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.

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.

Imagine That, Creative Expression Retains And Increases In Value In Difficult Economic Times

By now you have probably heard about all the residents of cities around the world who have emerged on balconies and rooftops to sing together or provide impromptu concerts to those in their neighborhoods.  Imagine all the economic value they are generating with this creative activity! Surely it will help sustain the commerce of their communities in this difficult time.

Except, no it won’t. No one is doing any of this to bolster the economies of their communities, they are doing it to bolster a sense of hope and solidarity among their neighbors.

If there was any time to illustrate that the value of creative expression is independent of economic outcomes, it is now.  People are singing together across streets and alleys. Libraries are streaming their staff reading books. Organizations are providing creative activities that families can do at home together as downloads or video demonstrations. I saw a link to a public radio story about a group in NC who will provide a 30 minute virtual concerts to loved ones.

The biggest danger is the one that  has always existed–the assumption that if you were willing to provide this content for free during tough times, you can find some other means of support during better economic times.

Yet there is also the opportunity to turn around and say, when people were scared and panicking about whether they had a sufficient supply of toilet paper, expressions of creativity forged bonds between citizens, buoyed their spirits and gave them hope.  Artists provided a great service in maintaining the mental, spiritual, and emotional well-being of their community in a time of national angst. While this activity normally does yield economic benefits in a ratio significantly greater than the funding inputs, the real value creatives provide is unrelated to the economy.

While we may say these things all of the time in different ways, right now there are a lot of examples floating around broadcast and social media one can reference when making the case for support to funders.

In addition, while you wouldn’t necessarily want to continue doing something for free indefinitely, there is also an opportunity to leverage processes and expertise you may have developed communicating and providing content from afar into a more significant program. (i.e. You never had the time and resources before to stream content until your priorities were shifted for you.)

Likewise, once the current crisis is over, there will be an opportunity to hopefully solidify any relationships your activities for those in isolation have helped you develop.

In the meantime, pay attention to all the ways in which creative expression is exhibiting its value to society and take notes for later use.

Respecting The House Rules As A Guest

While looking for something totally different, I happened upon a tribute to the recently deceased executive director of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo Service Center, Dean Matsubayashi. What attracted me to the article was the title, “Welcome to Little Tokyo, Please Take Off Your Shoes.”

I wanted to know what that was all about. My intuition about the intent of slogan was pretty much on the money.  Apparently when she was a student, Christina Heatherton, coined the phrase which was seen as a something of a counterpoint to bumper stickers declaring “Welcome to California, Now Go Home.”

The author of the tribute article, Josh Ishimatsu said the “Welcome to Little Tokyo” slogan embodied the goals the Little Tokyo Service Center had in

…being true to the underlying values of anti-gentrification and anti-displacement. In a piece that Dean and I wrote about LTSC’s role in the larger Sustainable Little Tokyo project, we said:

For LTSC, the challenge was to frame a vision of anti-displacement work that did not reify NIMBYism… How do we honor the past, prevent erasure, AND welcome the new in respectful ways… And, most of all, how can we do all this in ways that are equitable, sustainable, and empowering?

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The slogan “Welcome to Little Tokyo; please take off your shoes” expresses the ethos that newcomers are welcome, but need to acknowledge and respect that they are entering a place with a pre-existing identity and normative culture. In this spirit, the Sustainable Little Tokyo planning process not only includes the participation of longstanding community stakeholders but also involves new residents who appreciate the role that the neighborhood has played (and continues to play) as a cultural hub and in supporting the community’s most vulnerable residents.

I feel like that last paragraph above not only embodies the approach people should have when entering a new neighborhood, but also one arts and culture organizations should embrace when approaching a new demographic/geographic area they previously haven’t served or feel they have under served.

I have written about this recently in relation to the concept of “arts deserts” and groups that don’t see themselves as hard to reach or having low arts engagement. The basic idea being that people who are deeply invested in the cultural traditions and practices of their community won’t necessarily welcome people coming in with a pitying attitude and offering to lift them up to respectability.

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