Sunday, May 12, 2019

Building Community

I had a date on Friday, with my community! I gave my students at Hallowell Clay Works an assignment, to make a serving dish perfect for a specific food, then make that food & bring it to our studio-wide potluck. I of course also brought a dish, in a dish; I made a tomato & cucumber salad. We expanded the invitation to the whole studio, so we could meet the people who make the beautiful things we're been seeing on their shelves.

Most of the time I write about being a studio potter, but I am also a ceramic educator. I've successfully built or had a hand in building ceramics programs at three or four institutions now; in a couple of cases the programs doubled in size during my tenure (not all down to me, of course, but I did my part.) I find that the key is community. Clay has a really steep learning curve! It's easy for students to get frustrated and give up when the beautiful items they dream of making remain out of reach for months and months. What keeps people coming back, to pay money to be frustrated over and over again? Community.

Friends. Encouragement. People to tell your stories to. People to commiserate with when things don't go well, and to cheer for and with you when they do. I have come to realize that my main contribution as a ceramic educator is not merely to teach people how to make stuff, but to knit together communities of supportive friends.

Almost 20 years ago, Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, Putnam describes the decline of social capital in the late 20th century, with decreasing participation in activities and groups that pull people outside of their existing in-groups. 
Bowling Alone was written prior to the existence of social media, but I tend to think, despite its name, that social media has the effect of dividing us further rather than bonding us. People we don't interact with in mundane ways can be reduce to one point of view we disagree with. Thus we grow ever more isolated in smaller and more limited circles.

So what, tho, right? The answer: 
But does it really matter that social capital is declining? Putnam argues that, indeed, it does, as social capital "has many features that help people translate aspirations into realities." (p 288) Putnam identifies five such features. First, social capital makes collective problems easier to resolve, as there is less opposition between parties. This results in improved social environments, such as safer and more productive neighborhoods. Second, it makes business transactions easier, since when people trust each other, there is less of a need to spend time and money enforcing contracts. As a result, economic prosperity increases generally. Third, social capital widens our awareness of our mutual connectivity. This can improve the quality of our civic and democratic institutions. Fourth, it helps to increase and speed up the flow of information, which, in turn, improves education and economic production. Finally, social capital improves our health and happiness through both psychological and biological processes which require human contact.
In particular, in 2019, we are politically polarized as we've never been before. We need places where we can come together and see the whole person, not just their ideology. Places where we can experience our commonality.  We need community.

Art is positioned to serve that function! In fact it happens naturally, but I've learned in my role as instructor that I can foster and nurture the bonds that create community.

That's what Friday night was. A bunch of fun people, great food, and the salvation of our society.

Or something.


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