You Know You Have Developed Good Relationships When A Coal Miner Supports A Solar Power Project

About two years ago I briefly mentioned a presentation made by Ben Fink at a conference about a community solar project Appalshop was working on in the heart of Kentucky coal country. Fink recently had a piece on the Brookings Institution website that went into detail about the where the effort stands today.

I wanted to point to it as an example of a cultural organization working in productive partnership with a community whose politics might strongly differ from their own .

The solar project wasn’t something Appalshop decided to do whole-cloth because they thought it was the right thing for the community. It was built on the relationships and trust developed over the course of years while working in partnership on other projects that aligned with the interests and needs of the community.

Results of this community wealth-building work have included expanding an award-winning farmers’ market into a community kitchen, reviving Kentucky’s oldest community square dance, and starting a brick oven bakery where neighbors recovering from addiction and incarceration could find work.

Despite being in the middle of coal fields, one of the biggest challenges facing companies and organizations was rising energy costs that threatened the existence of everything from the local markets to the volunteer firehouse.  While solar provided a solution to this ironic situation, being located in the middle of coal fields also made it a hot button issue.

Bringing solar to coal country was risky. Coal had been king for generations, and there was plenty of propaganda accusing solar supporters of siding with “elite, anti-coal activists.” It would have been easy to assume “the community” would oppose the project—except for the fact that the community was the one running it….

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But the relationships built through the CCED process remained strong; the fire chief, a former strip mine boss and lifelong right-winger, continued to champion the project.

This work is not about changing residents’ political views. It’s about neighbors coming together across differences to create a new story about the place we all live in and love. To some, it’s a story about saving the planet. To others, it’s about saving money or fighting an energy company. But to everyone, it’s about supporting our communities and the centers that keep them strong.

The reference to the fire chief remaining a supporter was a testament to the strengths of the relationships they built. The fire house was a partner in the solar project but backed out when a gas company guaranteed the firehouse would never lose its gas supply. The fact the fire chief remained a supporter illustrates that his involvement wasn’t just motivated by desperate need.

Fink suggests that the relationships they formed helped overcome the perception that life in their community was a zero-sum prospect where what was better for someone else meant you lose.

I Figured This Was Highly Unlikely. What A Difference A Month Makes

Early last month I bookmarked an article by Jeremy Reynolds in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette intending to come back to address it in a blog post in some manner. In the article, Reynolds was arguing for shorter classical music concerts.  At the time, I figured it would never happen broadly due to the inertia of tradition.

Now with public events shutdown and artists and organizations streaming their performances, I strongly suspect a lot more people are going to be open to exploring the basic concepts Reynolds espouses.

If concerts were shorter, the quality of musicianship could increase significantly. I often chastise classical groups for bloated, unnecessarily long recitals. An hour of tight, balanced, in-tune playing is vastly preferable to a two- or three-hour slog of mediocrity.

While some organizations say a program should fill an evening, offering quantity over quality is a poor strategy even if funders tend to favor inventive and diverse programming.

He also accuses ever lengthening intermissions of impeding the momentum of the experience. Since his article opens with him advising friends to go home at intermission, I imagine he would be all for a short, intermissionless performance which would solve two problems at once.

He addresses the idea that you have to give people their money’s worth:

I realize that the cost of ticket prices (which I recently argued are too expensive given how little revenue tickets generate) causes some groups to feel they need to hit a minimum threshold of time, but this is arbitrary. Maybe it’s not about the length of the program, but what an organization does with it that matters most.

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The New World Symphony, a forward-thinking training ensemble in Miami, rolled out a series of concerts years ago that ran for 30 minutes and 60-75 minutes.

“The trick is not to think you have to fill an evening,” orchestra President Howard Herring said. “The question isn’t just: What music do I want to bring forth? but What is the uncompromised artistic experience that only we can provide?”

Now that groups and individuals are streaming their performances, they are almost certainly getting a lot of exercise evaluating and providing a highly focused uncompromised artistic experience. If things ever move back to the former semblance of normal, I think it would be a safe bet that those who continued to employ the “muscles” they developed while focusing on delivering an uncompromised experience will be on a firmer path to success.

Being Generous With Your Creativity

Since I have been on the topic of arts and cultural organizations broadly providing content to anyone who happens by virtually, I figured there is space to point to another voice in the conversation.

Seth Godin made a post recently titled Generous isn’t always the same as free.  I raised the idea yesterday that maybe providing all this content isn’t in the best interests of creative entities in the long term.

Godin’s idea of generous not being the same as free may hold a key to resolving questions about this. He uses examples of a doctor taking the time to understand your needs, a waitress anticipating your needs and a boss who provides the challenging work you need.

In this last case, the generosity might actually result in you working longer and harder than before in order for you to grow. It may be a few years before you recognize that bit of generosity was beneficial and required more of your boss than they need have invested in you.

I don’t bring this up to transition to an argument about suffering contributing to the eventual growth or appreciation of creative organizations or those that participate in their activities. Lord knows there has been plenty of “suffering for your art” conversations throughout history.

Rather, I wanted emphasize Godin’s point that the common element in each of his examples is the contributions to stronger relationships.

Gifts create connection and possibility, but not all gifts have monetary value. In fact, some of the most important gifts involve time, effort and care instead.

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In this moment when we’re so disconnected and afraid, the answer might not be a freebie. That might simply push us further apart. The answer might be showing up to do the difficult work of connection, of caring and of extending ourselves where it’s not expected.

When you are pretty anxious about the future of your organization, you may not feel you have the luxury of the deliberative, multi-week process Nina Simon laid out in her blog post I excerpted yesterday. You should have the time, though, to consider whether choices made and effort expended are generous gestures that will contribute to a relationship, albeit over a long term, or a simple freebie.

Streaming And Providing Content Is Well And Good, But What’s Next?

Last week in reaction to my post about Colleen Dilenschneider’s suggestion that cultural non-profits continue their marketing efforts during the Covid-19 shutdowns with a shift in focus, Carter Gillies made a number of comments on my post warning about making the marketing all about the organization rather than outwardly focused on the needs of the community.

So it seems absolutely vital that we take as much of the cues for misperception off the table. Even if we are not actively ‘selling’ anything, we can’t let the public be confused that our motivation at this point is somehow still about ‘us’. The Starbucks CEO was absolutely terrified that his attempts to remedy racism would be seen as more marketing. Marketing in normal circumstances is, well, normal. In a climate where the focus is so narrow, as it is today, we must pay special attention to doing what is right FOR the community, whether-it-is-right-for-us-or-not. If we are perceived as merely doing what it takes to promote our own identity and importance this will quickly backfire. Even saying organizations should be “maintaining high levels of awareness and being top of mind in the meantime” sounds offensive and selfishly oriented.

When I was writing about Dilenschneider’s post, I was envisioning that she was encouraging organizations to provide content on social media about streaming events, online activities, creative projects you can do at home, pretty much as they are doing now.

Keven Karplus chimed in with a comment pointing at such a home activity that the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History had recently posted.

So it didn’t really surprise me when the erstwhile director of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Nina Simon, made a post on Medium wondering if this spate of event streaming and online activities was really the best approach. I had been harboring the same questions about whether the rush to provide content would ultimately be in the best interest of the arts and culture community.

Part of my concern was that organizations might be providing validation that a virtual experience was as good as an in-person experience. If the organization is able to pull this sort of thing out of their back pocket in a week, then they have the capacity to provide it on a continuous basis, right? Many people may not realize that a lot of the content is archival and was never intended to be seen by an audience.  American Theatre has a great piece that talks about many of the factors that are weighing on people’s minds as they make content available.

In her post Simon writes,

And it makes me wonder: is this the most meaningful way cultural organizations can contribute — or is it just the fastest way?

I’m not opposed to these offerings. I can see the hope and pleasure small snippets of art, music, history, and nature provide. But why are we doing it? Are we doing it based on some kind of expressed community need? Are we doing it with an eye towards serving communities that are struggling most? Or are we doing it to assure ourselves that we are “doing something,” to assure our donors we still exist— and that our jobs are worth keeping (which is in itself important!)?

You could argue that these organizations are contributing what they do best. But we’re a creative sector, and I think we could get more creative. In the race to deliver, I worry we may distract ourselves from the potential to envision and deliver true community value.

She lays out four steps she is using to figure out how to best contribute. As I read them, there was nothing I hadn’t heard before regarding connecting with new segments of the community. Only, now that there is less activity in our organizations, we have more time and energy to focus on following these steps.

1 – Select A Community Focus – she gives the example of homeless, elderly, nurses, but they can be any group.

2- Listen To The Community – While you can’t physically meet with people associated with your chosen segment, you may have the time to use social media to research, identify leaders, resources and challenges that face the community

3- Map Your Skills and Assets – I have to quote Nina directly here because she points out assets you may not think of (i.e. lending a lonely family member your dog)

If you’re exploring this as an individual, you might have assets like your time, your bilingualism, or your ability to cook. As an organization, you might have assets like a building, a digital following, or the ear of the mayor.

For me, the most important part of this step is creative dot-connecting. How can you use your creativity to make unexpected connections between what is desired and what you have? These connections don’t have to be huge to be meaningful

4- Check Your Assumptions – Nina points out she didn’t just drive to her sister’s house with a 70 lbs dog and drop it off, she had a conversation first. Nor should you decide what the segment of the community needs from you before marshaling your energy and resources.

Toward the end of her post, she encourages moving fast when there is an obvious way to contribute, but move slow when the path is not obvious or creativity could yield better results. She lays out a deliberate approach she is using in applying the four steps above and estimates it will be three-four weeks before she comes up with something concrete and useful.

As I do with many of my posts, I encourage readers to read her whole post in depth rather than relying on my imperfect synopsis. Especially since she lays out her argument much more convincingly than I have.

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