Then and Now–The Importance of Play

*I’m still on maternity leave and, so, revising and republishing some of my favorite posts from the past two years. I’ve tried to select some that were particularly popular at the time, as well as some of my own personal favorites. I appreciate your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!

The best organizers, like the best parents, I’m convinced, understand the value of play. We’ve all been involved in social movements that could use a serious injection of fun–when even a big rally is kind of a drag, it’s a serious sign that something is wrong. Think about it; most of the time we need to ask people to stick with us for months, even years, and few people want to spend that much time with people who are not any fun. We need to nourish people’s souls as we’re fighting with them for justice, and that means learning to laugh, commune, and dance together, not just march and strategize and shout.

And this was something that was a little hard for me to learn. My family of origin is, quite honestly, not too big on play. When you ask us what we’re doing for the weekend, we’ll respond with a to-do list. We’re pretty much always working on something: paid employment, volunteering, housework, general self-improvement. We love each other, and we even have a good time together, but it’s mostly in parallel labor, not real relaxation. And I still very much carry this with me.

Thank goodness that I started my organizing work in a community that includes celebration and comraderie as a core part of its culture. Early on in my work with Latino immigrants, they showed me by example that taking time to eat meals together, to attend each other’s family celebrations, to tell jokes (that never translate well into English!), to make music and dance, to enjoy beautiful artwork…that these pursuits are not distractions from community-building but integral components of the same. I wisely learned, also early in my career, that these were areas where I was best to cede all authority to the grassroots leaders for whom such play was more natural, and they organized some of the best parties and gatherings I’ve ever attended, as well as finding ways to weave laughter and love into every thing we did together–from planning sessions to poster-making nights to GOTV phone banks to trips to Topeka to give testimony. And the relationships that we built were stronger as a result of attending to each others’ needs as whole people rather than just our ‘serious’ sides.

And this is a lesson that has served me well as a mom, too. Despite my overly productive tendencies, I am now that mom who spends most of the day on the floor playing. My oldest son thinks that twist-ties are called trailer hitches, because I’ve fashioned them to connect all of his trucks in a long line. We get really dirty by the end of each day–painting, building, imagining. My youngest kids get wrestled and sung to and swung around every day. I don’t get much done, honestly, until they go to bed each night. But, then again, I do. Each shared moment of play builds a reservoir of good will, of relational strength, that I can then call on as we continually negotiate our lives together as a family. And it’s the building of those deep relationship wells that comprises the core task of community organizing.

So, there–your excuse to ‘play’ at work! If anyone has good stories to share about how you have infused playfulness into your advocacy and/or organizing work and how it has made a difference for you, I’d love to hear it. Please share your experiences to give others fun ideas!

Materials:
There’s a great article that I use in class that discusses this idea of incorporating play into community organizing. I can’t attach the article here because of copyright restrictions, but I can email it to anyone who lets me know that they want it, or here’s the citation. He uses great examples–remember the giant puppets that were part of the WTO protests in Seattle? and makes a great case for integrating playful strategies into any type of organizing campaign.

Shepard, B. (2005). Play, Creativity, and the New Community Organizing. Journal of Progressive Human Services 16(2), 47-69.

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3 responses to “Then and Now–The Importance of Play

  1. Please send me to article by Shepard. And thanks for saying this: “Each shared moment of play builds a reservoir of good will, of relational strength, that I can then call on as we continually negotiate our lives together as a family. And it’s the building of those deep relationship wells that comprises the core task of community organizing.”

    What creatively productive view of playing with your children.

  2. Great stuff Melissa. Thanks for plugging the article. I really appreciate it.
    peace benjamin shepard

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