By Taylor K. Long
When I sat down to interview Kirk White of the Bethel Revitalization Initiative a few weeks ago, it was to discuss their Bethel University programming: a free, pop-up university that takes place across the month of March. Classes cover a wide range of topics, like dowsing (which I attended), creating digital maps, identifying trees, Nerf gun wars, making pasta, and more. It’s a wonderful, local resource that I encourage people to check out each year.
In the wake of Covid-19, things in the world, our country, and naturally, our local towns and communities, have drastically shifted. Bethel University has since cancelled most of the remaining classes, though some will be offered online.
Still, though the context is changed, Bethel’s approach to community building is an inspiration at this time when communities need to get creative about ways to connect more than ever. Checking in with him this week, White mentioned that, “One of the things BRI started several years ago was encouraging (and doing) random, anonymous community art, such as yarn bombing. We currently have some anonymous yarn bombing going on around town.”
As we face shelter in place orders, and plenty of uncertainty about what the next weeks and months will look like, White’s words about bonding over common interests, creative idea generation, and community engagement are comforting and hopeful. In this time of reflection, perhaps we should all challenge ourselves to come up with our own “crazy ideas” about how to stay connected in this time of social distancing, what we can do to support our local communities, and the future we’d like to shape for the Upper Valley.

Photo by Taylor K. Long

​​​​​​​Taylor Long: I understand that Bethel University began out of responses from a town survey?
Kirk White: Yeah. There was a team of us, the Bethel Revitalization Initiative, and after Tropical Storm Irene, we tried to find ways to rebuild the community. We went to a few different events and put up white boards saying, “What would you dream of for Bethel?” And at one of the events some people put: “Classes,” “I wish people would do something at town hall.” There were people wandering in and wandering out, speculating various things, and at some point, someone said, “Well, we should have a Bethel University.” So, a team of us ran with that. The funny thing is, no one admits to being the one who came up with that idea.
Taylor: Oh really?
Kirk: So, we don’t know who specifically said Bethel University, but someone put it on the board. I think I know, but she always denied it, and she’s passed away now.
Taylor: From that idea, how did you expand on what it would be, what it would look like?
Kirk: We just dreamed and improvised. One of the features of the Bethel Revitalization Initiative — the team that runs BU — is that we operate on an alternative government model. Technically I guess I’m the president, because I founded it, but otherwise we basically operate on consensus. We operate on a model that we call a “do-ocracy.” If you have a great idea, you go ahead and do it, and we will encourage and empower and support you, and help you make that happen. With Bethel University, people came and said, well, what about this, or I have this skill set, and so we improvised through the whole thing. Which has actually been working well for all the projects we do.
Rebecca Sanborn Stone, I don’t know if you know her, she’s a local person who does a lot of things, she’s part of our team. At one point she made the observation — I think she just gave a talk at a conference on the west coast about this — which is that if you have enough people and a big budget, then you can do community development like you would a play. You get a script, you have a plan, you know where it’s going to go, you buy the props, and everybody practices and you do it, and then you suss out how well it went. If you don’t have those things, if you’re a small, rural town without any budget, then you have to approach it like improv comedy. That’s how our model works, we’re all improv. It works, it works for small towns.
Taylor: So this is the seventh year?
Kirk: Yeah, seventh year.
Taylor: Has there been anything that has surprised you over the years? Did you expect it to last this long?
Kirk: No, we had no expectations. We always just thought we’d do it and see how it went. The first year I think we had something like 11 classes and we felt pretty good that there were 400 people signed up and registered. Then, the next year, we doubled the number of all that, and up to the point where last year we had over 70 — close to 75 — classes. We had 1,100 registrations from every county in Vermont, every state in New England, plus New York. 
Taylor: That’s huge!
Kirk: Yeah, so people now travel. I know a woman in New York state who plans her vacation around it; she comes and takes classes when she’s here. 
Taylor: That’s so great.
Kirk: The success rate has been what’s surprising, and all the amazing skills people have. We’ve had 4-year-olds teach classes. One of our most popular classes — on How to Roll Your Own Sushi — is taught by Eddie Staples, he’s been doing this for a few years now. I think he started teaching when he was 11 or something like that. It’s just amazing, the way the community has gathered and come together around this.
Taylor: So you said that the Sushi class is one of your most popular ones, what are some of the other really popular classes?
Kirk: They vary every year. Most of the cooking classes do really well. Last year there was one on Traditional Italian Dances that did really well, and you never know from year to year. They offered it last year, it had a good turnout; this year, they offered it and I guess everyone who was interested took it last year. So, you never really know. The wine class always sells out — that’s not a surprise. Introduction to Running a Chainsaw Class last year did really well. There was a class on Blacksmithing –
Taylor: I’ve taken that one!
Kirk: And that’s hard to get into, because they only had a few slots.
Taylor: Oh yeah, the year that I got in it was basically the minute it opened up, I was so excited.
Kirk: This year, we had people months in advance asking “When are classes opening?” Once we started building the registration for the classes, we didn’t even think about it, but people started registering for classes that weren’t real classes, we were just putting up dummy classes, and people were looking. There’s a lot of enthusiasm.
Taylor: Have you personally taught any classes?
Kirk: I have.
Taylor: What are some of the ones you’ve taught?
Kirk: I’ve taught a number of them on various aspects of Chinese Medicine, like herbs for winter colds. I taught one on acupuncture, the latest research on acupuncture and its usefulness in treating the opioid problem, there have been some really great studies on it. I also taught an astrology class. My wife often teaches a tarot reading class. The other one I taught was basically the medieval roots of our spring festival traditions and where they came from. A bunch of people showed up. I erected a maypole in the town hall and had people dancing around the maypole, it was very fun.

I tend to take more nerdy classes. If there was a good geology class, I’d take that. I did Intro to Improv Comedy last year, which was really fun. I don’t take as many as you’d think because, you know the team that runs it, we have the keys, so we have to open doors and greet people and make sure they have the projector. So, the staff is often too busy to take classes. 
Taylor: So now that you’re in your seventh year, what are some of the challenges that you face each year?
Kirk: Well, we’re always challenged with the technology. 
Taylor: In what sense?
Kirk: This year we’re using a different registration platform because the old one sent us a notice saying it would no longer play nicely with Wordpress for our website, so we had to rebuild. It lacks an important feature, so next year we’ll probably have a different one, because we need something that allows us to have a waitlist, for example. Those kinds of things. Having enough volunteers to open doors is always a challenge. And it’s always good to have different ideas and different voices, people that have a different take on things.
I was president of the Bethel Business Association for a couple terms, and one of the things that I learned from that is what often happens in these kinds of community organizations is you get a core bunch of people who are really creative and motivated and focused, and they start a bunch of stuff, and then they get stuck running that stuff forever because no one else will step in and help, and then eventually they get burned out and it goes away. 
Taylor: I think that’s so common in small groups, small organizations, anything like that.
Kirk: Yeah, we’re always trying to, with any of our things that Bethel Revitalization starts, we’re always looking for ways to give them away. If a bunch of people came up and said we’d like to do Bethel University next year, we’d probably say, hey, that’s fantastic. At the very least, we are always open to other crazy ideas, we pride ourselves on our crazy ideas. I try to think of five different crazy ideas a day, just because once in a while it’s not a bad idea.
About 15 years ago or so, I had the idea for a Bethel Blues Festival and everybody thought it was a crazy idea, but I think it may happen next year. Because eventually you reach a critical mass where a bunch of people are saying, “I wish there was a music festival in Bethel,” and somebody says, “Well, Kirk used to think about a Bethel Blues Festival, we should talk to him.” We had our first organizational meeting a few months back. We’re having some major construction in downtown next summer, so we decided to do it next year, not this year. I’m always trying to come up with crazy ideas. 
Photo by Taylor K. Long
Photo by Taylor K. Long
Photo by Taylor K. Long
Photo by Taylor K. Long
Taylor: That’s great. It kind of gets into manifestation — where eventually you keep putting an idea out there and you never know who’s going to pick it up or who’s going to run with it.
Kirk: We always encourage people. You asked how we put this together — and it was sort of, “What ideas do you have?” If you’re new to the group, I’ll do this, and if you’re already part of the group, you already know I’m like this, but if we’re having a brainstorming session, I will often go first and I will purposefully come up with the least feasible, most outrageous, stupid idea you could ever possibly come up with. My intention for that is, once I have said that, that idea that you were nervous about saying because you thought that somebody might think it was dumb is not going to be nearly as dumb as what I just said. 
Taylor: I like that.
Kirk: And therefore, you’ll be like, well, I can do better than that. So, I do it on purpose.
Taylor: That makes sense. I think sometimes people get intimidated by the blank canvas, so to speak. I know I do. It’s like “Anything is possible!” and then it’s that complete openness and all of those possibilities and all of those choices can be really overwhelming. So, sometimes, just having someone throw something down to start off or riff off of can then take you in many different directions. 
Kirk: Yeah. So, that’s what we do, and that’s our biggest challenge, is more. We have dreams beyond Bethel University, of various kinds of projects that we would like the town to come up with creative solutions to tackle. We just need some more co-conspirators to put that together. Being a do-ocracy, if you have an idea, yay, we’ll go with it. I’ve belonged to groups where you joined it, and they already had their itinerary and if you made a suggestion, they’d be like, well, we don’t really do that, or we tried that before and it didn’t work — my answer to that was always, it might not have been the right time or the right people. It may not have been a bad idea. We’re always encouraging new voices and new energy. Whatever you want to do, if you want to see a change, we’ll try and help you make it happen. 
Taylor: You said that you’ve had some young people teach classes — do you find a lot of younger people getting involved? There’s a lot of discourse about the aging population in Vermont and New England, and ways to get young people to stay, to get involved, or get invested, instead of picking up and leaving.
Kirk: That’s part of it. A large part of what Bethel Revitalization Initiative is about is to promote the economic, social, and civic revitalization of our town. We’re aware that just having jobs isn’t enough. Young families want to have a community that they belong to, they want to feel like there’s something to do here. And affordable housing, and child care, all the other things that go with that. So, that’s what we’re trying to do, is bring this sense of community. Some of our successes have been because of some of the events we’ve had.
There’s one family who’s very active in Bethel University, and they were looking for some place to live and they came to a Bethel University class and saw all of the things going on, and they volunteered to teach some classes, and suddenly they were fully involved, and they bought a house in Bethel. They were like, this is a community, we were looking for that.
I think that’s a real important part. We have all these struggling small towns, so we need to find creative solutions, out-of-the-box thinking to recreate community and civic engagement. When you have that, the economic stuff will also feed in. 

Photo by Taylor K. Long

Taylor: Absolutely. So, that’s a perfect transition to my next question, which was do you think it's had the intended result and the intended effect, and it sounds like you do think it has.
Kirk: Yeah, absolutely. I like to point out that the purpose of Bethel University is not education, that’s the tool we use. The purpose of Bethel University is community building. That’s why we run a class that we think might not get much attendance — and we’ve had people who’ve come to us and said why don’t you just run the ones that get at least 20 people, why do you run a class on a niche thing that only two people are going to take, and we’re like, because it’s about community building. I don’t care if you’re the only person that has this interest, you know no one else that has it, and you find another person, one other person, then we’ve done a good thing. Especially if you find that you are very different people with very different opinions about the world. So, if you have a particular political bent and they have a different one, but you both are really interested in whatever.
Taylor: That’s a great way to look at it. Cause that’s so true, it’s finding some of those niche interests that can help you really connect with someone. You can be like oh my god, I thought no one else was interested in or cared about "X" and then –
Kirk: Last year there was a woman who ran a class on antique wood-fired cookstoves, and she got like two enrollments in it. Score, I think. That was great. That’s really the purpose: the community building.
Bethel was really fractured after Tropical Storm Irene. A lot of towns came together and our town found all of the places where we disagreed and old feuds sprung up. That’s one reason why we really pushed that. Now there’s this community pride and people have taken classes with folks who used to be the enemy, and now they’re not anymore, it’s just a neighbor who has a common interest.
People have so much joy when they go downtown at night and the buildings are all lit up because there are classes going on all over town, there are cars on the street. Again, 1,100 registrations — people are traveling into town, so during that month business picks up for some of our businesses, so there’s an economic benefit to it, as well. We want, I personally want more of those things going on in Bethel. 
Taylor: Once again, this is the perfect lead into my next question, which is do you have any hopes or plans for Bethel University as it continues, or do you have hopes and plans for different projects, different things?
Kirk: Yes. I mean, Bethel University, our hopes and plans are that it continues until it stops. I’m not and I feel like most of the core team are not attached to it for its own sake. As long as it’s serving its purpose, we’re happy to continue doing it, but if it starts to just be a thing where it’s like oh god, they’re doing that thing again because it’s tradition, then it’s time for it to go. But no, we’re always looking for other plans and plots. Like I said, I’m always trying to think of crazy ideas.
I’m working on one, we’ll see if I get enough people behind it — like I said, they’re going to tear up our main street to put in new water lines, and the local businesses are very concerned. The town offices have applied for some grants to do things to help the pizza place have delivery for that summer, or signage to say we’re open. I was like, well, you can see this as a hassle or you can see it as an opportunity. So, what if we encouraged people for one weekend or one week, let’s pretend it’s an exotic archaeological dig and have somebody make a spaceship and put it in one of the holes, and a dinosaur skeleton, or something from Egypt, who knows what, and have this be the theme of look what we dug up in Bethel. Again, just trying different ideas.
There’s a team of us that are thinking about different things we can do with LEDs in town, illuminations and interesting things. We’re scheming a lot of things. Some of it is just waiting until the time and the people and the money all come together in the right configuration. We’re improv, so we wait until the things come together and we do.
Taylor: Lastly, is there anything we haven’t touched on with regards to BU or the BRI that you want to talk about or plug or that you think doesn’t get enough attention?
Kirk: A long time ago I worked for a company, Clifford of Vermont Wire and Cable Co. They sold wire, telephone wire. The president of the company one time said there are commodities and there are specialties. A commodity is they produce it in mass numbers, you sell a ton of it, and you make a little bit of money off of it, and a specialty is you find some way to make that special. Wiring cable, you can buy that anywhere, so our business has to find a way to make that special, and they did. Their thing was if you’re building a skyscraper and you discovered you were 100 feet short of cable, they would get you that cable tomorrow. You’d pay a lot for it, but you’d get it tomorrow. If you’re paying union workers to stand and wait while it came, you want it as soon as possible. That was their business model.
I took that and I thought, Vermont is a state full of cute little Vermont towns. So being a cute little Vermont town is a commodity, we’re all one. If any of the towns are going to thrive, we need to find what makes us each a specialty. That’s the thing that Bethel Revitalization is working on, is what are the things that make Bethel distinct. We don’t have the quintessential town square, we don’t have some of those features, so what features do we have? I’m starting to work with some of the other towns — Stockbridge, and Pittsfield, and Rochester — to explore those same kinds of things, they are also trying to explore. You have your unique thing, you just need to find it. 
Taylor K. Long is a writer, editor, and photographer based in Windsor, VT. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Press, New York Magazine, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more.
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