This time of year always takes me back to my first professional job after grad school. I worked in a city near Boston known for its intellectual, cultural, and ethnic diversity. The city library system was enlightened enough to have an anthropologist on staff, me. But while I was on staff, the boss, nicknamed Joltin’ Joe, limited my role to one square mile-sized neighborhood; Eastie.
To be fair to Joltin’ Joe, I was not the only one singled out for lockdown. The entire staff was locked down in their branch libraries and departments. But it’s lonely at the top. And it’s especially so when your immediate cronies are known as such and not trusted. So much time got expended on periodic exercises in control and terror. The problem with such a leadership style is that it became as predictable as wanton; wherever the cronies weren’t looking, individuals would pop up some innovative program or initiative almost to spite Joltin’ Joe. His anger was truly wrothful within his organization, but politically, it was ineffective. The city council members considered themselves sponsors of their local libraries, and Joe’s fear of their reprisals could keep him in check.
My job was to run a special collections library and create regular programming featuring the cultures of my neighborhood’s ethnic groups. Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Portuguese, were within the square mile. Being that Joe did not get along well with the inhabitants, I think he suspected that I’d chewed up and spat out in concise order. He assumed that I’d be seen as encroaching on perceived inter-ethnic prerogatives, and my presence would not be abiding. ” It’s a tough neighborhood Louie, they’ll chew you up and eat you alive.” was the warning.
Lucky for me my first visitor was Mrs. Gelowtsky. In a three-hour late afternoon meeting, she laid out the geography and history of the neighborhood. It wasn’t five separate groups. All the groups had intermarried over several generations, and there were only a few small areas with significant concentrations of one group. After that, the conversation turned to food.
Over the following days, I was visited by a number of the communities spark plugs, the people who ran local organizations, sponsored events, and were generally influential. They suggested others that I should call or visit. As they shared with me, I shared with them. They were interested in my being an anthropologist but amazed that I wasn’t someone’s relative. City Hall relatives frequently got these sorts of jobs. An analysis by the local Franciscan Priest suggested that in a showdown between two favored candidates, they got forced to pick someone qualified for the job.
Over a few months, a group merged to form what I called the Brain Trust, but they called it the committee. I’d love to say that every committee meeting was full of trust, cooperation, and beautiful ideas. Not so. Not too many Kumbayaw moments. But many naive ideas got hammered into doable form. For example, programs that later expanded into a new life at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife ( 1988) got banged into shape in the heat of committee meetings.
Early on, a pair of themes emerged:
- First, while the city beyond the borders of their little neighborhood saw them as distinct ethnic entities, they viewed themselves as one community with varied traditions. A few generations of co-inhabitation and intermarriage had helped this along.
- Second, despite internal divisions, they perceived that they were at the bottom of the city’s hierarchy for services and status. There was a perception that our activities could raise the esteem and status of their community.
As an anthropologist, I feverishly took notes, made recordings, and was excited at the possibilities.
Meanwhile, at the other side of town lurked Joltin’ Joe, who decided to jerk the chain and cut off my funds for programming. I was scared. The committee got pissed and began to call in favors. The First Annual Harvest Festival was wholly funded and supported by community members. The committee made sure to invite Joltin Joe to the festivities and broadly smile as he ground out praise for the Eastie community from between clenched jaws.
Like most of the programs, articles, lectures, celebrations, videos, and more that followed, the committee adhered to one principle – as much as possible, it was about the community as a whole, even when one element took the lead in a particular event or the content of the program. For example, have an evening of Portuguese songs and dance. Many folks in the audience were Italian and Polish. They were there for a good time, supporting friends, or watching a grandchild dance.
Joltin Joe never figured it out. He, like many people, expect failure based upon the things that split people into competing groups. They don’t understand that cooperation is a fearsome way to unite despite competition.
Allowing outsiders to divide you will not ultimately improve your community; it’ll just marginalize you further. The committee understood this.