"When we talk about sustainability, many people debate whether it's too late, but I'm glad that we both understand the complexity and still hold on to the fact that history has repeatedly shown us: one person cannot move the world, but movements can. Therefore, we must be naive enough to believe that we can change the world. It's not too late to fight for a tolerable future," Lisbeth Trinskjær concludes , as the evening is set free to foster new friendships that can anchor in our consciousness and remind us of our different starting points but shared future.