Books

[Bibi Melville from Maryland talking about a cross-generational/ cross-cultural programme that she is working on]

Almost eight weeks ago in Burbank on the outskirts of Los Angeles I help to run a workshop for senior managers at EngAge. We asking the question how can we more effectively communicate the stories from different residential centre programmes. Some stories just naturally arrive beautifully complete, narrative structure in tack with beginning, middle and end in place. Others are more complex. They might break the surface as nagging concerns, half resolved dilemmas.

There is a volunteer who works on a programme distributing food parcels to people living in a seniors residential complex. The volunteer is extremely unhappy. She thinks that she might stop being a volunteer. She cries almost every day. She doesn’t think that she is being recognized; she doesn’t think that she is being valued. Yes she gets support from her manager; she is told how important the gift of her time is. It’s a problem with her peers. The people she is giving her time to support. They snatch the parcels from her. They don’t say thank you. They express an urgency that she can’t connect with. She doesn’t understand what is said when they speak. Her presence is not acknowledged.  Maybe it’s a collision of geography, of life histories, of race, of class, of casual familiar habits.

EngAge and so many other companies that I have visited work on this edge: the urban encounter between people who have different backgrounds and sensibilities. Some of the most exciting and challenging art is forged from the collision of different worlds and life experiences. Of course it’s not easy. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz talks of the growth in range a powerful sensibility gains from an encounter with another one coming only at the expense of its inward ease.

We are constantly surfing this line. These public encounters, meetings of strangers, where expectations and understandings are not always clear. You can see it here on the subway in New York every morning. Claude Fischer captures the dillema: – “We must deal, at least tacitly, with people whom we do not know personally, whom we do not recognize, and, most important, who are obviously different from us in many ways. In such encounters among people from different subcultures, behavioural expectations are neither shared nor certain. How near or far to sit, to make eye contact or not, to speak or not – these elementary norms vary from group to group and carry different implications for each.”

In Minneapolis I met Dianne a company member with Kairos Dance. She talks of her home city as being like a library. Its inhabitants are all books in the library. “We just need to take the time to read each other’s story.”

We’d all better get reading!

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