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.
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.
We recently had the chance to speak to Professor Michelle S. Hite about her experience as a facilitator with Books@Work. Michelle is an Assistant Professor of English at Spelman College. Her research and teaching focus on death and mourning in African American culture.
How is your role as a Books@Work facilitator different from your role in teaching in the university?
“What’s markedly different is that for Books@Work, I’m not committed to student learning outcomes, and I’m not committed to the professional obligations of preparing students to be responsible for certain standards. I don’t have to sit in judgment.
So I try to draw on other models that I have for interacting with people over ideas. I grew up with a front porch where people shared ideas and that typically is the metaphor that I often work with. That’s what I’m trying to do – extend my front porch and create a space where people can share ideas. We can think about things together and see where they go. The whole point is just to build community around our thinking. What I like about Books@Work is that it gives me that opportunity to just wonder with people.”
This week, we are thrilled to share insights and reflections from Erin Ulrich, a senior English major at Oberlin College who recently completed a month-long internship with Books@Work.
My internship with Books@Work has focused primarily on data-analysis and listening to interview responses from program participants. While the nature of this work may seem mundane at first, it has offered me a first-hand glimpse into how exactly Books@Work works. While the impact of the program improving colleague relationships and promoting a fruitful, healthy and productive work environment are obvious from the company interviews, I have been particularly moved by the community interviews.
Widely known for her short fiction, award-winning author Grace Paley was also an essayist, novelist, poet and activist. Born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrant parents in 1922, her prose is heavily influenced by “the language of her childhood, a heady blend of Yiddish, Russian and English.”
In 1978, Paley told The New York Times that she considered her work “a history of everyday life.”Paley’s short story “The Loudest Voice” was published in 1959 and follows Shirley Abramowitz, a young Jewish girl who is asked to be the narrator in her school’s Christmas pageant. As you read the story, think about how we decide who “owns” a certain tradition or ritual.
Abigail Williams’ new book “The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home” explores the “history of sociable reading,” shedding light on a time when volumes of verse and prose were read aloud “in many homes as a familiar assortment of readable extracts to while away an afternoon or evening in company.” What’s the difference between reading alone and reading with others?
The Intergenerational School in Cleveland, Ohio has a unique mission: to “connect, create and guide a multigenerational community of lifelong learners and spirited citizens.” The student body is drawn from neighborhoods all across Cleveland, and students learn in multi-age classrooms. The school recruits adults from the community to serve as mentors, making for a diverse and truly “intergenerational” experience.
Books@Work shares this endeavor toward community and lifelong learning, and it has been a joy to partner with Saint Luke’s Foundation to organize two years worth of programming with The Intergenerational School.
Social connections at work are good – a well-networked organization is a stronger, more efficient organization. Much evidence exists to support this idea, both on this blog and beyond. But a recent working article from Harvard and the University of North Carolina takes these insights even deeper: fragile social connections – those which can be easily dropped – may actually harm both organizations and the people who work for them.