Romy Hübler is UMBC’s Coordinator of Student Life for Student Organizations.
When I flew to Atlanta on June 1st, I expected to be there for just an hour before boarding a plane to my final destination: Indianapolis, site, of the 2016 Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) meeting. But because of a passenger incident and inclement weather, my layover turned into an overnight stay. I found myself repeatedly in the company of people who had been on my Atlanta flight: in line to rebook our flights, in line to wait for a hotel shuttle, in line to check into the hotel, in line to wait for the airport shuttle, and in line to pass through airport security. Even though we shared these experiences, we remained strangers, and at times even became competitors, fighting to access limited resources before others could.
Fast forward to Indianapolis. The CLDE meeting’s opening plenary session takes place in a room full of hundreds of people, most of whom I do not know. A few minutes later, the room is abuzz as we engage in an activity called Conocimiento (Spanish for knowledge, consciousness, or familiarity). Strangers are sharing personal stories with strangers. I heard from my partners in this activity about the people and experiences that had shaped who they have become: parents, school, society. I noticed overlaps in our stories that made me feel an immediate connection: one of the building blocks of relationships.
Why do some shared experiences connect groups of strangers while other shared experiences leave people isolated? Why is it that some group tasks can produce innovative, collaborative solutions, while others result in individually completed pieces joined together haphazardly at the end of the process? I believe the answer lies in how we approach each other and establish relationships. The educational philosopher John Dewey identified ‘living relations’ as critical to co-creating our communities, our institutions, and our society.
But what enables and supports these living relations? In the roundtable discussion I co-led in Indianapolis with my colleagues David Hoffman and Craig Berger, we explored this question with more then twenty other CLDE attendees. Trust, authenticity, ability to listen, horizontal leadership, space for vulnerability, and mutual respect were some of the preconditions we collectively identified. Activities such as Conocimiento, which places ‘relationships before task,’ are important tools to create these living relations and to foster an environment in which strangers become partners, and in which limited resources become the collective concern of a group.
Back on campus, I find myself thinking about the encounters I have had with faculty, staff, and students. I realize that I have felt alive, present, and inspired in situations where I got to know my collaborators, learned what drove them, and understood how their work fueled their passions. The Conocimiento activity and the discussion of living relations at the CLDE meeting have reinforced these experiences and propel me to foster such relationships “in every year and day,” as Dewey envisioned.
Contact the author, Romy Hübler, at email@example.com.