This is a short story about a small place and a complex idea. The place is Paisley. The idea is exchange.
Paisley is located in Lake County, Oregon, forty-five miles north of Lakeview. About 231 people live in Paisley. There are thirty-seven students enrolled in the high school. Thirteen of these students come from quite far away—from Thailand, Laos, Germany, Albania, Russia, Brazil, and other places outside the US—and several students come from other parts of Oregon.
In late March, a busload of students from Portland’s Riverdale School spent a week with this collection of students in Paisley, as they’ve done for the last eleven years. But this time around, teachers from the two schools—Paisley and Riverdale—coplanned a community conversation that included students, teachers, legislative staff members, and community members. They hoped to generate a discussion about differences, similarities, and Oregon.
I was lucky to be in the community center that evening and in the Paisley School earlier. Throughout the day, one quiet moment followed another: a Montenegran teenager nodding assent to a Paisley classmate’s suggestion that branding cattle is a good example of thriving community; a Portland teenager echoing a Paisley teenager’s comment about the need to resist fear when confronting different people and different opinions; Portland and Paisley teachers gathering quickly in the corner of the small school cafeteria to plan out how they would discuss group norms in the three rooms they would soon head to. So much exchange happening so quickly in such a small place.
Driving back from Paisley to Portland it occurred to me that the place had a great deal to do with what happened. There were, literally and figuratively, no red lights, and also not a lot of other options. There were key, connected people whose participation meant that whatever doors needed to be opened would be opened. Perfect conditions for exchange.
The exchange I saw and am talking about is not the kind of exchange our culture seems most suited for or comfortable with, that of actual currency and the products and deals money stands in for and makes possible. The hothouse of exchange in Paisley seemed to operate in another realm entirely—a realm of relationships, understanding, and questions.
In this other realm of exchange, two things are very difficult to measure. One is reciprocity: Do the Portland young people get more than the Paisley young people get out of the encounter? Do the international young people have to offer up more of themselves than the Lake County adults? As with all exchanges—and all attempts to bridge across differences—it seems reasonable to wonder who benefits more and who is required to provide more. But there’s a difference between reciprocity and symmetry, and the hope in all of these interpersonal exchanges is not that everyone end up in the same place, but that everyone gain something, that everyone benefit, even if not in equal amounts.
This points to the second thing that’s difficult to measure: value. It’s difficult to know how much it all means, how much it’s all worth. When the evening ended, the Portland students got back on their bus, the international students went back to their dorm, the legislative aides went back to their homes a couple of hours away, and the Paisley students and community members went to their homes nearby. They didn’t charge as one into the cold, clear night, off across Summer Lake to save Oregon and the nation. They went back to their phones and their beds and the lives they had been living before.
Exchange isn’t revolution and to some it hardly looks like action. To me, though, exchange is what meaningful change requires: change in circumstances and systems depends on exchange between people.
I know I wasn’t alone in feeling hopeful as I left the community center that night. One woman who has been involved for decades in collaborative efforts like these spoke with clarity and emotion just before we all turned from conversation to cake. She talked of how much it means to sit in circles, to have people sitting together, and of how rare and valuable it is to do one of the most difficult and most important things we can: to listen to one another.
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