Social Innovation Forum Hosts Pilot Book Club Session

Community members joined together to read and learn about pressing social issues.
  • By Allison Hajjar
  • Published on March 06, 2017
Book Club members meet with Tina Chéry and Jon Feinman, who speak about their experiences related to the book selection.
Jon Feinman and Tina Chéry speak with members of the Book Club about their experiences related to the book selection.

On January 25, SIF welcomed 25 members of our community for our pilot Book Club session. Guests arrived at SIF’s new space eager to discuss the first book selection, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. Past Social Innovators, Chaplain Clementina "Tina" Chéry, President and CEO of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, and Jon Feinman, Executive Director of InnerCity Weightlifting, joined as special guests to share their unique perspectives and offer their depth of knowledge to the conversation.

The idea for an SIF Book Club emerged last fall as SIF worked with several active members of our social impact community to think about ways to more deeply engage our funders and supporters with the work of our portfolio organizations and the social issues they address. Our goals for the book club were threefold:

  • Foster conversation and learning about critical social issues
  • Build connections and relationships among funders, supporters, and practitioners
  • Generate new understanding and action that will lead to social change

Our announcement of the Book Club was met with great enthusiasm from the SIF community, who were excited to read about social issues and challenge themselves in thinking about complex aspects of society, our own perceptions, and potential solutions to challenging issues.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace chronicles the life of the author’s college roommate, a young man of color from an under-resourced neighborhood in New Jersey who attends Yale to study molecular biochemistry and biophysics. While Robert Peace thrives academically, he quietly struggles with his existence, lost between his life at Yale and life at home.

Participants raised compelling questions, acknowledging that the issues presented in the book were new to many of them. Tina and Jon shared their thoughts related to Robert Peace’s story and their personal experiences in Boston. Several key themes emerged during the discussion:

Empathy - In discussing empathy, Jon expressed to listeners that those who have not lived with violence, fear, limited resources, and limited opportunities can never truly “understand” what it is like, but Jon explains that we can, and should, “deeply listen and respect” this experience. Tina, with many years of experience as a survivor helping families whose lives have been impacted by homicide, echoed this sentiment and encouraged Book Club participants to genuinely talk and listen to people even when we can’t truly understand their experience.

Social capital and networks - Related to Robert Peace’s experience at Yale, the conversation touched on the importance of social capital and the realities of going to college lacking a support network and the pull of family and community that many of us could relate to. Jon observed that when he went to college, he had the security of a network of resources, including a family and other supports to rely on when he needed help. Jon pointed out that many of his students at InnerCity Weightlifting, similar to Robert Peace, lack this vital social capital. They don’t have a network of people to call when they need help.

Prevention and intervention - When asked if there was one critical intervention that could have altered Peace’s story, Tina explained that there are many opportunities for intervention, including early education, changes to the criminal justice system, and violence prevention. Tina recommended that those who would like to take action look into working with the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.

The time allotted for discussion passed too quickly and several conversations continued after the formal program had wrapped up. As we look to build on this pilot for future sessions, we realize we need more time together for the dialogue around these complex topics. We are grateful to those who participated in the first iteration of the Book Club, especially those who provided feedback and suggestions for the future. Ultimately, we were excited and energized by the level of interest in this program and by the sincerity with which people were willing to come together for candid conversation and learning about complicated issues. We look forward to our next session together.

Interested in Joining the SIF Book Club? Space is limited for this recurring event, but for those who would like to learn more or consider participating, please contact bookclub@socialinnovationforum.org.

About the Author

Allison joined Social Innovation Forum (SIF) as a MSW Intern in September 2016, working closely with the Senior Manager of Development and Communications to grow SIF’s visibility and funding, while also supporting SIF’s program work. She graduated from Boston College with her Master of Social Work in the Social Innovation and Leadership Macro Social Work program in 2017. In October 2017, she joined the team at SIF Social Innovator Smart for the Start as the organization’s Manager of Development & Strategy.

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