A version of this article appears in spring print edition in June 4 2013.
If frequent bursts of applause, shouts from the crowd and laughter are valid indicators of audience approval, then Sherman Alexie’s community college observations were definite crowd favorites during his talk at the Egyptian Theater in April. The author spoke of his affection for these institutions, particularly the urban variety where diversity and levels of activism are rich, though the students—at least from a socioeconomic stand- point—generally are not.
Far from taking offense to his remarks, the crowd of primarily Seattle Central Community College students and staff embraced them enthusiastically, filling the auditorium with a palpable sense of the underdog’s self-deprecating humor, tempered with fierce pride. People nodded and smiled, and several students looked around at one another with expressions that said, “Damn right, Sherman! That’s me. That’s us.”
SCCC’s unique vibe springs from the diverse strands of this “Us”. It’s an eclectic and noisy energy of mixed cultures and backgrounds, perspective gathered from journeys along tough roads, and creativity born of necessity and a strong desire for expression. Regardless of which criteria or definition someone uses to define this Us, we are a real community. That’s the good news.
The bad news, according to Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” is that social capital, which is the collective value of social networks and the desire for its members to do things for one another, has been falling in the U.S. for over 25 years. Attendance at club meetings is down 58%, visiting friends is down 45%, and even family dinners have declined by 33%. The same is true in many western countries, where the sense of community once found in institutions such as churches and local meeting places continues to erode. In other words, real communities continue to take a beating.
In light of these trends and data, one might ask why removing the second “C” (the community one) from SCCC a good thing? Is it wrong to acknowledge our community? Should we be ashamed of it instead? Are we trying to impress someone, and if so, who?
If the Board is trying to impress people, instead of “rebranding” SCCC as Seattle Central College, it’s too bad they couldn’t have invited these perspectives/additional students to my Creative Non Fiction class a couple days ago when we met at Caffé Vita. Ages in the class run the gamut from 18 to 48, and we’re made up of people from the East Coast, South, Midwest, Southwest and the West Coast. We have a Mescalero Apache, African Americans, Asians and white people. A Marine who served in Afghanistan sits alongside people who don’t care much for the military. We worry about one another’s sexual orientations about as much as we worry about the sign that says, “No Food or Drink in Classroom.”
We’re also fortunate to have students from East and West Africa, Pakistan, Korea, Taiwan and China. English may be their second language but they’ve enriched our class enormously by broadening everyone’s global and cultural awareness. We’re humbled by their stories and inspired by the courage in their writing.
We were all reluctant to leave Caffé Vita when “class” was over, which wasn’t a commentary on the pastries and coffee, as good as they were. We like each other. We’re a community within a community.
We think Sherman would have enjoyed hanging out with us too, and though no one can or should put words in another’s mouth, it would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on the plan to improve SCCC’s “brand” by cutting out that pesky—and maybe a little embarrassing? —’Community’ part from its name. Chances are there would have been more applause, shouts from the crowd, and especially laughter—the derisive type.