Oberlin Blogs

TWC and TWSJ, Cooperative Safe Spaces

February 27, 2023

Lanie Lee Cheatham ’24

You know that feeling you get when you just feel right in a space? And sure it isn’t perfect and sometimes it feels weird, but most of the time it just feels warm and joyful. Growing up in Utah, I was hard-pressed trying to find a space for myself. From LDS boy-girl hangouts to high school debate tournaments, my young queer Asian self felt a little lost in the Intermountain West. When I came to Oberlin, I hoped it would be a place where I could meet people from all different places who shared similar interests to me. I was, in some ways, looking for a place where I felt a sense of belonging. 

My first year was COVID year, so there was very little going on in any sphere of Oberlin life. The mind-numbing nature of Zoom classes, not being able to see the bottom half of my friends’ faces, and eating dining hall food alone in my room all left me a bit starved of human interaction and community. The first year of college is hard for anyone, but when there are very few social avenues to grasp onto you can be left floundering. When my second year came around in full swing, I was ready to launch right into the campus community, and my first stop was joining OSCA. 

So what the heck is OSCA? OSCA stands for Oberlin Student Cooperative Association and is a non-profit, student-run alternative to the Oberlin College housing and dining plans. OSCA rents out spaces from the college––dorms and industrial kitchens––and students live and eat there for a discounted price compared to college room and board. It is entirely student-operated, meaning students choose what food we want, cook all the meals we eat, and clean all the spaces we use. You can see promotional videos for OSCA, featuring bloggers past, here. As you may have guessed, there are some issues with a dormitory or kitchen being entirely student-run, but it is also really awesome. Sure, sometimes the bathrooms are a little worse for wear, but you as a student have so much agency in deciding how you want your home and dining space to look and run (within reason). If you as a co-op collectively decide that you only want to eat organic non-GMO celery and it fulfills all your dietary needs, you can eat only organic non-GMO celery (most of the food we eat in the co-op is local and organic anyways!). If you decide, as Harkness has done in the past, that you don’t want shower dividers in order to normalize nudity, you can have a wide-open shower space. Each co-op has its own personality and quirks that are influenced by each round of students that lives or dines in the co-op. 

For the past two years, I have been a part of Third World Social Justice Housing (TWSJ) and Third World Dining Cooperative (TWC). They are intentional safe spaces within OSCA for people of color. What exactly does that mean? Well, Oberlin College and OSCA specifically are predominantly white institutions. TWC and TWSJ serve as spaces where students from all different socioeconomic, cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds can come together in community and build coalition. TWC and TWSJ were founded on the principles of the Third World Liberation Front (hence the name), a multi-ethnic student-led coalition at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley that protested for establishing an Ethnic Studies department and increasing representation of faculty and students of color. TWC is meant to serve as a dining space where students feel comfortable challenging each other and engaging in meaningful discussion. These co-ops serve as spaces where students of color can interact outside the dominant sphere of Oberlin society. These places have provided a home for me at Oberlin and a place to find my favorite people.

TWSJ is located on the third floor of another co-op called Harkness. It is a dormitory for students interested in the themes of social justice and race. TWSJ is usually pretty small, consisting of about 10 members (but is always looking to grow). Coming to Oberlin, I knew I would join a co-op. As my first year on campus was in the thick of the pandemic, none of the co-ops were operating. But in my second year, I sprung up and was ready to join Pyle. However, after learning about the Third World Liberation Front in my Asian American History class and seeing the application for TWSJ, I decided I would fill it out and see what happened. I didn’t hear back for a while, and I thought there would be intense competition for who gets to live in TWSJ, so I remained disheartened for a bit. After talking to someone who used to live in TWSJ, I was assured that I would most definitely get in, giving me more hope. The process for applying was relatively straightforward, I just filled out a google form, but the space itself was mystifying. I didn’t know where it was or who lived there or what it meant to be a part of an active community that focuses on issues of social justice. I felt nervous about being a part of the community but excited to learn with my peers. Over the summer, we had our first housing meeting, and my fears were assuaged. There were about 8 people on the Zoom call, all in different locations, and we used it as an opportunity to meet each other and decide who was to room with whom. I decided, over Instagram direct messaging, to room with someone I had met once during my first year. I got really lucky and ended up becoming great friends with my roommate despite everyone’s warnings that I should not live in the same room as some random guy I’d met once before.

Over time (and many house bonding events), I have come to love everyone in TWSJ. Even though Harkness isn’t the most beautiful building on campus, I have loved living there and forming a tight-knit community with other students of color. TWSJ just feels warm, figuratively and literally because the heat really pumps during the winter. The TWSJ living space is basically a generic dormitory. Most of the rooms are doubles with ample storage space and closets. There is one bathroom for the TWSJ hall that has the vibes of the shower bathroom area of a middle school locker room (in the best way). Each week, we each have to do a chore that amounts to one hour of work in the co-op. Chores range from cleaning the showers to vacuuming the hallway to sweeping the stairs. Most weeks you don’t actually do one hour of work and some weeks you just do five minutes of work. The way that TWSJ makes decisions about how we as a collective want to live in our space is in housing meetings, in which the Housing and Loose Ends Coordinator (the co-op version of an RA), leads a discussion about guidelines for the space. At the beginning of our housing meeting this year, we decided to keep the third-floor bathroom TWSJ-only to preserve the sanctity of the safe space for students of color. At other housing bonding events, we have gone to Ginko’s and pet the rescue cats, gone on a trip to get ice cream, and gone to see The Batman at the Apollo. While some people don’t like the idea of living on the third floor of Harkness (as it has a reputation for being hippie and dirty), TWSJ more than makes up for that reputation in the genuine community that emerges and the central location of the dorm (everything is a 5-minute walk away). Also, living in a co-op means you are often subject to less surveillance than in a college-operated dorm. There are no room checks, you are more than likely friends with your HLEC, and you can often get away with many more fun activities. Everyone who lives in TWSJ gets a dining spot in TWC, but not everyone in TWC has to live in TWSJ. 

TWC is a vibrant and lovely dining community. Every day we share conversations and laughs over homemade and nutritious lunch and dinner. There is something so beautiful about existing in a cooperative dining community. We all rely on each other in such intimate ways; we trust the food our friends select and cook, work together to clean to the standards of an industrial kitchen to Ohio food safety law, and sub each other's shifts due to the fact that things come up and sometimes people can’t make their scheduled shifts. TWC is a four-hour co-op, meaning that you have to do four hours of work each week to keep the cooperative running. For some people, this means taking on four shifts a week, a mixture of cook shifts, during which you help cook a delicious meal for everyone in the co-op, and crew shifts, during which you clean up the kitchen and dining space after a meal.

This sounds like a lot of work, but most people don’t actually end up working four full shifts. Many people in the co-op take on other positions, such as Dining Loose Ends Coordinator (two co-opers who coordinate discussions and logistics of the co-op) and Food Buyer (two co-opers who coordinate the purchasing of food from local vendors). For positions like these, your other tasks for the co-op make up your full shifts and you only have to work one crew shift a week. Additionally, if you have a job and work for more than 8 hours a week you can get time aid that is proportional to the amount you work. This helps make the co-op more accessible for people who work a lot or have busy schedules. The way we coordinate who does which shift is that one of the co-opers, the Membership Coordinator, makes a work chart by figuring out everyone’s schedules and doing a sort of Tetris to fill out all the slots of the week. As such, we have weekly shifts that are at the same time and day every week. This semester, I cook on Wednesday lunch, head cook Thursday lunch, crew Sunday lunch, and have one hour of time aid. On each cook shift, there is a head cook who plans the meal ahead of time and facilitates the cooking process by leading the other cooks in their shared vision of what the meal will look like. I love head cooking, as it gives me a space to get really good at chopping onions, experiment with new recipes, and cook some tasty beans.

TWC is a great space for learning how to cook, developing your cooking skills, and eating the best food on campus (we all know how to season food and often cook foods from each of our cultures). Our meals always have to have dietary restriction options, so it is a great place for students who are vegan or vegetarian as we mostly eat beans, lentils, and tofu as our main sources of protein. We do eat meat occasionally, but mostly for special meals which occur on weekend dinners and often require more prep and planning than any other meal. Last semester my friend Sage and I made oxtail and crusty bread for a special meal and it was quite literally magical. In terms of a typical weekday meal, a very classic meal is rice, lentils, and a roasted vegetable. Our usual starch option is gluten-free, consisting of rice or potatoes (or millet, an ancient grain packed with nutrients that I have been trying to get to catch on in the co-op), and for veggies, we usually have whatever organic produce is in season in Northeast Ohio. During the fall months, we have more of an abundance, of corn, kale, green beans, zucchini, and eggplant to name a few. In the winter months, we mostly eat beets, carrots, and other root vegetables (which I love), but also get fresh veggies like lettuce and collard greens.

The way co-ops work is that as long as a cook or crew shift is not happening, you basically have free reign to make yourself the snack of your dreams using any of the ingredients we have in the kitchen. We keep all kitchen staples in stock, and you can request special ingredients if there is something specific you want to make for the co-op or yourself. In my spare time, I love making tasty things for the co-op like cardamom buns, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and mochi cake. While we as a cooperative don’t coordinate the cooking of a hot breakfast for all the members, there are breakfast items such as yogurt, puffed grains, and eggs that you can whip up and enjoy for a morning boost. For lunch and dinner, we have set meal times, but if you can’t make a meal you can request a save plate and a full plate will be placed in a fridge with your name on it so you can retrieve it and heat it up whenever you are free. During all other times, you have unlimited snacking privileges of the fresh foods we have. My favorite snacks to get from the co-op are the apples we get from a local orchard which are some of the best apples I’ve eaten in my life, a quick fried egg from the kitchen, and local chocolate milk with honey puffed spelt. I seriously feel spoiled by the quality of the ingredients we get to work with. For as long as I have been in TWC, it has consisted of a little more than 30 members, but it has a capacity of 60 members and we are always looking to grow our community. The fact that it is significantly smaller than the other co-ops means that it really is more of an intertwined community. Each day I love my co-op more and more and have found students that share my passion for creating yummy food and cleaning our kitchen for the community we all care for. At Oberlin, finding community with students of color was a lifeline that continues to support me every day. 

If you are interested in living or dining in a cooperative and intentional safe space community with other students of color, join TWC and TWSJ! Current students can apply to TWC and TWSJ by filling out the application and joining the OSCA lottery. The deadline is technically March 1st, but after that, the OSCA waitlist will open and there will be plenty of time to join. The applications are a bit menacing but are read anonymously and we are just looking to see if your identity aligns with the principles of our co-op, so don't worry if your answers aren't fully fleshed out. If you are nervous about joining something you’ve never experienced before, people of color are always welcome to our meals which happen at 12:20 pm and 6:20 pm every day. For incoming students, there will be another lottery in June so be on the lookout for that. At Oberlin, there is no place like TWC and TWSJ.

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