Within a few weeks of starting my new position at the University at Buffalo, a graduate art student posted “White only” and “Black only” signs on the campus. Though the student, Ashley Powell, claimed she was exercising free speech and artistic expression, many students were alarmed and called the university police. The university’s response, which has emphasized the importance of intellectual freedom, has been criticized and the subject of a peaceful protest during President Satish Tripathi’s annual State of the University address on Oct 9.
Here you can find my letter to the editor of the UB Spectrum (UB’s student newspaper), dated last week, asking, “What if Ashley Powell’s controversial art project had been research?” I explore the concepts of external review, informed consent, and debriefing. These concepts validate the outraged responses of students who feel they were experimented on without their permission.
For the last year or so, I’ve made an effort to smile and say hello to people in passing. Before adopting this habit, I had this complicated conversation with myself whenever I approached someone on the sidewalk.
Will they say ‘hi’ back? Will they think I’m weird? Am I weird?
Then I decided, who cares? If one of my goals is to, on a daily basis, make the world a more friendly place, this is a low-cost way to do it.
At first–when the behavior was new–saying hello felt like a lot of effort. This is because I hadn’t done it before, and the awkward questions in my head still sounded. But now, saying hello feels almost automatic. Do I say hi every time I pass someone? No. Some people are on their phones or intently looking down at the sidewalk in a way that says clearly “don’t talk to me.” I skip them. But everyone else–whether they’re sitting or standing, passing me by or clear across the street–gets a hello.
I’ve found that most people say ‘hello’ back. When that happens, I feel good, and I feel a little less like an anonymous stranger passing another anonymous stranger. I feel like part of the community in a way that I didn’t, before this habit.
Today I heard Buffalo’s #1 community leader, Mayor Byron Brown, encourage the citizens of Buffalo to sign the “Opportunity Pledge.” (You can sign the pledge here.) This pledge means that the signer appreciates and respects diversity, and acknowledges that only through taking advantage of and celebrating our diversity can we become a prosperous, healthy, and dignified community.
I can get behind that. So, Buffalo, I pledge to take the opportunity to smile and say hello, as often as I can. Maybe I’ll make someone’s day–maybe that someone will be me.
Either way, the community wins. Because I am the community, and the community is me.
How to talk about the things that are most difficult? Choose one or more answers that apply.
A. Don’t. Keep it inside, and when a thought that pains or confuses you comes across your mind, wave it away like a fly.
B. Talk about it haphazardly. Talk about it when you don’t mean to, with people you don’t know or trust, and say things that you didn’t realize you thought, accidentally and without intention. Take the consequences and regret.
C. Talk about it awkwardly. Start to talk about it, then change your mind and see how the conversation partner responds. If they want to talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show, take it as a signal that they’re not ready, either. Talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show so neither of you has to act awkward in public. Or keep pushing until they hang up or become angry or stonewall. Feel sad that they won’t engage.
D. Talk about it thoughtfully. Mull your feelings over for a while first, write about it privately, decide how to open the topic and with whom you feel safe discussing it. Resolve not to become offended or hurt but to instead take new information in, like you’d feel a fabric before deciding to try it on. Feel grateful when the person(s) responds with thoughtfulness back, validating your feelings and telling you what they think. Feel more connected, trusting, and less alone.
There are so many topics that we would all like to pretend don’t hurt us. Catastrophic climate change, sexist family members, racism and police brutality, end of life decisions, second weddings, our personal writing. What are the consequences for not talking? Are they worse than trying B-D and going from there?
Remember Anne of Green Gables? Petulant, earnest, downtrodden Anne. The concept of kindred spirits was such a revelation when her first dear friend, Diana, helped her feel a little less lonely. Each helped the other find her way.
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Perhaps this phrase stuck in my memory because I think we all seek our own kindred spirits, especially when we’re not sure where we’re headed or why, or even who we are at times. This month I’ve run into a few kindred spirits, people who are interested in the same ideas that I’ve had rattling around in my thoughts while I wonder, “Does anyone else think about this stuff?”
For example, Think Write Publish. Scholars are paired with writers to tell a true story about important scientific concerns, topics that might normally languish in an obscure academic journal. The enterprise was financed by the National Science Foundation, which is hard to beat for funding innovative, “transformative” projects. Transformative apparently now includes Creative Non-Fiction defined as a way of reaching people who don’t normally read research. You can read Issue 52 of the journal by the same name without a subscription, by clicking the Narratives tab here. If you teach writing or are just interested in how these essays got to be so readable, turn on the Yellow Test for a cool teaching tool, that shows how narrative works to tell an engaging story.
(Disclaimers etc: I’m not affiliated with Think Write Publish, or Creative Non-Fiction, though I do subscribe to the latter. I just think what they’re doing is cool. Also, my research lab is funded by NSF.)
Here’s my answer:
Success is making a connection, whether to a stranger or someone more familiar. Success means that someone read the book and liked an idea, or even that someone paged through the book and said “neat format!” Success means that someone showed up at the book event and learned about the fabulous writing community here in Charlottesville, VA, or that someone plans to give the book to a relative who has had a loss.
Another author’s answer to the success question was “When strangers read it.” But that’s not the metric for me. No, my metric is: Are you a human being, also seeking? Did we have a conversation that we wouldn’t have had, otherwise?
I predict the 21st century will be one where cooperation, community, and connection will trump competition. The internet is revealing so many places for the former three C’s. People are doing work for free, work for fun, work for creativity all over the place, and it’s making this world a better place.
This holiday my uncles read the book. That was the best gift they could have given me. And when one of them said, “I think those women were just looking for companionship. That’s the most important thing in life,” I could only say that I agree.
Success is making a connection.