Overcoming the Paradox of Community

Head of School Tim Bazemore’s Commencement Address to the Class of 2019

Whenever I ask Catlin Gabel alumni — young or older — what characterizes our school, they invariably say community. That’s not a surprise. Community is, after all, a Catlin Gabel value.

At Catlin Gabel, a primary goal is to educate you about how to be a member of a community. You may not remember, but you had to learn this; little kids are naturally self-centered. In preschool and kindergar-ten, your first lessons included how sit in a circle, listen to others, manage your bodies and emotions, and how what you say and do affects others.

Beyond self-management, we teach community as a series of concentric circles. In the early years, your community circle is your family, your classroom, then your grade level; in the middle grades your circles of community expand to include the divi-sion, school, and, increasingly, the greater Portland community; in the upper grades, your community expands in literal and figu-rative ways: local and global, proximate and virtual, in theory and practice. As you grow into each circle, you learn more about the rights and responsibilities essential to a healthy community.

What you also learn as your circles of community expand is the paradox of commu-nity. Communities form around self-inter-est, such as geography, values, beliefs, or professions. Affinities are the glue of any community; they create a sense of inclusion and belonging. At Catlin Gabel, we share the same campus, profess similar values, and root for the Eagles.

At the same time, a foundation of self-interest means that communities can be exclusive—if you don’t live, like, believe, or do what we do, then maybe you don’t belong. We see this all too vividly in today’s local, national, and global dialogue. The deeper and narrower our affinities and convictions, the harder it is to come to the table to learn how someone else’s self-interest can be integrated with yours.

As you leave Catlin Gabel and enter your new communities, I want to challenge you to overcome the paradox of community. Your Catlin Gabel teachers have provided inspired learning, and you are well-prepared to take responsible action. A Catlin Gabel foundation has given you the skills and disposi-tion to transcend self-interest, reimagine what community can mean, and realize that vision.

The antidote to the paradox of commu-nity is to build sustainable communities in which economic, environmental, and social issues are interdependent and integrated.

Too often, businesses make decisions that ignore social or environmental conse-quences. Environmental demands minimize economic implications. Social justice solutions are unrelated to environmental conditions. Trying to maximize profits, fight climate change, or deconstruct systemic injustice in isolation can have unforeseen—and avoid-able—consequences. It is not inevitable that economic development is socially divisive or environmentally destructive. But it’s hard to make these priorities work together.

You are uniquely equipped to under-stand these competing priorities, to see inte-grated solutions, and to persuade others to join you. You know how to ask good questions, to think critically, conduct research, analyze evidence, present findings, and make things, and you know the importance of collabora-tion, empathy, and compassion.

The power and privilege of being a Catlin Gabel graduate is that you are as well-prepared as any 18-year-olds in the world to be agents of change—to do your part to build sustainable communities that work for everyone—and you can do this wherever you are: college, neighborhood, and workplace. You have the intellect, skill, and courage to think differently, create responsible and prof-itable businesses, nurture a healthy planet for future generations, and fight for equity and justice in our social systems.

Will you rise to the challenge and the opportunity to build sustainable communi-ties wherever you are? Or settle for a limited future based on competing self-interests? Your teachers and parents have done their part. It’s up to you now.