An Interview with Peg Kamens

Peg and Jim enjoy a meal together at Camp Common Ground.After 20 years of being at the helm at Common Ground Center along with her husband Jim Mendell, Peg Kamens has transitioned from her Co-Director role to an Advisor role and now puts her many talents toward other endeavors. Common Ground Center wouldn’t be what it is today without Peg’s endless energy and dedication, especially to the enormous undertaking of building a permanent -- and environmentally sustainable -- home for Common Ground Center in Starksboro. We thought we’d sit down with Peg and get her two cents on her experiences at CGC, her vision for the future, and what she’s up to these days.

CGC: What have been some of the biggest surprises you’ve had in building CGC over the past 20 years?
PK:  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the loyalty of the staff & campers -- we’ve had some staff that have kept coming back for 20 years, like Martha Siegel. I just love that. The other huge surprise is that after moving to a new site and expanding our mission, we’ve really attained an economic sustainability. There was a while there when we weren’t sure if the organization could sustain itself, so it’s hugely satisfying to see that happen.
CGC: There are lots of traditions and programming quirks that have come to define Camp Common Ground. Do you have any favorites?
PK: One tradition that I love is the closing circle that brings people together at the end of the week. As part of that closing circle, Rachel Bissex started a really moving tradition & song that we’ve come to call “back-to-back” – essentially, you’re taking a moment to connect with everyone and appreciate each other. When you’re looking someone in the eye that you met at the beginning of the week, it’s really moving to reflect on how far your friendship has come in such a short amount of time.
 Big Show performance in 2006 at Camp Common Ground
The Red Hot Mama’s has been a tradition at the Big Show that has been a lot of fun. In the early years of Camp Common Ground, we basically just started writing song parodies related to something that happened at camp, like sneaking off to go skinny-dipping, or watching our children become teenagers. Lots of laughing is always involved in coming up with the lyrics.
The Morning Yawn, which we all decided to do as a way to capture all the announcements about what’s going on at camp, has been a fun project that I’ve been able to make my own over the years. I’m the only editor EVER on the yawn and I plan to continue to do it until people get tired of my jokes.
Rummikub has also been a staple at camp, and somehow people started calling the rules that we go by “Peg’s Rules”. The rules that are provided with the set are always subject to interpretation, and sometimes vary from set to set. So there’s always pushback on “Peg’s Rules,” but it’s all in good fun.
CGC: What were some of the lessons that you learned in the process of selecting and developing a new site from scratch?
PK: The first important thing for selecting the site was to go for natural beauty -- at first we started looking for specific features, but actually having a beautiful space emerged as the top priority. Developing the site in phases was also important. I don’t think you can anticipate in the beginning where you’re going to end up, so building out the site in phases gives you a chance to get feedback throughout the process. I would also say that always using the latest environmental technology is key -- you’re only going to fall behind faster if you don’t. Preserving and respecting the natural features and the history of the site has always made a lot of sense to me -- for example, when we renovated the Haybarn, we kept a lot of the original features, and we still call it the Haybarn to this day.
 Peg gets to work using a skill saw.
People underestimate the amount of work and expense involved in developing a new site. It always amazed me how much there was to learn – you have to become an expert on topics like permitting, wildlife habitats, soil, septic systems, environmental regulations, etc. People shouldn’t take the idea of developing a site lightly. If you’re thinking about starting something similar, my advice would be to rent a space first rather than trying to purchase a location.
CGC: Part of the transition process was to document the last twenty years of stories and recipes in the form of the CGC cookbook. Were there any stories or memories that came up in writing that history that you want to highlight?
PK: The thing I really enjoyed the most were the stories that people sent us about the first couple years. I loved that people had the perception that things were chaotic, yet they kept coming back year after year. It was also nice to hear from some people we had lost touch with. The best thing, tho, was looking at early photos of long-time camp families and recalling their younger selves.
I had also forgotten about all the different setbacks involved in building the pond -- it was worth it -- it’s such an important & gorgeous feature. It would be like an optimistic moment followed by disaster.
CGC: As a Co-Founder of Common Ground Center, what would you say are the most important pieces of the vision or programs that you hope to see carried forward many generations into the future?
PK: The things that are important to me about this community are:
Environmental sustainability: We have always had a strong commitment to using sustainable building materials, reducing energy usage, educating people about climate change, etc.
Emphasis on food systems: I’m psyched to have Footprint Farm on our site. Food systems and using local food and learning how to preserve it are things that I’m super into, and I think are important if we’re going to build a sustainable future.
Nature: Studying & appreciating nature is really important. We’re lucky to have such an ideal place for exploring wetland habitats, woodlands, watching birds, learning about ecology, etc.
Programming: Offering high quality arts, music, movement/wellness, and nature programming have always been a part of our vision for Common Ground Center, and I’m proud to say that we’ve been successful in this regard for 20+ years. Sometimes people are afraid to try those things, but once you experience them, they’re really powerful, and they nourish the community.
CGC: Do you have any advice for others who might be going through a similar process of “retiring” or letting go of a project that they’ve invested a lot of energy and love into?
PK: Pick a good team to follow you so that you have faith in what’s to come. Accept that your vision is going to be modified and updated, because it will be. Create an avenue where you can add your two cents occasionally and help provide context & history. I’ve been doing an informal monthly meeting with Connor to talk about whatever comes up -- what’s powerful about this process is that it creates opportunities for bigger conversations, but also just maintains open lines of communication. It also helps to build our mutual faith, trust, and support for each other.
CGC: How have you been spending your time now that Common Ground Center is playing a less central role?
PK: One of the big things is Bristol Cohousing. We’ve had more opportunity to travel and visit our three kids. I’ve always been a person with a lot of hobbies, and I’ve had more time to pursue them. I’ve been doing lots of gardening, cooking, pottery, and singing and I’m thinking of joining our local Samba group.
CGC: Where did the idea for Bristol Cohousing come from?
PK: Jim and I have been interested in Cohousing for a long time -- a lot of our interest was informed by Common Ground -- the idea of eating together, sharing tasks, building community, doing creative activities together, etc. Also the intergenerational part is really important -- connecting older people with younger families. And a lot of the concepts behind cohousing have to do with reducing climate change -- living in smaller spaces, sharing resources, building to higher environmental standards.
When we saw three big adjacent lots for sale in the middle of Bristol, we thought we could accommodate a lot of different housing needs -- flats, townhouses, etc. The walkability of Bristol village is really appealing. For a long time, when I thought about communities, I always thought about a development around a common green or meeting area. Not only is our location across the street from Bristol’s town green, it also has enough green space between the three lots for there to be gardens and green space at the center of the cohousing community.
Right now we have all of our state & local permits, we are nearly done with the design process, and we’re working on engineering the homes so that they can be as affordable as possible. At this point, we’re shifting our focus to community outreach to grow the number of families. We’ve had a lot of people donate their time and energy to the project -- people go above and beyond because of a generosity of spirit that happens when you’re working on a project like this.
CGC: What are some things you’re looking forward to in the years ahead?
PK: As far as CGC goes, I’m excited about building up the community of non-profits and schools that are using our space. I’d like to support CGC in expanding on nature programming and building out our food programs, hopefully in connection with Footprint Farm.
On a personal level, one of the great things about being retired or having more space in your life is that you have more time to invest in civic projects. I’d like to become more involved in the Bristol community -- perhaps working on a campaign for more bike lanes and better alternative transportation.
The last 20 years or so have been a whirlwind, and I’m looking forward to finding the time to step back and take care of some things I’ve been putting off. I want to downsize my material footprint, and bring more feng shui into my life. I’d like to force myself to live a healthier lifestyle – a farewell to carbs, perhaps. And I’d like to discipline my inner demons to quiet down a bit and cut me some slack.
CGC: Anything else you’d like to add?
PK: I realized this summer how much I treasure so much of what goes on at Common Ground Center. People are always adding a special something to camp; there’s always a new personality that amuses or enchants people in some way. Just because I’m not working in the office day-to-day hasn’t meant that I have to distance myself from the CGC community – in fact, I have found more time to really be present at Camp.