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Stories: Volunteer

Interview with Jon Jenkins

Pace, Mississippi, 1975

When a long-planned interracial community building effort was threatened by a local tragedy, collective resonance provided guidance for renewed commitment and action.

JJ: In 1975 I was a part of a team of five people who spent the whole year doing what were called human development project consults. We would go into a village that had been selected by the local team of the ICA, the Institute for Cultural Affairs, and spend, usually, a month or so.

The first week was focused on research, preparation of the village, and training workshop leaders and consultants in the methodologies for the consult itself. The second week was the consult, and the third and fourth weeks were writing up the results, getting those translated, and getting it published. We also began implementation of the decisions that the community had made. We did this in a variety of places: Venezuela, Indonesia, Canada (twice) and a couple of places in the U.S. One of those places was Pace, Mississippi, which is in the Mississippi Delta not very far from where the three civil rights workers were murdered ten years earlier.

Pace, at the time, was pretty typical of small rural towns in the south. I'm not sure how many people were in the village, but the largest population was blacks, The landowners were whites. There were six or eight white families and a number of black families. The black families lived in quite poor conditions. The white families had nice homes and vacations in Europe, and so forth.

The mayor, who was a black and probably the first black mayor since Reconstruction, invited us there. The consult itself follows the same rhythm as the ICA strategic planning process, so Sunday evening there's an opening ceremony. Everyone in the village is invited and usually there are three or four hundred people, though we aren't sure we had that number in Pace. And then Monday morning would be spent doing research. We'd do door-to-door visits. We'd visit people many different places; in their homes or at their businesses in the community. We would ask, “What would you like to see in the future in this community?” What would you like your grandchildren to have? In the next five years, what hopes do you have for the community?

On Monday evening we would pull together the interviews by teams. There were five teams and each person in our consult was a leader of one of those teams, guiding them. Tuesday morning would be spent in a plenary session, in which the vision of the community would be pulled together in a big chart. So there'd be maybe a hundred, a hundred fifty people there, because it was on a workday when fewer people could attend.

Tuesday afternoon, we would ask what are the blocks to this vision? So the vision would be divided up amongst the teams and each team would take a part of the vision and ask what's preventing this from happening? The same pattern for the day was used for strategic direction, tactics, and implementaries. On Saturday there would be a closing ceremony. The resonance happened several times in the process of doing that in other projects, but this particular project was unusually powerful. There are some funny things about it, like it took a long time to understand the people’s English, even though they were Americans. Having worked all over the globe where you have to adjust to many accents and styles of speaking, it was odd that it seemed harder in Pace, Mississippi. It was partly the accents but also an irritation, a fear, because of the civil rights murders. There was a real cultural difference between my upbringing in California and the South.

RL: So there were resistances up front in this particular project?

JJ: Well, there were things that had to be overcome; things that had to be dealt with. There was certainly anger in the community. Most of the consultants and all of the team were white people. Most of the local team members were whites, though there were a few black people. But we had support from the mayor and we from the most prominent white farmer. We had good support, nevertheless, we were a bit nervous. There were just lots and lots of issues like the gap in income between the white farmers and the farm workers, which was just huge.

RL: So this wasn't a situation that started in a cohesive manner.

JJ: No.

RL: And yet it was transformed, during the time that you were together, into something that you would call collective resonance?

JJ: Yes. It happened like this, to the best of my memory.

I think it was probably Wednesday morning. Several high school kids from the community had gotten permission from their schools to participate in the consult. And one of the black girls was walking with her friends down the street on her way to the plenary. And one of the dilapidated buildings fell on her and killed her.

I was in the room where the plenary was being held and didn't know that this had happened. Most of us were just waiting for the program to begin. I was in the same team as this Methodist bishop who had been invited to the council. He was asked to leave and there was no explanation to the rest of us. We were trying to deal with a situation where there was obviously something going on, but we didn't know what. And then Steve, who is also a Methodist minister and the head of the consult team, announced that people should stay where they are and not interfere with what was going on. He said the bishop and some other people were talking to the people of the community. There were people from the community in the plenary session. They said the building that collapsed was owned by one of the white farmers, which made it much more difficult, in my mind.

I don't remember the timing, but after a couple of hours, probably, the white farmer that owned the building and the mother of the girl that was killed came in. They said that they had talked it over. The farmer had demolished all of the bad buildings that were left standing and the woman had made arrangements for the girl’s funeral. They said that they would appreciate it if the consultation would continue, that this would give some meaning to the death of the girl.

This is one of those moments of awe in which there was absolutely no reason for it to go that way, to go in a positive way. It simply did. And there was absolute terror that the consult could be blamed and it obviously had some responsibility for this death. The girl wouldn't have been out of high school. The consult had created the occasion for the events.

RL: So the moment, the actual moment when these two people were talking to the group, did you experience that as a moment of shift?

JJ: Yeah.

RL: A moment of actual collective resonance?

JJ: Right, right.

RL: How would you describe that in terms of your own experience of it, Jon?

JJ: Well, I think it’s a combination of fear and fascination. Fear in many dimensions: a fear that I was going to be killed; fear the black community would riot and start killing people; the fear and a sense of guilt that I was in part responsible for this young woman's death, a 17- or 18-year-old beautiful young woman; fear that something that seemed quite positive and good in lots of ways was being destroyed.

There was also relief that some sort of reconciliation had happened amongst the people most affected. There was a kind of recognition that it could have been me or anyone else. We'd all walked past this building. Why had I survived and why did this girl die? That was part of it. And I think there was a sense of relief that it was going in a positive direction, or at least it had started going in a positive direction.

RL: How did it feel?

JJ: The room was a bit dark. There were about 150 people. There was a feeling of uncertainty as the farmer, the girl’s mother, the bishop and Steve came to the front of the room. The bishop explained that the girl had been killed and that she died instantly and did not suffer. There was this feeling of…a sort of emptiness. And I think there was a sort of rushing of all kinds of emotions going through - the fear and the thanking God. There was anticipation that something would end, that these people would bring some sort of closure. They had come to say something. We didn't know what it was at the moment, but that meant something was going to happen.

RL: Like being in limbo?

JJ: It was a bit in limbo, but something was going to happen. We’d been in a kind of limbo, not knowing what was going on for a couple of hours, but this was knowing that something was going to happen.

I think the farmer started. He explained what had happened and his part in this - what he had done and what he was going to do. The mother suggested that we go on with the consultation.

And then there was the silence. I think people were a bit stunned. I think there was this feeling of not knowing what to do now, what's next? There was this space that had no way of being filled. It was that kind of void that almost anything would be trivial, if you did something. The bishop then offered a prayer, which was a bit annoying, in a way, but probably as good as anything.

RL: In that moment of silence, Jon, do you recall how you felt physically? What ran through you?

/Betty HillJJ: Well, there's tension.

RL: And where did you feel it?

JJ: Arms and shoulders and stomach. I was on the verge of tears, not wanting to cry but feeling like I was going to. I was embarrassed. I think I was more turned inward than outward. Sometimes in these experiences, you sort of have this hypersensitivity to what's going on, but I think I was more inward-focused. I guess I was trying to shut out what was going on.

RL: Did you sense a connection in the group itself?

JJ: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

RL: Describe that for me, that connection.

JJ: Well, certainly the farmer and the young woman's mother were in a kind of reconciliation, physical reconciliation, a kind of announcement of forgiveness and reconciliation. They certainly weren't saying, “you're forgiven”, but in a sense they symbolized that by what they were doing. I think there was collective sense of guilt about the whole thing. This may be all projection on my part.

RL: A collective sense of guilt and forgiveness because of their presence – simply by the closeness of their two physical beings when they could have been standing far apart?

JJ: Right.

RL: Wow. That's a powerful image, isn't it?

JJ: And I think after a bit there was this kind of renewed commitment to getting as good a job done as possible. This consult had more meaning now than it did before, or the meaning that it had before was intensified. A kind of renewed sense of purpose emerged in the group.

And there’s a tradition in the consult process of writing songs about the communities we serve. Sometimes the songs actually get into the ICA’s collective memory. These songs are sung for years afterwards. The one I remember from Pace was this awful song that was sung to the tune of Amazing Grace and it was called Amazing Pace. RL: Let me return, Jon, to that moment that I found so powerful when you described it, of those two people in front of all of you, and the silence, and the hush, and all the feelings that you had had in those limbo moments leading up to it, and then their announcement. You said you were inwardly focused, as I would guess others were as well, and yet you felt this connection between you and the others in the room. Do you have a sense that there was another presence in the room? Was it only between the people there that this resonance was happening or did you have a sense that there was a tapping into something else?

JJ: Well, automatically, yes. But it's almost the other way around. It was “other” that was present and, in addition, there were connections with the people. So rather than there was a connection with the people and was there was another presence, I think it was the other way around. There was no one there saying 'you're forgiven' and there's no one there saying 'you're guilty'. The powerful part of the sense of guilt was the fact of guilt, not the feeling of guilt. We confuse these two. We think feeling guilty is being guilty. But being guilty is, you don't have to feel guilty to be guilty. And in this sense, it was both. We were guilty in the sense of we had arranged for this event to happen, we had participated in getting the girl out of school and other kids out of school. We had arranged the meeting at the time we arranged it. So we had some responsibility for this death.

RL: So where was the forgiveness coming from?

JJ: Well, from the ‘other’. ‘Other’ was present.

RL: Do you think it was collectively felt, Jon?

JJ: I'm sure some dimensions of this were collectively felt, absolutely. The consult team did talk about it and this story is part of the collective memory of the ICA, or at least parts of it. And there seemed to be a renewed effort in the consult, like getting a good plan created and so forth.

For me, personally, creating the story about the girl and the event was an important dimension of communicating, making meaningful what had happened. I think if we'd just walked out with a good consult, this experience wouldn’t have made any difference. But creating a story about what had happened was, for me, very important.

RL: What significance would you say this experience has had for your life or work?

JJ: This is a part of a whole series of experiences that reinforces, for me, the power of stories and storytelling.

But it's not just stories; it's what happens for the people. Stories that have this sense of awe in them can attempt to communicate that sense of awe without being pious or religious or mysterious or ideologically correct. So you avoid those problems. Simply, what's the experience of awe in our day-to-day, ordinary situations? Even this situation in Pace is quite ordinary. People die this way all the time.

RL: Yes, but it could have had a very different outcome, What's unusual, I think, is what happened afterward.

JJ: Right. So for me the whole mission, in the form of storytelling, is reinforced by this event.

RL: Wonderful. Jon, I want to thank you for sharing this particular story with me. It was inspiring, and leaves me with a feeling of hopefulness.

Jon continues telling stories to share his sense of awe with others. He was a senior consultant with the Institute for Cultural Affairs, working with developing communities all over the world. He is also a partner in Imaginal Training in The Netherlands where he continues his work and concern about community.

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