Last spring, Liz de Lise ’13 published an article in The College Voice entitled “Whitewashing Tradition”, documenting the Office of Residential Life & Education’s (REAL) plan to paint over the colorful walls of the Earth House kitchen and living room, and the resulting disappointment shared by the house’s residents and their supporters in response to the proposed changes. After a lengthy petition process and outrage from the student body, REAL retracted their plans, allowing the murals to continue to provide Earth House residents with sentiments of past legacy and tradition, a shared history and collective memory. This, a solid, laudable and, most importantly, successful attempt by the student body to engage in the process of self-governance, is representative of the college community’s ability to organize itself to fight injustice on this campus.
Doesn’t it always seem that when one battle is won, another looms on the horizon? This would seem to be the case here, while REAL prepares to implement new changes in its process for determining independent living options. On Tuesday, 3 December, REAL called a meeting with the seven residents of Earth House, myself included, to inform us of changes being made in each of the independent living situations, set to be enacted in time for the 2014-2015 academic year. All decisions, of course, were final, and just like the infamous Fishbowl verdict of 2012, we students were merely being advised of changes a bit ahead of time; we were not consulted, not asked for input, feedback, criticism, or suggestions—just advised.
What they told us is that all current independent living options will, by next year, require a theme, mission statement and faculty or staff adviser. Groups consisting of between three and twenty students can apply to live in any of the current independent living options (River Ridge apartments, Winchester houses, College owned houses on Mohegan Ave., the 360 Apartments and North Cottage House, currently known as Earth House) or a corridor of a residence hall. The REAL staff will place the groups of students who apply for independent housing depending on the quality of their theme, which they will determine by mandating that groups of students present to a panel of staff and student representatives affiliated with the REAL office.
Within the confines of this new process, the soon to be former Earth House could be inhabited by a group of seven students who prioritize environmentally-friendly living, as is the current situation, but it could also be assigned to members of a club sport, a particular major or any common interest that could theoretically provide engaging events and programming for the greater campus community. If one particular theme proves to be a successful, the group propagating that theme could inhabit the same apartment or house for consecutive academic years. As students in that independent living arrangement graduate, it would be up to the other underclassmen already living in that particular space to decide who is allowed to enter their community as a new member.
While this process could be interpreted as giving students greater agency to decide with whom they would like to live, it is also extremely exclusive and could quickly create cliques, so-called “in-groups” and “out-groups,” not dissimilar to the ways in which fraternities and sororities at other institutions operate and control their membership. Azul Tellez ’15, a resident of Earth House, says that what makes it special is in direct opposition with proposed changes. She believes that, “while college is about strengthening the friendships you already have, it is also very much about bonding with new people. Most of this bonding occurs over the food we cook together or simply sitting around the breakfast table. There’s something really extraordinary about moving into a house with people that you hardly know (for the most part) and getting to know them as the year goes on.”
The REAL staff continues to insist that the office has no desire to dispose of Earth House. Their actions, however, tell a very different tale. With this new independent living policy, they are actively undermining one of the goals of Connecticut College as dictated in the school’s mission statement: that of environmental stewardship. Yes, this mission statement does also contain five other goals, some of which remain unutilized in current thematic and independent housing, but greater diversification (which to be quite frank, cannot even be definitively guaranteed by the new independent living process) should not compromise tradition that has existed for many years at this institution. By refusing to guarantee Conn students a housing option that promotes and fosters environmentally-friendly living, the REAL office is trivializing the good work of students, faculty, staff and the administration, both past and present, to advance environmental sustainability at this institution. Earth House, its students and the faculty and staff who have supported and mentored them have played no small part in past dreams and desires being brought to fruition.
What will be lost with the elimination of Earth House? I can think of several things, the first of which being the community, which current resident Anna Curtis-Heald ’15 sums up by saying, “The house has one rule: give more than you take. ‘Love the house and it will love you,’ is painted on the wall by an anonymous former resident. The house sustains the community.”
The community Earth House creates on the Connecticut College campus is unparalleled. It is the only independent living option currently in place which allows seven strangers, who share a passion for environmentally-friendly living, to forge bonds with one another in ways otherwise impossible within the structure of Conn’s residence hall and independent living options. Earth House has not ever been perfect, but its sentiments and convictions are noteworthy additions to the Conn community. Casey Dillon ’14 sees the impending elimination of Earth House as just another part of a greater trend at the College. Dillon notes, “Ever since my freshman year, I’ve felt like the administration has been making changes and putting programs in place that are limiting self-expression and changing campus culture for the worse.”
We, as residents of the house, share meals cooked together in the kitchen and enjoy the feeling of shared history which comes alive in the colorfully painted walls and the furniture and dishware passed on from one generation of Earth House residents to the next. Curtis-Heald elaborated on her own experience, saying: “All members of the house had a moment when they realized, upon visiting it during their freshman or sophomore year, that they would like to live here one day, and we cherish offering the same glimpses and opportunities to younger students now by opening the house for events”.
There is, indeed, a comfort in knowing that this option for environmentally friendly living has existed for years, and that countless students committed to the environment have occupied the physical space of North Campus’s small, brown cottage. Lana Richards ’17 commented, “Earth House was one of the major reasons I decided to attend Conn in the first place.” The question that must now be posed is: Will Lana and other students who share similar convictions be afforded the opportunity to live there?
If the REAL office has an issue with the way in which we as Earth House residents are presently fulfilling our supposed purposes as members of Conn’s environmentally-friendly house, then I would highly suggest that the office’s staff approach us to inform us of that displeasure instead of taking the drastic step of eliminating the future guarantee of earth-friendly living. The REAL office has not once been in contact with us to inform us of their expectations or any responsibilities we should be fulfilling; our only contact with REAL has been through routine communications from our Housefellow, who has never been anything short of supportive of the events we put on and the way in which we live. We feel blindsided and saddened by REAL’s attempt to erase a Connecticut College tradition.
So, too, does this disappointment extend to Joyce and Jim Luce, administrative assistant in the Dean’s office and supervisor of grounds respectively, who for at least a decade, have acted as a second set of parents for Earth House residents, and have joined us for meals in the living room and invied us into their home and on many other excursions, and generously gave of time, care and concern I have not personally felt anywhere else on this campus. What will come of their contributions and connection with Earth House with the proposed changes?
In the Dec. 3 meeting, REAL staff continued to ask Earth House residents if we were scared or angry about their changes to what they are asking us to accept as the former Earth House. These changes, with their complete lack of regard for tradition, for environmental sustainability and unique, egalitarian community, threaten to erase a physical space that is so dear to me, those with whom l live, those who have previously lived there and all students, faculty and staff who have supported us. So, yes, REAL staff, I am scared, and I am angry. I do not agree with your refusal to engage in shared governance. I reject your argument that these changes in housing policies will unequivocally improve our campus community because Connecticut College is in danger of losing a diamond in the rough, a small house which has a character and a community simply unmatched by any other building on this campus. I can promise that Earth House will not be eliminated without valiant resistance. Please, any student, faculty or staff member who cares: join us to save Earth House. •