Harry Kent and Abbie Shain

By Shasta Webb

Harry Kent ’13 and Abbie Shain ’14 met through Lives of Commitment three years ago. They began as friends with a common passion for community involvement, and are now, as Kent has described, “a community-minded power couple.” While Kent and Shain have focused on individual projects related to their personal endeavors, they have recently joined forces by installing a “Little Free Library” in the Mac-Groveland area in order to facilitate communication and artistic sharing between the Macalester College campus community and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Mac Weekly: How did you two meet each other? Abbie Shain: He met me first. Harry Kent: We were both active members of Lives of Commitment (LoC), which is a first year service organization. As a sophomore leader, I had to read all of the applications for the first years that come in. I read a couple and they were pretty stellar. It’s a good crop of kids that roll through there. And then I stumbled upon this one and I was just transfixed. There were some deep metaphors about Macalester acting as a compass rose, or the metaphor that the world is a thousand shattered pieces and people are here to put it back together. I thought, “Wow, this is an amazing applicant.” I saw a gender pronoun, and then I was like, “Wow, this is a lady.” AS: In the application, you really have to pour your heart out, so when I got to college, he knew everything about me—my motivations for life, my biggest dreams. He introduced himself and I didn’t know anyone else. He invited me to go on a bike ride. We went, and we were on the side of University Avenue, in front of Saigon restaurant, eating sandwiches, and he tells me his life story. And then he’s like, “You know, I really like it here. This could be our place.” I had a boyfriend at the time! I didn’t know that this was going in that direction. HK: It was an excellent strategy to just parlay that for a while. We became really close friends. AS: We went to a few concerts. We had a really good time! I went home that summer, and I broke up with my high school boyfriend, and I called Harry and told him about it. And he said, “You know what, I’m going to come visit.” I was upset, and he said, “I want you to have something good at the end of the summer for you to look forward to.” HK: Spoiler alert: it was me! AS: And then he came to visit, and the rest is history. Harry calls LoC a dating service. HK: For men. AS: For heterosexual men. It’s like 27 ladies and 6 guys. HK: The fellas just gotta learn. That’s where it’s at. Community service. For those searching for the ladies, you’re getting in touch with your inner communities. AS: We also both have twins. That’s important. What projects have you worked on individually during your time at Macalester? HK: The reason why I took her to University Avenue was because during my freshman year, [LoC] went to that area to learn about the light rail and learn about the businesses. I was really interested, so I went to a business meeting. I talked to the director and she asked if I wanted to do an internship, so I ended up being a community engagement organizer. Then during J-term of my sophomore year, the director left. Me and one other person ended up running the office. We ended up planning a protest with the businesses in February. That was the first time Abbie helped out with that. Abbie will forever remember her college experience because she carried a coffin representing the businesses being closed by the light rail. Intense community-based theater. That’s been my main involvement. This year with the Civic Engagement Center I’ve organized a “Lunch on the Avenue” series because peoples need the lunches and the businesses could use the extra help. Every Thursday this summer we went to a different restaurant. I just give people food. That’s my model. [To Abbie] What have you been up to? AS: The poetry slam is a big part of my life. I direct the poetry slam series, so I plan features and writing workshops to make people feel more comfortable about writing. I really enjoy that because it’s really community based. I work with an awesome group of returning poets to make it all happen. Poets get really close at nationals and I have friends all over the country who are competitive poets. The biggest thing I do on campus is food justice organizing. I work on the Real Food Challenge, which is a national student-led movement active at 363 colleges and universities. The goal is to divert 20 percent of campus food purchasing from conventional agriculture to what is called real food, which is locally sourced, humanely grown, fairly traded and community-based. Our big goal for the past year and a half has been to get Brian Rosenberg sign a commitment to 30 percent real food by 2020. If we sign it, we’ll be the tenth college or university in the nation and the first in the Midwest. It’s a really big deal. It’s been a grassroots movement with a lot of student involvement and org allies. I think it shows the power that students have to change things, that it’s really possible and really happens. What have you worked on together? HK: I stumble on these eforums, which are different forums for neighborhoods across Saint Paul. I’m a geography/urban studies nerd. Shout out to the Geography Department. I’m on seven [forums], even though I only live in one of the [neighborhoods]. In one forum, someone was like, “Hey, we should get one of these Little Free Libraries.” It’s just like a big birdhouse that you put books in, and then people come and take them. I thought, “I’ll tell Abbie about it, cause she likes little things and books.” AS: We used to have this thing where every time we went to a new town, we’d go to the library. We’ve been to many libraries together. We walked by a [Little Free Library] on the East Side. The East Side has a lot of struggles and the idea of the community library was something for the block and community to be proud of together. It cost 500 dollars and we were like ‘Action Fund Grants!’ They’re from 25 to 500 dollars. HK: They’re conveniently located at your friendly Civic Engagement Center. AS:Our big goal was to pop the Mac bubble without leaving the neighborhood. We want it to be a place to distribute student art and poetry. A lot is produced on campus and consumed on campus. HK: We got the grant last October and we were having trouble kind of finding someone who wanted it in the area. We contacted several organizations but we didn’t get a lot of interest. Then I went abroad and Abbie got really involved with food justice stuff. I came back and we still had this giant box living in my old dorm room. Then one day I was driving home and I saw a library in front of a house. There was a lady and her daughter and I was like, ‘This is a really nice library.” I said that Abbie and I had been working on a library project and we were looking for a place to put it up. And she said, “I have an art studio right over there. Put it up over there.” We decided to put it up there. They’re geniuses, Lindsey and Andy. And now it sits waiting to be filled with bountiful literary joy. AS: There are books in it now, and they have a pretty good turnover. We monitor it. One of our goals was not just to have this static library situation, but to really engage the community with it. We’re having an event next Thursday from 7 P.M. to 9 P.M. at the studios. HK: Right next to the St. Clair Broiler. We want to create an inter-space between Macalester and the community as a place where the arts can connect more easily. How does this project relate to each of your lives? AS: My mom is a professor and one of the things she writes about is public reading in Latin America. I’ve grown up thinking about these things. Todd Bol, the guy who started [Little Free Libraries] has this great quote. He says, “Sometimes people ask me if people steal the books often. You can’t steal a free book.” I think the idea of people reading and having books moving is really awesome. Democratizing
reading. HK: I really picked up on the Student Housing Ordinance and the response to that. From a Macalester point of view, I think that students have been called out for their inability to connect to the community. It’s natural for college students to be a little more insulated, but I think it’s also unnatural when you can’t be a neighbor. It’s not to say that Macalester doesn’t do a good job, but the students here have been asked to respond, and for me, I’ve always been focused on being a community person. What motivates you to prioritize these projects? HK: For me it’s just instinct. I’ve always felt better when I’m out in the community. I’ve felt more whole as a person. I struggled my first year without that anchor. I signed up for like 10 clubs, and did a lot of stuff cause I didn’t have my identity set. I think I’ve slowly realized that the more I became focused on the city and the more I was able to turn myself toward the city and become not just a Macalester student but also a resident of Saint Paul. For me, it’s not really a matter of devoting so much time to the community, it’s just like, I have to do it. AS: I agree with Harry. I’ve had to write a mission statement for my life before, and one of the things I’ve realized is that one of my motivations is to do the things I can’t not do. I don’t think about what I want to do today, but what are the urgent things that matter. Reading has always mattered to me and I believe in community-based food, whatever that means for different people. For these four years to matter to me, it’s about more than just my own knowledge. As much as I love my classes and learning, I think I learn more from doing these things and meeting people who aren’t part of Macalester with a capital M. These connections don’t go away. When you take a class, the class is over. But the library is still there. I want my commitments to last longer than a semester. refresh –>