Moving from steel to meals

As part of the Sustainable Sweden tour, we spent several days in the municipality of Hällefors. Hällefors kommun is today an ecomunicipality of about 7500 inhabitants, 950 square kilometers (370 square miles) in area with 450 lakes. It may help the story to understand that municipalities in Sweden are a little bit different than the cities, villages and towns in Wisconsin. There is a little town (generic use of the word) called Hällefors within the larger municipality, Hällefors kommun, like there is a village called Marathon within Marathon County. Hällefors kommun is almost exactly the size of Green Lake County, or about one-fourth of the size of Marathon County, where I live.

In the early part of the 20th century, Hällefors was a center of iron, wood and paper production.  The Svartån (Black River) was a working stream, generating electricity and carrying logs to the mills. Times were changing for Hällefors in the latter part of the 1900’s, culminating with the sale of the local steel mill in 1993 to the Chinese.  During the tour, our hosts grabbed my attention with the story of how the town inhabitants watched as their steel mill was dismantled, piece by piece, to be shipped to China.  Each day during the deconstruction, Chinese workers filed through the town from their lodgings to the mills, morning and evening. Roughly 1000 people lost their jobs at the mill.  The population in the municipality before 1993 had reached 10,000. Loss of the mill started a massive exodus.

In response, the community, in the broadest sense of the word, began a year-long process around the framework of The Natural Step.  They set out together to discover what it would mean to be an ecomunicipality, asking the question, what do we want our future to look like? They were keen to address all four system conditions of the Natural Step, seeking to meet human needs without violating the other three conditions.

Working with a process facilitator, the community started a conversation about their future which involved all sectors: elected, business, schools, youth, public entities. Through this process, the community came together around the five K’s (if you speak Swedish): kultur, kreativitet, kommunikation, kompetens, kunskap.  In English: culture, creativity, communication, competence, and knowledge.  But how to move this forward?  “We start with the children.”

The strategy in the municipality revolved around education, with a three-prong approach. They analyzed what they had going for them to build upon and focused on cultural, culinary and technology education. Culture is considered a need, not a want. A major shift took place to expand and make cultureschool compulsory after a survey revealed that children already exposed to cultural opportunities were taking the greatest advantage of the existing curriculum. They wanted every child to benefit from the offerings. Lars Wieselgren summarized the story, “Culture opens to other knowledge, a way to discover what else you have in you. As we moved this forward, we knew it not only in our heads, but also our stomach and our heart.” They chose to reach beyond the prevailing industrial mindset.

What have they now? An expanded culinary school at the local university at Örebro. Stable population. Increasing enrollments as students from outside the municipality request to attend at Hällefors. The largest private collection of Swedish sculpture masters in Sweden.  Permission to think forward.

One comment

  1. Mary, first of all thank you for creating this blog. It is always nice to view things from another perspective. And if we all can’t get up and go to Sweden, at least you can bring Sweden to us.

    It sounds like this community knows the benefit of taking stock of what they have and redirecting it in a way that will benefit the future of everyone. I particularly appreciate their viewing of culture as not just eye candy on the top of the cake, but the essential ingredient for their community to rise and stand strong. For any community, really, including our own.

    The quote “Culture opens to other knowledge a way to discover what else you have in you”, reminded me of what writer, David Foster Wallace writes about in a commencement speech he gave which was published in book form called “This is Water”. He begins the speech with a little parable-ish story that goes like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then one of them eventually looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” Water, to Foster, was a simple awareness of that which is “hidden in plain sight all around us”. Which, if we attune to it, informs how we think about and construct meaning of the world in a more conscious way.

    So it is of no surprise to me that by putting culture at the center of their children’s education, the people of this Swedish community, are teaching their children how to become aware of … water. And that that awareness is, perhaps, helping them to take advantage of the other existing curriculum as they learn how to actively swim in their learning environment, wide-eyed and engaged.

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