Practice

“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.” – Martha Graham

In one day, I talked to 250 people, discovered the breadth of my personal biases, witnessed great work by dozens of researchers, administrators, and artists from around the world, and ate five mangoes. Where does such a thing happen? Museum Camp, at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz.

Before, during, and after, I’ve been hard-pressed to describe what Museum Camp is. Part conference, part social experiment, part sleep-away camp, part Burning Man for research geeks, this 3 ½ day event brought together 100 people from around the world to “measure the immeasurable” – namely, “social impact assessment” – measuring the effects of a program in a community. We worked in small teams to choose research locations and then developed hypotheses that we then set out to prove, or disprove, in less than 48 hours. We had great coaches, a number of evaluation tools, and total freedom to create methods to engage or observe people and programs in action.

My team – the First Friday Brigade – was tasked with measuring the effects of First Friday on downtown Santa Cruz. We hypothesized that First Friday fuels a positive perception of downtown. We sort of proved our hypothesis was true – but more than that, I think we proved that the way things are measured have far too much influence on the results. That may seem obvious, but I think that realization was far more intense than anything else I learned over those several days.

We asked people to – in a word – describe First Friday. And this word cloud summarizes their responses. The words were about 98% positive – but this was likely dictated by two things. First, we had a huge hand-lettered colorful sign to draw people over, and we were dressed in capes and sparkles. I’m confident that people who responded to our survey self-selected based on our positive and colorful presentation. I think only people who love downtown and First Friday wanted to talk to us.

Second, I was a “barker” for the project, meaning I hollered and cajoled and bounced around trying to get folks to participate. And about fifteen minutes in, I realized that I was only targeting people whom I thought – for whatever reason, based on their appearance – would be willing to participate. As soon as I realized this, I gave myself a metaphorical slap in the face and worked on inviting every last person to participate. I got a lot more negative responses, but from there on out at least I felt I was doing my best to get a more random sampling.

This got me thinking about social bridging versus social bonding in my own life. Bridging and bonding are two things integral to the philosophy behind the Museum’s events. Bonding is what happens when preexisting social groups are brought together; bridging happens between groups and individuals who might not usually interact.

When I was “barking” to folks who looked like they might be happy to talk with me, I was attempting to “bond”. When I sought out folks who didn’t look like they might, say, belong to one of my mommy groups, I was seeking to “bridge”. That simple shift in behavior is so critical to building a stronger community, and yet it can be really difficult to tackle.

In the last few months, bridging has been at the top of my mind. It’s so easy for me to connect with people whose worlds I’m familiar with. Give me an audience of arts administrators and I’m perfectly comfortable speaking in our shared language. Stand me next in line at the grocery store with a woman with young children and I’ll likely have a new friend and a playdate scheduled for the next week. But change that dynamic in the least – if the kids are teenagers or the audience is, for example, construction workers (and yes, this happens in my line of work) and my latent introversion rears its ugly head and I have a terrible time finding a clear line to connect.

So, I’ve started a practice of bridging. I often talk to my husband about the practice of our daily lives – are we in a practice of grace and patience with our kids? Am I in a practice of integrity or just trying to squeak by? – and I find that I can only bridge when I am being keenly intentional about it, and practicing it regularly.

Our research project at Museum Camp was a great practice space. First of all, there were a hundred brilliant campers milling about the museum. Though we all were there for a common purpose, there was enough diversity in passions and backgrounds in that room to allow for intense bridging. And testing my own ability to bridge, over and over, in public (and in a cape) was a terrific and somewhat terrifying practice, too.

I’m grateful to have put myself in that uncomfortable space. I’m grateful that I was matched with some whip-smart people who allowed me to admit my biases and who were committed to our flawed but fun project.

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More than anything, I’m grateful that for 3 ½ days I was forced to hit a “reset” button in my life. I always want conferences to jar me a bit, to mix up my schedule dramatically, and to make me think differently, but they rarely deliver. Museum Camp delivered, with great conversation, truly interesting people, compelling research projects, fantastic coaches, and a very large box of mangoes to fuel our creative fires. I can’t wait to see what they cook up for next year’s Camp.

 

 

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