Becoming a Community
Through War, Art & Resilience
I think we will look back and see that this first week of March was the moment our ALI ‘cohort’ blossomed into a community. It is perhaps appropriate that it began with Susan Farbstein’s class on human rights - just as Putin began pummelling Ukraine with massive military might. There are several people in our ALI group with political roles at the UN, or in national governments, who give us unexpectedly deep and multi-faceted perspectives on what is happening in Ukraine - but also the reaction of governments, companies and civil society around the globe.
The charismatic Nadezhda Neynsky (once the youngest woman Foreign Minister in the history of post-communist Eastern Europe) gave a presentation on the realities of Russia’s history and tactics, from decades of lived experience in Bulgarian politics. Ketevan Vashakidze, who was President of the Europe Foundation (instrumental in building democratic systems in Eastern Europe), shared the view from Georgia, an earlier target of Putin’s attentions. Luis Gallegos, with a 50-year career in diplomacy (he has met every US President since Carter), was President of UNITAS and gives us a play-by-play update of UN voting on sanctions.
But it was a session on Friday that seemed to knit the group most suddenly and deeply together. It took an (exhausting) all-day class with Marshall Ganz, Professor of Leadership, Organizing and Civil Society. He invited the entire ALI Fellowship to anchor our projects on a tripod of communication messages that would light a fire of engagement – what he calls ‘self,’ ‘us’ and ‘now.’
SELF: First, source your call to action in a revelatory story of ‘self.’ Something about your life that reveals your values.
US: Next, broaden the narrative to build a bridge that connects your values to those of ‘us,’ the group you are engaging with.
NOW: The final touch is the fire of urgency. Why ‘now’, why ‘us’, why ‘you’?
As we watched our classmates open up about the source of their passions and purposes, it was like witnessing a slow descent down a steep staircase. We went under the veneer of superficial polite introductions, and into the blood and guts of people’s drivers and beliefs. It was powerful, exhausting – and bonding. We went in as a ‘cohort’ (what kind of a weird word is that anyways?). We emerged a more tightly knit set of clasped hands, creating a tapestry of mutual support and reciprocal ‘seeing.’
The next day, the tapestry morphed into art. Elliot Davis gave us a personal tour of the Art of the Americas wing of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It helped that she had personally led the design, curation and installation of this wing over an 18-year period. This collection was her baby and she shared its highlights with us with a mixture of pride and passion that was as inspiring as it was enlightening. How privileged to learn the behind-the-scenes stories of John Singer Sargent and admire the Rotunda Dome he designed but never lived to see installed? Or to learn that the 14,000 piece glass Chihuly sculpture survived an earthquake thanks to the careful integration of earthquake resilience into the museum’s architecture?
I came away from the week drained but strangely becalmed. War and violence, art and beauty, support structures and resilience fused together in a mosaic of human experience and survival. Each generation answers the call of their time. Ours may be upon us now.
As we concluded our visit of the MFA, Eliot showed us a portrait of John Adams, America’s 2nd President. And she read from a letter he wrote while visiting Paris to his wife Abigail which seemed to speak directly to our time - and to our week.
"I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine - if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty… I must study Politicks and War that my sons have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.”