“Communication arts are the future…” I depart Beirut as I entered, awash in serendipity. Back in whaling days, the Captain’s cabin was a private refuge. Entry by others was privileged and rare. Generous gifts of time and talk throughout my stay dance questions among the neurons of my mind.
The Ringleader got us to the Captain Cabin’s then vanished to play pool.
LD (the eldest) spoke for the group, “I don’t care, but I want a code name.” The youngest argued for Peter Pan. No problem. I am a pushover as long as it works—otherwise you have to convince me (this is not impossible). Twenty-Two exclaimed, “It’s not like I’m hiding anything!” I had wanted to know the size of their ambitions. “Big questions over small glasses,” answered Small Fry, a tall guy protecting Polly Sigh. Sleepy brought Attached along for the ride. Spike agreed with OJ:
“Communication arts are the future, not politics!”
Yalla. Humans, mech maskal, will never be free of the polis. The question is whether politicians can ever again be heroes. No more the sole character forging a lonely way, from now on (in this heavily-mediated age) ‘twill be committed teams and affinity groups treading new paths together who transform the global inheritance of random torture to livable interrelations for the children and the children’s children.
Swords no more – salvage words!
Who will rise and heal the future?
Generous gifts of time and talk throughout my stay dance questions among the neurons of my mind. Smoke of mixed feelings percolates in memory, stimulated by shining souls seeking solace in playful remembrance while drowning sorrow in drink and mad beats relentless rhythms demanding more faster sooner more already more tomorrow who can care much about tomorrow something happened in the north yesterday I’m glad you did not travel south today.
Old as I am my heart beats clear. Vibrant youth, what will ye choose—the stories you’ve been told or the ones you wish to author? My return, Inshallah, issues forth with your desire.
Written in flight, Beirut-Rome-New York City;
Edited and posted from Queens
…what happened in the roundtable on Future Change at the Dialogue under Occupation conference hosted at Lebanon-American University in Beirut. The group was game to engage the quest, at least for the duration of the session. A pluck lot…If dialogue is to make a difference in the world, it must be sustained. As academics, we know the theory! But can we do it? Maybe this year will be different…
Details, Description, Context, Bleh
It is impossible to say what happened in the roundtable on Future Change at the Dialogue under Occupation conference hosted at Lebanon-American University in Beirut. We have video, which will allow description and documentation. But so what? The important matter is what our time together comes to mean, and that depends. Determining what the meaningfulness of our gathering might become was not possible even before that Romanian dude added stuff to the white board. During the session, Sophia challenged the authority of the interpreter; Raz claimed arguments have limits; Ibrahim asked about the irony of Occupy Wall Street; Barbara was misinterpreted; Woyciech offered hope; and Stephanie [from Brazil] talked about brackets. Anne was quiet. Larry did not want me to forget presuppositions. Niam (operating the camcorder) conversed with herself 😉
Fishing for a Future (Warning: Academic Jargon Ahead)
The topic was (sortof) about time – as in, how to find one’s placement in a diverse group based upon language use and dynamics of interaction so as to (attempt) to aim in the direction of a desirable future with meta-awareness of entailments (or entrailments, if you prefer the post-workshop revision). I am always wondering if it can be done, what it would look like if we tried, and how control &/or the desire for control is involved. Specifically, I asked this group if we could de-link discourses of occupation from physical places in space to temporal enactments in time by transforming our own discourse? Would it be desirable to do so? I am not sure anyone was convinced! It is hard to draw coherence from loose collections of phrases, concepts, and fragments of comments snatched from sound and written down. “Peace is hard.” “History is big.” [(Name ye well the limits of argument!) Stop thee not the pursuit of amity!]
The group was game to engage the quest, at least for the duration of the session. A pluck lot, these academics, simultaneously kind and critical. Serious and generous. Diverse yet dialogic: no problematic moments (of the theoretical kind) – although desire to rename – enunciative (cf Hannah Arendt), aha, a collective break in phenomenological flow when we all notice – for an instant – what we’re doing. I barely mentioned simultaneity as counterpart and tied few knots with identity. Nonetheless I quoted Ilham (with her permission!), however that conversation slides into remission, suspended, distended, perhaps beyond local use but could it grow wings to give flight elsewhere?
Creating our own origami unicorn
At the end of the second day of workshop sessions, a bunch of us began impromptu planning for growing the conference. If dialogue is to make a difference in the world, it must be sustained. As academics, we know the theory! But can we do it? Participants in the six conferences held to date have not yet managed to move beyond the typical monologic structure: schedule, attend, present, participate in a few interesting conversations, go home. Perhaps maintain a new collegial relationship or two. Maybe this year will be different?
I linked (above) to an essay describing the history of “Common Read” programs. It may seem like a non sequitor, but the simultaneity is that I just finished reading Ready Player One, the book selected for the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s First Year Experience Program. The (2011) book by Ernest Cline projects a future in which people escape and avoid dealing with reality by playing in a global virtual simulation, a web-based interactive game called OASIS. The immersive environment of OASIS is imaginable because it extrapolates from today’s use of social media. DUO Dialoguer, are you thinking WTF? Or is a little bell going off? Connect the dots! Traverse mediums, here’s a clue – this conversation moves!
This is the second ‘report’ on a possible problematic moment at the mini-Bakhtinian conference on education hosted by the University of Delaware in March (ending on April Fool’s Day, a co-incidence of no note, unless we decide it helps the heuristic!). Contents of this blog entry are:
Perils in the Foreground
Promises in the Background
Possibilities of Dialogue: Repressed or Just Damn Hard?
Perils in the Foreground
We are grateful for Eugene’s engagement with our first “report” on a possible problematic moment at the mini-Bakhtinian conference on education. At a later point we hope to respond to his What Do You Think (WDYT) query, for now we are framing our second report in response to his assertion that we are privileging form over content. (Our claim is to draw attention to process — what we sometimes call “the social” — which could be understood as a succession of forms, and is typically under-emphasized in academic contexts.) In fact, James’ comment to the first report anticipates Eugene’s criticism! James wrote:
From our vantage point, then, Eugene and we are ‘on the same page’ or ‘looking in the same direction’ or otherwise ‘united’ in gazing upon an object/subject of relevance.
James and Steph pinpointed our self-critique on James’ admission, during the fishbowl, that “my mind is a complete blank.” That was a facilitation issue – Steph was juggling a dual recognition: that the small group work intended to preceed and thereby inform the fishbowl task had been subverted by several conference participants, and that James – who was supposed to lead the fishbowl – had been silenced. In retrospect, the facilitation move Steph prefers she had made (and hopes she recalls if such an event arises again) would have been to hold the space for James to articulate his experience. Instead, she moved on, contributing to the miniaturization of James’ complex identities and intelligences.
The silencing of James (a co-facilitator and the originator of the Problematic Theory) is the most blatant example we have yet experienced of simultaneity at work. We find ourselves still somewhat floundering – especially in the ‘silence’ (non-response) of other individuals who were in the room during the fishbowl activity which was designed as the centerpiece of our workshop, Bringing Simultaneity to Dialogic Pedagogy.
Promises in the Background
We are delighted that (from our perspective!) we accomplished everything we hoped to and learned more than we could have imagined.
Did we recreate the dynamics of the PM-the group stuck.
Liesl photo. Do we know any symbolic interactionists who could help us do a spiel on her possible significance? Any juice in the youngest/eldest daughter issue? Nazi context for Sound of Music. Time Nazi comment by Eugene.
Possibilities of Dialogue: Repressed or Just Damn Hard?
responsive workshop design and the necessity of participation from others in handling the emergent dynamics
No overt norms but many covert norms some of which became manifest.
Problem of trying to get academics to reflect and apply their theories in practice. Application or implication?
Hierarchy of chronotypes. Most locked in individual chronotype.
Bring in differand work.
Follow up work to conference we are doing.
At least not after the slow start! But maybe the start wasn’t actually that slow . . . here I am re-thinking the beginning after the end.
We did not rush back from lunch, so the first set of presentations did not begin on time. Actually, time boundary-keeping was broken earlier, when Eugene and Ana asked James and me to say something during the opening/welcome talk about our action research project. We wanted to keep it brief. I did not think to record the time we actually took nor how long beyond the time allotted in the schedule, but it seems likely that we were already over time before we had practically begun.
Lunch was leisurely yet animated. I was twice called over to the other table in the aftermath of a so-called problematic moment, not to mention finding myself in wild debate with an Israeli over the title of a conference that I am attending in May. We were late getting back to the conference venue – how late past the scheduled start I have no idea. Did the first presenter go way over his designated time? I held up until the third or fourth presentation and then I could not remain alert. I don’t think I actually fell asleep, just dozed but still – enough to feel a little embarrassed.
Tweet activity was okay – we had active tweeters right away and some persisted throughout. You can watch a video of the Tidepool visualization of tweet activity from the first 36 hours of the conference here: #Bakhtin tweets in Tidepool. Also, you might be interested to know that, at the very end of the conference, @nafoolah tweets from far outside-the-room: “does this hashtag come from nothing to help in my studying about Mikhail Bakhtin” and @antoesp shares Cresswell and Hawn (2012), with dual hashtags for #bakhtin and #epistemology.
Thankfully the energy shifted during the last presentation of Day 1 when Ana presented her struggle to maintain balance within the tension of being drawn, simultaneously, to two opposed chronotopes: sticking with the standard curriculum or shifting to the Live Event. Her presentation generated the first simultaneous tweets, as well as the first animated Question and Answer period of the conference. Then we were off to dinner. Did anyone sense conflict percolating around the edges, in the hallways, offline? I was unaware.
The First Tsunami was covert
Neither my colleague, who discovered a theory of problematic moments, nor myself recognized the possible problematic moment when it occurred during the second day’s first session. I rejected the idea when it was first presented to me, but once past my initial gut reaction I had to admit that I had felt an emptiness open up, a silence deep enough that wonder regarding what would happen next began to grow. Perhaps I sensed others’ emotions begin to fill the void….but the facilitator re-covered the breach for us; we all went along with her move. I forgot about it. At break however, a participant and one of the organizers approached me with the claim that they had caused a problematic moment.
I rejected this instantly because James and I are pretty sure group-level problematic moments cannot be caused by individual action. This theoretically-descriptive aspect, combined with my previous experiences with problematic moments, led to my out-of-hand rejection. But Kathy was persistent, and her language described my embodied perception perfectly, a silence after a silence. Nearly 24 hours later, when we were able to ask conference participants about their experience of/in that moment, many of the participants who had been present were not able to distinguish the second silence from the first: either they sensed one stable pause; noticed no pause; noticed but deemed it unremarkable, perhaps cultural but nothing more); or was already experiencing an encompassing state-of-being which consumed the distinctiveness all particular moments during that timespan. Such nuances of intrapersonal response detail incredible subtleties of simultaneity and are a significant finding of this action research project.
Control: Fight or Flight?
Based on everything we learned afterward (and, may I just say, we learned a helluva lot!), I can imagine that the instigators of the planned disruption might not have felt the shift from the first to the second silence because they were enjoying the carnivalesque pleasure of rebellion. As it happened, the presenter quickly picked a possible response and pursued it. And, as noted above, none of the rest of us intervened in the tension between pursuing/resuming a standard chronotope or shifting to the chronotope of engaging with Here-and-Now live events. During an interview, the presenter explained, with a touch of regret, that she had not acted as usual in that kind of situation because the group had not yet established a communal sensibility.
Normally we would have captured the PM on video and been able to show it back to the group for interrogation, but unexpected requests for copies of presentations had thrown us for a loop. We missed recording a few presentations while grappling to absorb the ramifications of distributing copies of video obtained under conditions of informed consent. Without the PM to replay, we were left with only the principals’ reports of their respective experiences of the moment. These proved insufficient inspiration for a collective exploration of whether or not a PM had occurred. Instead, we found ourselves in a swirl of debate trying to teach the relevance of differences between interpersonal (individual) and group-level dynamics. In retrospect, we realized that it would have been helpful to articulate the theoretical frameworks that guide our analytical gaze and generation of hypotheses.
Norming: Academic, not Innovative
Probably it could not have been any other way. Despite the encouragement we took from pre-conference email communication describing, for instance, how “Our mini-Bakhtinian conference is not the same as every other conference you have attended,” the rituals of social interaction were not significantly affected. The change in form, “that we don’t have parallel sessions, but the whole conference takes place in only one track” may not have implied as much willingness to explore the stages of group development as we optimistically interpreted. After the possible problematic moment, James and I became absorbed with preparing for our scheduled workshop slot: we were generating hypotheses about the possible problematic moment and imagining how to design the session in order to maximize engagement with the data. As far as I can recall, the presentations continued along the rest of Day 2. Presumedly most of the conference participants again enjoyed a meal together; we huddled in our hotel room, parsing video and strategizing how best to maximize the learning opportunity.
For this first blog entry (the project proposal specified two or three), I’m working from memory and also trying to cast as wide and broad an overview as I can, while remaining tight on the emergent data that we selected for qualitative analysis. The foursome who appeared to give the first presentation on Day 3 had not been previously present; from my point-of-view they caught a huge thrust of energy as the group initiated a Q&A only a few minutes into their presentation. I was quite impressed with how they handled the feedback, apparently unruffled they took it all down and hung in there for the rest of the morning (but that’s all). It seemed that conference participants who had remained since the start were hitting stride. Then came our workshop and it proceeded as if grudgingly. Although no carnivalesque actions were performed, two of the small groups overtly chose not to conduct the structured “now what” task but instead opted to talk about something else that they wanted to talk about with each other. We left to debrief and, upon return some 90 minutes later, were informed that we had missed a(nother possible) problematic moment.
The Second (possible) Problematic Moment was Overt
We were not there and did not leave the camcorder running, so we have paltry data to work with. Eugene told me they have faced such disagreement before, that it has to do with (according to some) “application,” and (according to him), “implication” regarding his dialogic pedagogy philosophy (?) of teaching. Yifat said, “Oh you really missed something,” and James was told that there was a din, an outburst of many talking at the same time. It sure sounds like a group-level event. I mused about it on twitter, getting responses from Eugene and also Mara – who had been able to attend (along with several others) only the first two days of the conference.
We were only able to stay for the first presentation of the last, fourth day of the conference. It would be cool if some quantitative analyst would run the tweet data (as captured in Tidepool tweet counts) and correlate word frequency with the topics of each workshop. As with the National Science Foundation tweet data (Idiographic Case #1) from their Workshop on Transformative Research, the tweets that Tidepool captures represent only a partial perspective on the conference-as-a-whole. For what it’s worth, the word with the highest count within the time boundary of a single presentation was brought to us by Jayne.
The continental United States experiences more sudden, severe weather than anyplace else on the globe. This astonishing fact occurs because of geography and patterns of wind. Less surprising but still fascinating is that most of the participants attending WAS*IS (including the social scientists) experienced a major weather event when they were young. Whether or not you believe humans have anything to do with global warming – or even in global warming itself, chances are increasing that you’ve been exposed to or affected by a recent severe weather event. At least, this is an assumption that social scientists can help assess.
What are the costs of bad weather?
Do we measure this in purely economic terms, or do we need to also understand the sociocultural implications as people adapt, grow, or fail to learn lessons from surviving a natural hazard?
SIP serves as a focal point for developing and supporting a closer relationship between weather researchers, operational forecasters, relevant end users,
and social scientists.
According to the veterans, some amazing things have happened during this 10th “summer workshop” exploring “what WAS to what IS the future” of integrated social and physical science. The representation of stakeholders at the 2011 WAS*IS is impressive: roughly half of the participants are professors, students and/or professional researchers from social science disciplines, with the other half including four television weathermen, two employees of for-profit business companies, and several National Weather Service employees, ranging from extensively-trained meteorologists and technicians in Weather Forecast Offices to national policy advisors and top-level agency directors.
We are, however, missing representation from the largest set of end-users, the diversity of publics who care about weather news. Social science is needed to identify
the very different reasons and diversity of needs of interested consumers of weather news;
social interactions of time and the timing of warnings with both short-fuse and long-fuse weather hazards (such as flash floods or hurricanes, respectively).
Did you know that the National Weather Service warning for Hurricane Katrina was the most precise and accurate warning in history? Not only did the official warning provide a very long lead time, it also predicted in acute detail the devastation about to occur.
A new line in the sand
Including so many social scientists in the WAS*IS 2011 Summer Workshop raises the bar for organizers and participants too. The diversity of disciplinary backgrounds means the training model has to embrace new interaction capacities and grow. Just like people in other components of the weather enterprise, we are all responsible for keeping the relationships discovered here alive, active, and productive. Collectively, some stances need to be forged on a wider scale to support the emergence of this movement from its exclusive and cozy origins to an institutional force with considerable lateral reach. WAS*IS is not only about the weather: its revolutionary model is an exemplar for harnessing collective intelligence in the face of our generation’s severe and complicated societal-level challenges.
Just as some of us will experience various emotions as this experience comes to a close, grief is part and parcel of the process of organizational maturity. It is like a phase shift from youth to early adulthood. The success of creating and delivering these great summer workshops leads to responsibility for nurturing the network’s potential to reach beyond scattered pairings and isolated studies. It is time for WAS*IS to become more than random motion in a chaotic system and self-organize into a system with power to lead institutional level change.
Alexis Networks argued that everyone should work a service job at some time in their life . . . she was trying to tolerate our waiter the human whirlwind – after all, we just wanted barbecue! Her strategy was to jump scale: finding the direct interpersonal interaction challenging, she shifted her perspective to larger socioeconomic dynamics. This defused the possibility of unwelcome tension spoiling our meal.
We were recovering from a day of touring three flash flood scenes. The overall mood of the 2011 WAS*IS seems good – there is much laughter and comraderie despite the emotional undercurrents raised by facing the evidence of unnecessary human death. I am not sure how many of us were deeply contemplating the various roles we play in ‘the weather enterprise,’ but I think it had to be present. Queen Eve kept asking, How do we get people out of their cars and climbing to safety?
My (social science) answer is that we need to cultivate people’s ability to recognize what situation they’re in; more specifically, which timescale is most salient?
Caught in a storm
On Saturday, in turn with all the other social scientists here at WAS*IS, I gave a brief presentation on the methodologies from the discipline of Communication that I use in my work, ending with Bruce Tuckman’s model of the stages of group development:
Ben The Curious asked what I’d observed of our group so far. My answer in the moment was positive and optimistic – I still believe! – but the critical discourse analyst in me started wondering: is this group going to engage ‘the storm‘ or skirt right through it? Will we ‘norm’ in ways that avoid the tensions among us or will we recognize the various timescales present and make decisions accordingly – and will we implement these decisions collectively or individually?
Weather and the challenges of forecasting are perfect metaphors for the development of the WAS*IS movement, especially if you take into account all of its participants and nested timescales.
Better Wet Than Dead
Just like a severe weather event, group dynamics play out on multiple timescales. It is the convergence of trends and factors that generate a storm. The group development stage of storming plays out, simultaneously, in the course of:
a single day in the WAS*IS schedule
the course of the 8-day workshop
the life cycle of the WAS*IS movement
It seems to me that all of us ‘innocents’ in this year’s WAS*IS are witness and participant to a storm occurring at the higher level of the movement’s life cycle. Whether we’re willing to get wet (or prefer to stay in our cars) is a collective decision that will have bearing on the future of these summer workshops.
How is the public to be engaged in the co-communicative process of understanding the significance of weather measurements? Comprehension is mutually created – whether this is between individuals, among people with different demographic characteristics, or within hierarchical structures of policy construction, implementation, and enforcement.
Oh yea. I’m home. Not just back in Colorado, but in the company of ‘my people.’
At least at first glance, most of us appear to share an ethos that gathering in groups to work together for social change can lead to large-scale effects.
Work, by the way, is used here in the physics sense – “the amount of energy transferred by a force acting through a distance in the direction of the force.” From my disciplinary perspective, the force at our disposal is language; the energy comes from each (and all) of our separate, specialized knowledges. Energy, in the physics sense, is an indirectly observed physical quantity. In other words, even though energy does not have a form directly observable to human perception or technological detection, parameters can be established that allow the effect of energy to be measured.
Meteorologists are constantly grappling with the indeterminate appearance of energy in weather systems. Based on two and a half days of participant observation, the language of weather forecasting seems to mirror the chaos and uncertainties of severe storm emergence.
Kinetic Kenny explained the marketing strategy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to use the Mark Trail cartoon character (invented, 1946) to promote the use of weather alert radios (1997). The ‘work’ that Kinetic Kenny and Julie the Jewel did in the opening WAS*IS presentation was to bring the social scientists in the room up to speed with the meteorologists regarding the mission of the National Weather Service. In other words, their energy was intended to transmit their intelligence through space in order to draw us all in to the weather enterprise.
Problematics of definition and control quickly became apparent in the formative stages of the 2011 WAS*IS group’s discourse. Weather Forecasters and Broadcast Meteorologists want people to understand risks to their safety and take proper precautions. These professionals hold themselves to high standards and agonize over fatalities – especially those that are preventable. Why don’t people heed weather warnings?
“This is water and you will drown!”
(attribution credit requested)
Decision Support is a Communication Activity
When, how, and why people choose risk over safety is social behavior that has more to do with time than space. This is my hypothesis, anyway, and I’ll be grateful to anyone and everyone who shares research and resources on this matter! Control is a discrete, technological phenomena usually achieved under (please correct me if I’m wrong!) strict constraints of immediacy: as soon as temporality extends beyond the limits of the Here-and-Now, prediction typically begins to weaken – especially if human beings are involved.
Even in the most tightly-circumscribed human process there are “too many factors,” as attested by Gaby Who Reads Minds. These factors are psychological and social: they multiply downstream during the inevitable unfolding of severe weather events. One must begin, therefore, with generalities – the patterns evident from aggregating the entire range of actual behaviors and correlating these directly observable phenomena with indirectly observable sources of influence.
Here’s what I see:
The primary pattern of meteorological communication with the public is confusion.
Lack of intradisciplinary agreement on meaning
Which is worse: a watch, a warning, or an advisory? The definitions combine spatial and temporal criteria in ways that make your head spin. As social media and other technologies allow the evolution of codes, the infighting over ownership of words and terms is intense (so I’m told). How is the public to be engaged in the co-communicative process of understanding the significance of weather measurements? Comprehension is mutually created – whether this is between individuals, among people with different demographic characteristics, or within hierarchical structures of policy construction, implementation, and enforcement.
Culture Change Underway!
The critique I’m offering of weather service related jargon is not actually a criticism. It is possible only because of the clarity with which the WAS*IS community is engaging the known dilemmas of protecting the public with the scientific tools of weather prediction. More than any other physical science, meteorologists are embracing the work of social scientists in a way that foreshadows the best potentials of team science. The newly-coined science of team science has been established on the precedents of medical/public health and safety research but has been slower to embrace social science because of a fascination with the information-processing capabilities of social networking. It seems to me both are needed in order to address wicked problems.
WAS*IS*WILLBE heralds new intellectual terrain. Let’s keep exciting each other!
Whenever I work in teams, I always mention the significance of following. It is rare, however, to be able to carry that conversation forward. I hope this time is different. Following is something all good leaders do: they understand when to follow someone else’s idea – in other words, effective leaders are highly attuned to time/timing as well as to the content or substance of conversation and group dynamics.
The “Taste of College” Retreat is over, but the dynamics it set in motion are barely begun. Will the emotions raised during those three days become a ripple that soon fades or a wave that builds to a powerful crest? Will all of those emotions simply add to past history, reinforcing understandings and relationships as they are already established within the larger structure of our society? If the emotions grow and build, what shore will the wave crash into and wipe clean?
Filling the Void of “Silence”
One of the young people who attended the Retreat noticed how hard it is to facilitate when “no one is talking.” Being comfortable with silence, waiting for someone else to think of something to say, is one of the hardest aspects of leadership. Within the planning team for the event, I didn’t always do the best with this myself.
The manager in me was hyper-conscious of timelines for decision-making, as well as how much participation, input and feedback is necessary to create a quality program. In the end, on the surface, we had a successful event. The youth all got along with each other, named something significant that they learned, and many expressed the desire to come back again next year. The “Public Service Announcements” regarding their visions for the future of Springfield are creative and compelling.
Behind the scenes, however, a few things happened that did not – and still don’t – feel good. The wave – or the ripple – from the Retreat will be influenced more by how the background issues get handled than by the visible surface of shiny videos and memories of fun times.
Diversity: Tensions and Loyalties
Everyone always has their own perceptions of their unique experience (what I called “biography” in the opening presentation). At the same time, people share perceptions of experiences that feel common (the “social identities” part of the opening presentation). These commonalities usually fall along
the lines of the body (how one feels about the way they are treated by others depending upon how they look) and
the lines of the mind (how one thinks about the usual ways of talking and making sense of things that happen).
History (things that have happened in the past) is a kind of container for biography. “We all carry our racial identities on our shoulders,” as a friend of mine put it. Or, “Acting white in Springfield will get you killed,” as a youth in the Retreat said during the “fishbowl” activity on code-switching. “What does it mean to act white?” another youth asked in response. As I recall, there was no specific answer provided at the time. Talking about whiteness is a challenge many of the adult staff have been trying to meet for a long time.
Since I was in a leadership position before and during the Retreat, most everyone probably noticed some of the things I said or did. In general, it is fair to say that I “acted white” most of the time, during planning (in advance of the event) and during delivery (the three days of the workshop). Let’s break it down from the outside (what could be observed by others) and from the inside (my self-perceptions and conscious reasons).
First, by virtue of my body (now, as an older white woman) and the socioeconomic class that I grew up in (new middle-class), I am in a position to be a link to the resources of a university. As an activist in a white body, I have assumed personal safety and low risk for most of the social justice causes I have endorsed. Throughout my life, I have exercised the privilege to go wherever I wanted to go, pretty much whenever I wanted to go there. This includes not going to places where I didn’t want to be – both physically (as in, certain neighborhoods) or mentally and emotionally (as in, exposing myself to the suffering of others not as lucky as me).
In counterpoint, I’ve labored hard for some twenty years to un-do the entrained attitudes of privilege and counter the desire to stay safe within the psychological space of what is familiar. Nonetheless, I am still embodied and enculturated as a white American. I tend to prefer structure, order, and predictability – even if only to push against or work around! Leave me in a vacuum long enough, and I’m going to do something! In retrospect, maybe I could have waited longer and/or done less, in order to enable others to step into the empty space and do more.
Structure: Change or the Status Quo
Here’s the thing. Structure pretty much rules. We are all caught up in a system that has roots going back centuries. The way governments, money, the military, science & technology and the arts work today is institutionalized in layers upon layers of law and custom. In practical terms, everything a person does as an individual gets swallowed up by the system. Lots of individuals doing the same kinds of “individual” things (such as, everyone trying to be a leader) is what savvy marketers and politicians exploit: they hook us around selfish needs and desires, things that make me feel good about me.
The only excuse I have for the design of the Retreat is knowledge. “I’ve been to a lot of retreats,” someone said, betraying (from my perspective) low expectations. I heard through the grapevine about someone else whose expectations were (perhaps!) set too high: that the Retreat would be “a life-transforming experience.” My ambition was more in line with the latter. There was no reason for this not to be life-changing for everyone involved, except for the absence of adequate planning time before the Retreat, in order to forge more fundamental trust in the agreements we made with each other.
This means the knowledge I applied was riddled with things I did not know. Some of what I didn’t know I could have learned from co-organizers and facilitators in advance. Some of what I didn’t yet know was told to me both before and during the event, but I was not able to understand what it meant until after the fact. There are many more things that I do not know: either I have not yet realized the lesson or have not been exposed to enough variations to recognize the pattern. I still want to learn, so I can follow better and thus improve my own ability to inspire by recognizing when to follow and choosing to follow when following matters most to accomplishing effective leadership.
Acting into the Future – On Purpose
Between these two extremes of expectations that are “too high” or “too low” is the hard (sometimes even boring) work of co-creating new relationships based on the belief (one could call it faith) that humans can break free of the patterns of the past and become better at getting along and sharing the good things of life with each other. If only it was so easy! I have not yet met anyone who was able to leap into the future without
regurgitating a bunch of past experiences (such as, making assumptions about others on the basis of stereotypes,
projecting a resemblance from someone else who wasn’t nice, etc.), &/or
learning that what I know as polite and respectful is not necessarily understood that way by others.
Revisiting the “commonsense” guidelines shared by youth at the beginning of the Retreat, the example foremost in my mind is about the early curfew on Saturday. I sensed widespread exhaustion in the room, and had observable evidence to support it. I did what I would want someone to do for me: set a limit so people could get more sleep. Turns out it was the adults who were so tired, not the kids! The “evidence” I observed from them had another cause. Unfortunately, I was not able to interpret their language quickly enough, and even when I became aware of a misjudgment I could not generate a remedy as fast as would have been ideal.
Sure wish I was better at adapting instantly to the need to change me! Finding myself caught up in patterns of behavior that look like the same old white ways truly sucks! I definitely missed a couple of special chances during the Retreat when I could have broken the mold, but they were not within my awareness at the time. Hints and wisps of feedback filtered into mind, but they all required the reinforcement of repetition before they could break through to realization.
It isn’t that learning is hard – our brains are wired for this. What is hard is letting go of what we already think!
The kids kept right on, though, putting what they need and understand into terms designed to show us grown-ups that the path toward a brighter future doesn’t have to be as hard as we sometimes make it out to be: