Thoughts on Press Releases, Empathy, and Activism

Returning to the Caffѐ Lena History Project after six months in India has challenged me in ways I never would have expected. I had spent the last semester exploring issues in social justice on the other side of the world, and every day was met with a new discovery, a new revelation. It was at once a constant sensory and emotional overload, and it was amazing.

To be perfectly honest, I came back to work in the Saratoga History Museum with a hint of skepticism. Returning from a world where the issues felt so immediate, the problems so urgent, I felt somehow as though returning to work with historical documents was less necessary, as though I could be doing something more tangible to make the world a better place. Since then, I have been searching for some way in which my love for the arts and culture (what drew me to the Caffѐ in the first place) could be reconciled with this newfound urge to solve the seemingly insurmountable problems that the world faces today. I have come across answers in some unexpected places.

Courtesy of the Saratoga Springs History Museum

Sifting through the Caffѐ Lena archives one rainy Monday morning, I came across a note that struck me. It was to Lena, from a man named Bruce (note: Bruce Utah Phillips), and it started out like this:

Dear Lena,

Well, here I am, farming, making babies, what’s happening to the world?

I’m supposed to be burning down the capitalist system! Well, maybe next week.

Let me step back for a moment. I am currently taking an American Studies course on The 1960s – a multidisciplinary look at the decade and how it has served to shape American culture today. With this vision of the world fresh in my mind, this letter, written in 1977, resonated with me especially. This note scrawled on the back of an aging press release seemed to speak to the exact ethos in American Culture that I had just been reading about, a real example of someone grappling with the “subtle interplay between individual fulfillment and social responsibility”[1] that characterized the decade before. For me, this was a small testament to the ways in which the archives go beyond telling an individual’s story, and speak instead to the story of a generation: one that is trying to figure out their identities as American citizens and as people in the wake of the chaotic and revolutionary decade of the 1960s. And this continues to be relevant today: reexamining the quests for an ideal society of the 1960s might uncover important lessons in a continuing search for our own more perfect world today.

Transcribing interviews from musicians who have performed at Caffѐ Lena has also given me small insights into the way that social activism and artistic expression converge. In speaking about her early career, Anais Mitchell reflected on her place on “the folk tree” – with protest music as the branch that she occupied when she was younger. Though her role in activism changed throughout her career, what struck me most was the importance she placed on storytelling as an essential element to this activism. She seemed to relate this to social activism, that activism was possible through the ability to relate to someone else’s life and circumstances – something that is fostered at the Caffѐ.

Sean Rowe, another musician interviewed, reflected on the nature of the space of Caffѐ Lena, describing it as “a listening venue in the highest form.” He compared it to the megaplex stadiums that dominate most of the popular music listening scene, recalling the Caffѐ favorably:

There’s a proximity thing that is very palpable, you know, and it’s very real, and if you don’t have that, it’s a different vibe, you know. So I think by their nature, Cafes are usually right up on the artist, you know? I like that, I think it’s good, because I can really feel the energy from the crowd that way.

Mr. Rowe touches on an aspect of the Caffѐ that is unique but is sometimes forgotten – the ability to be physically close to the performer, to feel connected. Thinking about the Caffѐ as a space where this sort of interaction is possible – a conversation between listener and performer – an experience of empathy – opens up a whole new conversation about the ways in which the Caffѐ can be used. In a recent class on International Human Rights, we learned that the development of a discourse on human rights was only made possible by the development of new kinds of media (the novel, the portrait), that allowed humans to empathize with one another in a way that they never had before. And in our new world of constant media information, it has become clear that for a human to truly understand the experience of another, they need physical proximity. Mr. Rowe’s analysis of the Caffѐ shows how relevant this is.

I came back to the Caffѐ unsure of how to reconcile my new ideas with the archiving work I was doing. But spending time with the Caffѐ Lena archives and with transcriptions from performers at the Caffѐ has taught me something important: that art in its truest, most honest form (the kind that Caffѐ Lena promotes) is really about personal connection, bringing people together and fostering the communication of ideas, and that this is essential in social activism.

For the world to move forward in a responsible, sustainable way, people need to start talking to each other. And as I discovered in India, sometimes to truly be able to understand someone else’s point of view, to empathize, you need to move away from your screens and come face to face – and Caffѐ Lena has provided a space for this. In this overly digitized world (the Google Glass prototype just came out, which even for me as a technologically ‘hip’ 21 year old is terrifying), we need spaces like Caffѐ Lena more than ever.

– CLHP Intern Martha Snow, March 2013

[1] Gerard J. DeGroot, The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade.

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