The Co-op Paradox

Opinion by Mark Bessen
April 11, 2014, 2:16 a.m.

In case you’ve spent most of your Stanford career under a rock, co-ops are student-run cooperative living spaces intended to foster alternative communities and self-expression. And they’re largely pretty good at doing that. Hundreds of people seek refuge from Stanford, Inc. by joining one of the seven tie-dye-laden cooperative houses on campus, where everyone cooks and cleans (well, sometimes) and makes decisions together.

Although co-ops have gotten a lot of (perhaps somewhat justified) heat for serving as spaces for white, upper-class students trying to recreate a liberated, Woodstock-esque lifestyle for a couple years before abandoning that for a white picket fence, they are important hubs for students who feel marginal or marginalized from “mainstream” Stanford culture. But, in my experience in Synergy, the independent thinking and individual expression that motivated the establishment of co-ops have been in some ways undermined by proliferation of a singular “co-op identity” that I found extremely oppressive.

Now, Synergy has a reputation. When someone says to me, “Oh, you live in Synergy…” it’s pretty clear what they’re thinking—that I’m a radical leftist, that I’m likely to shave half my head on a whim to “make a statement,” that I’ve given up wearing shoes to be more in touch with the earth. Before I lived in Synergy, I would have dismissed or at least argued those stereotypes as exceedingly obtuse, or at best narrow-minded. Obviously, I thought, the Synergy stereotype was just that—a stereotype. An oversimplification, a caricature.

To my extreme disappointment, I found that the claim was more than that. By no means all—not even the majority—but many, many people in Synergy have latched onto the oversimplified identity of the hyperpolitical, crunchy-granola radical that the house has come to be known by.

That, in itself, is not a problem. Finding an identity for oneself is nothing to scoff at, and is indeed wonderful and commendable. However, when that identity comes not from within, but from a superimposed idea of what one’s identity should be according to a societal projection, problems begin to arise. People become “sheeple” and the house begins to assume a unified identity. But the house, made up of over 50 individuals, should never and in fact cannot be properly represented as a singular entity, for doing so silences the voices of members with differing opinions.

That, in a nutshell, is why I left Synergy.

I left friends and memories and tremendous fun and camaraderie because I felt intellectually and politically oppressed under the weight of the Synergy Identity.

Let’s concretize my sentiment with an example. Last quarter, General Petraeus came to speak at Stanford, sponsored by Stanford in Government. A few members of the house wanted to host a planning meeting for the Stanford protest against Petraeus, which made me a bit uneasy. (The protest—which, as you may recall, happened—demonized Petraeus as a Darth Vader figure and a war criminal rather than engaging him in conversation.) I didn’t want the planning meeting for such a heavily politically charged event to be hosted at Synergy, a place where I was typically able to sit and chat and work and relax. Nor did I want the house to be implicated as having a unified political identity in the eyes of the rest of Stanford. So, when the topic went to consensus—the process by which every house member votes on activities in Synergy—I brought up my issues with the event.

Despite having received support from over a dozen housemates when I spoke to them individually, only one or two were willing to vocalize any qualms during consensus. The rest either left the meeting or sat silently. In my eyes, that was mob mentality taking over. I was accused of inhibiting free speech, of making the house an unsafe and inhospitable living environment, all for bringing up issues I had with hosting an event at Synergy.

Moreover, when I tried to provide what I thought were logical compromises, like arranging a room at the Haas Center or another student center to host the planning meeting, I was berated. The personal hostility was shocking to me. But, even more shocking, was the fact that those who had expressed similar concerns to me personally felt uncomfortable discussing their views at the meeting. That’s what I mean by oppressive—that under the pressure of even a loud minority’s criticism, people in the house were driven to silence.

Obviously, my experience is just a single example. But I don’t think it is unique. I’ve spoken to many other people who have faced similar problems in cooperative living houses. The extreme, radical liberal portion of some of the co-ops can be very vocal and targeting, particularly to those with different political beliefs. Much to my surprise, the paradox exists that Synergy, largely acclaimed for its open-mindedness and welcoming community, was one of the most single-minded communities I’ve encountered on campus. It didn’t foster communication or dialogue about political issues for me, but made me feel judged for expressing opinions not aligned with those I “should hold.”

As you consider pre-assigning to Synergy or any other co-op, scout it out. Make sure that behind the veil of tie-dye sheets, you can find a place where you’re free to express your identity. And make sure to hold on to it—to your own identity—even under social and political pressures that exist in any house, but especially in co-ops.

Contact Mark Bessen at [email protected].

Mark is the Desk Editor of Opinions for the Stanford Daily. He is a senior studying English, working on an honors thesis on the contemporary coming-of-age novel. He is particularly interested in the narratives of minority writers in the United States (taking minority to include issues of race, class, and gender/sexuality). Contact him at [email protected] with comments or questions.

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