Wave. Say Hello. Repeat.




It's become a regular occurrence when I'm out walking through Lakeview Cemetery for folks to stop me and ask how to get to a famous gravesite.  "Excuse me," someone will say as they roll down their car window.  "Do you know where Rockefeller is?"  I pause and orient myself because, yes, I know where John D. Rockefeller's grave is -- I just need a moment to think on that in relation to wherever we might be in the 285 acres that is the cemetery grounds.  Then I give them directions and send them on their way.  And I chuckle -- because what made them think I'd know?  

Over twenty years of customer service radiates from me.  Lakeview isn't the first place I've had strangers approach me for information that there's no reasonable reason I should have.  I've had old women come up to white-blonde-lady-me in a grocery store speaking only Spanish.  I've had people next to me in a coffee shop ask my opinion on Kindle versus Nook.  I've had people seem relived to have found me, this friendly-seeming person who just may help them with whatever they might need.

I'd say that it's partly my mid-west upbringing that creates this magnetic attraction, but nearly twenty years in Boston all but counters that.  Really, it's because I approach my day with an openness that puts me on offense rather than defense.  I seem friendly because I am.  I'm extroverted and ready to connect.  People look to me for directions or advice or assistance because it's likely I will help them.  Is it because I started working in customer service as a sixteen-year-old or did I gravitate towards people-centric jobs because I am this way?

The world may never know.

While the experience of strangers venturing up to me for assistance isn't new, it all got leveled up for me back in 2012 when I did yoga teacher training at O2 Yoga in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Mimi, the studio owner, told us a story about folks who worried about her leaving one of her studios in a neighborhood that was often thought of as "unsafe" late at night.  "Aren't you afraid to walk around there?" people would ask her.  She'd laugh and say, "Of course not!  I know everyone.  What's to be scared of?" 

The neighborhood was considered "rough" because it was home to one of Boston's biggest homeless shelters.  Crime was high.  Walking to class on more than one occasion, I saw drug deals and street fights.  To me, it wasn't that strange that so many people worried about Mimi being alone there, especially in the dark.  So it interested me when she said she knew everyone.  She explained that when she walked around, she wore a smile on her face that brightened when another person came near.  She'd wave and say, "Hello!"  Often the person would wave and say hello back.  Eventually, they had enough familiarity with each other that they'd learn each other's names.  Mimi's always feeding people, so she'd offer snacks along with conversation.  The area never felt dangerous to her -- not when she was on a first-name basis with so many of the people she passed on the sidewalk.

Well, to say that story blew my mind would be an understatement.  I started to incorporate her strategy into my own daily routine.  I didn't own a car which means I walked everywhere and so I started to make eye contact as I smiled and waved at the people passing me on the sidewalk.  Sometimes I'd squeak out a hello.  Most of the time, people blazed by me without reacting -- but every once in awhile, someone would see what I was doing, their eyes would get very big, and they'd beam a smile back at me as they slowly mirrored my wave.  I could see something ignite in them, this simple act of humanity.  It made me feel good to engage.  It made feel good to bring this simple act of kindness into the world.  It made me want to keep doing it.

And so I did.

In my time as a student at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, I focused a lot of my study and research on strengths-based approaches to community work.  Often as I read more and learned more, I thought back to this example of Mimi waving hello to strangers as she passed them by.  I thought about how familiarity with each other and connection to each other was a massive piece of the puzzle.  If we don't view each other as individuals worth getting to know, then what are we in this for?  So often (too often) we jump to conclusions about what the other person or group is about or what they're after and that puts us on defense.  When we're on defense, we are clenched, we are hardened, we are interested in preserving ourselves and clinging to our goals. We want to stand at the front of the room and declare our bullet points of our agenda and accept positive feedback and hold out our hands for our rubber stamps to move forward.

That works great(-ish?) if you're in power -- if you're the one with the money -- if you're the one with the social or political clout.  But what if you're not?  What if you're the one trying to enact a change in your life or in your neighborhood but other folks either won't listen or think they know better than you what you need?  Defensiveness in that way leads to frustration and conflict and bandaid solutions.  If we start with the problem and map out a way to the solution, that's not necessarily a wrong or bad approach.  

It's just not the only approach.

Try playing offense instead.  With offense, you stride up to bat and hope to make some contact with the ball.  While the folks on defense are trying to prevent you from scoring a run, being on offense means you hope to overcome those barriers through your own strategy that is open instead of closed.  It's buoyant instead of heavy.  It's love instead of fear.  And, yes, you may fear striking out -- sometimes you even strike out with the game on the line.  But the biggest exhales always come from the people on defense.  It's their job to stop something from happening.  Being on offense means you are the one trying to score.

I love a good metaphor.

When it comes to community work, a deficit-based approach is defensive.  It's what's wrong/how do we fix it.  A strengths-based approach, on the other hand, says what's working/how do we do more of that.  It looks at who is involved and what gifts, talents, and skills they bring to the table.  And you better believe that table is round, all the chairs are the same size, and power is shared.  

That can only work if you know everyone at the table.  You only get to know everyone if you've made the effort to start with something as simple as a wave and a hello.  You get there faster if you approach everyone you meet with a sense of compassion and humanity.

This sounds simple.  It is simple.  So why do so few of us do it?

My classmates and I talked about this a lot.  Most social work systems are designed to be funded from a deficit-based approach, for one.  If something is wrong, you throw money at it to fix it, right?  If you're saying nothing is wrong, what do you need funding for?  If it ain't broke, etc. etc.  Also, social work is a helping profession.  In this context, a helper is someone who shepherds -- they usher along -- they say, "This is the direction, everyone come along in a calm, orderly fashion."  In order for a social worker to help, they must know how to help, right?  They must come equipped with a game-plan or a manual or a how-to guide.  Like Western medicine that only caters to the sick, this sort of deficit-based approach to social work has practitioners saying, "OK, this is what's wrong with you and this is how we fix it."

Me, I am grateful for the existence of Western medicine, but I love me some Eastern medicine, too.  With practices like acupuncture, deep tissue massage, reiki, meditation, and more, the idea is to build, support, and sustain wellness.  It doesn't want to wait until you're sick to serve you.  It wants to be part of your lifestyle, your everyday.  Strengths-based approaches are like that.  They ask you to self-identify what you (individually and collectively) can sustainably contribute to a cause or project.  The secret to strengths-based success is the communal way that success is defined -- there isn't one prescriptive path.  It requires a longer commitment, perhaps -- but also a better long-term outcome.  There is no quick-fix to most issues -- being willing to dig in, to invest, to engage over the long-haul makes a difference.

Being willing to wave and say hello to people in your community is a great first step.

Over the last year, especially, I have focused a lot of my research on questions surrounding policing and public safety.  The more I learned, the more Mimi's example popped into my head.  So much attention is paid to the police themselves and how they're trained and ways to better equip them to do their jobs and not enough attention is paid to, well, every other aspect of community safety.  What if neighbors knew each other.  What if the police knew the people in the neighborhood.  What if language barriers weren't a persistent factor.  What if there was more offense and less defense.  What if there was more community and less every person for themselves.  The question around police training is certainly important and absolutely a factor, but I am that person with my hand in the air asking what if we knew each other better and simply needed the police less as a result?  What if the community healing began by learning each other's names, getting to know each other's stories, and breaking down barriers through personal relationships?  Would that solve everything?  No.  But it would be far more humane than reacting in fear and involving guns and violence.  

Sometimes I think we're too exhausted to do the work.  That it's easier to follow Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 and call it a day.  Doing things from a strengths-based ideology takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of energy, it's less predictive.  We live in an Amazon Prime world with free delivery sometimes mere hours after we place our order -- who wants to wade into the unknown with people we have to build relationships with just to see if we can even agree on what the project should be?  As a recent MSASS graduate, I am going on interviews with organizations who rely on deficit-based approaches and it makes my stomach turn to contemplate merging into such a stream.  I hope to be employed somewhere that is at least open to reconsidering old ways of approaching "problems."  I hope to squash the word "problem" and replace it with "opportunity."  I hope to utilize a model that allows for collective discovery built on mutual respect and a sense of long-term commitment to making the organization -- the community -- the project as productive as it can be.

No matter what, I will be the one waving and saying hello.  I will be the one making eye contact, not looking over your head or past you down the hall.  I will be the one getting to know you, discovering your hidden skills, and finding ways to spotlight them in the work we do together.  That was my approach before I ever heard of Asset-Based Community Development and it's only been reinforced by these new tools in my toolbox, thanks to my time at the Mandel School.  

I encourage all of you, too, to try this experiment for a week.  Offer a wave and say hello when you're out on a walk in your neighborhood.  Report back and let me know how this subtle change in how you interact with strangers starts to shift your feeling about where you live and the kinds of people who live near you.  Are people receptive or do they ignore you?  Do they act startled or seem grateful?  Do they look at you like you're coo-coo-bananas or do they smile back and echo your greeting?  Pay attention to how you are moving through the world and carry yourself with the same level of kindness and care you hope others will offer you.  

When I did this experiment with the intention of strengthening my sense of humanity in an "unfriendly city" like Boston, Massachusetts, what I learned was that the more I engaged with others, the more open to engagement those other people were.  I practiced it, like any skill, and all but debunked the theory that Bostonians are inherently hard-hearted jerks.  Nudge them out of defense into offense and watch them purr.  Most humans crave connection with other humans -- we're at our most natural when we're behaving communally.  The effort to get us there is so minimal -- I do hope you'll give this experiment a chance.

I encourage you, too, to look at the language of your career or your home life -- of the way you connect with others or with causes.  If everything is a problem that needs fixing, I invite you flip it into an opportunity to take what's working and make it even better.  We fixate too much on the part that is "broken" and not enough on everything around it that's working so well.  

Learn from Mimi: she didn't look around at the neighborhood and see it as "unsafe" -- she looked around the neighborhood and could name all of her new friends and tell us a bit about their lives.  It's the unknown that's scary -- gaining that knowledge of her surroundings allowed her to navigate the space with a sense of added safety that folks were looking out for her.  All it took was the tiniest amount of human kindness to get her there.


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