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MAR. 27, 2018

Building Community at OA

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Building Community at OA

Community is one of the four foundational cornerstones of The Outdoor Academy. Merriam-Webster’s first entry defines community as, “a unified body of individuals: such as people with common interests living in a particular area.” It is true that students and faculty at The Outdoor Academy live together in a common space and share many common interests.  However, the community we seek to build at The Outdoor Academy goes far beyond this first definition. It is not just that we have chosen to live together for a semester, but how we strive to live with one another, that makes our community at The Outdoor Academy special.

The second entry in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary suggests that community involves, “joint ownership or participation.” At The Outdoor Academy, we ask everyone to participate fully in the process of building our community. Each semester is unique, and students and faculty are joint-owners in creating their shared experience. To this end, we dedicate Monday evenings to community building. After sitting in fellowship and enjoying one another’s company over a special meal, we head to Cheoah—one of our Arts facilities—for Community Meeting. We start by sharing our gratitude and end with sharing our hopes, but in between, we share our needs. This is a chance for anyone in our community to speak up and voice a concern or a solution. We use this time to figure out how to live together better.

For some of our students it’s intimidating to share their opinion in front of their peers and teachers. For other students, it’s hard to listen carefully to others while waiting their turn to speak. Some opt to stay silent, and forfeit their influence on community decisions. Sometimes Community Meeting feels frustrating, because we continue to bring up the same topic and don’t feel like we’re making headway, or we don’t hear from a diverse range of voices. I think Community Meeting is one of our most important traditions. It’s an introduction to civic engagement and an important opportunity to practice communication and conflict transformation skills such as forming a thoughtful opinion or cohesive argument, listening to understand rather than respond, and providing constructive feedback and solutions.

We build community at The Outdoor, not only through the daily acts of living together in one space, or through the enjoyment of sharing the things we hold in common, but by caring enough about one another to work through conflict, to hold each other accountable for being our best selves every day, and to continue figuring out how to do this together even when we fall short. In practicing community building here, we are equipping our students with critical skills for building community wherever they go.

-Kaela Frank, Resident Wilderness Educator