Offbeat
2:34 pm
Mon February 6, 2012

Lessons on life and compost at the Ann Arbor ReSkilling Festival

Long ago, before iPads and Wifi, it wasn’t “cool” or trendy to know how to do things such as mend your own clothes, can fruit or turn old food into compost—it was imperative. And just as valuable as the skills themselves, were the people from whom you learned them.

Now, face-to-face social interaction is often limited to the times when we look up from whatever screen we’re lost in while we wait for the next text message or email to arrive.

Some people in Ann Arbor are hoping to break this cycle by regaining valuable yet forgotten skills and reclaiming community bonds.

The movement takes shape in the form of the Ann Arbor ReSkilling Festival. According to the festival website, "reskilling" is all about sharing often abandoned skills for “resilient, low-energy living,” in a face-to-face community setting.

Since 2009, people have gathered at the Rudolf Steiner high school twice a year for a day of free workshops and seminars on such abandoned skills as cattail mat weaving, composting and canning fruits and vegetables (among many others).

The idea of reskilling through community events is part of the world-wide transition movement, according to Ann Arbor ReSkilling Festival organizer, Rebecca Streng. And it’s taking shape in all sorts of ways around the world.

At its center, the movement aims to support communities transitioning toward a lower-energy lifestyle. Groups like the Transition Network feel that rather than rely so heavily on foreign energy, communities can gather to harness their pre-existing resources and skills.

According to Streng, the festival is aimed at inspiring people to share skills with their community members outside of the festival as well. “Ideally, this would happen all year long in all kinds of places,” says Streng.

And while I’ll admit the idea sounded a bit idealistic to me before I attended the festival, after arriving at the packed high school, I realized it might not be unrealistic at all.

 I saw the movement in action as I joined dozens of festival-goers in a crowded classroom to learn how to implement "permaculture" in suburban landscapes (permaculture is the theory of creating ecologically sustainable human settlements, using nature as a model).

I then learned how to create my very own apartment-friendly compost bin (although I don’t think my housemates will support a practice that comes with the risk of worm-escape).

At lunch time I sat in an auditorium full of people nodding and clapping for a series of mini-presentations on topics including raising “playfully brilliant” children, living as part of nature, and eating for a healthy planet. One impassioned speaker even broke into song mid-presentation. My friend and I looked at each other with an, “I thought this only happened in movies expression”—yet we were totally into it.

In between composting and permaculture classes, I sat down with Alex Pappas, founder of hourschool.com, who shed some light on the deeper meaning of the reskilling movement.

Pappas created hourschool.org after spending some time working with the homeless population in Austin, Texas. He explained that the people he observed always seemed to thrive when they were given the opportunity to help others, rather than solely accept help.

“The idea is that if they can help someone else, then they have value,” said Pappas who hopes to bring the ideas behind hourschool.com, to Ann Arbor soon.

-Nell Gable, Michigan Radio Newsroom