In traditional societies, story telling helps preserve customs, pass on important knowledge and set behavioral norms. According to the blog Architecture and Anthropology Curiosity Collective, “Proverbs, fables and folklore pass on common cultural knowledge that will help people fit into and share in cultural identity. Each culture has a set of stories that nearly every child hears as they grow up. Many of them include lessons about acceptable behaviors and other social rules and constructs.” In modern society, many of the stories we hear as adults accomplish some of the same, that is they create a helpful cultural norm. Unfortunately, sometimes our stories create the opposite result.
The topic came up today, when fellow Blundering Blogger Dick told a story from the retirement community where he lives, a tale that is broadcast widely and sets a certain expectation. It seems that when the community was first forming, the board interviewed three potential leaders. When asked what each thought about the presence of a high school close to the campus, candidate #1 said it created an undesirable situation, candidate #2 said building a high fence would decrease the risk, and candidate #3 said something like, “Perfect. This will allow us to bring the high school students onto our campus and into our lives.” Candidate #3 got the job. Dick says that while this story thrives, the community will stay open to having a high school for a neighbor, but if the story changes the culture also will change.
This got me thinking about stories I heard as a child, one in particular being the story that separated the white community from others and created a norm for housing. “We’re not opposed to having a black family move into our neighborhood, but it’s best that they don’t since they will bring our property values down.” For the most part that story has changed, through legislation if not through new attitudes among the story tellers.
Today, we hear a common story about new immigrants, which has created norms in certain communities, such as English is the only language allowed in government offices, and sometimes even in mom and pop stores.
New immigrants deserve a better story. I am suggesting a story, based on my experiences working with new arrivals to this country who had children in our school system. My story begins with, “Immigrants are this era’s pioneers. Being a pioneer means struggling, living constantly with some level of confusion and uncertainty, but always striving to make life better for the next generation. Pioneers of all generations are hardy, willing to take risks and withstand hardships. Depending on their country of origin, some experience more hardships than others. Families often come here knowing no one, feeling shy and nervous about speaking English and unfamiliar with our customs and traditions. Yet they learn English, hold down jobs, often working for less pay and longer hours than most of us are willing to do. Eventually they find networks of others that help them break down isolation and better navigate the system. Just when they’re feeling more comfortable that they can manage their daily lives with some success, they see that their children have picked up the new language and customs quickly and are leaving them behind. The adults will still miss the old country, even after they’ve been here for years. The kids will only remember this country as home. Although being a pioneer sounds a bit like re-enacting the Labors of Hercules, most will tell you that in the end it was worth it.”
What stories operate in your community to create positive norms?