A Blind Experience: The Blind Cafe in San Francisco

What would you do if you were to go blind today? If you lost all sense of sight and were pitched into darkness?

Saturday night, I experienced a tiny sliver of the experience that blind people have each day at the Blind Cafe in San Francisco. Previously mentioned in this blog post, the Blind Cafe is also called a pop-up restaurant. It’s a 3 day event: 3 night of dinners with a concert included.

The Blind Cafe - a community event.

The Blind Cafe, a community event where people connect, learn and grow in the dark.

The venue was the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, a local community center. The main multipurpose room was transformed into the dark room, and this is where the blind experience began.

Pulling back the curtain, a guide escorted me through the maze created to maintain the total darkness within the large room which served as the dining hall and concert venue. I hadn’t thought that the cup of red wine I was holding could easily be a hazard in a room of “temporarily blind” individuals.

As my guide pulled me through the room, he whispered to me, “stand here.” I clung to his arm as I tried to get my bearings in the completely dark room.

Without my eyes, I wish I could have walked around the room, touching everything, running my hands along to feel the rough, splintery wood walls, or the protruding upraised stage, and feel the placement of the plastic tables and folding chairs around the room. I couldn’t, though, as Rosh, the performer, sang on stage. It likely would have meant a collision with another individual would have spilled red wine on my white button-up shirt…

Conversation and laughter bubbled up from around me, sporadically, but I couldn’t tell from where. After while of struggling, trying to pinpoint and analyze the layout of the room, and the people, and the decor, I let it go. For a night, I could give up my reliance on my sight and experience some of what a blind person might experience.

I remained where I was, relaxing as the concert went on, hearing more clearly than before as Rosh sang along with his acoustic guitar on stage. I saw this as a chance to listen a little closerwithout the distraction of my eyes and sight – to take comfort in the cloak of darkness and relishing the fact that I could focus on one less sense, at least for a night.

One Eye Glass Broken website.

One Eye Glass Broken performed at the San Francisco Blind Cafe.

Events by Collette organized the event, Rosh & One Eye Glass Broken came to play, blind guests of honor represented and spoke, blind waitstaff were involved, individuals such as Chef Kaz from Breakthrough Sushi donated their services to the delicious vegan menu and many other volunteers staffed the event. An incredible effort of many – awesome job to everyone who was involved, attended and supported the event!


Jen Burstedt

Stirring Empathy in Others: A Video

Empathy: how do you teach someone to look outside themselves?

I thought this short video did an amazing job of showing a glimpse inside people’s heads to teach (at least, in the short term) what is means to be empathetic.

Kudos to the marketing and communications team at Cleveland Clinic who produced this! Also, thank you to Connie Davis, Dr. Damara Gutnick and Kriss Haren for introducing it to me through their motivational interviewing workshop in Burbank.

empathy video by the Cleveland Clinic

A video made by the Cleveland Clinic on “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care.”

Spontaneity and Improv

“When you act or speak spontaneously, you reveal your real self, as opposed to the self you’ve been trained to present.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

Keith Johnstone's Impro book.

The cover of Impro, a book on improvisation by Keith Johnstone.

Improv class: I’m currently in week 4 of 6 weeks of improvisation class – “Foundations 2” or the second level of improv at the BATS School of Improv in San Francisco. This past Thursday night, the small class of 7 students plus teacher and TA worked on the improv concept of spontaneity.

Being spontaneous has never been a strength of mine, but over the 3 hour session, I explored parts of myself and got to act out a few scenes myself. Apparently, I haven’t been traditionally good at it because I haven’t practiced it enough.

I refer to Johnstone since his book “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” is required reading for the course. Johnstone is British, pontifical and hilarious. Along the lines of spontaneity, Johnstone also says, “If you improvise spontaneously in front of an audience you will have to accept that your innermost self will be revealed.”


My scene, which I played with a male classmate, Rob, started out with a suggestion of a location.

“Ice skating rink!” yelled one of our improv classmates.

Rob and I stood in an awkward pose, with me half-bent over, as if falling, and he reaching out his arm as if to hold me up. The scene starts, and I immediately justify the pose.

“Whoa, almost fell there!” I exclaim.

“You’re catching on pretty quick,” Rob says, “learning how to ice skate. You’ll have it down in no time.”

I smile, as we continue to hold arms and pretend to skate across the stage. “Yeah – best first date ever!”

We just created a scene – I’m doing improv – and, obviously, as a single woman, this common theme has spilled out from me onto our scene: dating.

Somedays, improv is like group therapy, where you get to reveal and discover parts of yourself that are locked up, showing yourself for the raw, vulnerable human being you are. And this is yet another reason why improv is amazing.

Bonus: improv games that you can try at home – some of which we play in my class.


Jen Burstedt

Blind Cafe: Pop Up Cafe & Dining in the Dark

This Saturday and Sunday, I’m volunteering at The Blind Cafe, a pop up restaurant event which has toured multiple cities and will be coming to San Francisco March 21 – 23rd, 2014. Organized by Events by Collette and staffed by numerous volunteers, the event features dinner and a concert with chefs, kitchen staff and performers who are donating their time as well.

Blind Cafe attendee, Richie, who is also the President of the National Federation for the Blind in Austin, TX.

Blind Cafe attendee, Richie, who is also the President of the National Federation for the Blind in Austin, TX.

The cafe gives sighted people an experience about what it is like to be blind; as it combines dinner with concert, blind staff serve food and escort guests throughout the pitch-black dark experience, which is held inside a space which has been blacked out to simulate being blind.

First and foremost, the event is about community; it also includes a concert and a dinner in the dark, to raise awareness and build the community of people (sighted and blind), helping to promote mutual understanding and conversation.

Here’s a short video summarizing what the cafe is about.

As one of the performers at the event says in the video, “it’s a little uncomfortable to go in a pitch dark room with 100 people. It’s extra loud, it’s really intense – and you’re at this table and you don’t know… suddenly you have to relate with your wife and your fork in a completely different way.”

Executive Chef of Chefler, Jamie Harrington, said, “it took about 5 minutes of talking of talking with [the event organizer] to know that I should be a part of this. It’s extremely special  – a once-in-a-lifetime thing for any chef. I came here and found that it was very necessary to sit down, go in the dark, have my eyesight taken away from me… When you’re a chef, you get to create art that engages every sense.

Food breaks down boundaries.”

One of the blind volunteers, Darian Smith, says,

“One of the fun parts is you get to talk to so many people. That’s really cool. I’ve gotten to meet people and connect with people. It’s a connection that I don’t have very often. Maybe you see them [someone who is blind] walking down the street and maybe you’re thinking about everything else but asking a question.

But here you get to.”

I’m so looking forward to gaining new perspective, having interesting conversations and meeting fellow volunteers and Blind Cafe attendees alike this Saturday.

Logo for Blind Cafe.

The Blind Cafe logo.


Interested in volunteering? Let me know if you’d like to join me at jen burstedt [at] gmail [dot] com, and I can connect you to the event organizer.


Jen Burstedt

Motivational Interviewing: Working Together for Change

How do you motivate someone else to change their behavior when they haven’t previously responded to your advice, knowledge and repeated expertise, and is ambivalent about making change?

Yesterday, I finished day 2 of a 2 day workshop where I started to learn a skill that may prove to be more powerful than persuasion, at least in the context of changing someone else’s behavior who is ambivalent about something in their life: motivational interviewing.

My day job at California Quality Collaborative (CQC), a program of Pacific Business Group on Health, works to educate medical groups, health plans and hospitals to teach specific trainings on quality improvement and build capacity of individuals to sustain the change through skills and methodologies. This workshop was one of the trainings we organize.

The key message of motivational interviewing: this is a skill that allows you to work more effectively with someone and change their behavior (and there is even clinical evidence to support it).

Instead of demanding that someone changes, you first:

  • Treat them with compassion
  • Accept who they are
  • See your relationship as a partnership
  • Work in the spirit of evocation (compassion, acceptance, partnership, evocation = CAPE)

4 interaction skills are crucial to engaging with someone for motivational interviewing:

  • Open ended questions
  • Affirmations (affirming things that are good about a person but not complimenting someone)
  • Reflections (reflecting or repeating back to the patient what was said)
  • Summaries (summarizing what the patient said)

You can learn so much from people and build trust much faster when you use compassion, acceptance, partnership and evocation – and by asking people genuine, interested questions that leave space for answers.

Have you heard of motivational interviewing?

What has happened in the past when you try to help someone make a change in their life?


Jen Burstedt

What Makes You Happy?

It can be easy to get stressed out about things that happen in your life – like when you need to re-file your taxes, or when you’re disrupted on the bus by people who talk loudly on cell phones or when you are put on hold for 15 minutes while calling your bank with a 2 minute question.

For me, I like to write down what makes me happy and revisit this list when feeling frustrated or after I’ve had a bad day.

What kinds of things make me happy?

Francois' Langur

Francois’ Langur, a species of monkey. This charming primate was my screen saver for a good 8 months in 2013.

Here are three things which always bring a smile to my face:

Even just thinking of these things lifts my mood.

What are things that are guaranteed to lift your mood?

Volunteering for Newbies: How To Get Started in 3 Steps

Volunteering has had a huge impact on my life. It has no doubt has a major impact on the professional and personal progress of my life today. I even go so far as to list it on my resume.

Whenever I speak with a friend who expresses the desire to volunteer for the first time, I do my best to help give advice that can serve to guide and inspire them in a direction that they truly want to go in. With more than 15 years of experience of volunteering in various capacities (from childcare to Board of Directors roles, to event planning to sales), I’ve had a range of experiences from the supremely engaging to the somewhat frustrating.

Perhaps you want to get involved in volunteering but are unsure of how to start. How do you determine what kind of opportunities would be best for you, and what are some resources you can visit to find these volunteer gigs?

Below are:

  •  3 steps with action ideas to give you momentum & direction as you sift through the many volunteer opportunities
  • Resources to help your search
VolunteerMatch's website - screenshot of home page.

VolunteerMatch is a great way to search local volunteer opportunities.

(1) Decide what kind of volunteer work you want to do.
Do you want to do something related to your career? Do you want to use your professional skills in a volunteer setting? Do you have just a few hours a week and want to do something like pull weeds for the local Recreation and Parks department? Or would you love to meet new friends while you volunteer?

Action idea – write down 3 – 4 areas of volunteer work you’d like to do.

(2) Determine the time commitment you have to give.
Understanding what kind of commitment that you can make is important to determine before you start speaking with organizations, especially if you are like most people and have limited time.

Perhaps you only have 3 hours each month to give. In this case, searching for a more structured environment with well-defined tasks could be a good way to start.

Or maybe you’re looking for a more open-ended engagement in which you could grow and tackle new projects to really make a difference to an organization. In this case, seeing if there might be a non-profit on which you could serve on the Board or do fundraising for could be a good place to start.

Action ideatake a look at your calendar for this month and the next 2 months, guess how much time you may want to give with a volunteer gig. It’s possible that you will need to take an orientation for your volunteer work, and you might not start within a month, but for planning purposes, 2 months ahead should be a good amount of time.

(3) With an understanding of what you are looking for (after completing the first 2 action ideas), now you can start to research what is out there.

Here are a few suggestions (which may be biased towards the San Francisco Bay Area region, though many of the below have locations scattered around the US):

Volunteer Match – American non-profit organization with a searchable database to find volunteer opportunities. You can find local or virtual opportunities, search by “cause areas” and filter by opportunities for kids, groups, teens, 55+ and more.

HandsOn Bay Area – This site allows you to connect to 1 day volunteer projects, searchable by specific date and criteria such as location, cause, skills you want to use and population you’d like to serve (veterans, homeless, LGBT, etc.)

LinkedIn – With this part of the LinkedIn website, you can search Board of Directors jobs. Also, try searching for “pro bono” or “board of directors” or “volunteer” in the search engine in the Jobs portion of LinkedIn.

One Brick – One Brick’s take on volunteering is that they offer a very social, friendly volunteer environment. Volunteers sign up for opportunities on a specific day. While visiting Boston for a conference in 2013, I volunteered at a 5K race one Sunday morning and met a great group of open, talkative people.

Craigslist – Believe it or not, a discerning eye can find some good volunteering gigs on Craigslist. Stay away from anything that looks at all shady, but don’t overlook some of the postings within the Community/Volunteer section.

Friends! Post on Facebook or Twitter with a message to see who could recommend a great volunteer gig for you. You’ll be surprised who may be able to suggest volunteer work. Friends of yours may even want you to join them for their day of volunteering.

Action idea – spend an hour or two on a few of the websites listed above, and send 3 emails to the contact people listed on the website. Remember, you don’t have to commit right away; you can simply email to ask more details about a volunteer opportunity to get a conversation started.


What other tips or resources could you share for getting started in volunteering?


Jen Burstedt

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