by Natalie Wilkinson, AP'19

Week two was a week of unsettling. After a first week of getting oriented in our tasks and surroundings, the second week was marked by the mishaps and miracles that happen when you do something independently for the first time after being taught once (or not at all). Some of us milked Clover the dairy cow for the first time without Kavita’s guidance, some went on a hike in the pouring rain as our first foray into the mountains of the area, some of us cooked for twenty people for the first time, and all of us had to begin adapting to the dampness and insects in our shelters. After the honeymoon period of the first days it became increasingly felt and troubling that there was a power dynamic present in our self-governance meetings, classroom discussions, and in the little interactions during labor.

In the second week here, it became clear that the “community” we aimed to build was not existing, even –or especially– when we were all together in the same space. Several students of color/non-white students organized crucial conversations and shifts in how our “community” regards itself, including an in-class activity that gave visibility to how identity and trauma shape our engagement with one another. The activity itself revealed the necessity for a complete reconfiguration of the classroom space, entailing a split into two classes that allow students of color/non-white students to do learning without having to bear the burden of teaching their fellow students about race, power and privilege.

For me, week two helped prompt some crucial questions to consider as I think about being responsible for where I am (the land, the people, the resources, the impact of my presence):

What is meaningful about prioritizing “community” when the very terms of our engagement here are highly exclusive? Some students voiced their discomfort with the split, concerned that it would hurt the wholeness of the community. And yet, even when the eighteen of us are all together in a room, there are ways we are already fractured. “Inclusivity” is a shifting and contested thing. A community is not made merely by having everyone literally in the room. It is, in my opinion, always being made. And often, when power dynamics go unchecked, everyone gets harmed.

E.g. In self-gov, white students and upper-class students were doing a lot of the talking during the first week, including discounting the comments of students of color/non-white students. This was exacerbated because the default norms of the space prioritized vocal and assertive participation, which centered those who had been raised in spaces that trained them in assertiveness. Meanwhile, our decision-making process did not always give space for students to safely express how they really felt about the dynamic or particular decisions.

How can we de-prioritize the learning of white folks and folks of privileged backgrounds?

Having separate groups for conversation has proved enormously generative and crucial.

E.g. “Labor” has different resonances for people of different racial, class, ability, and gender backgrounds. Labor is not necessarily a novel and exciting learning experience for those whose families and communities have done physically demanding work in order to make a living. We all come to Arete with bodies and minds that are capable of different things, not all of which are captured in the definition of labor as something visibly productive or physically challenging. Further, the labor required to make the community function takes place often in ways that go unacknowledged by our current definition. It includes supporting people through feeling isolated, guilty, and hurt, or doing the work of planning or logistics for group activities.

What does participation and rigor mean?

There are ways we are already participating in spaces together merely by being there. We have the unique experience of having very few places to truly be alone, so our presence and movements create little micro-shifts in the movements of everyone else. One thing I find refreshing about Arete is the spontaneity of connection with other people, but on the other hand, it means people can get caught off guard. Our expressions and words have an impact that we are responsible for (whether we take that responsibility or not.)

(I challenge us white people to think of rigor not in terms of how much our analytic minds are challenged, but rather in how much our comfort/expectations are challenged.) I hope we can have some rigorous weeks ahead.

Looking over past blog posts, and hearing from alumnx, it sounds like these conversations surrounding privilege at Arete have come up before and are major considerations of many alumnx who are still involved in Arete. In the coming weeks I hope to be thinking about how Arete could be reshaped to make it feel invigorating and less bad for people.

I will end with a list of some of the plants and animals that fed us throughout: fresh blueberries, picked from a large bowl by hand, eaten sometimes messily in handfuls, sometimes in slow one-by-one bites; Clover, who has been patient with our grasping clumsy milking style as we get better (every week) at pulling milk from her body, and who has seemed reluctant to leave the milking area –out of loneliness, willfulness, to spite us?– who has still not kicked over the milking bucket although she surely could; kale, which was harvested en masse by many hands, more kale than I knew could come from the little patch of ground it grows from, something like 1,300 kale leaves, which we ate in every meal, sometimes hidden in sweet breads and sometimes just unabashedly plain and un-massaged in salad; the hens, who have been laying blue-ish and brownish eggs, and who have been predictably pissed when we try to take their precious things from right beneath them; one time, needles from a pine tree when we paid to have an edible plant teacher visit but they only told us things (for a large fee) that Kavita had mostly already told us (for free) in addition to some things that I would have paid them not to say; and some vegetable broth made from leftover onion and garlic skins.

Natalie Wilkinson is a member of the 2019 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She grew up in Bozeman, MT and studies comparative literature at Williams College.