Connecting to Your Community: Part Two

Previously in this series: Learn to Share: A Primer | Part One: Setting the Stage.

Identifying Your Motives

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.

Know Yourself

Before jumping into a community blind and flailing around without drive or focus, it's important to take a step back and identify why you are doing this in the first place. And the key to doing that is knowing yourself.

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell, my blessing season this in thee! —William Shakespeare, Hamlet 1:3


Why do you want to connect? Your reason shouldn't be because you feel obligated or because you think contributing to a community will generate sales for your business. There's little more annoying than a blatant self-promoter who doesn't understand where the line is drawn between self-interest and generosity. But perhaps you see a personal benefit in joining a community—this is not altogether bad.

Four years ago, my best friend told me about the volunteer work she had been doing at a local theater. Intrigued by the opportunity to see theater on a regular basis (and strictly limited to an art student budget), I joined the ranks of the volunteer ushers. During one performance of each play, we would take tickets, enforce the no photography rule and help patrons find their seats, and in return we got to see the play for free.

My initial interest in the volunteer program was selfish (I wanted to see more plays), but after four years of doing it, I've become more interested in contributing to the theater as a place of culture than in serving my own desire to experience it. Even if you are enticed by the perks that some service can offer, you will quickly appreciate the benefits your service gives to the community.


Where is your passion? What is the fuel that keeps the fire burning? Are you committed to the community you want to join? To dive into an existing community without belief in its tenets or without conviction behind your intentions sets you up for uncertainty and possibly rejection. Find your drive, what you really want to GIVE to people, and look for a community that shares that. If that drive doesn't exist, channel your ambition to help by creating a community. Remember, the circulation of gifts creates community. Start spreading gifts little by little, and see what kind of  community will grow out of it.

If, by chance, you find a community that you see is lacking something or that needs help, dive in and get to work. Just don't try and be a savior—it comes off as cocky and is usually rejected by the community. Remain true to yourself and let it work organically. You can follow that oft-referenced quote by Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world."


Do you have the time to spare to meaningfully participate in the community you would like to join? Our desire to contribute and belief in a cause can often drive us to bite off more than we can chew. The second our passion ignites, reason can easily fly out the window, and suddenly we find ourselves treading water in a sea of deadlines, exploding inboxes and burdensome meetings.

Survey your weekly and monthly commitments, and determine how much time you have to devote to a community before diving in. Do you have five hours per month? Ten hours per week? Whatever your actual level of commitment, it's valuable.

I have come to realize recently that I am a terrible estimator of time. For some reason, every to-do in my mind will take 30 minutes, but once I set to a task and dive into it, I look up at the clock and realize that two hours have passed!

Be realistic and learn to say "no".

When asked to do something, take a breath and ask yourself how soon it needs to be done. Take a mental tally of what's already on your plate (or consult your smartphone if you're like me and can't keep it all in your head) and then decide if it's something you can commit to. If you can, schedule the task into your calendar, and build a time buffer into it in case it takes longer than you think.

If you can't find a time to do it without leaving it until the last minute, say "No." Nothing will gain you more respect within a community than being able to accurately evaluate your workload and be honest about what you can or cannot do. If you'd still like to do it but only have a limited amount of time, ask for help. If you're working with someone on a project or a task, it's harder to procrastinate, especially if you agree to keep each other in check.

But if all else fails, maintain open lines of communication. Is a deadline looming that you realize you can't meet? Let someone know. Is there a meeting you know you can't make? Find out when you can meet with someone to get back up to speed.

If you keep the channels open and follow through with your commitments, you'll come out a winner and a champion. But the inverse is true as well. Falling through or flaking out could damage your reputation. You never know what doors might close to future opportunities if you let a community down. Manage your time well, say no or work with someone if you need to, and you'll maximize your effectiveness in the community you're reaching into.

I Don't Know

At this point, you've likely asked yourself some cold, hard questions. Why am I doing this? Do I believe in this? Do I have the time to commit to it? And any kind of self-evaluation, especially when it involves soul-searching and knowing yourself, can lead to inarticulate shrugging or throwing your arms up in the air. If this happens, the most important thing to remember is this:

"I don't know" is okay.

By searching within you and feeling around for your motives and intentions, you may realize that you can't answer some of these questions. That's no reason to stop. Saying "I don't know" to ourselves is an important component to self-discovery—by identifying a hole in our knowledge, we open our minds to thepossibilities and begin seeking answers. This is a process, so don't expect it to happen overnight. One of the participants at the salon discussion twisted JFK's famous quote into a relevant quip:

Ask not what your community can do for your art [or gift], but what your art can do for your community.

In August 2009, I attended a meet-up when a handful of people from Etsy visited Portland. This was the first time I had really heard about the Portland Etsy Team, and throughout the course of the evening, I met some of the most inspiring members of the team. After a lot of discussion and sparking some meaningful friendships, I was amazed at the support and encouragement available locally for people like me who were just starting out as small, creative business owners. I left that evening feeling better about the handmade community than I ever had, confident that there would be some way for me to get involved.

Two months later, I happened upon an open call for a meeting about a new partnership between Etsy and Pacific Northwest College of Art. I attended, anxious to see how I could contribute, and immediately latched onto the philosophy of advocacy and support for the creative community on a local scale. Over the next few months, I Heart Art: Portland was born, and I'm proud to be a part of it. The work I do for the program is the most rewarding, fulfilling and satisfying work I have ever done.

Do some soul-searching. And once you've established that your motives are pure, that your commitment is resolute, and that you have the time to spare, you can roll up your sleeves and move to the next step: Becoming a Catalyst.

To be continued... Part Three: Becoming A Catalyst

Reblogged from I Heart Art: Portland. Originally posted on June 22, 2011.

I want to give a special thank you to Diane Gilleland and Kim Werker for their incredible insight into this broad yet personal topic. I absolutely love collaborating with them on the series, and I couldn’t have assembled as coherent a presentation as I think this is without their help.