Jazz Mondays

“Community cannot for long feed on itself, it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers [and sisters].”
~ Dr. Howard Thurman

At the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal in New Orleans, a phrase was coined to capture what can happen at the start of a volunteer work week: “Jazz Mondays”. The term is rooted in the experience of CELSJR as a host organization, watching as vastly different assumptions bump up against each other when those who come to help are not aware of the lenses through which they view a different reality. The assumptions concern time and timeliness, perceived efficiency or “wastes of time”, organization and preparedness, and a host of other things.

As a musical form, jazz is characterized by a strong but very flexible rhythmic understructure that supports almost infinite improvisation. The term “Jazz Mondays” reminds us that after all the orientation and preparation brought by our first weekend together, when we head out on Monday to engage the work, we must be flexible and open to things changing in unexpected ways. It’s important to remember that just because things change doesn’t mean they’ve gone wrong.

Here is a list of things that went “wrong”, according to guest workers who came to help. As you read this list, consider the ways that these perceptions have less to do with what actually happened, and perhaps more to do with the norms of white American culture.


  • Volunteers arrived early in the morning, bright-eyed and ready to work. However, the homeowner or site supervisor arrived late and came without the promised tools. Eyes rolled.
  • Overheard: “The site supervisor didn’t seem to know we were coming today.”
  • The service group got lost trying to find the site. They were given directions they did not understand.
  • “I can’t believe the site coordinator just chatted so much with the homeowner.”
  • The homeowner insisted on preparing and enjoying an extended lunch, which “ate into the work day.”
  • Volunteers needed to spend the entire first day assessing the site and gathering tools and materials rather than doing the “real work” they felt they were there to do.
  • The client would not listen to “the better plan” that they had readied before the trip, and instead insisted on going forward with his own plan.

In the scenario above, the guest workers are bringing an unexamined set of assumptions about how things should be done. These assumptions are connected to the supremacy of white cultural norms and ways of doing things. List as many assumptions as you can, then compare them to the following list.


In many cultures it is considered rude when one does not take the time to get acquainted with a visitor. The time spent “chatting” is often as valuable as any work you might do in assisting someone back to wholeness or higher functionality. There may not be the immediate satisfaction of rolling up your sleeves, swinging that hammer, and getting right to work.

But a huge part of cross-cultural work is simply touching lives. Sometimes that requires flowing with the unfolding of events or, like jazz, improvising on the fly.

The notion of “Jazz Mondays” is a constant encouragement for openness, for encountering the wonderful qualities that make human beings unique and magical.

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