Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Interview with Jessica Holden Sherwood

Meet Jessica Holden Sherwood – a Museum member since 2004 who joined the Board of Directors in 2007 and became Board president in 2009.
How and why did you get involved with the Museum?
My children, now ages 6 and 8, went to the Museum for about a year before I ever did. My husband always returned raving about what a great place it was. I eventually learned it myself and checked the “interested in volunteering” box. I am a member of the Museum because it’s a great place to bring my children: an active, engrossing, commercial-free, educational great place. I am a supporter of the Museum because of its social services and its commitment to all children.

How has the Museum changed since you first became a member?
The obvious answer is the three new exhibits. Less obvious: small changes virtually every time we visit – under the admission desk, the window boxes of the ramp, toys on the floor with the blocks. Also, the environments are so rich, it can seem changed with each visit even if it isn't – you notice or focus someplace you never had before. Even less obvious: have successfully completed a $1.5 million capital campaign and we're deep in the black!

You’ve been part of the Museum’s long-range planning. What do you hope for its future?
That the Museum continues to serve families who can't afford to come, expands service to kids in Head Start and after-school programs and changes exhibits. That everyone in Rhode Island respects the Museum as a resource and advocate for children's well being.

How do you spend your time when you’re not busy with your Board duties?
Work as a sociologist, for URI and for Sociologists for Women in Society, an international association of a thousand feminist sociologists.

As a sociologist, what’s your perspective on the Museum’s work?

I am sensitive to the many ways in which inequalities get reproduced – or sometimes interrupted. I'm really pleased that the Museum is an "interrupter" rather than a "reproducer." On class, the Museum is available to poor and near-poor families, not just those who can afford the admission fee. On race: 1) the Museum teaches about our history of immigration, and 2) it's one of the few places that kids from all different backgrounds and neighborhoods mix it up together. On gender, the Museum is a welcome respite from the sexism that infuses way too much of children's recreation and even their education.

What about the work around play?
I think that American parents are typically anxious these days, about their children's futures. Let's not dismiss this as a sort of group neurosis. It makes perfect sense, given the socioeconomic insecurity that Americans confront. With fewer social supports than most other developed countries, in America much more (e.g. health care dependent on current job) is riding on individual achievement. The stakes are high.

So, parents feel they are serving their kids' best interest by scheduling almost all of their time. In disadvantaged neighborhoods, this can be to keep kids safe from threats. In affluent neighborhoods, this can be – consciously or unconsciously – the start of a lifetime of resumé-building, to get into a good college, in order to have a successful adulthood.

The message of the American Academy of Pediatrics and of the Museum is that unscheduled time serves the kids' interest, too. The Museum is helping play to get the respect it deserves! This message is healthy for both children and adults.

What is your kids’ favorite exhibit and why?
I don't think my kids have a favorite exhibit, although when they were younger it was Water Ways. Like I said, we find ourselves focusing on different places on different visits. This works best, of course, when I follow rather than try to lead – I stop myself from directing them. One day Abigail spent almost an hour sitting at the table of interlocking plastic shapes, working diligently until she had made a … dodecahedron, I think.

What’s yours?
I don't have a favorite exhibit, I have a favorite element: grown-up seating in each exhibit. Sometimes – especially in the most exhausted years of early parenthood – I just want to sit there and do nothing, comfortable knowing that the children don't need vigilant supervision while they're in the Museum.

I like how the Museum welcomes grown-up involvement in kids' play but doesn't require it. I was at a children's museum once where a sign instructed parents to put away their cell phones and play with their children. I understand the motivation for that message, but at the same time, I appreciate that Providence Children's Museum is also a guilt-free zone.
Thanks, Jessica! What do YOU think about Jessica's sociological perspective? About growing parental anxiety and overscheduling?

1 comment:

Janice said...

As the executive director, I know how lucky we are (and I am) that the Museum has such smart, thoughtful, dedicated volunteer leadership. Jessica really understands what we're trying to do. - Janice