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Pop Goes the Community

It’s not often that a university opens in rural Vermont, but that’s just what happened this spring in the tiny town of Bethel.

A pop-up university, that is.

For the month of March, anyone with a tie to Bethel (population 2,030) could offer a mini-course for the community through the temporary "Bethel University," and anyone could take courses for free from their neighbors. It was a fun way for people to learn new things and escape the winter doldrums. It was also a radical experiment in community-building that was the first of its kind in the nation.

People and businesses offered courses on everything from oriental herbs and worm composting, to financial aid and wine tasting, to Zumba and Tarot.

Registrations poured in from a diverse mix of longtime residents and newcomers. At a time when Vermonters typically hunker down inside to wait for spring, Bethel University coaxed people from 12 towns to gather at the Town Hall and school and in each other’s homes and businesses. They learned new skills, met new people, and discovered just how much the community has to offer.

Small towns aren’t all Norman Rockwell and potluck dinners. When my husband and I moved to Bethel six years ago, we envisioned neighbors welcoming us with fresh-baked cookies and colossal zucchinis. Instead, two years passed before we met anyone—and only then when I went door-to-door with banana bread myself. We discovered just how hard it is to find community in this era of 80-hour workweeks and Netflix marathons. We also discovered just how lonely it is to live in a place without it.

It wasn’t that people in Bethel were unfriendly. Across the U.S., communities today are simply not built for—well—community. Bethel had a close-knit group of longtime residents, beautiful scenery, and a lot of other assets. But like many small towns, it struggled with declining social capital, busy and dispersed residents, a lack of gathering places, empty storefronts, and a sense that the town had seen better days.

Organized by the Bethel Revitalization Initiative, Bethel University was designed to touch on all of these issues. We hoped that it would result in more residents connecting with each other and supporting local businesses, better use of public spaces, and momentum for more change. In short, we hoped it would be a small step toward a better quality of life.

Once launched, that’s very much what happened. People offered meeting spaces and course materials and help with everything from hanging posters to cooking food. One couple took a course on BBQ at a home across the street and met their neighbors for the first time. A newly minted “professor” made house calls to help her eager students finish quilts. Bethel University even helped attract several people who were considering moving to town and were excited by the energy. As for me, I met more people in a month than I did in five years previously.

Bethel University marks the intersection of two critical community movements: both sharing and pop-up (or temporary) urbanism are expanding rapidly worldwide. Sharing reduces consumption, builds connections, and increases social capital. Pop-up parks, restaurants, and retail have emerged as creative community development strategies, offering easy and low-cost ways to experiment and quickly revitalize neighborhoods and cities. It’s rare to find projects that embody both, and rarer still to find them in small towns. But these are exactly the solutions that can help make communities everywhere more livable, more vibrant, and more complete.

We know that Bethel University won’t solve all of our town’s problems, and the verdict is out on any long-term impacts. But now I see a rush of familiar faces as I walk down Main Street, and I know just whom to call when I need help with my new worm composting system or get the urge for Zumba. I’ll take that over a B.A. any day.

Rebecca Sanborn Stone is a consultant, writer, and instigator working on issues of community-building and sustainability. She lives with her family in Bethel, Vermont. Connect with her at @rsstone and rebeccasanbornstone.com.

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