by James Besse '17
Alison Dennis is a CAPA Fellow and new faculty member at Bennington.
What's your work and education experience been like before Bennington?
Most recently, I've been teaching at Portland State University, within their business school. And Portland has a reputation as a city, and Portland State has a reputation as a school for being sustainability driven, and attracting students and faculty who are really [invested in] social and environmental issues.
And within the business school, as being not just interested in the bottom line, but also the triple bottom line. So business[es] which are accountable environmentally, socially and financially. At Portland State, I've been teaching primarily at the graduate level and teaching Portland State's most sustainability interested business students. So what's exciting for me, shifting from Portland State to here, is that at Portland State, I got to bring a little bit of social and environmental concern into a business classroom, and at Bennington it's been the reverse of that, where I get to bring a little bit of business into a college environment that has already been deeply engaged in social and environmental issues and inquiry.
Is this your first Semester here at Bennington?
This is my first semester here as a teacher, and as a CAPA fellow in residence, [but] this is not my first time at Bennington; I am an alumna of the college of the early 90's. I attended Bennington as a Student from 1990 to 1994. So, wow, it feels brand new to be here at Bennington and at CAPA at the same time. It feels like a homecoming.
And is that what brought you to Bennington, or is it something else?
What brought me to Bennington initially, as a student, is the opportunity to really craft education as an experience that was married from day one with my personal interests, and the questions of who I am, what is my voice in the world and what is the contribution I am uniquely here to make.
What brings me here now is rooted in the evolution of CAPA. The work I've been doing in the business sector, not just as a teacher, but as a practitioner, has been exploring business and business tools and models from nonprofit to for-profit, models as vehicles for social change and public action. And that, I think, aligns perfectly with CAPA's interest in public action and a liberal arts education: as a vehicle for developing oneself as a citizen and an activist in the world.
What do you hope your business classes can bring to the Bennington experience?
One way I think about my own life, and my own life's work, is as a business. I need to sustain myself financially in life, and there are a lot of different ways I can do that as a career, so I can apply business tools and techniques to all the ways I can engage professionally in the world; I find them helpful as personal tools, not just business tools. And so one way, perhaps, the teaching I'm doing could serve is for students to take the plan process, or the Field Work Term process to the next level of intentionality.
And there are students who are already in business – they're members of bands , or they're selling their own artwork, or they're doing a co-op as part of the Sustainable Food Project on campus. So in many ways I can be a resource to students who are really interested in pursuing a specific venture, or using business tools so when they do have that epiphany of what business to start, they have the best of the business toolkit.
Have you worked in entrepreneurship yourself?
I've done quite a bit of work supporting students and student teams getting start-ups, especially social enterprises, off the ground. And my husband and I run our own business, we run our own business consulting agency that serves both for-profits and non-profits, so we're small business owners together.
So what do you think about Bennington thus far, and how's it different from when you were a student?
Coming back to campus, there is such a strong sense––compared [with] when I was here in the 90s––of school spirit. And I don't mean that in a cute pep-rally kind of way. I mean that students deeply engaged, all over campus, in an active, out-loud inquiry about the college, it's potential, and how they see to leverage the college experience and the resources that are here to further their work. It feels very vital and alive, and widespread, compared to when I was here in the 90s. When I was here as a student, enrollment was at one of its lower dips, and so it's exciting to see so many students here, and so much constructive dialogue taking place.
And what role does business play in Advancing Public Action?
When I look at some of the largest problems facing the world today: poverty and the distribution, the inequitable distribution of wealth, hunger and obesity, war and global strife. When I look at global climate change. When I look at the most pressing problems facing the world today, and I look at the impact of business, on the planet and on society, and just the enormous impact of resources within businesses' reach, I don't know how we solve those problems without business. Not just at the table in a token way, but deeply engaged in partnership with civil society. We can't get there without business at the table.
(Cover Photo: Alison Dennis)