Folk University on Cortes Island

Folk University on Cortes Island

Folk University on Cortes Island

Date posted: September 16, 2019

Today, Manda Aufochs Gillespie, the Cortes Island Literacy Now! Coordinator, shares a lifelong learning initiative – Folk University on Cortes Island. Thanks, Manda!


Here I am in the middle of life, living in a small community, and I find that it is not my Honours degree in Environmental Studies and Politics, my thesis on Sustainable Urban Cities, or my Masters in Writing and subsequent published books that are the skills I need to survive here. Here, I need to know the name of the plants and which ones are edible. Here, I need to know how to make soil from rock and which wood burns the hottest and longest in the winter and how to preserve fruit. Here, it turns out some of the smartest people weren’t the ones that “got ahead.” Here you hope your neighbours are truckers that know how to put chains on difficult tires in the winter or hunters with advice about protecting children from cougars or paramedics with local knowledge, like which saps are best used for what in an emergency.

Rural communities are diverse places: sometimes poor, many times with a mix of ethnicities and backgrounds that we think are only found in urban areas, and they are almost always difficult places to live. By difficult I mean real. By real I mean one had better be self reliant because, for instance, in my community of less than a thousand people we have to provide our own water, cut our own wood, cook our own food, brew our own beer, and provide our own entertainment. Sometimes we also have to deal with cougars, wolves, and one lone bear. We do not have a municipal structure to figure out affordable housing, higher education, or safer roads for us. We do not have a hospital, birthing centre, or a single traffic light or bike lane.

What we do have now, thanks to Decoda’s ongoing support of Cortes Literacy, is Folk University or as it’s called here: Folk U. This is sort of a “people’s university” where there is no paid administration, dean, or chancellor.  Here the classes have ranged from How to Heal a Broken Heart and What is the Enneagram to Copper Jewelry Making and How to Safely Use a Chainsaw. Some of the classes have been serious and maybe even life changing such as one led by three gender queer facilitators on Gender, Pronouns and Self-Identification and others have been very, very funny such as one held by a popular local musician on How to Tell a  Better Joke.

At the core of Folk U is the idea that learning is for everyone and classes are designed for those ages 12 to 112. Instructors do not have to be experts in their field—although some are like the retired SFU professor in Anthropology that did a Show n Tell on Local Artifacts or the Blueberry Farmer that did the session on How to Prune Blueberry Bushes and a local naturopathic doctor that did a session on Which Vitamins are Worth It and Which Aren’t. Other classes are less obvious such as the local writer with a dread of public speaking that did a class on How to Be a Better Public Speaker or the accountant and mother who did a class on How Even You Can Change a Tire or our local post mistress who has done classes on weaving, knitting, and cross-stitching.

Instructors are paid a small stipend of $50 and all the coordination, organizing, and advertising is done for them. At the heart of Folk U are the Friday lunchtime sessions that run from 1 to 2:30 from September until June—we hosted 36 such sessions last year—and we’ve also hosted field trips, book clubs, 30 + literature clubs for home schoolers, two multi-day in depth workshops including one on how to get reluctant readers reading, and two hand-work weeks.  We’ve even started a partnership with our local radio station to bring Folk U Friday speakers to the radio in short interview format.

It was just this time last year when I was lamenting with one of the Cortes Literacy task force members about how amazing it would be if there were sort of a high-school-for-all form of higher education: where all ages could gather to learn and nobody had to leave their community or be forced to graduate because they were too old or not be allowed to graduate because their test scores weren’t great. And she said, there is such a thing and it’s called Folk Universitetet. A little research showed that the idea wasn’t new at all. In, 1844 the Danish thought-leader Nicolai Frederik Grundtvig established Schools for Life aka Folk High Schools and Schools for Passion aka Folk University, both geared towards educating the young and the working class to take an active role in society.

And so while our high-school-age children are still leaving and some of our older people are still stuck in their homes overlooked and there is still no bus or affordable housing, yet every week many of the young and old of our community come together to share their interests, life skills, and passions with each other. So while we may not have solved all of our problems, we’ve had a lot of fun sharing our gifts with each other.  Learn more about what we’ve been up to at FolkU.ca. Folk University. What do you know? Share it!

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