April 18, 2012, Berea, Kentucky
Berea College was the fitting culmination of my tour of colleges and universities serving historically marginalized populations, especially given the focus on my lectures on real utopias. It was founded in 1855 by ardent Abolitionists as the only integrated educational institution in the South. It was founded on the Christian principle, “God has made of one blood all people of the earth.” In 1859 it was closed down by pro-slavery forces, and then reopened immediately after the end of the Civil War in 1865. From then until the beginning of the 20th century it was roughly 50% black, 50% white, and coeducational. I was told that when dating between black and white students emerged in those years, the administrators accepted it as “natural” in spite of the strong social norms against it in the region. As Jim Crow laws were introduced in the South, the college became increasingly a target of hostility, until finally in 1904 the Kentucky Legislature passed the Day Law making it illegal to have integrated educational institutions, public or private. Berea College challenged this in court, but in 1908 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky was within it Constitutional Rights to pass the law, so thee college had to be immediately segregated, and the black faculty and students had to leave. When this happen the college divided its endowment to fund a black college near Louisville, where the black faculty and students went (I am not sure that I have the history of that institution quite right – I’m not sure if it already existed or was directly created by Berea, and I don’t know how long and effectively this continued). The college had also help to anchor the racial integration of the town of Berea, part of which was organized in what was called a checkerboard pattern – every other lot being sold to a white family or a black family. The college also insisted on equal pay for black and white employees. Once the school was segregated, however, this integrated pattern in the community declined, both because opportunities for African-Americans declined and, later, because of the great migration north during WWI. In 1950, when the Day Law was amended, the college immediately reintegrated and energetically recruited black students, both from Appalachia and from urban areas.
Berea has an extremely unusual admissions policy: tuition is free (the equivalent of a $24,000 scholarship for all students). Only low to moderate income students are admitted: families have to submit copies of their tax returns to prove that the family income falls below the required threshold. (I was told for a family of three this was around $40,000/year). 80% of the students come from the Appalachian region, 20% from elsewhere. All students at the college have to work 10 hours a week, which contributes to paying for room and board. In the past this labor included construction work – many of the buildings on campus were built with student labor. Now janitorial work, secretarial work, various kinds of administrative support work, is all done by students as part of the labor requirement. And, the college does all this while clearly maintaining a rigorous and challenging academic program. I was deeply impressed and moved by the college’s aspirations and history, but even more by the earnest and passionate way in which these aspirations are translated into the reality on the ground in the institution today.
The visit to Berea had not been part of the original plan of this trip. It developed in a really sweet way. A few months ago I received a letter from Jill Bouma, an assistant professor in the Berea Sociology Department, telling me that she had used the book I wrote with Joel Rogers, American Society: how it really works as the core text in a class and how much she and the students liked the book. At the end of her email she said something like, “I don’t imagine we will ever meet, but I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the book.” I looked at a map and saw that Nashville and Berea were not all that far apart. I wrote back thanking her for the kind words, and hen said that I would be in Nashville in Mid April and could easily pass Berea to the end of the trip. Jill was delighted with this possibility, and so she and Jean worked out the details. Since in any case Berea does serve a historically marginalized population – low income students, especially in Appalachia – it fit perfectly within the overall agenda of the campus tour.
Jean and I left Nashville for Berea around 8 in the morning. We were scheduled to arrive at noon for lunch, and according to Google maps the drive should take 3 and half hours or so, so this seemed ample. Only we didn’t notice that we changed time zones going from Tennessee to Eastern Kentucky. When we stopped for gas in Somerset, Kentucky, Jean noticed the clocks. So we called and explained that we’d be late.
We arrived a bit before 1 and were met by Tom Boyd, a professor emeritus from Sociology who had taught in the department from the late 1970s until a few years ago, when he retired in order to be a full time wood sculptor funded, as he put it, by his benefactors FDR (via social security) and Lyndon Johnson (via Medicare). The day was sublimely beautiful – 70 degrees, brilliantly clear and sunny. Spring was in full throttle – lush green, flowers. The setting is lovely, in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. The campus has a classic liberal arts college feel to it – old stately brick buildings, lots of green space filled with trees and grass. Charming little gazebos in which to sit are scattered around the campus yards.
Tom took us on a leisurely walk through the heart of the campus, telling us storied about his time there and the history of the place. When it began the institution was mainly devoted to promoting literacy rather than being an undergraduate college. After the Civil War it added more units – the college division, a high school, and industrial arts program, reflecting the changing needs of the population it served. In the late 19th century it began attracting wealthy donors and built up an endowment. Andrew Carnegie, for example, was a major contributor, as was the Danforth family fortune. I would like to know more about the way wealthy donors saw their donations to a place that is so consciously committed to social justice and equality as ideals. Perhaps it was seen more in the spirit of “helping the poor” rather than “promoting equality and justice”. The result, in any event, is a very large endowment – approaching $1 billion – which provides the basis for the zero tuition policy. (But also: most students have Pell grants and many receive food stamps). In the 1960s students from Berea joined the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, over the objections of the administration which thought it wasn’t safe. In 2011 students went to Zarcotti Park to participate in Occupy Wall Street, over the objections of the administration which thought it wasn’t safe.
At 3:00 we went to the sociology department for a meeting with students and a version of the careers and sociology workshop. The students were obviously very motivated and academically serious with lots of questions. A number were already admitted to graduate schools and would begin in the fall, others were thinking about it.
My talk on real utopias began at 4pm. The room was packed – maybe 120 people or so. In addition to the Berea students and faculty, was a group of students and faculty that had driven from Georgetown College, a Baptist-affiliated liberal arts college near Lexington, as well as some from the University of Kentucky and other places. Because of the setting at Berea I was especially filled with emotional energy and was there “in the moment.” Without any real planning, I began the talk with an improvisational riff on utopia: “This is the first time I have ever given a lecture at an academic institution in which the second sentence of its official brochure describes itself as a “utopian experiment.” What a beautiful, poignant way of ending a lecture tour of universities serving historically underserved populations where I have been talking about real utopias. Berea is a real utopia: a university that grounds itself in principles of equality and social justice and then tries very hard to live up to those ideals in its practices. Gandhi is often quoted as saying “Be the change you want to see in the world” (although I have been told that this is apocryphal). The idea of real utopias is “build the institutions you want to see in the world.” This is not, however, exactly like many intentional communities driven by utopian ideals. 19th century utopian communities saw withdrawing from the world as their solution to the corruption of the world; real utopia envisions building alternatives in the world as a way of ultimately transforming it, even replacing it. I then went straight to the contrast between ruptural, interstitial and symbiotic transformations as a ways of putting into practice the idea that another world is possible – explaining why ruptural strategies seem so problematic under conditions of social complexity. I then argued for interstitial strategies as a way of building emancipatory institutions wherever possible in the spaces of the existing society, but also said that they will inevitably be limited to niches and margins and often become more like adaptive self-help projects than social transformations unless combined with symbiotic strategies that engage in political struggles to open up greater spaces for the interstitial transformations. I then proceeded to the core of the talk as planned. Sometimes when you give a talk you feel completely connected to the audience, joined by common purposes, seeing their focus and attention and speaking to each person as in an animated conversation rather than an impersonal lecture. For me Berea was like that.
- “What does it mean to be an activist today? How can an activist connect to real utopias?” I spoke again of the connection between interstitial strategies and symbiotic strategies. Social movements to expand urban agriculture would be an example. Building community based urban agriculture is a way of actually transforming the food system in decayed central cities. But it is limited by land use rules and by property rights, and to change these requires politics, politics that change the rules of the game and open space for the movements. This is where activists and sociologists can play a role – linking the community building projects to political struggles. Sociologists can codify the experiences and models so that each new effort does not have to reinvent the wheel.
- “Are there global south examples to add to your Western ones?” I explained how participatory budgeting came from the South and was initially copied and experimented me in many places in Latin America before really reaching the North. Basic Income is also being experimented in various places in the South more thoroughly that in the north.
- “With processes that are messy, how can you keep the Real Utopias model?” Messiness is at the heart of the real utopia model. Democratic experimentalism of the sort advocated by John Dewey is central. Learning by doing, trial and error, experimentation – these constitute the iterative process that produces new institutions that. The idea is not to come up with detailed blueprints in advance that can simply be put into place, but to establish design principles and the a dynamic of learning. That is inherently messy.
- “What is the use of criticizing capitalism in a society like ours? Can this be counterproductive? Maybe it would be better to talk about real utopias without attacking capitalism.” It may be that if I was an organizer, an activist who spoke regularly to things like church groups that I might decide I needed to tailor my language more carefully to the beliefs of the audience. But I hold academic values too strongly for this. Since I think capitalism is a source of great harm to people, that it is one of the root causes of the problems we face in the world, I feel I have to name the problem correctly if I am to be honest. I also think that in the ideal world I imagine there probably is some place for a bit of capitalism, some role for capitalism. No socioeconomic structure is ever purely one kind of economic system. American capitalism has public libraries, which distribute books in decidedly non-capitalist ways. So I suspect that there would be a niche for capitalism even in a radically democratic egalitarian society. Capitalism between consenting adults is probably OK. My 94-year old mother, who supports my work tremendously, tells me, using my childhood name, “Rickey, do you have to call it socialism?” I feel that I do need to advocate for socialism, for a social-socialism and criticize capitalism because that best identifies the solutions and the problem.
After the talk people hung around for a bit; a number of students wanted pictures with me, including the group of students from Georgetown College, and I was happy to oblige.
Around 6:00 we left the sociology department and walked across campus to Jill Buoma’s house for dinner. Ten or so faculty members were there. I was really happy not to eat at a restaurant. I almost always prefer home cooking. The party was great – relaxed, lots of laughing, interesting exchanges about life in Berea and Kentucky and other matters. We had an especially nice discussion about the virtue of earnestness.
Around 7:30 Jean left for Louisville. He was flying back early the next morning, whereas I was going to stay for most of the day visiting people associated with the Center for Sustainable cities near Lexington. His leaving signaled the end of our glorious road trip together. Jean figured we had logged somewhere around 2800 miles of driving: San Antonio-Laredo-McAllen-San Antonio; Albuquerque-Chinle-Tsaile-Chinle-Albuquerque; Jackson-New Orleans-Montgomery-Tuskegee-Montgomery-Selma-Birmingham-Nashville-Berea. And we got along wonderfully the entire trip – never any grumpiness. I was sorry to say goodbye to my road buddy.
At 9:00 Tom Boyd escorted me to a cottage on campus that was a kind of retreat/hang-out for nontraditional students. They didn’t live there, but it had a kitchen large living room, and a number of study rooms. It was near the female dorm and was referred to as part of “Estrogen Island”, in contrast to the “penile colony” where the male dorm was located. There are nine or ten people waiting for me, mostly women, but a few guys as well. A number of them were single moms, and some of the others were clearly older adult returning students. One was a grandmother (although only 45). I told her I was jealous. She was basically the impresario of the event. She suggested that everyone introduce themselves to me. As each student did, I asked them questions about their work, commented on various themes and issues, sometimes gave some advice or suggestions, and after a bit of time she would gently suggest that we move on to another student, clearly anting to be sure everyone had a turn. It was a wonderful, relaxed, meandering conversation. The time slipped by and I didn’t even realize I was beginning to wilt, until suddenly, around 11:15 I felt a wave of fatigue. I knew that I had a breakfast gathering with Jill and the other faculty in sociology at 8:00 the next morning, so I reluctantly said that I needed to call it a night.
The Boone Tavern where I was staying was just 100 yards or so away, so I was in bed just a bit after midnight.