This Event is Worth Your Weekend

photo of Habitat for Artists' work for the 5x5 public art project--a 6'x6' artist-in-residence space bearing the phrase "What is this?"--at THEARC

Habitat for Artists' 5x5 public art project--a 6'x6' artist-in-residence space at THEARC, host of the recent TEDxWDC conference.

A big part of mentorship happens in casual conversation, offhand remarks, about what your mentor is up to or interested in. The mentee must fine-tune her listening skills to benefit. She must be curious and open to checking out something new without immediate pay-off. The seasoned mentor knows to push as many potential experiences to her mentee as possible, without making all opportunities compulsory or expecting them to stick. When Suzanne got an e-blast from AAM about a storytelling workshop, she forwarded it to me. She didn’t “assign” it, or even suggest that I attend. She just asked if I had heard about it and said she was looking forward.

I recently had the great fortune of coaching sessions with Wendy Luke, an expert on mentorship (among other professional/organizational relationships and issues). Reaching out to a mentor outside of my organization was Wendy’s idea–hence this blog. She also talked with me about ArtTable and suggested pointedly that I get involved. So when the Phillips’s Center for the Study of Modern Art hosted an ArtTable-organized panel on the 5×5 public art project, I made sure to be there.

I would not normally have attended–the thrust of the discussion was curatorial and, while I’m fascinated personally, the immediate, communications-driven, tactical necessity to carve out the time was not there. I’m glad that I did anyway. Hearing about projects like Natalie Jeremijenko’s Butterfly Bridge and Wilmer Wilson IV’s  Henry “Box” Brown: FOREVER was inspiring and made me a more engaged participant in the DC arts community. I had a chance to ask questions about the logistical challenges of placing public art in DC, which is directly applicable to a strategic wayfinding project in my professional pipeline. I also got to say hi to Wendy, and ask her about her upcoming weekend plans, which happened to include TEDxWDC.

Notices for the upcoming TEDx talks had blipped on my radar, but I’d been ambivalent about committing a Saturday. It wasn’t until a day or two after my run-in with Wendy that I felt compelled to register. Again, I’m glad I did. In addition to hearing from 26 colleagues about DC’s creative economy, I made my first visit to THEARC, saw Habitat for Artists building their project for 5×5, and spent time in Anacostia for the second time in my life (an embarrassing admission for a nearly-DC-native).

Curiosity and open-minded participation has a ripple effect. Because of soft suggestions from mentors and colleagues, I hope to also attend:

What am I missing? I would love to hear what workshops, conferences, and events you’re excited about, and–if reasonably accessible from DC by car or train–I’ll attend.


The Story of Self, The Story of Us, The Story of Now

Another discovery from the storytelling workshopMarshall Ganz, community organizer and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Ganz believes humans tell stories to convey hope and motivate one another to act. He identifies three types of stories as powerful tools for social change (from a 2009 article “Why Stories Matter” published in Sojourners):

1. The Story of Self. Why do you do what you do? How are you (and your commitment to your mission) unique? How did you become who you are? An organization’s leaders should know their stories of self. We all should. A clear, compelling story of self helps others understand and respect our motivations for acting and may motivate them to act as well. The story of self builds relationships. Season 5 of The Wire presents a terrific example. Continue reading

3 Ways to be a (Better) Storyteller

The big takeaway of Andy Goodman’s workshop: your organization should have a handful of stories (5-6) that every one of its staff, from leaders to volunteers, know by heart. These stories verify that we’re making good on the lofty promises of our mission and values statements. (Take a quick look at any nonprofit’s mission, usually posted on its website, and the need for concrete proof with a human face becomes obvious).

So how to craft these stories? Turns out, we all already know how, instinctively. In the workshop, we had two minutes to think of a story on a designated theme, then two minutes each to recount them in rapid succession around our tables. We brainstormed qualities our stories had in common: a hero, an emotional hook like humor or nostalgia, a colorful sense of context, obstacles to overcome, a resolution.

The best stories are not necessarily original or complex. Pixar packs a masterful, timeless, and very simple story--capturing the complete arc of a relationship--into six minutes in its 2009 animated feature "Up."

While the basics come naturally, Andy talked about bad habits he sees over and over again in nonprofit storytelling. Here are three common pitfalls to avoid: Continue reading

Once Upon a Time

At Suzanne’s suggestion, I’ll spend tomorrow morning at an AAM workshop, Storytelling: The First Big Thing with Andy Goodman, an author and advocate for nonprofits, educational and cultural institutions, or in his words “good causes.” Here’s a trailer from the session presented for another group last year:

Before the workshop, we’re to come up with 2-3 short ideas for stories about our museums’ contributions to their communities and visitors’ lives. Here are my first attempts: Continue reading