Urban Interventions

I have a terrific interest in urban interventions to promote a sense of connection and inclusion in cities and to reduce hopelessness and alienation.

Professionally, I have long acted on this interest and commitment by teaching – particularly teaching those who tend to be under-served for one reason or another by public institutional systems. But on a personal level I try also to be a neighborhood ambassador, which is to say that I try to “be the change I wish to see in the world.” Specifically, I reach out in whatever way I find at hand to those I pass on the street or park, particularly those who look lonely or isolated.

Last month I wrote here about a new enterprise, my “cottage industry,” my latest little urban intervention. It is a little project, surely, but it fits into the little cracks of time between my four concurrent teaching projects.

Every week I paint a couple of stones, of fist-size or smaller, in a vivid and eye catching way, label the undersides with the words Finders Keepers, and tuck them near a tree or shrub in a public space.

There they sit in wait until they catch someone’s eye who picks them up and, I hope, is cheered at the thought of the find. Maybe he takes it home. Maybe he puts it in his pocket until he spots a new place where he can leave it hours later for another person to find. Maybe he feels just a little more positive, a little more courageous, and tries something he has been wanting to do but had been discouraged from. Maybe an ache stopped hurting for a moment.

I deliberately do not include any marks on my rocks allowing the recipient to know from where the gift came, so the actual life story of the stones after I leave them remains a mystery.

But maybe, just maybe, today I got a signal back.

At the foot of a tree in a grassy area where I have left two Finders Keepers on different days, exactly where I left them, I found today a blank rock. There are no rocks in this park, so it had to have been brought in.

Was it a message back to this mystery rock-bunny? Was it placed there as a suggestion that I paint another and leave it in the same spot?

I will do that and see how long it takes for it to disappear.

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What Is Beauty?

Here is a quotation from architect Teddy Cruz, interviewed for the BMW Guggenheim Lab on the question of what it means for a city to be beautiful:

I am thinking of the experiential dimension of beauty, less based on an ocular-centric quality and more on a sort of subliminal drama and vibrancy, an atmosphere, a process of encountering and co-existing with the “other.” This is an aesthetic approach that embraces contradictions and requires risk. It is an idea of beauty that does not smother and suppress contradictions or conceal conflict. On the other hand, I am imagining an idea of urban beauty that is not exclusive, but one that emerges out of a socioeconomic and political inclusion.

In other words, I do not care for a city that pursues beauty just to serve the purpose of the very fortunate few that can have access to its manicured identity. A city is beautiful to the extent that it is an inclusive city whose spaces are catalysts—not for an urbanism of consumption, but for an urbanism of cultural production, of a collective imagination.

Considered in these terms, what does it mean for a person to be beautiful? How about a work of art? A home? A school? A body of work?

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A Cottage Industry

I have always been captivated by the romance of the cottage industry. Imagine a cheerful cottage in the woods, me sitting busily in bright skirts surrounded by books and handcrafted this-and-thats, joyfully creating lots of some wonderful thing, each unique.

Switch to reality.

There is a fundamental, glaring problem with this picture. Anyone who knows me knows that everything I know how to do happens between my ears, even if that is eventually translated into voice and writing.

Oh, but I have tried. Twenty years ago, sustained by a habit of attending crafts fairs, I tried making dolls. I made felt and cloth and porcelain, crochet and clothespins. I did this when my second daughter was little, and taking care of her kept me in the house much of the time.

But the second fundamental problem entered the picture. Selling anything is definitely not part of the romance. Accumulating lots of something isn’t either.

I am pleased to announce, then, that as of this month, my traditional month for embarking on new undertakings, I have launched a little cottage industry that fits both my marginal manual competencies and my lack of interest in accumulation or sales.

There is a secret element to the project, so I won’t share the details. I will just say that it is called Finders Keepers and is a sort of public art on the creation side of found objects.

Two are made, one blue and one yellow. I will report on how it goes.

Do you also launch new creative projects in Fall?

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Labor Day

In her blog post in honor of Labor Day, Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School’s expert on creativity, started with the following quotation:

Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
Theodore Roosevelt, September 7, 1903

Most significantly she writes of the importance of finding the value to others in what you do. The most un-glamorous work can have this dimension if you look for it.

It is your responsibility to find this rather than only wishing yourself elsewhere.

What do you give that is special in your work?

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A Phenomenon of Nature?

One of the interesting questions that arises in communities centered around learning and discourse is what to do about the spoilers. That is, what happens when someone arrives who is not exactly a ‘troll” but rather someone who comes only to talk, perhaps to insult people, but never to listen?

As I am very invested in figuring out how to make diverse communities work, I am watching with interest and concern but entirely on the sidelines in a community where a new entrant has arrived who obviously has no experience or interest in civil discourse. I want to see how the entry of this participant will evolve naturally without skilled facilitation.

One aspect of his participation is that he only lectures, responding to himself over and over, but seldom even responding to questions from others.

So far, you might ask, what is unusual in this? Lot’s of really BAD teachers do this as well, probably a lot of cult leaders, as well as lots of very self-centered people in all areas of life.

What is unique here, in my experience, at least, is that this new arrival responds 100% of the time to disagreement or even questioning of his views with accusations that the respondent is arrogant and only seeking to assert intellectual superiority. What’s more, he then suggests that the respondent concede the point and thereby become “intellectually enriched.”

Now most people, including myself, will tend to stay a few hundred miles from such a Prince of Arrogance. A little arrogance I can deal with if the person has interesting thoughts to share, but this case is so far out of the ballpark, I have to say that my usual inclination to build bridges doesn’t extend this far! The claims this person makes in his lectures, by the way, are not at all novel. Rather, they are pretty common ones that are only difficult to recognize because of a mind-boggling layer of special CAPITALIZED jargon.

The hypothesis I have been testing for a week now through my quiet observation is that members of the community will very quickly decline to attend any more of these “lectures.” Or if they do follow, they would do so only to observe the oddity of it, just as people read tabloids or watch reality television. They surely wouldn’t respond just for the joy of his accusations and condescension!

Along these lines, many communities have a policy that goes by PDFTT: Please Don’t Feed the Trolls.

I am shocked to report that so far, after one week of my observation, my hypothesis is falling to the data! People continue to attempt to interact with this fellow, all getting the same predictable result. The more educated or thoughtful members of the site don’t visit him much or at all, as there are plenty of engaging conversations underway as well, but he continues to have a regular flow of other attendants in his corner.

I wonder how long it will last. Perhaps I need to revise my hypothesis?  Is there something perverse in this, not just on the Prince’s end but also on that of his subjects?


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Understanding How We Understand Each Other

People understand themselves poorly and understand others perhaps more poorly. This sorry fact is one reason conflicts exist and persist in the world.  That humans as a species tend to hold smugly to complete misconceptions about those they perceive as being not like them is a huge obstacle to peace in the world and to collaborative problem-solving.

What makes communication within diverse communities all the more complex is that we tend not to realize how inaccurate we are in understanding either ourselves or other people’s ideas and motivations. The more confident we are that our reflective natures or natural insight connect us to some underlying, firmer truth, the more likely we are to be completely wrong!

Because I work with communities trying to learn to grow in insight and solve problems together, I was captivated by the talk I heard this morning by Rebecca Saxe, Associate Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT. Her talk, which I will link here, has so much rich content in its half hour that I will not try to summarize it. What she is doing with her colleagues is to use brain imagery to understand human conflict and what sorts of interventions can help people understand others better. It is, I think, a noble and lofty ambition.

Here is a link to her talk, which I could not recommend more highly: http://edge.org/conversation/imaging-conflict-resolution

One idea I found particularly intriguing is Saxe’s finding that different approaches increase the open-mindedness of those on the powerful end of a relationship than work on those on the less powerful side.  Saxe finds that those with power (which could mean someone higher in a hierarchy, someone more educated, or someone with decision-making authority) can become more open-minded by a habit of listening carefully to those with little power. The finding thus far is unsurprising.

But the opposite is true of those with less power or who feel less powerful. Those without power (or possibly education or decision-making authority) actually get more closed-minded (on average) if asked to consider the views of those who have more power, are more educated, or at a higher place in a hierarchy. The best way to counteract close-mindedness in those without power or prestige is not by getting them to listen at first but by giving them the experience that people are listening to them.

This asymmetry is interesting, as most of us would likely hypothesize that the situation would be symmetric- that both would become more open-minded by working first on getting them to listen to the other.

What’s more, as many communities try to use open discourse to reach understanding, discourse that works by sharing of ideas without regard to status, it may be that those with more status or education within diverse communities are getting increasingly open-minded through their participation, while those who feel compelled to listen to those who have more status or education are getting more entrenched in their views.

When I use Saxe’s findings to interpret what I have experienced in communities, what I have witnessed begins to make more sense. I have noticed, certainly, that people are often wedded to obviously distorted notions of a group considered “other.” But more specifically I have noticed an aggressive suspicion of people of science or those who support their claims with evidence. This rearing up against those who support their claims with evidence may be a case of those who feel less power becoming more closed minded rather than trying to take advantage of the resources those members of a community may bring.

This asymmetry in  the approach to discourse suggests that those who have in place a more refined infrastructure to learn from diverse community may without plan increase their lead on those who do not want to have to listen to those they perceive as having or knowing more.

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Promoting Constructive Discourse

One of the areas in which I accept projects is hosting fruitful discourse communities. In fact, I have two such projects lined up for Fall. A challenge in these settings is often that people come together with very different ideas of what makes discourse fruitful. Some people engage out of an interest in mutual sense-making in the subject areas on which the community focuses. Others participate with a mission of selling an idea or belief they hold dear and battling for others to accept the truth of their beliefs.

Ideally, in my opinion, people with interests only in selling their own views would frequent different communities than those who seek to learn and find greater understanding through community. But it doesn’t always work that way. What makes hosting hybrid communities so complex is that those with a “selling” frame of mind, who actually take no or little interest in ideas inconsistent with their own other than to shut them down, interfere with other people’s learning.

So I appreciated today when one of our participants opened a thread seeking help in understanding how to cultivate a disposition to constructive disagreement in her students, rather than unproductive confrontation or meaningless and insincere mutual affirmation.

Books have been written on this topic, but one principle that truly comes forward to me is that a productive discourse community needs to have a shared understanding of what constitutes evidence in particular subject areas and what sorts of topics are by their nature not resolvable in such a way that thoughtful people should ever be expected to come to agreement.

Specifically, we need to accept that some matters of potential discussion are matters of truth and others of taste, in the sense Mortimer Adler uses in his essay The Pursuit of Truth. In mathematics, truth means absolutely provable. That standard can be met in no other field of inquiry. In empirical science, the discipline has standards of evidence on which the field agrees for establishing what is for the moment considered true. In science conclusions accepted as true within the community of those qualified to assess the evidence are always open to reconsideration if new, soundly collected evidence casts doubt on accepted theories.

It is harder to find truth in the social sciences, which is one reason disagreement over longer periods is expected and sustainable. As social science is still a truth-seeking set of disciplines, disagreement is accepted, considered healthy, and the subject of continued discussion and inquiry on the basis of observable and replicable evidence.

On the other end of the scale from mathematics/ science are matters of taste, which are not expected to be universally held in common and matters of faith that cannot be proved by standards one would expect everyone to accept. Whatever the avenues by which a person resolves these matters of personal belief and faith are legitimate pathways for him to decide what he believes. But one person’s private, non-duplicable, and non-verifiable avenues of knowing will typically not suffice as evidence for other people. Much bad blood in discussion could be spared if people would simply accept and appreciate the facts of individual taste and faith- individual in the sense that the person accepts his conclusions for HIMSELF as true. This truth-to-the-individual is not the same as the truth-seeking of scholarship in the disciplines.

If people could understand these differences in the suitability of a subject for efforts to come to universal resolution, these matters of personal belief or faith could be recognized as areas for amicable disagreement but not for constructive disagreement in the sense of bringing people’s specific beliefs closer together through civil argument.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult for those convinced of individual-type “truths” to understand the difference. When John Forbes Nash, the Nobel laureate in economics whose schizophrenia manifested itself in the form of coded messages from aliens, was asked how he could have believed in the truth of these observations, he explained that these ideas came to him in the same way as his legitimate mathematical visualizations.

Imagine, then, how much more challenging it might be for someone less trained in critical thought to recognize which of his intuitions can really not be considered rational argument or legitimate evidence one should expect others to accept!

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