As I write this, I am sitting in the living room of Nora Berson, a dear friend of mine whose family generously agreed to house me for a week this summer (thank you!). Nora started talking to me last year because she read my blogs and they made her want to have conversations, so the fact that I can introduce her to you as a guest blogger is exciting for both of us. (Congratulations, Nora-bird, you're blog famous!) Nora has been a part of Old B every semester she's been at Oberlin, and she has helped talk me through a lot of thinking I've done about OSCA, so it made sense to ask her for help when I started looking for ways to profile specific co-ops as a part of my effort to de-mystify OSCA. What follows is a post she wrote for me - with her own illustrations! - just before she studied away from Oberlin for the spring 2012 semester.
Thinking back to why I chose to come to Oberlin, OSCA stands out as one of Oberlin's exciting and unique features. I'm not sure exactly how I first found out about OSCA's existence. Probably some combination of my campus tour, thorough readings about Oberlin in college guide books, and Oberlin's viewbook and website. I wrote about OSCA in my application essay, as something that exemplified Oberlin's appealing do-it-yourself mentality. When I visited Oberlin for a second time as a prospective student, I requested to stay overnight in a co-op and got placed in Harkness. I found it fascinating to read the posters about house chores, attend a meal and discussion, and gawk at the impressive kitchen. Since getting here, I've learned that many people had barely heard of OSCA before arriving on campus. In the hope of shedding some light on this topic, I'll tell you a bit about my OSCA experience.
Old Barrows (affectionately called Old B) welcomed me in during my first semester at Oberlin. I just finished my fifth semester eating there, and my first semester living there, and consequently have far too much to say about it for a single blog entry. I'll focus on my experience living there this year, which has been a pleasure.
I first chose Old B as my co-op by poring over the online descriptions of the co-ops, and trying to solicit advice from current students by email. I liked the sound of the big lawn and homemade ice cream, and I got lucky in the lottery, so Old B it was. Since arriving, I've figured out that it's a really classy co-op. We chat pleasantly with each other while standing in line for our meals, and our head cooks make consistently delicious food (Sweet potato fries! Chickpea curry! Quiche!). Also, Old B is a few blocks farther away from the center of campus than most co-ops, but as the cover of an Old B cookbook puts it, "so far so good."
As for how I ended up deciding to live there: I was looking ahead to junior year and didn't have a specific roommate in mind. I considered living in a single, but feared I would become too much of a hermit. Instead, I decided to accept a space in Old B housing. In the co-op system, you can try to get a housing space with a roommate you've already chosen by registering for consecutive lottery numbers, or you can just accept a housing space and find a roommate during the first house meeting. Initially, I felt uncertain, since everyone else who came to the first house meeting in the spring seemed to already have a roommate, but I ended up with a lovely and very tidy roommate who was returning from a study abroad.
The fourteen people who live in Old B have rooms on the second and third floors, while the first floor is taken up by the dining co-op's industrial kitchen and sunny dining rooms. I ended up in a beautiful room on the second floor. Coincidentally, it was the same room I'd lived in during commencement week my first year. I had been significantly less happy about it then, since I had to lug all my belongings across campus and didn't have time to move in or enjoy the space. However, this fall, I settled in, put art on the walls and felt very much at home.
Some highlights of living in Old B:
- My room: Visitors to my room were frequently amazed at how beautiful it was. With windows facing south and east, it had abundant natural light. It was also quite spacious. Proof of this: when my roommate's brother came to visit, we had an air mattress inflated on the floor, and still enough space to walk around. Also, the room had a porch. Amazing. When the weather was warm enough, I took my banjo outside and played on our second floor porch overlooking the large back lawn. How idyllic.
- Having a real kitchen downstairs: I believe all the dorms have some sort of kitchen, but from past experience, they tend to be tiny, messy and ill-equipped. The co-op kitchens, by contrast, are large, thoroughly cleaned, and equipped with all sorts of heavy-duty cooking implements. There are several things to love about living upstairs from this wonder kitchen. I could come downstairs to get milk for my tea anytime I wanted (which is rather important to me), and I would usually have the delightful experience of running into someone friendly in the process. Often there were tasty things makers, bread makers or granola makers working their magic, head cooks planning for the next day, or dining co-op members grabbing a snack. This meant that Old B could be both a cozy, quiet place to live, and a lively, social one. Also, everyone was envious of me when they had to walk across campus in the cold rain to get to lunch and I could just flounce downstairs.
- Our system of self-governance: The co-ops have HLECs (a very unappealing acronym that stands for Housing Loose Ends Coordinators). These are kind of like RAs, and their role is essentially to help the co-op have the kind of housing community we want. Old B had some interesting and respectful discussions on the topics of community standards and safe spaces. This year, we designated Old B housing as a safe space for women and trans people, which is a choice made by the first half of people admitted to Old B housing each year. (For more on safe space housing at Oberlin, check out Ruby's post about Baldwin.) In a house of just fourteen people, we opted to use informal discussions rather than the formalized modified consensus procedures used by the dining co-ops. This felt both more relaxing and more effective. I do appreciate modified consensus as a process, and think it has potential to work well for group decision making. However, the larger the group or the more complicated the issue, the more laborious the process becomes. Also, modified consensus, as it is used in OSCA, is a bit of a messy combination of personal preferences and opinions on what is actually best for the co-op as a whole. Thus, it is difficult at times to make decisions confidently, efficiently, and inclusively. In the house, our small numbers made it easier to be confident about each person's opinions and make effective group decisions.
- Clean space with manageable effort: I felt grateful to live in quite a clean building. Co-op housing does not make use of professional janitorial services from the college. Instead, co-opers work together to keep our own space tidy. The system we worked out in Old B to accomplish this task involved a weekly evening housecleaning session. A different house member ran this each week, assigning tasks like taking out trash and recycling, cleaning toilets, sinks, showers and the house fridge. Anyone unable to come during the designated time would be assigned a task to complete on their own. I would say the work I did to keep the house clean amounted to 15 minutes per week, and I generally felt satisfied with the level of house cleanliness. It's important to me to live in a place that does not feel disgusting, and we accomplished this without much difficulty. In comparison to dining co-op workloads, which are usually 4 or 5 hours per week, the amount of housing work was minimal.
My time in OSCA has been comfortable, rewarding, and educational. It's impressive and empowering to know that my fellow students and I keep these cooperatives running on all levels, from the bureaucracy to the daily chores. I highly recommend the OSCA experience, even if that just means stopping by a co-op to visit sometime. I would be thrilled to answer any questions about OSCA or Old B to the best of my ability.
(Note: If you leave a comment, Nora and I will both be able to see and respond to it; if you want to talk to me or Nora more extensively/privately, I am reachable until summer 2014 at ihoequis (at) oberlin (dot) edu, and I can provide you with her email address - as can the directory on the Oberlin website.)