24 Education Spaces for Social Change That You Need to Know About

Just a heads up…

This post was written in 2015 and the links, photos, details have not been updated. Some of these spaces may no longer exist!

I love spaces that bring people together to learn.

You name it. Libraries, community centres, recreation spaces, parks, town halls. My favourite are spaces that say “we can make this world a bit better by learning together”. I love those spaces so much that I did a Masters degree on what they look like and how they came to be.

The kind of spaces I think work best don’t require exams, formal qualifications, years of time, or hundreds of thousands of dollars to apply. That’s right! Take a look through my list of 24 education spaces that support social and democratic change that you need to know about.

Let me ease you into this world starting with…

Folk High Schools (Scandinavia)

Main building of “Wendelsbergs folkhögskola” in Mölnlycke

I am a big fan of Folk High Schools. So much so, I visited a few in Norway and Sweden, and wrote an article detailing one of them in a Canadian magazine.

So what are these things?Folk high schools or folkehøgskoles are a type of Scandinavian community college. They emerged through the vision of Danish Bishop N. F. S. Grundtvig during the 19th century. He imagined a humanist model of adult education to counter what he saw as “schools of death”.  I love that quote.

Vadres Folk High School

Mostly, folk high schools are small post-secondary residential learning centres that emphasize creating a sense of community and engaging with civil society.  Their curriculums are often influenced by the physical and social assets of a given community and are typically promoted to youth aged 18-to-25 as a year for personal development before focusing on a professional or academic career.

One hundred thousand students each year attend folk high schools and more than three hundred schools exist across Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

International People’s College in Denmark

Each school has a specific focus, such as on visual art, theatre, outdoor leadership, religious studies, organic agriculture, boat building and many other themes.

They make my list because a handful of them have curriculum based around politics, advocacy, social justice, international development and peace-building. These include the Nansen Academy in Norway and International People’s College in Denmark (above).

Greenland’s Folk High School – Knud Rasmussen Højskolia

Over the past hundred years, Grundtvig’s idea was passed around in eastern Europe, South Asia and even Canada. Greenland’s Knud Rasmussen Højskolia for example (pictured above), keeps the tradition of adapting curriculum to fit the needs and interests of the local community and focuses on indigenous language learning, art and craftsmanship.

Bonus point: It is illegal to charge for tuition to folk high schools in Sweden. Just sayin’.

Piqqusilirivvik (Nunavut, Canada)


For a couple decades, the Inuit of Nunavut had been studying at Greenland’s Knud Rasmussen folk high school. They decided it was time to create their folk high school. The result was Piqqusilirivvik which opened in in Clyde River Nunavut in 2011/2012.vlcsnap-2014-02-21-09h38m26s195-1038836

Piqqusilirivvik hosts programs focused on traditional Inuit knowledge, values and beliefs; hunting and fishing skills; and land use and survival skills, among other issues.

The community of Clyde River, Nunavut

The International Youth Initiative Program (Sweden)


I had a chance to visit the International Youth Initiative Program (YIP) which falls under the folk high school umbrella in Sweden. In their own words, YIP is ” a holistic education in Järna, Sweden that gives youth 18-28 a chance to explore their fullest potential and take initiative towards a better world.”

I’ve also written about my experience visiting YIP here.


YIP is based in Ytterjärna, a sort of cultural capital for the teachings of Rudolph Steiner, the founder of Waldorf schools and other education, healthcare and business philosophies. Influenced by Steiner’s anthroposophy, YIP’s curriculum also focuses on community engagement, social entrepreneurship, internships and self-reflection.


Much like other folk high schools, at YIP, students and teachers live, reflect and learn together. During my visit, Edgard Gouveia Júnior, pictured above in the purple coat, discussed the importance of play and place-based initiatives. (If you’re interested in asset based community development, you should read about his Oasis Games)

I recommend exploring YIP’s online videos and web content to better understand the experiences of their teachers and learners.

Highlander Research and Education Center (USA)

Highlander is one of the longest running education centres for social change in North America. Founded in 1932, it has trained organizers and community activists during the labour movements of the 30s and 40s, civil right movement organizers in the 50s and 60s and actvists and organizers in the ongoing struggles of the past 50 years.rosa-parks-3187296

Martin Luther King J and Rosa Parks as students of Highlander

Yes that’s right. Both Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks were students at Highlander early on.

In 1955, Rosa Parks took part in desegregation workshops at Highlander and after 6 months of organizing, she helped spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Popular belief sometimes assumes she was just an “old lady just wanting a seat”. Wrong! This was a planned protest that took years to organize!cooplearningch28c091-9027184

The Highlander building itself.

These days, Highlander hosts a number of seminars and workshops for people from across the United States and abroad. A big focus is protecting migrant workers’ rights and learning about strategies for economic

Highlander use popular education, a highly participatory method of learning and moving towards collective action. Note the rocking’ chairs which are a staple of Highlander.

Highlander uses popular education, a highly participatory method of learning and moving towards collective action. If you want to know more about popular education and its use at Highlander, I would highly recommend reading We Make The Road By Walking, a book that records an interview held by popular education theorist Paulo Freire and Highlander founder Myles Horton.

Fun fact! Myles Horton visited Denmark to learn about the folk high schools, and then adapted his own version in the United States. C’mon. Geek out with me here, people.highlander1-7665052

The Coady International Institute (Nova Scotia, Canada)


The Coady International Institute, or “The Coady” has been offering community-based development and leadership education since 1959.

Hosted at St. Francis Xavier University (St.FX) in Nova Scotia, Canada, the Institute offers scholarships and certificates for international community development practitioners in creating resilient communities, promoting democracy, and building women, youth and indigenous leadership.gcl-group-2012-for-web-9044154

The Coady’s philosophy and programs are highly influenced by its historical connection to social change.

In the late 1920s a number of different stakeholders from rural Nova Scotia came together to find solutions to economic depression in Atlantic Canada. Led by St.FX’s Extension department, Rev. Dr. Moses Coady and Rev. Jimmy Tompkins, they helped rural communities create study circles to discuss the possibility of developing co-operatives and credit unions.

Over the next ten years, more than one hundred co-ops were created across the Maritimes in what was called The Antigonish Movement. After twenty years of community organizing and cooperative development, many international students began coming to St. FX to learn about the movement.

So you thought you could leave without hearing about folk high schools one more time? No way! Prior to the Movement, Rev. Jimmy Tompkins’ initially wanted to create a “People’s School” like the folk high schools of Denmark.

 Findhorn (Scotland)


Located on the northern tip of Scotland, Findhorn is primarily an eco-village where people live year-round. They host a variety of workshops, ranging from permaculture, sustainable living,  biomimicry, facilitation. Much of their programming focuses on elements of spiritually and personal development.barrelhouses-7595396

Part of Findhorn Eco-Village


United Nation’s University for Peace/ Earth Charter Initiative (Costa Rica)


The mission of UPEACE is to “to provide humanity with an international institution of higher education for peace”. Big ambitions! Check out some of their Masters-level programs.

It also hosts the Earth Charter Initiative, one of the leading centres and networks for education for sustainable development. It trains youth from around the world to learn about environmental education, leadership and the Earth Charter itself.upeacegroup-5958945

Barefoot College (India)


Grandmothers teaching grandmothers to be solar power engineers! That’s Barefoot College.

Since 1972, they’ve trained women from from villages of India and Eastern Africa to be “midwives, handpump mechanics, solar engineers, artisans, weavers, balsevika (crèche teachers), parabolic solar cooker engineers, FM radio operators and fabricators, dentist, masons, and day and night school teachers”. 

If that doesn’t impress you, (and, seriously, how could that not impress you???), consider that most of the learning happens cooperatively at their campus without formal textbooks, and even without a common

Similar to the other education spaces mentioned, Barefoot College considers itself “a centre of learning and unlearning, where the teacher is the learner and the learner a teacher; where no certificates, degrees or diplomas are given“.

Community Development Resource Centre (South Africa)


The Community Development Resource Association (CDRA) has been offering organizational and community development workshops in Cape Town, South Africa since 1987.

Kayum Ahmed, CEO of the South African Human Rights Commission facilitates a session on Human Rights Education and How to Bridge the Values Gap — at Community Development Resource Association (CDRA).

CDRA is often called upon by international development agencies to consult and they also host regular workshops and seminars on community development, advanced facilitation and organization development.

I visited CDRA in 2006 and was impressed by their facilitation style, commitment to participation and their cozy house. There, in their community development library (yes, they even have a librarian), I discovered John Dewey’s philosophy on experiential learning. Doug Reeler (featured below) told me that Dewey’s book might change my life. Note to Doug: You were right!

Rochdale College (Toronto)


Although it no longer exists, Rochdale College is worth a quick mention. For a few years in the late 1960s, the University of Toronto opened a radical cooperative learning school.

The fact that Canada’s major University built an massive complex for students to live and learn cooperatively is a feat that should remind us of the potential for future learning spaces.

Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (India)


UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP) is the latest education space for social change.

MGIEP hopes to become a research and education space for sustainable development, peace and global citizenship. They plan to embed these concepts in teaching curriculums, strengthen governmental educational policies, host youth programs, and develop innovative tools and methodologies for educators. Check out their upcoming work with game developers.mgiep-7-3633383

The new UNESCO MGIEP team