Emerson Alumni Gathering ‘Listening to our Time, Speaking to the Stars’
Monday, 30 September 2019 Ellie Kidson reflects this year's Alumni Gathering
This year we celebrated the first Emerson Alumni Gathering in twenty years which brought together 113 former students from around the globe.
Theme, Format and Organisation
The theme ‘Listening to our Time, Speaking to the Stars’ was chosen to reflect the current gesture of Emerson College in relation to its wider purpose in the world. The global community of alumni joined together to ‘honour the past, meet and share in the present and welcome the future’ through individual initiative and collaboration. Alumni from the 1960s to the 2000s contributed out of what they had developed inspired by their time here. The result was a rich programme of workshops, dialogue, art and encounter.
To create such an event would not have been possible without our volunteer event coordinator and alumna Linda Churnside. A former teacher at Michael Hall School and Education Coordinator at Philpots Manor, she brought her strength of will, powers of organisation, and personal warmth to the task.
On the 7th August, the Gathering began with an open space devoted to honouring those no longer with us, followed by an introduction to the theme by Emerson Trustee James Dyson. Over the next three days, discussions flowed from past to present to future.
Honouring the Past
The first day provided time and space for honouring the founding impulse of the College and the experiences of different alumni over the decades. In dialogue groups participants shared memories, feelings and experiences from the past.
Paul Matthews led a memorial service for Ursula Koepf, former Emerson singing teacher who touched many people’s lives. Ingo Keil, her nephew, led the way to the St John Memorial Garden where a group of alumni sang as Ingo buried her ashes in the garden.
Meeting in the Present
On the second day, discussions moved to the present. Not only were people open to encountering the College as it is now, but they also brought their own present with them. The Emerson impulse had evolved within each person as they took the seeds of their diverse experiences into the world.
There was a feeling of warmth in the room as Steve Briault (Director of Development) described the journey of the College’s recovery and ongoing process of transformation and renewal since it had been on the brink of closure in 2010. Steve spoke frankly about the College’s financial position,d the steps that had been taken to eliminate operating deficits, and the obligations it is still under to the Mercury Provident Pension Fund. He acknowledged the courageous action of Robert Lord, John Lees and Fumiko Chikami in stepping forward and raising the funds to prevent the closure of the College in 2010; the re-building of trustee and management groups; the gradual re-integration of educational programmes; the building-up of a sympathetic hosting service led by Yvette Dellsperger (Director of Operations) in keeping with the values that make the College so special; the creation of a ‘Living and Learning’ community and the ‘selling in’ of some property assets to safeguard the integrity of the Campus; establishing new models of educational partnerships; the change in the nature of the education provision from long-term courses to interrelated short-term and modular programmes in the fields of Arts, Care and Ecology; and the current plans to create an intergenerational residential community through the Pixton 3rd Age Project.
Whilst there was sorrow expressed at the loss of the year-long programmes such as the Foundation Year, the Teacher Training and the BD Agriculture course, and questions about the plans for Pixton, there was appreciation for the work that had been done to sustain the College, and a strong will to support its future. In the words of two participants:
“Past: I thought that Emerson was teetering toward collapse.
Present: It is still that wonderful and inspiring bubble.
Future: There is intention, determination and a building vision.”
“… participating in the Gathering really gave me the ‘feel’ of how well it was growing, and what the ‘living community’ on campus felt like. I was so very impressed and delighted. The physical Emerson looks more beautiful than it ever has; the organisation feels to be on a strong footing, with a clear focus. And above all, it feels like this is not the achievement of one person, but of individuals working together in a collegial and purposeful way.’’
Welcoming the Future
This feeling of warmth continued into the third day as discussions turned to the future, many people having been inspired by the events of the previous evening: a performance of ‘The Little Mermaid’ by Pericles Theatre Company followed by a talk ‘Realigning law with a higher moral code: our Earthly Responsibility' with Jojo Mehta. Thoughts turned to the wider questions of our individual and collective work in the world, such as our responsibility to protect the vitality of our earth, enquiry as to where ideas come from, our relationship to technology, and what Anthroposophy can give to the world we live in now.
The final morning was a culmination of the time spent together and reflected on the questions:
- These present times challenge our image of what it means to be human. What are they asking of us and of the worldwide community connected with Emerson College?
- How can we deepen our insights into the forces of destiny that brought us to Emerson, which have led and will lead us forward?
- How can we develop ways of living, learning and working together that enable us to meet the future with hope and trust?
Further questions arose in the process: How do we meet the needs of young people who are very awake to the crises the world is suffering? What does Anthroposophy bring to the 21st century? Does it matter that the membership of the ASinGB is falling when there are lively, young, inspired people working out of Anthroposophy all over the world? Many more questions and passionate replies were heard from people working in China, Taiwan, India, the USA and many other countries. One person asked:
“I feel a call for modernity, perhaps risk-taking, opening to the issues alive in the modern world. Does the College want to reach the general population or just those already involved with Anthroposophy?”
There was a strong feeling that the forces of destiny that had originally brought everyone to Emerson were at work now in this constellation of alumni, and were strengthening the warmth body around the College. There was an overwhelming will to help support Emerson’s future in order that it may serve the needs of emerging generations.
“My time at Emerson supported me to work in the Peace and Green Movements in the 1980s. Can we help young people now in a similar way? Very few people can devote a year or more to study Anthroposophy, but by providing some funding for those who wish to come to Emerson for three months or for week-long courses, we could provide for a new generation of people active in the world today.” Linda Churnside
Looking to the Future
So what next? Well, definitely another gathering in 2022. An Emerson Alumni Network is being developed to allow former students to connect with each other and share their initiatives. The network will enable the College to be more connected with the global Emerson community and through them, the challenges and questions alive in people, so that we can continue to be a place of discovery, self-development, education and transformation, providing opportunities for present and future generations of people who are searching for their next steps in life, and for ways of creating paths that others can follow.