Today’s interview features Books@Work facilitator Dr. Heather Braun, an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Akron, where she also serves as Honors Advisor and Internship Liaison for the department.
“How have you managed to pivot from the classroom setting to facilitating literature discussions with adults in the workplace?”
In both settings, it’s really important to me to make the material matter and to show readers how it’s relevant to their lives. I think Books@Work is a really effective way of doing this. You’re getting to hear honest reactions from readers who are not paying for a class in the “real world” and who are seeking that relevance, too, in what they read.
Both settings also offer readers a chance to connect with each other. That’s something I also try to do in my classes because I think it increases engagement and interest, and my students are more likely to read the material when they feel like they are a part of a kind of family that listens and supports them.
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.
Open and respectful organizational cultures require people to feel safe to be themselves, to contribute new and different ideas, and to be truly heard and respected. Table stakes for inclusion and belonging, these elements are nevertheless elusive and challenging, taking time to develop and mature. Books@Work shows measurable promise in helping these conditions develop and deepen, among colleagues across every level of the organization.
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.
For most of my life I have believed in the power of literature to affect the human heart. But sometimes, a discussion of good literature provides an unexpected insight into the profound impact of stories. This week I had such an experience as each person in a room became a teacher and each person became a learner.
This flash occurred at the Veterans Domiciliary, a residential program that is jointly run by the Veterans Administration and the Volunteers of America, and that serves veterans facing a variety of serious issues, including homelessness, trauma, addiction and other life-challenging hurdles. Books@Work brought a mini-version of the program to the entire cohort of veterans currently at the Domiciliary during their weekly group meeting.
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.