Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Obliviousness and its dangers

This past weekend, my husband and I drove to the Detroit area for a family event, and on the way across southern Michigan, we passed a town called Coloma. This name and town brought back a relevant memory.

The story is this: Many years ago, I went to a community-organizing conference in Coloma. Participants came from all over the state, from community development and anti-poverty groups. One of our assignments--an exercise in community research--went like this: We broke into groups of four and were sent out into the surrounding county on a Saturday night to gather as much information as we could about the place we were staying. Who lived around here? What was the racial/ethnic/socioeconomic mix? What was the economic base of the area? What did Main Street look like? What did people do for entertainment? Where did children go to school? When we returned, we were to present our reports to the larger group and see how they compared and contrasted. I loved the idea of this exercise, of learning through exploration and observation, of putting together a portrait of a place, of seeing the composite picture at the end.

My group had a wonderful time. We were a compatible lot, and we drove down country roads and into the center of towns, discussing and taking notes on names of businesses and schools, faces of politicians on billboards, slogans on bumper stickers, sale items at the grocery store. We evaluated the housing stock, the condition of streets, the styles featured on mannequins in store windows, the look of people on the streets. We stopped for dinner at a restaurant, taking everything in--the offerings on the menu and the prices, the look of the customers, the demeanor of the servers. We got lost a few times (this was pre-GPS), stopped in at bars and roadhouses for directions and further observation.

When we got back to the retreat center, things were in an uproar. Due to some cruel twist of obliviousness, one group of four had been composed of two black men and two white women, and the people in that group were outraged--especially the men--because they felt they had been placed in a dangerous and vulnerable position without fair warning. They sensed it, they said, as they headed out, but it really became clear when they got lost and stopped into the same roadhouse where my group (all four of us white) had landed earlier.

Conversation stopped in the place, they said, when they entered, and they felt all eyes on them. They left quickly, recognizing the problem. "Someone could have followed us out of there," Paul said (I think that was his name), "and tried to kill us on some dark country road." Two black men and two white women in a car on a Saturday night in a semi-rural region of southwest Michigan. Not good.

Of course, those in Paul's group had agreed to go out together, but none of them knew the area. So they held the conference organizers responsible for not being more savvy about the situation, not being more tuned into the potential dangers. What a lesson in perspective--what you notice and what you don't depending on your life experience.

I don't think we ever finished the exercise as the trainers had planned it, with the presentation of each group's reports, because the discussing and debating--and the anger--went on long into the night and the next day. Still, I don't think the trainers could have intentionally designed a more powerful exercise in community awareness--and in the discomforts of diversity (at least I hope they didn't do that to Paul's group intentionally).

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