Filippo Andrea Rossi, bootcamp participant: Gratitude Journal Program as a Peacebuilding Device between Communities

Filippo Andrea Rossi works at the municipality of Narni, Italy as a Public Officer & Brand Manager. In January 2023, Filippo Andrea took part in Namla’s Winter School with the University of Amsterdam. He was part of a team that spanned two continents, and worked with three very different local situations for senior citizens and their relationships with the local municipalities; yet the anthropological lens of the team allowed them to transcend the local and find a solution that would be beneficial in all their locations. He wrote a reflection on the experience.

Working as a public officer for a municipality in Italy, I know first-hand how intertwined may be the challenges social office execs have to manage. When it comes to old-age welfare, they usually have to deal with something that goes like this: on the one hand, there are well-trained yet over-encumbered community workers; on the other hand, there are grouchy isolated seniors that demand assistance but ultimately want to do the things they want without too much supervision. As a result, these two communities usually collaborate in some sort of — as Niklas Luhmann would call it — “light coupling”, joining forces every now and then, but mostly taking advantage of their respective shortage of time to go on ignoring each other. How can we, as researchers, offer to the management a way to strengthen this coupling? And how can we do so without merely shifting the power dynamic between these two groupings? This is the research question me and my colleague posed to ourselves. Or, at least, this is what we ended up with.

In fact, what we focused at first was the role of relatives in this problematic field. But, as my first on-field experience quickly reminded me, trying to observe relatives acting around isolated elders was quite the oxymoron indeed. To me, it was more surprising instead how elders were actually managing to self-organize most of their activities on their own. In addition to that it staggered me how much they were in need of some form of recognition by the social offices, which on the other hand — as a secondary observation session taught me — candidly had no time to notice that. The social office was, in fact, organizing some activity for the elders: but it was not always clear a) who was organizing what, b) how much was left to the elders’ self-organization and c) who had to respond to the quality of the activity itself. In all of that, relatives were nowhere to be seen, only coming into play as a thorny subject on both sides. More than that, asking about them usually worked as a disruptive question. (An ethical question did arise at this point: should I insist on asking the tricky question? Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology and — to my surprise — Sam Ladner’s practical ethnography suggested me to do so: but in the end I didn’t have the guts to follow their advice.) I guess that having to move rapidly in the field ultimately allowed me not to get stuck into the dilemma of relatives’ (in)visibility. If I had been an academic researcher — as I once was — I would have chosen this as my main focus, probably ending up spending three years concocting a well-argued theory about “relatives’ relativity” or something like that. But at the given moment my task was designing something useful in a week’s time. So I scrapped the books and started thinking about something that the people before me could actually use.

The on-field experiences were, as usual, pretty cathartic for me. Not in the sense that they immediately resolved the problem at hand, but as opportunities to start jotting down some focus points, both on my physical notebook and on the Miro digital whiteboard. Two design bits kept popping up in the analysis session: the solutionspace — as Nathan would say — had to be a) something that would have allowed the community workers to monitor the elders’ self-organized activity without intruding it and b) something that would have let them show gratitude and acknowledgment to the elders — like some sort of gratitude journal! I remember this idea emerging in an outburst. What I immediately liked about it was the tangible aspect of it. But it took me some time to come into this realization. In fact, one bias was clouding my judgment at first: I somehow assumed that our innovation had to be digital. Once again, the speedy time schedule (combined with our tutors’ guidance) unclogged this issue. When I eventually realized that we could combine a) and b) into one comprehensive in-person program, digital was haunting me no more. At this point, I was more concerned about having fun sketching out all sorts of flowcharts in order to build our process.

What we ended up with basically works like this: instead of spending the littletime at their disposal organizing competing activities for the elders, the community workers would show up in follow-up sessions at the end of each self-organized activity and a) administer to the participants a paper easy-to-understand survey, b) gather content (photos for examples) on what the elders just did and c) gain info about what they will do next time. In this way, community workers could benefit from the double advantage of 1) not losing time organizing other copycat activities that may end up unsuccessful and 2) collecting first-hand data about what the elders like and what they are going to do anyway. A back-end office report would be prepared throughout such sessions, while the gathered content would be put at the disposal of other third-party designers, who will manufacture a real-life gratitude booklet. Eventually this memory book will be gifted to the elders in a solemn end-of-season event. As a result, the community workers would have the additional benefit of 3) having to focus their effort and resources on just one event. On the elders’ side instead, the main benefit would be represented by the fact that elders 1) would feel recognized by the public servants. But more than that, they would also 2) have a chance to be vocal about their activity-specific preferences and — last but not least — 3) have in the end a material proof of how much they are actually doing together, with all the cognitive benefits that come with retrospective storytelling. To sum up, our gratitude program works as a steering device that gently activates a transformative peacemaking process in the culture(s) we are examining. When we tested the prototype, our end-users were enthusiastic about it, especially the seniors. They said in particular that they have never heard of something like that and were pretty interested in the idea of having a tangible photo book back as a present. Would an elder-unfriendly app (or an app-assisted monitoring survey from the community workers) have been greeted the same?

Looking back, what I feel I would say to my stakeholders (the social office executives) is to be mindful of the truth regimes that are colliding in the two communities they are managing. They have, on the one hand, the good-hearted but finite power of social activism; and on the other, the rightful presumption that comes with custom and old age. The solution we are offering is ultimately an undercover monitoring initiative (for the community workers) dressed up as a ceremony (for the elders). But it is worth noting that we humans, as ritual animals, are extremely receptive to the persuasive influence of symbolic means — and that small gifts, as Marcel Mauss argued, are the very constituents on which long-lasting peace and truly mutual solidarity thrive on.

Filippo Andrea Rossi — 27. I. 2023 .

If you have questions or comments for us, email Namla at hello@namla.info or find Filippo Andrea on LinkedIn.

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