Posted by: MC | September 30, 2012

Plane Delays and Collaboration across Cultures

It is Sunday afternoon.  I’m sitting in the Alumni Center of Austin College in Sherman, TX.  I’m here for a few days to support a conversation and the development of a relationship between this small independent liberal arts school and Native American Tribes and communities.  My job is to keep the listening and speaking going – and to join in the identification of steps to be taken toward building friendship and collaboration between communities in support of Native American students who want to go to college.

I learned this morning that AC has recently been recognized as the 17th most diverse college campus in the country.  “It’s in the numbers,” said Dr. Marjorie Haas, the president of Austin College.  “And it’s in the way we welcome, honor, celebrate and support each other here.”  This is a good place to be today.

Yesterday, I was on my way here.  Yesterday, I spent 7 hours of quality time in PDX awaiting the flight that would take me to North Texas.  “Ick.  Sorry to hear that,” seems the reasonable response.  I mean, who wants to get up at 5 a.m. only to be delayed by sitting for 2 hours in a plane after some red light has come on right as we’re pushing back from the gate?  And who wants to then fill the next 5 hours alternately wandering the Portland International Airport and circling back to hang with traveling companions?  Well … me!  I do!!

The truth is, I would not have volunteered if you’d asked me at 5 a.m., or the day before, or likely any of the days before that.  The surprise was this – those hours with those 200+ people gave me a ‘readers’ digest version’ 100 Voices – Americans Talk about Change.  I got to see again how inclined to connection folks are – how our similarities win out.

My daughter was speculating about this when she called from another rainy evening in Oxford, UK.  “It’s the airplane thing.  There you are already vulnerable on this aircraft.  You don’t really want to notice, but it sort of bonds you in the survival of it all.”  Yep.  The general agreement of the passengers was, “whew.  Good thing that little light came on while we were still on the ground.”

When we finally got back out into the terminal there were small and understandable waves of annoyance and frustration with rethinking connections and such, but more pervasive were the jokes and laughter – the sharing of new information, the sharing of smart phones and food, of reading material and conversation.  People who otherwise would never talk with each other, were chatting – moving from group to group.  Some of us went for hikes around the terminal.  Some took the ground crew up on the food vouchers they were handing out.  Some figured out alternative travel plans and bagged the flight all together, but most everyone hung in there.

“They’re changing the air filter now.”  “They’re still working on that air filter.”  “The air filter is in and the plane is all buttoned up.”  “We’ve got an update.  They’re testing out that air filter to check for metal shavings.”  The psychology of the airline personnel’s interaction with us was pretty solid – keep them informed, respect their intelligence and curiosity.  More information came from other passengers.  One man, a retired pilot, gave us the inside scoop on how the airline handles these things.  Another man from Dallas kept us posted on the rain storms and flooding in the area of DFW.

I heard this morning that there was an earthquake in Irving, TX last night after we arrived.  It was big enough to shake pictures off walls – jars off counters and vases off mantle pieces.  And, really it’s only worth mentioning because it’s near DFW and fits with the complete weirdness of the day.

So here’s the connection.  The people on the flight from Portland to Dallas yesterday were strangers who, when there was something more than business-as-usual to have in common, came easily into relationship.  Tonight when the tribal leaders meet with the Austin College president and others from this college community, strangers will come again into relationship.

We do this all the time – sometimes with intentions like building collaboration to enhance access to higher education – and sometimes by seeming accident.  Maybe Sara is right about the nature of air travel as anxiety producing enough to bring out our camaraderie when potential tragedy is averted.  And maybe the friendly openness to building intentional relationships across differences among Native American and higher education communities arises in part from the actual circumstance we humans face together all the time here on this tiny globe hurling through space.  We’re definitely in it together.


  1. As my favorite deceased folk singer Harry Chapin said so well in his song, “Greyhound,” ……”It’s got be the going, not the getting there that’s good.”

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