Last summer my dad moved out of the office he had worked in for 40 years. My dad is the kind of person who keeps a lot of things, so when he moved out there was a lot to discover. Among the things he found was a bunch of old merchandise from the Judy Company, which my grandfather (his father-in-law), Hy Berman, founded and ran for close to 40 years himself.
Hymie (he asked us to call him Hymie) died ten years ago this month, at the ripe old age of 97. And, in one last alignment of the stars, I moved into a new office on the first of the month.
As I was unpacking my things, I found one of those items from the Judy Company that my dad had found and he had given to me: A “Seminar Training Kit,” probably manufactured in the early 1960s. As I examined the materials, it quickly became apparent that I had unknowingly entered the family business.
By the time the “Seminar Training Kit” was created, the Judy Company was collaborating with other organizations to create products to serve educational and training purposes far beyond early childhood. In this case, as the front of the brochure indicates, they partnered with the program staff at the Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota and the Association of College Unions (both of which are still around today).
There were actually two versions of the kit, one for group leaders (“The complete guide to development of leaders in your organization!”) and one for group members (“Productive committees build productive organizations!”). And while the remnants of the kit that I received did not include the flip chart, flannel board, 48 “stick-o-mats,” or grease pencil that were originally shipped in the “heavy 2-piece corrugated box with special handle attachment for easy carrying” (Hymie had a unique talent for packaging), I did have the eight original neck cards (to be hung around participants’ necks) and corresponding flannel-board pieces.
The brochure explained the products: “These training kits were conceived by professional group leaders searching for a simple, effective way to develop creative leadership and to activate members. Latest developments in group dynamics—role playing, discussion, evaluation, brainstorming—are utilized. Extensively tested in ACTUAL USE [emphasis in original], they have paid for themselves over and over by increasing effectiveness in achieving group objectives.”
The leadership kit was “specifically designed to strengthen idea communication between group leaders and membership, and to help achieve the satisfaction that comes from full participation.” The members kit aimed to “help to develop group feeling, and to emphasize the rewards of cooperative action.”
Reading all of this, it was hard not be struck by the ways in which these kits anticipated much of my own work and the work of Ask Big Questions. Clearly they’re voiced in the idioms of their own time and place, but the fundamentals are the same: How can we help people understand themselves and others, and come together for collective action?
I imagine that the partners on this project thought about some of the same questions we think about at ABQ: What does it take to get people in the room? How do we create resources and experiences for people that can achieve our aims within the constraints of time, money, and energy available? How do we measure our effectiveness? How do we make this sustainable? How do we test and market a product, and then learn and improve it?
As I say often, our work is not so terribly new. It’s actually radically old. There’s a lot of comfort in knowing that our questions aren’t unique, that in fact we’re asking many of the same questions that people have asked for a long time.
But the other morning I noticed that my new office offered a perfect spot to hang those neck cards. So now I’m regularly reminded of the deep roots of our work, and that in fact I did go into the family business.