Rail River Folk School
- By Brett Cease & Britt Gangeness, MAEE members
Folk schools are popping up around Minnesota and present a unique venue for environmental education. Folk schools use short courses to teach skills and traditions. Classes are on topics such as traditional arts and crafts, farmsteading, sustainable living, and other lifestyle skills. Courses are often taught by community members and are focused on adult and family audiences. Topics and teachers emerge from the history, location, and interests of the community.
In many ways, folk schools are another example of quality adult education because they include social time, peer-to-peer teaching, and an emphasis on self-development, rather than tests and grades.
To give you a better picture of what goes on at these wonderful places, here is a snap shot of one folk school in Minnesota, the Rail River Folk School in Bemidji.
Rail River Folk School
Rail River Folk School (RRFS) began in the late fall of 2010 from the inspired vision of two women in Bemidji, Jessica Saucedo and Rochelle Carpenter. Fed up with many of the consumeristic elements of our modern society, Saucedo and Carpenter wanted to provide an alternative gathering space to offer local Bemidji community members the opportunity to teach each other how to become more resilient and interdependent through traditional skills and crafts.
RRFS opened up to the public in a former vegetable warehouse located downtown right alongside Bemidji’s train tracks, just west of the small section of the Mississippi River between Lakes Irving and Bemidji, hence "Rail River."
With an emphasis on accessibility and affordability, RRFS has uplifted the diverse wisdom of area locals since its inception and has provided a wide-swath of classes for all who can attend--from Akido to seed starting, basic carpentry to chicken processing. Many of the events are even free (with an average cost being around only $20) and rarely require prior registration.
In addition, RRFS hosts many community gatherings, from the first Friday Art and Northwoods Music Collective to the Headwaters Food Sovereignty Council’s monthly organizational meetings. They have also become a key drop-off location for local farmers and Community Supported Agriculture to pass on their produce to the local community.
Beginning New Year’s 2011, RRFS partnered with the Indigenous Environmental Network, (a local non-profit with global connections for environmental advocacy on behalf of Native rights), along with the local MN GreenCorps to embark on a very unique program billed as “Sustainable Tuesdays.”
The concept was simple--every week on Tuesday evening Sustainable Tuesdays would provide a two-hour class focusing on some element of sustainability and/or Environmental Education to anyone in the public who wanted to attend. Since then, over 40 programs have been taught to over 1000 total attendants, averaging over twenty-five participants a week. The classes have covered topics as diverse as wild edible identification, solar panel workshops, waste reduction and energy efficiency strategies, and the opportunity to make your own rain barrel and composting worm bin.
After almost a year since it began, this past week over twenty community members came together for Sustainable Tuesdays to learn how to weave their own snowshoes and make their own candles. As usual, the attendants ranged in age from kindergarten to retirement and came together in RRFS's common space to learn and share together.
The current program coordinators Simone Senogles (IEN) and Caitlyn Schuchhardt (MN GreenCorps) began the evening by introducing the process of how to melt beeswax and make candles, followed by former coordinator Brett Cease discussing the history and tradition behind snowshoeing.
After the group divided, Cease dived into working with a set of pre-bent white ash frames from Country Ways and the nitty-gritty of snowshoe weaving--covering the merits of the girth hitch and slip knot as well as the details of varnishing and proper care throughout their use in exploring the beautiful winter landscapes of Minnesota.
By the programs' end, all of the participants had something to show for their efforts. Whether it was a mason jar filled with a beeswax candle or an early woven set of snowshoes to finish later at home--all who attend Rail River Folk School take a larger piece of being connected to their community in sustainable and environmentally-aware ways back home with them.
Other Folk Schools in Minnesota
Five folk schools of note in our area are the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Milan Village Arts School in Milan, Driftless Folk School in Viroqua, WI, Rail River Folk School in Bemidji, and the Two Rivers Folk School in St. Paul.
The folk school model can also be used in an informal way, where families get together to teach each other what they know about traditional foods, crafts, and skills.
How might the folk school model be applied in your community?
About the author
Brett Cease recently finished up his term with the MN GreenCorps, collaborating with the city government and its sustainability committee to advance the MN GreenStep Cities program. He also partnered with local schools, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and local community education outreach through the weekly Sustainable Tuesdays program held at the Rail River Folk School. Passionate about environmental and outdoor education, he is completing his teaching licensure in secondary Social Studies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Bemidji’s ongoing programming, visit: http://greenlivingbemidji.areavoices.com.