Networking and Knitworking: Social Change That’s Warm and Fuzzy

Posted August 5th, 2009 at 12:21 pm.

by Nell Anderson

Last semester, a diversity conversation at the Bryn Mawr College Multicultural Center focused on how to move from conversations about diversity to actual social change. One of the students asked, “Maybe we should ask ourselves what social change would look like in our campus community?” It occurs to me that we might also want to ask ourselves, “Where is social change already happening on this campus?” Maybe we can learn about what social change could look like by paying some attention to the places where it is already happening and by learning from those who are involved.

From my point of view in the Praxis Office, I see signs of social change when academics are linked with community-building initiatives on and off campus. I have also noticed the way the Empowering Learners Program has made progress toward altering our notion of who is a teacher and who is a learner and have been impressed with the organizing efforts and the results of the Social Justice Pilot Program. From a distance, I have also been quite curious about another campus initiative … the Knitting Club, which meets every Tuesday in the Campus Center.

I haven’t knit for years … and couldn’t imagine finding an hour in the middle of the day to knit and converse. But I have been intrigued by the diverse composition of the group, which I heard about through two of my colleagues, Ellie Esmond and Ruth Strickland, who are members. Where else on campus do women from different employment levels and different departments, including housekeepers, secretaries, managers, faculty, mid-level and senior administrators (including the provost and the president), as well as retirees, alumnae, and current students, cross the boundaries that normally keep them apart and get together on a regular basis?

Historically, women gathering to do crafts have often had a social change agenda, as in Chile, where during times of martial law in the 1960s and 1970s, women from the shantytowns, who were prohibited by the government from meeting in groups for almost any reason, were permitted to gather to make arpilleras, folk-art wall hangings that depicted scenes from their communities. Through the arpillera craft making, women subtly portrayed political perspectives on their communities and covertly continued political organizing activities. I wondered if the Knitting Club had its own social change agenda. From the outside, the boundary-crossing I observed seemed pretty revolutionary and suggested to me that this was another place on campus that social change was happening already. I decided to learn about this group from the members themselves.

I borrowed knitting needles and yarn from my daughter and showed up at the club one Tuesday in November. A small group of women was present when I arrived, some of whom I recognized and others I didn’t. Ann Ogle and Melvina Taylor seemed quite used to getting novices started, and before long I was knitting my practice scarf. I knit and listened. There were clearly experts in the group, who were called upon for guidance with particular patterns and stitches. Knitting projects were taken seriously here, clearly not just an excuse to get together and talk. Yet at the same time, while knitting needles clicked rapidly, pictures of grandchildren were circulated and news about colleagues who were out sick was shared. Everyone was interested in the progress of the knitting projects, even mine, which progressed slowly row by row. Women whose lunchtimes started later on came in as others went back to work, so I was introduced many times. There was a buzz of friendly camaraderie and a very relaxed atmosphere. For a social action movement, this seemed very mellow; but I was still curious and, by now, also wanted to learn how to knit again.

During the following weeks, I learned about the history of the group. Everyone seemed to agree that Ann Ogle, secretary for the psychology department and a Staff Association representative, had been the energizer and organizer for this initiative. Ann started the club as a Staff Association-sponsored enrichment class in 2006 and invited expert knitters and McBride alumnae Helen Rehl and Elaine Ewing to teach the class. Ann contributed the focus on service-learning. Her idea was to learn about knitting and to engage in service through knitting. The club has made chemo caps for cancer patients at Bryn Mawr Hospital, blankets and ponchos for the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and sweaters and scarves for Laurel House, a domestic violence shelter in Norristown.

However, the members alternate between service knitting projects and individual knitting projects. When I was there, many members were knitting presents for family members and friends. A faculty member stopped by for some last-minute advice on a sweater she was working on for her grandchild. My colleague Ellie has been working on a bunny-blanket for a friend’s new baby. Helen was working on some beautiful fingerless gloves that I would later see for sale at the Staff Association Holiday Fair. Ann was working on a new handbag project with yarn that had been donated. I loved the way individual projects were appreciated and supported as much as the group service projects.

Ann Ogle proudly pointed out that this group is the only one of the initial enrichment classes that kept going; and although she claims that it is not an activist group, she also mentioned that her inspiration for the group came from her involvement years earlier in the Green Plan Committee, an initiative for environmental action that included participation from all College constituencies. Ann noticed the way that coming together with a shared interest in environmental sustainability enabled people to cut across boundaries and hoped that coming together with common interest in knitting would do the same.

Within the group, there is clearly a sense that boundaries are a problem to be overcome here at Bryn Mawr. Though a state of martial law has not taken away our right to meet in groups as it did with our Chilean “sisters,” we face other social networking obstacles. Here are some of those identified in my conversations with the Knitting Club:

You only know each other through phone or email. We would never know each other without this group. Some departments and therefore some staff never interact. (Diane McLaughlin)

The original goal of the Friday morning coffee hour was fellowship, but even there, people tend to stay in their own cliques. Even at coffee hour, people stay in their own cliques. (Ann Ogle)

As a recent graduate who just started working here, I see the campus boundaries very clearly now. Social connections don’t happen easily for staff with each other or between students and staff. (Catherine Farman)

I joined the club just to sit with people I didn’t know. As a student, you don’t get to meet many staff. Other than the Teaching and Learning Initiative, there aren’t many opportunities to meet staff. (Becca Rebhuhn-Glanz)

Before joining this group, I didn’t know any people at work who shared my passion for art. It’s an amazing feeling to be with these other artists and to see what they are creating from week to week. (Dawn Bruton)

For this group, social networking across boundaries is as important as the knitting needles. Most of the members were invited by others or heard about the group by word of mouth. Some have known each other for years. Ann Ogle and Helen Rehl worked together at the Shipley School before coming to Bryn Mawr. Helen and Norma Fabian met as young women in New York City. Eileen Cassidy was invited by Helen; Dawn Bruton invited her student partner in the Empowering Learners Program, Caroline Goldstein. Kim Cassidy and Leslie Rescorla know Ann through the psychology department and were eager to seek out the knitting expertise of the group. Ellie Esmond invited Ruth Strickland, etc. There is an emphasis on actively conveying the message that everyone is welcome. The group goes beyond an open-door policy. Their meetings are actually on the Campus Center balcony, where there is no door at all. One of the student members, Becca Rebhuhn-Glanz, was downstairs in the Campus Center knitting by herself when Melvina Taylor saw her and went down to invite her upstairs. Becca has been a member ever since. Since she happens to be the head of the student knitting club, her involvement has provided a great link between student and employee knitting projects.

When newly-appointed president Jane McAuliffe visited campus last summer, Dawn Bruton told her about the club, having read in a newspaper article that she was an avid knitter. The new president expressed an interest in joining, which set into motion a new Knitting Club project, a presidential afghan, to welcome the new member. This afghan was truly a work of art, designed by Helen Rehl. Each woman knit a unique square and they sewed it all together as a group at Helen’s house, a process that was chronicled by Dawn in a beautiful scrapbook. The afghan and the scrapbook were presented to President McAuliffe at the first Staff Association meeting last fall.

In addition to job and age diversity, the multicultural diversity of the group is striking. The women pointed out to me that they have members from Ireland, England, Norway, and Jamaica and that two kinds of knitting, Continental and English, are practiced.

It is not surprising that this knitters’ network has become meaningful to the members’ experiences at Bryn Mawr. The relationships between the women as individuals and the connections created within the network constitute tangible social capital. In their words:

This is unique for a workplace and contributes to morale. There is a place you belong. I look forward to this every week. I catch up, gossip, keep in touch. News from other departments is shared when it might not have been known otherwise. (Ann Ogle)

We are real with each other in this group and able to connect on a personal level. I love it that there are no agendas. It’s very unusual at this college for a meeting not to have an agenda. (Ellie Esmond)

We come together in our group to make things with our hands —to wear, to give away to those in need. We plan projects together, talk, show one another “how-to,” share our lives, and learn together. Much like the Norns of Norse mythology and Spiderwoman of Native American lore, we weave the web that holds us all together—something women have done through the ages. (Helen Rehl)

We have all formed cherished friendships that are warm and enduring through working together on common goals. Every one of us treasures this time. (Elaine Ewing)

I am just getting started with my knitting. I know the women think I just infiltrated their group to be able to write this article, but I really do want to knit. I have a lot to learn and can’t think of a better environment to learn in. I don’t know if all social change takes place through acceptance and inclusion, working side by side on projects with people you didn’t know before, giving to others, and taking time for oneself … but there is no doubt in my mind that more of this kind of social change would be beneficial to Bryn Mawr College and to me.

Nell Anderson is the co-director of the Civic Engagement Office, where she provides support to the Praxis program and to a variety of campus-community partnerships.

Filed under: Issue 3 by Julie Zaebst

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