If you live in the U.S., I don’t need to remind you that tomorrow is Election Day. Nor do I need to encourage you to vote. Unless you live under a field stone, you’ve been bombarded with that message for weeks now, and quite possibly have already done it.
I want to tell a different story.
This is a story about connection and creativity on behalf of an organization started decades ago, in the wake of the aftermath of World War II.
The Marshall Memorial Fellowship is a bit like a foreign exchange program for adults. It’s a Transatlantic partnership which provides participants a month-long cross-continental experience. It was designed to facilitate social, cultural, and personal connections between countries.
In short, it was meant to bring ordinary people together to discourage us from ever wanting to harm one another again.
Cleveland has a unique connection to the MMF as one of a handful of satellite sites in the U.S. In addition, accepted nominees from the area have their travels fully funded through a grant from The Cleveland Foundation, one of the area’s largest and highly respected nonprofits. Participants have described the experience as life-changing, and to have such an opportunity paid in full, well, they are grateful indeed.
So grateful that several years ago, when The Cleveland Foundation celebrated its 100th birthday, MMF alumni commissioned me to create a special piece of artwork to express their gratitude.
This piece has been on my mind lately. I’m proud of it from an artistic standpoint, but more importantly, I’m proud of what it represents: collaboration, connection, diversity. The world feels terribly divisive lately. Worse, there are people who profit personally, politically, and financially from those divisions.
As an artist, a writer, I’m not particularly adept at mending societal ills. But whenever I think about them, I come back to the simple ideas behind the MMF. How can we create shared experiences among a diverse group of people? How can we encourage empathy?
It’s as simple as that, and yet as difficult.
Of course this is all made even more challenging right now due to the pandemic. Even the MMF is on hold.
And yet, if you look at it from a different perspective, the pandemic has also given us the unique opportunity to have a shared experience. I may not be experiencing exactly what you are, or what anyone else is – but our feelings are rooted in the same apprehension. We’re concerned about our health. We’re concerned about our families. We’re concerned about our future. Surely it all counts for something?
We often look to political figures to provide answers, but the only way to solve the problems we’re facing is to collectively do the work. Build the connections. Create the unity we want – need – to see in the world. Collaborate on a local, national, and global scale. Person to person, across social, cultural, political, religious, and ethnic divides. Ordinary people, ordinary conversations, together.
What does this all look like during a pandemic? I don’t know, but collectively we do. More importantly, it doesn’t take a program like the MMF to do the work.