On November 1, 2017, we gathered with veterans at the VA Domiciliary in Cleveland, Ohio to discuss Chinua Achebe’s short story, “Dead Men’s Path.” The VA Domiciliary – called the “Dom” – is a residential treatment facility for veterans. We were thrilled to facilitate a Big Read as the kickoff to our second Books@Work program with this group.
Our executive director began to read aloud, and the room fell silent after a few last murmurs. The rustling of paper, creaking of chairs, the scratch of Styrofoam coffee cups and Ann’s clear voice filled the room of over 60 veterans – of all ages – listening intently. As she arrived at the end of the first page, I heard the sweet swoosh of pages turning in unison and knew this session would be special.
Can a hairdresser from 1958 teach an alpha male manager in an industrial factory something about leadership today? She can if he’s willing to listen – not just to her, but to his colleagues’ comments about her. A story about a woman and a boy in 1950s Harlem inspired a group of white men in an industrial company in rural Western New York State to begin to trust each other’s attitudes about work.
I facilitated a conversation about Langston Hughes’s short story “Thank You, Ma’am” for Books@Work with a group of a manufacturing plant’s employees. The group included floor employees and members of upper management. In Hughes’s story, a boy attempts to snatch a woman’s purse. The woman deftly wrestles him to the ground, brings him home, feeds him and, just as deftly, schools him. This very short story reveals a back story about the woman – Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones – who, in trusting the boy, teaches him to trust, and to respect himself and others.
He died almost 100 years ago, but Franz Kafka’s voice remains oddly relevant today. He wrote such bizarre and affecting stories that he left behind his own adjective, “kafkaesque”, to describe strange and nightmarish situations embedded in everyday life. With no shortage of the strange these days, we were particularly excited to have Books@Work featured in The New York Times – comparing Kafka’s iconic book, The Metamorphosis, with an powerful article on social isolation and loneliness, written by Dhruv Khullar, a physician and professor of healthcare policy at Columbia University.
Kafka’s stories feature disaffected characters who push the edges of the human condition – and often fail. The Metamorphosis is no exception. Traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a hideous bug. Unable to communicate, Gregor finds his sense of self and his relationship to his family and his work irreparably destroyed, with dire consequences.
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.
As modern companies focus on systems, outcomes and corporate accountability, creativity remains elusive. But innovative companies want creative teams. Although we live in a culture that firmly separates work from play, current neuroscience research requires us to take a second look. Stepping back from work – partaking in playful engagement or exploration – is essential to innovative thinking, energy, empathy, individuality – and to our very nature as human beings.
Recently, I discovered that digital gamers embrace a classic book about play called Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1938) by Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga. Huizinga says that play is at the center of everything in human culture, and that it happens within what he called a magic circle. Although Huizinga could not have imagined the world of digital games, he described the magic circle as a temporary world within the ordinary world where people play by special rules and engage in pleasurable activities that ignite the imagination.
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?