Michael’s War Story: The glass is more than half full
I was on the job at Shook Kelley (a Los Angeles strategy and design firm with roots in architecture) for about one and a half weeks when I was asked to travel to a small town in central California for a brand strategy project. The research goals were ambiguous; essentially, learn as much as we can about this place and what makes it tick, looking to discover unique or meaningful veins for the design team to consider in reshaping or reinvigorating the town’s brand. I was the only anthropologist on staff and expectations were large for what I might dig up.
This was 2006, before the recession hit rural central California. But things were already tough. Like so many other small towns in out-of-the way areas, this one suffered from a degree of “brain drain.” Young people didn’t want to stay, they wanted to leave for the city or head to college somewhere. The economy wasn’t growing. Maybe tourism, some on the Chamber of Commerce thought, could help stimulate the local economy. This had precedence, but it also seemed far-fetched. What was the appeal of this small town over any others? Was there a history here? Even located in the most productive agricultural area in the country (if not the world) would anyone be willing to drive a few hours to “eat local” and learn about the land, when farmer’s markets easily accessible much closer to California’s major metro areas? The local farms here were mostly industrial size, and seemed less appealing to the locavore.
I drove to the town in a separate car from another small team, led by a brand strategist who wanted to make a documentary-style film about the town. He was accompanied by a filmmaker. These two already knew exactly what they wanted to create – a kind of Ken Burns-style reflective piece about what makes small towns great. I was new to the firm, so I figured I would tag along and find out how things worked. After a handful of “man on the street” interviews with unsuspecting locals, with me standing behind the cameraman, I realized this was a two-person operation: the first person stops pedestrians and asks them what’s meaningful about living here, the other records. Not much need for a third wheel ethnographer in that operation. I decided to head my own way and see what I could find. It was just a two-day trip, so I thought I should make myself a little useful. “Good luck,” the guys told me, and we agreed to meet up later for dinner.
I walked to the coffee shop on Main Street, grabbing the local newspaper on the way. I sat down and started searching the back of the paper for classifieds, calendars and events. I found a lead: The Optimists Club was having a meeting that afternoon, in just an hour. I got on the phone and gave them a call. I explained who I was, the firm I worked for and the project we were doing with the Chamber of Commerce. “Sure, come on down and you can sit in on the meeting,” they told me. At this point, I had no clue what the Optimists Club is, but I understand that it’s some kind of local community group focused on creating positive change for the town. This sounded like my goal, too. [NB: Optimist Club]
The Club meeting was at a local community hall, like a VFW-style hall with plain lobby and a set of meeting rooms. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived early and introduced myself to the people who looked like the Optimists organizers. The person I spoke with on the phone greeted me cordially, and invited me to have a cup of coffee. The room was set up in a square formation, with three sides of tables and some space in the middle for a presenter or speaker. Unfortunately for the ethnographer, there’s no chair in the back to hide away and watch the proceedings. My style of research is to begin in the background, staying away from any kind of intervention in order to get the beat or rhythm of what’s happening around me before I jump in with a lot of questions. It didn’t look like that would happen today. Still, I positioned myself in the corner. A couple pf dozen people eventually filed in, one or two noticing the strange face among them.
At five or ten minutes after the hour, everyone was still chatting and catching up. I was taking note of the pace of things. It’s a small town, I figured, what’s the rush? Of course, this was a lot different than the small towns I knew well, growing up in the Midwest, where punctuality is priority.
Then, the leader of the Optimists Club approaches me, sits down and curiously asks “Do you do much public speaking in your line of work?” On occasion, yes, I tell him. “Okay, well, our speaker couldn’t make it today. Could you talk to the group?”
What the hell, why not? After all, it’s the Optimists Club, not the Washington Press Corps.
As I listened to myself suddenly introduced to the Club members a moment later, I remembered that I knew barely anything about my own firm, much less the specifics of this project, which, truth be told, was not crafted with ethnographic research in mind. I stood up, and I just start talking.
After rambling on for probably 10 minutes, I realized two important things. One, I had run out of things to talk about concerning the firm and the project. And two, if I don’t think of something else to talk about quickly, the Optimists were going to turn negative on me.
And then I remembered why I came to the Optimists Club in the first place.
“So, tell me about your town,” I asked.
The next two hours gave me a wealth of information. This was not a focus group, but rather a much more ideal situation for an ethnographic group encounter. It was their turf, not mine. It was their club, not mine. They felt comfortable talking as a group of friends who worked together to make the community better, and I was a welcomed outsider who was curious about them and genuinely interested. By the end of the meeting, I felt like I had read the book about the town and understood its cultural, social, political and economic dynamics. Afterwards, I stopped by a couple places the Optimists had mentioned and talked with more locals, now asking more pointed questions.
At the end of the afternoon, I met up with my new colleagues at the bar on Main Street. “So…how did it go?” I asked them. “This place is boring!” they told me. They had made progress, but were not getting good insights. Fortunately, our subsequent discussion about what I had learned that afternoon helped in guiding their film.
In any case, it was a lesson learned in the field: Stay optimistic.