Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Building Community Bridges: A "So What" Behind Social Participation

Last Friday, I witnessed something beautiful at my museum. A group in their late teens/early 20s were wandering through the museumwide exhibition on love. They were in a playful mood, talking about the objects, playing the games, responding on the comment boards. On the third floor, they sat down in our creativity lounge and started making collages. At the adjacent table, my colleague Stacey Garcia was meeting with a local artist, Kyle Lane-McKinley, to talk about an upcoming project. Kyle had brought his baby with him. When I walked by the first time, the teens were collaging and Kyle and Stacey were talking. Next time, everyone was talking. Third time, one of the girls was holding and playing with the baby while Kyle and Stacey continued their meeting.

This is a tiny example of social bridging--people making connections to others who are not like them, who have different backgrounds, ages, races, professions, etc. The term was popularized by Robert Putnam in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, in which he differentiates between social capital built through "bonding" with people who are like you and "bridging" with people who are not.

I've been documenting lots of small bridging incidents at our museum over the past few months. I don't know what formed the bridge between the artists and the teens in this circumstance. It could have been the baby (one of the girls was clearly pregnant, and a baby is a great social object no matter the circumstance). It could have been the friendly, low-key setting. It could have been the attitude of the museum that supports participation and conversation. I don't know what made it happen. I'm just glad it did--and I want to do whatever I can to make it happen more often.

For a long time, I knew I cared deeply about designing from "me to we"--inviting visitors to form social connections through participatory experiences--but I couldn't express a clear reason why. Social bridging is becoming my why. While both kinds of social capital are important (and their growth non-exclusive), there are often many more opportunities for bonding than for bridging in daily life. We bond with the friends we grew up with, the people we work and play with. Even online forums that invite diverse participation tend to hinge on bonding around a key shared interest. At museums, we mostly bond with the friends and family with whom we attend. Social bridging is harder to come by, especially as society becomes more striated. Bridging is essential to building strong, safe, diverse communities. There are few places where bridging happens naturally. If we can make our museum a place that intentionally encourages and inspires bridging, we will make a powerful impact on our whole community.

For this reason, at the MAH we try to explicitly bake social bridging into the way we plan programs and exhibitions. We deliberately partner with diverse groups for single events--for example, a February music event had a main stage lineup that jumped from ukelele singalong to opera to hawaiian dance to rock. We tailor the programming blend to diverse ages, making sure no activity is just for kids or adults, no matter how much glue or fire is involved. In exhibitions, we showcase local, first-person stories and objects--from students, roller derby girls, retirees, and homeless families--alongside the art and historic objects. We include comment boards and games that link visitors to each other, often not in real time, through shared stories and experiences. And in program evaluation, we ask collaborators and visitors alike if they met anyone new and how those encounters contributed to their experience.

We're just at the beginning of this work. We have a long way to go before we're really making a measurable impact--and we're not even quite sure what "measurable" will look like. We know that most of the bridging that goes on here is surface-level and brief--as in the example of the teens and the baby. I don't know how deep we can expect to go, or whether our role will primarily be as a space that encourages safe, friendly collisions in a community-wide pinball machine. From my perspective, if we can help make our community one in which people walking down the street smile at strangers instead of looking away, we'll be on the right track.

I'm excited to explore these topics more with you in the months to come, and I'm curious to what extent social bridging feels relevant and compelling in your own work. Where have you encountered it, what resources help you understand it, and what do you think we should be doing about it?

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