by Jennifer DeCoste
Jenn uncovers the roots of her passion for grassroots learning and introduces her new role with Social Innovation Canada.
After recently learning more about my grandfather’s storied life, I came to realize that there’s a reason I’m driven to tackling complex problems. It’s in my blood. My grandfather, J. Clyde Nunn, came of age after the First World War. He was an educated man, attending St. Francis Xavier University and then Holy Heart Seminary in Halifax, where many of his peers went on to become priests and professors. This peer group, actively associated with the inspired Antigonish Movement, supported Clyde in his pitch to use “new technology” to broaden the reach of advanced education—taking information from the university out to farmers, truck and train drivers, and coal miners. He wanted to use radio.
In a meeting held in Antigonish in 1940, Father Leo Sears, Father Michael Gillis and the legendary pioneer Father Jimmy Tompkins rallied around Clyde’s idea to build a radio station in Antigonish, despite the fact that they were in the midst of a World War where materials and funds were in short supply. It was likely the fact that the goal was near impossible to achieve that catalyzed this group into action.
One story describes the arrival of a long-awaited order of copper wire needed to connect the transmitter tower to the newly constructed station. Later that same day a telegram from Ottawa arrived stating that the wire was being recalled for the war effort. Clyde and a number of hands from the newly emerging Coady program dug a shallow hole, where they then put the unopened wire. They sent a telegram back to Ottawa saying, “Cannot return wire… already in ground.”
By 1942, Clyde was touring radio stations and universities across the United States, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. On this tour he spread his message about the need for greater partnership between universities and the communities they reside in. He spoke of StFX as having a responsibility to form a “whole new department that might be called an “Extension Department,” arguing that “a university must give democratic leadership and not just turn out young lawyers, doctors, and clergymen who have no appreciation of the problems of the community.” He saw radio as a means to “convince (the people) to break down the defeatist attitude that has been referred to so often in the Maritimes… following that logically will be a program of how to do it.” On March 25, 1943, their station went on the air.
More than 70 years later, I find myself channelling the energy of my ancestors, engaging in social projects that will support collective advancement, even if this means taking action with next to no resources and relying on an unusual (to NS) approach. I am the founder of Life.School.House, a cooperative not-for-profit that has created a network of adult Folk Schools, bringing education to small group learning environments entirely on a barter basis—removing the financial barrier to accessing education. This intensive micro work at the grassroots as a volunteer in my community has given me an opportunity to work ‘hands on’ - addressing some really complex social problems like isolation, creating space for people to work across differences like culture and socio-economics. This works makes no money but offers rewards to me, my family and my community in ways that need to be measured different. We are creative in finding “work arounds” by burying the wire when the system fails us. We persist with limited or no resources because emergent work is difficult territory for funders to navigate and because we know that the work is important and recently the movement has started to grow with eleven other homes opened up for Folk School classes in NS and more coming every month!
In this work I will follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. Using radio, he captured and shared the stories of his region with members in community who could turn that knowledge into action in their towns, villages, and families. Seventy-five years later, I host space for people to share their stories with each other and I invite you to follow this journey at www.lifeschoolhouse.com, to contribute your own stories of systems change work in your area to the Thrive blog to inspire those of us working in this field! I look forward to traveling and learning with you.
Jennifer DeCoste leads LifeSchoolHouse on a volunteer basis but also works as a Weaver for Social Innovation Canada and fulltime with Inspiring Communities providing support for a regional ecosystem of social innovators in Atlantic Canada Read more about Social Innovation Canada and Life.School.House.