I met Manon van Hoeckel in the midst of the corona epidemic. We already briefly came across each other several months before at an event in Amsterdam, but due to the busy pre-corona schedule, we didn't arrange a follow-up. It's ironic that a global epidemic, which prevents people from meeting each other, finally gave us the opportunity to sit and chat about these exact topics: connections within the community.
Manon is a social designer, working to develop "tools for conversations." It sounds unnecessary, as we all know how to run a conversation: all you need is two people and a random topic. However, when it comes to the connection between institutions and the community, it's more difficult than it seems. Her innovative approach often gets her to be the intermediator between the governments and the community, trying to shape a space that is secure and comfortable for everybody.
We were sitting in her Volkstuin (The Dutch version of community gardens), 1.5 meters from each other. Manon told me about one of her most exciting projects: Coupe de Schiedam. She was asked by the Schiedam Museum to research what different residents think and feel about families and relationships with them. It is a personal and sensitive topic, and if you'd like people to share their deep and sincere thoughts about their family, you better get them comfortable and confident. The problem is that it's very difficult for institutions to intimately work with people. This is where governments often fail. Social workers tend to meet residents in an office, sitting across a table. "For many people, it is difficult to share personal issues in this situation."
That's when Manon realized that hair salons are the exact opposite of municipal offices. "When you look at people getting a haircut," she explained to me, "you see that they are talking, and the hairdresser is listening. He is hardly saying anything, just letting them speak". This thought led her to create the Coupe de Schiedam, a cooperation between the museum and 18 local hair salons. She designed hairdressing capes with a simple question: "How do you take care of your family?". The hairdressers were there to listen.
Photos by Aad Hoogendoorn.
Her story reminded me of a lovely book by Tal Ben-Shahar: Short Cuts to Happiness: Life-Changing Lessons from My Barber. Tal, a lecturer at Harvard University on the topics of happiness positive psychology, found his inspiration in his longtime barber Avi. Every chapter of the book sums up another realization that Tal got while getting a haircut: "I felt much better leaving Avi's place than I had entering it, and it cost me only seventy shekels (plus I got a free haircut for it, too)."
Manon and Tal have noticed something fundamental in our communities: many times, the people that get the conversation going, offer support, and connect the neighbors, are the pink-collar workers, like hairdressers, baristas, or clerks. We all know these people, that let you share and talk, where you don’t need to cut it short. How can institutions support these valuable members of society and work together with them to strengthen the community? These people are the eyes and ears in the city, and they should not be forgotten.
Volkstuin photo credit: De Kolonel, distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 license.