I spent yesterday in downtown Chicago at a Federation-sponsored training seminar on professional-volunteer relations (morning) and e-philanthropy (afternoon). I was one of the only people there who does not have a “standard” Federation job (and I don’t technically work for Federation, either–my paycheck comes from Hillel–but since Hillel in Illinois is an agency of Federation, I was eligible to attend). So I was a bit unprepared for what set off the chain of thoughts that led to this post.

The presenting issue was a discussion in the lay-pro session on “how much you script your volunteers.” In the Federation world, and I’m sure in other volunteer organizations, the professional staff writes the scripts for big speeches by volunteer leaders. The staff in the room yesterday were talking about how they will often script even the running of meetings (not all staff do this, by any means; it depends on the federation’s culture and the people involved).

To me, this was a pretty foreign concept. I don’t staff our “grownup” board, so I’m not intimately involved in the preparation for board meetings. My experience is with students, who would chafe at the idea of being scripted–and who I wouldn’t want to script. Unless, of course, it were something really important. So, for instance, we script student callers during phonathons (“Hi, my name is ____ and I’m calling from Fiedler Hillel…”).

The basic theory here is that you script someone when you want to have complete alignment with the organization’s language. This leads to efficiency (meetings don’t go off on useless tangents) and common words and ideas (everyone is talking about the same stuff in the same language).

Okay, so that was round 1. Round 2 came from the afternoon presentation on e-philanthropy, courtesy of BlueState Digital, the people who brought you Barack Obama’s web presence last year. The conversation was about how to raise supporters and money online, as the Obama team did so well last year ($550 million). The major ideas: Invite your supporters to contribute their stories, their words, their pictures–more than just their money. And segment, segment, segment: Make sure you speak to your supporters the way they want to be spoken to. (The Obama campaign had 300 different market segments that they sent different emails to. Unbelievable.)

The message here: Communication has to be two-way, not one-way. Sound a little different than the morning session?

So all this is swimming in my head as I listen to a story on NPR this morning about a guy making a video game about the battle of Falluja. Following in the footsteps of such games as Darfur is Dying, which aims to raise awareness and understanding of the genocide in Darfur through playing a game, these developers want people to learn from and understand the kinds of experiences and choices faced by American soldiers by creating this game. Sounds like a wonderful idea, right? But the families of the soldiers are upset that these people are triviliazing, “making a game,” out of their children’s sacrifice.

Why? (Does anyone object to a video game about D-Day, or even to a movie like ‘Saving Private Ryan’?) As one of the family members said, there can be different endings–different versions of the story. And that presents a loss of control of the story. The families want to feel secure in the script of their children’s lives, and the idea of a game–no matter how well-intentioned–undermines that. Yet it is the idea of the game–a dialogue–that can often do the most to facilitate learning about reality.

This summer I’ve been taking a course in which we’ve read several works of literary theory and philosophy about the parallels between games and reading. They are rooted in “reader response theory,” which holds that there is no fixed meaning to a text, that every reading of a text generates a unique meaning bounded by the “horizon of the text,” to quote H.G. Gadamer, one of the major philosophers here, and the reader’s own language and experience.

“Play itself is a transformation of such a kind that the identity of the player does not continue to exist for anybody,” writes Gadamer in Truth and Method. “The players (or playwright) no longer exist, only what they are playing” (p. 111). That is, in playing a game or in acting in a play, the players become directed by the game or the play itself because they are playing the play’s roles or governed by the game’s rules, rather than acting out their own wills. Comparing this dynamic to a dialogue, he writes, “to conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented” (p. 361). When we have a genuine dialogue, we have to actually talk to each other, interpret one another’s words, and arrive at a common understanding of our meaning.

So, back to writing scripts: A lay leader reading the script prepared by a staff member may be fine, but it seems to me that in order for it to be a genuine experience, the reader needs to actually read, interpret, and understand what they’re reading. Otherwise they’re just a robot with a mouth and a checkbook. Everyone in an organization needs to be able to explain the mission and strategies of the organization in their own words, and make their own words the words of the organization. As Obama showed, it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition: A leader can set the parameters of the dialogue (in his case, “Change,” “Hope,” “Yes We Can”). The leader sets the boundaries of the message; but in order for people to be engaged in that message, they have to make it their own. And the web is an incredible tool for facilitating that.

This is long, and I haven’t even gotten to why the tetherball pic above, so just a quickie: I have long used tetherball as a metaphor for Jewish learning. The texts of our tradition are the poll, the reader is the ball. An interpretation is legitimate if it’s part of the cord. But if you sever the cord, if you come up with an interpretation that’s not rooted in the text, then it’s not a real interpretation and not part of the tradition. And likewise, if you don’t push the ball–if there is no tension between the ball and the poll–then there’s no game either. So the tradition of interpretation requires the dynamic elasticity of a game of tetherball. And you need to do it with at least one other person, which begins a community.

This is stuff I have a very hard time with. It ain’t easy. It’s really hard work. But I think in the age we live in, it’s the only way that will move all of us forward. Yes we can.