Think Local, Write Stories

…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.


8 thoughts on “Think Local, Write Stories”

  1. Watching some of the openva stuff from afar, I was reminded of the Weber quote “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” It’s a favorite quote of mine, but it captures, I think, why I am optimistic lately. The fact is that the message of openva is no different than the message of 2006/7 when I first stumbled into this group of people. We tend to think of technologists jumping from one fad to the next, but there’s a steadfastness of vision here that is remarkable and awe-inspiring.

    I used to think change was about igniting the fast-burning fire, that it was viral, momentum-based. That it was about a master plan. I don’t think that anymore. Someone in a meeting got upset with me the other day, asking me where my plan was — they thought my approach of approaching people personally, working from the grassroots, was bound to fail. They wanted a document, a process, a kick-off meeting, weekly reports.

    What I’ve learned is you come in each day and try to do a couple things that advance the agenda. And it seems trivial at first next to grand plans. But if every day you leave the office you’ve moved an inch forward in the same direction, made one connection, had one conversation, built one thing, written up one post that reaches one person — over time that becomes massive.

    Wildfires burn out, just as this MOOC thing will. We’re more timeless than that I think (I hope).

    Thanks for this post, it got me thinking.

    1. Yes! Exactly. It isn’t about the big event (although big events can be rewarding), but the day to day activities that lead to the change. Of course we don’t want to downplay the importance of planning and process, but we often use that as a check-box to have the appearance of getting things done.
      To historicize this a bit if I may, long before the there was a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom people were having sit-ins, riding buses, protesting in their local communities. Yes, that mass rally was important, but to get to there you needed all those other events to build momentum.

  2. I’m very touched Shannon that my story bits resonated with you. Returning to Fredericksburg was powerful on many levels, most going back to 2007 when I was invited to my first Faculty Academy.

    FA was transformative, if anything for meeting Jim, Chop, Gardner, Andy maybe for first times as well as Barbara Ganley. But it was that post academy dinner that touched a deeper part as Jim alluded to yesterday– I remember and may have said “This is more than a conference and colleagues, it feels like family”

    That it still feels that way, through time and distance and blogs and tweets and GIFs is exactly the recipe for optimism. People + shared stories = family

    Your own story at UMW speaks much to this experience not only being memorable but likely important and life fulfilling. No MOOC or LMS or app even touches that,

    Thanks for the Wendell Berry link; I’ve read some excerpts but time to go back for more.

    1. Thanks Alan. I think you hit the nail on the head, “Your own story at UMW speaks much to this experience not only being memorable but likely important and life fulfilling.” I was having this conversation with Jerry Slezak about how even though I wasn’t a very good student academically speaking the experience I had at UMW was much more meaningful and life changing than any GPA metric could capture.

  3. Shannon, I love your take-away from OpenVa.

    “Ultimately, at the end of the day, people matter.”

    As we move from old paradigms to new and do the same with platforms, if we keep that as our core philosophy, I believe we can stay agile, learn to assume good faith, and keep the faith.

    Thanks for this, my friend.

    1. Thank Neva. I have to believe people matter because that is all we have here on this earth. We are all hurdling through space on a giant rock covered with water together 🙂

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