Bridging Divides, Building Futures: Conference Planning as Cross-Cultural Dialogue

By Kiara L. Nagel

It’s late Saturday night and the conference is winding down, the planners are exhausted from a long day of workshops, presentations, and cultural events, and some have even headed to their cars in search of sleep or a long ride home. But the night is far from over for some. Local Latino youth rule the dance floor and as the DJ pumps hip hop beats the kids cheer and form a circle, each one taking a turn to duck into the center and bust the latest dance moves. As a new jam starts in, cheers erupt and more kids from the sidelines rush the dance floor showing their approval for the song choice. This is far from a typical scene in Holyoke. The sight of young people partying together on a Saturday night in a safe, positive environment is something that is hard to come by. In a community where close to half the population is under 25, there are few activities for young people at night and on weekends despite countless youth programs that offer after school activities. I am reminded of the numerous participatory planning meetings where these same young people have argued the need for a teen center or nightclub and can’t help wishing this could be a weekly event.

For several months now, I have been working on this conference titled: “New Visions for Historic Cities, Bridging Divides, Building Futures,” in my role as conference organizer and co-chair of the local steering committee. This is the moment that we can finally see the fruits of our labor. Together with Mary Bombardier, the director of the Community Partnerships for Social Change program at Hampshire College, I have been working to bring people together and use the conference as a catalyst for change. I am a recent Hampshire College alum who worked extensively with Mary and the CPSC program as a student and served as a staff member at El Arco Iris Youth and Community Arts Center in Holyoke. Upon graduation in Dec ’00 I was hired as Special Programs Coordinator for Community Partnerships and given the opportunity to continue growing the program’s capacity as part of the CPSC staff. Hampshire College’s innovative curriculum encourages students to shape their own academic paths with a great deal of flexibility. Since 1987, the Community Partnerships for Social Change program has been a campus resource for students and faculty who wish to integrate their academic interests with their social action/community-based experiences. A primary goal of the program is to facilitate respectful, reciprocal relationships between local communities and Hampshire College students, faculty, and staff. Community Partnerships offers community-based internship and research opportunities, training seminars, and a variety of resources to strengthen students’ social justice organizing skills. Over the years, Community Partnerships for Social Change has been strengthening Hampshire College’s relationship with community-based organizations in Holyoke. This relationship has allowed for more in-depth internship opportunities now identified as CPSC Partnership Programs. These partnerships involve a more committed relationship on the part of the college and the community organizations as we explore how the two can share resources, exchange knowledge and act as partners in more long-term efforts for change.

Holyoke is a city struggling with real problems that plague many smaller, post-industrial cities around the country. A negative image and buzzwords such as gangs, drugs, violence, teen pregnancy and post-industrial decay are thrown carelessly into descriptions of the city. What is usually left out is the creativity of the people, the drive of the youth, the many innovative strategies for change and collaborations between neighborhood organizations, businesses, youth, elders, teachers, artists, social service agencies, politicians and neighboring colleges. As one of the nation’s oldest, planned industrial cities, we thought Holyoke the perfect site for members of the Planners Network to gather for their annual conference.

Holyoke began as a prototypical New England factory town, with a grid of man-made canals powering rows of paper and textile mills that fueled a robust 19th and early 20th century Northeast economy. In the last fifty years, the city has had to face the effects of de-industrialization, budget cuts, globalization, and the challenges of working across different political and cultural identities. In the final days before the conference was to take place, two men were killed on Main Street at the same time that city officials were launching a new public relations campaign. The disconnect that was highlighted by this series of events runs deep and is difficult to work with. There is a great deal of paralysis in terms of those in power and people’s confidence in their own ability to effect change that is not unique to this area but affects people all over.

Many people are working in creative ways to foster change and innovative methods of city planning, and yet a reconsideration of the way the city and surrounding colleges relate to the local community is necessary. When Ken Reardon, Cornell professor of City and Regional Planning, and the Planners Network approached us to host the 2002 Conference, we saw this as an opportunity for CPSC staff to engage further with this tension and explore our own role as cross cultural organizers on a deeper level. We knew it was imperative to engage the local community of Holyoke and that they would have to be equal partners in the conference organizing process. We assembled a local steering committee that represented Hampshire College faculty and staff, the Holyoke Planning Department, and several community organizations in Holyoke including Nueva Esperanza, Nuestras Raices and El Arco Iris, Holyoke Community Land Trust and others. We had to take time to brainstorm together, to hear each other’s gripes and grievances and the struggles that folks have had over the past 20+ years of organizing in Holyoke. Many were skeptical of big dreams and big promises, and this outside group called the Planners Network that wanted to come and talk about their local struggles. This was also a group that did not always work together or collaborate, even though many of us had the same goals of building community and creating social change. As we became pressured by the time constraints inherent to planning a conference, we also realized it was more important for the group to gain trust and build relationships and a unified vision. This is another important lesson in cross cultural dialogue and organizing. You cannot expect people to come into a room and immediately start planning together.

Our group used the brainstorming to come up with the following conference goals: 1) Explore new solutions to old problems, address barriers to change and create a new, collaborative vision for the city of Holyoke and its surroundings 2) Use the conference as a catalyst for change 3) Develop effective working relationship with current city/municipal structure and local colleges/University 4) Showcase the innovative work of community-based organizations, articulate specific planning and organizing needs and engage in dialogue around self-identified issue areas with local and national consultants. From here we worked to structure the conference to address these points and, of course, some were more successfully met than others. We felt it was important to address racism and inequalities and, as organizers and planners, we feel it is crucial not to sidestep the complexities of these issues. We had no interest in creating a conference that only gave professionals and academics the space to lecture and read papers and devalued local knowledge or left community organizers out of the conversations. Themes such as overcoming obstacles in organizing, addressing racism, and strengthening representation from people of color on all levels of city and community were to take equal footing with more straightforward city planning topics such as rebuilding urban neighborhoods, utilizing the arts as a creative form of economic development, and engaging youth and adults in participatory planning processes.

At Community Partnerships for Social Change, Mary and I frequently find ourselves having the same conversations over and over as we prepare students for work in the field. It seems that the skills needed to succeed at Hampshire are often at odds with the skills that are valuable off campus in community work. At Hampshire, students are required to design their own area of study, take initiative, exchange ideas, engage in debates and assert themselves as individuals. As they head out to work in Holyoke, we ask them to take a back seat, observe, listen and remain open, suspend judgement and opinion over time. In many ways, we find these positions as opposing forces and often directly at odds with each other. Yet this is the nature of cross-cultural work and the tension between these two forces is what makes for fruitful learning and develops productive, engaged citizens. This lesson learned from our work with students served us well in the planning process. Throughout the conference planning process, we saw a similar struggle of cross-cultural communication. It showed up as our local committee struggled to find a common language to share ideas, value what each person brings to the discussion and take action together (in this case, the action being conference planning). It also came up as we tried to create a balance in terms of who should speak and how to make room in the hectic schedule for many voices to be heard; it reared its head when members of the colleges wanted to start in with a public relations campaign early on before we had the buy in from the local community; and of course it came up again as we had a small local Puerto Rican restaurant cater a dinner, only to offend vegetarian conference participants when they were unsure of the vegan options available. I found myself walking the tightrope between opposing forces, serving as a translator. As conference organizer (and also a vegetarian), it was my responsibility to mediate between the needs of conference participants and the value of traditional cultural foods, which often highlight the divide between myself and the Puerto Rican community within which I work and collaborate.

It is how you react in these culturally charged moments that puts your skills of cross-cultural communication to the test. I also struggle with the same issues we discuss with students in terms of when to be outspoken and take leadership and when to take the opportunity to learn from the seasoned organizers, when to take risks and when to be held accountable. As a conference organizer my message remains the same whether I am talking to college administration, faculty, student, community organizations, residents or youth, but the way it is delivered varies. Thus I have had to learn to say the same thing in many different styles and so-called ‘languages.’ Progressive planning must be approached like a cross-cultural dialogue, a delicate language translation in which different terms have vastly different meanings across cultures. People must also see themselves as part of a system of power that includes issues such as race, class, age, gender, history, and education and recognizes how their individual lenses of reality impact the ways that they relate to others. For collaborations across difference to be successful, there must be an effort to value all forms of knowledge and all lenses. Placing the experience and expertise of people from the community on an equal playing field with academics and professionals is a difficult goal Mary and I constantly strive for. We knew that a conference was not what this community needed unless it created the chance to build relationships and bridge people together from a diverse range of perspectives. We were careful not to make promises about what the event would provide and what could potentially come out of it. In the end, it would be people from the community and local colleges that would make the event great and it would be these same people that would continue to take action after everyone went home.

Overall, the 2002 Planners Network conference was a big success for us and we are grateful for this opportunity to organize and unite our many languages, cultures and visions. We not only bridged across difference to come together but we were able to build together as we mobilized for the event. In his book, The Long Haul, Miles Horton expressed the need to see social change as a series of small struggles along a long road towards change. “A long range goal to me is a direction that grows out of loving people, and caring for people, and believing in people’s capacity to govern themselves. The way to know they have these capacities is to see something work on a small scale.” Overall I think this conference was a special moment on the path to a long range goal, a milestone for Holyoke, for Hampshire College and for the many people that came together to make this event happen. We will continue to look to the future and interact and work towards change as a local group, as members of the Planners Network, as people building futures and bridging divides.

Kiara L. Nagel is the Special Programs Coordinator for Community Partnerships at Hampshire College.

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