Posted March 31st 2010 at 1:15 pm by
in CoLab Philosophy

Stories & Places

I first read Beowulf in my high school English class.  Mr. Schauble handed out mimeographs printed on one of those old copy machines that made the words come out blue and blurry.

I don’t remember what he said about the story, or what part of the book he gave us.  All I can recall is that I really loved Beowulf himself.  Maybe I even had a crush on him.  Here was this man, with such strength and good manners, that he could save an entire community of people from their oppressor.   At the time I was willing to ignore that the oppressor, poor Grendel, was a bit of a victim himself.

There are men, Beowulf among them, widely believed to have the power to cure nations of their conflicts and to bring peace to our lives. These men may be real or fictional, supreme or failed, but in each case the man is at some point accepted as the person who will save the community.

It’s lovely to think about one who can save all.  I’ve listened to Handel’s Messiah so many times, over so many years, I’ve memorized it.

But in practice, a different story guides my work.  In Beloved by Toni Morrison, the community saves itself.  In the moment of crisis in that book, the women of the town gather together and produce a noise so powerful that they are able to cleanse the community of its ills:

Building voice upon voice until they found it, and when they did it was a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees.

Beowulf required a magic sword to purge the community’s water of its pollutant.  These women did as much with a collective noise.

My hope is that CoLab Radio could, over time, be like the rising noise of the neighbor women in Beloved — a space where people could tell the stories of their places, person by person on a street, or step by step over the course of a project, until the collection is powerful enough to transform the place.

Alexa Mills does all things media at CoLab.  She is site manager and editor of CoLab Radio, which is about five months old now.

20 responses to “Stories & Places”

  1. Justin says:

    OK, but you’re dealing with almost exclusively poor neighborhoods at CoLab Radio. All of your projects happen in places where the average person on the street is unlikely to ever visit CoLab Radio, let alone even have regular Internet access or free time to spend on blogs. So, instead, you’ve compromised by having elite grad students tell these communities’ stories. Actual community members do speak here occasionally, but these people are inevitably exceptional in some regard — hardly representative of the larger community that you’re ostensibly trying to reach. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it hardly corresponds to your goal of mimicking “the rising noise of the neighbor women in Beloved.” So how do you really get people to speak for themselves here? Can/will that ever happen? And, considering all the real structural limitations you have to work with, why do you think it’s even possible?

  2. Justin says:

    Just realized that that last comment may have come across as overly critical, which wasn’t my intention. I’m genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts on this, and your ideas for how to actually get communities involved in the conversation at CoLab Radio.

  3. Christina says:

    Justin, it’s presumptuous to say that community members aren’t reading this (Please see Dayna’s post). Also, what makes an elite grad student? An overwhelming majority of MIT students are the first in their families to go to college. MIT prides itself on being a true meritocracy. There is no such thing as legacy admission to MIT. That means these students are elite in their intellect but not necessarily in their social standing. Now you’re probably thinking, right but you really only get to be MIT smart if you’ve got money and power. Again, please see Dayna’s post.

    Alexa, I wanted to share one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

    “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before… He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”

    That guy was full of them! I loved him!

  4. Amy Stitely says:

    Justin, you bring up a good point about the digital divide. Here we are — the colabbers — wealthy by global standards and fairly computer savvy, and Alexa has had to spend multiple hours training us how to tweet, post, comment, and blog. Then after the training… pitiful few of us bother to use these platforms.

    So are we doomed to fail?

    I hope not. I look to the next generation (the one born into smartphones, myspace, and 24hour texting) as our democratizing salvation. This is all based on the assumption that technology will continue to get better and cheaper at exponential rates.

    Recently, Alexa did a media training for our community partners. Did the seasoned old guard of civil rights leaders fly into Boston to learn to blog? No, they sent their younger counterparts, who then went home and made a post. I have faith that we’ll eventually see a decentralized, collective noise on colab radio, but the noise might be filtered through younger voices.

    So I think age, not class, will be the ultimate limiting factor in our reach.


  5. Justin says:

    Christina, I’m not saying that community members aren’t reading this material, I’m saying that, by and large, they’re not the ones creating it. Their stories are being told in a mediated fashion, by outsiders, and Alexa’s post indicated that she’s ultimately interested in having them tell their own unmediated stories here on CoLab, themselves. And the idea that MIT grad students don’t comprise an elite — by virtue of being MIT grad students — is hard to fathom. An affiliation with the best, most exclusive grad school in the country almost by definition means that you are part of an elite, regardless of your family history or financial means. There is a tremendous difference between hyper-intelligent, ambitious planning students telling a community’s story and the community members themselves telling their own stories.

  6. Alexa Mills says:

    Oh Gosh. I wish this conversation were more about the idea that people should have platforms and places to amplify their own stories, and less about MIT and this site in particular. CoLab Radio is a few months old.

    Right now Tim Gwyn of Beloved Community Center is the only community-based contributor. He’s beginning to tell the story of his organization’s community gardens & green jobs readiness program. Part of our goal here is to bring in more contributors like Tim. There are many barriers to that, time and money prominent among them.

    I’m more interested in the idea that communities have ways to tell their own stories, and also ways to amplify those stories when they need to. Yes, this site would like to contribute to something like that, but really this site is just one little corner of the universe.

    This week, CoLab itself needed to tell its own story, and we’re using this forum to do so.

  7. Nancy Bloom says:

    Yes please bring in more of the voices of the community partners. That is your most important job. You will make it happen Alexa.

    Is it presumptuous Christina? Really? Many of my inner-city students do not have computers or internet access. Go to the library on Blue Hill Ave and you will see the people waiting in line for their one hour of computer time. It is really important to address the issue of inequity. Technology empowers people.

  8. fkh says:

    As an outsider, it looks like establishing the platform with all this existing work means that all sorts of people will be join in, and add their voices to the collective noise – and over time, it builds and builds. Rather (or in addition to) all those voices being on a million facebook pages and twitter feeds, Colab Radio brings them into one place.

    Following CoLab Radio isn’t necessarily about ‘having free time to spend on blogs’ – it’s about knowing that such a rich resource of thoughtful and intelligent writing exists, that these voices will be here and available for anyone to stumble upon, seek out or be guided to.

  9. Interesting comparison between Beowulf and Beloved! I don’t think I ever finished Beowulf, but I’ll have to find the Seamus Heaney translation. Beloved may well be my favorite book, and there is now a vivid image in my mind of all these voices coming together here and knocking the pods off chestnut trees.

    We’ve been impressed with the projects featured here and the way CoLab Radio is developing. The recent post on Beloved Community Center is incredibly inspiring. It would be good to see more programs like that in cities around the world.

    Also, thank you for starting this conversation. Justin, Christina, Amy, and Nancy have raised important points that are now part of the way the site evolves. We’ll enjoy listening and participating as this continues.

  10. Alexa,

    I love that you have a clear dream:

    “CoLab Radio could, over time, be a space where people could tell the stories of their places, person by person on a street, or step by step over the course of a project, until the collection is powerful enough to transform the place”

    This is a dream worth living for.

  11. gayle says:

    Working in Camden I often feel many of the themes discussed by colab staff this week. In particular, how can I share the voice of the “marginalized insider” when I am viewed as outside the community and where other outsiders expect me to think and act the way they do? How can insiders share valuable ideas and innovations with a broader audience so that we may learn and share?

    I don’t have the answers yet, but I’ve learned a couple of things:

    – Writing a blog post using the words of business owners or putting together an audio piece of a business owner telling her story is a process manipulated by me but conscious of and guided by the integrity of the individual and their experience.

    – The communities where we work are not just the subjects of a thesis or a blog posting, but participants in the process. I spent last week checking in with Camden business owners and discussing my thesis findings and some preliminary recommendations. The response I received: feelings of gratitude for listening to them and for sharing their stories with a broader audience. We aren’t at the point where business owners co-write a thesis, the requirements for a graduate degree are foreign to some of them, but in working the way folks do at colab we are able to hear the ideas of people in these communities and repackage them in a way the academy recognizes and acknowledges.

    As privileged people interested in innovation at the margins we are the bridge. We listen, hear, and see the value in local innovation and ideas while at the same time have the access, power, ability to share with others who shrug off the places where we work, thinking them as dangerous, crime ridden, or poor and the people as undeserving. Over time, yes, let us put ourselves out of a job and let those that we work with share for themselves. Until then let us keep working with communities to make visible the otherwise overlooked and forgotten.

  12. Andy Galloway says:

    Hi Alexa,

    Thanks for sending me your blog link.

    Just a quick comment from an English teacher, on how the other work of literature you’ve chosen raises interesting questions of community power vs (or with?) leaders. You beautifully capture how Morrison supports the power of a whole community, and others here have rightly appreciated that part of your message. But maybe Beowulf also has something to offer this discussion. Beowulf was an orphan–everyone recognizes that. But people–even scholars–sometimes overlook or minimize the part that also says “his youth had been miserable, when he long seemed sluggish to the Geatish court; they thought him no good, he got little honor … they all were convinced he was slow, or lazy . . . A change came to him, shining in victory, worth all those cares” (lines 2183-89). Who doesn’t appreciate leadership coming out of nowhere, and the sudden birth of an ability to really achieve something? Where does that come from? Hard to say, but we need it when it comes, and we need to recognize it. No one, I think, forgets that when Beowulf finally dies, the mourning isn’t mostly about him but about the way that his people will now be left defenseless. Literature, even very old literature, can teach us things about the value and surprising places where leadership suddenly comes from, as well as about how communities can lead. There are some Beowulfs out there that need to be found and appreciated.

  13. Wow I’m really impressed with the comments that this post prompted. Y’all hit on all the big issues Alexa and I and any other people that do “community media” face – the challenges of the access (digital divide) vs. participation, the role of an “outside facilitator” or a journalist vs. a local producer, advocacy vs. first person narrative, importance of process vs. product.

    The thing I think is AWESOME about this post is that it addresses the chicken or the egg problem with community media – people won’t read, let alone produce for, a medium until it has some content on it that means something to them. Also, it’s media and it has to be interesting, entertaining, and well produced to get traction. Think about all the shows you DON’T watch on your town/city’s public access station or a local blog or MySpace page. By taking an incremental approach, balancing both outside observations while working to give people the skills, strategy, medium, and audience to publish first person voices, CoLab Radio is building a seed of a “collection…powerful enough to transform the place.”

    What worries me is the metaphor of a “sword” or one “collective noise” that almost starts to sound like a panacea for empowering voices for change. One tool, whether it’s a blog, or a Twitter feed, or a Facebook page, can be a spark for voice, but it’s all the gooey organizing and actions afterward that can sustain agents of change in the communities where we work. But you got to start SOMEWHERE right?

  14. Alexa Mills says:

    Peter – We love your work at The Polis Blog too. I see it as part of a growing effort to to have a different and more inclusive global discussion on cities. Also – never finished Beowulf! Consider taking a walk across the quad to see Andy Galloway. Do you guys know you’re on the same campus?

    Andy – at the risk of sound like some horrible cross between a nerd and a cliche, your comments on Beowulf brought me to tears. The past six years since I left college have been a bit of a dry spell in terms of finding people who are willing to talk about Beowulf with me. Just last week a close friend said to me, ‘You know, not everything has to do with Bewoulf, Alexa.’ Also, you’re right! I forgot about Beowulf’s sluggish start. Leaders are essential, especially leaders that come out from behind. Even in Beloved, Morrison makes space for leaders, such as the woman who led prayers in the clearing. Another aspect of Beowulf, or Medieval Literature in general, might be relevant to this discussion. The best part about people (and by people, I mostly mean you and Tom, since my ability to find Medievalists has proven to be limited) who really love stories as old as Beowulf, is that their love involves a level of reverence for the book and characters that goes beyond their concern with their own analyses of the stories, as you reminded me this morning with your genuine comments. When it comes to community media projects, it’s important to come at it with the same ethos – the idea that the stories you hear are more sacred and important than your own opinions about them.

    Justin – I can’t argue that MIT grad students are less than ‘elite’, simply by virtue of coming through this system. However, many of them, especially those who are participating in CoLab Radio, come from the places they are chronicling, and return to those places when they finish with MIT. Two years in a masters program is really a blip when you consider an entire life dedicated to one place. Additionally, I think phrasing it as ‘elite graduate students tell these communities’ stories’ is not only untrue for MIT-based contributors who are chronicling about their own home communities, but also trivializes the effort of all contributors. Maybe we should be more clear on this site, that every post is built on the back of a real urban planning project. Aditi Mehta, for example, didn’t show up on Broad Street in New Orleans and collect stories. She worked with a life-long New Orleanian who runs a non-profit dedicated to the Broad Commercial Corridor, who is also an MIT alum. She also worked with the same people to write a market study for a local grocery store, which won a $15,000 grant for that project. Her work was built on a years-long relationship between MIT Urban Planning Dept. and the City of New Orleans. And, although the digital divide is real, and definitely impacts this site’s ability to gather stories from CoLab’s partner communities, the assumption that people in the cities where we collaborate, listed in the right-hand column of this site, don’t visit this site or use the internet regularly, is wrong in most cases. The statistics for this website show that the city being most heavily chronicled at any given time is also the city driving the most traffic to the site (after Boston and New York – but Boston is where the site is founded and New York is a city of 9 million. None-the-less, Cartagena Colombia was able to out-do New York in January and February when we were most focused on that project). Finally, the blog is just an on-line representation. In every case, real people are having real meetings and story-sharing events in-person. This blog is built on those in-person interactions.

    My additional thoughts – The ability to share stories is innate. Just because a community doesn’t share stories on the internet doesn’t mean that the stories aren’t there, potentially making “the rising noise of the neighbor women in Beloved.” Community-based stories are in churches, town halls, peoples houses and apartments, in the 5 minutes before yoga class starts…

    Marginalized people and places are loaded with stories that have been overlooked by a larger general public. For decades, it didn’t help that newspapers, on the whole, overlooked them, spoke for them, and mis-spoke for them. For those communities seeking a larger audience, the internet begins to provide a solution. CoLab Radio would like, humbly, to participate in amplifying the stories of those who have been unheard but now seek to be heard. The nitty-gritty of actually doing that, which Danielle touches on in her comment, is complex in so many ways, and in different ways for every place.

    I’ll post more later if my thoughts evolve. Let me know what you think.

    Also, Carlos – thanks. Yours about collaboration is worth living for, too.

  15. Awesome conversation.

    I just wanted to add a comment that Ceasar McDowell told me when I went to talk with him about exactly this– my concerns about the digital divide, and what real impact media has. He said, “I always ask people, what about the physical divide?”

    People scrutinize new technological tools, but really they are built on a system that is fundamentally flawed– with inequality, discrimination and marginalization. Why don’t we subject in-person gatherings to the same scrutiny? When you have a community meeting, how big is it and who is missing? The strength of technology that it lets you reach more people than you would be able to pack into a room. The digital divide is a real, serious issue– but there is also an incredible amount of potential. We have to take the tools for what they are, and from there, our work starts.

    Gayle and Danielle, I thought your comments were also super interesting.

    Can I also just say that I am loving these CoLab Week posts? It is so interesting to hear where people come from and how they connect this to their work.

  16. John A. says:

    What a great blog post Alexa! It really resonates with my thesis research on the LA River, especially since it’s a topic about the personal stories along the River-adjacent neighborhoods where I was born, raised, and continued to live in until I left LA. Although I had heard many wonderful stories about the River growing up in LA, it was nice to have the opportunity to hear them first-hand. I think my favorite aspect of the research was having many of the River artists and cultural producers share their personal and favorite spots along the River. Places which might be traditionally thought of as derelict or ugly, were in fact places that held much inspiration and promise for them. I’m looking forward to sharing more of those in the coming weeks. Coincidentally, I got a call today from an artist I interviewed, someone with one of the longest River legacies who’s work has inspired a lot of the local inner-city youth. He said: “Hey John, Didn’t you say you were going to do a blog profile about me? Don’t forget! I even drew a map for you :)” Indeed. I have my next post brewing…

  17. Alexa Mills says:

    Also, @Danielle – I agree that there is no one tool, that there are many ways to share a story and all of them are valid, and that if some kind of change is the outcome on seeks, old-fashioned community organizing is essential.

    Thanks for all these great comments, guys!

  18. Nancy Bloom says:

    Great conversation all. I feel as if I learned a lot more about CoLab and your mission.

  19. Alexa,

    What you is getting from is really great. In these few days we have produced many reflections, stories and dialogues. This is very important. We have been developing many ideas in CoLab, but we were using these ideas to shape the program with the fellows, to design the course on action-research, the practicum in Cartagena and Lawrence and the work of collaborative theses, and to develop a discourse for our work, but we were not communicating our ideas to our social and institutional neighbors. You have got we all to write and share our ideas. You have invented a new dynamic in CoLab. If someone wants to know what CoLabers think about some topics, here we have something to show.

    But the experiment is not over yet. Lets see what is coming next.

  20. Monica Taylor-McInnis says:

    I attended a media workshop in February at CoLab that was in-depth and thorough, providing tools and techniques to help us better reach our audience. I especially enjoyed the Windows Movie Making session, where I learned how to couple visual elements with research and audio enhancements to better articulate our mission and the services we offer to the community. Usually, the African American community is misrepresented by the mainstream media. However, this course will enable us to provide an audio-visual counterpart that will allow us to balance the media blitz against the African American community while we continue to fight for economic, political, social, and judicial equality for all in the state of Mississippi.