Tag Archives: Stuart Chittenden

Stranger in a Strange Land

December 30, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Growing up in London, Stuart Chittenden found himself a bit obsessed with America: its historical complexities, its social turmoil, its pioneering spirit, its glitz and glamor. He read tons of American authors, luxuriating in the majesty of the open road as portrayed in works like John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. He watched Taxi and Mash.

Eventually, Chittenden moved to Omaha, married an American woman (fashion writer Amy Chittenden), and landed probably the most interesting job title ever: chief curiosity officer for David Day Associates. He’s a perennial TEDxOmaha presenter and something of a conversation artist. His consultancy, Squishtalks, offers conversation-based workshops for businesses, organizations, and individuals.

Chittenden’s recent project, “a couple of 830 mile long conversations,” marks his most significant offering to the cultural fabric of our state (so far).

“a couple of 830 mile long conversations” traverses the state’s vast geography to explore the ways in which landscape—physical, historical—informs a sense of community. The effort, one that received funding from Humanities Nebraska/Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Omaha Creative Institute, and several individuals, is part field recording, part personal quest to understand an unfamiliar place.

Last summer, Chittenden packed some pricey mobile audio-recording equipment—on loan from Clete Baker of Studio B—into an aging R.V. and rambled west down highways and gravel roads seeking to capture a representative sample of the voice of Nebraska as it exists in the moment.

By recording unscripted, spontaneous conversations in public (libraries, cafes, sidewalks) he began to discover the feeling of life in Gordon, Chadron, Norfolk, Alliance, Broken Bow, and other places formerly alien to him.    

“I had a sense of what Nebraska could be,” he says. “I’d seen photographs. I’d heard people describe their experiences growing up in smaller towns. I expected to be surprised by some of the beauty in different places, and maybe to find some places to be a little drab—this idea of rural communities sort of collapsing in on themselves.”

That’s pretty much what happened. Some communities emanated vibrancy; others seemed bleak. The prairie’s “very quiet but intimidating beauty” struck him as sublime, most evidently in the lakes and waterways. The Sand Hills, greatly exaggerated by friends and colleagues over the years, did not blow his mind.

“Overwhelmingly, I was warmly received,” he notes. “I was really impressed with the courage of many people to engage with someone who was obviously a stranger. Even those people that didn’t choose to join in the conversation, they were warm.”

Happily, the conversations he recorded dug deeper than weather and the Huskers. “I remember one gentleman, he was in a mobile electric wheelchair. I literally sat on the curb for 90 minutes and chatted with him.”

As for how landscape shapes a community’s self-perception, Chittenden noticed a marked shift the further west he went. The primary difference between eastern and western Nebraska, he contends, has to do with geography’s time-compression effect. The buttes, vast skies, and wagon ruts of western Nebraska seem to shrink the years, creating a visceral connection to history.

That’s not to say the pioneering spirit is dead in Omaha. It simply takes a different form here: the entrepreneurial mindset.

“In Omaha,” Chittenden says, “they don’t look for wagons. They look for Warren.”

Visit 830nebraska.com to listen to stories from the project.

StuartChittendenWeb2

Politics and Moral Distractions at Work

November 25, 2012 by

The elections were over in November, but the political conversations continue in the workplace.

“How did this happen? I can’t believe he’s President!”

“When is Congress going to get over the bipartisanship and get to work?”

“Those Super PACs completely changed the game. All they did was lie, and no one held them accountable!”

“I am so angry about the political climate in Washington that I could burst!”

It’s not just employee conversations over the cubicle walls. Employers are talking politics, too. For example, David Siegel is the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the largest privately owned time-share company in the world. He sent a memo to his 7,000 employees before the election stating that they need to worry about their jobs if Barack Obama gets re-elected. Obamacare and higher taxes, Siegel argued, are running his firm into the ground (Bloomberg Businessweek, October 10, 2012).

When should employees and employers feel comfortable expressing political views at work?

The Business Ethics Alliance held its fall dialogue last October about politics, business, and ethics. One reocurring theme was that political conversations at work are morally acceptable, as long as they do not take away from the real purpose of business. In keeping with this idea, the point was made that business leaders can, and should, educate employees about how to unify their voices on political positions that can greatly affect the stability of the firm or its industry.

So the bottom line is—stick to business. Don’t get distracted from business while at work. Focus, focus, focus.

But there is something unsaid here, some unspoken truth that is left out of this bottom line picture. This unspoken truth was beautifully expressed after the Business Ethics Alliance Dialogue by Stuart Chittenden on his SquishTalks blog:

“If businesses’ inflexibly require employees to engage only in subjects or topics that are…purely related to work, then the outcome inevitably is minimal breakthrough success for that business, a bland organizational culture, and impossible personal growth and fulfillment for the employee.”

Stuart helps us recognize the unspoken truth of the bottom line paradigm. When we focus only on business at work, we deny the human yearnings that deeply engage us. In one sense, being whole people at work is actually advantageous for business. Success in business can be measured by the numbers, but also by enlivening cultures and human flourishing. In other words, politics and moral distractions can positively feed business success.

Yet…is there more to the unspoken truth? I cannot help but press our reflection one step further…because thus far we are making the “business case” for why we should break through to our deeply held political and moral values at work. But what if, just what if, human dignity and flourishing is not merely an instrument for business success but is, rather, its raison d’etre?

And these human yearnings are the real source of the ethics that drive us to do and be better.
Respect
Freedom
Human dignity
Deeper
Being human
Breaking through to the real

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Business Ethics Alliance and Chair of Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University’s College of Business.