Ben's Bells Founder Researching Kind Communication
As a doctoral student in the University of Arizona Department of Communication, Jeannette Maré will research how best to equip people to practice kindness during difficult conversations.
A simple flower-shaped sticker, stamped with the words "Be Kind," has become a familiar sight on many Tucson vehicles. But the iconic decal is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work being done by local nonprofit organization Ben's Bells to promote kindness in the community.
The organization, which is committed to educating people about the importance of kindness, was founded by Jeannette Maré, who says the kindness of others was essential to her healing after the passing of her son 17 years ago.
Maré has now decided to take a deeper look at kindness by making kind communication the topic of her dissertation research at the University of Arizona.
Maré, who serves as Ben's Bells chief kindness officer, enrolled this fall as a doctoral student in the Department of Communication in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She plans to research how best to equip people with the skills they need to practice kindness during difficult conversations.
"In my generation, you were taught not to talk about things like race, religion, politics or grief, but if we don’t learn how to talk about these things, how can we expect to solve any of these problems?" Maré said. "I'm looking into what it takes to get people into the frame of mind that they need to be in to learn how to have these difficult conversations."
Her work will be advised by communication professor Kory Floyd, whose research focuses on the communication of affection.
"A consistent finding in my research is that people profit both by receiving affection from others and also by giving it," Floyd said. "By encouraging kindness, Jeannette's work benefits not only the recipients of that kindness, but also those who provide it."
Maré is not a new face on campus; she essentially grew up at the University of Arizona. Her father was a professor, and Maré earned her bachelor's degree in linguistics from the university in 1989. She later worked as a sign language interpreter for the Disability Resource Center, and in 2000, she joined the faculty in the College of Education, where she taught linguistics and sign language interpreting for about a decade.
After running the nonprofit Ben's Bells for 16 years, Maré decided this year to reduce her hours with the organization so she could return to school. The transition was made possible in part by the hiring of a new executive director for Ben's Bells, Helen Gomez, who previously served as director of external and alumni relations for the College of Humanities.
Maré has always loved academia, so a return to the classroom came naturally for her. Yet, it was personal tragedy that led her to the research she's pursuing today.
In 2002, Maré's life forever changed when her 3-year-old son, Ben, died unexpectedly.
To help her through her grief, she began doing ceramics with family and friends in her backyard. What started as a therapeutic exercise soon grew into something much larger.
On the first anniversary of Ben's death, hundreds of handmade ceramic bells were hung throughout Tucson in his memory, with the goal of spreading a message of kindness – something that had been critical to Maré and her family in their healing process. Passersby who found a bell were invited it to take it home with them, with a reminder to "Be Kind."
The effort led to the formation of the Ben's Bells, which continues to distribute bells in Ben's memory to this day.
Since its inception in 2003, the organization has grown significantly. More than 25,000 people volunteer annually with Ben's Bells, which has four studio locations – two in Tucson, one in Phoenix and another in Connecticut. A retail arm sells merchandise, including handmade ornaments, clothing, stickers, magnets and more. The organization also offers a variety of educational programs that are used worldwide to promote kindness in schools, workplaces and other organizations.
"We need to encourage people to prioritize kindness because it is vital for pretty much everything else we do," Maré said. "I use the analogy of a beachball in the air. If the beachball is kindness, Ben's Bells' job is to keep that thing in the air. We want to keep reminding people and keep talking about it."
Through her work with Ben's Bells, Maré says she's been continually inspired by people's desire to practice kindness. That, coupled with her own major loss, is what motivated her to return to school to study kind communication.
She said that after her son died, many people wanted to support her, but weren't sure what to say.
"I found myself, as a former linguist, actually helping people and teaching people. I realized that it's not rocket science, but it is something that we need to learn intentionally. I'm looking at how we can do that better – how we can learn that skillset," she said.
"The reason I wanted to study communication is because it's how we enact kindness. People may have the intention to be kind, but it is not enough. There needs to be a skillset that allows us to produce a message – verbally or nonverbally – that actually results in support."
The University of Arizona has a number of ties to Ben's Bells, which has its original studio location just off campus on University Boulevard.
In the spring, the College of Education will become the first university organization in the country to participate in Ben's Bells' Kind College Campus program, a new initiative available to any college or university entity that wishes to cultivate a culture of kindness. A similar Kind Campus program has already been introduced in more than 500 K-12 schools worldwide.
Ben's Bells also partners with the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Students in the school's Community Research, Evaluation and Development program help evaluate the effectiveness of Ben's Bells' in-school programming.
Additionally, Maré said, Ben's Bells hopes to create a series of kindness education videos in the future, in which UArizona researchers from a variety of disciplines share their expertise on kindness.
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