The Arrival Is in the Questions: An Appeal for Active Allyship

I spent the past year abroad as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, living in five different countries to see how the design of cities made space for residents to identify with their streets and neighborhoods, and also to see where there was a disconnect that made urban residents feel far away from the places where they lived. This past weekend, I traveled to Appleton, Wisconsin to meet the other thirty-nine 2011-2012 fellows. Throughout the year, I had wondered about their projects, and about how they were doing as they managed and reconsidered their questions about international gay rights, approaches to fiber art or the cultural implications of fashion. Sharing space with the fellows brought home the idea that each of us has spent the whole year looking and in so doing, we’ve learned both how to look and that the maintenance of the state of looking is its own point of completion.

One of the fellows, whose project focused on relationships between science and spirituality in the Middle East, said that what she learned on her Watson year was that she was most interested in the critical thinking that came with asking questions of how systems operate and fit together, how two opposing ideas can both hold truth, and how it becomes possible for one person to disagree with someone else’s conclusion, but to respect the process by which they came to it. She said that she arrived at a place where to be comfortable in a constant state of asking questions was an end in itself, which she found both liberating and challenging.

I continued to think about a commitment to process as a point of arrival as I spent parts of the weekend talking about my experience as an openly and visibly transgender Watson Fellow. In some respects my Watson year was singular, because I viewed everything I saw with an awareness of myself as a trans-bodied researcher. In many respects, however, the fact that I understood my body to be a possible point of contention in contexts where I could not necessarily navigate the culture, particularly in the ten weeks I spent living in Ecuador, was common among the experiences of many of the Fellows. In the situations on my Watson year where I felt especially comfortable, it was because someone in the community had made it clear that they were an active ally, that they supported my inquiry-based approach to living, as well as my state of being trans, whether or not we ever talked about it, which in turn enabled us to move beyond my gender and to engage as individuals sharing a room or a park bench or a Tuesday morning.

What distinguished active allyship for me was that instead of being told that it’s okay that I’m trans and that I’m supported in my trans experience, an active ally made an effort to show me that they were interested in engaging with me holistically. In cases of passive allyship, often what was construed as support felt like it was turned on its head, the acceptance of my transness becoming a badge of progressivism instead of the means of engaging with another individual. With an active ally, there was space to talk about the questions I had, or the questions they had, about gender or about anything. There was a commitment to asking, to wondering, and to co-generative support as an end in itself.

In coming out eight years ago, the people in my community who made me most comfortable were those who communicated not only that they supported the fact that I was transgender, but that they supported my ongoing exploration not as a temporary process of deciphering my queerness but as a continued deciphering of my humanness. Where passive allyship was static, ie: “I support you as you are,” active allies provided dynamic supported and expected it in return.

We learn from our allies what kinds of questions we have the space to ask, and, as a result, what kinds of questions we are willing to ask of ourselves. The language of “coming out” implies a point of completion, but it doesn’t account for the evolution of our identities, something that’s just as daunting, and just as essential as coming out itself, and which requires as strong of an ally as does coming to terms with being queer. This may require a shift in how we see allyship, and even in how we see our own process of self-development: less as a series of sequential arrivals and more as an arrival in its own right, embedded in a commitment to ongoing inquiry.

Were Innovation More Poetry Than Science: An Open Letter to Daniel W. Rasmus

Dear Mr. Rasmus,

Firstly, thank you for your exploration of the link between innovation and poetry in your recent article in Fast Company, “How Innovation Is More Poetry Than Science.” As a student and apprentice practitioner of both, I also feel that the common behaviors of each have much to learn from the other, that poetry can make innovation braver and more in tune with the connective features of nominally disparate systems and ideas, and that innovation can teach poetry about collaborative energy and co-generative impact. Several of the points that you made, however, made me wish for clarification or expansion, and when I attempted to clarify and expand on those ideas myself, I generated a few additional grounds for connection, which I’ve separated into the four categories below, entitled: “Invitation,” “Audacity,” “Process,” and “Imagination.”

To aid me in my explication of poetry, its systems, and how they may apply to innovation, I’ve borrowed from the The Life of Poetry, a prose work by mid-20th century activist and poet Muriel Rukeyser, and from Address, the most recent collection of poems by 2012 Guggenheim Fellow and National Poetry Series contributor Elizabeth Willis.

Thank you for your work, and for your readership.

Sincerely,

Davy Knittle

davy.knittle@gmail.com

Invitation

You argue in the final paragraph of your article that: “Poets affect people’s perceptions of the world, and to do that, they must extend their world so that others can interact with it. It isn’t enough to end a poem well, the poem must find a home to be really meaningful.” It is often said that a poem is only as strong as the relationship it develops with its reader. With this in mind, I see the work of a poet as being grounded not in creating meaning nor in affecting the reader, but in inviting the reader to experience the features of their world in a new way. Rukeyser expands upon this idea, enumerating how and what a poem invites: “A poem does invite, it does require. What does it invite? A poem invites you to feel. More than that: it invites you to respond. And better than that: a poem invites a total response” (11).

From the perspective of innovation, it seems that social innovators, who are often wedded to their ideas (a feature of innovation which, you note, can harm innovation projects when it becomes extreme) would benefit from seeing their work as an invitation to respond, as a vehicle for igniting participation. To use one of your examples, the iPod is an excellent demonstration of a work of innovation that acts as a vehicle for participation, which is the source of its strength. People, it seems, impact their own perceptions of the world when they encounter new information or present themselves to the world in new ways, inciting a new response. Using this model, the strongest innovations are those that invite participation, as are the strongest poems.

For example, the following excerpt from Willis’s “Take This Poem” invites the reader into personal and political exchange, into a state of Rukeyser’s “total response,” by asking for a range of actions that invite the application of a complete self on the part of the reader: “Take my wife/even if I meant/to keep her/Take my share/I don’t need it/Take as long/as you need to/Take this line/between breathing/and voting” (lines 28-37) The democratizing invitation of total response, and not the hierarchical desire to impact others by means of the poet’s own views is crucial to what innovators can learn from poetry.

Audacity

You argue earlier that: “Poetry is not about words. Poetry is about the right words. Innovation isn’t about ideas. Innovation is about the right ideas.” Rukeyser challenges this, arguing that poetry is not about being right, but about being brave enough and imaginative enough to see what’s possible: “But the reality of all the arts is that of the imagination. The fear of poetry is an indication that we are cut off from our own reality…Always we need the audacity to speak for more freedom, more imagination, more poetry with all its meanings” (30). Again, if a poem is only as strong as its relationship with a given reader, there are no right words. No poem will impact all readers, no matter how structurally dynamic or formally sound, and there is no poem that does only or always one thing. Innovation, similarly is about the bravest ideas, and about having the audacity and the carefulness to bring them to life.

Willis echoes a commitment to audacity in the poem “May Day”: “I too lived in Arcadia/in a house made of straw/a gutter world of kindness/The poet’s secret is/nothing to lose” (lines 1-5)

Process

You defend poetry from the characterization of those unfamiliar with it by saying: “Many outside of poetry imagine poets as free-form thinkers, sprinkling words along a page until they run out of inspiration. Poets, however, are more architects and tinkerers than verbal Jackson Pollocks.” Pollock, for the record, was both an architect and a tinkerer. Like many poets, he was committed to active, procedural exploration. Through his action paintings, Pollock engaged the formal reaches of what his paintings could do, returning to his central questions and asking them over again by performing the process that generated his gestural abstractions.

Poets, too, are grounded by asking many of the same questions over again and using the poetic process, as you say, to let themselves be surprised. Willis creates within “In Strength Sweetness” both a representative model and a study of how dimensions nest within both poetic process and, at their best, poems themselves: “in your city/its anger/ in your anger/a harbor/ in your harbor/a boat/ in the boat/open sea” (lines 29-32). In their work to create interdisciplinary and multidimensional work, innovators strive for the layers of different ways of thinking, pulled together by the dogged commitment to cutting back, itself a process that you recommend. In order to bring about work of such a multidimensional character, a commitment to process is essential.

Imagination

You argue at the commencement of the article that: “American state and national legislators and leaders relentlessly harp on the need for STEM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math that suffers as a marketing tool due to its meaningless abstraction), but this mindset does not recognize the need for well-rounded, culturally connected, researchers and readers who extend themselves beyond simple categories of knowledge in order to create innovation.” However, despite your insistence that cultural connectedness and well-rounded thinking are necessary tools for dynamic innovators, you state that: “As poets need a large vocabulary to precisely convey their meaning, innovators need a deep vocabulary of science and practice, engineering and management, to construct their innovative wares,” stripping innovators of the very ideas of cultural connection and imaginative thinking that you argue earlier are necessary.

Rukeyser argues that imagination is essential to the maintenance of culture, without which innovators would have no context, no forum, and no future: “The security of the imagination lies in calling, all our lives, for more liberty, more rebellion, more belief. As far as we do that, our culture is alive” (30). The maintenance of culture as a living force rests with innovators as much, perhaps, as it does with poets, if innovation seeks to use different features of lived experience to make the world we live in both more expansive and more effective. In order to invite the greatest possible impact, innovation, like poetry, needs to be able to draw from all sources, to be equal parts science and imagination.

Willis models this in “Incidental Knowledge” by creating a poetics in which a range of features of life are relevant to one another: “A poem ends/when the sound of it is finished/ Let me show you this floor swept clean/No strings, no reconstituted lights/ A brick is not a peach/Getting isn’t making/ A color is not a weapon/or an archive of the moon” (lines 13-18) Innovation isn’t more poetry than science if poetry is equal parts science and imagination itself. Innovation, then, becomes strongest when it is equally poetry and science, putting one into conversation with the other.

Renovating the World for an Instant: The Middle Path (Redux)

In the week and accompanying extra days since I interviewed Patience Hodgson of The Grates and put into motion a reading of what her lyricism does at its best, and at its heart, that same model – a middle path, of sorts – keeps raising its hand, making itself known. On one my of final days in Sydney as a Watson Fellow, I finished my reread of Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude in a final pitch to get myself mentally ready for my reentry into Brooklyn, which took place on Wednesday. In the novel’s final pages, the protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, drives west listening to the 1975 Brian Eno album Another Green World for which he explains his love with the language of none other than Patience’s adaptive, inclusive and fleeting middle path:

“I considered now that what I once loved in this record, and certain others…was the middle space they conjured and dwelled in…and that same space, that unlikely proposition, was what I’d eventually come to hate and be embarrassed by…Another Green World was…too fragile, too yokeable – I wanted I tougher song than that. “

He goes on to say:

“We all pined for those middle spaces, those summer hours when Josephine Baker lay waste to Paris, when “Bothered Blue” peaked on the charts, when a teenaged Elvis, still dreaming of his own first session, sat in the Sun Studios watching the Prisonaires, when a top-to-bottom burner blazed through a subway station, renovating the world for an instant, when schoolyard turntables were powered by a cord run from a streetlamp, when juice just flowed…A middle space opened and closed like a glance, you’d miss it if you blinked. “

At the end of the book, this is the final and encompassing big idea that Dylan, and with him, Lethem offers up. In one way, it enables the book to recognize itself as its own middle space – like Patience’s middle – fought for and earned, and like Dylan’s – ephemeral and alinear. Coming home, I tried to strike a middle space between the two characterizations of middle spaces – to understand that while the enduring, encapsulating, flow-state moment is what we’re looking for – a moment that’s beyond critique or even synthesis, that stands as a model for what a moment, an experience can contain, and greater than that, what human experience can contain – and to accept that it’s also impossible to occasion these moments.

Patience’s practice of “welcoming to the middle,” of recognizing “two kinds of right” is to create an environment in which the perfect, indecipherable middle spaces can occur, or even to recognize the potential middle space in all spaces, as if a perceptual difference keeps each moment from existing in an ethereal “middle space” from its current existence in the general swamp of all things. A middle space, perhaps, is a normal swamp of a moment whose parts all line up, whose features are adjacent and linked, held up in parallel wind.

I’ve thought of this especially often in my first couple of days back in New York – a place sought out for its potential middle spaces, a place in which much of the unspoken culture of being a New Yorker is to be both aware of their potential and disgruntled at their low-frequency, their pesky ability to happen more often to other people. Sydney is in many ways designed to make middle spaces, designed to generate moments that seem surrendered to their own synergy. On the way to the airport, a good friend called Sydney “a porn star of a city if ever there were one,” which had me wonder if Sydney’s fragmentation and its contrasts – its committment to beach as much to office tower – makes the ingredients of the potential middle space just numerous enough to allow them to come together without ceding to the constant New York onslaught of input, the synthesis of which makes for a real New Yorker, as it does for Lethem’s Dylan Ebdus, and arguably for Lethem himself.

Leaving does this too – creates the opportunity for perfect, contained and non-replicable middle spaces – and so a beautiful cadence of final weeks in a place designed to mark the existence of middle spaces the way I might have caught fireflies on some July night fifteen years ago raises the challenge of New York as a place in which to find middle spaces and, with that, as a place in which to find a sense of place itself.

New York, then, becomes a city that thrives on the potential of the middle space, where a middle space becomes sweeter and more rare for its synthesis. To make a middle space out of New York is to steal it, the theft itself creating the opportunity for the singular alignment of the middle, the moment, as Patience argues in which all imaginable factors are included in, as Dylan argues, a space that opens to their singular and fragile alignment, and that, for Dylan, a New Yorker at heart, always, close just as quickly.

Patience and Dylan disagree about the frequency of the middle – do we live in it? does it “[open and close] like a glance?” It seems that to live in a city is to acknowledge that both are true, that while there’s always the potential for the affirming, synergistic middle space, we’re rarely open to it, rarely in possession of the features that would allow us to see it. Are there people, places, ways of being that help us cultivate our relationship to these moments that, for both Patience and Dylan, demonstrate how it feels to be human in a way that’s unnameable? Does it, as Dylan suggests, just open and close, visible or not on its own terms?

Surrender and Fight: The Grates and the Limitless Relevance of the Middle Path

Yesterday I sat outside the café of Surry Hills’ Single Origin Roasters with a high-spirited if under the weather Patience Hodgson, lead singer of Brisbane-based band The Grates. Meeting Patience was more like being collected by the patron-saint babysitter of the after school program of my infinite lyric-driven deconstruction of The Grates three-album canon than it was like being with a pop figure, an icon, which squared with her assessment that she’s not a rock star, although, she conceded, “people know me.”

Individually, Patience and I each had infinite things to say about the canon of The Grates, me working to meet Patience where she’s at by means of my encyclopedic synthesis of years of wearing in the music of The Grates like tennis shoes for elasticity and magnetic fit. Together, though, we came up with a theory – new to both of us – that posits a logic behind the singularity of what The Grates do: most basically, that The Grates create a new breed of classic pop song middle path, a way of being in and of the crowd that pulls in all possible influences and ideas and that often holds two opposing ideas at once, which is diametrically opposed to the immersive and willful ignorance that characterizes what the pop song is most often permitted to be. Basically, The Grates have figured out how to make negative-space pop songs, pop songs that dance with their ghosts. We took a few minutes, as we talked, to figure out how this works.

Patience and I germinated this theory by talking about “Two Kinds of Right,” the song we agreed was the strongest on The Grates sophomore album, Teeth Lost, Hearts Won. Patience explained that she finds herself, as a matter of course, surrendering and fighting – that the navigation of any set of feelings is inherently a balancing act - and that any influence is a relevant one. Patience and I worked our way through a few other songs, thinking about how a middle road is maintained by means of its inclusion of all things. We thought about the anthemic “Welcome to the Middle,” a virtual homage to the idea, as well as the atmospheric reach of “19 20 20,” which features a main man who’s: “up yeah he’s stealin’ stars / my baby put all his faith in mars,” literally working to the limits of his galactic wingspan to maintain the features of a socially relevant position.

To bring the theory back to its origin, “Two Kinds of Right” itself defines its protagonist by means of a larger galaxy, Patience singing: “And it’s so easy to see / When it’s bigger than me,” the very idea of being “Two Kinds of Right” suggesting that any position, any way of being is inherently a synthesis of its influences, themselves outside of, larger than, what the protagonist can contain. This position is echoed further in the bridge of “Burn Bridges,” the kickoff song of Teeth Lost, Hearts Won, which asks very basically: “What’s the sum of everything?” an appeal for the inclusion of all influences if ever there were one.

Patience and I recognized a tendency in other bands interested in creating a multidimensional pop song to pull the listener out of “the middle” and into an alternative position – to create a protagonist who is in opposition to the weekend everyman of, to bring it back to 2010, a song that makes a classic middle road like “Telephone,” or “Tik Tok.” The Grates, while grouped often in that dangerous family of “alternative” bands, aspire to make what Patience referred to as “a pop song, but more than a pop song,” holding up the same everyman relevance to the listener, but bringing along the referential kitchen sink that most pop songs actively obfuscate.

The language of “fighting,” for instance, is shared by The Grates and by Ke$ha, in “Tik Tok,” in which she challenges: “Tonight, I’mma fight / ‘Til we see the sunlight,” a position mediated by Patience in “Two Kinds of Right” through her balance between the fight and the surrender. Whereas both “Telephone” and “Tik Tok” advocate for the exclusion of outside sources – to be left alone, to stop the calling, to push boorishly forward, to not come back – “Two Kinds of Right” isn’t afraid to take stock of what is, to indiscriminately let it all in.

There’s a profound and tricky radicalism to what Patience advocates for by means of there being “Two Kinds of Right,” particularly as it pertains to the classic capacity of the pop song to hold the road of one clear idea, one ham-handed trope. The Grates, in this way, make an argument, over and over again that the pop song can be about the multifaceted process of living, about exploration and inclusion as opposed to taking on a fanatical and diminishing performance that banishes the dimensions of living, the uncertainty of the resolution of a given moment, the many ways any one situation could go.

In so doing, The Grates have figured out how to make a pop song that is, as Patience put forth, “a pop song, but more than a pop song,” one that itself surrenders to and fights its understanding of what a pop song is most commonly asked to do and that asks the listener for the same bravery in turn. In short, The Grates have figured out how to make a pop song that holds us as listeners to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous adage that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

There aren’t a lot of pop songs that raise the listener to the level of first-rate thought. As Patience reminded me yesterday, there are a lot of things that the music of The Grates does, but this one may be the most resolutely innovative, the most quietly radical. Certainly, it raises the stakes of what a pop song can accomplish and how deep into the valley of our own compartmentalized thoughts it might encourage us to go.

making “space to create” new urban systems: an open proposal to chashama

to chashama,

I spent the past year living abroad as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, which meant, for me, that my primary occupation was to think about urban space and its uses, as I worked on a project entitled: Cities in Transition: Identity, Narrative and the Changing Urban Landscape. I spent the fall of 2011 in Toronto, Canada observing the magnetism of Harbourfront Centre, which draws in thousands every weekend from the possible reaches of the Greater Toronto Area. I spent the winter standing on the streets of Quito, Ecuador’s old city, the first to be designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, considering how the legacy of a space makes itself present as that space extends into the future. I spent the spring exploring Sydney, Australia’s infinite network of suburbs and their distinct sensibilities, and the City of Sydney’s curious and often brilliant unification of art objects and the public sphere.

In the course of my Watson year, I’ve interviewed planners, artists, cycling advocates, designers, social innovators and many others who spend their lives thinking about one or a number of facets of the relationship between how a city is designed and how it’s inhabited. What I’ve tried to do as a Watson Fellow is to listen both to how residents talk about their cities and how individuals involved in a city’s design and operation talk about their work, in order to see what it would look like to build a bridge between how cities are lived in and how planners and designers prepare for their future.

In thinking about that relationship – between urban identity and urban design – I’ve been particularly interested in the role artists play, especially artists who work and show their work in public and publically-accessible spaces. I’ve come to believe that the role of the artist is singular in this process of creating channels for interplay between the lived city and the realm of design, as the strongest art objects engage with their viewers to generate new ways of looking, a skill residents need to learn in order to see their city in new ways. In this way, public and publically-accessible art becomes a crucial feature in creating the kind of structural change necessary to make the work of urban advocates both relevant and useful to residents and to continue the conversations that push the innovation of urban systems forward. To this end, I see the work of chashama as central to the development of the ideas and practices that will be core features of the conversations about New York City’s future.

As I bring the implicit questions of my Watson year home, I’d like to continue to explore the role of artists as crucial public actors, a feature of artists’ work that chashama both heightens and extends. With this in mind, I’d love to work with you to profile a series of artists working with chashama who are furthering the project of how we as New Yorkers look and learn to look at our city and how that looking is embedded in our design of the city’s future. It is my intention that such a profile series will bring into the foreground both all of the ways we see our city and how the evolution of those ways of seeing is itself crucial to how we direct, explore and envision the city’s future.

This is a project that could extend in many directions, but it feels like a good place to start.

Let me know your thoughts.

All the best,

Davy Knittle

davy.knittle@gmail.com

chashama at work: a review of chashama 461 gallery’s bait and switch

Several weeks ago, Urban Omnibus, a production of the Architectural League, profiled the work of Anita Durst, founder of space-repurposing arts organization chashama, which gives artists “space to create” in donated under-used spaces for performance and exhibition and subsidized artist studios. In speaking about chashama’s work, Durst highlighted its greater mission as being based in the incubation of artists in the name of neighborhood enlivening and sustainability. Durst’s intentions for chashama’s spaces are extended and deepened by the show bait and switch, which opened in chashama 461 gallery on Friday

The premise of bait and switch, curated by Chiara Di Lello, is to provide a space that subverts the now-standardized culture of cursory looking by displaying artworks that redirect the viewer’s attention and encourage an engagement attained only by sustained inquiry. While the beginning of the presentational text on the postcard reads “In today’s culture, the average viewer…” the show is interested in neither “today’s culture” nor the “average viewer,” as it creates a series of relationships that comment not on culture or the normalized qualities of viewership, but on the very basic act of developing a personal and enduring relationship with an art object, and extending from that, with a space, an idea or a practice.

The show puts into action exactly what Durst explains as chashama’s ideal, by creating a space that incubates not only the work of local artists, but also invites the city into the gallery by putting many of the features of the city into necessary conversation with each other by means of the art and where the work sends its viewers back into the city with thoughts of what’s possible for New York.

Work such as Olivia Swisher’s Increasingly Problematic: Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner, does what New York does at its best, by creating a conversation that begins in questioning and encourages the viewer to explore the piece, first in pursuit of that question and then for the joy of connective looking, moving between the painting, created by Swisher dancing with paint-covered feet on a sheet of paper, and the contact sheet that displays the stages of the act of making the piece, to explore both the process by which the work was made and the conversation between the piece’s elements.

The work displayed in bait and switch ranges from a clear and presentational subversion of the expectations of the illusive “average viewer” to the show’s strongest pieces which make space for both a singular and unifying experience of looking, where the strength of the piece relies on the viewer’s commitment to an extended engagement with it. This is especially true of Laura Meyer’s wallpapers, which open to an endless recombination of patterns the longer they’re explored,

and of Queena Ko’s Untitled (Stoop Series), which situates a structural refiguring of the discrete features of an iconic New York space and returns the space of the stoop back to its compositional elements, only after it attains the viewer’s attention by means of its familiar subject matter.

bait and switch does for viewers what chashama has done for its artists: it creates the opportunity for the independent generation of expansive ideas, themselves extended by collective inquiry. chashama has sent the artists into the gallery to make a show whose compositional whole makes each piece work harder, and the show sends viewers back out onto 126th street with new ways of looking for the compositional synergy of the city itself.

bait and switch is on view at chashama 461 gallery (461 w. 126th Street) until July 7th, daily from 12-7 and by appointment, with abbreviated hours on July 4th

“The Common Air that Bathes the Globe”: On Diversity in Innovation

Next Saturday, Community Brave, in collaboration with Social Innovation Sydney will run a day-long symposium entitled “Diversity in Innovation.” The event is designed to bring together Sydney’s LGBTQI community with the social innovation community to “build networks, collaborate in education and harness the power of social connections to fulfill their project needs.” While I’m looking forward to the event immensely, both to giving a talk entitled “The Accidental Bully: Asking Queer Questions” and to seeing what comes of the day, it felt necessary, in advance of the event, to take the time to reflect on “Diversity in Innovation” as a concept within itself.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been re-reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, both to remind myself of Whitman’s great American myth, the America that I, too, as a young American poet still have in my sights, and to prepare myself to return to the States in just a few weeks, going home to Brooklyn and padding around Fort Greene Park remembering that Whitman was there. When I stand on that ground, next month, I want to be ready to make space for Whitman, and so I went back to the text.

In the course of going back, I found that Whitman’s take on diversity raised questions for me about what place diversity might have in innovation and, more pressingly, whether the work of innovation, as Whitman sees it, is antithetical to diversity at its best. I took the following excerpt from “Song of Myself,” the first long poem in Leaves of Grass, lines 327, 344-348, 353-360. Here, Whitman argues for a comprehensive diversity that includes all ways of being and, seemingly, defies being innovated or optimized:

Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,…

A farmer, mechanic, or artist…a gentleman, sailor,

lover or quaker,

A prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician or

priest.

I resist anything better than my own diversity,

and breathe the air and leave plenty after me,

These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands,

they are not original with me,

If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or

next to nothing,

If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing

If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle

they are nothing…

This is the common air that bathes the globe

This is the breath of laws and songs and behaviour…

 

If, as I’ve argued previously, the work of a social innovator is to re-strategize approaches to civil society and its mechanics, embedded in that process is necessarily the act of choosing a set of best practices. Social innovators are born optimizers. The tenets of social innovation are grounded in seeing what is and improving its systems, and therefore in having expertise on the ideal systems used to approach any particular issue, within the framework of social innovation. To put forth an ideal necessarily privileges a way of thinking, or several ways of thinking and a course, or several courses of action. This flies in the face of Whitman’s assessment of the thoughts that make up a global approach to collectivity that: “If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing.”

Whitman advocates for an approach to diversity in which all voices have the opportunity to align themselves along the premise of basic human connectivity, a “common air that bathes the globe” in which Whitman says: “I resist anything better than my own diversity,” where that self is a collective self, as it often is in the text, and where to “better” the collective diversity would be, very literally, to optimize it.

The selectivity of the voices involved in the work of Social Innovation is determined by the belief of those voices that they warrant being heard, and the belief of the greater community that those voices are especially valid in a discourse that nonetheless promotes equality. People of any background can use the tools of social innovation to become changemakers, and this is powerful, but those tools are still limited, and are still managed by a limited set of channels and a limited set of thinking.

If innovation is really interested in taking on the work of “diversity,” the work, Whitman would argue, that’s central to perpetuating the kind of global impact social innovators like to talk about, then those conversations will have to include diversity of approach and diversity of goals as well as diversity of background. The field of social innovation invites people of all backgrounds to come together to think in a particular way with a particular tools. Many other fields also do this. If innovation is the approach of the future, it needs to be open to greater structural experimentation to compliment the great diversity of applications it currently puts forth. The social innovation community will, in short, need to diversify its current definition of diversity. In order to do so, it may need to become clear on what constitutes that original definition in the first place.

Whitman puts forth language that suggests that some of the biggest opportunities for change are in changes to collective thinking, which in turn require changes to collective language. Social innovators are pedagogically oriented toward action before they’re oriented toward discourse, and yet there’s immense power in seeing a fundamental change to collective language as its own action-oriented goal.

What’s so powerful, to me, about Whitman’s language is that he identifies a common human element and speaks of diversity in a way that celebrates the myriad approaches to being human, without trying to choose one set of voices to lead the way in the singular celebration of others. Innovation, it seems, might make Whitman nervous, if it necessitates the privileging of certain voices and modes of thinking, if it comes prepared to optimize before it humanizes, albeit in the name of the greater human cause, where Whitman raises all his human characters to their optimal human expression, their best selves, and mandates that we, thus unified, follow his lead. For Whitman, humans are at their best when they can celebrate their basic collective humanness, and so to optimize in a way that detracts from the multivalence of that celebration is, so Whitman would argue, to move in retrograde.

Is it possible to lead the way for necessary, productive change while supporting a diversity of approach as well as that of the voices included? What if we changed the kinds of thinking we included in our definition of innovation? What if the first step toward innovation were based in understanding our respective language for talking about our world and, most importantly, for making space for the “common air” of collective human experience that our language supports?