OBERLIN — Students at Oberlin College will learn what it means to be “a good neighbor” to the Oberlin business community in a series of service endeavors the college developed to better integrate students into the Lorain County college town.
In a letter to the Oberlin business community, college President Carmen Twillie Ambar laid out a plan to embrace the business community and help students do the same.
“We want all our local businesses to prosper,” Ambar wrote. “With that goal in mind, we are interested in exploring opportunities to ensure our mutual success.”
The college will encourage, and in some cases require, student participation in three initiatives. The first, set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Aug. 27, encourages new students to shop local. Students who provide receipts from local businesses will be able to enter a drawing to win gift cards from Oberlin businesses.
The college also designed a new orientation program “Community 101: An Obie’s Guide to Being a Good Neighbor,” to help students think through what it means to be a responsible resident in Oberlin. This is a required student event that brings together several city partners including Oberlin Chief Prosecutor and Assistant Law Director Farah L. Emeka, Fire Chief Robert Hanmer, City Manager Rob Hilliard, Ben Franklin and Mindfair owner Krista Long and Police Chief Ryan Warfield.
“The goal is to introduce students to the town’s many special qualities, while communicating clearly the college’s expectations for appropriate behavior on a wide range of issues, such as noise, street crossing, bike parking and shoplifting,” Ambar wrote.
While the college makes zero mention in the letter of its ongoing lawsuit with Gibson’s Bakery, a longstanding downtown Oberlin business, the tone of the letter speaks to ongoing conversations in the business community and attempts to develop a better relationship.
“From talking with some of you, I know you believe as I do that the future of Oberlin College and the city of Oberlin are inextricably intertwined,” Ambar wrote. “Neither can flourish without the other.”
The rift between the bakery and the college started in 2016 when a student tried to buy alcohol with a fake ID and shoplift from Allyn Gibson, who is the son of the bakery’s owner, David Gibson. Allyn Gibson followed the student out of the store and the two got into a physical altercation.
Two other students got involved in the incident, and police have said when they arrived the three student were hitting Allyn Gibson while he was on the ground.
The incident was viewed as racially charged because Allyn Gibson is white and the students are black. All three students pleaded guilty in August 2017 to misdemeanor charges and read statements into the record acknowledging that Allyn Gibson was within his right to detain the shoplifter and that his actions were not racially motivated.
The bakery claims it has suffered a loss of business as a result of the protests by Oberlin College students and community members that ensued after the incident. The business sued the college in 2017 and the lawsuit is ongoing, according to court documents.
The last event scheduled by the college, set for Sept. 1, is community service oriented and takes the incoming Oberlin class into Cleveland for a day of service, exploration and fun.
“Our intent is to show our new students and prospective students how close Oberlin is to a dynamic city,” Ambar said. “This work builds on our existing, long-running service programs in Oberlin and Lorain County, and is designed to showcase for students how much they can learn from the vibrant communities in Northeast Ohio.”
College spokesman Scott Wargo said Tuesday that the college’s initiative has received support from the city and the business community.
“This is a reflection of what is important to the president,” he said. “She has had a year to be part of and to observe the Oberlin community and is putting forth initiatives that are meaningful to her and that she hopes will strengthen ties between the college and town.”
For many Oberlin students, enrollment in the liberal arts college may represent first-time visits to Ohio and/or Lorain County. According to demographic information from the 2018 applicant pool, Oberlin’s first-year enrolling students come from 44 states and 35 countries.