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Case Study – Eugene Free School

The Eugene Free School is an organization based in Eugene, Oregon, that supports local arts practices as well as general skill-building.  Through their website, community members can sign-up to either take classes or teach classes at the school, on a variety of topics.  The topics for this month’s classes include multiple forms of yoga, Spanish and Japanese language, breakdancing, hoop dancing, raw foods, and there is also a weekly children’s group and an “open shop” in which participants can work on their own projects, or continue group projects.  Classes are held in a number of different locations around Eugene, although the Club Snafu building on Broadway is the most frequently used venue.  Other locations include The World Café, the Erb Memorial Union, and the Wayne Morse Ranch City Park.  Because the classes are held throughout the day in different locations, it can be difficult to determine the number of students involved, although the organization is constantly looking for new students and instructors.

Classes are organized primarily through mass emails.  Each month, a volunteer emails the participant list asking for events for the next month’s schedule.  Another email is sent out when the schedule is complete.  While the organization is currently looking for more volunteers to help with organizing, this approach to scheduling is close to ideal.  Multiple people contribute to creating the schedule, from sending the initial emails to creating the hand-drawn calendar to posting new information on the website.  This system prevents any one person from dictating what classes are available, and leads to a more accurate representation of community arts practices (both what people can do, and what people would like to learn how to do).

The Eugene Free School is a community arts organization focused on education in particular.  According to their mission statement,

“The Eugene Free School is dedicated to free and decentralized education without exclusivity, financial burden or authoritarianism. It exists as a network of individuals that come together to share ideas and learn from one another. Our belief is that this learning should occur on common ground, where the sharing of knowledge and skills is not reliant on institutions, but springs from our communities themselves. We want to foster the types of face-to-face interactions that will strengthen us individually and collectively, create self-reliance and provide a vehicle for genuine solidarity.”

While some of the classes offered are not arts related in a traditional sense, the overall goal of the program is to benefit the community through sharing and learning.  This seems like an incredibly dynamic approach to community arts, because by nature, the program encourages participants to get more involved and to continue to share and interact with the program in different ways.  When I attended a class at the Free School last year, I left with my mind racing through all of the courses I could potentially teach or contribute to.  By making the program entirely open, participants get to do more than “attend” a class.  Power dynamics are lessened, and open dialogue is encouraged.

The only limitations placed on classes at the Eugene Free School are those that aim to support sexism, homophobia, or transphobia.  The Free School also identifies itself as “anti-capitalist and anti-racist”, and prohibits courses taught “for explicitly commercial enterprises”.  By openly expressing the importance of tolerance to the Free School, participants are encouraged to join classes without fear of rejection or persecution, and may also be encouraged to practice more tolerance in their daily lives.  By only allowing free classes that are taught for the sake of community interaction, the Free School encourages participants to focus on the experience of the class, and caters to a larger portion of the community.  This may also help to eliminate economic class dynamics within the classes themselves; the classes are free for everybody, unlike other programs where scholarship or low-income participants might feel isolated.

I’m partially drawn to the organizational structure of the Eugene Free School because it seems to place less value on the kinds of arts being practiced than programs that focus on single arts practices, such as painting, dance, or writing.  While those are certainly valuable arts practices, they do not represent the entire breadth of arts practices in a community.  Coming from a Folklore perspective, I appreciate the approach of offering programs that the community expresses interest in.  The Free School’s mission is structured to support expressive practices that are folkloric by nature; they are non-institutional and non-commercial, based on human interaction, and reflect the values of the community.  By valuing the experience of sharing and learning over the content that is being shared, the Eugene Free Schools promotes practices that as a student of Folklore, I would like to see more of in my community.

I also see some similarities between the structure of the Eugene Free School and what Cornel West calls a “Critical Organic Catalyst”.  According to West, this refers to “cultural workers who simultaneously position themselves within (or alongside) the mainstream while clearly aligned with groups who vow to keep alive potent traditions of critique and resistance” (West 266).  Because the Free School offers many “mainstream” courses (like foreign language), while the anti-capitalist nature of the organizational structure and non-authority teaching structure function as forms of resistance, the program is ideally situated to encourage dialogue and understanding in the local community.

Works Cited

Eugene Free School. Eugene Free School.  Web.  6 February 2011.  http://eugenefreeschool.org/

West, Cornel. “The New Politics of Difference.” The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd ed. NY: Routledge, 1993. 256-270.

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