Some of the best Books@Work books spur conversations about what it means to be human. These books shed light on universal issues: family, work, identity, relationships and more. But sometimes, a good Books@Work book resonates with a group because it seems to exist specifically and solely for them. One such book is Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures tells the nonfiction story of three African-American female mathematicians who operates as “human computers” at NASA during the Space Race. The women endured racial discrimination and gender barriers, often receiving little or no credit for their extraordinary contributions. These themes prompt discussions about a variety of unique issues facing Books@Work participants in the workplace.
At Books@Work, we find books and short stories that generate meaningful discussion and encourage colleagues to share more of themselves. As one participant shared, a good book “makes it easier to break down people’s issues and have difficult conversations, because it’s hidden behind the cloak of the material.”
For many groups, a “good book” is a novel with dynamic characters and ethical dilemmas. For others, it might be a nonfiction narrative like Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which often resonates with engineers and manufacturing employees. But some books, like James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water, find success and provoke powerful discussions with groups across the board.
What is the book about?
What do Books@Work participants read? The short answer: books, short stories, plays and more. Rich narratives – from literary fiction to memoirs – introduce us to new ideas, build genuine connections and foster more inclusive workplaces and communities. Before each program begins, we survey participants for their preferences, consult with professors and draw upon the knowledge and experience of Books@Work staff to choose the readings.
While some groups prefer books, others stick to one short story per session. Over time, we’ve found that certain short stories succeed with a wide variety of groups – executive leadership teams, police officers, healthcare workers and veterans alike.
One particularly successful Books@Work story is Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path,” the tale of young, energetic Michael Obi, who takes a new role as headmaster of a Nigerian school in 1949.
At Books@Work, we use literature to generate meaningful conversation, bridge divides and encourage human connection. This Thanksgiving week, we invite you to grab a friend or family member to read and discuss O. Henry’s classic story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen” together.
After residents at a treatment facility for homeless veterans recently participated in the discussion of a short story, one social worker expressed surprise at the group’s ease and openness with each other. “I’m amazed at some of the insights they share [with each other] as they’re reading,” he said. “They say, ‘Well, I’ve known you for six weeks and been in group therapy with you – and this is the most I’ve ever heard you talk.”
The Veterans’ Domiciliary at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio serves veterans facing challenges including homelessness, mental illness, trauma and addiction. Male and female residents can often stay for months at a time as they work to improve their mental health, seek employment and get back on their feet.
In early 2015, Books@Work launched two prolific and ongoing community programs in collaboration with the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The first program gathers medical center staff members to encourage wellness and stronger workplace relationships. The second program focuses on residents in the VA’s Veterans’ Domiciliary, a residential rehabilitation and treatment center for veterans.
In both programs, participants meet for weekly one-hour sessions, facilitated by professors from local colleges including Case Western Reserve University, the University of Akron and Oberlin College. Professors facilitate in four-week periods, representing a wide range of backgrounds including literature, religious studies, history and sociology – thus, participants are exposed to various disciplines and facilitation styles.
Today’s interview features Karyn Newton, a three-time participant in Case Western Reserve University’s Books@Work programs. CWRU delivers Books@Work as part of a wellness initiative to encourage community and social connection between faculty and staff on campus. Karyn works in the Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity. She is also pursuing her master’s degree in World Literature at the university.
We ask Karyn about her Books@Work experience – and why discussing books and short stories is a valuable use of company time.
Navigating our differences in the workplace is not easy. Learning to recognize and appreciate our diversity is even harder – especially when employees have few outlets to display their true selves at work.
A Harvard Business Review piece published in March explored this very idea with black women in the workplace. “A lot of women told me that they code-switched,” wrote author Maura Cheeks, “which involves embracing the dominant culture or vernacular among certain groups (like co-workers, for example) and switching to a more authentic self when around friends and family.”
How can companies create space for colleagues to unmask and discuss their unique experiences and differences?
A few years ago, an online debate broke out about relatability and its artistic value. After attending a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “This American Life” host Ira Glass tweeted about the play’s “fantastic acting” and humor – and yet his biggest takeaway was that “Shakespeare is not relatable.” In a scathing response, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead took issue with what she called the “scourge of relatability” and its recent critical influence. To demand that a work be relatable sets a troubling expectation, Mead wrote, “that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.”
How much much do we need to relate to a text – or to people, new ideas, or even colleagues in the workplace – in order to accept and appreciate them?