Reflections on Building Community Partnerships One Story at a Time

One bowl of spaghetti. Two forks.

By Sam Howzit (Lady & The Tramp Scene) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
What do you think of when you read these six words?

My first interpretation of this six word story was Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, but I struggled with seeing how the dogs would use the forks. Another interpretation was that someone went to grab a spoon and fork out of the drawer, but they only had forks. A third interpretation was a date night at home, with two people cutely sharing one bowl.

It wasn’t until Dr. Netta Avineri proposed an alternative interpretation of the story as a metaphor for poverty (based on a novel perspective that a new student had shared with her) that the group considered the bowl of spaghetti from a new perspective. Unlike a cute date night, two people sharing one bowl of food means that there isn’t enough food to go around. This icebreaker put the participants of the “Building Community Partnerships One Story at a Time” workshop in the right mindset for the hour and a half adventure they were about to take.

Dr. Avineri is TESOL/TFL Assistant Professor and Chair of the Intercultural Competence Committee. DLC Director Bob Cole and Dr. Avineri are also the co-founders of the Intercultural Digital Storytelling Project ( Her workshop on Thursday was the first in a series of three happenings that are a part of the Nested Stories project. These workshops, hosted in collaboration with the DLC, are meant to explore the role of interculturality and storytelling on-campus, and are part of the Envisioning Middlebury Community Initiated Conversations initiative.  We plan to explore the Intercultural Digital Storytelling Project through reflection, community discussion, and a variety of presentations. During the workshop, participants from all corners of MIIS discussed the ways in which perspective and empathy are cornerstones to building mutually beneficial and meaningful partnerships.

We explored the importance of empathy by watching an RSA animate video about the power of Outrospection, in which Roman Krznaric explained why we need empathy in our lives.

“Empathy is something that can make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, and can create the human bonds that make life worth living”.

Krznaric went on to explain two types of empathy, affective and cognitive. Affective empathy is a shared emotional response, while cognitive empathy is an understanding of someone else’s worldview. Both of these empathies are essential when it comes to building partnerships, but it was the cognitive empathy that resonated most with workshop participants. We noticed the tie between perspective and cognitive empathy, and then had a discussion on the difficulty of changing perspectives. Netta noted the new literature on critical empathy, which highlights that no matter how hard we try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and to abandon our own thoughts and biases, we will never be completely able to see the world through eyes that are not our own. While this prospect may at first seem disheartening, it was designed to highlight the hard work involved in true empathy. Participants were hopeful that with the continued practice of empathy, changing perspectives may get a little bit easier to manage. Netta also highlighted the role of “nests”, those groups and communities in which cultivation, growth, and evolution are facilitated. This lies at the heart of “nested interculturality” (Avineri, 2015), the ability to seamlessly move across cultural boundaries, which shapes this fall’s Nested Stories enterprise.

Netta noted that storytelling and story-listening can be the technology for empathy. As the workshop came to an end, participants had the opportunity to watch a digital story from 2015 IDSP fellow and 2016 senior fellow Katie Barthelow, and were encouraged to apply the concepts of perspective, empathy, and partnership to their discussion. 

What resulted was a thoughtful analysis of the ways that Katie applied perspective and empathy in her informal partnership with the basketball players she met in Rwanda, and the ways that mornings became her comfort zone during an immersive learning trip in which so much else was novel.

We are thrilled with the turnout and execution of the first workshop and are excited to host the next session Thursday, October 27.

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