Friday, June 22, 2012

A clever solution for disengaged communities

‘The idea for Play Me, I’m Yours came from visiting my local launderette. I saw the same people there each weekend and yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realised that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence. Placing a piano into the space was my solution to this problem, acting as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space.’

This is a statement from Luke Jerram, an international artist and the brainchild of an art installation called "Play Me, I'm Yours."  Quite simply, Jerram's idea was to place pianos all over a city and then provide the public with free and open access to them (see the picture on the right).  The project has been well received and has already made an appearance in 25 cities across the globe, with Paris, Geneva, London, and Toronto slated for this summer.  And, as this Salt Lake Tribune article reports (there is currently an installation in downtown Salt Lake City), there are some amazing stories that have come out of the project.

When I read about what inspired Jerram with this idea (i.e. the laundromat story above) I immediately thought of college campuses (at least the one where I work) and the "invisible communities" that seem to exist there.  On large campuses especially there often seems to be a sense of loneliness and isolation. Students attend classes with one another, without ever speaking; or sit next to the same students in the library day after day, never reaching out.  There seem to be lessons in Jerram's artwork  for those of us interested in building community on college campuses and engaging students with one another in meaningful ways.  While most campuses have clubs, intramurals, and Greek Life, and these initiatives play some role in campus life, I'm not sure that they do much at all (if anything) to address the "invisible communities" of students who study, attend class, and eat together, but who never connect.

Maybe I'm particularly sensitive to this because of an experience I had this week that helped me clearly see that I am a part of one of these invisible communities.  I typically arrive at my office around 7:00 a.m., long before most others get to campus (this is intentional, I can get more done between 7:00 & 9:00 than I do the rest of the day).  And, almost daily I pass one or more student custodians as I walk into my building.  They are usually just finishing their shift that begins at 4:00 a.m.  Occasionally I will smile or nod at them as I walk by, but rarely do I make any real effort to acknowledge or converse with them.  Last Friday morning, one of these surely sleep-deprived students, who I'm sure I have seen and walked by countless times without ever saying hello, knocked on my door and asked "Are you related to any of the Buntings in Kanab, Utah?"  Well, I am, and it turns out that we are second cousins.  We talked for about 10 minutes about her family, my family, and the little town where our parents grew up.  I've seen her just about every day since then and we've smiled, said hello, and chatted briefly a few more times.

I've thought about this experience a lot over the last week and (a) been embarrassed that I don't reach out more often to those around me and (b) what a difference it made for this student to reach out to connect with me.  And, I now wonder how much more often these kinds of interactions might occur if our campuses were designed to in ways that might catalyze conversations between strangers.  In the case of my experience, it was my nameplate that started the conversation (the student saw my name, realized it was also her mother's maiden name, and then started a conversation).  What other kinds of things (like Jerram's randomly placed pianos) could an institution strategically place in the physical spaces of its campus--especially those places where people anonymously congregate--to bring people together?  

Here's one example from a blog post I wrote a few years ago.  I think we would be surprised how little effort it might take and how positively students might respond.

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