Bethel, VT

Contact Name
Rebecca Stone
Project Dates
March of each year, since 2014
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2017
Tags
Event, Networking, Workforce Development
Bethel University is a unique, free pop-up university in Bethel, Vermont - created for the community, by the community. During the month of March each year, anyone can teach a course on any topic under the sun and anyone can take courses for free. In 2017 - our fourth year - we offered 77 classes on everything from writing to dodgeball, guerrilla art to Argentine tango. Bethel University attracted more than 1,000 registrations this March, drawing people from more than 57 towns and five states to our tiny town of 2,000 people. "BU" offers a way for our community to enliven the downtown and public spaces, attract visitors, meet neighbors and find common interests, share skills and learn new ones, support our local businesses and spark the creative economy.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
Bethel University was created with the intent of addressing several inter-related community challenges:
1) Highlighting the creativity, talents and assets of the community and local residents.
2) Changing the narrative, so that locals & others around the state would start seeing Bethel as a place of opportunity rather than a place with nothing to offer.
3) Attracting visitors to Bethel (from out of town) and giving residents a reason to come downtown and out into the community.
4) Supporting local businesses and organizations and helping them showcase their offerings to the community.
5) Activating underutilized public spaces like the Town Hall, library and school with creative placemaking activities.
6) Generating cultural, arts & learning opportunities in a lightweight, low-budget way.
7) Building community and helping residents to meet their neighbors.
8) Attracting volunteers and building enthusiasm for other community efforts and more substantial revitalization efforts.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
The goals have not changed substantially. This has been an experimental and emergent project overall, and we've been floored each year by the overwhelming success, support and growth. Some of the benefits of the project were not anticipated, so we've added goals to reflect areas of unexpected community impact.

Those areas include:
1) Attracting participants (professors and students) from out of town;
2) Changing statewide perceptions of Bethel;
3) Using BU as a platform to attract volunteers or complete needed projects.
4) Using BU as a springboard to launch other, larger creative economy or placemaking projects in Bethel.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
• Bethel Revitalization Initiative - grassroots community group that created and runs BU;
• Town of Bethel - supports the project, has served as fiscal sponsor, and offers free use of Town spaces for classes;
• Bethel Public Library - supports the project, has served as fiscal sponsor, recruits and supports residents without computer access, and offers free use of the Library for classes;
• Bethel Public Schools - supports the project, helps recruit student and faculty participants, and offers free use of the school facilities for classes;
• Christ Episcopal Church - offers free use of the Church buildings for classes;
• BALE (Building a Local Economy) - regional non-profit, helps publicize project;
• Dozens of town businesses - participate by teaching classes or allowing classes to be held in their shops, sponsoring event or providing supplies.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
There is no town-wide or official community development strategy. With few resources for planning and community development, these activities fall to residents or community groups.

The Bethel Revitalization Initiative has an informal philosophy and strategy that includes the following principles (all of which tie very strategically to BU):
• Create incremental change: start with small, visible projects; celebrate successes and build off them;
• Be a "Do-ocracy": empower people to step up and create the change they want to see in a community. If they have an idea and are willing to help make it happen, clear the way for them to do it and help link it to other efforts;
• Focus on connections: create opportunities for people to meet their neighbors and talk, gather, and bring energy to downtown. Good things happen when people know each other and interact;
• Use a tactical approach: try experimental, low-cost community solutions; evaluate progress and adjust frequently.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
As far as we know, BU is the only pop-up university of its kind anywhere in the world and the concept was created entirely by the community. Since starting it, we've learned of similar efforts - usually in larger cities or at actual colleges or universities - but they are typically not free, or are staffed by professionals, or differ in substantial ways. After starting BU, we learned that a nearby town in Vermont (Strafford) has "cabin fever university" - a similar model, but courses are offered for a fee and the project is much smaller.

BU is very much inspired by several larger national movements - the DIY/maker/pop-up movements, and the tactical urbanism movement in planning. Bethel is a town with very few resources, and the BRI was likewise a group with no funding and no official status. We do have a lot of creative, passionate and collaborative members. Our approach has been to find whatever resources we can and create something great, while keeping it nimble and flexible.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
The following steps describe our original approach to implementing the project:

1) Find funding and partners. After arriving at a rough project concept, we secured a small ($2,500) grant in our first year and commitments from our core local partners (Town government, library, schools, church) to support the project and offer space. A local Sandwich Shop agreed to host meetings and sign up sheets. In subsequent years, we've obtained other small grants and started soliciting sponsorships from local businesses or donations from private citizens.

2) Create a timeline and policies. We made early decisions about policies and concept for the university: where courses could be held, whether or not we'd be selective, whether we'd provide materials, etc. We set a timeline for when the university would run (March of each year), then worked backward to decide when we would open and close registration, publicize the university, call for course proposals, etc.

3) Build the infrastructure. We have no official campus, but we did need to build some simple infrastructure: a website, a course registration system, an email list, a course proposal form, posters and publicity materials, etc. We also made a plan for how the team would make decisions and work together, identified potential sites for courses, etc.

4) Recruit professors and courses. We put out an open call for professors, inviting anyone (whether a town resident or not) to propose any course that they would like to teach. We never know how many proposals to expect or what kinds, but intentionally leave it wide open. When proposals are in, we meet and review every proposal as a group. We have not turned one down yet, but we do often go back to "professors" and work with them on details and course concept. We offer a teacher training and manual to help professors who want support developing their courses and understanding how BU works.

5) Publicize the university and open registration. We create posters, write press releases, and use our email list and social media accounts to spread the word far and wide and invite anyone to sign up for courses. Course registration stays open until the day of the course.

6) Run the university. We do the background work to make sure courses run smoothly: ensuring buildings are open and set up, emailing course details to professors and students, taking pictures, etc. We meet weekly as a team to go over logistics and ensure the details are in place, and communicate frequently over email to solve immediate issues like weather problems or cancellations. The professors do the hard work and are completely responsible for teaching their courses. Some courses or groups choose to continue meeting afterward; at that point, it's up to professors and students to organize their own meetings.

7) Celebrate! We plan a "graduation" ceremony at the end of the month, featuring showcases of the course outcomes (like music or dance performances), a slideshow of all the courses, and diplomas for students.

8) Evaluate. We meet as a group after the end of the semester to take note of what worked well and what didn't work, and note changes we'd like to make the following year. We also put out a survey to students and professors to find out what they liked or didn't like.

See this video from 2015 for an overview of the university and the courses offered that year: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaZGFVRWxZA
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
Refinement is the right term - we have not changed anything major, but have worked to refine our process and improve both quality and efficiency as the university has grown. In our first year, 21 professors offered 18 courses and we had about 80 registrations. By our third year, we were up to 65 courses and 800 registrations. We've found the process works remarkably well despite that exponential growth.

The most notable changes include:
• Appointing "deans" (volunteers from our group) to take on responsibility for specific aspects of the program... Dean of Faculty, Dean of Admissions, Dean of Fun, etc. This allows us to empower more leaders while streamlining responsibilities.
• Adding "meet-up groups" as an option for people who don't want to teach a full class, but want to connect with others who share their interest.
• Extending our planning timeline. In our first year, we created the project concept incredibly fast (initial concept in December, grant in January, opened registration in February and went live in March). Since then, we've started planning in the fall to give ourselves more time.
• Refining many details of our process, from how we manage technology and our online platforms to how we review course proposals.
• This year (2017) will likely be the first year we limit the total number of courses and have to turn away interested professors. We've found that 65 courses was about as much as we (and the Town!) could handle in one month. That will introduce a new challenge, as we decide how to make selections.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
There were very few obstacles related to this project specifically, but launching any project at that time in Bethel meant running up against entrenched community obstacles.
• Closed-off culture. At the time we started, Bethel was not a town where people socialized much outside of closed circles, or stepped up to volunteer and share what they had. There were not established connections between community groups or sound working relationships. It was not a town where people felt many positive things were happening or believed that they could.
• Lack of communications infrastructure. We did not have a mailing list, and there were very few established communication channels by which we could get the word out. We started small with what we had (posters, local paper), used word of mouth, and have worked hard to build up that infrastructure over the years.
• Lack of public spaces. There aren't a lot of public spaces that are vibrant and open and actively attracting people in Bethel, so we needed to find them and get permission to use them.
• Lack of professional resources. Bethel is not a town with any excess funding or staff capacity. The BRI was only an informal group with no budget, no paid staff, and no non-profit status. We had to get creative about relying on volunteers, finding organizations to serve as fiscal sponsor, and finding lightweight ways to accomplish our goals.

We do have a few small challenges related to the project itself, which we are always working to address. They include things like:
• Course attendance. Some courses have a max or min number of participants, and we have to balance registration against attrition. No-shows are higher than we would like because the university is free.
• Workload - as the number of courses has increased, so has the amount of work for our core team. We need to keep recruiting more volunteers to help spread that out, and finding ways to be more efficient.
• Course quality. Since we're not selective, and don't control what or how professors teach, course quality does vary. We address this by offering a teacher training and support for professors who want it, and by communicating to students that this is a free university and we can't guarantee anything.
• Technology. We have not yet found the perfect combination of online platforms to support our offerings in the most efficient way.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Our team is most instrumental - we have a committed, creative and flexible bunch that is willing to sit around together weekly and solve whatever problems come up. We are also continually welcoming new team members with fresh ideas. It was also the right time - Bethel had hit rock bottom around Tropical Storm Irene, and the tide was starting to shift. A few small projects had sprung up, and people were hungry for something positive and a stronger community.

Our philosophy has been instrumental in building our team. For years, Bethel has not been a particularly welcoming town (especially for new residents). There have been few places to meet and gather and few ways for people to get involved in community projects. We made very clear from the outset that we welcome anyone who wants to get involved, and welcome all great ideas. We've also tried to make the whole effort fun - from the project itself to our meetings and group interactions. That's helped us find volunteers to do things like graphic design, web maintenance and other tasks that we don't have paid staff members to take on. It's also brought in long-term volunteers who want to help with other things.

Strong press coverage (including the AP, VPR, and most statewide efforts) have been very helpful in spreading the word and particularly in helping us attract participants from out of town. BU created a very strong positive vibe in town the very first year, and the press coverage was an important part of that. For the first time in years, people had positive things to say about Bethel. That positive spirit bred more positivity, more volunteers, and more support.

In our first year especially, a small grant was key to providing the materials we needed and the sense that someone believed in this project. Because we were not a non-profit, it was also instrumental that the town agreed to serve as a fiscal sponsor for the grant, enabling us to apply. Furthermore, the Town has been very supportive of a range of citizen-driven efforts and the leadership takes a hands-off approach. This has been critical in shaping the DIY spirit that is leading the charge in Bethel.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1) Dare to imagine. When someone first suggested "BU" as a community project, no one else had any idea what it meant or what it could possibly do for our town. It only happened because we asked the community what they imagined for Bethel, and they responded. We've gained so many benefits because we were willing to take a leap of faith, consider an unorthodox idea, and figure it out together.
2) Make it positive. BU has worked very well for Bethel because there is nothing controversial or negative about it. It's not run by an entrenched group, it's not political, and it appeals to everyone. That has built a tremendous amount of social capital for the BRI, which has allowed us to move on to harder projects.
3) Just start. Even if you don't know how it will go, or what it will look like, just try something - especially if you see that the time is ripe for change. Capitalize on opportunities, see how it goes, learn, and adapt.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
During March of each year, Bethel is a different town. People remark that they drive downtown at night and see cars parked and lights on in buildings - something that is not true at any other time of year. Professors and students drive up to two hours or more to participate, and when they come to town they spend money at our restaurants and shops. People pop into our Sandwich Shop or pizza place after classes and gather and socialize in ways that they don't normally. People are excited and the town is "buzzing" at a time of year (Mud Season) when people usually hunker down and stay inside until spring.

After BU, we see ongoing impacts. When the Library hosts BU classes, it attracts new patrons and strengthens connections that result in higher usage through the year. Many businesses offer classes, which exposes people to their services and offerings and results in new long-term customers. We often hear of anecdotal connections that strengthen place and the local economy. For example: two people sat next to each other in an acupuncture class and met for the first time. One was a new resident in town who needed someone to build a deck, and the other was a local contractor who ended up doing the job.

We also see much longer-term and larger impacts. A family decided to move to Bethel permanently in part because of BU - it showed that this is the kind of community they want to live in - and a local landlord uses BU as a selling point to prospective tenants. BU has created critical relationships between volunteers, institutions and community leaders that didn't exist before and are benefitting other projects and goals. Many state agencies and non-profits know about BU and are impressed with the story and the change happening in Bethel; now many of them showcase Bethel as an example of effective civic engagement & community development, and it has made us more competitive for grants and other projects. Most importantly, BU has given local credibility to the BRI and has created a sense that anything is possible in Bethel. This has allowed us to start tackling much larger projects (like the empty buildings on Main Street) and in some unorthodox ways (a Better Block project) that would not have been supported in Bethel before BU. We can't credit BU with all the positive progress in Bethel, but it's part of a chain of projects and events that have helped Bethel reach the tipping point.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
It's made noticeable (and sometimes dramatic) progress on nearly all of our goals. BU has unquestionably helped people meet and connect, brought people into town and into underutilized spaces, shared skills and learning, and helped support businesses. Some specific indicators of success include:
• Exponential growth of both courses (professors) and students in our three years. The number of registrations has grown 1000% in just three years, from 80 to 800.
• Increasing financial support from local businesses and institutions, representing deep community buy-in and support for the effort.
• BU has solidified relationships and ties between leading community groups and project partners, which now allow us to collaborate easily on other projects.
• Increasing volunteers for Bethel University, and volunteers who start with Bethel University and go on to become community leaders or get involved with other projects.
• Number of people attending courses or coming to teach from distant locales, showing that we've created assets that will draw people to Bethel.
• Number of people moving to Bethel, collaborate on business ventures, support local businesses, open new businesses, start or join groups, etc. based on their experiences or connections in BU classes.
• Number of downtown buildings that have sold or filled up, with new business owners pointing to Bethel University as a large component of the positive energy that's driving downtown redevelopment.
• Survey results show overwhelming enthusiasm for the project, and show that the vast majority of participants learn something new, meet new people and connect with the community. Close to 100% of participants say that they would definitely take courses again.
• Amazing national & regional press coverage has changed perceptions in Bethel and far beyond, helping Bethel to be seen throughout Vermont as a model for creative community development. That, in turn, is making us more competitive for grants and opportunities at the state level.
• Spin-off projects from courses are making a difference in the community. (For example: A course last year built raised garden beds for the high school, which are now being put to use in a new farm to school program. Another course on the Holocaust kept meeting and organized a Holocaust Remembrance Day. )
How did you measure this success or progress?
• Data and stats from our courses (number of courses offered, number of students, where they come from), growth of our mailing list, etc.
• Surveys from participants (on course quality and community objectives, like whether they met new people or supported local businesses)
• Press coverage
• Number of volunteers, spinoff projects and other actions taken as a result of the project
• Anecdotes from people around town, and from team members who hear people talking about BU far beyond Bethel
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
There are a few impacts that we didn't anticipate:
• Number of other towns contacting us to learn how to replicate this model
• National press coverage
• Very high impact for certain people (like the family that decided to move to town in part because of BU)
• Number of people drawn to participate from out of town - including some driving hours to attend or teach a course
• Number of volunteers who would step up to get involved or offer something unique - and then stay involved through the year in other community projects. We often compare Bethel to the town in the "Stone Soup" story - for years, no one offered anything. Once we made it easy for people to step up, and showed them what could happen when people do contribute, it's been a constant flow!
• Involvement of high school students. We have a high school student do our photography every year, and other students have been involved in a number of ways. We didn't initially focus on engaging them, but it's been a great way to build connections between the school and community, and students and community, plus boost job skills for kids.
CCX Workshop Handout