Living by consensus: A night at the Mosaic Co-Op

    Members of Mosaic line up for dinner. Left to right: Emily Ripsom, Mykell Miller, Jennie Zhao, Amalia Ouhlahan and Rachel Gross. Photo by Rachel Koontz / North by Northwestern

    Co-Op Basics

    • The co-op’s mission statement as posted on their website: “Through cooperative action, MOSAIC seeks to develop a diverse, inclusive community which inspires and empowers creative, conscious, sustainable living.”
    • “MOSAIC” stands for “Members Of Society Acting In Cooperation”
    • The co-op has been around since 1998 and has been located at 2000 Sherman Avenue for the past four years.
    • Housing is determined by an application process every spring, which involves one-on-one interviews.
    • The consensus structure used at weekly meetings means that any one member can block, approve or choose to refrain from voting about each policy being discussed.
    • Group meals are held three times a week and are prepared by two members, one a resident of the house and one from the meal plan.
    • All common food is vegetarian and also includes a vegan option.
    • Members concentrate on living impact-free through waste reduction.
    • Each member completes about four hours of chore duty each week — cooking meals, shopping for groceries, cleaning common areas, coordinating the food budget and meal plan, and maintaining landlord relations.
    • Outreach through the co-op includes hosting events and meetings for campus groups such as SEED and Peace Project, as well as documentary screenings and local open mic nights.

    Pots and pans clatter in the kitchen. Emily Ripsom, a junior undergrad nursing student from Loyola, stands at the kitchen sink. She sings along to an Andrew Bird song and chops garlic, swaying back and forth to the music. Mykell Miller, a junior NU computer engineering student, adjusts the temperature on the stove, murmuring, “Oooh, excellent,” as he peers into the pan of sauce. Light from the windows hits the goldenrod walls and catches the mirrored edges of a disco ball hanging in the living room. Hardwood floor panels creak under the footsteps of strangers, acquaintances and friends-turned-housemates brought together by a house on Sherman Avenue called Mosaic Co-Op.

    “There is this hovering around 7 p.m.,” says Amalia Oulahan, a Medill sophomore living in the co-op for the first time this year.

    “Everyone knows it’s dinner time,” says Jennie Zhao, a second-year psychology graduate student who has been at the co-op for five years.

    Members gather under the dining room chandelier, a backdrop of a construction-paper night sky behind them. Some sit on the mismatched furniture, chatting quietly. The smells of a home-cooked meal — garlic and spices — waft through the house.

    “Dinnnnnnerrrr!” Mykell shouts, his voice reverberating through the halls and stairways as people meander out of their rooms.

    A line of people forms behind the stacks of dissimilar silverware and plates — small three-pronged forks clash with wider engraved spoons, while the bright colors of shiny, decorative plates collide with their simple ceramic counterparts. As the members of the co-op slowly move down the row of dishes, scooping orange tofu satay and salad and vegetables onto their plates, it becomes clear that they, too, form a patchwork.

    The plates at Mosaic don’t match. Photo by Rachel Koontz / North by Northwestern

    Like the piecemeal sets of dinnerware from which they eat, the individual members of Mosaic make a varied group, a human mosaic of sorts. Together under one roof, their collage of personalities and ages, academic majors and interests forms a single culture —one unlike most you’ll find at Northwestern.

    “We’re a family, and not the dysfunctional kind,” says Ripsom. She smiles, grabbing a plate. “And whatever you’ve heard about us, that’s what we’re not,” she says, and starts down the line.

    “It’s a vibe,” Oulahan says of the co-op’s atmosphere. “It’s an environment of people who are committed to community, and you don’t find that a lot in a living situation where you don’t know people previous to moving in.”

    Especially at dinnertime, this friendly and open environment draws people to the co-op, whether they live in the house permanently or just join the meal plan. Conversation flows comfortably — between creative writing and chemistry majors, grads and undergrads, close friends and people who have met for the first time.

    “This is a place of tolerance and a safe place for people to be,” says Sam Kleiman, a first-year graduate chemistry student who moved into the house this year. “[It’s a place] for people who society might view as different to live. A place to build positive relations, and that’s what it’s about.”

    Oulahan agrees that the welcoming environment here has had strong appeal to its residents since the co-op formed nine years ago.

    “It is a contrast from the rest of campus,” she says. “A lot of times you can feel cut off and like you’re in your own little bubble, or in a bubble of a certain group of friends, and this is a place to break out of those barriers. You can make yourself at home pretty easily here. You’re not as isolated.”

    Since it’s an off-campus housing option, the co-op has stayed more under-the-radar to Northwestern students than the dorms and residential colleges on campus.

    “I think there’s ignorance on campus,” says Remegio Torres, a senior history and international studies major and third-year co-op resident. “People don’t even know we exist at all. [People don’t say,] ‘Oh, that co-op, that’s where all the liberal hippies are. Instead, it’s, ‘Oh, that co-op, what is that co-op?!’”

    So… what is the Co-Op?

    Co-op member Rachel Gross keeps an agenda at a Sunday house meeting. Photo by Rachel Koontz / North by Northwestern
    Rule by consensus: Members vote house policy up or down. Photo by Rachel Koontz / North by Northwestern

    “It’s a great community and a family-unit, really,” Torres says. “It’s not just the stuff; it’s more the people. It’s definitely the people in the house that make me feel that this is my home.”

    Because the people in the co-op change every year, the atmosphere in the cozy ten-bedroom, three-bathroom split level house also changes a little bit — socially, politically and collectively.

    “Something that they tell you right away when you move in is that the house is whatever you make it,” Oulahan says. “So the dynamic begins immediately — even as soon as everyone moves in. It’s kind of this environment right now of looking toward the future, looking forward to what we’re going to do this year.”

    Torres says that the prospect of finding a group of politically-aware housemates was part of his attraction to the co-op. He says he heard the house was a “hotbed for activism.” Although the intensity of this activism has shifted from year to year, some traditions remain constant: vegetarian and vegan meals served in the house, a commitment to conscientious living and especially a history of developing meaningful friendships in the co-op.

    “There’s not really a legacy within the institution, but there is a legacy with the people that you live with,” Torres says.

    Weekly meetings held in a consensus style provide a structure for co-op members to share a voice in the community there. A mediator presides over each meeting, but the agenda is open to input from everyone. Members discuss everything from shopping reports on groceries to upcoming parties to how they are feeling – what they call the “glums and glows” of their week.

    “The meetings usually last between one and a half and three hours,” Kleiman says. “It depends on how much there is to be discussed, and how controversial [the topics] are.”

    Throughout the meetings, members snap their fingers in approval of what their housemates are saying so that it begins to sound a little bit like rainfall in the room.

    Everyday interactions, conversations at meals and time spent together on weekends also help friendships develop and contribute to the general cohesion of the co-op.

    “Everyone does contribute their own life stories,” Oulahan says. “Even just in passing, you run into someone in the kitchen or the hallway and talk. All of our daily lives collide in different ways.”

    “The common room area and the dining room table is… a black hole,” says Torres. “Don’t sit down there for more than five minutes, unless you want to be there for more than two hours. We just get trapped in conversation most of the time.”

    Ripsom says that the house is never too quiet, and the atmosphere tends to draw people back more than once.

    “There is always some sort of noise or interaction going on,” she says. “And once you come by the co-op, you come by forever. People stop by and they come back. You’ll come back. You’ll see us hoola-hooping on the porch or something.”


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