Why a Top Washington Climate Expert Quit Her Job to Start a Folk School

Stacey Waterman-Hoey

Disillusioned with her work as a climate researcher, Stacey Waterman-Hoey quit her job and started Arbutus Folk School in Olympia in 2012. 

She was one of Washington’s top experts on climate change and she’d spent nearly two decades trying to help the public understand the urgency of the situation through data, but it didn’t seem to be working.  

“I discovered that all the data and information in the world is not enough to change people’s minds,” said Waterman-Hoey. 

With no experience running a nonprofit, The Evergreen State College alumna Waterman-Hoey,‘94, credits her interdisciplinary education with her ability to work across communities, crafts, and disciplines.

Some weaving samples and photos of students working on looms in the weaving studio at Arbutus Folk School.
Some weaving samples and photos of students working on looms in the weaving studio at Arbutus Folk School.

The school, beside Olympia Coffee Roasters in downtown Olympia, has programs in woodworking, ceramics, metal arts, fiber arts, stone carving and folk music. 

Folk schools have roots in 19th century Denmark where they were developed to inspire cultural pride and to help the country transition to democracy. They began springing up in the United States in the early 1900s as American communities were struggling to unite divergent experiences to empower citizens. 

Weaving samples hang from the wall in the weaving studio at Arbutus Folk School where the wool used is sourced locally whenever possible.
Weaving samples hang from the wall in the weaving studio at Arbutus Folk School where the wool used is sourced locally whenever possible.

Waterman-Hoey says, they’re even more relevant today, in the face of the growing climate crisis. 

“The school is really directly linked to my concerns about climate change and the disruption of the global economy,” said Waterman-Hoey.

She called the school Arbutus after the Latin name for the Madrona tree of Western Washington because she said she wants to create a sense of regional identity by specializing in the crafts, cultures and lore in the coastal Pacific Northwest. 

Part of her goal is also to increase the sustainable use of local resources for meeting community needs for useful and beautiful things. 

A box made with local wood as a sample for a dovetail woodworking class along with ceramic miniature fruit at Arbutus Folk School.
A box made with local wood as a sample for a dovetail woodworking class along with ceramic miniature fruit at Arbutus Folk School.

 “We’re really trying to connect the dots here between local resources and making things that are useful and beautiful,” said Waterman-Hoey.

Most of the wood used to build things at the school is harvested sustainably from forests in Thurston and Grays Harbor counties. The wool for spinning and weaving classes is from local sheep.

Besides preserving tradition, Arbutus connects rural communities with raw materials to artists and craftspeople around the region. For example, carvers use Tenino sandstone and Arbutus partners with a stone-working studio in Tenino bringing students to learn from local masters.

It also connects Waterman-Hoey’s alma mater, Evergreen, to the greater community. 

A tile mosaic piece made for a tiny house development made to house Olympia’s homeless community hangs on the wall at Arbutus Folk School.
A tile mosaic piece made for a tiny house development made to house Olympia’s homeless community hangs on the wall at Arbutus Folk School.

Twenty-four-year-old Francis Fong, ‘19, runs the Arbutus woodworking shop as an artist-in-residence. 

“The shop space at Arbutus is going to give me the skills I need to build my own shop one day.”

Waterman-Hoey says craftspeople like Fong are very intentional about creating objects to counter the mass consumerism that fuels the climate crisis. But she adds that everyone comes to Arbutus with their own goals.

“The thing about craft is that you don’t have to care about climate change, in fact most people don't - they don’t come in here because they’re worried the world is falling apart and they need to know how to make their own dishes. They come in here because it’s fun.”