Denmark has one of the highest reported national happiness averages in the world; it is also the world capital of communal living. Coincidence? I think not. As human beings, we are hard-wired to cooperate. Studies have shown that the same area of our brain that is ignited with a cocaine/heroin high is also ignited when we are genuinely cooperating with another person. We are social beings and we crave that kind of connection. We crave the feeling of helping one another out and being helped. Our closest mammalian relatives all live in cooperative situations where duties of child-rearing, hunting, and gathering are dispersed and shared for a more complete survival. Unfortunately, modern society and technology combined have pushed us further and further away from these roots and into the apathetic generation of “Me.” Fortunately, we can push back against these societal norms and return to the source with the onslaught of cooperative lifestyles.
An individualized and personalized education is the crux of Sarah Lawrence College. As someone who is happily completing my fourth year at this institution, I am aware of the many benefits from this. It gives us an opportunity to explore new things, think outside the box, discover in depth the things we are truly passionate about, etc. However, on the flipside, I feel that this form of education can also be very isolating. During my time here, I have heard multiple complaints in regards to the lack of community at this school. We have become so detached from one another on this campus that “Sarah Lawrence-ing” has become a tongue-in-cheek verb describing two individuals actively ignoring one another in passing. Whether it is due to the personalized education, the imbedded competition of a collegiate education, or our own apathy, one thing is for certain- it’s there.
In the midst of this darkness shines the beam of cooperative housing. Although our school’s co-op program is small (i.e. limited to one Mead Way house, Warren Green) its presence has definitely helped to re-assure the community atmosphere of a college campus. This semester has been my second semester participating in this house, and while it hasn’t been easy, I can overall say that this has been one of my favorite experiences of my college years.
For those of you unfamiliar with Warren Green or the concept of co-ops, here is the lowdown: The house operates on a series of decisions made communally and democratically in weekly Sunday meetings. During these meetings we discuss everything from what kind of bread to buy to quiet hours to possible events we’d like to throw as a house. During the decision-making process we keep in mind the house commitment to eco-friendly living that we all made upon choosing to live in this house. These meetings are also a time for people to air out personal problems they might have with the way things are running and a time to discuss them. These meetings have been an effective means of ensuring that everyone in the house is getting equal benefits from living there. Prior to living in Warren Green, personal complaints regarding the living situation (in particular, the cleanliness of communal spaces – kitchens and bathrooms) was frequently discussed via the age-old technique of passive aggressive sticky notes. In my experience, said sticky notes have been relatively ineffective in solving any of the issues I’ve witnessed, but only furthering feelings of isolation and frustration between housemates. Meetings offer a safe space to air personal problems and find communal solutions.
In addition to meeting monthly, we also decided as a house, that we would purchase our groceries communally, trying to buy mostly organic and local produce, have a vegan communal dinner nightly Sunday through Thursday and alternate a series of daily chores. Said chores include cooking, washing dishes, emptying the compost, cleaning the kitchen, working in the garden, etc. Although this can be hard work, many of my fellow housemates and previous dwellers of Warren Green can attest to the benefits of living in this way.
“Coming from another place on campus to a co-op was an instant upgrade in my experience as a college student because of the uniqueness that the co-op community brings to those who choose to participate,” said Justin Becker (‘17), a current resident of Warren Green. Many feel that the family- like atmosphere and the opportunity to meet like-minded individuals is hugely beneficial to their college experience. “Warren Green provides Sarah Lawrence students with an opportunity to build a small community of like-minded individuals to share meals, ideas and love with one another,” says Victoria Lepore (‘15), also a current member of Warren Green.
It is my highest hope that Warren Green can serve as a model to grow the co-operative housing and dining options available on this campus. Many other schools are turning to a co-operative model to house and feed a majority of their students. Recently there has been talk of promoting Greek Life on campus, in hopes of promoting community. However, as evidenced by the previous article published in the Phoenix on said matter, sororities and fraternities operate on a basis of hierarchy and status, and these are not factors that would contribute to a sound and functioning community. Co-operative housing, on the other hand, promotes values of equality, shared respect, and opportunity.
Unfortunately, the pendulum on this campus looks to be swinging in the opposite direction, due partly to the on-campus housing shortage and partly to lack of interest in living communally, housing has recently entertained the notion of getting rid of the interview/ application process for the house and essentially treating it like every other housing option on campus. A group of students would be randomly placed in the house without the pre-set intention of communal or sustainable living, effectively losing the one co-operative housing option this campus has. As a student who will be graduating in the near future, I fear the future of this house. SLC must retain this shred of communal identity in the face of housing adversity, and hopefully, in the future, mushroom out into a fully-functioning campus-wide co-operative living and eating opportunity for any students that display interest.
By Hillary Bernhardt ‘15