About a year-and-a-half ago, a Milwaukee-area middle school teacher overheard a couple of students speaking malicious gossip about other students. (To preserve privacy, the teacher and school have not been identified.)
This teacher concluded that if some students are doing this, it is likely others are as well. And so, the teacher spoke with leaders of RUACH, the Milwaukee Jewish arts organization, about the incident and suggested that this be the theme for a project.
An essential concept in Judaism, and a universal humanistic ideal, is being careful about one’s speech — which, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin pointed out in his 1996 book “Words That Hurt Words That Heal,” has often unsuspected power to help or harm others.
So RUACH (“spirit” in Hebrew) is initiating “Project: Positive Speech” to promote positive speech and combat the all too common phenomena of negative speech — in Hebrew lashon ha’ra — which includes such harmful uses of words as gossip and tale-bearing.
In a recent interview, Karen Reiffman, project manager for RUACH, explained that for this project, 15 to 20 diverse area organizations will each build and illustrate a large, three-dimensional cube by using mixed media and varied processes.
Each cube will depict aspects of positive words and phrases chosen by participants that will convey the importance of choosing speech wisely.
After all the cubes are complete, they will be brought together to create a portable artistic installation that will be displayed in public venues.
An inaugural event for the project will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 26. Thereafter, participants will be engaged in a nine-hour residency, spread over a period of up to two months.
In the first session, members of each organization will learn about the importance of choosing positive words and the magnitude of being careful with one’s speech.
For the remaining sessions, an artist-in-residence will reinforce these concepts by leading participants in developing their organization’s cube.
According to Joshua Richman, RUACH’s executive director, the arts can be enhanced when coupled within the framework of teaching values.
“The most meaningful programming that we can provide is programming where the arts and music are not created as stand alone departments unto themselves, but rather are integrated with values that everybody shares,” he said in a recent interview.
Reiffman added that, “even though art is wonderful in and of itself, it always brings it up to a higher level to use it as a tool that is valuable, especially when it can help other people and work toward the higher good.”
Richman said that plans call for “Project: Positive Speech” not only to be integrated into Milwaukee’s Jewish community; but it will also include a diverse spectrum of community organizations, from Milwaukee Public Schools to senior care centers.
Even the artists-in-residence themselves are a reflection of expressive diversity, says Richman. Each artist specializes in different media and will bring his or her own specialty to the different organizations.
“We plan to do our best to have diversity of media represented with agencies that will be a good match with the respective artists and specialists,” he said. “There will be a nice mix of media.”
The symbolism of the cubes and the project’s final display has deeper meaning. Reiffman said that cubes signify “building blocks.”
“When you start being really careful about what you say, you improve your relationship with the people around you. The nicer the words that come out of your mouth the more positivity comes with peers, [and] relationships grow that way. It brings people together….
“And what does every child play with? A set of building blocks — the same way that we build relationships with each other we represent this concept of building.”
The final installation will be portable. “It can be adjusted by size and form depending on who’s showing it at the time, so wherever it will be shown it will be adjusted to the environment to which it’s being shown,” said Reiffman. “It’s not going to be screwed into a wall. It’s a community builder where it’s going to be shown in one location and everybody can benefit from it there, and then the next community can view it.”
Richman and Reiffman are hoping that this project will have a “snowball effect.” By making community members aware of the effect of speech, there will be more people treating each other in positive ways.
This project is sponsored by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Mary L. Nohl Fund and The Helen Bader Foundation, Inc.
For more information about “Project: Positive Speech” and its inaugural event, and to discover other projects of RUACH, Inc., visit the website www.ruachmilwaukee.org or call 414-367-4890.
Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher for Shorewood Public Schools and a freelance writer.