Making it Real, Even on My Day Off

June 18, 2009

It wasn’t that I was growing weary of immersing myself in all the good work our Minnesota grantmakers are doing to support education.  It’s just that, after days and days of writing copy on this topic for our upcoming issue of Giving Forum, my fingers and my brain needed a change.

So, I was looking forward to my day off – a day dedicated to working on a Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity house being constructed in partnership with Holy Hammers. I could spend the day spreading mud on drywall and chatting with my fellow builders.

All morning, I didn’t spend even one minute thinking about my to-do list here at MCF.  Then came lunch.

Before we were done chewing our cookies, the Twin Cities Habitat onsite supervisors asked us to join in a participatory exercise that would give us insight into Habitat’s mission.  The curriculum for these “lessons” was funded by The McKnight Foundation, they said.

At the mere mention of this organization, my mind raced back to my day job and all the writing I had yet to do on education and philanthropy: “Don’t forget to email so and so about the article; remember to double check on X and get the OK on Y … .”

Oh yeah, back to drywall and housing needs in the Twin Cities.  The directions for the participatory exercise: Divide into groups of 3 people; within each group, choose one person to be the “mover” (I volunteered); each group receives a different set of step-by-step knot-tying instructions and a bunch of rope; each person in the group had to execute at least one step of the instructions. “Use as much of the rope as you want and keep tying knots as long as you can,” the Habitat person said.

OK. My group conferred, agreed on how to tie the knot so it looked like the illustration, then we each took a step and did our part to complete the knot.  We excelled.  We used up almost all of our rope tying knot after knot.

Just when we were about to proclaim, “We’re out of rope. What’s next?,” the Habitat staff person said, “Move.” An additional, unexpected rule: Whenever the staffer said “move,” the mover had to get up and move clockwise to the next group and join in their knot-tying.

So, I left the comfort of my first group and moved on.  My new group graciously allowed me to give my input on how I thought the knot ought to be tied, then told me that how they had done it previously was different.  We worked together, albeit quite a bit slower than my first group. “Move.”

The two people in my third group tried to get me up to speed on their knot. But, when I wasn’t catching on (it was a complicated knot), they grew frustrated.  During my time with them, we didn’t even complete one knot together.

On to the fourth group. Believing that perhaps the goal was to tie the most knots, all of us started to feel the pressure to just cut to the chase and get knots tied before that darn staff person uttered another “move.”  So, I simply sat down and said, “Looks like you’ve already got a knot started. Tell me what you want me to do and show me how to do it.”

Better yet, I thought, why don’t you just do it for me? I didn’t care to look at the illustrations or the knots that had been tied previously.  In fact, I didn’t even say “hi” when I sat down.

I had become completely disengaged, knowing that if I was in the least bit inquisitive, I would only frustrate the group I had temporarily joined and slow down their progress toward the ultimate objective of completing the knot.  I’m sure they were merely going through the motions too, thinking, “We can try and work through this process and tie this knot together, but you won’t be here long enough for it to matter.”

We were hopeful the exercise was almost over, but we had also resigned ourselves to knowing that the next “move” wasn’t a matter of if but when.

Frequent moves take their toll on kids with low SES.

Frequent moves take their toll on children with low socioeconomic status.

My fellow builders and I had experienced what it’s like for those who do not have a stable place to live, lay down roots, get comfortable, become engaged, contribute, be the recipient of that warm “welcome” and heartfelt investment that comes when others know you’ll be around for awhile.

“This is why we do what we do,” said the Habitat staffer.  There are way too many people – whether they’re the movers constantly trying to fit in and catch up or the seated holders of the knot-tying instruction card, the in-process knot and a bunch of rope that needs to be tied – for whom “move” is a daily, stressful reality.

As I went back to my mudding-the-drywall task, I thought about what Kathleen O’Donnell had told me.  Kathleen is the program manager for The Minneapolis Foundation’s Destination 2010 initiative. At the risk of oversimplifying this complex, 10-year undertaking, I’ll briefly explain what D2010 is.

D2010, which began in 2001 with 364 third graders at seven struggling St. Paul and Minneapolis schools, works with the students, their families and a whole host of community partners to motivate and support the students through high school graduation in 2010 and on to post-secondary education. Students must remain enrolled in Minneapolis or St. Paul public schools to continue in the D2010 initiative.

Kathleen said, “We only have 40 percent of our original students in this, their junior year, of high school. We have witnessed firsthand the corrosive effects of mobility on relationships, access to information and opportunities, and academic success.” Corrosive effects, what a thought-provoking, insightful description.

So, I tip my (drywall-dusty) hat to Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and the McKnight and Minneapolis foundations.  They invaded my day off and made real the issues faced by too many schoolchildren, their families and those striving to help them succeed.

– Chris Murakami Noonan, MCF Communications Associate