The Block Island Times

BI U3A — A local community network

By Elspeth Crawford | Mar 10, 2014

“U3A” stands for University of the Third Age. The resemblance to university is only in the way in which people get together, often to learn or to teach; in U3A there are no exams, no educational requirements, no grades, and no compulsory activities.

The ‘third age’ at first defined people in retirement or semi-retirement, wanting to share intellectual, cultural, creative, physical and leisure interests. It now stands for anyone, any age, outside school or college, who joins in.

“U3A” is an international movement, but each U3A group is local, simply a network within a network.

There are many local U3A groups in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It exists in China also (but I can’t read their information!). Each local group sets up its own organization and programs. However, by using the name, each chapter agrees on certain values. U3A groups are non-profit, non-sectarian and non-political. They believe that activities enrich life. They acknowledge that people have a lifetime of experience, and, collectively, a vast amount of know-how and knowledge. They create activity groups within a community by sharing their experience in self-help, low-cost or free groups in the local network. A U3A is something like a “continuing education” institution, but without the institutional hierarchy. It is a place where the community experience and willingness to learn or teach is made available. Individuals can engage as much or as little as they personally wish to do, as learners, teachers, group leaders/ convenors/ co-ordinators, or all or none of these.
Sharing common interests

The Block Island U3A (BI U3A) hopes to achieve this by simply beginning a free community network, with a small volunteer ‘steering’ committee, to share island knowledge and needs, and to ensure collaboration with the many other organizations on the island. In this small place, we all know we each wear several hats, we do not need duplications or clashes. BI U3A will not replace or compete, for example it does not need or ask for funding. At first it might help best with communication between groups that exist already. The BI U3A network will grow [or not] as and how the people on BI want it to develop. The committee will keep in touch with interest groups within the network, and keep the feedback going. Interest groups will be self-managing, as indeed they always have been. This means that group or individual “membership” of BI U3A implies only that one’s name, or the group’s name, and interests, are held by the committee so that others who have similar interests can be kept in touch, or enabled to join.

The U3A idea was brought here by me. I spoke to the Senior Advisory Committee, and to others, of my personal membership of local U3As in both Edinburgh, Scotland, and Manawatu, New Zealand, and of the way in which I have been welcomed as a guest in Cornwall and Northern Ireland. By simply approaching the local U3A I found people with whom to share interests: I did not have to find the people first or in some way “belong” before being included. U3As just enabled that process of ‘How do I join in here? How do I find out what happens?’ “Can I contribute?’ (Cornwall has characteristics Block Islanders would recognize: it is stunningly beautiful, with walks and beaches, many second homes, retirees, affordable housing and transportation problems and a summer season.) I thought the U3A model would suit Block Island, with its resourceful people and varied interests, and fluctuating population.

And so I began the conversations with different people and groups, to see if others also thought a U3A network would be useful here. The Senior Advisory Committee has been especially helpful in exploration and raising questions. What way could a local BI U3A benefit Block Island? Why is it different from what we have already? How would it develop? We already have non-profit and statutory organizations that respond to various needs within the community. What about overlapping, yet another organization?

We have thought about these questions, and more, and decided: Let’s just begin, let it develop organically, as it will, or not, see what happens. If someone reads this who has not yet been part of a conversation, or who wants to ask more questions, please make contact, tell us what you think.

Block Island already has several “interest” groups who meet in homes, in community spaces, and outdoors. Some are already part of the fledgling BI U3A network. We hope more will follow. Interest has been expressed in starting a photography group, a genealogy group, even a Chinese-speaking practice group. Any or all of these could be facilitated under the U3A umbrella while each would remain an autonomous self-managing entity. If no-one comes forward to lead or co-ordinate a group for, say, opera, then there is no opera group. However, if someone wants an opera group, then they can be helped finding others who might also want this, but they get together to plan it themselves and arrange how and when it meets.

If materials or venue or transport costs have to be met, groups fund themselves, they arrange their speakers or activities, and draw on their own members to share their experience and talents. There are no advantages, either material or financial, for those who volunteer their services. People and groups will belong to BI U3A because the network is helpful: it enables a wider communication, it is a knowledge resource, and it is a social benefit. Above all, it allows us to share our abilities and experience with others.

The BI U3A is a place where individuals can go, ask, find out, “What happens here?” “Is my interest shared?” The steering committee is myself, Sandra Kelly, Gail Peirce and Gloria Redlich. Make contact with us, or volunteer to help, and we can tell you more about how to join/develop Block Island U3A. I can be reached at (, 466 5830 or (401) 256 8596).
A website with more information is at:

Suggestions and all feedback are very welcome.

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