Wunderkammers as Fair Technology

Wunderkammer as Fair Technology

The problem with Job and Post Secondary Training Fairs is that, at times, they are not fair.  When this occurs  the unfortunate imbalance of power  never tips toward the youth, and inadvertently both vendor and youth walk away uninspired. Often, the company’s or school’s vendor expect the inquiring young person to know something about the program, school or job, before ever speaking to the vendor. As well, the vendor may not be well versed about the particular needs, concerns, and possible barriers to opportunity access experienced by the youth. The youth’s life experience simply by default may not include familiarity with this traditional bridging format. Yet, this paradigm is the reality at career fairs and college recruitment events. The belief that every covered table has a welcoming and holistically engaging person behind it is not shared by many of the young people who are served through local youth development nonprofits. The idea that the youth can openly ask questions, or be vulnerable with their hopes and dreams is an assumption not warranted. The Sundance Family Foundation, with the help of community partners, offer an alternative to this traditional presentation.

Sundance Family Foundation hopes to drive change in the field of youth social entrepreneurship (YSE) using the Wunderkammer Initiative  bringing  to life curiosity, discovery, enthusiasm, hope and dreams, with changes we and community leaders are making to Tech & Training Fairs. Designed to holistically engage low income youth with tantalizing opportunities to explore career avenues, we are embarking on the Wunderkammer Initiative as a Bridge and Pipeline strategy to success. Both expo vendors, and youth and their families, would collaboratively engage in opportunities that lead youth and families to embrace passion about previously unexplored career paths,  leading to livable wage jobs and enriched lives.

The Wunderkammer or (also called a Cabinet of Curiosities), was the BuzzFeed of the Renaissance. With the expansion of Empire, and the so-called discovery of new people, plants, and animal life, the desire to collect and display this finds was rampent. The Wunderkammer, was often an entire room filled with specimens appropriated from various trade and exploration endeavors. These rooms would often have large glass cases filled with the stuffed remains of an animal never seen before in Europe, and then have several smaller glass cases or jars stacked on top of it—each with more collected samples. Tools, clothing, bones, maps, dried flowers and berries; all these and more would be littered throughout a room.

The Wunderkammer was an important change from how knowledge was previously perceived. Before, “to have” knowledge of something, you would have to experienced it first-hand, or been instructed on it at a university. If something didn’t fit in the generally accepted model of the world (usually one started by Aristotle, and sanctioned by the Church) it was completely dismissed. However, the Wunderkammer positioned thinkers to challenged these previous assumptions of how the world works. Instead of just reading something in a book or hearing about it in a lecture, the object of study was right in front of the student for personal examination. In this relationship, it doesn’t matter if an old book or teach says something isn’t possible because the proof that it is possible is only a thin pane of glass away.

Just as important as the Wunderkammer’s  effect to push back on previous beliefs of limitations was its capacity to create beliefs that expanded these limitations. They had the effect of causing the observer to ask, “If this is true then what else is possible?” A building of “wonder on wonder” that seems rather natural.

Another unique aspect of the Wunderkammer, compared to other forms of knowledge dissemination like the book or the lecture, is that it demands an active and personalized engagement. There was no predetermined beginning, middle, or end like book. It started when they entered the room, as opposed to a play or lecture, and what they saw first would influence the meaning of the thing they saw next. The observer was left to explore the presentation on their own. They had to move about the room to get the best vantage point for different displays. Items were collected because of their potential interest to the observer and the collector, not to principly complete a set in an established order. Often, an order to what was seen was created in the mind of the viewer based more on the order of when and how it was seen. A person would not simply see a Wunderkammer, but have to experience it. They were allowed to explore the space. “To inspire wonder, by concentrating and containing the rare and the strange, was the original aim of this early modern institution”, and it is the aim of the Sundance Family Foundation to do the same, and more.

The Wunderkammer model at the Tech & Training Expos will not simply be a table with pamphlets, but a space created by representatives from local manufacturers, area colleges, and assistance programs, that invite the expo attendances to hands-on, interactive experience in a visually attractive setting. This is not a table with pictures of a robotics program, but a working example of a robot that young people can try for themselves. The thinking behind this is two fold. Firstly, as stated above, there is a proven historical example of this form as a vehicle for change in thinking. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly) no amount of kind words or free t-shirts or the like, can build the trust needed for traumatically underserved youth to feel like they are welcomed in a vocational field. Especially if they don’t feel welcomed at a table.  

This is a youth focused project, with an emphasis on building relationships that will begin with a concentration on adult presenters. Young people will know they are welcomed, when they are welcomed to do something. To take part in, and be a part of. At the Wunderkammer, youth will be welcomed to explore, touch, try, see, and question in a safe environment. The most important part of welcoming someone is not the welcomer thinking they are adequately welcoming, but the person being welcome feeling they are welcomed. This change however, is not a one-way street. We envision our invited presenter to participate in this change…and benefit from the experience as well.

Often in these situations, the most well intentioned presenter can fall into the traps that perpetuate racist conditions. If they are professional presenters, or if job fair-like activities make up the majority of their work calendar, they might fall into a rut of boredom and passivity. Every person looks the same, they all ask, or don’t ask the same questions–over and over. Or perhaps the presenter is not specifically trained to present, or more importantly, present to low-income youth or people of color. Should each presenter go through dozens of hours of racial sensitivity training, or make personal commitments to advocate for diversity and inclusion in both their personal and professional lives? Well, yes! These things cannot hurt, and their lives would be so much richer for it. However, we cannot expect this, nor should be attempt to manage this. Barring occupational therapy, or in-depth diversity seminars, we at Sundance Family Foundation feel that the Wunderkammer will help to create and nurture the pivotal relationship between youth and access to opportunities.

This is not just our belief. We have found a practice need for a structuring vision–beyond simple principles.

At our first Tech and Training Expo, we spent a lot of time and effort crafting a description of the physical and social presentation for our presenters. We asked that people of color represent their institution when possible. We gave guides on how to use the space differently. We talked about who their audience would be and how it might be different than other outreach efforts. Most importantly, we were explicit on two conditions: the display/presentation offer a practical, generally achievable opportunities for youth; and  engaging, interactive displays. We found few did both, some did one but not the other, and many didn’t do either.

The problem was not that we didn’t share ideas with our presenters, or that just should have made them more clear. The problem was one of “buy in.” We let the presenters know what we wanted to see, but what we didn’t do is let them know how it would benefit them. We didn’t help the institution see that this was a chance to present their programs in a fresh and exciting way to a new audience. More importantly, however, we didn’t guide these experts to understand these expos are an opportunity to share their passions with someone eager to learn. We didn’t let them on the floor without properly vetting them, and helping them to see that their knowledge and experience can completely alter the lives of the young people in attendance, and their families.

This ‘buy in” has more than one level to it. The presenter will have to see this presentation as something they will personally benefit from, as well as understand they are helping others. They will have to understand the heavy weight just their being there creates, and act accordingly. They have to make a commitment to being a presence for change. If seemingly obvious questions are asked for instance, they have to assume this is because the youth are interested in knowing the more, rather than being a “smart alec.” If the youth are speaking slang, or with a more the quite demeanor, the presenter has to make the assumption the youth are comfortable with them. The reverse is also true, but for different reasons. If a young person is quieter than the presenter is used to, the assumption has to be that the person is trying to be respectful. These expos have to be seen as a chance to share something they love, with people that would not normally get the chance to enjoy this thing.

Another level this “buy in” operates on is to make the environment. The presenters have to see themselves as part of the scenery of the expo. Kids are smart. They pick up so much more than we think they do. If a presenter is curt or dismissive of a young person, it is our belief that everyone in the surrounding area picks up on this. The creation of a safe space for youth to ask questions and dream big is stifled. Fancy toys are not enough. The change we envision in this proposed space will not be lasting if it is tarnished by behaviors of cultural supremacy.

This is really an all or nothing staffing policy, but it should not be an aggressive one. This means that we will have to find and foster individual relationships with institutions we identify as having effective/beneficial programs, but that some of these relationship just won’t work out. However as few bridges should be burned as possible. If a presenter did not work out, they should be kept in the loop so that they can see how successful the expo was, and that they are welcome to participate–but with further discussions on how they can best serve the expo’s audience.

It has to be mentioned that this concept, like so many from the past, is connected to oppressive ideas such as imperialism colonialism, and racism. The Wunderkammer housed very few original discoveries. Certainly, none of the cultural artifacts that were taken from non-industrial peoples, were only then “discovered.” These were things that were long known by groups around the world. There is a cultural promotion that knowledge can be embodied, and that certain bodies can be controlled or displayed for the purposes of entertainment. It reifies the ideas of that only certain types of knowledge, and only certain types of people matter. We plan to flip this on its head. This Wunderkammer holds knowledge that does not belong in a glass containers, but rather is for any color hand to hold (and play with, and fiddle about). This Cabinet of Curiosities is not a place of privilege and exclusion but a chance for personal and communal. A space where everyone involved gets the opportunity to grow in a way they may need to grow.

We have already started working with partners in college programs, and are beginning connect with manufacturers directly. We are confident that next Tech & Training Expo (scheduled for spring) will reflect these changes. We are hoping you will join us, and invite the young people you serve to do the same.  

We are hoping to take a risky and revolutionary step, not by fighting or defending, but by hosting. The Tech & Training Expos of 2016 with be spaces in which young people are invited to stretch their wonder muscles, and presenters will be empowered to share aspect of their passions. They will both be in a space to do so.