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On Being OSCAn

August 4, 2012

Ida Hoequist ’14

What attracted me to co-ops at first was the value that OSCAns place on their food and the bond that grows out of shared responsibilities. Yes, I also liked that the OSCAn mindset translates to a significantly smaller term bill, but that preference is born of necessity. What I care about, sans external pressure, is caring about food. Caring about its nutritional value, building community around it, recognizing that food choices have an impact on who produces what and how they produce it, and that that in turn has an impact on cultures and the well-being of peoples and really a whole lot of bigger things - all of this is important to me, and I'm grateful to have lived in an environment where I could act on those views.

But a co-op is made of much more than food appreciation. It's also about doing your fair share of work, cleaning up your own messes, finding a way to agree with fifty other people, acting for the good of the whole, and so on. And, perhaps most importantly, it's about making things work smoothly even though, really, they usually don't. To put it bluntly: we have issues. One of the things that makes the OSCA experience so singular and interesting - namely, that it tends to be a once-in-a-lifetime point of confluence that brings together exceptionally fine and delightfully different minds - is simultaneously one of the things that makes it extraordinarily challenging. Not that differences are inherently bad, but when not everyone wants the same things from a co-op, not everyone puts the same effort in, and that can go downhill fast.

To illustrate: at dinner last year, I found myself very suddenly in the middle of a conversation about the ways in which Tank does not work. The complaints ranged from the drawbacks of our (incredibly lenient) missed jobs policy1 to OSCA's relationship with the college to modified consensus - in short, anything and everything central to the way the co-op operates. What it boiled down to for one of the interlocutors, I think, was frustration with the co-op for doing "just barely enough to keep Tank on the brink of disaster," and foisting most of that on the shoulders of a few dedicated co-opers, to boot. His friend, agreeing, asked, "Is it a social experiment, or are we just trying to feed ourselves for less money?" To which I would now reply: both, and that is not necessarily bad. Only when the people who want to work in and for the co-ops are outnumbered by the people who just don't care enough to pull their own weight do you get trouble.

Further trouble comes with people who go a step beyond apathy. Fact: it is easy to cheat, steal from, or otherwise take advantage of co-ops. You can walk into a kitchen and take a jug of honey or what have you, and chances are, no one will ever know who it was. You can join OSCA and, if you're clever about it, probably dodge work for a good part of a semester (although I'd like to think no OSCAn is that maleficent). It's easy, and it's mean; the co-ops are based on, you know, co-operation, and such breaches of trust - whether they deprive the co-op of material goods or of the help it needs to keep running - are not only disappointing but also harmful. Every co-op has policies designed to keep this sort of behavior under control, of course, but they are only as effective as the members of the co-op. Vulnerability is inherent.

Inherent, and, perhaps, useful?

Fact, again (bear with me, it's important): joining OSCA is a deeply political choice. Even if you don't care about the politics, your choice still supports co-operative living, for whatever reason, and co-operative living is a radical departure from the current American norms. And no one can pretend that combating norms is easy - OSCAns must be constantly educating and re-educating ourselves so that we don't slip back into thinking unco-operatively. There's mental work required in addition to the physical labor that keeps co-ops running, and, often, people seem to forget that participating in a co-op means just that: true participation, not just settling into the system already in place and treating it like a hierarchy. Remember the question on the nature of OSCA: social experiment or money saver? This is why it's also a social experiment.

All right, tangent over. Back to the precarious nature of OSCA co-ops. If there is anything to be said for the vulnerability outlined above, it's that it brings home just how human OSCA is, and just how important every member can be. The snags that we hit, if we don't get caught up in being annoyed, can remind us that we are not a machine, not unchangeable or unfeeling, not built vertically, and not even remotely certain of what we are doing. Let me say that again. We are not certain of what we're doing. It is okay to not be sure of yourself - that's another thing we seem to forget - it is okay, and productive, to be examining everything critically rather than acting like you have it all figured out 'because that's what will prove all those naysayers wrong.' OSCA muddles! It does. And that is good. That's part of the constant re-education OSCAns must take upon themselves, and, if we let it, that can be a step toward refinement for the right reasons, in the best ways.

I will leave you with this final observation about the ethos of OSCA: food is key. It's not just that OSCAns by necessity come into far more contact with their food, in all its incarnations, than most college students. It's not just that OSCAns, generally speaking, recognize the importance of all things food. It's that food is the heart of the entire social experiment. Co-ops can get lost in thickets of policy and confidentiality and discussions and oh god the mess of it all! - but the true foundation of what we do is food. In all its complex, emotional, moral, gustatory glory, food.

I owe that last observation to Ma'ayan, who sums it up best: "food is the ultimate social experience that goes beyond words." We would do well not to let that take a backseat.

1. "No one can get expelled from the co-op for missed jobs (in the sense that there is no number of missed jobs that equals expulsion), but that after 2 missed jobs you have a meeting with the membership coordinator. And if you miss a job you are expected to 'miss job' yourself (though other people can miss job you as well), and you have two weeks to make it up by doing a crew that needs lots of help." This is good in theory because by replacing formulaic punishment with open-ended conversation, it not only promotes good communication about problems but also removes punishment as an incentive to do work. Sadly, in practice, very few people were honest about missed jobbing themselves, and a great many cook shifts and crews ended up falling into the hands of far fewer people than should have been sharing the burden.

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