China Development Brief Winter 2012
During his student life, Lin Lusheng was a key member of the Beijing Normal University Farmers’ Sons Association (北师大农民之子社团). In 2006, he co-founded the Beijing Farmers’ Sons Cultural Development Center (北京农民之子文化发展中心), followed by a natural education base in Miyun, and a community study center for migrant children in Changping. In 2009, he founded the Yanshan School, which was dedicated to natural education. [Editor’s Note: Natural education is also known in English as environmental, experimental or alternative education.] It stressed the importance of having a pure mind and pursuing a simple exploration of life, while providing social services and youth development support practices. Finally, in 2011, Lin was selected to be a ‘Ginkgo Partner’.
From Student Organization to NGO
Lin grew up in the Fujian countryside and after taking the university entrance exam enrolled at Beijing Normal University’s Department of Economics. He found that for many students, life consisted of eating, drinking, having fun, and going on outings. Lin found it difficult to fit in with the other students, especially because his family’s financial situation did not allow for it. This meant that he had more time to concentrate on his studies. One day, during a philosophy class, the teacher introduced them to the NGO, Farmers’ Sons (农民之子社团). That was in 2002, when the title of a farmer was still stigmatized. Lin was immediately interested in this organization that bore the label ‘farmer.’ After joining the organization, he felt life was so different; many university groups had a bureaucratic style, but the members of Farmers’ Sons operated in a far more simpler manner. Everyone respected each other like brothers and sisters and this made him feel equal.
From supporting workers at the school for migrant children, to providing training and cultural activities, Lin’s time was stretched. However he still found the time to collect donations and books among villagers, and to found the Agricultural Society (思农学社) where he and fellow villagers returned home during the summer and winter vacations to teach. Between school and community activities, his three years at university passed very quickly. After graduation, Lin stayed at Beijing Normal University to perform some logistics and administrative work. He originally thought that with his experience doing projects and his ‘official’ logistics skills, he could continue improving projects in the school. It was not until he finished the work that he discovered that logistics work had its own set of limitations. Lin was young, and did not yet understand how to be flexible. Having a stable job clashed with his ideals so he resigned.
At this time, an increasing number of Farmers’ Sons members were graduating and many of them wanted to see the organization’s ideas put into practice in society. They gathered seven individuals and 70,000 RMB of start-up funds to establish the Beijing Farmers’ Sons Cultural Development Centre, (北京农民之子文化发展中心), which Lin directed full-time.
Although student organizations are very different from professional NGOs, Lin threw himself wholeheartedly into the work, ignoring the potential difficulties. Student organizations are fluid, unstable, and voluntary; professional NGOs are sustainable, stable institutions that carry out systematic practical work requiring professionals, not just volunteers. However, as Farmers’ Sons had only recently made the transition from being a student organization, they continued their student work practices and lacked professional training and project-planning experience.
Lin’s first tasks in his new job were to help farmers establish livelihoods, and develop rural tourism. While Lin was still working at Beijing Normal University, he and some colleagues helped the Xiwanzi (西湾子)community in Miyun (密云) county plan a chestnut charity sale at the village bazaar. Not only did they not take a penny, they even bore the costs of losses from counterfeit money. Moved by their actions, the farmers invited them to be guests at their homes. When the group arrived at the village, they discovered that the farmland was located in a wild area of the Great Wall and that the home cooked food was delicious. This gave rise to their idea to help the farmers develop tourism in the area, a practice that would be self-financing and give the farmers a chance to raise their income.
‘Farmer’s Sons’ volunteers posted a notice online to attract city dwellers to stay in the village. The farmers were happy with the prospect of more income and a rural tourism cooperative was established in the village. Tourists arrived but problems soon began to appear. For example, guests were concerned about the hygiene of the farmer’s households as well as food safety, and requested more comfortable accommodation. At that time the reality was that the farmer’s lives were very simple, and their kitchen and bathroom conditions were poor. Visitors put forward their views and Lin relayed their feedback to the farmers. However, as the farmers felt that they hadn’t earned much money from the tourists, they couldn’t invest much in improvements. Subsequently the tourism plans died.
Some time later, a Taiwanese teacher suggested creating an educational farm project, where parents could bring children to participate in farm work. In that way, they could make an income and educate children at the same time. Lin and a partner rented a few plots of land and invited parents and potential investors, including professors from Beijing Normal University, to come to farm. The enterprise was very creative; most importantly, it played to Lin’s skill at organizing youth education activities. However there were also problems; for example, traveling to the village was an issue as it was located 120km away from the city. The food and accommodation at the site were also relatively poor which deterred parents from bringing their children more often.
Time and time again Lin found that he did not have the skills to properly deal with rural living. At that stage Lin was searching for direction. The staff also had many objections and could not understand why the organization’s work was always changing. On top of funding pressures, there were often disagreements at work, and one after another several employees left after a short time on the job. This was a great blow for Lin, and he gradually began to make an effort to better understand his own qualities. At this time, Professor Lin-Ching Hsia, from the psychology department at Taiwan’s Fu Jen Catholic University (辅仁大学), was giving youth guidance classes using a “life story” approach which was helpful to Lin. Looking back at this period, Lin believes that it marked the starting point of his journey of inner exploration.
Getting Started with Natural Education
At the end of 2006, an educational service center gave Farmers’ Sons 14,000 RMB of funding, to provide education for migrant children. The following January, Farmers’ Sons organized a winter camp where they began to teach natural education. Satisfied with the results, the funders approved additional follow-up funding.
The Farmers’ Sons philosophy of natural education has two origins. One is Rousseau’s theory of natural education as expressed in his book, Emile. The other is the Taoist writings of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi’s on nature. Since childhood Lin had lived in the mountains, and his love of nature ran deep within his bones. For the first winter camp in 2007, because their project had just started, they mostly used a modular approach for teaching about hydrology, astronomy, geology, agriculture and so on. This aimed to help the students understand and connect with nature. At that time Miyun county had a national observatory. Farmers’ Sons took the children to see the observatory and upon seeing the huge telescope the children exclaimed: “Wow, such a big pot!” But, after seeing it, they quickly forgot about it. Another activity involved hiding treasure in the woods and letting the children hunt for it. Afterwards, looking at the children’s diaries it was clear that they were far more impressed with the game than the telescope. This helped Lin realize that the key to education is not to just impart knowledge to children, but rather, to let them participate and learn from their experiences. Their world is a world of experience, not a world of concepts.
Thus, Farmers’ Sons began to focus on designing more games, and also incorporating techniques learnt from Waldorf education [a humanist, alternative approach to education], environmental education, and the experiences of other organizations. Their program of natural education began to gradually take shape.
In the summer of 2007, Farmers’ Sons organized three natural education camps. They continued to receive support for the project and even raised funds from World Vision and the Rural China Education Foundation (乡村教育促进会). As an alternative educational practice, natural education needed its own space. Operating in a borrowed venue was limiting the development of its activities. So, that summer Lin rented an abandoned school site in Xiwanzi village, Miyun County. He signed the contract for 20 years, at a total of 80,000 yuan (4,000 a year). Although he got a great deal on the rent, the infrastructure was poor. To further save money, over the following months the Farmers’ Sons’ staff and volunteers, all helped with the site construction. Lin believed that their participation was important because, as educators, how could they expect to teach something to children if they did not understand it themselves? So, from welding and painting, to carpentry and bricklaying, from construction work to transporting laborers, from the kitchen to the land, Lin learned to do all types of work. Through this experience, he came to realize that this type of education is a way of life, and the importance of the notion of natural education becoming a part of one’s everyday life.
After completing work on the site, they turned their attention to expansion and attempted a number of new curriculum designs. Those who participated were not just children, but many adults, students, NGO staff, and professionals. As a result of their diversity, Farmers’ Sons began to make an income from the natural education project, which they could reinvest in the site’s construction and the development of the team.
In addition to the natural education project, the NGO began to provide education for the community’s migrant children. In 2008, Farmers’ Sons moved from their office in a Lishuiqiao (立水桥) community to Banjieta (半截塔) village in Changping (昌平) district and have since taken root in the migrant community. Behind this project is the idea that the service should identify with the people, to truly understand their problems and needs.
Recalling the past two years, Lin notes that the institution has passed the most difficult start-up phase, and is now working on both migrant children’s natural education and community education, gradually beginning to clarify the direction of their work and creating a stable team. At that time they were taking on more and more projects, such as the migrant teachers’ ‘Candlelight Communications’ project (烛光通讯), the migrant teachers and students literary contest, and a free traditional Chinese medicine service for rural areas. Lin recalls that the natural education project found a stable and sustainable source of funding through the Hong Kong-based Partners for Community Development (PCD) since 2008. He believes PCD is a very mature donor, who not only provides funding, but also support for institutional growth and development. For example, when their organization had insufficient financial resources, PCD helped to train their financial staff. When their organization lacked a deep understanding of the natural education project, PCD provided extra training opportunities and other external resources. [Authors note: during the interview, Lin repeatedly stressed that I note down and write about PCD’s special qualities because having more partners and funders learn from it can advance the development of the sector.]
When confused, step back and explore
Although everything was on the right track, Lin began to encounter new problems. He found that he could not clearly explain natural education to people when they asked him about it. Many people saw natural education and environmental education as the same thing, and this led to communication difficulties. People questioned whether they were an educational organization or an environmental agency, and asked why Farmers’ Sons conducted both migrant children’s education and environmental education.
As the number of projects increased, problems started to appear, for example with project applications and the recruitment of staff to handle these matters. The question arose: once a project is completed，or if the organization has to give up an ongoing project for whatever reasons, how should they deal with the project staff? If they ask them to leave the organization, what should they do if they are unwilling to leave? At that time Lin did not have the experience to resolve the conflicts within the team. As he wanted to investigate the true meaning and essence of natural education, he decided to take a step back, and hand over management of the organization’s general matters, the community projects, and ‘Candlelight Communications’ to colleagues. This meant that he could then focus solely on what he did best: natural education.
During his ‘retreat’, Lin was exposed to the teachings of Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh [a Zen Buddhist monk]. Inspired by Ghandi’s thinking on the simple life and exploration of mental and physical health, he began to try vegetarian food, walking barefoot, and experiencing nature. He also increasingly began to feel that natural education was an experience of self-cultivation and inner purification. The Buddhist teachings reinforced his belief that natural education was a way to change one’s life. He also began using deep breathing exercises and inner reflection.
This kind of inner exploration empowered Lin and enabled him to bring great benefits to his NGO. Everyone began to learn to look inwardly and not just blame others when faced with conflicts or problems. Instead they began reflecting on themselves. This change gradually became an important characteristic of the organization, which all employees benefited from to varying degrees.
Over the last two years, Farmers’ Sons has been run by another founder, Wei Hong. From spring to autumn, Lin focuses solely on natural education and during autumn and winter, a reduced workload allows him to travel to the Fujian Vipassana Centre to volunteer. Over a two-and-a-half year period, Lin not only learned how to manage the diverse work of the organization but also cultivated healthy habits and lifestyles.
For Lin, these two years brought about a crucial rethinking of natural education. He is now able to concisely and clearly express that natural education is “education that follows natural laws “. His NGO also developed a comprehensive system for teaching natural education. The natural education project not only conducts activities and imparts knowledge; it also focuses on each individual’s inner transformation. It teaches that only when a person produces goodwill internally can it be spread outwardly to the benefit of others.
Upon his return to the organization in 2011, Lin felt full of strength and energy.
Ginkgo Partners help the organization’s transition
As Lin grew older he began to feel pressure to marry. In 2011 despite being the group’s leader and the highest paid employee, Lin’s monthly income was a mere 3,500 yuan. “For people from rural households like mine, parents work on the farm and siblings do manual work. In order to put a child through college the family’s entire savings have to be spent”. Lin admitted that although he has faith in his work, and loves his job, he has often considered resigning his position to look for more lucrative work.
At that time, the Narada Foundation (南都公益基金会) had begun recruiting new partners, and his fellow colleagues encouraged Lin to apply. He smoothly proceeded from the initial stage all the way to the final decision, and was selected as a 2011 Ginkgo Partner. Perhaps those with high morals would expect NGO practitioners to not talk about money, but Lin was not afraid to speak up. The Narada Foundation’s financial aid put his mind to rest, and also put at ease his worries about his hometown and his parents.
Of course, being elected a Ginkgo partner brought more than just money. For two years Lin had been exploring natural education. However, when Ginkgo Partner experts asked about his plans and expectations, as well as what staff development programs his organization had, he realized that he had paid little attention to these areas. With conscious study and the help of a network of two generations of Gingko alumni, Lin went to the Institute for Civil Society of Sun Yat-sen University (ICS) (中山大学公民与社会发展研究中心) to study and attended the Private Foundation Forum. He also paid a visit to NonProfit Incubator (NPI) to learn. There he sought advice and quickly learned about replicable models of institutional development.
Towards the end of 2011, Farmers’ Sons began to consider strategic planning which was completed by the end of 2012. At present, they have started to use a rather ambitious tool of strategic adjustment, which they call the “second business.”
Since the NGO’s founding, Farmers’ Sons has always seen natural education and the education of migrant children as two overlapping spheres. Over the past six years, these two circles have both developed quickly. The educational program for migrant children is becoming more detailed, such as the school program that has taken root in the community, and the ‘Candlelight Communications’ magazine, which is concerned with the education of migrant children. Furthermore, building on its original task of providing natural education programs for migrant children, it has now developed into a diverse body of universally accepted educational concepts and methods. This is especially the case since it founded an alternative school focused on natural education, the Yanshan School (燕山学堂), in 2009. After this their alternative school and alternative education began to have more in-depth and systematic development.
The current strategy is for Farmers’ Sons to be split into two parts. Farmers’ Sons itself is striving to achieve NGO registration in Beijing, focusing on providing education services for migrant children. The other part, the Yanshan school, operates as a social enterprise and focuses on natural education, and related practices such as simple living and eco-homes. The work of the two parts is carried out by separate teams, but Lin and several other core members of the management team are still responsible for co-ordination. Looking to the future, Lin’s hopes for the next few years are for the two parts of the organization to develop into national models of excellence in their respective fields.
从去打工子弟学校支教到给学校工友做培训、文艺活动，炉生一发不可收拾，还在老乡中募捐图书，自己成立了个社团——思农学社，带着老乡们寒暑假回乡支教。 很快，他在读书与社团活动之间走完大学三年。毕业时，炉生留在北师大做后勤行政工作。他本以为，有这么多做项目的基础，现在又有了后勤的“官方”身份，可以继续在校内做工友改善项目。但工作后，才发现不是那么一回事，后勤工作有自己一整套的框架限制。炉生那时候年轻，不懂变通和打“太极拳”，安稳的工作和 内心的理想发生冲突，他辞职了。
然而高校社团不同于专业NGO，炉生一腔热情投进来，忽略了可能的难度。从学生社团到一家专业MGO是两回事，社团是流动的，往往组织零散的、自愿的活 动，而专业NGO是持续的、稳定的机构，要进行系统的实践工作，需要有专业能力的工作人员，而非志愿者。但农民之子机构刚成立时，延续社团时期的做事习 惯，缺乏专业经验的培育和对项目的系统策划。
先是帮农民搞生计，开展乡村旅游。炉生还在北师大后勤工作时，曾经与社团同学们一起帮密云西湾子村的农民策划板栗义卖，从中一分不赚，还承担了收到假币的 损失，他们的做法感动了农民，受邀去农民家里做客。大家到了村子，发现周围有野长城，农家菜也美味可口，就萌生出帮助农民搞农家乐旅游的想法，既能自负盈 亏，还能帮农民致富。
农民之子组织志愿者发帖招募城里人到村里旅游，农民有了收入，也很高兴，还在村里成立乡村旅游合作社。但问题很快出现，来的人花了钱，就对农户的卫生、食 品安全、住宿舒适度都有要求，而那时候那个村子的农民意识还相对淳朴，卫生间、厨房条件都相当差。游客提了意见，炉生他们反馈给农民希望改进，这就要花 钱，农民觉得，我还没挣到什么钱，就要先投入，不愿意。旅游计划夭折。
后来，有个台湾老师建议做亲子农园，承包一块地，让父母闲暇时带孩子种地，既有收入，又能做儿童教育。炉生就和伙伴租了几块地，起名为亲子教育田园，邀请 一些有消费能力的人，比如北师大的老师，带孩子去种地。活动很有创意，最重要的是适合炉生他们的擅长——青少年教育活动，但也有问题，一是交通太远，西湾 子村离城里有120公里；二是吃住条件也比较差，家长来了几次就不再来了。
几经折腾，炉生发现自己根本不擅长搞农村生计。那个阶段在寻找方向中饱受煎熬，员工也有意见，不明白机构工作为什么总是变来变去，再加上经费压力，工作中 经常争吵，先后有几位员工在短暂工作后就离去。这件事对炉生的打击也很大，他慢慢在这个过程中开始把目光向内，了解自己的性格和特质，而这个时候，台湾辅 仁大学心理系教授夏林清老师为炉生等一群青年人指引的“生命故事”方法，给了炉生很大的帮助。炉生认为这是他后来向内心探索的起点。
农民之子的自然教育理念有两个起源，一是卢梭的《爱弥尔》自然主义教育，一是老庄的道法自然思想。炉生本人自幼在山中长大，更对自然有深入骨髓的热爱。但 2007年冬令营的时候，他们的自然教育还刚起步，主要还用知识模块的方式，如水文、天文、地质、农业等，让学生了解、接触自然。当时密云不老屯有个国家 天文台，农民之子带着孩子们去看，见到巨大的射电望远镜什，小孩子惊呼：“哇，这么大一个锅！”但看过了，也就忘记了。而另一个活动，寻宝游戏，在树林 里，藏一些东西让孩子们寻找，反而更受小孩子欢迎。看孩子们写的日记就会发现，他们印象最深的不是射电望远镜，而是游戏。这让炉生体认到，教育的关键不是 给孩子多少知识，而是让他主动参与体验，他们的世界是经验的世界，而非概念的世界。
一切走上正轨时，炉生遇到新问题。他发现自己不能很好地阐述什么是自然教育。当不了解的人问起什么是自然教育时，很难说清。很多人把自然教育完全等同于环 境教育，由此造成很多沟通上的困难。有些没有深入机构的人，甚至困惑和指责农民之子究竟是教育类机构还是环境类机构，为什么农民之子的业务范围又有流动儿 童教育，又有环境教育。
在炉生看来，这两年是他对自然教育深入再思考的关键。现在炉生对自然教育已有一个简练而清晰的表达——“随顺自然规律的教育”，而在实践上，机构也形成一个完整的自然教育实践体系。自然教育不再只是传授知识、举办活动，它回到生活中，关注每个人内心的转变。当内心产生善意时，才会有对外传播的力量，让服务 对象受益；负面情绪不懂排解，则首先伤害自己，其次传播给周围的人。 当2011年中，炉生重新投入整个机构的工作中时，他感觉由内至外，都充满了力量。
当然，获选银杏伙伴带来的也不仅是钱。炉生这两年一直在探索什么是自然教育，银杏伙伴的专家来考察时，问他组织的规划是怎样的？对未来发展的预期是什么？ 有什么机构人才培养计划？他才发现过去很少关注这些方面。获选后他有意识地学习，借助两届银杏伙伴组成的关系网络，赴中山大学公民与社会发展研究中心 （ICS）学习，参加非公募基金会论坛，赴恩派请教……很快学到许多可借鉴复制的机构发展模式。
这次战略调整即是将农民之子分拆成两家机构，一家为农民之子，争取在北京实现民非注册，专注于流动儿童教育领域的服务；一家为燕山学堂，专注于自然教育以 及与之相关的简单生活、生态家园等领域的实践，并以社会企业模式运作。两个机构之间一线执行团队分开，但依然由炉生和其他几位核心骨干所组成的管理团队负 责。炉生的愿望是，未来几年内两家机构分别在各自领域发展成全国优秀的典范。