Posted by: RaeAn | 2 October 2010

Glee and Outreach Methods

Sorry for the break in updates — I’ve been on Sukkot break and just got back in Jerusalem. I promise to write all about my adventures soon, but this is a little piece I worked on over the break which I just had to share in the meantime! If you like the show GLEE… read on. If you ever need to do outreach or recruiting… also read on. If neither applies… well, read on anyway to keep you entertained until I get around to my vacation update! (This is about the first episode of season 2 of Glee. I haven’t seen the second episode yet. Just a disclaimer.)

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You know you’re a Jewish Professional Geek when the geekiest of all geek shows on TV today makes you want to write a blog post about Jewish communal outreach methods.

Yeah, that’s right. I watched the season premiere of Glee and all I could think of the whole time was, “Oh my goodness. This is perfect for teaching about community outreach!”

It brings geekiness to a new level.

However, I think my point still stands: this episode of Glee really could be a great tool for fine-tuning outreach methods in the Jewish community. Or, actually, any community that works in outreach, really – especially those in the minority or whose lack of popularity doesn’t bring in members by the dozen already.

If you haven’t seen it, you can either hope this doesn’t contain horrible spoilers, or go watch it (on Hulu.com if you’re in the US; Megavideo has it if you’re outside the US, but if I post the direct link, it’ll be taken down, so email me if you want it!).

A basic run-down: The Glee club is a show-choir at a fictional high school in Ohio. They’re not really such a popular group of kids, and they’re in a culture where popularity is of the utmost importance – it acts as a currency of sorts. (For instance, at one point, when Finn is kicked off the football team, he admits he can’t just toss his girlfriend to the side, presumably because he’s not popular enough to warrant such behavior and/or he can’t just pick up another one whenever he wants. This is, of course, a whole different issue which warrants discussion, but I think it’s fairly obvious that the staff writers of the show are aware of this absurdity and are using it for humor, satire, or something else of the sort.) There are some popular kids in the Glee club (two football players, Finn and Puck, and three cheerleaders, Quinn, Brittany, and Santana), and some not-popular-but-AMAZING-performers (Rachel, Mercedes, Kurt, Artie), and some quieter kids who make a forefront appearance once in a while… but the overall picture of these kids is… well, nerds. Dorks. Geeks. Gleeks, if you will. But whatever your term of choice may be, they’re not the most celebrated kids at school, even though they love what they do… and some of them seem to love the spotlight more than anything else in the world. (*cough Rachel cough*).

Season two opens after the summer break… right before which the club had performed at, and lost, Regionals. They really want to make it to Nationals this year (it’s in NEW YORK! Squee!), and so Will, the club’s fearless leader (i.e. faculty advisor), recommends some recruiting.

First he tries to put up a sign-up sheet on the club bulletin board… and after a while, it seems to be the only sheet void of any names whatsoever. (Meanwhile, the Cheerios cheerleading squad looks like it’s on its 20th page or so for tryouts.)

Sue, the Cheerios coach, chides Will about this.

“You know what your problem is?” Sue asks Will, ripping the sign-up sheet from the board. “‘No tryouts – Just sign up.’ Nobody wants to be part of a club that just anyone can join.”
“Sorry, Sue. Anyone who wants to join Glee club,” Will retorts, thrusting the sign-up sheet back onto the bulletin board, “gets to join.”

Will gathers the troops and gets them riled up to get more people onto the team:

“If they’re not going to come to us, let’s go to them! … Let’s show them how down we are.”

In that vein, the club puts together a big public performance on the quad that’s hip, hot, sexy, and fun –even, perhaps, “down” – and they sing “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z (not my usual type of tune, to be honest, but I’ve heard it on the radio, I think). They go all-out with matching shirts, solos, dance routine, and a blatant “look at us!” attitude.

Camera 1: Zoom in on the little Asian girl singing along. Then on Rachel’s face as she notices the interest.

Camera 2: Pan across the crowd, pause on a blond kid in a letter jacket tapping his foot. Swing to Finn smiling at the potential opportunity.

And the song ends… to crickets. Actually, worse than crickets: the sound of students walking across the quad, talking, putting books on tables… taking absolutely no notice whatsoever, much to the club’s dismay.

(See the scene for yourself… it’s reversed left-to-right for some reason, but the basics are still there. I’m working on uploading a better cut once my internet cooperates, but don’t hold your breath, I suppose.)

The parallels to my experience in outreach are fantastic (at times, fantastically painful). Limited as my experience may be (I am only 23, after all), I also have vicarious stories from my mother who also works in outreach to pull on in this.

The “singing in the courtyard” scene reminded me of my college ballroom team, when we would dance in the quad outside the dining hall or the library to initiate interest while we handed out flyers. It did generate interest to some extent – our lessons soon after the publicity stunt would be packed to the gills with over a hundred students, which already indicates that it was somewhat more successful than Glee’s attempt at outdoor recruiting. However, we struggled to retain members from that – ballroom has had a boost in popularity thanks to some well-known TV shows so that made it seem like less of a “geeky” activity, but it’s still no football or cheerleading with competitors lining up around the block to join. Public charades got us some attention – but attention doesn’t guarantee continued membership.

The members we retained either were of a disposition to enjoy ballroom without much prodding – or got some individual attention along the way, such as a lesson instructor asking them to come to get food with us after the lesson or to go to a party or a veteran member asking to help their dancing on an individual basis.

We would look at the crowd, see who expressed a higher level of interest (even if they attempt to hide it because ballroom doesn’t seem “cool”), and try to pull them in by figuring out what their other interests are – Are they looking for new friends? Are they highly competitive? Do they like partying? Are they artistic and looking for an outlet? Do they like shiny dresses? – and use that seed of an interest, water it and nurture it, use that to help them set in roots in the dance community, and once those roots are grown, they’re much more likely to stay.

At GLOE, the Gay & Lesbian Outreach and Engagement program at the DCJCC, we would try to do the same thing: find someone who has a passing interest in something we do, emphasize that element to that person, show them that such is only a small part of what we do and how amazing would it be if they joined us for other events in addition to the one kind they thought they were interested in! You liked the same-sex Jewish speed-dating event? You want to meet new people? Great! Well, our next event is a theater performance with a reception – like this playwright? Well, you can meet others who do, too, or talk to someone who’s just discovering them and share your enthusiasm!

Someone else liked marching in the Capital Pride parade with us? You like the political feel of it? Well, why don’t you join us for a panel discussion on “Gay Agenda? What Agenda?” and develop those political views a little – and be with others who share that same passion? Then those people you meet there are also coming to out pool party – why don’t you see them there, too?

People like to feel special. That’s a fact. People like to know that you see their individuality and recognize what makes them tick and that what’s important to them is important to you. And in outreach, what’s important to them is important to you – you’re not pretending in the least, because they’re the people who your program is trying to reach, and what’s a program without the people who make it up? If your program only reaches one kind of person who would be interested in your goals without any prodding from anyone else, it’s not outreach: it’s a club. Not that clubs are bad. But without outreach, that club becomes insular and static because you only have one type of person there – either natural ballroom dancers, or active queer Jews, or already-passionate singers, for instance. Without variety and continued outreach, a group may seem strong because you already have a “community”; however, that community is closed, though a closed community isn’t fully closed, since it allows members out… just not in.

People will eventually move on: for Glee, they’ll graduate of transfer schools. For my ballroom team, or GLOE, they’ll get busy with school or work or move out of town. Eventually, for any one of a multitude of reasons, they’ll simply stop showing up as much, or perhaps cease all attendance period.

And without variety and outreach, people will continue to leave, but no new members will join, and the group, no matter how cohesive to start, will fizzle and die.

Every group exists because its leaders believe in its cause or mission. Glee members believe in the power of music; ballroom dancers believe in the athletic performance and artistic expression; LGBT Jewish leaders believe in the strength that comes with a group of similarly-identified people. No group exists which the leaders don’t believe in. (Or if they do, how long do they last? Not long.) So if you believe in what you’re doing, outreach is not only a commendable – it’s wholly necessary.

Glee’s members put up walls where they should be tearing them down. Rachel sends Sunshine to the wrong place to try out because Rachel feels threatened by her abilities and worries about her spotlight… and her apology comes too late, because Sunshine is snatched up by the competition. Rachel starts out great with Sunshine: she engages her individually, has a little duet with her in the bathroom full of spunk and makes Sunshine feel special, talented, and wanted. She makes a few racist assumptions, but Sunshine brushes those off with commendable grace and patience, and it all seems to be going oh-so-well. But then Rachel gets jealous and, pardon my implied French, F’s it all up.

Finn also does a great job. He sees Sam tapping his foot in the courtyard, then hears him singing in the locker room shower… he doesn’t approach him for a little while, but when he does, he makes it all about Sam: What do you like to sing? What song do you have in your back pocket? Go ahead, we’ll back you up! They have a little rock-out session to “Billionaire,” and Sam and all the guys are feeling great.

The only thing that goes wrong is that stupid popularity contest: Sam’s the new kid and is worried he’ll lose all of the little social currency he has if he joins the “losers” in the Glee club… but you can tell he really, really wants to, so maybe one episode just isn’t enough and he’ll come around soon. Probably not without some more individual attention and prodding from Finn and the other Glee boys. But eventually. Sometimes it takes more than one awesome experience to reel someone in. Maybe it takes dragging someone to two, three, five, or more events before they feel like they can call themselves part of the community and begin to show up all on their own. And that’s okay. Outreach isn’t about cracking the whip; it’s about opening the community to include all of its parts and its potential parts.

And getting people in the door is also not enough. In Glee, Sue mentions that an open-to-everyone approach doesn’t play to people’s competitive instincts and therefore kills interest. At GLOE, we tried to keep events as affordable as possible, making them accessible to as many people as possible. We’d have free events, publicize the heck out of them, put up an RSVP mechanism on our site, have dozens and dozens of potential attendees, be so excited! – then have less than half of those people show up.

Just as even a cursory audition can make people feel like they need to invest in the group, we found a nominal fee will make attendees feel invested in an event. A $5 fee isn’t prohibitive to almost anyone, and to those for whom it was, we could waive the fee as needed. But paying even $5 for an online ticket (and better yet, saying it’ll be $8 at the door to encourage prior registration so we knew how many to expect for planning purposes) makes people feel more committed – even the smallest amount – and increases the likelihood of attendance.

For those $5 events, it’s not about making money. Some events are… but most of the important community-building events are not. And while making money is important, community building is even more so in Jewish organizations. These days, young people (22-30ish – between college and kids, the Jewish community “tweeners”) often don’t feel obligated to join a synagogue just because they “should.” We (I say “we” and not “they” because, let’s face it, I’m in that category and I don’t pay membership dues to any synagogue, nor do I plan to in the near future) would only go out of our way for such things if we feel a connection to the community. I’ll go to the JCC because I like the people there, not just because the events sound interesting on paper and the gym is well-equipped and it’s in a convenient location. If I feel a strong sense of community, I will come – even if it’s in an inconvenient location and the gym sucks and the event ideas are only so-so.

At the end of the day, communities are about people. Not what the people do – the people themselves.

There’s a saying: Build it, and they will come. But I say that’s not enough… just having a group for ballroom dancers, or singers, or LGBTQ Jews, or whatever your group is about, simply isn’t enough.

Addendum: Open it up, and they will stay.

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