Introducing a ‘Heart, head, hands’ approach to innovative learning for ecological and social change

Ashoka Belgium Impact Programme 2020 introduces participant Sabine Denis and the project Schumacher Sprouts. 📣 Sabine shared her vision and how the Impact Programme is helping her to reflect about the development of Schumacher Sprouts. 💥The Impact Programme is a multi-sector collaboration between Ashoka, ABN AMRO Private Banking Belgium and Accenture Belgium to foster social entrepreneurship in the fields of #circularity and #climatechange.
Sabine Denis description

Schumacher Sprouts may be located on a farm, but the focus is on growing new ideas rather than cultivating those famous Brussels vegetables. The idea was born two years ago, when Sabine Denis, founder of the sustainability network The Shift, began a one-year Master’s in Ecology and Spirituality at Schumacher College in the UK. This experience inspired Sabine and other alumni of the College to launch a similar initiative in Belgium, located at Froidefontaine Farm. The 2020 Ashoka Impact Programme is supporting Sabine and her team by providing outside perspectives on what they are doing and how they can achieve their long-term goals.  

Personal reflection 

Schumacher College is named after the German-British economist, Schumacher, whose mantra was ‘small is beautiful’. The college curriculum takes a ‘heart, head, hands’ approach to innovative learning for ecological and social change. Students live and work as a community: taking care of the immediate natural environment, cooking together, cleaning together... “Teachers talk about the subject, there is theory, but that’s only a third of the learning experience. The other two-thirds are personal reflection: questioning the way you think about life and what you can do next with everything you have learned,” Sabine explains.  

After returning to Belgium, Sabine met Nicholas who studied Economics for Transition at Schumacher College and Pauline Steisel who studied Ecological Design. “We realized that there were probably lots of people who would benefit from this type of learning. However, not everyone can go to the UK, not everyone can take a year off, so how about bringing this experience to continental Europe?” Schumacher Sprouts was launched.  

Soil, soul, society 

Within five years, Sabine wants to see a living Schumacher Sprouts community at Froidefontaine Farm, not only offering short, hands-on courses such as gardening and beehive building, but also more theoretical courses such as Regenerative Society and ‘leading transformation from within’, meaning from within yourself and from within your organization. For now, they have a range of sixteen courses in the pipeline. “People could stay for more than just one or two weeks to witness the changing seasons on the farm. All the courses will be related to the land – to the soil, to the soul and to society.”  

Sabine is also dreaming of a Master’s program inspired by a Japanese degree called ‘half agriculture, half something else’, enabling participants to become self-sustaining. “One half of the degree would be focused on gaining basic knowledge of soil, plants and agriculture, and the other on a social or environmental topic, for example, economics for transition, ecological design, or social sciences.” 

Although the coronavirus pandemic has brought a temporary halt to its first courses, Schumacher Sprouts has already hosted Satish Kumar, co-founder of Schumacher College and the ecologist, teacher and writer, Eve Annecke an expert on Sacred activism. “Activism can lead to burnout and frustration. Sacred activism is a different way to stay resilient in your activism, taking care of yourself before you take care of the world.” The founder of the Transition movement and Ashoka Fellow Rob Hopkins is also a visiting professor of the Schumacher Sprouts.  

Speaking the right language 

Sabine’s ambition is to not only be a college for people who are already convinced, but also for those who are curious to discover what Schumacher Sprouts are doing. For this to work, they need to speak a different language. 

Schumacher Sprouts started organically, without too much structure. “We like it that way,” Sabine says. “However, when you start to share your vision with the outside world, when you start looking for funding, you need to have a strategy and a business plan and be able to demonstrate the impact you want to have.”  

With the support of coaches of the Impact Programme's partner organisations, Sabine and her team are being challenged to better communicate their story and define a long-term strategy. “When I talk about our vision and plans, it seems obvious to me! However, the coaches are asking us all the right questions. They bring an outside perspective, which helps us to make our message clearer, especially for people who have never heard of the Schumacher College.”  

Another challenge is how to become financially sustainable while making sure Schumacher Sprouts stays affordable for everybody. This depends on the partners Sabine and her team can mobilize. “At present, we’re not a for-profit organization. I don’t think we'll be recognized as a university – there are enough universities in Belgium and throughout Europe. But we could work in partnership with a university, which shares the same conviction that this kind of teaching is the future, so that our Master’s degree is recognized. After all, if you spend a year somewhere, you want that recognition. A certificate is a good starting point, but a Master’s degree would be even better!”