Grandpa Doug died a few weeks ago. He wasn’t my grandpa. He was my neighborhood’s grandpa. Always at the local elementary school being a handyman or there with his camera documenting the talent shows, the art exhibits, whatever was going on . . . even in the classes that his granddaughter wasn’t in.
We got to talking . . . and he started inviting me over for coffee. He was a coffee connoisseur, but not the kind that was snobby. He just knew a lot about it. I sheepishly asked for cream because I had heard that “real” coffee drinkers didn’t do that. He brought me cream. Happily. And we’d talk. We’d listen.
I had more conversations with Grandpa Doug and probably knew more about him than I ever did about my grandparents.
It made me think about how little we have contact with elders we aren’t related to. And, likewise, how the elders in our communities have so little contact not just with other adults, but specifically youth.
Don’t talk to strangers, we hear…or at least kids hear all the time. And I understand why people say it, but there’s a fallout from that mindset. That fear overtakes exploration outside of one’s own world. Or maybe just the notion that one’s own world is getting smaller and smaller.
And this has been written about for years now. How people exist more with their “devices” than with the physical people around them. The tendency to get trapped in a world where you surround yourself (or you’re surrounded) with only those who agree with you is high. You can see it in radio stations and how there are so few of them. Little ones with their own programming gobbled up by corporations like Clear Channel. You have to try harder and harder to hear music that you probably won’t like.
I know that’s a strange thing to say, but I think only through listening to something that we think wouldn’t relate to us can we find new ways to think, that we can change.
And so . . . in thinking about elders and youth and the chasm between them, and the value in talking to strangers, and the success of our project at StoryCenter, All Together Now, If Not Us was born.
Back when we had the site visit for our potential Arts Affinity Group grant from the Denver Foundation, I remember some of the committee members asking how we knew we were going to have an impact on youth with our project.
I’m not sure we answered well. Actually, I’ll 'fess up . . . it was me who said back, “Well, you all are giving money to support projects that will have an impact, right? How do you know that what YOU’RE doing is having an impact?”
Someone said “Hey, buddy, WE’RE asking the questions here.”
My project partner kicked me under the table.
We got the grant.
We had high school kids sitting around tables with elder artists and activists in the community talking about times that they stood up for something or somebody…or, maybe more importantly, times when they didn't but wished they had. We had high school kids coming out of the closet to adults they didn’t know. A kid crying about being a bully. We had elders talking to kids about walking out of school in 1979, out of East High School, where we were, to support Chicano rights and fair treatment in the schools.
We had an event with Warm Cookies of the Revolution where elders and youth shared songs that spoke to their activism. They sang together. They listened.
At the end of the project, my project partners and I were just thinking about a gift to give the people who funded the project. A framed program? A picture of the cast?
We didn’t know.
And then this happened:
Now, some chose to focus, as some sensationalist news outlets did, on the notion that some policemen were injured in this protest, or some may choose to focus on the notion that this protest was organized and spearheaded by some of the same students who just sat around those tables with us and performed on stage for the community, that they put their money where their mouth was, that they became the kind of activists for art and justice that they met in the workshops the group had just funded.
They wanted to know if the project would have an impact?
There’s your answer.