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Community first and foremost: My experience at Schumacher College (by María Juncos)

Most of my E4A peers know my interest in the ideas and philosophy of the late, renowned economist Ernst Friedrich “Fritz” Schumacher (1911-1977) and his acclaimed book, Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered (1973). Maybe because I’m from Puerto Rico, a small island in the Caribbean (just to give you an idea, Puerto Rico fits twice into Lake Ontario), I have always been critical about the appropriate scale of development. Many times in the past I found myself lobbying against devastatingly huge “developmental” projects that impacted the island’s limited and fragile ecosystems, while at the same time promoting community-based and human-scale initiatives.  Quite simply, for me this has always been a question of common sense.

My quest to learn more about this economist – distinguished in the history of economic thinking -made me travel this summer to England where the Schumacher College is located, an educational centre inspired by his legacy. I wanted to experience, in person and on-site, “the Schumacher learning experience” which, first and foremost, has been described as a community-based experience. So this past July I crossed the Atlantic to participate in a short summer program at the college in Ecological Food Systems, an area of interest in my postgraduate studies.

I will first provide a short and summarized introduction about the college and the summer course.

The College

Schumacher College is in the town of Totnes in Devon County, England, the birthplace of the now popular Transition Movement with Transition Town Totnes. While staying at the college, I had the delightful opportunity to live the Totnes Transition initiative and meet some of the people behind this movement, but this is a completely different story that deserves another blog post in the near future.

So, in keeping with Schumacher’s vision, the college is in a small and beautiful fifteenth century building inside the 1,200 acre Dartington Hall estate of the Dartington Hall Trust which supports and promotes the arts, philosophy, social justice, community-building, critical and system thinking, local sustainable farming and development, conservation of natural resources, and animal welfare.  As stated on its website, the college was founded in 1990 and “is an international centre offering transformative learning for sustainable living and runs holistic education courses for people concerned with social and environmental issues. It is the most internationally famous initiative of the Darlington Hall Trust.”

Since its foundation, the college has had some of the world’s greatest thinkers as guest lecturers and educators, who are also known as effective activists in sustainability, holism, and ecological living. Some examples are James Lovelock, Vandana Shiva, Fritjof Capra, Deepak Chopra, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Bill McKibben, among many others. The college library has a considerable collection of the books, articles, and archive footage of all these VIPs. You can read more about the college and its unique educational programs, educators and guest lecturers on its website.

 

The course

The Ecological Food System course focused on teaching the principles and applications for biodiverse, small-scale productive farms, their importance for local and regional food sovereignty, and how these local and regional agroecological farming initiatives can help promote socio-political changes. We visited several local farms run by farmers who are also leaders in agroecology and the local food sovereignty movement. As soon as we arrived, these labourers of the land transformed themselves into wonderful in-the-field-educators, guiding us through their experiences as agrarians and activists. These were:

Jyoti Fernandes, leader from Fivepenny Farms, the center of the Peasant Evolution Producer’s Co-Operative. Also, click here for a video on YouTube about Jyoti activism with the Land Workers Alliance.

Ed Hamer, activist cofounder of the Chagfood’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. Click here for an article about Ed in The Guardian and for another article in Good Food World with a link to a TEDX talk.

Rebecca Hosking, from Village Farm and a filmmaker. Check out her documentary, Farm for the Future

We also had the opportunity to share ideas with two internationally-renowned experts on the topics of agroecology and food sovereignty, as guest lecturers and professors: Colin Tudge, an English biologist and science writer, and Miguel A. Altieri, a Chilean agronomist and agroecologist, this last one via Skype. Both of them have published numerous articles and books and are having brilliant careers as thinkers and as initiators of change.

The experience

In general, the course exposed us to what professor Colin Tudge coined “Enlightened Agriculture”, or “Real Agriculture”, which he defines as “agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest standard, nutritionally and gastronomically, without wrecking the rest of the world (check out the websites: The Campaign for Real Farming and The College for Real Farming and Food Culture). It was a truly enriching to receive this new perspective and understanding from such a holistic thinker.

Nonetheless, the true essence of the Schumacher experience I brought home was the constant awareness of the sense of community and solidarity, core ingredients for the success of any sustainable development endeavor, including “Enlightened Agriculture”.

enlightened-agriculture_2

Enlightened Agriculture / Real Agriculture by Colin Tudge

“If still more education is to save us, it would have to be education of a different kind.” E.F. Schumacher

 

From day one onwards, the college staff made students feel an integral part of Schumacher’s global community. They carried out the full-time, one-week course with twelve registered participants, a relatively small group, to allow us to get the best out of our interactions with our peers, the professors and staff. It was a truly up-close and personal learning experience. The first day we had a long afternoon session where we had the opportunity to get to know each other: our backgrounds, interests, and how we learned about Schumacher College. During this first session we also reviewed the academic rubric and a principal canon was disconnecting from all electronic devices. In other words, we had to abstain from the use of cellular phones, iPads and laptops during our planned activities throughout the day. The staff also gave us a tour around the facilities to get acquainted with the building and its surroundings.

That same afternoon they divided the group into four smaller groups of three people, with assigned chores to be carried out every morning, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., just after breakfast, in order to plunge into the Schumacher community by mixing with all the members of the college. The chores were rotated among the groups every morning: clear the tables and wash the dishes after breakfast, help the cooks start cooking lunch, tend the vegetable garden with the guidance of one of the horticulture apprentices, clean some of the bathrooms and rooms, help prepare the study area for that day’s class, among others. So every morning Schumacher College was like a beehive, with everyone busy and involved in getting the facilities and food ready for the day, and in the process, fostering a sense of community.

After breakfast, and just before dividing in groups for our morning chores, we also had a communal 15 to 20-minute session where we could share poems, essays or thoughts for the day, accompanied by a creative exercise for energizing and connecting with one another. Lectures and field trips started at about 10:00 a.m., just after the fulfillment of the early morning, community-building zest, where we were part of the college’s day-to-day functioning. During breakfast, lunch, and dinner we all sat together in the dining room. This encouraged association and networking, as well as interesting conversations about our life vicissitudes and adventures.

 

During classes, the sitting arrangement was in a circle, without a designated “leader” position.  The professor then stimulated the co-creation of our learning experience and encouraged us to talk directly to him, like we would to any of our peers in the circle, and to each other.

 

Our class discussion and field trips also taught us how collaboration, solidarity and community- building are paramount for the success of any group aiming at sustainability, including the small-scale producers and family farmers we visited that were practicing agroecological methods of food production. The most notable examples we discussed and visited were:

  • The Peasant Evolution Producers Co-Operative, a cooperative of small-scale local farmers with a collectively-owned processing barn to lower their costs of production.
  • The Land Workers’ Alliance, an active group of land-based workers and producers who collaborate in order to either support or challenge –as the case may be–policies that affect their members’ livelihoods by building alliances and cultivating solidarity. They also educate the community about the important role of small-scale producers, family farmers and land-based workers in guaranteeing access to high-quality affordable food, strengthening food security and rural livelihoods, and promoting environmental stewardship and animal welfare.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a group which has similar initiatives in other countries (Ontario has its own CSA group). These are partnerships that allow farmers to have a more stable and secure connection with the surrounding community to sell their products. Farmers receive a stable income from the community members involved in a CSA–via different types of producer-community/consumers’ agreements–and the community members benefit by having constant access to fresh organic food and by connecting directly with the land and local producers. In this way, CSAs are helping to re-take control of the food system by facilitating transparent and direct connections between consumers and producers.
  • Food-Link Project, an initiative in the town of Totnes to help link local producers to local businesses, like retailers and restaurants.

 

Again and again, we were able to witness how community-building and networking are vital for any group or organization to strive for sustainable development.   With the constant competition and threat of the huge multinational agro-enterprises, community organizations provide these local, small-scale family farmers a sense of belonging to a supportive group. This healthy connection helps them have a sense of identity and pride via inter-group relations, networking, and activities that reinforce their daily livelihoods around their land, where they live and work. This was an essential ingredient for their success, which was also evident in the collective richness they all brought to their groups, with their diversity and array of resources.

Nowadays, it is very common for neighbours to be strangers, especially in cities. The societal structure that has been built by the predominant capitalist, neoliberal economies has meant that in many ways people feel isolated in their homes. This is further exacerbated by technological advances such as television, cell phones and the internet, which have substantially decreased our interactions with the immediate environment.  It comes as no surprise, therefore, that so many people have come to have minimal attachment to the place they live, something so vital for a sense of community. Their lives revolve only around their families, their living spaces, and maybe their office spaces and co-workers.

Community or common-unity, when a certain segment or group of the population is united by a common thread.

As human beings, we need a sense of belonging to help us connect to our surroundings as well as to the many relationships we develop throughout our lives. We are all members of the global community, and at the same time, of many different types of local communities, where we constantly move in and out, depending on the situation. In them we find comfort and balance, and even physical, mental and spiritual well-being. And that is how I felt during my “Schumacher learning experience”. For a whole week I was part of this progressive and unique group of holistic thinkers. It was definitely unforgettable. For the youngest participants it was a life-changing experience, as they attested during the last meeting of the course. In only one week, Schumacher College’s professors and staff members were able to embed us in their enlightened circle. They helped us experience the power of connecting to one another, of community-building and collaboration, to move us away from the “lone ranger” behaviour Western education has ingrained in our psyches. We were all gloomy and lamenting our departure at the end of the week.

 

María is a PhD student at York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies. Her research interests are in ecological economics, system thinking and urban sustainability, especially locally-based and small-scale urban agriculture and economics in small island development states (SIDS).

 

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1 reply »

  1. Thank you for sharing this experience, María! This course sounds awesome, and Schumacher College also has other interesting courses… HopefullyI could participate in one someday!

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