Project #3 Interview: “Communication for Change”

These interviews are with Leslie Hargett, a self-identified social-change agent who made change through a variety of positions in her 60+ years of experience “in a variety of settings: hospitals, children’s services, adoptions, parole, and probation”(1:55-2:03). In this video she offers stories about her applications of listening,“conscious use of self” (0:13-30:15), and strategizing to effect organizational change. I conducted this video interview for WRA 860: Visual Rhetoric forProfessional Writing to further explore the class’s theme of work and labor, as well as my areas of focus—emotion, identity, and listening.

(Leslie has also given me permission to share these with you, my graduate committee. To protect her privacy, I’ve published these videos to a MSU Media Space channel for which only you and I have access. You will need to login to view the video links. Leslie and I plan on talking in January about where and how her interviews might be shared in the future.)

Video #1: About Leslie

In this first video, Leslie introduces herself. She also says “hello” to WRA 860 students, with whom she gave permission to share the videos.

Link to video transcript.

Video #2: Conscious Use of Self

Link to video transcript

Conscious use of self is “The notion of what you’re doing in your profession and how you do it,and how you use yourself” (0:04-0:12). It seems to be about our ability to be open as we synthesize and strategize, again and again, in response to changing workplace contexts. As I later learned in WRA 841 the semester following this project, workplaces are indeed always changing (Bekins and Williams, 2006; Gaffney, 2014; Schriver, 2012; Sun, 2012). Leslie helps anchor the purpose of work, however, by reminding us “that you’re commonality is humanity, and that you can make things happen for the betterment and the learning of everybody” (0-:25-0:34).

Assisted Living Home Story: Fostering Humanity and Community

In this story, Leslie talks about how she led changes in an assisted living home by telling the stories of residents and employees (using stories and pictures of the storytellers during the time referenced in the stories) in an assisted living home.

Link to video transcript

This story demonstrates what Professional Writing and Technical Communication scholars have argued: that to make meaningful change, we must observe and work with(in)an organization’s constraints (Cooper, 1986; Freed and Broadhead, 1987; Schriver, 2012). Leslie did so by engaging in a sort of bargaining with the supervisor of the home, recognizing this individual’s desire to improve employee engagement.

Leslie’s work also provides a compelling example of what Ivon Goodson and Scherto Gill (2011) call a narrative fusion of horizons, the melding together of people’s stories and contexts. Indeed, the institutional change that Leslie describes is that of a fusion: “The process of change was what was really important, though, because it gave purpose and humanity to everybody there, irrespective of their position in the facility. They were no longer really patients; they were no longer really residents. They were no longer really administrators. They were all one as a community” (4:18-4:45).

This story also demonstrated the importance of having equanimity in our relationships with those with whom we work, as participatory research and decolonial ProfessionalWriting and Technical Communication scholars have similarly suggested (Agboka, 2014; Evia and Patriarca, 2012; Simmons and Grabill, 2007; Walton, Zraly, and Mugengana, 2014). Leslie’s idea to tell stories about the assisted living home,intended initially to highlight her father’s humanity, consciously included all participants in the organization. The success of her holistic approach demonstrates the relevance of ecological models of communication in the field (Cooper, 1986; Fleckenstein, Spinuzzi, Rickly, and Papper, 2008; Jones, 2016). As a professional who wishes to serve as both a professor in education and as an academic consultant for professional organizations, I will draw on this example when I think about how to effect change in systems.

The last section of this video, “Humility, Curiosity, and Mindful Communication,” (9:00) also connects with scholars in Professional Writing and Technical Communication  (e.g., Simmons a Grabill, 2007) and Rhetoric and Writing (Ratcliffe, 2005; Trainor, 2009) who emphasize taking the humble standpoint of a non-expert. As professional communicators we must always remember curiosity, the invested wanting to know someone else’s perspective. As Leslie says “curious, yes, very curious about how and why things happen, and curious about how we can do something about them as well. So you know, life is fun and it’s really okay to be human” (10:01-10:22). I base all of my work and relationships on this foundational advice, remembering that it is this standpoint that makes space for and facilitates meaningful interactions and cultural changes.P

Psyche Ward Institutional Change

This story is about use of networks to effect change in a 4,200 bed psyche hospital ward.These changes ultimately resulted in a drastically improved quality of life for patients as well as of the practice reintroducing them into the community.

Link to video transcript.

As discussed in the previous section, this story again confirms that social change requires the collective and organized efforts of networks. Leslie’s ability to consider different group cultural contexts helped her identify how existing community efforts might be used towards different ends. This process is much like recognizing how different puzzle pieces fit together.

She recognized,for instance, that student interns in Social Work in Psychology and Nursing, “a great exciting young group of people who had all kinds of interesting things to say and do,” would be a great fit with patients in the ward. These same students “led the groups and talk[ed] to people…about life and times and all kinds of other things…how you talk, and won’t it be nice to go out and see some of the places that the students talked about?” Recognizing connections between different groups in a network, Leslie’s story shows, can open up all kinds of new possibilities. This story also reveals the power of empathy and vested interest. Work guided by this sort of passion and empathy, inspires others, as suggested in the “Change is Contagious: Male Staff Join In” (4:57) and “Change is Contagious: Other Wards Join In” (7:54) sections of this video.

Among my favorite quotes from my interview with Leslie is her discussion of our relationships to stories. She says:

Sometimes it’s one story that people unite around. And I said, usually it’s a very emotional one. And that’s where you make your hay if you’re a change agent. If you’re not a change agent, what happens is, you say, “That’s a nice story,” and that’s the end of it; you don’t talk about it. If you’re a change agent, you talk about it everywhere. You talk about it over coffee. You talk about it in your administrative meetings and say, “Boy, that was just amazing. You know,imagine, a son and a father getting together after 20 years in the same hospital. (11:54-12:47)

This story has stayed with me as one that illustrates both the power of obscurity and the power of recognition. She describes the ways that employees began to see the humanity in the people they worked with:

…they learned that people who sat in the corner and didn’t speak to anybody had once been successful businessmen, attorneys, physicians, professors…[They] couldn’t believe that those were people that were sitting in the corner and doing nothing and saw them come to life and all of a sudden it was a community; it was no longer staff and patients, even though people formerly called themselves those titles.The whole culture was changed by that” (5:51-6:31).  

This story is hopeful to me, because it shows that shifts in workplace practices and organizational changes can help infuse the recognition of humanity into a workplace culture. It is this kind of listening that I’m interested in fostering as a future professor and academic consultant.

Gaining support

Leslie tells a story from her childhood about her family’s efforts to gain support for her father’s job of developing troop-training camps in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during World War II. She describes what it took to get families onboard with the war effort.

Link to video transcript

This story connects with Professional Writing and Technical Communication scholars who study workplace cultures and habits in order to effect change (Cooper, 1986; Freed and Broadhead, 1987; Schriver, 2012) and participatory-based researchers (Heron and Reason, 1997). Among the Finish families of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,much communication often takes place in the nude saunas. Therefore, Leslie’s family (including her Victorian mother) needed to participate.

From this story,I once again learned the power of stories to unite, particularly stories that emphasize common needs. The townspeople, in this case, “had to find the common denominator,” which was ultimately a concern for the safety of the community and its sons (5:26-5:30). It was her father’s telling of stories—about what would happen to young soldiers if (and when) they were not properly trained—that helped shift the community’s position on the troop training camps.

Leslie’s mother is a prime example, too, of the importance of being socially savvy, a skill crucial to being a professional communicator (Schriver, 2012). Her mother showed remarkable adaptability in reaching mothers (and by extension, fathers), as related in the “Openness and Adaptability” section (7:58). Part of adaptability, as this story shows, is adapting to the emotional dimensions of people’s beliefs. Her mother “became the spokesman on the emotional side,”helping mothers and eventually families become emotionally invested in joining the Selective Service Board (9:36-9:42). 

Closing Thoughts

Leslie Hargett is my next-door neighbor in my Michigan and a good friend. As I later learned from Stacey Pigg (2014) “Writers must construct relational networks among people with shared interests (Swarts, 2011) and sense opportunities for future action…” (p. 70). Our relationships with an individual or group often represent nodes on more than one network (Pigg, 2014; Lauren and Pigg, 2016). The “future effects” of these relationships are often experienced as a kind of “serendipity” (Lauren and Pigg, 2016, p. 353), which was certainly the case with this interview. The interview, as it turns out, has inspired me to start a larger project that I am planning that which will demonstrate the rhetorical expertise that can be drawn from interdisciplinary and intercultural listening practices such as Leslie’s.


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