Majoring In The Rest Of My Life

By Liz Massey, September 2017 Issue.

I come from a family of teachers. This tradition stretches back at least four generations and my relatives have taught everything from “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic” in a one-room schoolhouse to psychiatric nursing in a college setting.

But as much as my family has a tradition of valuing formal education, they also understood that most of the learning that is done – and possibly the most important lessons in life – happens outside of a classroom or training event. Well into their eighties, my parents continue to seek out information to increase their understanding of the world by talking to friends and neighbors, watching PBS and borrowing books at the library.

Educational consultant Jay Cross calls this behavior “informal learning,” which he defines as “the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most of us learn to do our jobs.”

I would expand that last phrase to read “to get through life.” If your school record wasn’t stellar, it may help to realize that informal learning comprises 80 percent of how people learn once they leave school. It’s largely motivated by necessity and curiosity, rather than someone else’s curriculum, so you can excel as an informal learner even if you were a mediocre student.

One of the places in which I personally have learned the most as an adult has been the LGBTQ community. I learned not just “know-how,” but “know-what-if” (modeling and prototyping solutions), “know-what-not” (critical thinking), “know-when” (planning and executing a project) and the all-important “know-who” (connecting with people to get things done).

Here is just a sampling of the many lessons I’ve learned from my “studies” as a queer activist:

  1. Group dynamics

    One of my first service activities after coming out and graduating from college was being on the board of an LGBTQ community center in the Midwest. Like a lot of all-volunteer organizations with no budget and high aspirations, our board was a motley assortment of passionate visionaries, who clashed on just about everything. But I did get something out of the experience. At 23, I began to understand how to get buy-in on a concept before proposing it formally, how to recruit colleagues who were a good fit for a working board, and how to resolve toxic conflicts in a healthy manner.
  2. Leadership

    In 2000, I became managing editor of Echo Magazine. I was asked to appear on local television and radio, and speak “for” the community on a regular basis. I also was asked to make presentations to employee groups in town, and to provide a weekly news update for a call-in radio show. All of these tasks stretched me WAY past my comfort zone as an introvert, and required me to assert myself at work in ways that I never had before.
  3. Networking

    When I was editor of Echo, I was in a position on a daily basis to connect members of our community with helpful resources. We often ran in the magazine our master list of LGBTQ community organizations to help people find support groups, recreational activities, churches, health organizations, musical ensembles, etc. This reinforced for me how powerful having a strong network of friends, acquaintances and community members can be.
  4. Creative development

    I’ve always considered myself a musician, and was active in choirs and bands from elementary school through college. However, it wasn’t until I joined LGBTQ-focused musical groups as an adult that I really understood how they enriched my life. No matter how much we had been stigmatized as individuals for being queer and/or trans, the members of the ensembles to which I belonged to were able to transcend labels and we made beautiful music together.
  5. Individuation

There’s nothing like being a member of a marginalized community to make you think long and hard about who you really are. Being exposed to the full spectrum of LGBTQ personalities, from briefcase-wielding businessmen to wild-eyed performance artists, has helped me discover who I am and how I fit in the queer community. Having a strong sense of self has proven to be a blessing during the current political crisis, during which “alternate facts” about the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups are being marketed as equivalent to the truth.

Most of what I learned informally through the LGBTQ community happened as a result of conversations, which Cross calls “the stem cells of learning.” The really wonderful thing about learning in our community is that it can happen at any time, and almost anywhere. To gain wisdom from our peers and allies, we don’t have to sign up for a formal program, we just have to start talking … and listening.

“[Conversations] both create and transmit knowledge,” Cross notes. “Open conversation increases innovation. People love to talk. Bringing them together brings excitement … The informal organization is how most work gets done.”

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