The Power of Beloved Community as an Education Design Principle

Voices from the Field | Learner Voices | Insights   14 April 2021
By Jenny Finn, Springhouse Community School


If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. 

Lilla Watson

In April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote an article for Education Reimagined on the power of community in difficult times. The piece focused on how creativity and resiliency can build stronger and wiser communities—with Springhouse Community School serving as a case study. 

Here we are, nearly a year to the day, and there is much to share about how the Springhouse learning community embraced discomfort and moved—with hope, compassion, and honesty—toward the challenges that arrived during this pandemic. 

We are grateful for this unexpected opportunity to lean into our values, having emerged stronger because of it. And, truthfully, who we are and have always been as a community prepared us for this. Our foundation prepared us to see our identity as a beacon, whenever we needed one.

Springhouse—Leading the Way in Vitality-Centered Education

Seven years ago, from the vibrant community and landscape of Floyd, VA, and the care of those who deeply longed for a more vital and creative culture, Springhouse emerged. Now with a vibrant and devoted community to tend to it, Springhouse thrives as an exemplar in vitality-centered education.

Springhouse envisions a regenerative culture where all people are connected to the vitality within themselves, their community, and the Earth. Our mission is to awaken a vitality-centered education that empowers people to courageously respond to the world’s emerging needs. Springhouse offers a day school, coming of age programs for pre-teens and teens, and personal development programs for the adults who strengthen our communities. 

At Springhouse, our design embodies five universal principles that we practice as a community, and now share globally through our Education Design Labs. One of these principles is “building a beloved community.”

As much as we honor individuality (one of our six core values), we equally value the collective. When connection to community and individuality are both fostered, creativity emerges that is not simply a sum of the parts. Something new is born when each individual is committed to their own development within the life-giving structure of community. 

This is our beloved community, one born from a long tradition of using the term itself as a beautiful form of resistance (in our case, resistance to shying away from obstacles), individual empowerment, and unification.

Defining Beloved Community

The term beloved community was used often by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to describe a vision where agape love, or a deep and rigorous love, is the guiding principle for the community. The beloved community supports each person to become more fully, and vitally, who they are. This strengthens the collective and its connection to place. The King Center defines the beloved community as follows:

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

More and more in today’s culture, people are feeling alienated, and afraid, especially in rural America. Political, racial, and religious differences are being reinforced through divisive rhetoric on all sides. There are few opportunities for real human connection or developing a sense of community and belonging, let alone ones that bridge these cultural gaps.

This is especially pronounced in sparsely populated, rural Appalachia (where Springhouse is located)—where income earning opportunities are limited and cultural institutions that facilitate connection are struggling to stay open. Loneliness and social isolation are such pronounced problems that they might even be considered a public health crisis. With this pandemic, beloved community is needed now more than ever.

Beloved Community Through the Eyes of Springhouse Learners

In that spirit, I believe centering the voices, insights, and unique experiences of young people is pivotal to illuminating the power of beloved community. Below, Springhouse learners share how our community supported them through the pandemic and continues to support them as we collectively navigate this unusual and extraordinary reality:

Ezra Reilly: Springhouse’s mentoring groups have been especially vital for me in the past year. While it has been more difficult for us to connect, especially online, joining those Zoom meetings have been a way for me to share how this past year has affected me, and hear from my fellow mentees. Another way my mentoring group has been able to connect is through building fires outside and swapping stories. My mentor especially has been there for me through these times.

Amelia Smith: I have been continuously inspired over this past year by the Springhouse community because we have continued to meet for classes and events, but adapted it into a virtual form. This let me keep my connections with people in a time when I felt alone.

These connections are often small things, like seeing people over Zoom and waving to each other through our screens; or the relief of hearing people’s voices and even if I cannot see them, knowing that they are still there. They can also come in the form of larger opportunities like Presentation Night and the Springhouse Annual Gathering 2020 where we gathered as a local and virtual community to celebrate our learning, particularly during a very difficult year.

Tatiana Alba: During this pandemic when all of our learning went virtual, it was one of the worst learning experiences I have had. Not because my beloved teachers didn’t try and give it their all, but because the world was falling apart around me, and the life I knew was gone.

While I was no longer going to sleep and dreading waking up the next morning at 7:00 for school, I was missing this experience that once felt intolerable. This morning routine had been replaced with a new one that consisted of rolling out of bed 10 minutes before school started to then stare at a screen for hours on end.

When we began going in-person to school again, it was such an exciting thing. I got to see my friends and make real-world connections that no amount of Zoom breakout rooms could create. We would sit outside in cold raining weather just to be together in-person because we couldn’t stand staring at the screens any longer. This is community in action; coming together around a common cause and helping each other survive a pandemic.

Cassidy Callister: Dance is an important aspect of Springhouse and is valued by staff and students alike. When I first came to Springhouse three years ago, I was intimidated by the prospect of dancing as a school, fearful of my peer’s judgment. Soon after the year began, I came to look forward to the practice, and for the opportunity to move my body and get lost in the music. I use dance as an escape, as a way to be free, and as a way to feel my emotions. Dancing with my peers and mentors in close proximity was often exhilarating, and I miss the warmth and energy of their close presence. 

When COVID struck our school everything changed, not only were our classes mostly online, but athletics and dance were no longer in person. Early on we didn’t have any dance, but as the months grew and a new school year rolled around, we transitioned into continuing our dance practice.

At first, it seemed impossible to think of a way we could hold the container that we were all used to and missed. Despite my pessimism, the day still arrived when we had our first dance in person, the tight walls and container that we had danced in previously was, replaced by a beautiful field of grass.

Here we danced most weeks. The first few dances were awkward and clumsy for me, and I wasn’t able to become fully engaged with the rhythms. Instead, I became highly distracted by the new environment and people. Dancing became easier as we adapted to needs such as louder music, different placements, and alternative ways of engaging with each other. Dance is definitely not the same as it was before the pandemic, but I believe the change has helped me be able to connect with myself and others in new ways.

Felix Byler: Not being able to sing as a school has been remarkably challenging for me. I’ve always been a musical person, but I’d never really connected with others through shape note singing (musical notation designed to facilitate congregational and social singing) before I came to Springhouse. I remember not liking it at first—when I joined the Discovery Learning Program (back when we still called it that). Reading the sheet music didn’t come naturally to me, and I felt like an outsider. Now, having been singing with the school for as long as I have, it’s one of my favorite things about it.

As a musician, being part of musical groups is one of the best ways I’ve found to connect with people, and singing with Springhouse has brought me much closer to my community than I ever would have been without it. I didn’t realize how much of Springhouse culture would be lost with the loss of all-school singing, and I desperately hope we’ll be able to do it again in my time here.

Alonzo Emmett: During this pandemic, there are many parts of Springhouse that we could have halted because they would be hard to continue, but we did not. We adapted these things so that we could still connect in all the ways we did pre-COVID.

We recorded ourselves singing along to backing tracks made by our Director of Learner Experience, Chris Wolf. We did a gift exchange in December where we “quarantined” the gifts for a week before opening them. We started dancing outside in a big field six feet apart from each other, instead of inside. We had a virtual Experience Week trip where we all received a box from the staff containing things for the trip, and much more.

Throughout the whole pandemic, Springhouse has made me show up, be resilient, and invited me into things that have put me outside my comfort zone and helped me to grow.

Beloved Community is Who We Are

Every time I read our learners’ reflections, I feel a great swell of pride. I’m proud of how this community has empowered them to find agency and new ways of connecting with other humans, purpose, and opportunities to grow during this extraordinary time—all while holding fast to a shared mission to ensure our collective community continues to thrive. This is a continuous spark manifested by our values. 

When sustainable values are at the center of the community design, cultural practices emerge in the community that strengthen and solidify the life-giving values within each person, the community itself, and in connection to place. Through ritual, dance, song, shared leadership structures, mentoring practices, and more, Springhouse builds beloved community.

Sacred Dance, one of the primary ways we foster individuality and community connection, is not performative or technical; it is a practice that keeps us connected to ourselves and each other. Embodiment is a radical act; one that we see as essential if we are to meet the incredible challenges we face today. Dance holds us together as a community in ways that words simply cannot. We dance to strengthen our bonds, to celebrate, and to summon the vitality, courage, and joy it takes to serve a world in need. 

Our beloved community reminds us that we are not alone, creates a powerful space for healing and healthy development to occur, and provides a supportive soil that constantly enriches the relationships and culture that are the lifeblood of our community. 

This is why we are still standing strong(er) a year later. Drawing from Lilla Watson’s words “your liberation is bound with mine,” we will keep to embracing challenges together and courageously. Beloved community is about seeing your fate and well-being, intertwined with your community’s fate and well-being, and that is a beautiful place to live. 

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