Liberal Education

Adult Education and Cooperative Entrepreneurialism at a Small, Urban, Public Liberal Arts College

It was an elegant evening. A black-tie affair—everyone, children to elders, looked as if dreams could come true at any moment. There was a sense of confidence, clarity, and appreciation as the evening gowns, cocktail dresses, tuxedos, and brilliantly colored suits moved through conversations with a sense of peaceful assuredness. Faculty and staff of the Evergreen State College–Tacoma attended the event to reconnect with community stakeholders and honor the Reverend Leo C. Brown Jr.

As Brown took the stage, he began by telling stories of the professional and academic accomplishments of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who grew up working with him at The Progress House (TPH), which he founded in 1972 as a re-entry facility for formerly incarcerated women and men in Washington State. Brown had worked in prisons since 1963, and his biography positioned him close to this work: in the 1950s, he was given a broken watch with the inscription “least likely to succeed.” Later in his adult life, he was told he needed a college degree to continue developing TPH, and he enrolled in the Evergreen State College–Tacoma.

After recounting his life story, he turned to a black woman elder in the front row, Maxine Mimms, and said in the most appreciative tone that, if it was not for his family; for his work for justice, particularly in understanding the “practice of justice”; and for Mimms’s entrepreneurial spirit and community service to start the Evergreen–Tacoma program, he would not have been successful in developing and growing Progress House.

TPH was Brown’s senior capstone project at Evergreen–Tacoma.

The Evergreen State College–Tacoma was founded by Mimms in 1972 in the Hilltop community of Tacoma, Washington. We are a branch of the Evergreen State College’s larger campus in Olympia. Evergreen–Tacoma is a community-based, interdisciplinary, liberal arts, urban learning laboratory built from African American heritage, especially the principle that learning is the practice of freedom. For us, education is transformative, collaborative, and based on culturally responsive pedagogy and social and economic justice. We believe that anyone can learn and everyone is an intellectual. The Tacoma program interrogates boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, and structural inequities to recognize that we are responsible for creating our learning community together. We honor imagination, creativity, critical thinking, cooperation, and innovation as pivotal to sustaining our motto: “Enter to learn; depart to serve.”  

Evergreen–Tacoma began at a time when media coverage of Hilltop focused on gang activity, gun violence, and drugs. In this context, we became a beacon of hope not only for the Hilltop community but also for adult learners from the greater Tacoma area and along the Interstate 5 corridor. The opportunity for students to improve the academic and professional lives of themselves and their families was attractive to diverse communities across race, class, and gender lines. Evergreen–Tacoma serves working-class, place-bound adults from diverse backgrounds seeking a bachelor’s degree at an affordable public and community institution. To increase the accessibility of our working-adult learning community, the program is offered in a day session and repeated in an evening session. Our students tend to be returning to school after years and sometimes decades: with an average age of thirty-eight, the vast majority of our students are women (65–75 percent) and people of color (60 percent), with a majority of these students being African American. Over 50 percent of our students are first-generation college students, and 80 percent are low-income students. Our completion rate is well over 80 percent, with over 90 percent employed and/or in graduate school or a professional program a year after graduation.

Recent graduates attest to how this community’s collaborative and entrepreneurial focus enhances their integrated liberal arts education. As Precious, a twenty-eight-year-old doula, lactation counselor, and mother of five, explains:

Being a student at Evergreen–Tacoma has been about more than academics—it taught me how to be in a community. Such courses as Doing the Business of Nonprofits, cotaught by a business faculty and an environmental science faculty, and 21st-Century Disease, taught by a microbiology faculty and a political economy faculty, were classes in the Tacoma Program that expanded and deepened my work as a doula and lactation counselor. These two classes . . . enhanced my understanding of health disparities in Washington State and gave me an opportunity to apply my research using multiple lenses.

This is the power of education designed to meet the needs of students and their communities.

Says Kirby, a sixty-year-old graduate:

My heart has gotten bigger. My studies here made it bigger. I just can’t look at the world anymore without seeing “systems and social forces.” I see trees and wonder about oxygen and chlorophyll in the world; I see people and wonder about prisons, opportunity, and citizenship. Everything looks different now. . . . And I know too much to be able to fail. I am on my way to grad school to be a mental health and addiction counselor. . . . I want to help in the healing process. The Tacoma Program helped me heal.

This education opens up spaces for healing through this naming of the social forces that are affecting communities.

Anthony, a forty-four-year-old graduate, says: The subject matter here places me on a path so that I can observe that the things that happened in my life, to me, to my family, were more than just a series of unfortunate circumstances. Rather than just cutting down the blackberry bush that keeps growing, you can actually dig down and get the root out.

This education allows students to put their lives into context and helps them to see that they alone are not the problem but are outcomes of the underlying problems.

Leah explains:

I am more equipped to successfully maneuver through a racially biased world with my knowledge of the interdependent systems of oppression, psychology, politics, sociology, ecology, and economy. Evergreen has inspired me to push further than I ever thought possible. I will always build learning communities.

This education makes intersectional and interdisciplinary connections in its formation of learning communities.

An interdisciplinary liberal arts program can prompt innovative ideas and self-discovery when fired in a kiln of social and economic justice fueled by high-impact practices. Developing learning communities, internships, group projects, local-to-global learning, community-based service learning, and capstone projects can enhance education and learning. These practices can be found in places like Evergreen–Tacoma, one of the schools that education researcher David Scobey calls “Great Colleges for the New Majority.”1 But too often, even when these practices are an institutional priority, they do not reach students of color, poor or working-class students, or first-generation students. Situating knowledge in experiences that engage students with the community and larger world broadens their ability to see themselves in academic study and intellectual engagement.2 These methods support students in creating new forms of knowledge and ways of knowing and thinking, while also instilling courage, creativity, and skills to change the world.

Education at Evergreen–Tacoma is relevant, culturally responsive, and designed to develop the capacities of poor and working-class people, especially poor and working-class people of color in the surrounding neighborhoods. There are approximately 150–200 students each year who attend either day or evening program sessions, making Evergreen–Tacoma accessible to working adults. The curriculum is designed from a coordinated studies model in which courses inform a theme, such as this year’s “Local/Global Realities and Alternative Visions” theme. The program is based on coteaching and community engagement through capstone projects, including a senior synthesis that requires seniors to present their learning at an annual fair where students share their collaborative research on problem-solving techniques that encourage community agency. The fair blurs the boundary between community and academy while scaffolding community engagement across diverse constituencies.

Key to this curriculum is teaching the whole student: students write a memoir (a significant story from their life) and read it aloud to their seminar cohort.3 Memoir writing also happens in math classes, where students discuss their relationship to math. The reflection and sharing help to emphasize to students that they are not alone and are part of a larger collective struggle for knowledge. These practices help Evergreen–Tacoma avoid the “banking model” of learning facts and instead foster an atmosphere of “wide-awakeness” in which “education helps people create themselves.” As philosopher Maxine Greene describes: “To be awake is to take risks, to see things that you probably would not want to see. . . . Without it [teaching and learning] will just be for profit, and not for meaning.”4 This is teaching from an engaged pedagogy where the classroom remains the “most radical space of possibility.”5 As a radical place of possibility for our students, our work at Evergreen–Tacoma develops a wide-awakeness that ripples out into their families and communities.

In one new program we are piloting, students will work to study and form entrepreneurial cooperatives. Building on the Mondragon model and the history of cooperative enterprises in the United States, especially among African Americans,6 social entrepreneurship at Evergreen–Tacoma will be a process to turn students’ dreams and ideas into realities and to ultimately foster their personal success later in life.7 Evergreen–Tacoma is taking part in entrepreneurship that emphasizes nonprofit organizations and nonprofit cooperatives where proceeds are reinvested in community needs.

We wonder: Does entrepreneurship disrupt the liberal education our students receive? The Association of American Colleges and Universities promotes a liberal education that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. Like many institutions with liberal education curricula, we want to resist job skills as silos controlled by rules of the market. Instead, we seek to create the entrepreneurial opportunities that too many of our students are denied by employers. In creating cooperatives, life experiences are not a weight around students’ necks but can become the foundation of their success, collaboration, and further growth.

Evergreen–Tacoma eschews the idea of entrepreneurship as “business” as usual and places it in the context of current needs and historical processes. Our approach to entrepreneurship rests on this tradition, punctuating self-determination and economic and social justice with the development of cooperative organizations that emphasize mutual aid, self-improvement, and self-help.

Tacoma, particularly the Hilltop community where our one-building campus resides, has a unique history with policies fraught with challenges to racial and economic justice. In 2011, Washington was reported as having more blacks in prison than the national average.8 In 1993–94, Washington was the first state in the nation to pass a three-strikes law resulting in mandatory life sentences.9 Washington has no parole and was the first state to authorize surveillance cameras in poor—particularly poor black—communities.10 About 15 percent of Evergreen–Tacoma’s students have had involvement with the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC). Our students go on to graduate school, but, due to the “invisible cage” of felony conviction, the criminalization continues after release from prison.11 Despite Evergreen–Tacoma students’ successes in undergraduate and graduate higher education, their pasts too often block them from attaining career and professional stability, as well as economic, psychological, and sociological sustenance.

Joining liberal education with entrepreneurship has the potential to address tensions within career-focused curricula that continue the usual narrative for marginalized students. Instead, we seek a broader casting of entrepreneurship as popular education, redefining job skills to include abstract thinking and so-called soft skills of collaboration, customer/community service, and cooperative peer management. This inspires imagination and uncovers interdisciplinary intersections that inform biography and agency.12 Our kind of entrepreneurship expands on what we do well and offers another tool to help our graduates succeed by creating a new set of opportunities. A cooperative popular education approach to entrepreneurship resists throwing money at the problem and instead promotes the role of social and economic justice in the mitigation and resolution of societal problems. As legal scholar Bryan Stevenson says, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”13 Entrepreneurship within the context of Evergreen–Tacoma’s responsive and relevant liberal education framework is a step toward such justice for our students.


1. David Scobey, “What Adult Learners Really Need (Hint: It’s Not Just Job Skills),” interview with Anya Kamenetz, nprEd, April 18, 2018,

2. Traci R. Burch, “Effects of Imprisonment and Community Supervision on Neighborhood Political Participation in North Carolina,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651, no. 1 (2014): 184–201.

3. Each full-time faculty member has a dual role as an instructor and academic advisor. Each faculty advisor has a seminar cohort of about ten students and leads a seminar on readings that are assigned to the entire student body.

4. Maxine Greene, “Toward Wide-Awakeness: An Argument for the Arts and Humanities in Education,” Teachers College Record 79, no. 1 (September 1977): 119–25.

5. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).

6. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).

7. Scott Morgan, “Entrepreneurship at Evergreen,” draft of strategic vision, Evergreen State College, 2018.

8. Morgan, “Entrepreneurship at Evergreen.”

9. R. David Lacourse Jr., “Three Strikes, You’re Out: A Review,” Washington State Policy Center, January 1, 1997,

10. Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System, Preliminary Report on Race and Washington Criminal Justice System (Seattle: Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System, 2011).

11. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

12. C. Wright Mills, Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).

13. Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 18.

To respond to this article, email with the authors’ names on the subject line.

GILDA SHEPPARD and ANTHONY ZARAGOZA are faculty members at the Evergreen State College–Tacoma.

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