…the world is full of people now who are doing what I just said, seeing something that needs to be done and starting to do it, without the government’s permission, or official advice, or expert advice, or applying for grants or anything else. They just start doing it. -Wendell Berry, Interview with Bill Moyers
I attended the OpenVA conference at the University of Mary Washington and my mind has been spinning on all different levels; from the big picture down to the nitty-gritty day to day activities. There are a multitude of things one could take away from a conference like OpenVA, so I can only speak about the ideas that I will carry with me.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, people matter. Change and innovation happen when a group of people get together, grab their tools and get to work. I recently watched Bill Moyers interview of the legendary Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry, as Wikipedia puts it, “is an American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer.” I highly recommend reading Berry and I additionally recommend the blog of Michael Doyle whose writing introduced me to Wendell Berry. One point Berry repeatedly comes back to is the idea that what makes the difference is a group of committed local people seeing a need and pushing and pulling until things start to happen. I’ve seen this philosophy in action at UMW and I see it in action at other schools in Virginia. It reminds me of that famous quote that one should “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I’ve been at my job at UMW’s Library for almost 4 months now and I feel challenged to reach out to my colleagues here in the library and even more importantly reach out to the students that I manage. This conviction that I need to grab on to people and trust that we can cause change is not one I acquiesce to easily. People and relationships are messy. A wonderful and terrifying truth all at once. I’m trying, as Gardner Campbell challenged us, to “assume good faith“.
The second and equally important point I have taken away with me is one that I’ve come to again and again (and again and again); it is the value of story-telling. We need to be narrating the work we are doing. Humans understand the world through the stories and metaphors we construct. We crave and need stories to make sense of our world. In my life the work of Alan Levine and Barbara Ganley are constant reminders of this. When Alan shares his stories I find myself seeking out the stories and connections in my own life too. When Barbara shares the story telling projects of various groups and communities I find myself in awe of the vast richness and complexity of the human experience. Narrating ones work, even the mundane day to day, isn’t just an activity we should do so we can have things to put on our annual review, we should do it because we are human! Most (I want to say all) of us are already sharing our stories in one way or another. Whether it is with a friend over the phone or with some co-workers at lunch, we share our stories. The next step is to make those stories open and available for more than just a few people.
There are many more details and ideas still rolling around in my brain from OpenVA, but I’m attempting to take my own and advice and share my story before self-doubt can take hold. People and stories. People and stories. We are all people with stories.