How does Berea live out its Commitment to “democratic community”?
We do it in the classroom, and we do it outside of the classroom in a co-curricular fashion. I’ll give you an example from outside of the classroom. We welcome the dialogue and the debate even if it’s messy. There was one year when students were putting Confederate flags outside of their residence halls, so there were about 15-20 Confederate flags. People were calling our office and saying “Go tell those people to take those down,” and I said, “No, you go tell them; you’re part of the community, you go tell them.” They said “Well, no, it’s your job” but I responded, “It’s not my job.” That type of expression is allowed to happen because it’s members of the community who are feeling it. I’ve seen the climate of the institution shift between conservative, liberal and moderate, but when push comes to shove, everybody’s at the table even when they’re not getting what they want. I have always been amazed at how we do that at this institution, regardless of who the members of the community are. No matter who the players are on the field, we model that for people. No matter which paradigm is influencing policies, procedures and practices, I’ve never felt I’m away from the table. I’ve always felt welcome to say what I feel and no one ever says, “You cannot say that,” or “Because you say that we are going cast you out.” I find that truly unique, and I can say that from experience. When people say that they are thinking of coming to Berea, I always tell them, “Well, I have been here 30 years, and you will always be at the table. You might be angry, but you will be at the table. People aren’t going to tell you to shut up and go away.” I think the way we pick our leadership, the way we play it out, is truly unique.
Berea’s Great Commitments are all interrelated. Describe how you see the Commitment to encourage “plain living” as connected to the Commitment to live in a “democratic community.” Do these Commitments complement each other?
Living in a democratic community allows you to have a better understanding of this Commitment and other Commitments. I’ll start with the Ecovillage. We need people to live in the Ecovillage. It teaches environmental living; you have your childcare right next door. The fact that you have your childcare next to the living center is sustainable in the sense that you just walk your kid from point A to point B. What that does is it saves you time, it saves you energy and it helps build more community. What you’re doing is role modeling for the broader world; in effect telling people, “Maybe you guys should try doing that. Employers, you should start trying to do that.” So, within the concept of living in a democratic community, when we’re renovating a place like the Ecovillage, or any other place, we bring all the partners together around the room with the architects, the engineers, the program folks and you ask everyone questions – “Well what do you think will work?” and people start saying, “Well I think this will work. I think that will work.” And everyone’s taking their notes, “Oh, bad idea. That’s a good idea.” Through input, critical thinking and discussion you start to draw conclusions about how to build infrastructures for plain, sustainable living. Anytime you have dialogue through governing structures, through program development and just regular one-on-one talk, people start to make paradigm shifts. In classrooms, in the co-curriculum, when groups are writing constitutions for clubs and organizations, in policy development or renovation development. In all these places, the spirit of democratic community and critical thinking helps inform day- to- day life, policy development and program development. The beauty of this is that you can serve people in the context of the mission more effectively, not only in terms of how to be sustainable and how to be simple in terms of your life, but also in the broader issues of all the commitments.