An annual series produced by the Middlebury Fellows in Narrative Journalism.
When my e-mail inbox pinged at around ten o’clock on the morning of March 11, alerting me to a message from David Bain with the subject line “FW: Matt Power,” I smiled and wondered what adventure the intrepid journalist had embarked on now. David’s opening words—“devastating news”—stopped me cold.
Matthew Power had died at the age of 39.
I did not know Matt well. We had met at Bread Loaf about 10 years ago and had subsequently bumped into each other a couple of times. No matter where his reporting travels had taken him—Iceland, Cambodia, South Sudan, Tasmania—he always seemed to find his way back to the mountain and the Writers’ Conference each summer, where he was a tuition scholar in 2004 and a guest lecturer ever since. While Matt was at home in the world—more at ease in the most uncomfortable situations than anyone I know—Middlebury was his home. He was raised in Cornwall and educated at Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury College, Class of 1996; Addison County seemed to be the perfect place to incubate what Matt described as “childhood fantasies of having an adventurous life.” Fantasy became reality, but unlike those who get the wanderlust bug and never look back, Matt’s perpetual motion allowed, always, for moments in Vermont, moments cherished by family and friends and those who just wanted to be in his orbit.
People like me.
In the weeks following Matt’s passing, I had conversations with alumni journalists who were close friends of his. Some were contemporaries, folks from his class or classes adjacent, but far more were 10 or even 15 years younger. And they all shared common stories. They didn’t come to Middlebury because of Matt, but they all left wanting to do what he did. Not only were they inspired by his example, but they were beneficiaries of what friend Abe Streep ’04 has described as his “relentless generosity,” his ability to connect, to empathize, to encourage.
Matt is gone, leaving this Earth far too soon, yet he lives on through so many others—people we know and people we will never meet. For those feeling his loss most acutely, I hope there’s some solace in knowing this.
Blunt little sneakers that light up when you dance are de rigueur at a Vanessa Trien ’91 show. So are pink tutus, OshKosh overalls, and diminutive Red Sox caps. The Saturday morning crowd at the Sheehan School in Westwood, Massachusetts, leaps and twirls and sings along as Trien and her band, the Jumping Monkeys, lead them through kindergarten favorites like her songs “Tickle Monster” and “Bubble Ride.”
Trien, who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband and her children, aged five and nine, didn’t set out to be a “kindie” celebrity, but she’s getting there. (Kindie is independent music for kids.) The singer-songwriter and music educator was a regular on the robust Boston folk scene, performing at iconic small venues like Cambridge’s Club Passim. But the crowds of big people were small—until she released her first CD of songs for small people in 2006.
“I had my first CD release at Magic Beans, a children’s store in Brookline, and people were lining up outside. It was a much bigger crowd than I ever would get for a folk show,” Trien says. “People are looking for kids’ music, and over the past few years a kindie music scene has developed—it’s a national scene, with a lot of people doing this music. Brooklyn’s the hot place, but New England is great too.”
Trien began dedicating her work to children’s music after her son, Ellis, was born. Since then, she has recorded and released three CDs of kindie music—Hot Air Balloon, Carnival Day, and Bubble Ride. Her work has won three Parents’ Choice Awards and five songwriting awards from the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest. She laughingly says her reputation is “semi-national,” with write-ups in Parenting magazine and School Library Journal, and a national distributor for her CDs.
Trien says she loved performing for adult audiences as a folksinger, but her life as an artist really came alive when she started performing for children. “There are some people who feel connected with kids and can communicate with them well and be on their wave length—and it turns out I am one of those people,” she says. “There is such an immediate, visceral response from an audience of small children. They’re not just in their heads—they’re up and dancing and singing along. And the parents are interacting with the kids, and they’re learning together and sharing music as a family—it’s so vital!”
Two years ago, Trien began teaching as a music specialist for the Brookline Early Education Program (BEEP). With BEEP, she’s working with Brookline Access TV to develop programming and songs for an early childhood literacy TV program, Bee Bear Book Club. She also recently cowrote and arranged two songs that will be used in two short music videos on the national website www.education.com as part of their kindergarten math curriculum.
Trien now has a booking manager—something she never had as a folk singer. “She’s been getting me out more,” says Trien, who has played in New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Virginia, as well as all over Massachusetts (and at her Middlebury reunion).
“I want to make another CD,” she says. “Within the next five years my goals are to record more and have more national recognition. I have a few themes that I want to hit on. As my kids get older and have more complicated feelings, it’s not just about jumping and spinning anymore, but also about the complicated feelings kids have as they get older. I want to write about that.”
Meanwhile, back in Westwood, the audience is getting restless. Time for the celebration parade song! One of the Jumping Monkeys climbs off the stage to lead a crocodile of kids around the auditorium, and Trien turns to her drummer. “Take it away, Rico!”
The town and the college of Middlebury share more than a name. They share a history and a living arrangement that is, in the words of President Liebowitz, inextricably linked. We spoke to him about the current state of this town-gown relationship.
I’ve heard you say several times that “a strong town makes for a strong College, and a strong College makes for a strong town…”
It’s absolutely true. In a small, rural community such as ours, the connection between town and gown is far more intertwined than it would be in a metropolitan center or a suburban environment. When you factor in our history, the attachment becomes deeper. Middlebury College was founded not by an individual, but by a group of people—Gamaliel Painter, Seth Storrs, Samuel Miller, Daniel Chipman—leaders in the community who had a vision of the town of Middlebury as a cultural center in western Vermont. The establishment of the College was a huge part of this vision. Just look at the first line of David Stameshkin’s two-volume history of Middlebury: “In the beginning, it was the town’s college.” We’re not named for Painter or Storrs. We’re named for the town itself.
OK, let’s jump forward a century or two. How has this relationship evolved?
First, it’s important to establish the fact that students have been engaged with the community for the entirety of those two centuries that we just jumped over. When students choose a college like Middlebury, they are making a conscious decision about the environment they’ll be living in for the next four years. When you come to rural Vermont, when you come to Middlebury, you are joining a local community as well as a college. Since the College’s founding, students have been actively engaged in the community, in the life of the town, in the lives of its people. They volunteer in the community. They tutor in the schools. They coach and mentor sports teams. They devise programs that fill community needs. They even run for public office.
What has evolved dramatically is the College itself, and its relationship to the town, and this has had both positive and challenging consequences. As the College has grown in size and in stature, we’ve been able to offer more to Middlebury and Addison County. Technologically adroit students are taking projects that they have started in classrooms and in learning environments like our Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts and are applying them in the community. Just last month came the story of two recent graduates, Nate Beatty ’13.5 and Shane Scranton ’13, who founded a company here in Middlebury that uses three-dimensional architectural modeling and virtual-reality hardware and software to help architects—and their clients—better envision space during the design phase of building projects.
A company like this isn’t happening by accident. These young alums—and others like them—are working out of a local technology incubator, the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET), of which the College is a partner. VCET has two locations, one in Burlington and one here in Middlebury. The opportunity for students or recent graduates to incubate their projects locally is just one part of what I believe is an increasingly fertile environment for an entrepreneurial ecosystem that benefits both the town and the College.
Think of it this way: a student comes to Middlebury and studies in our liberal arts curriculum intensely; she engages in an experiential-learning opportunity like the Solar Decathlon; she takes a MiddCORE course in which she is mentored by alumni, Middlebury parents, or local townspeople, and acquires valuable skills; she enrolls in the student-taught Middlebury Entrepreneurs course and develops a proposal for a nonprofit or writes a business plan, which she then pitches to investors; and then, finally, she incubates her project at VCET. All of these parts of a Middlebury experience are conspiring to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that enriches both the town and the College.
Taking this notion a step further, two years ago the College partnered with the town to create the Middlebury Office of Business Development and Innovation, staffed by a director whose job is to develop new enterprises and grow existing businesses, leveraging the assets of the town and the community. It’s exciting to imagine alumni bringing their ideas and businesses back to Middlebury, which would help the local economy and provide more opportunities for students—it would also make the town an even more appealing place to live and work and innovate.
This sounds great, but you also mentioned there are challenges to the town-gown relationship as the College has grown…
It’s complicated. Middlebury is a quintessential Vermont village and the shire town of Addison County, an area rich in natural beauty and agricultural resources. Yet nearly 10 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the median household income is well below what it costs to attend the College for one year.
Two hundred and fourteen years after the College’s founding, we don’t look as much like the community as we did two centuries ago. With our $1 billion endowment and students from all over the country and the world—we have twice as many international students as students from Vermont—we have greatly diverged from the town in many ways, which obviously sets the stage for potential conflicts.
For me, it’s important to contextualize any criticisms aimed at the College from the town and to understand that despite our differences, we are as entwined as ever, and that it’s incumbent upon us to work together.
I know that there are some who would wish that the College would just retreat to its position on the hill and stay out of the town’s affairs, but there are far more who appreciate what we bring to the community—financially, culturally, and intellectually. We are and should be partners.
These criticisms that you speak of were evident during the recent debate over a town-college real-estate deal…
Right. For those who don’t know, Middlebury residents recently voted to approve a plan in which the town and the College will swap land holdings, and the College will help the town build a new municipal building and recreation facility. The College will acquire the land where the town buildings currently sit, raze the structures, and create a public park in this space. In turn, the town will acquire College land adjacent to the Ilsley Public Library, the College building (Osborne House) currently located there will be moved, and new town offices will be constructed in its place. Further, a new recreation facility will be built on Creek Road off Route 7 south, adjacent to town playing fields. The total cost of the project is estimated at $7.5 million, $5.5 million of which will be contributed by the College.
Some residents opposed this plan, and the vote was close—915 for and 798 against. People have very strong opinions. They are passionate about the town, and honestly, I see this as a sign of a strong, confident community, whether these sentiments are in line with the College’s position or not.
When members of the Middlebury Select Board came to the College with this proposal, I wanted to ensure that we were thinking about ongoing initiatives that would benefit the entire town and not just this one particular proposal (for the new municipal building). That’s why we reached an independent agreement in which the College would acquire (from a private entity) and transfer to the town the vacant property on Main Street located along Printer’s Alley next to the National Bank of Middlebury; this property will subsequently be razed, creating a beautiful open space on Main Street leading to the Marble Works complex. And that’s why we gifted to the town 1.4 acres of riverfront land behind the Ilsley Library. Again, a strong town makes for a strong College, and I believe all these moves will strengthen the town,
These ideas and plans have not occurred in a vacuum. I see these as examples of the College and the town collaborating in a wonderful, innovative way to reimagine what this town can be. In 2007, we formed a partnership with a cultural icon, the Town Hall Theater, pledging $1 million to complete its renovation, while establishing programmatic ties that serve both the community and our students. In 2010, we partnered with the town to fund the new bridge spanning Otter Creek. And soon, one may be able to walk from a new park serving as the gateway to the College, up Main Street past the new bridge and a new, energy-efficient town office building, toward the opening to the Marble Works, with the Town Hall Theater just down the street.
We’re very fortunate to be in a position to expand and strengthen a relationship that has already spanned more than two centuries. Our futures—the College’s and the town’s—are inextricably linked. And I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.
When a string of deadly attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt made international news late last summer and into the early fall, there seemed to be as much confusion over who Coptic Christians were as there was over what was happening on the Egyptian streets. Bob Simon, a correspondent for the CBS News program 60 Minutes articulated as much when he opened a December segment titled “The Copts” with this sentence: “Think of Egypt and the first thing that comes to mind is not Christianity.”
Yet as Simon would explain, Coptic Christians are one of the world’s oldest Christian communities—and the largest Christian group and largest religious minority in the Middle East, with eight-and-a-half million members representing about 10 percent of the Egyptian population.
Febe Armanios, an associate professor of history at Middlebury, was born in Cairo, and though she emigrated to the United States with her family when she was 10 years old, she has made regular visits to her native country and was raised in the Coptic Church. Armanios, the author of Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt, accompanied Simon and a 60 Minutes production crew to the Middle East when they began initial reporting in early 2013.
About a year after this trip, I visited Armanios in her book-lined office in Middlebury’s Axinn Center. The original purpose of the 60 Minutes segment, she said, was to shed light on the Copts. Two years had passed since the Egyptian revolution, and the minority group was engaged in an increasingly tense relationship with the government of Muhamed Morsi. Yet very little was known about them around the world. As she told Simon in the broadcast, there isn’t a lot of awareness of Egypt’s role in the Christian story. “It’s a forgotten community, as many people have called it.”
For the next 45 minutes, Armanios gave me a brief primer on Coptic Christians. Native Christians of Egypt, the Copts split from Chalcedonian Christianity with other Orthodox churches (Armenians, Syrians, Ethiopians) in 451 AD. Copts have always taken great pride in how deep-rooted Christianity is in Egypt—the first Christian monastery was established there, and one of the sites the 60 Minutes crew visited was an underground chapel where it is believed the Holy Family sought refuge after fleeing King Herod.
Christianity was the religion of the majority in Egypt until about the mid-10th century, but since that time the Copts have experienced a complicated coexistence with the Muslim majority and even with other Christians. Fiercely protective of their identity and loyal to their land and to their ancient form of Christianity, the Copts became largely isolationist, from the 15th century onward. They were suspicious of outsiders, specifically Catholic missionaries in the late 1600s and American missionaries two hundred years later. Internally, they were able to practice their religion, but their position in society ebbed and flowed over the centuries. Until the early 1880s, Copts (like all other non-Muslims) were forced to pay a special “protection” tax and were mostly precluded from holding positions of power. Subsequent reforms would eliminate the tax and would allow Copts to become more integrated into Egyptian society, a movement that coalesced when all Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—opposed British rule early in the 20th century.
When the modern Republic of Egypt was established after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Copts in Egypt returned to a tenuous coexistence with the Muslim majority. Armanios said that during the last 50 years, one can identify waves of Coptic emigration—in the early 1960s, in the late ’70s, and then a steady stream during the past 30 years under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Though Mubarak’s regime professed secularism, an easy way to direct attention away from other issues— like, say, a struggling economy—was to blame Copts.
“But the last three years have been a game changer,” Armanios said.
As in the other Egyptian revolutionary movements of 1919 and 1952, Copts joined with the Muslim majority to form a united nationalist front in the revolution of 2011, though the Coptic Pope initially urged his followers to refrain from actively protesting for fear of being made scapegoats. Yet after the Morsi government was established, violence against Copts grew. Tensions were rising. Shortly after the 60 Minutes crew first filmed in Egypt, unidentified extremists attacked the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, an event the Morsi government failed to condemn. And then on July 3, the Egyptian military announced it had removed Morsi from power. Standing beside General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as he announced the change in leadership were other Muslim leaders—and the Coptic Pope.
“It was the first time a Coptic Pope had addressed Egyptians at an explicitly political forum,” said Armanios. “And it was on live television.”
A visible fury ensued across Egypt. “Some people think of Christians as having a secondary status, so they became an easy target,” Armanios said. Angry mobs burned homes, shops, and churches. The Copts were being blamed for conspiring to overthrow Morsi. Then, in August, after Egyptian police and military cleared two Muslim Brotherhood camps, killing close to 1,000 people, the retaliation against Copts was fierce. More than 40 churches were destroyed in just a couple of days. 60 Minutes returned to Egypt for more reporting—this time without Armanios—as the story they had started eight months earlier had taken a dramatic turn.
Sitting in Armanios’s office in early 2014, with violence against Copts still a weekly occurrence, I asked her if this was the greatest persecution Coptic Christians had faced in their 1,600 years of existence.
“That question might be moot,” she replied. “The violence is real.” Whether it’s worse or not as bad as at other times in history may not be the point, she said. She talked about the burgeoning alliance between Copts and other Egyptians and wondered if this could lead to a more pluralistic and democratic country in the years ahead. “Maybe,” she said. “But it is to be determined.”