Creating Otherness


How can we build with our differences?

Can we create opportunities to make discoveries about “the other?”  

How can we bridge the divide between diverse communities?

While the media doesn’t cover the story of people creating new possibilities around the world, they are!

In August I joined Dr. Patch Adams for my second humanitarian clown trip to Costa Rica. I brought two colleagues who also practice the social therapeutic approach to human development and social change. We relate to people of all ages and life circumstances as social performers and creators of their lives.

My colleague, Dr. Tony Perone, and I co-facilitated a workshop at the University of Costa Rica about the performance activism community. We led a room of students, professors, artists and community organizers in new performances of our shared humanity (one of which is pictured above). You can read more about it here:

I attended the CESTEMER (Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research) conference in Chicago as an educator, community activist and improviser (I’m not a scientist). The keynote presentations from the National Academy of Sciences were entertaining! One was about integrating science, math and engineering with the arts and humanities and “Hooray for Hollywood Science” was about The Science & Entertainment Exchange. This grouping of scientists, artists, and educators moved out of our comfort zones and embraced “the other.” We created new opportunities for growth.

Also in Chicago I met with a close colleague, David Cherry, the City Leader of the Chicago All Stars Project. He spoke to me with enormous passion about his work bringing together the city’s poorest youth with affluent donors to create new conversations and new possiblities.

Most recently, I attended a talk by Jackie Salit of independent called Finding Otherness. Jackie travels around the country speaking to independents (the “others”) who are often left out of the mainstream political process. A “postmodern agitator,” she’s creating new performances of otherness in the political arena.

Jackie shared a final thought about what’s needed to create otherness (along with this image from the film Zorba the Greek):

We all need a little madness to create new sources of political, cultural and emotional power.


The Myth of Cultural Fit

The New York Times recently published a terrific opinion piece – Guess Who Doesn’t Fit in at Work – about “cultural fit.”  The writer, Lauren A. Rivera, is also the author of a book entitled “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs” and her valuable insights made me think a lot about the value of working in groups of people who are very different from ourselves. Given our global economy and shifting demographics Americans, in particular, would do well to develop a greater capacity to find ways to build with people who “different.”  I agree with Rivera that the bias towards “cultural fit” might be a fetter to creativity and innovation:

Some may wonder, “Don’t similar people work better together?” Yes and no. For jobs involving complex decisions and creativity, more diverse teams outperform less diverse ones. Too much similarity can lead to teams that are overconfident, ignore vital information and make poor (or even unethical) decisions.

It’s not surprising that the lack of diverse teams made up of people from different economic, racial and gender groupings lead to dysfunction not efficiency. Perhaps this is why confidence in the U.S. Congress is at an all time low!

Rivera is correct that more and more interviews are conducted as “get to know each other” conversations rather than screening for skills and abilities.  “No one asked me a hard question” is a common (and disappointed) response that I hear from candidates when I debrief them about their interviews. The image that comes to mind is a scene from Mad Man, where co-workers hang out an drink together, rather than engaging in the rewarding activity of learning peoples’ differences and then figuring out how to use those differences to build something new together.

Another salient point that Rivera makes reminds me of why I have had a lifelong love affair with the theatre, an ensemble-based creative activity:

When it comes to creating a cohesive work force, managers often discount the power of shared experiences on the job, especially working interdependently on a high-stakes project. The more time we spend with co-workers, the more similar to them we tend to become.

Theatre and performance teach us that we can go beyond ourselves and play and perform with all kinds of people (children do this the best) regardless of whether we have anything “in common.” We get to know each other by working and co-creating together, it really doesn’t matter if we’ve attended the same school or have the same hobbies. The greatness of America lies in our diversity. Getting out of ourselves might just turn out to be more important than fitting in with others!