I Am What I Think You Think I Am

Sarah Wolf, MFA, MSSA Candidate
Community Innovation Network Graduate Student Research Assistant
February 8th, 2021

On February 1st, we launched our brand-new Foundations of Collaborative Community Change (FC3) with the first workshop, Change Agents Unite. As a Graduate Student Research Assistant at Community Innovation Network, I was so ready to be part of this incredible group of participants from all over the United States. We gathered in a virtual space ready to be inspired by the facilitators -- CIN Founder Dr. Mark Chupp and his Mandel School colleague Dr. Adrianne Fletcher -- and inspired by each other. To spark new joy into our community work. To aid in that process, Dr. Chupp and Dr. Fletcher guided us in thoughtful dialogue -- and introduced some very poignant exercises.

Namely, we did “The Looking Glass Self Exercise,” something always available in our CIN Toolkits. In this exercise, we were introduced to a 1902 poem by Charles Horton Cooley: Each to each a looking glass / reflects the other that does pass / I am not what I think I am / I am not what you think I am / Rather, I am what / I think you think / I am. If you feel like your mind is being bent around a spoon reading that, you’re not alone. It’s a lot to process. The exercise allows for the beginnings of that exploration of perceptions -- of preconceived notions -- of the baggage we each carry into any room, but especially a room where we might be new or unknown by others. The exercise pushes us to think about what we believe others notice about us (whether it’s true or not is beside the point) and begins a deep self-exploration about biases we carry, not only in relation to others but how we assume others might categorize us.

If you need to take a moment for a deep inhale and a deep exhale, I feel that. Take that moment and breathe. This is heady stuff.

To do this exercise in FC3, we were randomly assigned a partner and whisked away to a Zoom Breakout Room to spend ten minutes or so with a stranger to tell them what we thought they must be noticing about us. Our partners were not to confirm or deny anything we shared -- later, we’d get to ask each other questions -- but this first round was merely us speaking about who we thought our partner thought we were.

I’m not going to lie: it was awkward.

That awkwardness was buried in the vulnerability it took to speak out loud things we likely noticed about ourselves -- areas both of strength and weakness -- and because we were given something close to five minutes each to do this, it became a scramble. Five minutes is a long time to speak only about what our external selves might be projecting -- especially when our partners couldn’t give us feedback. For me, I spoke about being a white woman living in a city like Cleveland Heights and how that likely suggested I was pretty liberal. I pointed out my bright Christmas lights in the background -- “Maybe I’m fun,” I offered. I squinched my glasses up my nose and pondered if I had bad eyesight or if I wore these because I was at the computer -- were they even prescription glasses? I swiveled a little extra in my chair while musing that maybe I was distractible. I nodded at some art on the wall behind me that an extra keen eye might notice was yoga-related. Maybe I did yoga? Or liked calming things? I seemed to be sitting in a fairly open space -- assuming this was my home, perhaps I lived alone, maybe I was single/childless/pet-less. I was attending this training, so perhaps I was a do-gooder of some variety -- perhaps I had a real investment in community work and wanted to gain new skills, perspectives, and know-how.

That sort of thing.

As I mentioned, there are further rounds of this exercise where we return to our breakout room with the same partner to dive deeper and actually dialogue a bit -- talking through some of our assumptions and stereotypes and how they were applicable or not. And while the entire experience was meaningful and enlightening, my brain really attached to that Phase 1: Who Do I Think You Think I Am? In what I often refer to as my “previous life,” I ran small businesses -- I was a manager, a boss, someone who dealt with clients, customers, students, the public. In order to do this job efficiently and effectively, I had learned to steel myself against these kinds of perceptions. I had to make tough decisions, hire and fire, resolve conflicts, and uphold community standards -- getting bogged down in what others thought of me was more about them than it was about me, right? As a huge fan of the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, I was used to hearing Ru quote Eleanor Roosevelt: What other people think of me is none of my business.

At the Change Agents Unite training, I brought this musing to the full cohort, introducing this quotation that I’d always found useful and powerful. While thoughtful nods appeared around the Zoom screen, Dr. Fletcher said after a moment of pause, “Yes… That quote’s a bit defensive, isn’t it?” The group discussion moved on, but my brain recorded that moment. I reflected back on it later that evening and again the next day as we returned for Day 2 of Change Agents Unite. The conversation about perception and bias continued on with ever-increasing layers of meaningfulness, anchored in the Looking Glass exercise. With each passing moment, it became clearer to me how valuable considering and confronting how I thought others might think of me as an opportunity for personal empowerment was as an avenue for growth and change. How incorporating that layer of vulnerability only enriches the soil of the community being created, even if it’s only between two strangers in a Zoom Breakout Room.

In this era of the United States where divisions feel more pronounced than since pre-Civil Rights, the cultivation of personal vulnerability is a necessary tool. Without it, we live by the same motto as a magnet my college roommate and I once jokingly bought for our refrigerator: I’M RIGHT AND YOU’RE STUPID. Being willing to consider other viewpoints, being willing to examine our own viewpoints with a 360-degree vision requires openness, softness. It requires the ability to budge -- not to change your values or opinions, necessarily, but to be open to the fact that just because someone thinks differently than you, it doesn’t mean there’s no common ground. A true and honest self-exploration of your own deep-seeded beliefs may also bring you back to the root of what has shaped you in a meaningful and perhaps even enlightening way.

It can start by thinking about how you think others think about you. That draws focus to areas that create social assets, areas where you think discord might unfurl, areas where communications might thrive or break down. Doing the Looking Glass exercise -- cultivating your own vulnerability -- is the secret ingredient in order to break through barriers, build bridges, burst bubbles.

Thank you, Change Agents Unite -- thank you Dr. Chupp and Dr. Fletcher -- thank you to the others in the workshop -- for co-creating this meaningful space of personal reflection and growth. I am truly humbled by the experience. My eyes are opening in new ways not only to the world around me but my place in it. With the bravery of vulnerability comes the dissipation of boundaries, roadblocks, and stubborn immobility. Next steps await all who are ready to take them.

The next FC3 training, Asset Based Community Development, will take place March 15th & 16th from 9am-4pm via Zoom. To register for ABCD or any of the other upcoming FC3 workshops, email jpgraulty@case.edu or use the registration form.