Respect Is the Core of Caring

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by Jim Griffith

As a public folklorist, I feel about respect the way Saint Paul felt about love: it must be at the core of what we do, and without it our work is empty.

Respect needs to go in several directions: toward the individuals and communities where we gather our material, toward the material itself, and toward the audiences to whom we present our finished products. It is not enough for you to feel respectful. The point is that the folks with whom you are working must feel respected. This requires knowledge, as ignorance of your subject or audience can be a sure road to unpremeditated disaster. It can be hard to tell the difference between “don’t know” and “don’t care,” and what I’ve been calling “respect” is truly a form of caring.

Obviously, we must respect those from whom we gather our information. We need to treat them politely, keep our promises, and strive for accuracy. In cases when our intended audience is culturally different from our sources, we need to be aware of any possibilities there might be for cross-cultural misunderstanding or misinterpretation, and deal with those situations as, or before, they arise.

If we are presenting the results of our research to a live audience, as I often do, we must be careful to give enough cultural context in our introduction to allow the audience to understand what they are experiencing, and at the same time keep that introduction respectful and interesting enough to sit through.

Speaking personally, I am a man of strong feelings, and I seldom approach my material in a spirit of passive neutrality. I feel it vital that I express my love and excitement for our field and its subject matter. Wherever and in whatever form we present our work, we need to establish empathy with our audience, letting them know that they, too, are important. After all, what we are really doing is celebrating a common humanity.

By now it should be obvious that all this requires specific skills. Skills in data collection, which might include interviewing, recording and photography. Skills in data presentation such as writing, public speaking, and program organization.

A black and white photo of Big Jim Griffith mingling with cooks outside the Hungarian food both at Tucson Meet Yourself.
Jim Griffith making friends at Tucson Meet Yourself.

Many of these skills can best be acquired by doing, and then learning from one’s inevitable mistakes. That’s what I did after I once—in the late 1970s—scheduled a sweet, but low-key Scandinavian children’s dance group to appear on stage at Tucson Meet Yourself directly following a loud and enthusiastically received salsa band. It took all the skills I had to bring the audience into a receptive state. Years later, I arranged for an African-American quilter to show her work to a gift-shop purchasing committee without preparing either party for what to expect. The result in this case was failure: The quilts were rejected as “not traditional,” and the elderly quilter was hurt and puzzled. I should have put my warm body in the middle of that situation, and have tried to do just that ever since.

Back to skills: I can honestly say that everything I have been—actor, musician, teacher, entertainer, raconteur, and student of art and history—has been useful in my work as a public folklorist. Furthermore, these experiences augment each other and grow with each repetition. But for me, it all boils down to one word: respect

Our job as folklorists, after all, involves bringing two potentially very different groups of people into contact with each other—or, if you will, bridging cultural gulfs. It is important to know not only what will travel over a bridge, but also what the terrain is like on either end of the proposed structure. This becomes even more vital when we not only build, but also in a sense become that bridge.

A final vignette. One day as I was eating breakfast at the Little Mexico Restaurant south of Tucson, a group of Chicano miners came in. They were just off their shift in the mines south of Tucson, and their meal included a fair quantity of beer. I got to talking with some of them. The topic must have had to do with the current state of society, but all I remember is that one man ended his part of the conversation by emphatically saying “I don’t want to be tolerated, I want to be LOVED!”  Over to you. St. Paul.

 “Big Jim” Griffith is a folklorist, author, founder of Tucson Meet Yourself, and 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellow.

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