The Danish Folk High School at Ry: A Fountain of Hope and Love for Sustainability

Credit: Astrid Maria Rasmussen

Between August 14th and 19th 2017 a cohort of people from every continent lived together at the folk high school in Ry, Denmark. We were brought together by the UNLEASH 2017 social innovation lab, perhaps the most ambitious experiment ever undertaken with regards to Sustainable Development Goal 17 — Partnerships for the Goals. Equally diverse cohorts assembled in other folk high schools around Denmark, focusing on challenges in education, energy, health, sustainable consumption and production, urban sustainability and water. At Ry we focused on food; it turned out to be the right place, at the right time, with the right people.

You might say that the galvanizing principal of Ry Højskole and his equally inspiring team unleashed a perfect storm of ideas and feelings from around the world to make food sustainability imaginable and attainable. They did it by making collaboration and commitment to purpose the gold standards of the time lived together by dozens of UNLEASH Denmark 2017 SDG talents who attempted to understand and solve the most pressing global development challenges around food. And yet, the most valuable gifts that these wonderful people from this magical place shared with us were hope and love.

From the first time any of us knew about UNLEASH it must have been evident that ideas would be abundant, although we may not have imagined a setting as suitable as the Danish folk high school to analyze and strengthen ideas together. What I never anticipated was that we would be enabled to bring our feelings into the mix. That is what Ry Højskole and the people behind it achieved. They passionately cooked and shared food to nourish body, mind and spirit. They told personal and family stories to trigger deep questions and wake latent sentiments about the true meaning of development and sustainability. They got us singing the powerful lyrics of Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, John Lennon and Paul McCartney; they introduced us to Svante’s Happy Day which I am sure we will never forget. Most importantly they exemplified, with each of their actions and words, the value of service-based leadership.

UNLEASH hit the mark if measured strictly from the lens of [social] entrepreneurship. However I missed more space and enthusiasm for issues that are less glamorous and offer less social business upside, yet are cornerstones of sustainability in food and beyond, such as Indigenous People’s rights, land tenure and workers’ rights. That being said, it was the folk high school which did constantly remind us our true purpose, keeping in our hearts and minds the communities and people who are most vulnerable in the face of these global challenges. Furthermore the folk high school — at least at Ry, though I imagine it was similar elsewhere — insured that the competitive nature of the format leading to the so-called dragon’s den remained always in the shadow of a higher collective passion and will to collaborate. This was visible as many of us contributed to and invested ourselves in the ideas of teams beyond our own during breaks, meals and after hours. It was palpable as many of us experienced genuine joy and pride when two handfuls of our fellow folk schoolmates took the big stage. At Ry I learned that loving each other and trusting our hope for a better world to each other were the first and most important steps to take.

Every inch of my being resonates with gratitude for having been in the right place (Ry), at the right time (UNLEASH Denmark 2017), with the right people (a newfound Ry family); I feel more ready than ever to face the corruption, foolishness, greed, inefficiency, inequality, injustice and shortsightedness that make our food systems — and the world as we know it — unsustainable. It turns out that hope and love are just as important as expertise, hard work, ingenuity, insights and talent, if we really are to change the world. These might have gone missing if not for the Danish folk high school component at UNLEASH LAB 2017.

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