How to Draw an Asset Map


The first training session for Jane’s Walk’s new Neighbourhood Choreographers started this week.

We use the term choreographer as it relates to the ideas of urbanist Jane Jacobs who speaks about the “intricate ballet” of sidewalks with their “individual dancers and ensembles”.

Similarly, the sidewalk ballet needs choreographers to organize, direct and promote the preformance. Neighbourhood Choreographers in this way are ambassadors of Jane’s Walk in their neighbourhoods and they will support, recruit and “choreograph” their local communities to share their unique stories and lead their first Jane’s Walk. Over the next month, I will be working with 35 of these Choreographers in the three corners of Toronto: Kingston Galloway in Scarborough, New Toronto in Etobicoke and Bathurst Finch in North York.

But how to help people discover and explore local stories to share?

To answer that question, I introduced the participants to the idea of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), a concept coined by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann at the ABCD Institute.[1]

An easy way to start thinking about ABCD is asking “is the glass half full or half empty?” A glass half empty represents the notion that communities are deficient and have needs. The half full glass represents the notion that communities (and the people who live there) have many strengths, capacities and assets that are already found in the community. [2]

ABCD asks everyday local people to identify their valuable relationships and existing assets (personal, social, physical, natural) and create steps to make those assets stronger. It recognizes the strengths, gifts, talents and resources of individuals and communities, and helps communities to mobilize and build on these for sustainable development.[3]

For our first Neighbourhood Choreographer session, I introduced the concept of ABCD with an accessible and fun exercise called Asset Mapping which you can try for yourself and friends, family and neighbourhood groups of all ages.

How to make your own Asset Map:

  • Using a flip chart paper and markers, draw a map of your local community considering all your personal and community assets (ex. stories, unique spots, groups, business, informal networks, schools, roads, nature, buildings, hangout spots, relationships, skills)
  • Use the following questions to guide you [2]:
    • What are the strengths and assets of your community?
    • When was a time you felt your community was at its best?
    • What do you value most about your community?
    • What is the essence of your community that makes it unique and strong?
    • What are you most excited about these days about your community?

Asset mapping is a tool you can use to document people’s understanding of their communities and neighbourhoods. Through these maps, it is likely that number of themes will emerge that can inform the direction of your Jane’s Walk.

During the Choreographer’s exercise, themes of nature, local business history, social services, community programs were clearly visible and will be discussed further at our next training.

What walk stories do you see?





Look forward to more posts about the Neighbourhood Choreographers in the coming weeks!

@Nico Koenig

PS: If you are looking to discover more about Asset Mapping and ABCD, consider the following resources:

[1] The Asset-Based Community Development Institute

[2] Sustaining Community Engagement, What is Asset-Based Community Development?

[3] The Coady International Institute, About ABCD

This post was originally posted as “At Jane’s Walk, the glass is half full” on the Jane’s Walk Toronto Page here: on March 14th, 2014.

Tools for White Guys who are Working for Social Change (and other people socialized in a society based on domination)

As a young, able, hetero, Canadian, white guy – it’s easy to forget about privilege. To me, it is a living exercise to keep challenging myself to see how my privilege oppresses others – and do something about it now. Here’s a great checklist that I continue to use and reflect upon:

1. Practice noticing who’s in the room at meetings – how many men, how many women, how many white people, how many people of color, is it majority heterosexual, are there out queers, what are people’s class backgrounds. Don’t assume to know people, but also work at being more aware.

2a. Count how many times you speak and keep track of how long you speak.

2b. Count how many times other people speak and keep track of how long they speak.

3. Be conscious of how often you are actively listening to what other people are saying as opposed to just waiting your turn and/or thinking about what you’ll say next.

4. Practice going to meetings focused on listening and learning; go to some meetings and do not speak at all.

5a. Count how many times you put ideas out to the group.

5b. Count how many times you support other people’s ideas for the group.

6. Practice supporting people by asking them to expand on ideas and get more in-depth, before you decide to support the idea or not.

7a. Think about whose work and contribution to the group gets recognized.

7b. Practice recognizing more people for the work they do and try to do it more often.

8. Practice asking more people what they think about meetings, ideas, actions, strategy and vision. White guys tend to talk amongst themselves and develop strong bonds that manifest in organizing. This creates an internal organizing culture that is alienating for most people. Developing respect and solidarity across race, class, gender and sexuality is complex and difficult, but absolutely critical – and liberating.

9. Be aware of how often you ask people to do something as opposed to asking other people “what needs to be done”.

10. Think about and struggle with the saying, “you will be needed in the movement when you realize that you are not needed in the movement”.

11. Struggle with and work with the model of group leadership that says that the responsibility of leaders is to help develop more leaders, and think about what this means to you.

12. Remember that social change is a process, and that our individual transformation and individual liberation is intimately interconnected with social transformation and social liberation. Life is profoundly complex and there are many contradictions. Remember that the path we travel is guided by love, dignity and respect – even when it is bumpy and difficult to navigate.

13. This list is not limited to white guys, nor is it intended to reduce all white guys into one category. This list is intended to disrupt patterns of domination which hurt our movement and hurt each other. White guys have a lot of work to do, but it is the kind of work that makes life worth living.

14. Day-to-day patterns of domination are the glue that maintain systems of domination. The struggle against capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and the state, is also the struggle towards collective liberation.

15. No one is free until all of us are free.

From the Colours of Resistance webpage

via RANT Collective : Tools for White Guys who are Working for Social Change (and other people socialized in a society based on domination) and Chris Crass

5 lessons for teenagers considering university (from the future you)

Hey there,

It’s me – yourself, in the future. I think a lot about education these days. And I am still paying off the debt we incurred during the undergraduate degree you are considering attending. I wanted to send you this letter from the future to help you consider your next steps.

I remember what it was like to be you at 17. You told yourself that you didn’t really know what you wanted to do with your life, but you actually knew quite a bit at the time. You were doing some pretty neat stuff that you’ll like talking about in the future, when you’re me. These experiences were all very important, so keep it up. Soon you will have to start make some decisions about what will happen after highschool.

I know what you’re thinking: “I can’t stay in my hometown. I want to get away. It will just be like highschool if I stay. If I don’t go to university, I will end up a loser.” I know you’re excited about going to university  – and that’s a great feeling to have. Think of the parties! Doing whatever you want! Your plan will look like this: go to university, get a good paying job, pay off the student debt easy, become the boss.

Spoiler alert! It doesn’t work out that way.

Here are my best tips for you, as someone who has lived your life. I hope these might change your ideas about going to university and your next steps after highschool.

1) Take a break, but keep learning.

You have been stuck in an institution for 13 years. You need some time to process what you have seen, and to figure out what things you like and what things you don’t like. You’ve done a lot, but there are pieces missing that you won’t find in a university syllabus. Did you know that you could work on an organic farm anywhere in the world through Woofing? Did you know that there are programs like Canada World Youth where you can live and volunteer across Canada and abroad? What about Folk High Schools? You can kick it to Norway, learn Norwegian, go mountain climbing and study world peace – no tuition needed (it’s actually illegal to charge). No. You did not consider it.  It was never an option. It may not look well with your friends or your parents to not go to university, but the alternate experiences you can find are a real asset that they won’t have.

2) Learn for free.

Go to university… for free. Visit any university and start looking through the undergraduate courses they offer – even graduate programs. Go with your friends who are in the classes and paying full price. Speak to the professor directly: tell them that you’re interested in their course and would like to audit it. Chances are they will say yes. You will find out:1) whether or not you like the topic; 2) if you like how universities teach; and, 3)about other students who are interested in similar careers. Lastly, universities are always hosting speakers from around the world for special events that are often only promoted to the university. Often, they’re free. Go for it.

3) Home work and travel work.

In the future, you will be paying for your own housing. Your own place! It’s exciting. But you know what’s even better? Not paying for rent. It’s expensive. I know living at home with your parents is a bummer. But one thing your parents can easily offer you, for at least a short time, is their  roof! They might ask you to pitch in here and there, but compared to living on your own – you will save a lot of money. Keep that crappy job you had before for a few more months, and pick up odd jobs while you’re at it. This can help you get out with a plan in hand.

Yes, get out and work some more! There are so many ways that you can earn money for the adventurer in you. You’ve got connections. Spend 6 months asking about connections around the world and I bet you’ll find something great. Work at a Hostel. Go Tree Planting.  Pick fruit in New Zealand.  It’s easier than you think for someone with energy, a good back and willingness to travel.

After that, you can go to university or commit to another direction, with money saved and no debt.

4) Hang around with successful, remarkable people.

This is hard. I know you want to be cool and hang around with cool people. But cool people at 17 are not always cool later in life. I’m not asking you to stop hanging around people who you think are cool, cold turkey. However, do consider that there is a lot to learn from people of any age. Connections with people older and younger – and people who are not like you – will be enriching and useful your whole life. The more you hang around with successful, remarkable people, the more you will be successful and remarkable.

5) Reflect and set goals.

Later in your life you might hear yourself talking about setting goals, reflecting on your needs, and blah blah blah. I know you think this lame as a 17-year old. But please, give it a try.

  • Write two lists: First,  write down everything you are good at.   Second, write down everything you like doing. Then, check out your lists. You might be surprised by the different and exciting combinations of the two lists.

This very basic step will guide you in your 17-year old life. It also helps you be unique. In the future there will be so many jobs that don’t exist in your present. Find your unique mix and soon you’ll be making up your own job. Also, try this exercise out every couple years as your ideas, opinions and interests will change – yep, change is a constant.

  • Next, think of something you want to accomplish in the next few months – or even half year. Write it down. Write down a few month-long goals. Then write down the steps you think you’ll need to accomplish each goal.
  • Find someone who can check in with you and be your “accountability buddy”. Ask them to help you keep on track.

Do this often.

Best of luck for you and your future. I am proud of you.

All my best,




Learning in Rural India and Ethiopia

Today I met up with an old colleague from my University of Toronto days, PhD candidate Fisseha Yacob (or Fish as he calls himself). He told me about the non-profit he was developing called Kuraz (

Kuraz is determined to make a difference in the lives of children, youth and their communities in Ethiopia. Using collaborative learning strategies, critical pedagogy and community integrated approach, we provide hands-on practical training and workshops for community members, educators and students. (

Kuraz made me think of a couple TED talks I had heard on self-directed learning and participatory education in rural India. Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, has created a number of “hole in the wall” educational experiments. For his first experiment, he put a computer screen in the wall for children in a rural Indian village who had no experience or skill in computers whatsoever and very little formal education. He returned months later to find children using the computer and figuring out much more about it’s function without any teachers guiding them. He has since created more of these experiments testing the limits of self-directed learning. One experiment had British Grandmothers mentoring children in India via a web video link. The Grandmothers were instructed not to teach, but only to encourage.

I do not regularly champion computer technology as a form of international development. From my experience working in South Africa and Zambia, the initial gifts are often short-lived. In a rural community of South Africa, I visited a school that had been given a number of brand new computers to use by the students from an international development agency. Three years since they were delivered, the computers were broken and no one knew how to fix them or could pay to have them replaced. The one remaining computer was kept at the Principal’s office because he was afraid the students would steal it if they had a chance to use it.

Technology moves fast, especially mobile devices, desktops and laptops. In 5 years time, today’s laptops might not be able to properly watch videos, upload information or send data. However, Mitra’s work shows that infrastructure without teachers or gatekeepers can lead to some surprising results. I especially see the potential of the Grandmother experiment to connect the assets of some to the needs of others using web video. The simple experience of having a real person (video or live) to encourage you and someone that you can be accountable to makes a huge difference in the development of self-efficacy.

Although I have never lived in rural India or Ethiopia, I imagine that elements of Barefoot College could be replicated in rural Ethiopia. However I pause to say these inspirational centres take time (starting in 1989), require advocates and champions as well as a specific context to sustain it. And maybe a killer Ted Talk too:


Recently, Barefoot College has been receiving students from rural villages outside of India. See this short 5 minutes award winning documentary:

How to Cheat

I have been picking through Dale Stephen’s Hacking Your Education, which so far, I would easily recommend to anyone in High School and anyone looking to transition into a new type of work. One comment caused me to reflect – shouldn’t we be teaching how to cheat? Especially in regard to learning and community development initiatives. The book quotes Joi Ito, a successful technology investor:

“Most of college education is about what you can do on your own, without cheating,” Joi told me. “But cheating involves really important skills – such as how to find the answer from somebody else and how to take shortcuts.” Instead of sitting in college learning these skills, most people are sitting in college fulfilling requirements for graduation.

Cheating in the educational sense is about stealing someone else’s answer – the “correct answer”.

I cheat all the time. When I don’t know the answer, I look elsewhere. I search online, I ask friends, I find out what the best practice is and I share it widely. Without cheating, we would have to rely on answers we were only given permission to use and our own experience. Yet when I was in traditional school, I only got points when I remembered the answers that were given to me – instead of knowing all the different ways I might find (or steal!) the answers.

In some ways, cheaters have inspired me. All of my work has been related to taking the ideas of others and using them in the context and organization I am working with. I make and share handbooks on best practices, on case studies, on information databases, training methods – the whole time I am only figuring out ways that I can support people to cheat collectively by sharing information of things we all know work.

With this in mind, here are some pointers I have used to cheat/ be cheated on the best ways I know how:

Do/ Tell your research: Find out everything that has been done related to what you are interested in pursuing. Find out who influenced who and who they borrowed/cheated on. Tell others about the people who inspired you and how and where you learned your answers.

Re/ create: All contexts are different, but similar interest groups exist. Community projects, businesses, policies can all be recreated in similar, but not exactly the same situations. Copy objectives and methods but use your own language to fit your own context. Create. It’s ok to name those who you cheated on (or were inspired by), in fact you should celebrate and honor them regularly.

Make it last: Recently I typed up notes from a training I facilitated with a group of front line homeless services workers. I typed up all the resources mentioned in the workshop onto a Google doc, and then printed the Google doc hyperlink on a handbook. The Google doc can be revised by anyone and will last as long as Google is around. In that way, the document does not end up in the filing graveyard we have in every office, but instead it remains a living document that changes, grows and can be used for cheaters.

Pretend to/ Be someone: Find someone who inspires you and do what he or she does. Act like them. Use their language. Find out they came to be. Hang around where they work. Also: be someone. Be a mentor. Share your style. Invite people along for the ride. Help people who want to know what you know.

Assume shortcuts: I have worked with a lot of social workers the past couple years – one trait many had was never accepting No. They are always looking for ways around and through the social services system for people who have often been excluded from it. With that in mind – talk to people not papers. Talk to three people with different backgrounds but the same experience to figure out the best way through a situation. Realise that assets are not just money, there is value in all sorts of things to use to your advantage. When you have figured out the shortcuts – make sure you tell people about it.

The Future of Education p.1

The past week I have been able to listen in on some great conversations about the future of education. The first was a presentation at MaRS Discovery District titled An Avalanche is Coming: The future of higher education by  Sir Michael Barber, Katelyn Donnelly, Saad Rizvi, and University of Toronto president, David Naylor. The report they spoke about is available for free here.

The general context was laid out: the economy is changing, people are not getting the jobs they want out of degrees, people can find content anywhere, credentials are not what they were before, people are finding social experiences elsewhere, costs of universities are high and the internet is changing everything about traditional education institution as well as our understanding of the purpose of higher education.

Nothing new here. I came to the presentation thinking it would be a bunch of university presidents defending how the universities will stay strong and are at the centre of “innovation” instead of admitting truthfully that the university was a dead system.  Fortunately I was very delighted to hear how universities are changing/ will change/ must change. The researchers focused on 5 “university models” of the future: The Elite University, The Mass University, Niche University, the Local University and the lifelong learning mechanism. Here are some excerpts from their report which highlight two models which most interest me the most:

Model 2: the mass university

By taking advantage of globally-developed content and adapting it for their own students, mass universities will be able to provide a good education for the rapidly growing global middle class (and others) who recognise that a high school education is not enough to provide a passport to the jobs of the future.

These universities will use predominantly online or blended approaches (provided perhaps in traditional collaboration with respected institutions) and cater to hundreds of thousands of students at a time. These students will increasingly see that greater value for money and time is offered by these institutions compared to attending a mid- to low-tier university. The variety of courses and learning opportunities will extend far beyond what is offered at a traditional bricks and mortar college, allowing students to customise and build their learning according to their personal interests and passions over a period of time that suits them best. The mass university offerings will also increasingly extend into the realm of real-world workplace skills, supplementing their faculty with practitioners from business and other fields who will see the relationship with a university as bringing prestige, but also access to well-educated talent.

Due to the nature of the industry, there will be rapid consolidation of the online providers, with only the strongest players left standing. At the same time, many middle- to low-tier universities will have to disband or adapt as they become irrelevant.

Some mass universities will emerge from among the classic 20th century universities in the developed world – shutting their physical doors and moving entirely online as we’ve seen happen in the newspaper business. Others will be found in the newly-developed world; perhaps, for example, in Brazil which has placed itself at the forefront of developments in online higher education. Some will be for-profit, others not. Some will be predominantly vocational, others will be broader.

Model 5: the lifelong learning mechanism

Nandan Nilekani, one of the founders of the highly successful Indian company Infosys, has taken on a project for the Indian government with immense implications. Its goal is to register as many of the 1.2 billion people in India as possible on a database in the cloud. Already around 300 million are registered. Now imagine that those 300 million could add their educational and career achievements and qualifications to the database. Imagine, too, that some of them sign up for a mentoring programme with an organisation that specialises purely in that. Imagine that others take a series of modules from different academic institutions around India and the world and find yet another institution to accredit that combination of courses as a degree, perhaps because yet another organisation has provided an assessment, using the best computer game technology, that really tests not just deep learning of content, but problem-solving and leadership skills and/or potential.

Here we would have people who had successfully completed higher education without ever attending a university, who draw on a range of services, most of which are not provided by a university. It is a plausible scenario, and there are others. Universities around the world have been awarding honorary doctorates for exceptional performance in a wide variety of fields for decades – it’s plausible to think that this idea could be extended for bachelors and masters degrees as well. Many successful business entrepreneurs, for example, have proven themselves in the real world and acquired more relevant knowledge than that conferred by a traditional business degree.

Take Natalie Warne, whose story was told in the New York Times in November 2012.Natalie, the paper says, is:

‘A poised 22-year-old from Chicago, she stepped off the college track after high school to “hack” her education which to her meant travelling the country to protest atrocities in war-torn Uganda. It started with a gap-year internship after high school with a charity called Invisible Children where she acquired experience in public speaking, event co-ordinating and film editing (she eventually appeared on Oprah). Finding satisfaction, she stretched her gap year into two, and two became three. While speaking at a TED conference, she met Dale J Stephens, the founder of the group called UnCollege that champions ‘more meaningful’ alternatives to college. Her plans for college are off for now. “Experience has proved to be a far better teacher in my life than any book, classroom or educator,” she said.’ Maxim Gorky would have been proud of her.

There are countless other success stories of college dropouts, from Richard Branson to Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, none of whom completed a university programme, but who have changed the world. But in each of these examples of success, the entrepreneur made a significant lifelong investment in learning.


Their report on the Lifelong learning mechanism mentions Dale Stephens from UnCollege . He has become a leader in the “hackademic” movement which I am a big fan of. I hope to give my thoughts about the future of education which speaks about Dale Stephens new book “Hacking your Education” in an upcoming post.

How do you think Universities will change?



I was against smart phones for sometime. I still consider them a huge distraction, however I will have to admit some defeat by a new app called Vine. It allows you to make 6 second videos that loop. Sort of like animated gifs but using your smart phone to make videos.

I had a good time in New York trying my first few out. Here’s a couple of my first attempts below. Click on the images to make them start and stop, while clicking the top left corner can also turn sound on and off.

There are some fascinating things you can do with Vine. I hope I can share my perspective and experiences using this app and no doubt will have some fun along the way. Here’s a couple favourites I’ve seen from other people’s vines:


Are you a Vine user? Find me at @Nicokoenig

New York City Learning Spaces


On my last day in New York, I had the chance to meet up with a few community education centres that are blazing the trail for the rest of us. First was Aimee, one of the organizers of Trade School New York, which inspired Trade School Toronto as well as more than 50 other “Barter for Knowledge” schools across the globe. They are trying to organize the first Trade School conference, bringing in organizers from different Trade Schools to meet up. As she had been so focused on Trade School New York, sharing stories about the successes and challenges of Trade Schools in different parts of the world made it much more real for the both of us.

Afterwards I jumped on the subway to Brooklyn to meet Soma and Jen, the owners of space and business called Brooklyn Brainery. Over the past few years they have created a physical storefront for general interest classes that anyone can teach that focuses on the “quirky” and interesting courses. I was fascinated by their approach, as many learning spaces often have a focus on job and development training or particular philosophical/ political belief. Instead, they are really connected to creating a learning space that focuses on the social and fun aspect of learning.

brainery store

In both conversations, we spoke about the development of their organizations, finding space and their business models. It was great to hear their stories of starting off and the interesting issues they are running into (why are there so many women in these types of classes and few men?).

One interesting note was that both groups were recently involved in a kind of “alternative community learning” networking meeting which invited similar organizations like the Brainery and Trade School to meet and chat. This could easily happen here in Toronto as I am in touch with a number of organizations like Hack Lab and Toronto Free scool. If so, what would be the purpose? Would there be a larger goal in mind or just a fun networking event? 


Tactical Urbanism

Tactical Urbanism

Tactical Urbanism by the Atlantic

I recently ran into the term “Tactical Urbanism”. In a way, this concept fits nicely with many of the other projects I have worked on since living in Toronto and many more I would love to see (Chairbombing anyone?). I might consider leading a further discussion on this issue as there are many parallel projects happening in Toronto that I am connected to these days.

Folk High Schools

When I started my Masters in Adult Education and Community Development, I had unique interest which would take me deep into the 150 year history of alternative education and its connection to Canadian adult education system as well as a study trip to Sweden to study Folk High Schools.

So what are folk high schools exactly? Here’s a short piece of my work (with super power house edits by Ashleigh Dalton) which was recently published in the Global Citizen Digest and can be viewed here all cleaned up and ready to go. Here is the text with a few extra photos of my own.


Grundtvig’s Yippies: Sweden’s innovative folk high school creates space for global learners

“The best way to learn about YIP would be to live it yourself”, Reinoud Meijer, the Program Coordinator for the International Youth Initiative Program (YIP) suggested to me over Skype. Within a week of that brief conversation across the Atlantic Ocean, I arrived in the small Swedish village of Ytterjärna to experience firsthand what Meijer was talking about. In Ytterjärna resided the centre of YIP, an innovative education model with an undaunted aim to change the world.  My task of the trip: to uncover what appeared to be the creative blend of a gap-year program, social entrepreneurship training and global education.

Folk High Schools

YIP is based on the Scandinavian community college model called folk high schools. They emerged from the vision of Danish Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig as a humanistic model of adult education that would counter what he saw as a problematic contemporary education system. Grundtvig referred to existing Scandinavian educational institutions of early nineteenth century as “schools for death”, claiming that they taught dead subjects, dead language and “deadened the students who were forced to endure them” (Davis, 1971, p. 27).  In contrast to ‘standard’ post-secondary institutions like universities and colleges, folk high schools require no exams, offer no diplomas, and express an explicit commitment to dialogue and student-centred curriculum (Toivianen, 1995; Paulston, 1980).  Instead, folk high schools are small post-secondary residential learning centres that emphasize creating a sense of community and captivating learners into engaging with civil society. The result of Grundtvig’s efforts and persistence for a ‘School for Life’ was the opening of the first folk high school in 1844 in Denmark.

Folk high schools are immensely popular in Scandinavia, attended by approximately one hundred thousand students each year (Bagley & Rust, 2009). Currently, more than three hundred folk high schools exist in Scandinavia, each with their own governing body and funding (ibid). Most notably, folk high schools do not charge participants tuition or costs that are not directly related to their living and material costs. Folk high schools are typically promoted to youth aged 18 to 25 years of age as a transitional year for personal development before focusing on a professional or academic career (Toivianen, 1995).  Courses vary widely, focusing on such curriculum as the arts, outdoor leadership, religious studies and organic agriculture (“Folkehogskole,” 2011). All folk high schools have a focus on advancing democratic and social participation (ibid).


Conversations of Yippies about community development

Anthroposophical Beginning

Although Grundtvig’s folk high schools influenced adaptations in Sweden, it was Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy that eventually inspired the emergence of YIP. Anthroposophy, translated as human wisdom, has led to Waldorf education, as well as holistic practices in farming, medicine and business. Following a decade of meetings, conferences and conversations by Waldorf youth and educators, the initial concept for a post-secondary international service-training program was formed. While its formation is interlinked with the lives of its anthroposophically-educated organizing staff, YIP is committed to exploring multiple perspectives and forces that shape society including Steiner’s philosophy and its applications.

The core curriculum of YIP is based on social entrepreneurship principles, understanding current global issues, and as the name Youth Initiative Program implies, encouraging initiative amongst its participants. Each week, students or “yippies” as they affectionately call themselves, are immersed in a different field of focus taught by international experts and innovators in the field. Previous facilitators to YIP have included former presidential candidate of the Phillipines Nicanor Perlas, and founding publisher of Utne Magazine Eric Utne. Weekly topics have ranged from the most recent trends in social media innovation, facilitation processes, sustainable building design and political economics to traditional practices of storytelling, portrait painting and theatre. Meijer likes to say that although YIP is a yearlong program, “it takes a lifetime to digest”.

YIP offers a full day intensive residential program for youth aged 18 to 25. Situated 55 kilometres south of Stockholm, Sweden, YIP sits on the expansive Järna Fjord which connects to the Baltic Sea. Since beginning in August 2008, YIP has graduated over 75 participants from 20 different countries. The 2010/11 semester will produce its third graduating class, with 40 participants from 18 countries, including three Canadians.

The Living Word

A critical focus of YIP, and folk high schools in general, is what Grundtvig termed the “Living Word”, the process of learning within the present moment. According to Lawson (2000), the Living Word describes the use of dialogue between the teacher and learner where the teachings remain alive within the teacher and are based in the learners’ reality and interests. The method of teaching is often centred on workshops that emphasize group work. This process allows teachers to support and guide students’ individual learning processes (Toivianen, 1995). Contrary to a lecture style of teaching, dialogue helps both the learner and teacher to name their current reality and come to common understandings, and encourages social transformation and equality (Freire, 1970).  Bolivian participant Joaquin Zambrana explained the value of youth learning for themselves: “(YIP Staff) give tools, knowledge, things you can use to build what you want to built, but it is always up to you”.

A frequent practice of folk high schools is its focus on inner narrative. Bugge (1983) suggests Grundtvig aimed to “make people conscious of what they are”, “what they have to do”, and “what it all means” (Bugge, 1983, p. 19). Similarly, folk high school learners are often at a time of transition and are offered space to discover what is true to themselves and their place in society (Toivianen, 1995). In Scandinavia, not surprisingly, most applicants are recent public school graduates seeking to grow individually, socially and academically (“Folkehogskole,” 2011). YIP puts a special emphasis on supporting each participant’s personal journey with an organizing staff specialized in counseling and autobiographical work. Moreover, the most recent research testifies that folk high school students report that their experience helped them to “dare to be themselves” (Knut & Solhaug, 2010, p.80) in a way that supports reflection, personal maturation, confidence building and self worth (ibid).

At YIP – biodynamic farms surround the campus

International Youth Initiative Program

When I arrived into the YIP, I found the yippies picking apples, building fences and renovating walls. Their first month involved hands-on tasks that focused on community engagement and asset-based community development (ABCD). Led by urban researcher Kiara Nagel from the United States and designer of cooperative games for social change Edgard Gouveia Júnior from Brazil, yippies split into groups to make the dreams of the local residents a reality. Using the metaphorical “glass half full” approach of ABCD, yippies attempted to use the skills and knowledge held within themselves and the local community, rather than depending on outside financial support. For example, one resident of Ytterjärna wanted a public space for local sheep to graze. Discovering local community bureaucracy, finding resources, negotiating with neighbours and learning the methods of woodwork – the yippies were introduced to a microcosm of the process required for social change. Learning through engagement with local community issues and creating space for reflection with dynamic facilitators makes up what I would call YIP’s Living Word.

It is often noted by researchers of Grundtvig and folk high schools that learners do not manage to find their identity alone, but in relation to others (Knut & Solhaug, 2010). Residential schooling, that is, schools that have a live-in element for learners and teachers, provides an important contribution to learning about a sense of community. For example, there are certain social behaviours that most formal educational institutions do not or cannot teach. These include how to live independently, cook, share gratitude and problem solve within a group. YIP offers a residential style of learning where lessons on how to live together are often as important as the course work itself. Similar to the aim of other folk high schools, YIP students are guided to seek democratic solutions to residential challenges in ways that encourage tolerance and understanding. They are also required to work on the maintenance and upkeep of the residence, which could include cleaning, gardening and providing meals. In this sense, there is no separation between school and life. Democratic principles learned in a classroom have real implications for delegating chores, resolving conflicts and building consensus between residents. Although seemingly insignificant, even the act of deliberating which late-night movie to watch together was itself a practice in learning participatory democracy.

A unique feature of YIP is its one month international internship. After six months of studying weekly themes, organizing initiatives within Ytterjärna and researching individual projects, yippies travel abroad individually or in groups (without a supervisor) to work with a socially and environmentally sustainable project or organization anywhere in the world. Past internships have been to eco-villages in Nepal, a children’s school in Kenya and a media non-profit organization in USA. However, YIP internships differ from traditional international volunteer programs in its aim to deepen comprehension of global challenges and experience how others work towards solutions, rather than provide answers or cures. Following the completion of YIP, some yippie graduates return to their placements to help develop projects further. This year a group of seven yippies will travel to a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon to work with a youth centre which continues to be organized by a YIP alumni.

I left a chilly and more beautiful Ytterjärna after a couple weeks feeling as I had almost become a real yippie. The early morning scramble to class, the late night conversations by the fire and the utmost joy in discovering myself lost reminded me of my summer camp days long gone. However, this program is not for careless children, but is determined to tackle the injustices of the world. Through its commitment to sustainability, dialogue, community building, and individual growth, while immersing in one’s relationship and obligations to others, YIP offers a model for adult education that could extend to global citizenship. Indeed, it may not be long until Grundtvig’s yippies show Canadians how to create the school for life for themselves. In fact, it already has begun.

For more information about The International Youth Initiative Program – visit

Nico Koenig, M.Ed Adult Education and Community Development, works with civic education programs for youth and continues to explore innovative learning spaces, sustainable development, social media and food. He can be found cycling in Toronto and online at

Ashleigh Dalton is a graduate student in Adult Education and Community Development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She works in research and policy around poverty reduction. Ashleigh‘s interests include citizenship, community engagement and civic education


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A moose charging towards me in Jarna!