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Co-oped Living

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AUGUST 17, 2011

A Berkeley Student Cooperative becomes a challenge by functioning not merely as an affordable living space, but by prompting an evaluation of my lifestyle choices: how I eat, how I get to school and how I interact with the people and the resources around me.

The co-ops operate with a bit of an ‘anything goes’ culture that encourages creativity (think David Bowie-themed parties, dinners with octopus as an entree). Yet they’re driven primarily by an idea of collective responsibility for the well being of others. The cooperatives give over 1250 students the opportunity to thrive in a socially and environmentally progressive environment, fighting college complacency by demanding active living.

In my experience at Andres Castro Arms, there has always been a constant push toward improvement and growth, whether it be for that of our housing or the planet. There’s an incredible sense of empowerment that comes with this way of life. At Kingman Hall, Nicola Stathers worked to implement a rainwater collection system to catch more than 20,000 gallons of water a year to be funneled to their laundry machines.

Anyone can cram for a class, but a co-op provides a learning and teaching space between peers. Age differences and social walls between Cal, community college and international students dissipate. Co-opers have taught me the basics of planting, composting, fighting ants with cinnamon and unclogging toilets. These skills might seem trivial, but I might not have practiced these simple essentials in other housing.

This economy of sharing extends beyond practical skills because a priority of the cooperative system is completely “open membership and democratic control.” It seems unfair for the housing process to devolve into a popularity contest in which housemates are judged on first impressions or on how well they fit a house identity or reputation. By not working completely off of commonality, the co-ops have introduced me to students from a diversity of spiritual, ethnic and philosophical backgrounds: male, vegan, female, queer or otherwise.

A student visiting for a semester from Germany ushered in spring with a ‘dance around the Maypole’ barbeque. It’s a nice introduction to how the world really is: inhabited by all types of people whom we learn from and work with to solve issues. Alfred Twu of Lothlorien Hall has reduced waste by 75 percent and to a single bin for a household of 57, and he says his philosophy is to  “lead from the bottom.”

Co-ops are renowned for their food. Packed with spices, the kitchen is a hotbed of recipe exchange and cooking tutorials, as well as dirty pots. Since living here ,I’ve gained an affinity for nutritional yeast and fine-tuned some cooking skills. Not to mention, I’ve enjoyed homemade meals whipped up by my housemates who can volunteer to do their five hours of workshift in the kitchen. Meals become social cement and a nightly gathering for everyone to take a breath and appreciate fresh food.

We’re empowered to vote and propose policy changes for the house at weekly councils. For example, Sherman mobilized to ensure safety of air in proximity to retrofitted Memorial Stadium by rallying students, petitioning the ASUC, university, and other avenues.

The institutional aspects of cooperatives (workshifts, dinners, councils) keep people truly accountable and engaged. If you’re someone who is happiest with a great amount of personal space and cleanliness, this can be overwhelming. If you can loosen your standards on those two, there is nothing more invigorating than the ideas, creativity, and constant company of others.

Contact David Getman at 


AUGUST 17, 2011