Community Forum: College and community partners should emphasize shared values, shared goals

Editor’s note: Laurie L. Patton took office on July 1 as the 17th president of Middlebury College. She will contribute to these pages from time to time.
It was my first week at Middlebury, and I was looking for a place to walk my two Great Pyrenees who had accompanied my husband and me on this journey to Vermont. A friend suggested the ’97 Trail, a trail established by the Class of 1997 at Middlebury College in honor of classmate Colin O’Neill. This pathway in the woods is part of the TAM trail — Trail Around Middlebury.
As the dogs bounded through the brush, I discovered all sorts of small forms of care: a little sign posted on a tree with handwritten notes on different directions a hiker could take; a bird feeder hanging from a branch in the middle of the woods. I had the same feeling walking this trail as I did about 10 years ago, when I was walking a public trail in the deep woods of Georgia. There, about a half mile in, I suddenly came upon a fully decorated holiday tree. It wasn’t near a camp, and no other signs of human habitation were nearby. Someone, or some group of someones, had just decided that a tree in the depths of the wilderness would be a great holiday message.
In these moments of discovery, one realizes that there is a community of woods walkers who speak to each other, even though they may never meet. They speak to each other in signs, in bridges, in impromptu decorations hanging from branches. On the ’97 Trail in Middlebury, I didn’t know who had made these small gestures, but it was a clear sign of welcome.
And then I discovered that there was a more permanent message from the Class of ’97 — a green metal sign printed with white lettering fastened to a tree:
“We believe: That this is our home, even if only for four years. That to inhabit this place means to be concerned with its continued well-being. That Middlebury College is unique and fortunate in its natural surroundings and has an ethical responsibility to its land for both present and future inhabitants. That the College campus extends beyond our immediate environment into town and other off-campus lands.”
I think the students of the Class of ’97 captured perfectly the spirit of engagement that Middlebury College, the town of Middlebury, and Addison County might have with one another. We could develop relationships (and nurture the ones already there!) that move beyond the merely transactional, whereby we imagine ourselves in long-term partnerships.
What does it mean to move beyond the transactional? Often, when two different communities who have overlapping, but not completely shared, interests work on projects together, they may not take the time to clarify what their shared values and common goals are. Rather, they proceed with a series of transactions: Who is going to pay for this project and by what percentage? What about the land over there that both groups have an interest in? What if we made common cause in protesting this development? These transactional discussions can be fruitful when the discussions are going well and people understand each other in the course of the project. But, frequently, both communities only perceive their relationship through the lens of negotiations — and not in the context of shared values and concerns. And if those values aren’t paid attention to, then purely transactional relationships can be, at best, simply obligatory, and at worst, tiring and fraught with tension.
The students of the ’97 Trail remind us that while the communities we inhabit may have their individual characteristics and beliefs, we cannot escape the fact that we also are part of common communities, with shared values and interests. It benefits us all to find, reinforce, and celebrate those collective values whenever we can. For the college that means teaching our students that, as they put it, “… this is our home, even if only for four years.” And members of all three communities might explore common long-term work together, whereby we celebrate the idea that we are part of one another’s communities in many everyday ways, as well as in ways that might surprise us. We might cultivate long-term partnerships that go beyond mere financial transactions in different sectors — environmental, educational, cultural, economic, service, and industrial.
I invite you to send us suggestions about what these partnerships could look like, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Through these kinds of partnerships, all three communities might be reminded of that common value the students of ’97 articulated so well: “To inhabit this place means to be concerned with its continued well-being.” If we take the time to articulate and cultivate that concern, the inhabitants of this place, temporary and permanent, two-footed and four-footed, will benefit greatly.

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