Posted by: MC | January 21, 2009

Ex:change – Change has come to America

1-21-2009
Portland, OR

One thing is for certain. We love the word.

Change.

It so captured our individual and collective attention that record numbers stacked up at polling booths around the country. No matter whose name we selected on our respective ballots. Change, by whatever connotation, got our vote.

Then, the evening it was all decided, the word became a sentence.

Change has come to America.

And that is so. One way or another, it has. On the downside, we’re acutely touched by economic stressors, fatigued and disgusted with military conflicts and anxiously aware of the degradation of our environment. We know change is urgently needed on these fronts.

But there’s another side. There’s the change that inspires what Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm described as, “fundamental American ingenuity.” It’s a kind of change that rests essentially in vision and hope.

One way or another, Change has come to America, and it is not a dream. It is delivery on dreams.

Like millions of other Americans, I’m feeling it. It feels tentative. It feels bold. It feels long overdue. It feels like no one person can do it alone. It’s an idea that has me willing to suspend cynicism and second guessing – willing to watch and see what happens. And beyond that, willing to take on whatever my part may be for making it real.

This alone is a whole new way for generations of Americans to be American. It’s democracy in action. It’s stepping out of the passivity – out of the long shadow cast by the paternal presidencies of our past and into an active engagement with and as democracy. Because, just maybe, the day of the lone wolf is over.

I’m a social scientist by profession; a teacher, practitioner and ethnographic researcher. I’ve worked with supporting kids struggling in schools, families tormented with ‘dysfunction,’ communities saying ‘no’ to institutional oppression, and management saying ‘yes’ to uncompromised dignity and justice in enterprise. It’s been lucky work. It has challenged, taught and enriched me in countless ways.

One thing I’ve learned is that change is most likely when those who want it know what it is, and can describe how they’ll recognize it when it has happened. That clarification leads quite naturally to a sense of agency, a sense of responsibility. To watch a kid who’s been floundering in school get it that his learning belongs to him and is his right; to show him the skills he already has for being his best educational advocate – that is one major thrill!

Now, here we stand threshold of the equally thrilling prospect for American change. Given my career and experience, I find myself drawn to documenting some of what is actually a necessary and immediately practical conversation – a national conversation on the nature of this change we say we want.

What do Americans mean when we say change? What specifically do we want to see changed? What do we want to retain, or keep the same? How will we recognize change as it develops? What is a fair representation of the range of American priorities for change? And among and beneath the myriad differences in our definitions and goals, what do we agree on?

Declaring what we mean by change leads to action. It shows up in shifts of behavior and relationship – shifts that are personal and thereby public – shifts in sensibility and thus in policy.

All this talk and its attendant enthusiasm brought me quite lately to a huger for the road and an unusual idea. What if I took a few months … say 100 days … to listen to what Americans have to say about change?

On the last day of 2008 … quite symbolically, as it turns out … I sent an e-letter to hundreds of friends and family describing the trip and asking for their help in identifying people to talk with and places to stay. The response has been delightfully overwhelming. People are thrilled. They’re over-the-top generous with their creativity in supporting the … well … infrastructure of this adventure.

All of that points to first hints of a theme: The enduring (yet often unseen) presence of human kindness.

True to good ethnography, my early sense of this theme is, of necessity, tentative and open to adjustment. That’s the way it is with listening to the way people make meaning – and through that getting a sense of the points of shared meaning – the collective intelligence emanating from the hopes and dreams of a Nation.

Also true to good ethnography are the questions. They are general enough to allow for any given respondent to take the conversation whatever way seems right to them. When I hop in my little car with my flip video, my sleeping bag and my lap top, I’ll be looking to spend time listening to people across the spectrum of American experience. People of all ages, genders, political affiliations, spiritual communities, sexual orientations, physical abilities, socioeconomic circumstances – all cultural, ethnic and geographic backgrounds. I’ll transcribe what they say so that people across the country can hear, directly and in their own words, what these brother and sister Americans mean when they say “change.”

That’s the plan. And the reason for this particular description is to ask for readers’ input. How does this strike you? What subtle considerations of content might we have missed?

My virtual pit crew and I are calling the trip EX:CHANGE. The website will be live at: exchange09.com. The exceptional skills of the all-volunteer crew will make it possible for me to blog and to post photos and other information as I move across the country. Thanks to their talent and expertise, I’ll be freed up to drive and to concentrate on listening.

Our goal is to provide for general review a collection of diverse perspectives on American Change in 2009. Central to the project is the proposition that if we are to be full agents of the change we seek, we need to know what we’re talking about.

EX:CHANGE will make available a chronicle of individual insights and collective notions of what American Change means to American people – right here, right now, on the threshold of the new day we’re all stepping into together.

What do we need to make sure not to miss as this trip develops?

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