Tuesday, January 17, 2006


The public dialogue facilitated by us as The Clinton School of Public Service about the merger on Helena West Helena last October 20th 2005 in my opinion focused on process. I know it was intentional but I think it was its strength and its weakness. What I will do will be to imagine what insight a more content driven facilitation process would have brought to the experience. This is the reason why I will make a critical analysis of the facilitation process we initiate in Helena on the cultural perspective using comments, observations and quotes from James C Cobbs’ book The Most Southern Place on Earth . Because when we talk about culture we talk about history and in general about stories. And if I can say that something was missing during that facilitation, it was a background. As a foreigner, I needed a story because human experiences are about stories, human are complex beings and we are always moved and surprised by them for the good and for the bad. The story could be a story of hope or a story of despair. But could we just define the story of Helena West Helena as the story a poor community? What is our story, we who are coming to the community as facilitators? Getting the story right seemed crucial for me to succeed in our mission.
One of the things I would like to know it’s if there are some people in Helena who feel today the same way people felt a long time ago. I have found some lyrics by Muddy Waters a bluesman.
If I feel tomorrow, the way I feel today,
I’m gonna pack my bags and make my getaway.”

When he was asked after he left he would ever go back to the Delta, he said “ Go back? What I want to go back for?”

Another bluesman talking about the Mississippi Delta felt:

Goin’ no higher;
Goin’no lower down.
Gonna stay right here,
Gonna stay right here,
‘Til they close me down.

I can’t imagine the facilitation without the bluesman figure; his perspective should be part of everything that is happening in the Delta. The bluesman is a mythological figure that carries the real soul of that place.
I could just imagine a bluesman appearing during the facilitation and raising all these issues. I think he would have changed the whole framework, starting with time. I am wondering what our response would have been, if we were even prepared to deal with him without shutting him off. This is the reason why we needed content; we needed an insight in the Delta culture and history because the bluesman posture is a response to that history. By lacking that background as facilitators, we would have ended up going back to process which would have made us shift to a computer mode and maybe the bluesman might have been questioning that facilitation mode by challenging it. Because for the bluesman lack of content is already content.
That is maybe the reason why in those days, the bluesman had to break the frame by creating “new forms of self-conception.” Instead of being told “you are this”, he was saying “I am that”.

‘The blues was the most highly personalized, indeed, the first almost completely personalized music that Afro-Americans developed. Bluesmen performed solo singing in the first person of his own experiences, suffering, and dreams and receiving a collective acknowledgment from an audience that had shared many of these feelings and experiences. Whereas others described the blues in terms of matter-of-factness about suffering and social injustices, William Barlow found a spirit of rebellion in the blues, arguing that blues musicians presented a “ground-level view of southern society” and insisting that both their behavior and the content of their music represented a rejection of the values of the dominant white culture.”

That’s the encounter I wish would have happened, an encounter between a bluesman and a white southerner from the Delta. I think a facilitation process should happen at that mythological level to capture the spirit of the people and the place to be able to move any further.
For example many of the participants mentioned the racial divide but I think the process got on the way and I wonder how the process wasn’t by itself part of the dialogue. Knowing that the medium is the message, our position as facilitators from the Clinton School of Public Service would have been conveying a message to the people of Helena we didn’t intend to communicate. I am wondering how this perception could have conditioned the behavior of people of Helena and with the name of president Clinton attached, how manipulative and long lasting it would have been.

Maybe I was just missing the voice of the bluesman. Just Imagine the respond of the bluesman to our facilitation question:
If the unified city of Helena West Helena created the ideal community for you, what would it be like for you?
Imagine the bluesman answer in regard of what Cobbs says. “Instead of an overt protest, however, the blues offered an alternative lifestyle in which rambling, hedonism, aggressive sexuality, and a general disregard for authority was the norm. Barlow sensed within the blues “an ethos of revolt” that he attributed to “the emerging consciousness of a young generation seeking personal freedom, social mobility, and better compensation for their labor.” He insisted that the blues were “not the result of a few isolated incidents of individual genius, but rather a broadly based cultural movement occupying the time and energy of large numbers of black agricultural workers in the South’s cotton belt.”
I am just wondering if in Helena we had some bluesman figures we didn’t hear. Maybe it was the process who didn’t allow it. Maybe we missed a real dialogue.

If I have to recall what happened during that facilitation process, I don’t think we had a “dialogue”. I didn’t have a sense that a dialogue did happen. People didn’t much respond to each others. And the dialogue I thought should have taken place because it is a problem at the very heart of what the Delta is all the about; a dialogue between whites and blacks. I don’t if in a dialogue we can make hierarchies by saying this question have to come after this one. But based on what I know of the history of the Mississippi Delta it seems that the first dialogue should be that one. Without it, there are some risks to turn the dialogue into a monologue. Not because of the people but because of the process. It is like a game where the referee is so present that there is no game at all. I am wondering if the facilitator shouldn’t be almost invisible like a good referee that favors a game with all the human dimension, engaged, passionate, sensitive...

Maybe it’s just because I am missing the bluesman’s voice.
I can hear the bluesman singing a song about misery and poverty, a music that will sell for billions of dollars worldwide; the blues. That’s the bluesman answer to the issue. I don’t have to imagine the bluesman responding to the question of laziness. His answer: “A black man if he didn’t work out in the fields, he was called lazy, no good. But who was he working for? You figure out who the lazy one was!”

Another problem I have found is that in all the efforts of lifting Helena out of poverty, there is there are many assumptions that are a concern, like this one. If you give a white person’s life to a black person he would have become successful. But the bluesman had already designed a totally different life pattern to himself defying the reasoning of “black follow white”. This raises a question of defining an identity for oneself beyond of being defined as poor, uneducated, unhealthy etc.

Even assumptions should be defined by the facilitation itself. This is the reason I would need to have a symbolic pair of the bluesman and the southerner white to have a dialogue in the Delta.

The Delta region didn’t only create black bluesmen, it also generate great white writers and these writers like the bluesman had a posture too; they produced a white response to the context. “By the end of the 1940s, the region could claim not only William Alexander Percy and David L. Cohn but Hodding Carter, Start Young… Shelby Foote… Elisabeth Spencer. The Delta had seemed a most unlikely literary oasis at the end of the 1940s. A late-emerging society and subculture, the Delta rapidly relieved much of the South’s past in full view of a curious and often critical audience of non-southerners and southerners as well. In a sense, the Delta’s experience was comparable to the meteoric rise of Wilbur J. Cash’s “stout young Irishman” or Faulkner’s devil-planter parvenu Thomas Sutpen, whose immorality and greed was too blatant for the tastes of a society where the passage of a little time had subordinated the memories of the brutal conquest of the frontier to a more appealing notion of civility and noblesse oblige. A number of writers have noted the “terrific compression” of human experience that occurred in the Delta…Shelby Foote remarked that one could see “a hundred years of history in twenty years in the Delta.” Ellen Douglas saw the Delta as both a physical and philosophical frontier, one had moved “from the state of innocence to the state of corruption in a very short time.”

As you can see here, the bluesman now has a counter part. And a dialogue is now possible. In fact blues did meet literature like in Faulkner’s short story “That Evening Sun” where “fusion of music and poetry accomplished at very high emotional temperature.” A homicidal black male “Jesus”, a stereotypical blues-style rounder – appeared to revenge his wife’s suspected infidelity, which he described in typical blues double entendre: “I can’t hang around white man’s kitchen… But white man can hang around mine.” White southern literature do give us the paradigm white were operating on. “For a numbers of years, upper-class whites in the Delta had considered themselves benefactors and defenders rather than exploiters of the huge black population on whose labor they depended.. In “Hold On” Ellen Douglas used the story of a Delta white woman’s struggle to save her black maid from drowning to raise questions about white guilt and black suffering…Critics have scored Percy another famous Delta writer for his racism, citing his condescending view of blacks as childlike, frivolous characters who were perpetually in need of guidance and oversight of whites. Percy’s view of blacks as “younger brothers” and of whites, at least whites of his class, as benevolent paternalists, as well as his admiration of the “manners” or behavioral style that kept a potentially explosive biracial society operating relatively smoothly, seem all too typical of the short-sightedness of the Delta’s white aristocracy.”

I feel that with the two cultural elements of the black blues and the white literature in the Delta, I have a grasp on the people that will be facilitating. This could be a stating point to design a facilitation process that goes with the history of the people and the place. Because the place itself has its influence, “the Delta tantalized its writers and artists with an almost irresistible physical and human panorama. The Delta was the land of excess. The hot sun, the torrential rains, the savage caprices of the unpredictable river. The fecund earth, the startling rapid growth of vegetation, the illimitable flat plains, and the vast dome of heaven arching over them: all these environmental influences seemed to breed in the people a tendency towards excessive. Artist Byron Burford commented on the richness and diversity of life in the Delta that was influenced profoundly and perpetually by a river that, in addition to providing its own innately fascinating presence, brought showboats, circuses, and a host of émigrés from around the world. In the Delta, Syrian and Jews, Chinese and Italian, and Black and white mingled and/or remained apart in ways that gave the region both a stratified and a fluid society, one simultaneously provincial and cosmopolitan.”

In conclusion, I would like as a human agent involved in the facilitation of Helena West Helena to use cultural elements to design the process itself. A process that will be made of stories; stories coming from the blues, Delta literature, history, storytelling etc. A want to play a role as human using what makes all of us including the two parties and the facilitators the same thing: human beings.


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