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Field Notes 1 - CCW

meerajay's picture

Yesterday was my first official day at CCW, and I already cannot wait until next week. There is so much there that is radically different to my work at a prison, which is where I had my praxis last semester. The prison required a brief period of recovery, of processing the systems of control that make up every experience. At CCW, I feel the flows of emotions as they come, expressing them freely because it is the opposite: there is so little control that is imposed upon me and everyone else in that space.

I tried to go in without any expectations at all. When we got there, I went straight down to work with Sarah* the fiber arts instructor. She remembered me and was warm and welcoming, and went on to say that it was a good day to start, because there were far fewer people working on fiber arts projects than usual. I spent the first few minutes talking to her and going over the projects that each artist would be embarking on or had already started, and the best ways for me to assist them. I asked if I should clean up any of the supplies that lay around and she said no, that there would be no need for that: everyone had their own space for the day and would clean up accordingly. 

I spent much of the day working with Ronnie* one of the women who was beginning a new fiber arts project. Sarah asked me to work one-on-one with her, as she was beginning a new fiber arts project. While Ronnie has a very specific vision of what she wants her art to look like, she doesn't have the dexterity to hold the hoop while also threading the needle in and out. So I did that part, holding the hoop up as she carefully and very slowly pushed the needle in and out. We developed a system: she would tell me where she wanted the needed to go and I would put my finger on the cloth to form an indentation that showed on the other side, and she would push the needle through. We did this for over an hour, her carefully focused and only breaking concentration when I cut and switched out the yarn for another color. We talked throughout, her telling me about her home situation and then about her favorite lunch, and me responding similarly. 

It was truly demonstration of patience. Ronnie took her time, never feeling any kind of pressure as I held up the hoop and she would deliberately and slowly push the needle through and pull it fully. She dropped the needle on the desk several times, and I resisted the urge to pick it up and hand it to her as I was sure she wanted to do her own tasks, even if they took longer. Interestingly, the fact that I am not an artist and know nothing at all about needlepoint actually made me feel a lot more in the zone. She had her own complete autonomy over her art, and I would never feel the need to give her any kind of artistic advice; instead, I was contributing the skill that I happened to have to aid her in accessing her own artistic skills. Sarah mentioned that Ronnie could, and sometimes prefers to, do this on her own by holding the hoop between her chin and the table. Having someone hold up the hoop wasn't the only way that she could access her artistic skills. She had managed to find her own way of doing things despite her compromised dexterity. My being there only helped her move faster with her art and fulfill her vision sooner.

One thing I had been majorly worried about in my placement was communication. I was nervous that I would offend some of the artists by not understanding what they are saying, since many do not vocalize in a way that neurotypicals would consider "normal". I found, though, that it simply takes practice and effort to get to know someone - you begin to understand each individual's communication patterns with time. Soon after working with Ronnie, I could understand almost everything she was saying. One thing that was told to me, though, was that I should *never* simply nod and smile if I didn't understand, that I should instead say "what!?" so that whoever spoke could repeat themselves however many times they need to for you to understand. To simply nod and smile is to devalue the speaker's individuality, something they are absolutely used to. Now everytime I get spoken to by someone whom I have difficulty understanding, I repeat what they said back to them to make sure I understood properly, or make another indication that I have understood.

Working at CCW so far has really shown me the me value many different kinds of communication. Everyone in the space is an individual with different needs and as volunteers, we have to get to know each person before truly being able to offer them what they need. There are no assumptions made about anyone's skills, which makes it the polar opposite of Bryn Mawr, where everyone is assumed to be neurotypical and abled in the same way...


alesnick's picture

I so appreciate that you resisted this urge -- so customary -- and see an interesting counterpoint with resisting the urge to nod and smile when in fact you don't follow someone's talk!  Similarly, I wonder what it would be like to resist the urge to participate in the fiction, so potent at college, that everyone is neurotypical and abled in the same way.  My sense is that college culture is concerned with symbolism/fiction in a way that the center's culture is not.  Very rich notes!  Looking forward to more.