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.