Bethel University: A Pop-up Community Builder

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How do you get a town to love itself again?

 

Bethel, VT was hit hard by the flooding that swept through much of the Green Mountain state with Hurricane Irene. As a tropical storm, Irene tracked almost perfectly up the Connecticut River valley, dumping as much as 10 inches of rain on August 28 - 29,  2011. Irene was crowned the most costly category-one hurricane ever.  In Bethel, its cost was more than money and major physical damage: it broke the town apart, socially and psychologically.

In the aftermath, local folks banded together to rebuild the town’s spirit as well as its infrastructure, according to Rebecca Sanborn Stone of the Bethel Revitalization Initiative (BRI), a group whose mission is to “make Bethel a more vibrant, livable, and inclusive place to live, work and play.”

The flooding and destruction revealed a lack of social cohesion that was a real barrier to growth and development of the town’s business community, its social organizations and activities and its cultural climate and aesthetic assets. “The town really got a bad rap in the media over disagreements between local government and volunteer groups,” Stone explains, recalling the winter of 2012 as a very dark time for Bethel. “But the community rallied afterward, with several new volunteer efforts and community initiatives and a change in government; Irene turned out to be a real tipping point for the community.”

The following fall, when the town revivied its “Forward Festival,” BRI used the occasion to gather residents’ ideas for revitalizing the community. One of those ideas was a “pop-up university” (For more on the “pop-up” trend: http://bit.ly/1LKKXj9.), where anyone can teach a course on any topic and anyone else can take courses for free.  The result was Bethel University—an institution designed to showcase the skills and talents of local residents—for which Stone is one of eight core volunteer organizers. 

The idea was simple: offer a forum where Bethel residents teach classes to their fellow Bethelites.  It would bring people together, draw people into the town center to use town facilities, to learn new things, meet each other, and have some fun.  And it worked. “We definitely created a spark,” Stone says.  “Our first year (March, 2014) was very successful and we were hoping to grow and improve a little bit this year.” She reports March, 2015, saw “an incredible increase in interest; it really blew us away.”  The statistics bear her out: This March, BU went from 18 courses to 42; from 21 faculty members to 54 and from 83 people registered for 134 courses to 254 people who registered for 418 courses covering a wide range of topics.  

“Wine tasting was a big draw, as well as courses on cooking and food, such as sourdough-bread baking and cooking ribs.  There was a course on growing a tea garden and gardening subjects in general were popular,” she says.  “Photography courses were another big draw, as were dance and exercise classes and one on learning to play dodge ball.  Most importantly, it created a buzz in town that is still going strong,” she adds. Satisfaction in town was very high: Surveys done after this March’s BU showed that 92 percent of students and 100 percent of teachers felt more connected to the community after participating. The project directly benefited at least 11 Bethel businesses and engaged a half dozen community organizations and institutions, according to Stone. 

This year’s university was aided by a Seed grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund, which helped the organizers implement various improvements from 2014.  The effort, according to Julia Dundorf, Executive Director at the Grassroots Fund, has many appealing elements.

“The fact that this is a true grassroots effort, using local social capital to pull a community up by its bootstraps, makes this a really inspiring project,” Dundorf says.  “In addition, that the organizers spread a wide net, to involve individuals, public agencies, and businesses, and measured their effectiveness in order to know how to build on their successes, is impressive.” 

BU was initially launched by about five core volunteers with the support of a number of town organizations and local businesses.  In its second year, the planning team doubled, as did support from local organizations, according to Stone, who notes that there wasn’t a lot of heavy lifting.  “It’s really remarkably manageable to offer the classes and schedule them in the spaces we have available to us,” she says. “We use the town hall, the town library, and the local school, and it’s been good for them, getting citizens in to use these public spaces.” A local sandwich shop became the ‘student union’, the go-to place for registration, planning meetings and information during BU.  “That’s of course been good for the business. A local pizza shop has likewise been supportive, placing postcards and info in their shop, allowing classes to meet there, and donating pizza for the graduation.  And, of course, BU brings more people into town, which is good for all the merchants and the town,” she adds, noting that people came from more than an hour away for courses and to teach.

Stone feels interpersonal relationships in town have changed since Irene, with the university introducing a more positive and collaborative attitude and changing the community’s self-image. “People see that Bethel has a lot to offer, including a way for people to get involved,” Stone says, citing the example of one family, new to Bethel, that was only renting in town temporarily.

“They were among our most active participants, and BU has had big impacts for them,” she says. “The whole family got involved and taught classes—mom, dad and their 3rd grade daughter. They ended up deciding to live in town permanently and bought a house, noting that their experience with BU in part made them feel connected to town; they felt Bethel was where they wanted to live.” (Read more at http://bit.ly/1Gm3jdw)

Another benefit to the community is that, in the process of mounting Bethel University, “we created some educational infrastructure that other community groups with an interest in training and educating folks could use, like mailing lists, a registration process, name recognition, that sort of thing,” Stone says. “Moving forward, we think more groups could use the BU ‘platform’ to help share info or train people locally,” Stone explains.  “The local Citizens-plus group, which works organizing emergency volunteers, for instance, has a need to engage and train more people. We could help them by making it easy for them to offer a course and advertise to people.”

What started as an event by Bethel for Bethel spawned good unintended consequences, Stone notes. “We see that this actually has a tremendous capacity for economic development here as well as being good for building community.  And it’s brought a lot of good media attention to Bethel, too, and helped restore a sense of pride on our town.” 

And with that success come the requests from other towns for information on “how-to” run a pop-up university as well as local pressure for another “semester” of BU.  Stone says she and her fellow volunteers recognize that these are worthy needs and goals, “but there’s always the barrier of time and resources.”  Meanwhile, planning for March, 2016, has begun.

To see a short slide-show video on Bethel University, go here: http://bit.ly/1XonwU8.  

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