Day 4 @EDE class: Who Is Mainstream? Look Beyond Ourselves

Look beyond ourselves

As a part of our curriculum, we made a half-day trip to Chengdu for the 2018 Dujiangyan International Forum. The theme of this year is “harmonizing urban-rural education development in the context of Education 2030”. (Education 2030, an UNESCO-led education program for sustainable development)


We sit in the afternoon sessions for 8 short presentations by speakers from academic, international NGO (in this case, Global Ecovillage Network) and local organizations.

The venue is a 5-star hotel. Having been spending the last 3 days sitting on a-cushion-on-mat, in a large room with windows and doors wide open, enjoying ample natural light and warm but fresh air and hearing the orchestra of insects, I found the air-conditioned meeting room, packed with rows of desks and chairs and darkened by thick curtain, such a confined environment.

The process of presentations was well organized though. Particularly, the presentations from a Canadian and a Japanese scholars were quite refreshing to me. It was my first time to be exposed to the idea of “education for sustainability, not for development”.

A Japanese scholar shared the experience of a real project. (Photo by the author)


I am sure Japan’s challenges find keen audiences here. (Photo by the author)

Kosha introduced Global Ecovillage Network with an extremely powerful presentation. Learning more about the GEN organization and its footprints around the globe, it feels even more precious that we have the opportunity to sit in her classes.

Kosha at presentation (Photo by ZHU Yu)

The presentations from Chinese speakers include experience sharing from a Chengdu “Green School” and Sunshine Ecovillage Network, and a couple scholars’ research project reports. Not surprisingly, a lot of things are going on. And amusingly, most Chinese speakers tend to use text-laden, one-size-fits-all presentation slides. As a result, they spoke fast and had to frequently skip slides that are less relevant or too detailed for the context.

As I had mixed feelings about the presentations, the contrast between this conference and our EDE class tempted me to compare which approach makes more real impact, or who is the mainstream?  The conference appeared to reflect the institutional effort that drives sustainable development. There are the government sponsored researches that influence policies which in turn guide public and private sector investment. There are the social enterprises that connect both public and private interest. And international NGOs that are brought in through official cooperation. Perhaps when the sustainable movement is still at its early stage, institutions are still the more powerful driving forces. And it’s important to recognize that many who work with mainstream approach also appreciate the opportunity to make a difference through their work, just as people from my EDE class do.

It is hopeful in the end! When wrapping up the session, the conference facilitator emphasized the critical role of grassroot communities in successful international examples. He went on that bottom-up approaches are more effective than top-down ones in meeting real demand, because participants have more ownership. And optimal effect is more likely achieved by matching top-down policy priorities with bottom-up local-interest initiatives. As more and more local projects emerge in China, they will connect to form a trend, eventually becoming across-the-board changes. Last but not the least, he requested venue service team to arrange desks into a circle for tomorrow’s session, so that people can see each other 🙂

People of the day

Xiangshen. We chatted a lot on our train rides to and from Chengdu. He was one of the first dozen engineers of Huawei company, a Telecom giant, and later turned a senior executive. About 7 years ago he retired early from the company and built 清溪涵月, a high-end hospitality business situated in a traditional village close to the Huangshan National Park (黄山). The business also includes a ~25-acre organic farm that supplies fresh organic produce, tea and cooking oil to their guests.

With his years of experience working with local villagers and officials, Xiangshen is skeptical that the communication and community development methods we learn in EDE can work here. People are very realistic, as he observed. If they are happy with what they get from their farms and playing mahjong every evening, why would they bother learning about new things like organic farming? Not to mention regeneration of community and culture? There are the crowd of people who catch wild fish in a shallow creek with hand-held fishnets, and play cat-and-mouse game with environment protection enforcement agents. It certainly requires some education and experience to appreciate ideas of sustainability.

Modest but outspoken, he voices his concern in class as well as privately that the young people should be careful of distractions by fad projects but focus on gaining hands-on experience in specialized fields.

Xuesong. We started our chat when walking to the train station. A mother of two children, 12 and 8, she has long dreamed of founding a private kindergarten with an organic farm where children can learn in the classroom of mother nature. She determined it’s the time and signed herself up for a 1-year program from an agriculture school in Beijing, more than 2,000 km aways from home. Tuition, boarding and food together cost her 30,000 RMB (~$4,392) a year, not a small amount. She has been in the school for 3 months before coming to this EDE class. There she worked on fields for average 4 hours a day and took various classes the rest of the time. Recognizing the lack of professional knowledge and skills, she is eager to absorb everything. She talks with unusual energy out of passion and determination, even when she talks about her confusion for the future.

Return to school

A few of us returned to school right after the conference. We didn’t want to get back too late as we still have class tomorrow morning. It was about 8:30 pm when we arrived. We ate the leftover dishes and rice from lunch. (Contributing to wasting less food 🙂 Though I didn’t see much in the city, the sign of Mapo Tofu in a Subway station, one of the symbols of local food culture, gave me a little warm feeling 🙂

Sign of Mapo Tofu in Chengdu’s Subway stations (Photo by the author)

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