learning resiliency

Sunday, 25 July 2010
western Massachusetts

Did you see the full moon?

Future stories of our first gathering could invoke the mythology of creation. We met on the front porch. Katie warmed us up with crazy tales of personal adventure while Nancy kept everyone’s beverage refreshed. Oliver chose to stay with us. Casual conversation carried us through the initial moves of acquaintanceship until Katie deemed the moment for introductions had arrived. Her seamless facilitation would soon be complemented by a perfectly grilled summer supper. Nancy and Bruce’s hospitality was gracious without pretension. We were at home with each other – relaxed.

Collaboration?” Vanessa’s critique rang out. “In grants they write about it, they have the script beautifully. But when it comes to working together? They don’t know how to do it.” Tim chimed in about how easy it is to become focused on “the Other” and how “they” are struggling, forgetting that “we are just muddling along, too.”  As outsiders, Raz and I spent most of the night listening and learning.

James spoke about creating “a safe space where learning can take place” and the need for “a strategy that is sustaining.” His work on fear and dominance in relation to masculinity linked him instantly with Tim, who wondered about the sense of power achieved from acts of violence. If you take that away from men who are otherwise rendered powerless by the way society is structured, what do you replace it with?

Following in her activist mother’s footsteps, Vanessa argues passionately that “people are just waiting for the moment….They’re asking the questions,” she continued, “but not to the right people.” She’s fighting what James described as his experience growing up in the Bronx: “the expectation that people who grew up where I did would not be instrumental in our communities.”  I recall Katie telling me about disenfranchised youth asking her, “How do we get to where you are?”

“I think of myself as an artist.”  Julie named one of the challenges of her work as avoiding preaching to the choir.  The Performance Project has successfully reached beyond immediate friends and family of prisoners to social workers and law enforcement officials. But did it effect change in policy?  I suppose that there must be an economic rationale to support any change. Tim told us about the “surprising conversation” he recently had with an economist working for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. He told Tim that business has realized it can’t afford prisons anymore, and is also facing waves of retiring employees. This makes me curious about post-jail employment possibilities.

Meanwhile, in Springfield, there are signs of gentrification in the North End. Formal high school education is emphasizing four broad areas (financial, health/medical, math & science, and media), while the alternative vocational education for those “disconnected, adult learners who didn’t make it” in regular school focuses on culinary arts and machining, with an emphasis on automotive maintenance and repair. There are concerns with literacy, too. In this town boasting thirty different languages, it is a shame that signs in four languages about some specific public health hazards remain unposted. And what is (not) going on that leaves a school moldering in “mold, mildew and water issues” for twenty years?

Power and Transformative Development

In an email exchange about his book, Tim wrote, “the bottom line is always power.” Throughout the evening, questions to me from potential faculty for a resiliency learning lab were ringing in my ears: Who needs what we want to deliver? What are we doing to learn about their needs? How can we meet those needs and still satisfy ours? I don’t have the answers yet, but I was encouraged by similar patterns in each group’s ways of talking. Although, as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (among other possible distinctions), we are coming at the issues from different perspectives, we do share commitments such as those expressed by Vanessa and Julie about the importance of people “telling their stories in their words” and “mak[ing] the connection to larger systems.”

When James told about us leaving formal education because he refused to participate in a system that required him to be threatening and punitive, he and a colleague established “programming in a different way.” That’s what we’re trying to do, establish a different kind of structure for multiple, diverse stakeholders to learn together, practice formulating comprehensive images of the problems they face, and – ideally – facilitate a process in which community members develop specific solutions for targeted priorities.

In short, we would provide an infrastructure for “that whole organizing piece” discussed by Vanessa and James (and possibly between Julie and Vanessa in their extended huddle). With the right design, the lab for learning resiliency could be coordinated to cultivate the changing of the guard at the political level, so that people currently living in Springfield (in whichever neighborhood) can be responsible for solidifying the economic bedrock that can meet the new needs of a growing economy. There are so many global trends as well as demographic dynamics that visionary Springfielders could seize! I see Mary’s work on tensions between recent and long-established immigrant Poles as a specific resource in this regard.

All around us there are burgeoning industries in energy, increasing need for practical trades such as demolition and salvage, service needs such as simultaneous interpretation… the ingredients for turning Springfield into a thriving city where recent graduates (young professionals who are highly-capitalized and have no job opportunities elsewhere) and returning vets (who will be back in droves, soon!) would want to live. Give them the right incentives and they will come. Once they come, they will find ways to enliven the city – through small businesses and entrepreneurship. Couple civic marketing with real options for employing the poor that gives them a desirable better alternative to the street and you’ve got a transformation underway.

On this scale, cooperation is vital but does not imply or require collaboration. To achieve collaboration, there has to be more than an alliance toward a particular shared goal. Working together toward the same thing is ultimately only self-serving. The process of identifying and defining that one, “same” thing consumes energy and deflects progress. For a project to be collaborative, there must be investment in each other’s different things. The best example I have from the evening’s interaction is from James’ conversation with Tim about his apprenticeship with a master craftsman in how to work with large groups. James told us about one of his earliest conversations, in which his mentor told him – at age 14! – to go out and “act like a father” to boys younger than himself.

James was incredulous – how could he do that if he, himself, had not been fathered? Use your imagination, his teacher told him. What would you have wished your father did for you?  When you act this way to others, it will be as if it is for you. James’ career as a symbolic parent now spans forty years and several countries. If we were to collaborate, I would have to care that James’ work satisfies his own need to be parented, just as he would have to care that my work satisfies deep needs in me. While that level of relating with each other may occur, collaboration is not necessary for us to become effective co-actors in growing Springfield.

What is necessary is that we achieve alignment with each other. As long as we agree that we are heading in roughly the same direction, then we can cooperate in modeling a learning and problem-solving culture that incubates young leaders and fosters the development of ideas that can transform the city from within. After two or three years and proceeding on for decades, on full moon nights, parents can tell their children stories about where and how it all began…