Kopkind Colony marks 15th year

Saturday July 13, 2013

GUILFORD -- When searching for words to describe Kopkind Colony, JoAnn Wypijewski discards several descriptions: It's not a writer's retreat, she says, and it's not a workshop in the traditional sense.

She settles on this: "It's a place to exhale."

"As life gets increasingly more stressful and increasingly more crowded, we're not thinking. We're not pausing. We're not exhaling. We're not reveling in life," Wypijewski said. "I think Kopkind will always have that role."

Now the president of the board, Wypijewski has been around since the beginning of the Guilford-based educational summer-residency program that is scheduled to kick off its 15th session Sunday.

What began as a memorial to journalist Andrew Kopkind has become a vibrant, annual, week-long convergence of ideas and activism that has touched an "ever-widening circle of people" at Tree Frog Farm.

"It really is something that, from year to year, people tell me, ‘It has changed my life,'" Wypijewski said.

Sunday's event, which is free and open to the public, begins with a potluck barbecue at 5:30 p.m. outside the Organ Barn, 158 Kopkind Road. At 7 p.m., Jennifer Berkshire will present a talk, titled "Apart at the Seams: Race, Class and the War Over Public Education (a farce)."

Berkshire has worked as a freelancer, satirical commentator, union newspaper editor and a contributor for national magazines focusing on politics, philanthropy and education.

She founded Little House Communications in Gloucester, Mass., and in recent years has been "helping communities, unions and grass-roots organizations use media in the struggle over public education," event organizers said.

Berkshire is no stranger to Kopind Colony: As a young journalist, she participated in the first such gathering in 1999, and she now says it "inspired me, and I've never turned back."

Andrew Kopkind was seen as an inspiration during his life as a political journalist, which included work for The New Republic, Time magazine and The Nation.

Having already found part-time residence in Guilford, Kopkind in 1974 bought Tree Frog Farm. While having some roots in the communes that sprung up here in the late 1960s, the farm became a sort of hangout for journalists, filmmakers and others -- "a place where a number of people would come all summer long," recalled Kopkind's longtime companion, John Scagliotti.

"This mixture became a very fascinating thing," said Scagliotti, who serves as Kopkind Colony administrator. "Andy, in many ways, was the leader of this -- he loved smart, young people."

Kopkind died of cancer at age 59 in 1994. But his family, friends and colleagues had the idea of continuing those summer gatherings as a "living memorial" to the influential journalist.

Kopkind Colony was born, but Wypijewski recalls that no one initially was quite sure how it would turn out.

"Let's just invite people we know and have an experiment," she said of that first year. "The worst that can happen is that everyone will have a good time."

"It turned out to be a really fabulous week," Wypijewski added.

The theme in 1999 was, "Can you have a left media without a left movement?" Mentors from Hampshire College, the Roanoke Times and the Praxis Project were paired with "campers" from Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina.

That provided the model for years to come. To date, nearly 300 people have had what Scagliotti calls "the Kopkind experience" of sharing ideas, experience and mutual respect.

"We had to institutionalize it a little bit," he said. "But it's still close to that original spirit -- and that's the spirit we try to nurture."

That institutionalization has come in the form of a necessary structure set up to bring productive, reasonably sized groups of journalists, activists and others to Guilford for an extended week each summer.

Wypijewski says she begins thinking about next year's theme as soon as a summer session ends. From there, it's a matter of finding the right mix of people to invite -- a process that relies in part on the connections of Kopkind's administrators and alumni.

"Being at The Nation, I met a lot of people," said Wypijewski, who was an editor at that publication for 18 years.

"Part of it is, I draw on that reservoir of knowledge and people," she said. "There's this whole web of associations that I have, and then there's a web of associations that people have on our programming committee and on our board."

Themes over the years have included war, terror and the left, cultures of resistance, religion and politics and The second superpower, a new internationalism?

Rather than narrowing on specific details, Wypijewski said the Kopkind emphasis is on "big-picture" discussion.

"What we've always tried to do at Kopkind is to see the commonality across those issues and to think about fundamental questions," she said.

That's true again this year, when the theme is border crossings. Organizers said border politics and immigration debate will serve as a "departure point for considering broader questions of citizenship, human freedom and the numerous walls erected to constrict both."

Wypijewski said that includes discussion of internal borders "that we live among and that create our world." Berkshire's topic is an increasingly divisive one, and Wypijewski said the Kopkind alumna is "the only person I know who can make the education debate clear, fierce and darkly funny all at once."

The nonprofit Kopkind Colony -- which also publishes its lectures and hosts forums outside the summer "camp" setting -- has changed and expanded since Berkshire attended as a camper in 1999.

For instance, annual filmmakers' workshops -- dubbed "flim camp" in conjunction with the Center for Independent Documentary -- are in their ninth year.

"Andy was very much involved in film. He was a film critic, and he worked with me on my films," Scagliotti said. "We've had people who are just beginning in film and people who are major filmmakers. So there's a mixture of that."

As the number of Kopkind alumni grows, Scagliotti said he's not surprised to see "little Kopkind reunion" gatherings in cities when he travels. He says there is a kinship among those who have visited over the years.

"Even though they might have come for different themes, there's still a universality," Scagliotti said.

Though Wypijewski would like to get Kopkind on more-solid financial footing, she praises those who are long-term supporters.

"There are people who have been amazingly generous since the beginning, and we couldn't have done it without them," she said.

Wypijewski also sees a bright future for Kopkind Colony.

"We'll never run out of things to talk about, and we'll never run out of people who seem interested and interesting," she said.

More information is available at www.kopkind.org.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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