Sharon Pearson

Interview by: Jamilah Grizzle

July 21, 2017

Q: How long have you been in Oberlin?

A: I was born and raised in Oberlin. My claim to fame that I tell everybody when they ask me to  tell them about myself, is that I played baby Jesus in the Baptist church here. That is somewhat significant because my godfather was the pastor at the church, Reverend Stein. He was one of the people that was really instrumental in trying to develop town-gown relationships in the community. He was my godfather and my parents were very close with him. That’s how I got to be baby Jesus!

"I wanted to become a civic councilperson so I could right some wrongs and to promote what’s good about Oberlin."

Q: How would you describe what you do in the community to someone outside of Oberlin?

A: That’s very interesting! It has changed recently. Right now, my connection is with community advocates. I’ve always loved Oberlin. I’ve either lived or worked in Oberlin throughout my entire life. Since I’ve been here, I think I’ve followed in the footsteps of my father. My father was very well known and used to help a lot of people all the time. He passed away when I was 8 years old. You have these impressions even when you’re young, from your parents. I find myself always trying to be of help to people. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to become a civic councilperson, so I could be of assistance to people to be able to right some of the wrongs I thought were happening, to promote what’s good about Oberlin. There’s a lot of times where I’ve volunteered here in Oberlin. I’m also vice-chair of the organization called POWER, making sure Oberlin uses electricity responsibly. Back in April of this year, for about five and a half years, I’ve worked with the Oberlin Project, as a project coordinator. I coordinated a lot of events. That’s probably what I’m known for most, coordinating a lot of community events. So I’m kind of all about the community.

"My personal motto is: How can I help someone be better off than when I found them?"

Q: What role do you play in making positive change in the community?

A: I really like to help educate people on things that they don’t know that might help their life. I do have a personal motto that is: How can I help someone be better off than when I found them? Not all of us have access to the same type of information. I don’t want to force it upon people either. I want to understand where they are, and if they seem like they’re ready and open for help, then I will give them some tidbits that will help them, particularly when it comes down to sustainability. That’s an issue that not everyone understands equally, and so when I was working at the Oberlin Project, one of the things I realized was that language is really important. We have to break down these words that are obscure sometimes, like the word sustainability, and define what I mean, in order to have a better understanding and meet people where they are. Then they can accept that definition and explain what it means to them in their own way. Those are things I like to do.

Q: What challenges people in accessing basic necessities like food and water?

A: Even though I’m not a millennial, I believe in a millennial's mindset, and I hate to drive. The lack of public transportation really bothers me here in Lorain County. When I was fortunate enough to live right behind the Hotel at Oberlin and I was working over at the Oberlin Project, I was two-hundred feet away from work so I never had to drive. For three years I gave up a car. I wanted to force myself to understand what people who don’t have a car are going through, though it saved me lots of money. Not having that car payment, not having to worry about insurance, not having a lot of things. I also found that I began to grow closer to people, because I would need rides from people and we would get in the car and we would start talking.

I really got involved with working with students to make Oberlin a bicycle-friendly community because I know that is important to people. I’m not a huge bicycle rider, but I understand that people in Oberlin are. Then because one of the main projects that I was working on with the Oberlin Project was about transportation, I knew nothing about it when I first started. But I learned more about the importance and the fact that younger people are driving less, older people are driving less. Younger people are looking to move where there are options for transportation. I’m not saying that they won’t drive a car, but they want those options, such as car-sharing, ride-sharing, Uber, Lyft, biking, all of these things. Nowadays young people will look for these options before they find a job, and the fact that we don’t have public transit here in Lorain County means that we don’t have a lot of young people moving here. So that becomes an issue for other people who don’t have resources or are living in poverty because they are going to stay in that poverty level because they have no other choice to get anywhere without the public transit. The whole transportation issue, for me, I recognize it as a need for other people and I have been working with a group called M.O.V.E. Lorain County. M.O.V.E. stands for Mobility and Opportunity for a Vibrant Economy. We know that public transit is very related to economic activity. We haven’t been able to solve it yet, we’re still working on it. We’re having a struggle, but it’s something that I’m continuing to work on everyday.

How can we begin to share what we know here in Oberlin with the rest of the county?
Q: What other resources do you wish existed within the community?

A: One thing that comes to mind is that one of the reasons that I love coming to the Hotel at Oberlin is that the food would taste so good. It tastes so good because it’s local. That’s one thing that I’m always telling people is that if they haven’t been there since it was the Oberlin Inn, that they have to go. The food is awesome and the chef here is wonderful and always trying to get the food from within two-hundred miles. I’m noticing that the restaurants that have that local food are popular. It’s actually a marketing thing these days. I don’t know if everyone has access to that. I don’t know if people are educated on necessarily the health reasons behind why you need to eat healthier. It’s something my husband and I are trying to do. We want to have a garden in our backyard. I also think that it’s wonderful that we have the farmers market here in Oberlin and that they are able to accept modes of payment from people who may be low income in order for them to have access to that too. I don’t know if that’s necessarily lacking in Oberlin, because Oberlin Community Services provides a lot of that too, and some of the education behind it. It’s very tasty to be able to eat at a place like that. I think it’s wonderful. One of the things that I think Oberlin is a huge resource for, and people in Oberlin don’t always go to the rest of the county. I’ve been taking my knowledge from here and trying to talk to other people in the county about sustainability and about the Environmental Dashboard, about the hotel, about foods and how we are trying to save energy. I’m starting to hear some people who are really interested in the work that we’re doing. I just wish that we were more cohesive as a county, we seem to be separated a little bit. I don’t know as much about resources lacking in Oberlin, but I wish there was the ability for more cohesiveness around the county to talk about these things and embrace them. How can we begin to share what we know here in Oberlin with the rest of the county to help them?

I’m so proud to be born and raised here in Oberlin.

Q: What do you love about Oberlin?

A: I love how small it is. Some people won’t like me saying this, but I love the fact that the college is here. The fact that the college is here… I didn’t know all of the resources that were available to me as a resident until I started working at the Oberlin Project and had connections with Oberlin College. At that time it made me really want to tell as many people as possible, let’s break down these barriers and begin to see how we can help each other. The college can’t exist without the community and the community can’t exist without the college. How do we begin to come together and to work together to see each other as an asset, and try to figure out how to make things better for the other person? There are still some improvements that we need to make, I’m not saying that Oberlin is perfect, but we have a lot more going on in Oberlin that we do in other parts of the county. I think that’s a great testament to Oberlin and I’m so proud to be born and raised here in Oberlin.

Rosa Gadsden

Interview by: Sarah Reddy

September 26, 2017

Rosa Gadsden is a long time Oberlin resident and community member. She currently works at Oberlin Community Services as the volunteer coordinator and coordinator of the People’s Garden, a community garden located at OCS. She is a self-labeled “grazer” in the garden, and has a knack for growing food in plastic bags of soil.

Q:    Could you please explain what your role is at Oberlin Community Services?

A: I am the volunteer coordinator, which means I make sure we have enough people to staff the various projects and programs we have going on here. I am also the garden coordinator, so I run the People’s Garden and I have planted, weeded, harvested, and I use my volunteer coordinator position to get people to work out there, as well as here in OCS.

Q:  Is there a moment or accomplishment that you have had here at OCS that makes you feel most proud to be an Oberlin community member?

A: No, there is not one specific one, I just feel that generally me working here and helping people is the best thing that I can do and whichever what that happens to happen, that’s fine! I have done pretty much everything here that I can think of as a job, except for the director’s job and counseling stuff. I have worked the front desk, I’ve taken out garbage, cleaned up stuff, stocked, taken in the truck, played in the dirt outside, dealt with the different distributions going on, I have worked every aspect of that from setup to cleanup, breakdown, traffic, all of that. So there is not one thing I can think of that makes it the biggest impact, me working here in general is making the biggest impact.

"If you teach people how to be sustainable in their homes, it leads to the community being more resilient..."


Q: What do you think that other people could learn from engaging in the sort of community work that you do?

A: It would lead to giving people empathy for other people. You do not know what other people have been through, until you have taken a minute to sit in their seat or be in their shoes as some people say. It gives people a different perspective from what they’re used to. Culturally, socioeconomically, all aspects, for both clients and volunteers.

Q:   What do you see as the connection between sustainability and community resilience, especially in the work that you do in the community garden?

A: If you teach people how to be sustainable in their homes, it leads to the community being more resilient because one person doing it, showing other people how to do it, leads to a reduction of resources used, which leads to the community being better.

Q:    What do you consider the function of a community garden?

A: The function of a community garden is educational because not everyone knows how to plant a garden or maintain a garden. Not everyone knows what the taste of a garden fresh vegetable is compared to a store bought fresh one. It’s a world of difference. You pick a tomato out of a garden and eat it, it is an explosion of flavor versus what you could get sometimes in the grocery store, because of the way they ship it and all of that. So it is educational on a couple of levels for that reason. Also, it shows people how to maintain a garden. I’ve had people, we had a project showing people how to plant a garden in a bag. And they were like, “Oh, that’s kinda cool!” and so we ended up giving people a bunch of bags of dirt and showing them how they can grow themselves. On that level, it is also educational.

Plus, nutritional value is obvious. You know, my goal was to harvest a lot of stuff out of here. That didn’t happen. It got harvested, but I didn’t do it. I had a lady who regularly came and when she found out that she could get from the garden, there were a lot of things that she liked, you know, the tomatoes, cabbage, the broccoli, that she would sort of maintain herself and she would come, pick some weeds, pick some leaves, pick some broccoli, whatever she was using. So she maintained them by coming and taking from the garden, which was great!

And then it’s a community thing. We’ve had Saturdays where, when I did the whole project showing people how to grow in bags. They were like, “So all of this we can grow in a bag?” and I told them that, yes, they can grow most of the stuff here in a bag.

"Having a garden is a super power!"

Q:  Would you say that through those educational opportunities, people are gaining a new sort of power or understanding? What would that be?  
A: Oh yeah! Having a garden is definitely, well, my kids like to say it’s a super power! We are gardeners, so we are superheros, and I say, “yeah, we are kinda feeding people.” It gives people a confidence. For people that have gone from not knowing how they are going to feed their kids, not knowing when the next meal is coming, to be able to wake up and look and say “I can eat all of this,” is a big relief, a confidence builder, all of that. So my thing is, that’s what you do! Which is why I am so into showing people how to grow stuff. It’s the best, it’s the best!

Bikalpa Baniya

Interview by: Ananya Gupta

September 23, 2017

Bikalpa Baniya is a third year at Oberlin College, majoring in Economics. He’s an international student from Nepal and is dedicated to education in Nepal and everywhere he can leave his mark. He’s a Bonner scholar, Ninde tutor, and often teaches at Langston Middle School. He is currently working on connecting Maya University Academy, the first free private school in Nepal, with Oberlin College through fundraising and volunteer-based exchange programs.

Q: What have you gained from your volunteer work in Oberlin that has impacted your life?

A: I feel like people in Oberlin are people with heart. That’s not necessarily true everywhere. Big colleges like Stanford, Harvard, they want to change the world but it’s all driven by something else, here it’s driven by people.

Q: What is distinctive about your experience in the Oberlin community as opposed to volunteer experiences you’ve had elsewhere?

A: I’m a Bonner scholar so I’m required to do ten hours per week of service and one thing I’ve found is that people are welcoming here. You do have to follow rules and they do let you know what the rules are. For example, when I used to work in Langston the first meeting we were bombarded with rules. But they’re important. I do realize that I’m an outsider and to help people here I need to follow the rules. But once you get passed that, get used to the rules, the community is really welcoming.

"People in Oberlin are people with heart."

Q: What is your favorite project that you do on campus?

A: On campus it must be Ninde. I’m a Ninde tutor. I work with high school students and basically help them get into a good college. I really like that one-on-one connection. It feels like I’m mentoring and all the knowledge that I’ve gained, all the experience, I get to pass it down and it feels nice.



Q: What surprised you most about volunteering in the Oberlin community?

A: I’m an international student from Nepal. Back when I was in Nepal we had a perception of the US. We have movies and sitcoms and a perception [is born from that]. Once I came here and started working with real people in Oberlin I was like ‘huh, not what I thought.’

Q: In that they’re like you or different from you?

A: [I experienced a] change in perspective. [The ideas] that are projected in movies is not reality and I felt more connected to the people here. I know I have very different experiences from the people here. There are a lot of things that don’t overlap but then again, there are a lot of things that do.

Q: What causes or organizations do you feel most committed to in this community and why? In the Oberlin community, around campus or even in the city? Is there any particular organization that is closest to your heart or a particular movement?

A: I feel like it’s more about people than organization. The people that I am closest to are people in Kendal, teachers in schools, some of the high school students and some of students from Langston that I know.

Q: Do you feel like this community has a strong identity? How would you describe it?

A: Oberlin college people who are affiliated with the college in one-way or another definitely have a strong identity. I wouldn’t like to label anything because people are different. [But like I said earlier] people caring, and how the goals are people driven [give Oberlin it’s identity.]

Q: Are there any other people we should interview regarding their commitment to the environment, the economy, community relationships, sustainability, who are people you look up to on this campus. It could be faculty, staff, anyone.

A: There are many people, mostly professors and faculty. For me personally the people that I look up to are Professor Roose, who was a professor of education; Ana Brandt; John Gates, a very good guy to talk to; Mary and Steve Hammond from community peace church, and people from First Church are good people to talk to; those are the people who come to my mind first.

"Hope can be very powerful."

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add about the work you do here or in Nepal, or how you’re joining those two communities together?

A: In terms of joining, there are a lot of things that are wrong with the world. Things are bad and things are wrong. But there’s also hope. Hope can be very powerful. Connecting the work I do in Nepal with the work that I do here [is through] fostering this hope. People here support my work because they see hope and people in Nepal that I work with they see hope in the kids. So it’s about fostering this hope. Hope goes a long way.

Ritesh Isuri

Interview by: James Cato

September 25, 2017


Ritesh Isuri is a second-year Oberlin College student who lives in a co-op. He hails from the Mauritius, an island nation off the southeast Coast of Africa, and is a frequent volunteer both at home and in his new home, Oberlin Ohio. Ritesh is interested in the environment and has volunteered with the Western Reserve Conservancy and OCS.

Q: Tell me about the organizations you volunteer for?

A: “My volunteering is OCS, mainly. We get lots of donations from people from the town. It helps certain people who are in need with monthly distributions of foodstuffs. We help run the food bakery and other things that people might need in their homes.”

Q: What about the Western Reserve Conservancy?

A: “The Western Reserve helps protect the native plants of Ohio. That means we are planting trees, uprooting invasive plants, and doing regular checkups on the land.”


Q: How has volunteering here changed your perception of the town of Oberlin?

A: “When you first get here—for me, I am from a different country, so the U.S. was new for me. Lots of people here didn’t seem very friendly…[laughs] it wasn’t easy to make friends. But when you get to meet townspeople, and work with them, you actually learn what Oberlin’s about. You’re not confined to just the College anymore. You start to know how friendly they are, how cool they are, and how things really are. Everyone says Oberlin has nothing, but when you really get into volunteering, and you get to know people around the town, you really know Oberlin.

I think volunteering is the best way to get to know the place where you’re studying. When you volunteer you know the surroundings and the real people. If you’re studying here for four years, it makes sense to know where you’ve been, not just in respect to the College.”

"Volunteering is the best way to get to know the place where you're studying."

Q: How would you describe the identity of Oberlin?

A: “I don’t think people have a good idea of what Oberlin is before they come here. Oberlin city is like a utopian bubble; you can feel it around you in the town. People around here are very open minded. You might think that’s just a college thing, but it’s also how the town has constructed itself over the years and how the people are…you can see a united goal. People will always be ready to help you in Oberlin. I told my advisor that I didn’t get spices here, and she grew peppers for me in her own yard. That’s how we are here. Everyone here knows each other, it’s a very connected town. Everyone here works together to achieve a common goal.”

Lisa Carle

Interview by: Amy Wang

September 27, 2017

Lisa Carle is a graduating Oberlin College class of 2018student. She is a Bonner Scholar, and she has been volunteering in Oberlin Early Childhood Center since her freshman year. During this interview, Lisa brought in her perspectives on the relationship between Oberlin students and Oberlin Community. Lisa is very interested in kids’ development and nutrition, and she is hoping to become a doctor in the future.

Q: Have you volunteered before you came to Oberlin? And if so, how is the volunteer experience in  Oberlin different from your past experience?

A: I volunteered back in high school. After the March 11th earthquake and Tsunami happened in Japan, I went to the sites and helped clean up the rice farms, and I did charity work occasionally. At Oberlin it’s been different because you see yourself more like a community partner rather than somebody who is volunteering to do people a favor. I sign up for these responsibilities, and I have to do my part to fulfill it. My perception changed. I am more engaged in the community and participating in it, rather than I am above it.

"At Oberlin it’s been different because you see yourself more like a community partner rather than somebody who is volunteering to do people a favor."

Q: Do you think Oberlin College students should volunteer more? Why and how?

A: Yes, OC students should definitely be more involved in volunteering in towns. However, I think that it would be really beneficial if students were volunteering consistently throughout the year. Showing up once a year or spontaneously will not be ideally. For me, I started to see all the repercussion of what I do in Oberlin. There were a lot of times that I am not aware of events that are happening in the town, and I just let them happen by not being involved in them. It’s also just kind of messed up to be in this town for four years and take everything from them but not trying to participate. After these three years, I learned more about the town, and I am more aware of my impact on everyone else in the town.

Q:  Do you think the community also appreciate student volunteer in towns and all the works we have been doing?

A: Yes, for sure. People in the town always say that too. For every sites that I have been, people always appreciate and recognize the effort and commitment that student volunteers have put in. I think the students who do involve themselves do really well, but I just don’t think there is enough of them.

"The Bonner Scholar program emphasizes the fact that everyone can be an influential person."

Q: So you are a Bonner Scholar right ? What do you think of this program? Did this experience change you in some way?

A: Bonner Center have set up expectations that I probably would have never thought that I could achieve, pushing me to the right direction. It also consistently makes me reflect on my actions and how they can have an impact on others. The (Bonner Scholar) program emphasizes the fact that everyone can be an influential person. It also makes you learn to control your influences and make it the best you can.

Kira Findling

Interview by: Jonah Fox

October 1, 2017

Kira Findling is an Oberlin College Student. She volunteers with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Lorain County. Every week she meets up with a fifth grader from Prospect elementary to play battleship, talk about her week, and eat snacks.

Q: Can you tell me what it’s like to be with that fifth grader?

A: I always miss being around kids when I’m here, so it’s nice to be with someone who’s out of the bubble a little bit.

"I think that going to a school is a good way to understand a community..."

Q: You think that this has given you a way in to the community?

A: I think that going to a school is a good way to understand a community, just sort of being in that environment has been really neat.

Q:    Does it feel like you’re giving back in a way?

A: I think it does because I come from somewhere else and have different experiences from her particularly. I can offer her something different than people who’ve grown up here so in that way I feel like I’m giving something of myself to her and she’s giving me something of herself.

Q: Do you think you’ve found any community through your volunteer work?

A: It makes me feel like more of a resident of Oberlin and less of a visitor because she and I expect something of each other and I have a relationship and a commitment that’s outside of my college commitments, so I feel like I’m building community with her. I’d definitely like to do more, but I’m happy with the community she and I have built.

Q: How do you see other students relating to volunteering?

A: Most people I talk to see it as very important, and something we owe to this community because we are visitors and we’re also residents, so we all need to pitch in and be part of it. Something I really liked about oberlin that drove me here was how many people do community  service and I think there’s always more opportunities but I’ve been really impressed with how much people care.

Kim Faber

Interview by: Antonia Offen

September 23, 2017

Kim Faber is a professor of Spanish Language and Teacher Training. She is from California and received her Masters in Research from UC Davis. Faber started the Spanish In The Elementary Schools (SITES) program in 2005 and has been Program Director ever since.

"To immediately apply what you’re taught about in the classroom makes for a much deeper learning experience."

Q: How would you describe SITES to someone from outside of Oberlin?

A: SITES stands for Spanish in the Elementary Schools. Through SITES, college students get to teach Spanish to kids in the Oberlin schools. It’s a chance for them to apply what they’re learning in college about language education. But SITES also allows college students to learn about the community they live in. So the program is beneficial not only to the community and the public schools, but my students are also learning a ton. To immediately apply what you’re taught about in the classroom makes for a much deeper learning experience.

Q: How did you get the idea for SITES and what motivated you to put it into place?

A: When my son was starting Kindergarten, I asked the schools when their foreign language program would begin. They said, ‘Well it begins in high school.’ Since I studied linguistics and education in grad school, I know how important it is for a child to learn a second language as early as possible. 

So I decided to try and see if it was possible to to create a language program starting earlier than high school. At the time I was teaching a course called Linguistics for Language Students. I asked the students if any of them would be interested in volunteering to introduce languages into the public schools. They overwhelmingly said, ‘Yeah let’s do it!’. It turned out, the schools had already done a parent survey that said that, if there was going to be a second language taught, they preferred it to be Spanish. So I said, ‘Well that’s handy. I’m coming from the Spanish department, so that will be easier for me to organize anyway.’ The college students were super excited about working in the schools. Their energy was contagious.

"The kids will notice things in a way that they wouldn’t have if they weren’t learning another language."

Q: How would you describe the community in Oberlin and how do you think that SITES has impacted the community?

A: One of the things that I did as SITES director was starting the culture festival. Both SITES and the festival really bring everyone in the town and the college together. I’ve gotten to interact with parents, teachers, and administrators in a way that I never would have before. SITES helps bring home the idea that learning a language is not as hard as many people think. What we do trickles down to what kids think about learning languages. The pedagogy that we use, the way that we teach kids in schools- it’s amazing. A lot of parents, administrators, and especially teachers who have seen us work are getting really excited about how we are teaching. Since we only teach Spanish twice a week, we’re not actually in the classroom enough for kids to be gaining real proficiency in the language. Still, though, they are learning. All kinds of cognitive abilities increase if you know a second language. So these kids are going to actually learn to read better in English because they’re looking at language in a more profound way. The kids will notice things in a way that they wouldn’t have if they weren’t learning another language. These are all really positive things that SITES has helped make people more aware of.

Jody Kerchner

Interview by: Madeleine Gefke

September 18, 2017

Jody L. Kerchner is Professor of Music Education and Director of the Pedagogy/Advocacy/Community Engagement (PACE) Division at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.  She is the founder and conductor of the Oberlin Music at Grafton (OMAG) Prison Choir and provides college students with the opportunity to sing as choir members alongside the men at Grafton.  A few years ago, Jody received a stuffed animal squirrel as a gift from her choristers, because she often compares them to squirrels when they chat too much.

Q: What do you think you’ve gained or learned from your experiences in the Grafton Prison community that has impacted your life or your perspective?

A: I imagined that because these men were going to be performing at a lower musical level than what I was experiencing at the Conservatory, it wouldn’t be as satisfying as it is.  [Yet] I find that I’m learning so much about the social justice issues and the need for reform of our penal system.  I’ve learned to be a better teacher, because I have to be really specific and I can’t take anything for granted, as many of the singers are starting from scratch in terms of their musical knowledge.  It’s joyful to bring students with me as assistants.  It’s joyful to see the men feeling accomplished and the self-esteem that they’re gaining through music.  It’s taken me in a totally different direction than I ever would’ve imagined in terms of my professional life.

"I’ve learned to be a better teacher, because I can’t take anything for granted."

Q: You also work with student volunteers from the College and the Conservatory.  What do you think keeps them coming back?

A: Initially, it is the intrigue [of] music in prison [that interests the students].  They keep coming back because they put names and faces to the word prisoner.  [We create] musical relationships and build a community of learners through music.  It is the strong relationships and the reciprocal learning, where the men are learning from the students, and the students are learning about life, privilege, mistakes, and forgiveness from the residents, that keeps students coming back.

" [We create] musical relationships and build a community of learners through music."

Q: How have you and your student volunteers impacted the Grafton community?

A: For the ninety minutes of our rehearsal, the singers have reported that they can be their vulnerable selves, open to artistic processes.  The prisoners often comment that they have two selves.  One [“self”] is within our choir space, [where] we aim for a safe space [in which] every voice is heard, acknowledged, and honored in decision making.  But the residents also have this other self that is outside, where no emotion is showed and where people make the choices for them.  The men also talk about interacting with people on the outside, because they don’t often get that socialization.  Also in terms of impact, we have done a lot to build relationships where the prison officials are seeing us differently and we’re starting to see them as people, instead of those who are doing bad things to prisoners.  In seeing different sides of each other, we’re coming to understand the complexity of the person, rather than slapping a stereotype onto a person.  

Q: What has been your favorite part of working with the Grafton community?

A: We just have fun and that fun comes from learning.  Sometimes I’ll laugh because they get so frustrated with themselves in learning music.  Sometimes we just laugh at each other because the sounds we make are really pretty ugly.  Sometimes we flop and we can laugh at that, excuse that, and then problem solve on how to go about relearning and approaching music.  It is great fun to be around them and I never thought I would be saying that, but it is a highlight of my week.  There is that music and humanity [in this community], and I just really enjoy that.

Aliya Ultan

Interview by: Rebecca Wood

September 29, 2017

Aliya Ultan is Junior studying Cello and Composition at the Oberlin Conservatory.  She has spent lots of time in Oberlin during the school year, but also over summer, fall, and winter breaks where she was able to experience firsthand what Oberlin is like without its student population.  She was Program Director for Make Music Oberlin/Cleveland, a grassroots music festival that takes place every June in Oberlin, Lorain, and Cleveland communities.

Q: Has your action in the community changed your role in Oberlin?  Or maybe the way you see yourself within the community? And if it did, in what ways?

A: Organizing Make Music [Oberlin] was really interesting because it made me come to terms with some of the major differences between the Oberlin community, Lorain, and Oberlin College and Conservatory.  First of all I’d like to say that all of these communities can learn a lot from each other. However, most of the projects created to bring these communities together have been in their beginning stages for a while simply because Oberlin is such a transient community.

Q:  What do you mean “Oberlin is a transient community”?

A: As in, you’re here for four or five years and then you leave.  You could start to become a really important part of some kind of event, workshop, or teaching position, but then after you graduate not many people stay to continue that work.  So it gets passed on, passed on, passed on, but progress becomes an issue because there’s always a new person picking up the pieces, and maybe trying a totally different approach each time.  That was something that I had to come to terms with right away: what are the things I can realistically make happen as a brand new person to this community, first of all, but also [as] someone that can do and make something lasting.  

Something I kept finding out from locals is that they really do appreciate College kids when we’re being respectful and doing our work, because it’s a great influence on the surrounding area that suffers, I think the same way students suffer, from isolation.  And there’s so much of a community here, especially over [breaks].  So a lot changed with how I saw myself, and there was a lot of things that I wasn’t expecting at all that came up that I had to navigate.

Q:  Do you have any examples of that unexpectedness?  Maybe unexpected outcomes?

A: Yes, so one of the things [I found] is that there’s this line, like Main St., there’s a kind of line [there]. And the people on one side of the street don’t cross to the other side.  Tappan Square and the shops on Main St. are a kind of intersection between two worlds, but  I am still amazed at how separate the two communities are.  And it’s such a small place!  

I think something that I realized with Make Music [Oberlin], but also with the work I’m doing now as a music teacher, is that people are totally one hundred percent excited about cross-contamination [between the Town and the College], it’s just they need someone to initiate that.  So that’s what I started to do, and am doing now. It’s really fun because there are so many people on the other side of the street that are just as creative and interesting [as students are], and I actually think that students could learn a lot from those people, and these people already know that they’re learning from students.  The issue of the divide is complex and yet some of the solutions can actually be pretty straightforward.  I think there are a lot of ways to work around [the divide], to work for it, work with it, and create something different.

Q: So you mentioned something about the transience of the college community.  What would you suggest to combat that feeling?

A: I think that every person who comes to this school should live here at some point.  Stay here for a break, fall break, or stay here over the summer.  Try to live off campus, if that’s possible, just because that cross-contamination [between the Town and the College] is where it’s at.  That’s where you start to meet people and create a community for yourself that isn’t so exclusive.  

The other [thing I’d suggest] is I think leadership roles need to be passed on better.  It’s one thing to be a good leader, [but] it’s quite another to train-in another person to be a good leader after you.  You can be a leader for four years, but if the next person comes in and you don’t tell them a single thing about what you found out, then they’re just starting over.  And even if they do good work, there are certain things that just keep falling behind.  That’s something that I’m trying to navigate now, as I’m coming into my senior year.  How could I potentially find an underclassman that shows signs of being a good leader, [who’s] also someone that I know I could train into being that cello teacher, or that composition teacher, for the community, and not necessarily just for Oberlin College and Conservatory.


Q: So what do you think you would say to someone who’s interested in going into the community and volunteering?

A:  Well number one, I think this idea of “outreach” is really repulsive.  I hate the word, I think it’s demeaning.  I’d like to call it community engagement.  I think engaging in other communities is really important, but I don’t think a lot of people know how to do that.  It’s important to enter with respect and to be humble, but don’t tiptoe around.  It’s really a matter of entering in a socially respectful way in general, because no one wants/needs you to help them, necessarily.  They don’t need help.  When you participate in the community, what you’re doing is sharing with new people, and potentially making new friends.  I really believe in the respect/humility type thing.  

Growing up in Brooklyn as a poor city kid, I know the benefits of programs like Make Music Oberlin.  I think students could do a better job of raising money for these projects.  And making more events that are free, and actually valuable to those who maybe don’t get to eat every meal each day.  

I’m interested in seeing some of the students I know that grow some of their own food give the veggies they don’t consume away, or opening it up their green spaces to other people.  I just think there could be a lot more of that kind of thinking going on.  On [Make Music Day] I gave away a lot of free T-shirts, toy instruments, and food, and I had to raise that money.  It is a lot of work, but I think it’s really important.  And I think there a lot of kids here would be good at it, it’s just a matter of doing it.  I don’t think [students] here meet enough people outside of campus to have a reason to do that.  So that’s the initial setback.  But yeah, not outreach, engagement.

"If there’s an opportunity for me to play my music in a venue in the community, that’s number one on my list."

Q:  So, as a Conservatory student, how do you feel the community has maybe benefited your music, or just the work you do within the Conservatory?  How has that changed your relationship with the Conservatory and the Town together as a single entity?

A: I love the Conservatory building, I think it’s really beautiful.  But no one ever leaves this building.  We lock up our instruments in lockers in the building, so it turns into a separation of life and work. And that’s beautiful, that’s healthy, but there are so many people who are eager to hear what’s happening in the Conservatory, but they don’t feel welcome inside.  It is intimidating when you walk in, and everyone’s walking around super fast to class with their instrument, and you don’t necessarily know where to go to hear something.   

I think the Conservatory could be opened up more to the public.  I think we should have outdoor chamber music concerts, we should be playing at Kendal more.  There's so many businesses in town that have been trying to have music for a long time, and there's so many things that are ready to be happening!  But they’re not, because students are locking their instruments up in the Conservatory.

So my attitude has changed in the sense where, if there’s an opportunity for me to play my music in a venue in the community, that’s number one on my list.  That’s what I commit to, [because] the first thing I want to see happen is live music on the streets!

All the work I’ve done in the community has not only changed how I feel about Oberlin as a community, but it’s also made me realize that everything is possible, yet because of that it’s even harder to start something new  But I think you can actually be a better student when you try to think in this way, because on other campuses it’s more like that because the school is in a city or something.  So Oberlin’s kind of unique in that way, just geographically speaking.

Q: How does your involvement help you in your education?  

A:  I think it keeps school in check.  I think sometimes we start to let school take us over emotionally, to the point where a homework assignment is a life assignment.  But life goes on, and school is just a matter of getting better and making progress.  So I think when you’re talking to people different from you, it can really help you to gain perspective.  So great to be friends with someone who’s in a different age group from you, just to keep time in perspective.   Teaching kids and talking to seniors, there’s so much you can learn from thinking in that way.

India Wood

Interview by: Otto Vock

October 1, 2017

India Wood is a fourth year student at Oberlin College majoring in psychology with a concentration in education. She volunteers as a program facilitator with Our Whole Lives (OWL), an after school program focusing on providing comprehensive sex and health education to young people. India’s work provides valuable insight into how young people in the Oberlin community view education, sex, consent, and the culture they’re immersed in.

Q: What’s the organization you volunteer for and what are its goals in the community?

A: I am working at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in town. They have a program there that runs every year called OWL which stands for ‘Our Whole Lives.’ The curriculum was made by the Unitarian Universalist church because they felt a very deep need for comprehensive sex education not just in school but provided in churches. They developed a very elaborate curriculum, not just for younger, middle school age kids but also all the way up through high school. We cater to 7th to 10th grade students. Last year we ran the program and we’re doing it again this year because so many kids actually asked to participate in our program again.

Q: What are you personal goals working with younger people on these subjects?

A: I think one of my personal goals going into the program before I knew anything about it was really to, for myself, get a sense of what it’s like to work with kids in a community I don’t really know that much about, and meeting students where they are. Something that I’ve learned is just how different the community is and how great it is to have a perspective of Oberlin as the town not just Oberlin as the college. I also get to learn about the kinds of lives the kids lead here.

Q: What strikes you about the lives the kids live in the town? What stories have inspired you while interacting with the student?

One thing is I didn’t really realize how many students are home-schooled. They use this program as means of getting of getting health credit in the public schools. A lot of the kids and their parents don’t really think that the public schools have that great of an ability to teach their children sex education with comprehensive information. Although the schools have a pretty solid program when it comes to comprehensive fact based information, the parents wanted something more in depth for their kids. Many parents actually opt out of the programs in the public schools and have us teach their students at the church. I didn’t really think about what it was like to grow up in suburban rural Ohio before, but these kids seem to have a lot of fun. They just love to run around and be very silly. It’s just been a real pleasure to meet them and get to know about their lives.


"We always answer honestly. Our motto is that if student are mature enough to ask the questions, they are mature enough to hear the answer."

Q: What do you love about working with OWL?

A: I love sex education and I think the OWL program is a great program. When I went into teaching OWL I wanted to be somebody they can relate to more as a younger person, as somebody closer to their age. I really love how silly we can be together. One thing that I remember from my public school sex education was that it always felt very serious and our teacher discouraged us from laughing but I always tell the kids, ‘We can laugh! This is hilarious! These words are so silly!’ And I love just laughing with them and playing games with them and hearing about their perspectives of what talking about sex is like at their age in their communities. Sometimes it’s really interesting, sometimes it’s shocking. But every time you interact with young people at the middle school to high school age it’s like a whole new culture that you're indoctrinated in. It still feels like a crazy distant time for me but it’s really cool to reconnect to their realities.

Q: In what ways do you feel that OWLS has been ahead of the curve on important issues?

A: I think one cool thing about the OWL curriculum is that we have a questions box at the end of every class where students can ask any question on the content that comes to mind. We always answer honestly. Our motto is that if student are mature enough to ask the questions, they are mature enough to hear the answer. Keeping in mind, we are always asking, ‘do you want to know more about this?’ If they say yes we’ll keep teaching them about it, to a certain point of course. In some public schools they are actually not allowed to teach certain things in sex education classes but in OWL the students are the people that help create the curriculum. The kids help shape what we teach them because they are asking for information. We tell the student that if they’re ever uncomfortable, they can say so and not engage in the activity that we’re doing. That is super important because it's putting their learning into their hands. We do a whole crash course on what consent is and why it’s important to sexual situations, non sexual situations and fundamentally to everything that we do. At this age a lot of kids are learning that they can do things and get away with them and I think it’s even more important at this age to emphasize how important it is to get consent from people and always ask questions. Not just for a legal standpoint, but for being a good friend and a good person in life. It’s always better to be asking questions and waiting for responses.