The Group

I led a discussion with program staff and a few AmeriCorps volunteers from an immigrants' rights organization. This was an incredibly diverse group of people in terms of age, ethnic background, comfort reading and speaking English, and level of formal education.

The Program

We read Bertolt Brecht's poem "A Bed for the Night." The planned theme of the discussion was the individual's capacity to make meaningful social change. Our discussion was part of a staff training day, and it took place over lunch.

Overview

The discussion was charged from the start and it lasted almost two and a half hours. At the start, before turning to the poem, I asked everyone to take a few minutes and think about someone they had heard of who made what they thought of as meaningful social change. I then asked each of them to tell the small group who they had chosen, how they had heard about this person, and how they recognized the change as meaningful. After considering what these individuals shared, we turned to Brecht's poem and took up the actions of the man at the center of the poem: was this man, we wondered, making meaningful social change? We also considered the narrator's relation to the man on the corner. Toward the end of the second hour, the conversation took an unexpected turn when one of the participants speculated about specific traits of the character in the poem—traits the narrator does not provide. For the last 45 minutes, we talked about race and ethnicity, and how to begin to talk about these things. During this section of the discussion, the group members spoke respectfully and openly about a subject that was obviously difficult to address together. By the end of the session, there seemed to be a shared sense that something heavy had happened, and that it had gone well but needed more attention in the future.

Next Time

The opening exercise seemed to work very well, and the poem's brevity and simplicity of language made it accessible to a group of people with varying degrees of comfort with English. I realized toward the end of the discussion that our next session would have to take up race in some way.

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