From Sesame Street to Phillips, Wisconsin: Teaching Others About Empathy, Dignity and the Way the World Ought to Be

December 22, 2021
  • Mary Rudder
  • Mary Rudder
    Director of Communications at Barry-Wehmiller

The friendly face on the other end of the Zoom call looked very familiar. You know how it is when you meet someone and you swear you’ve met them before.

Her name was Alison Bartlett, and she was a documentary filmmaker who had been asked to produce a short film about Barry-Wehmiller. The request came from Michael Pirson, a professor at Fordham University and the founder of the International Humanistic Management Association.

Michael was scheduled to visit our BW Papersystems facility in Phillips, Wisconsin to witness firsthand our Truly Human Leadership culture and what it is like to work at Barry-Wehmiller. He and Barry-Wehmiller’s CEO Bob Chapman were hoping Alison could capture the experience to share with others who couldn’t see it in person.

Michael is collaborating with us to bring the caring concepts of Truly Human Leadership that we teach within BW to business students at Fordham and other Jesuit Universities as well as the global network of business leaders he has assembled through the IHMA. We’ll share more on Michael and his work in a future post. For now, let’s get back to my Zoom call with Alison.

“Where in the world is this place?” she asked, a hint of cynicism in her voice.

Like many East Coasters, Alison’s familiarity with Midwestern geography seemed to begin and end at Chicago.

“It’s in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, in a quaint little town called Phillips, 180 or so miles northwest of Green Bay. Population about 1,400,” I replied. As I tell her this, I keep wondering where I’ve met this woman before. Why does she seem so familiar?

“Tell me more about what I will see,” she continued.

“Well, you really need to experience it to understand what’s going on there,” I replied. “At BW Papersystems, our team members build corrugators, which are massive pieces of equipment that produce corrugated board that box making or consumer goods companies then turn into shipping boxes and other packaging products. And while that’s very interesting to see, what’s really special about BW Papersystems, what’s really the essence of BW Papersystems, is the way they build those machines.

“You’ll see people who genuinely love their jobs. You’ll see people who feel listened to and cared for and part of something bigger than themselves. You’ll see people whose lives have become so much better because they work there. You’ll see people committed to taking care of the business and taking care of each other. You’ll witness a business that honors people’s dignity and that heals people from within. Essentially, you’ll see business the way it should be. What’s going on in Phillips is proof that, in business, you can treat people well and perform well at the same time.”

“What you’ve described sounds amazing but it’s my nature to look for loopholes,” she explained. “I need to see for myself if it really is that way. Looks like I need to get a crew together to experience northern Wisconsin!”

When our call ended, I immediately Googled Alison. Turns out, she was a familiar face. From 1986-2015, Alison played Gina Jefferson on Sesame Street, the groundbreaking children’s television show that has taught millions of kids about letters and numbers but also about concepts like being kind and respectful and the value of working together. My three young sons had enjoyed watching Sesame Street during part of that stretch and so Alison was in our living room day after day.

And very soon, Alison would be in our BW Papersystems plant to see caring and dignity and working together toward a common purpose inside a manufacturing plant. Something told me Alison was going to be a good fit to tell our story.

Upon returning from two days of interviewing and filming our team members in Phillips, Alison shared this:

“I’m a native New Yorker who has spent the last 40 years in the entertainment industry as an actor, writer, and filmmaker. Needless to say I have learned the fine art of armoring up to the rampant dignity violations seen in the workplace on any given day.

"My visit to Barry-Wehmiller broke me open, allowing a small respite from my cynicism. It was not at a church, rally, march, nor on the steps of any government building--it was inside a manufacturing plant in Phillips, Wisconsin where I witnessed the simplicity of dignified, kind, truly human leadership.”

She talked of her experiences through the years with many successful companies “with great mission statements where the work gets done all while the employees’ dignity and value are continuously compromised. At Barry-Wehmiller, it was incredible to see the two united.”

When Alison and her team finished editing the short film, she said “It was a privilege to listen to the phenomenal minds both in the plant and conference rooms who shared their hearts about working for an organization where they can contribute their gifts meaningfully. I now feel a huge pull to create a larger documentary that encompasses the global philosophies I heard in the small town of Phillips, Wisconsin. May we all work tirelessly and together to heal what’s broken.

“This film is my gift to you. Let’s share it with the world as an example of what it can be like for people.”

In this season of gift giving, I’m honored to share Alison’s gift with all of you. Maybe it will lift someone’s spirits, give someone hope, open hearts and minds to the way business could be. Hopefully, some of you will share it, too.

If it can happen in an industrial manufacturing plant in Phillips, Wisconsin, couldn’t it happen anywhere? May we all work together tirelessly to help heal what’s broken.

You can watch Hearts and Hands, directed by Alison Bartlett here:

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