Cameron Conner ’20 believes strongly in the power of communities.
He demonstrates that it in his actions, whether that’s volunteering as a wrestling coach at a Spokane, Washington, high school, becoming certified as an EMT, co-founding a nonprofit or helping the city of Walla Walla create a neighborhood-building program.
Moving forward, he’ll dig deeper into what makes communities work as a recipient of the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.
His proposal, “Intersection of Common Wealth and Well-Being,” will eventually take Conner to Peru, Spain, England and Mongolia, where he’ll contrast how communities in different regions come together to ensure the needs of all members are met.
Connor comes by his passion for community naturally. His parents began working with Tibetan refugees in Nepal before he was born. He spent his childhood going back and forth between Spokane and Nepal, straddling contrasting worlds and learning about different ways to do business. His parents were helping create income for the community by taking goods and selling them in the states, sometimes paying tens of thousands of dollars in advanced based on nothing but faith and trust.
“That was a big influence — maybe there is something really powerful in this idea of community that we can build on,” he said.
In 2014, Conner helped co-found the Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) with his parents. CCF is a nonprofit that responds to health care, education and infrastructure needs in Nepal. After graduating from high school, Conner took a gap year to travel to Nepal and perform relief work after the country was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake.
Building Community in Walla Walla
Now a politics and rhetoric major, Conner came to Whitman with “all these questions” about how communities and collective well-being are built, and was eager to gain more experience. In his four years at Whitman, he has embraced many opportunities to explore his passion for community building — including engagement with different types of communities — such as serving as a student academic advisor and resident advisor in Jewett Hall.
Last spring, his dedication to his community was honored with a Newman Civic Fellowship from Campus Compact. Beginning in August 2019, he spearheaded the Walla Walla Neighborhood Engagement Program, a citywide initiative working to help residents come together and contribute to the well-being of their street, block or broader community.
Conner’s work was supported by the Student Engagement Center’s Whitman Internship Grant. In the past year, the program was piloted in four neighborhoods across Walla Walla.
“We got hundreds of people to engage with each other in workshops, in neighborhood meetings, in little block parties or potlucks,” he said. “It was wonderful to see not only that we could bring people together, but that people wanted to come together, given the opportunity.”
The core of the program meant meeting the needs of each individual area, whether it was drug and gang issues to helping communities learn how to address discrimination and bullying in schools.
While the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order has kept the Neighborhood Engagement Program from finishing out the pilot year in the way he imagined it, Conner said communities still serve a critical role. While our “community” may look different during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still there, he said.
“What does it mean to ‘come together’ as a community? What does it mean to be there for one another?” Conner said. “It’s offering help — whether that be food, some kind of remote childcare or toys. I’ve seen it happen naturally already. A lot of people have stepped up to be leaders.”
Studying Community Abroad
During his Watson, Conner will take his community building experience abroad to study very different approaches to community wealth-building.
“It ranges from how to build really intimate relationships in a remote, rural area; to how can a large corporation function in this global system; to how can we then fight for these systems, as individuals, as collectives, as social movements, working toward a sustainable future,” he said.
In Peru, he’ll stay in a community of about 7,000 people residing in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. He wants to understand the relationships that have supported the area’s social, economic and environmental sustainability. He’ll juxtapose that with his time in Spain, where he’ll study in Mondragon in the Basque Country. Mondragon is home to one of the world’s largest worker cooperatives. In Mongolia, Conner plans to spend about three months traveling and studying how herding communities are fighting back against corporations to protect their way of life.
In England, Conner plans to visit Preston, Lancashire, which was devastated in the 2008 financial collapse. The community has recovered through the creation of an investment pool that provides seed money for community wealth-building initiatives.
“It seems to stem from the same underlying principles that we are not all autonomous individuals — that we can come together collectively to create something that is stable, that is resilient, that is healthy for all of us,” Conner said.
The pandemic may delay Conner’s travels, but not his ultimate goal. “It’s still the work I want to do,” he said.