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‘The Exchange’: participant reflects on Boston experience

Kacey Hall, Loretta Gillespie, Kristi Robertson and Proncey Robertson, make up the team of people who traveled to Boston as part of a cultural exchange experiment. / The Exchange

The Tribune’s Loretta Gillespie went on a special journey last week. She was one of four people from Lawrence County who were in Boston for a project called “Just Smile Boston.”

Gillespie, along with Kacey Hall and Proncey and Kristi Robertson make up Team LC; the team’s mission is to help bridge the gap between rural and urban communities as a part of a documentary series called “The Exchange.” The documentary’s website calls it “a series about people who live in different places, face different challenges and experience our country in completely different ways.”

ExchangeNation Founder and CEO Susanne Goldstein said on the project’s funding website, “As a city-person from Boston, MA, and a citizen who cares deeply about the Divide in our country, I set out earlier this year to shoot the documentary film ‘Blue Girl in a Red State’ in Lawrence County, Alabama. I wanted to help ‘burst the bubble’ that many have been living in and share the hopes and dreams of a Southern, rural community with city dwellers around the country. I began to understand why our affiliations, hopes and dreams are so different, and as I did, the project morphed into a documentary TV series we’re calling ‘The Exchange.’”

Here, Gillespie reflects on her experience.

When this journey started it was a surprise that there was such a great divide between the cultures in our country, and not about hot topics like religion, race or football team preference. The division seems to come about between urban and rural cultures.

We all know in the South the first questions our parents and grandparents ask a stranger are, “Who is your family?” and “Where do you attend church?”

In Boston, you are apt to be asked first, “What do you do?” followed by, “Where did you go to school?”

Education is paramount, evidenced by so many colleges and universities in Boston and neighboring Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT. More than 100, seems to be the general figure. With all of those graduates coming out and looking for jobs, it stands to reason that a person would be interested in where someone attended. The Boston culture welcomes those graduates, and is doing a great job of providing a place for them to enter into the fast-paced world of high tech business.

They make available something as simple (to us) as shared working and co-working space, which can be as simple as a desk space, rented by the month. As a person’s business grows, they move on to a cubicle, then an office in a building filled with similar such offices, rented for as long as one needs the space.  Later, as expansion occurs, larger spaces can accommodate a small staff. Conference rooms and snack bars are provided for networking with other start-up companies, possibly in the same building, or meetings with experts in desired fields who might send a speaker to discuss merging into a larger firm, or perhaps just outlining business opportunities in general.

But it’s not all just high tech. There is Commonwealth Kitchen, which provides health department-approved rental space for people who want to start food service type businesses. One young lady has a degree in advanced data analysis, but she wants to work for herself eventually, so she paid to take a course in food safety, which is required, and now she rents a space to make baked goods at four times the speed that she was formerly doing at home.  For $35 per hour, she has the use of a commercial kitchen space, which includes commercial mixers, refrigerators, ovens, freezers and other amenities. Commonwealth Kitchen provides its clients with services like developing food ingredient labels, packaging and marketing information. 

“I’ve always wanted to do something like this, but I could never have accomplished it without the use of these commercial ovens and other tools, and I can do it in less than half the time that it would take me at home,” pointed out one tenant. 

Caterers, food truck owners and aspiring restaurant owners also take advantage of the space. Many of the tenants are single moms who can rent the space after normal working hours to earn extra money by selling baked goods.

One of the largest gatherings that the group from Alabama attended was a question and answer session at a venue called MassChallenge, which offers people a chance to attend meetings geared toward social issues, business ventures and cultural affairs. Conference rooms can be rented, day or night. The whole building, which is located in a converted warehouse, is divided into sections, which can be rented by teams, businesses and pretty much professionals of all kinds. Some of it was described as being a “think tank.” There was even a sleep box, designed for those sometimes-necessary power naps.

At the MassChallenge event, which showcased ExchangeNation, the cultural exchange between Bostonians and four Alabama natives from different walks of life, locals had the opportunity to ask questions about our culture. It was a surprise to them to learn that many of our citizens enjoy life into their 80s and 90s, having eaten all of the fried foods we are known to consume, and the sweet tea we are famous for drinking.

Bostonians asked questions about our churches, race relations and recipes for Thanksgiving. It seemed odd to them that we smile at strangers and that we often throw up a hand to a passing car without knowing the occupant.

Some of them were quite surprised to learn that Boston had the dubious honor of being named the fifth most unfriendly city in the United States. “We’re learning a lot about the things that make us similar,” said Goldstein, “and perhaps more importantly, we’re learning about our differences.”

While there, the team from Alabama was on a mission to make busy Bostonians smile. The time chosen for the experiment was a blustery, gray day. The scene was the morning commute, as Bostonians were disembarking the train and coming out the turnstile onto the city street, at one of the busiest corners of the city. Had the sun been shining it would almost have been blocked out by the tall buildings which surround everything downtown.

As workers exited the train stop, they were met by a most unusual sight…smiling faces bearing greetings of, ”Hi, good morning! How are you? Would you like a freshly baked biscuit?” by four strangers wearing “JustSmile.Boston!” sweatshirts and the ugliest knit caps known to man.

The experiment was more than just to determine who would smile back or take a biscuit from the basket; it was about showing Bostonians a warmer, more open and friendlier atmosphere. One man barked back to Kacey Hall, “There ain’t nothing to smile about!” as he kept walking. Others simply avoided eye contact in spite of various greetings. However, the 30 or so commuters who did stop were very nice and willing to smile for the camera, take a biscuit and often question what was going on. It must have seemed safe to them because of the television cameras.

“I haven’t had a biscuit in 20 years,” said one lady who asked for an extra biscuit to take to her coworker who was coming to Alabama for the Thanksgiving holidays. There were tears in the lady’s eyes as she thanked the team for coming out on such a cold day to spread cheer in an otherwise unlikely place.

Several smiled, but refused the offered biscuit, but by and large, they kept walking and looked worried, ear buds firmly in place, cell phones held up to their chins and coat collars gathered about their faces. Maybe they are so unfriendly because it’s so blasted cold there, but for whatever reason, the team did manage to give away about 35 out of 40 biscuits.

“Our urban/rural bridgebuilding program is about sharing skills, culture and economic development with the hope that we can work together to improve our circumstances and heal the divide in our country,” said Goldstein. “This first Exchange was a huge success because of the openness and willingness of the team members from Alabama.”

Alabama has the space, trained workforce and determination. Boston has the venture capital and the willingness to tackle start-up businesses in several areas.

Goldstein plans to sell the series as a network or HBO pilot.

Learn more at www.facebook.com/ExchangeNation and www.facebook.com/JustSmileBoston or http://exchangenation.tv.

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