BY LIZ LERMAN
My father was a labor organizer first. One of the big stories in our family’s history is that my dad organized his uncles’ fur shop when he was only 13 years old. By the time I was old enough to understand dinner talk, my father was no longer in the labor organizing business, although he would later be head of the Department of Labor for the state of Wisconsin. But the ideas of organizing labor, communities, get out the vote, civil rights demonstrations were powerful threads to our family dialogues. And with it came certain names of authors, activities, and organizers. Among the first I remember my father talking about was Saul Alinsky and what he did in Chicago with TWO (The Woodside Organization). Much later in life I actually sat down and read some of Alinsky’s work. But, because of our supper conversations, I did have a simple idea in my head as to what it was: you met people on their own turf. You respected what they already knew. You slowly won their friendship and trust, and with that you could begin to introduce new ideas. And you were always careful in how you delivered your message, making sure to continue to respect what was already there. (Incidentally, this is how I came to see my early work with advanced dancers: treat them like a special population too.)
I thought that was what I did when I first started working at the Roosevelt for Senior Citizens. I saw all my early work as community organizing (not outreach). I see now that a key reason why this is not outreach is the authenticity of the idea of respect. True respect and openness to learning keeps it horizontal.
I put this into serious practice when I taught at Sandy Spring Friends School very early in my career. I realized that I would have no boys in my dance class, so I arranged with the lacrosse teacher to meet the players after practice on the field. Ostensibly, I was going to give them a few movement exercises to increase their athletic ability. They enjoyed the encounter. With the blessing of the coach (gatekeeper, authority figure, and top down person) I then asked them to learn a very short dance based on their lacrosse moves for a stage work for the whole school. No rehearsals inside until we teched. They agreed. They were a big hit. And many of them came to take dance class the next semester…indoors.
Now, 33 years later, this is still the practice. For the project I’m currently working on, focused on genetics, I am meeting scientists on their own turf. I ask them what they know. I get them engaged in what I know. Soon, the mutual respect is in place as we broaden our circle. They will meet each other and the dancers. Eventually, an audience will see all of them, their ideas and mine together on stage.
If you look at this strategy throughout our Hallelujah project, you see it enacted over and over. Sometimes it is one on one: my first few days on Deer Isle, when presenter Stu Koestenbaum took me to meet individually so many people. We met them on their front porches, in their fishing tackle stores, in the diner, over dinner. But the same was true in Minneapolis too. Except here it was meeting each small group at a time, in workshops, in discussions, in classrooms.
These meetings are almost always language based. That is to say, there is a lot of talk. Some of it is getting-to-know-you stuff, which I consider to be very important. I love hearing about family, about where people live or how they have come to be there. The fact is I am truly interested. Often I can hear in the story, ideas or possible themes that I can return to later. And when I do return to it people feel listened to and respected.