I was sitting this evening with a small group of students that are working as TAs for one of the classes I am teaching this Fall semester. On one of our many tangents, we spoke about one of our students and talked about how we had each relayed information about our interactions with this student to each other. The interaction reminded me of a paper I wrote a while back which I called “The Educative Committee.” My idea was that every student, every young person, should have a number of different people looking out for their learning and growth from a number of different perspectives. These people should be in constant communication, updating, supporting, and challenging each other to help each individual student grow.
At the time I wrote the paper, I recall feeling like something of an idealist. Yes, it was a great idea, but honestly, how could this ever happen? The simple logistics of having such a conversation are impossible, not to mention all the work that would be done to have to convince anyone that this was worthwhile. Impossible. Yet, here we were, doing just that. I quickly realized that this is what we do in our program generally. Once you are a student, you are welcomed into our community, and then each of us is looking out for your growth and development as much as possible.
So, why not do this more broadly? Maybe teachers should act less as instructors and more as conveners — bringing together the people necessary to move each person forward in their own learning trajectories. Certainly, there are many adults (and youth) interested in helping in our classrooms. Why not bring them in as learning mentors? Why not start building “educative committees” (though I suppose I like the term learning committees more).
I also find this inspiring because it puts everyone in the position of being an educator. If we are in someone’s life, we are also a part of their “learning committee”, and therefore are responsible for thinking about how they might grow, or what we might teach them.
Rather than engagement, which evokes a sense that we are focusing on something static, completed, or defined, my experience in community work has centered around engaging – an ongoing and fluid process of engagement. In my experience, engaging involves a process of defying social expectations in ways that provide real space for connection. This can happen in coffee shops, community centers, or lecture halls. I notice it with a particular barista at a favorite coffee shop who asks, ―”What are you doing today?” rather than ―”How are you?” This change of question invokes a profoundly different interaction. Engaging comes in many forms. After a violent shooting at a community center in which I was working, a young person who had prior barely spoken a word to me for months asked if I was scared. Answering ―”yes” was engaging, taking a stand of my own (rather than the stand I was expected to take) and revealing my own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Opportunities to engage are everywhere, with people of all kinds, in any context. While these opportunities may be planned, engaging is an active choice, made in the moment, to be vulnerable and open.
I believe that community is constituted through stories. Four stories about my understanding community:
Community – an attitude and orientation: Framed by cubicle walls and the front desk, the office I work in looks similar to any other at a university. What makes it a community is its residents’ attitudes. Every staff member is woven together, mutually indebted through help offered, requested, and received. Abundance, not scarcity— of time, energy, and compassion—is the operating default.
Community – a ritual and practice: Every Sunday morning, my housemate and I made breakfast and baked bread to share. This ritual allowed space and time to deepen our relationship. It also became an open invitation to welcome others into our space.
Community – an organization of inclusion and exclusion: All communities have boundaries, but some invite while others exclude. A good community is sustainable in the face of movement, but through openness, grows kinder, broader, and more compassionate.
Community – a location and place: Living on a farm, I experienced community of location: our lives centered around the land. Also a place: as a teenager learning to write creatively, my closest community was a message board that provided a welcoming, supportive place for growth.