“If systems are going to change, it’ll happen more effectively when small groups realize the power they hold.” Jennifer Brenton Decoste puts her time and energy where her mouth is – she and her husband, Scott, run a folk school out of their home in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Devoted to building a community around non-traditional learning, Life.School.House strives to celebrate local wisdom and embrace the value of barter to keep the exchange of knowledge accessible and barrier-free. Since March, the Decostes have hosted more than 35 workshops in their home, offering volunteer facilitators support and space to share their talents and skills with their community in exchange for bartered goods.
“I think there’s a hunger for human connection, for these type of experiences,” Jennifer says.
Life.School.House evolved out of TradeSchool Halifax – part of an international “TradeSchool” movement that matched teachers and learners in a barter for skills exchange – that has more than 50 self-organized chapters worldwide. Life.School.House was launched in Halifax, according to Jennifer, once LSH’s existing programming had reached a plateau.
Since the school opened in early 2018, LSH has offered classes on felting, pottery, wild fermentation, canning, Thai cooking, sushi making, the art of Henna, sourdough baking, leather-binding, and carpentry.
Jennifer recalls a young Dutchman who attended a sourdough making class in June. A newcomer to Canada, he followed his heart – and a girl – to Dartmouth. He was feeling guilty for not contributing since he wasn’t legally entitled to work. So he attended the workshop, learned to make sourdough crackers, went home and started perfecting his technique. Not only was he now contributing to his household, bartering crackers for food and other experiences, by the end of the summer he’d received his work permit and started a small business of his own.
“Folk school is like [dropping] a pebble in the pond and [seeing] the ripples go out from there,” says Jennifer. “There’s no control, but the social and economic impact is pretty amazing.”
During a class on the symbology of Mendhi, the instructor – an Indian woman in her thirties – introduced the meanings of the symbols and gave attendees a demonstration. As attendees gathered around drawing symbols on paper, they had time to talk.
“So [the instructor] said, ‘I’m an open book if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to ask an Indian lady,’” recalls Jennifer. “And someone from the group was like, ‘You know what, I’ve always struggled to understand arranged marriages. Can you walk me through it?’ And that’s exactly what she did. And most of the people in that class had never had that kind of an intimate connection with somebody whose marriage was fundamentally different from their own.”
For Jennifer, those connections are fascinating. “It doesn’t even matter what is being taught. It’s 10 percent about the lesson, 90 percent about sitting with others, exploring [our] humanity together.”
Jennifer and Scott live what they teach at home. Each year they pull their two boys, 11 and seven, out of school for significant travel or ‘world-schooling.’ Last year they spent February and March in Alaska. The previous year, they made their way across Canada over 12 weeks, travelling from person to person based on suggestions friends those they encountered along the way.
“We got to stay with a BC family that has been living completely off-grid since the sixties, then visited a fellow who lives on a bison farm with these giant east African elephants roaming around.”
When not exploring the world with their children, the Decostes are happy to share with their neighbours and – ultimately – inspire others to share knowledge and resources within their own communities.
In addition to its regular programming, LSH has started hosting monthly maker swaps. There are no registration requirements; whoever shows up, shows up with whatever they have brought: everything from dream catchers to jams, watercolours, leatherwork, and sourdough bread. Everything gets put on the table, and guests take what they need.
If anybody is interested in setting up a small-scale folk school in their own community, the Decostes want to help. LSH will provide a Start-Up Guide, Hosting Scripts, Invitation Templates, and more to help start them off on the right foot.
“It’s easy, and quite often the classes fill up in less than 10 minutes. It feels like we’re on to something that’s really working,” says Jennifer. “Imagine if a whole group of people across the province hosted one or two classes a year. Imagine how connected people would be with these pop-up learning opportunities in their communities. As a region, to be known as a group of people who share and learn together – that would be quite beautiful.”
Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based freelance writer, bartender, and editor of the Whole Family Happiness Project. She lives in Halifax, with her son and a penchant for really strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer.
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