Making A Difference
HYPOTHESIS The best way to balance our commodity-driven culture is to contribute to the community through the open exchange of knowledge, ideas and information.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
It's been two full years since that first meeting of the minds—that planted seed that grew and blossomed into the I Heart Art: Portland program. After two full years of hosting accessible professional development workshops, convening community salon discussions, and devising unique speed-networking events that reach into Portland's vibrant community of makers, I look back and I smile to myself.
I get emails every now and then from people who have attended one or several of the events and programs that we put on, praising us for the amazing service that we bring to the community. They talk about finding the courage to take their creative business to the next level, finding a home for their creations to be sold and valued, and feeling like they're not alone in trying to succeed at doing what they love.
Many of them itch to pay it forward, knowing that what they've received is valuable not just to them but to so many others around them, wanting to give back by volunteering at an event, teaching a workshop, or contributing a blog article. Every time I get one of these emails a smile spreads across my face like a proud parent. This is what we set out to do. We are making a difference.
When you become a contributing member of a community, it's easy to get caught up in the logistics, the organization, or the stress that can build up around putting something like this out there into the world. The DIY culture unwittingly fosters a certain amount of martyrdom that can shroud your ability to see the forest for the trees.
But if you take the opportunity to step back and look outside, to pay attention to the people you are serving, you'll start to notice gratitude being channeled back at you. There is nothing quite like that feeling in the world—it feeds the soul.
Balancing the Burden of Commodity
Our society is founded upon the market, and has been for several thousand years. The marketplace has been so well-established in our everyday lives that there is no way that we can disassociate ourselves and return to the simple exchange of gifts that existed in more primitive civilizations. I also believe that our commodity-driven culture is something that's here to stay, as illustrated by the rising success of sites like Etsy who offer single business owners a chance to generate income doing what they love.
But the market is volatile, and the economic uncertainty of the last three years has driven that instability home to far too many people. If we have learned anything in this time, let it be two things: the importance of not becoming financially complacent and the value of having a strong sense of community. I firmly believe that sustained economic growth is unsustainable, and this recession is a turning point for us, allowing us to rethink the way that we live.
I also think that if we focus too heavily on satisfying the market and pumping our creative juices into production, we will become unbalanced. Our gifts need to be renewed on a regular basis, and money is not their lifeblood—the market exhausts and depletes creativity by constantly demanding more. Gift renewal is found in community, in the free exchange of knowledge, skill, information and social interaction. A gathering of like-minded creative people instills an energy into the individual that rejuvenates the mind and soul.
Staying on Track
In order to ensure that you do make a difference in the community you are serving, it's important to keep your goals and motives in check. Is what you set out to do still your main focus? Have your goals evolved based on the needs of the community? Remember that you're not just doing this for you. You're doing it for them. The benefits and rewards that come through faithful community service can be powerful, so long as your service is given with an eye single to the benefit of the community. These benefits may manifest themselves tangibly, but more often than not they are ethereal in nature (though no less potent for it). Keeping your motives on track will allow you to be the most effective instrument of change by honing your focus in on what matters most, not what you will get out of it in the end.
Take the opportunity every couple of months to look back at what you've done and check it against the motives you identified at the beginning and the mission that you set out to accomplish. Seek feedback from those you serve. Evaluate and reassess if needed. Community evolves, and your service should evolve with it.
As each individual event and each program year for I Heart Art: Portland has wrapped up, the leadership council spends time at our monthly meetings devoted to recapping the successes and lessons learned. Then, as we plan out the next events and programs we take those into consideration, while also looking back at what we set out to do from the beginning.
Have we effectively empowered Portland's vibrant community of makers to be successful at doing what they love? Are we successfully offering unique networking opportunities to our peers in order to help them build stronger business connections? Are we having fun while we do it? Evaluation is everything, and referring back to the goals set forth at the beginning (even though they may evolve) will help set everything in the proper perspective.
Reaping the Benefits
The benefits of meaningful community service and engagement go both ways. For the community, they are strengthened, edified, and uplifted. For the contributor, the reward goes far beyond the tangibles of name recognition, traffic to your own website, or applause when you enter the room. The greatest and more powerful reward is internal—emotional, intellectual, and psychological.
In building community, you build family. You connect with people on a deeper level than you might with a co-worker or a peer. When you truly make a difference, you build fraternity and equality. You also accomplish things you couldn't imagine doing on your own.
As I mentioned above, the emails and comments I receive on behalf of our program make me beam with joy. Knowing that our program is working is the biggest benefit to me. Other council members have commented that coming together as a team and executing a major event, while immediately exhausting, is exhilarating on the long term. Affirmation, validation, recognition, and gratitude go a long way to rejuvenate our gifts.
We are not factories. Production that caters to the market day in and day out is unsustainable to us makers. We are human beings that belong to the human community—humanity. Our soul must be nourished on a regular basis. We yearn for social interaction and a sustained sense of value in our community membership. Contributing to our individual communities, whatever they may be, contributes to the growth of humanity.
At the end of Lewis Hyde's The Gift, he turns to "a final story, of gifts and art," told by Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet. In the story, Neruda recalls growing up in an extremely remote Chilean mountain town with low literacy and a simple, practical and impermanent community that lived mostly in poverty.
I would paraphrase, but I would do the story injustice, and Hyde ties it together so eloquently (I do hope you don't think this will ruin the book for you):
Playing in the lot behind the house one day when he was still a little boy, Neruda discovered a hole in a fence board. "I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about the happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared—a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvellous white toy sheep.
"The sheep's wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pine cone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.
"I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now… whenever I pass a toyshop, I look furtively into the window. It's no use. They don't make sheep like that any more."
Neruda has commented on this incident several times. "This exchange of gifts—mysterious—settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit," he once remarked in an interview. And he associates the exchange with his poetry. "I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.
"That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all humanity is somehow together… It won't surprise you then that I have attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood…
"This is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn't know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light."
—The Gift, pp 367–368
Make A Difference
Remember that the circulation of gifts creates community. As we give of ourselves, the gifts of the community are strengthened and we ourselves are given back strength to rejuvenate our gifts and feed our soul. In an increasingly disconnected world plagued by economic uncertainty and riddled with corporate machinations, we must turn to our fellow beings and give to one another. We must connect as human beings to one another and give of our gifts as freely as we can to strengthen the many—and the one.
"All who have succeeded as artists are indebted to those who came before, [and sharing the gift] offers a concrete way for accomplished practitioners to give back to their communities, to assist others in attaining the success they themselves have achieved." —Lewis Hyde, The Gift (p. 384)