By Jenni Martin
These days, it seems the national conversation is about how we need to have more honest and truthful conversations that acknowledge our different perspectives, honor our various experiences, and build bridges for understanding and healing, so that we can find common ground.
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose’s initiatives titled Breaking Ground and Common Ground are designed to do just that.
More than 120 languages are spoken in Silicon Valley where immigrants from hundreds of countries work, live, and raise their children together. While our audience development efforts have been wildly successful, resulting in an audience that mirrors the valley’s diversity—we wanted to go deeper. In 2013, we launched Breaking Ground with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, to work with our area’s five largest immigrant communities—Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Mexican, and Vietnamese.
Knowing that cooking and the sharing of meals is such a ubiquitous experience infused with cultural traditions, we decided to ground our outreach with a series of dinners. Community partners helped us identify families to invite. With a goal of sparking conversation among families through the connections of cultural identity, food, and immigrant experiences, we were off and running.
Ancient Tradition of Gathering
During gatherings at the museum, held monthly for three months in a row, we convened at long tables to share a meal and talk. Each dinner featured the tomato, prepared in five different ways to represent the cultural cuisines of each immigrant group. Following dinner, the children played in the museum while adults gathered for the facilitated part of the evening.
Jumpstarting a Conversation
How do you facilitate conversation among people who don’t know each other, may not speak the same language, and may not be comfortable in a museum setting?
We did what museums do best—we started with objects.
We chose familiar cooking objects to evoke positive feelings and create a safe environment for sharing. Beautifully colored ceramic bowls, pitchers, placemats, spatulas, grinding tools, baskets and many other items were laid across the tables. Participants were invited to find an object that reminded them of their childhood home. Our guests talked about how they used the objects in their kitchens, what they missed about their homeland, and how they hoped their children were learning important traditions. They noticed similarities and differences between their own kitchens and discovered objects from other places.
As the facilitated conversation continued, people began sharing more intimate details. They expressed how they missed their homelands, where neighbors would watch out for their children. They laughed together when they discovered their common surprise at the large portions served in U.S. restaurants. And they lamented the difficulties of getting certain fruits and vegetables common from their own childhoods.
At the end of the dinners, a common theme had emerged—the shared hopes and dreams each parent has for their children in this new place they call home.
We Learned a Lot
Many of the participants and staff were inspired to continue the dialogue. One parent reported that after the dinners she talked for the first time with her neighbor, also an immigrant. Participants from one language group wanted to learn from others about how to navigate the U.S. school system. Some folks joined staff in co-creating a semi-permanent exhibition at the museum, The World Market, featuring kitchen tools (made safe and accessible for children) and videos representing the five cultural groups.
We Were Inspired
Breaking Ground allowed us to go deeper in understanding our audience. Next, we wanted to go broader. With additional funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we launched Common Ground in 2016. This initiative replicated the Breaking Ground dinners with the goal of co-creating a traveling exhibition for our local area to reach both recent immigrants and those whose families immigrated to the U.S. long ago.
Following the three dinners, a community poetry workshop helped surface this exhibition theme: We are each shaped by unique experiences and circumstances and we each dream of a positive future for our children. As participants wrote their poems, using the prompts “I am…,” “I am from…,” and “I dream…,” a beautiful collective poem emerged that represented many images of place, experience, and dreams.
A Seat at the Table Traveling Exhibit
Continuing with the successful theme of cooking and food, kitchen items and scented playdough seemed like the perfect interactive for the exhibition. Titled A Seat at the Table, the pop-up arts space was activated at numerous community festivals and events throughout the summer and fall, inviting children and adults to get creative using molds and playdough and cooking utensils from different parts of the world. Lots of kneading, rolling, shaping and pressing occurred while people talked about the tools, their homeland, and the similarities and differences of what they were creating.
Did This Project Spark an Important Conversation?
We think so. While parents and children talked about kitchen tools and the smells of different spices, they also remembered and honored our cultural traditions and discovered new ones. The conversations reinforced the notion that while all of our paths and journeys are different—we all have hopes and dreams for our children.
Perhaps the idea that everyone should get a seat at the table and the opportunity to dream can help us delight in our differences and find our common ground.
Jenni Martin has served as Director of Education and Strategic Initiatives at Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose for 21 years. Ms. Martin has had a career long focused on community engagement and stewarding the Museum’s audience engagement initiatives with different cultural communities. Ms. Martin is currently the Project Director for CCLI (Cultural Competence Learning Institute), a collaborative national partnership focused on helping museum leaders catalyze diversity and inclusion efforts in their institutions. Follow Children’s Museum of San Jose on Twitter and Facebook.