At the heart of Marine Mills Folk School’s work, in Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, is community and creation: “Our mission is to support our community and strengthen connections by inviting all people to discover the joy of creating together through traditional arts and crafts.”
The website home page for Marine Mills Folk School begins with these words: “The folk school tradition traces its origins to Scandinavian countries, with NFS Grundtvig of Denmark coining the term ‘schools for life’ as part of his philosophy of education, and of his vision for strengthening and empowering communities.”
I talked to a group of Marine Mills’ founders – Robin Brooksbank, Emily Anderson and Nanc MacLeslie – who bubble with the enthusiasm that has contributed to the fast growth of their school. Their description easily matches essential elements of Grundtvigian folk education:
- A school for life, for “living a life of passion, confidence, and joy,”
- Nurturing a space for strengthening community through everyone learning together. “We create “transactional collaborative experiences,”
- Experiencing the art of being “creators” through hands on – and reflective - skill building. We “put our brain in our hands” to become more aware of how we learn.
- Immersing ourselves in a learning environment of natural rural beauty in a nationally protected river valley that includes Native American settlements.
It’s clear that this inspired group brought much experience and knowledge before learning about Grundtvig. They speak about “going from the gut” in steering the birth of their school in response to whatever comes up. There is a commitment to listening to everyone in the community: participants, teachers, staff, and board members.
Whether from this “gut,” or from Grundtvig, or from the collective experience of creating, they put at the heart of their work “becoming more aware of how we learn” – and going deeper, “how do we open to our own inner creator?” Such learning is a clear contrast to the typical more competitive community education programs.
Their vision statement gives us an entry into this “creator” concept: “People will honor and appreciate fellow artists and craftspeople of similar and differing cultural heritage as well as those from other times, experience the joy of creating and the restorative power of our natural environment.”
A phrase that came up in our conversations - “art as life” – for me puts their ideas “on the ground.” It includes nurturing qualities like self-sufficiency, competence, and confidence. But it recognizes the crucial link to others through a sense of care-taking and stewardship for the greater community, both natural and human. It demonstrates the deep pedagogical concept of how individual and collective development and growth are an essential symbiotic relationship.
A key challenge, in fact a central purpose to their school, is responding to the run-away, technological overdrive of fast-paced life that increasingly falls short of meeting human life and health. Marine Mills is a school for developing a life of passion, confidence, and joy – and a key way to do that is to “unplug” from the busy and tech-driven world that is our 21st century way of life. In fact, that learning goal is a direct response to how they phrase the challenge of today’s society: “We don’t know how to take care of ourselves and our world anymore.”
Doing folk education at Marine Mills connects inner development, through community engagement, to practical change on the outside. I’ve discussed the inner creator. The school also focuses attention on supporting both teachers and students to creating a livelihood from their “products.” This broad intention also supports greater economic development in the local community.
And the circle extends beyond to life more globally. Even though this idea was offered humbly, as a “secret agenda,” it seemed a natural extension of a school for life: “through fostering connections, we aim to create world peace!”