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MC Stories 2014

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One Book, One Harrisonburg

By Erin Phillippi ('08M)

Whether it’s for pleasure, education, or a combination of the two, many folks these days struggle to find the time to read. Finding the time to read AND have a meaningful discussion about the text can be close to impossible for the busy and hard-working members of any community. This challenge didn't deter JMU's Christie-Joy Brodrick Hartman, Melissa Altman, and Amanda Bodle from a rather unexpected undertaking: reading and discussing environmental responsibility and the interdependence of living in community with others. Brodrick Hartman, Altman, and Bodle, from the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability (OESS), created a program called “A Book for the ‘Burg” (B4B). This plan of action, shaped by the “one book, one community” program model that has spread to towns and colleges across the country, brought JMU together with four other community organizations--the City of Harrisonburg, Eastern Mennonite University, Arts Council of the Valley, and Massanutten Regional Library. B4B ended up exceeding everyone’s expectations by hosting ten events over the course of three months and connecting hundreds of people together both in-person and online. These events included a student photography exhibit, guest lectures, and facilitated conversations intended to create and maintain an engaged discourse community, and all of these activities were focused on a single book chosen by B4B’s organizers.  

The first book selected for this community-wide reading experience was Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Written in an accessible style and available in many languages, this text was selected to connect with readers who might not typically be drawn to issues of environmental stewardship or sustainability and while participants didn’t have to read the book before attending events, many showed great enthusiasm for the memoir and the issues it explores. Community members didn’t even have to buy the book—over 50 loaner copies were purchased through a grant provided by the Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action. The Eight Key Question framework developed by the Madison Collaborative also informed many of B4B’s activities which were intended to cultivate a better understanding of the links between sustainability, ethical reasoning, and the economic, social, and environmental aspects of an issue. This partnership and financial support, along with the relationships that OESS enjoyed with its other collaborators, helped to ensure that the larger conversation sparked by the book was dynamic and didn’t cater to any one academic discipline. It also helped with event attendance as well—over 325 people attended one activity alone!

Bodle, chair of B4B’s programming committee said that “In our neighborhoods, community, and around the globe, there are countless opportunities to contribute to a better world, but the issues and decisions are complicated. For many of us, the challenge is determining what we can do as individuals. A conversation with others in the community seems like a great step.” With A Book for the ‘Burg, JMU’s Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability definitely took that step, and is hoping to keep the journey going. Using the research they gathered over the course of the program, the group would like to present their work at a conference or in an article in the future. Most importantly, they’re working to find a way to keep the ‘Burg talking about issues of ethics and environmental responsibility, a discussion that will continue to unite Harrisonburg and keep the Friendly City reading.