A couple of small experiments with radical intent
As a freelancer in arts management, much of the work I take on crosses the lines between consultant/oversight, and just an additional resource with a body of knowledge that can help make things happen.
One such line-blurring role I play is as the interim executive director for a small organization with a big dream–International Avenue Arts and Culture Centre (IAACC). Like its name suggests, IAACC’s goal is to build a centre that provides a home for the rich ethno-cultural diversity of Calgary’s east side.
The area targeted–called Greater Forest Lawn–is an area of town that is low income, high immigrant, high(er) crime rate–often labelled ‘the wrong side of the tracks’…
It has been a struggle for this organization.
In an effort that epitomizes the New Pathways’ call-to-action, small experiments with radical intent, three organizations who work on the east side–International Ave Business Revitalization Zone
(IABRZ), The United Way, and me/IAACC–collaborated to put together a small grassroots granting idea with what we hoped were few to no barriers for our constituents in the Greater Forest Lawn communities. We call it ‘The GREAT in Greater Forest Lawn.’ And the GREAT we defined as human and social capital.
Framed like a friendly ‘Dragon’s Den,’ we invited community members to ‘pitch’ their idea to a group of folk who would join us for a community luncheon, held at ArtBOX, a small arts incubator space in the neighbourhood operated by the IABRZ. The only framework we put to ‘pitchers’ was that what they pitched needed to be a community-building idea for the neighbourhood, and they would have about 4 minutes to make their pitch to whomever showed up for lunch. We advised them to keep the pitch simple and low tech, as we wanted a level playing field, and we knew power point presentations would be a barrier for some.
The lunch was an open invitation to anyone who could afford the $10 ticket. We funded the cost of the lunch, and the ticket monies went toward the granting pot. Pitches were made during lunch, there was an informal Q&A between pitchers and audience, and then everyone voted on the pitches. A committee of three (IAACC, United Way, and the IA Business Revitalization Zone) determined how far the money could go, based on the number of votes each pitcher got.
Our first lunch was in June of 2015–a huge success–over 50 people showed up for the lunch, 11 people made their ‘pitch,’ we gave away about $4,000 to the top seven (as determined by the audience votes), and we connected ALL the pitchers with reps from other granting/community support organizations like The Calgary Foundation, Community Neighbourhood Services, Stepping Stones, and other granting service organizations who we had tried to ensure were part of the lunch crowd. So the event was as much about finding a community of support as it was finding a couple of hundred dollars from our particular pool.
We held the next one this past October.
A week before the event I was having a meeting in ArtBOX and an elderly woman came through our door, curious as to what was up next at this great little arts venue. We put a pause on our meeting and let her know about the upcoming GREAT in Greater Forest Lawn event, and that she should join us for this lovely community lunch. Joyce (I’ve changed her name) seemed interested, but was shy and hesitant. She said she would see if she could show up. I asked her if her hesitancy was because she wasn’t sure she was interested or available, or was it because the ticket price was a bit of a barrier. She said it was the latter.
I took $20 out of my wallet and put it in the envelop I was carrying around that held the tickets I was responsible for selling. I pulled out two tickets and held them out to her. ‘I would love you to join us for the lunch. My only condition on these tickets is that you use them: show up and bring a friend. We want you to come. Please, if you can’t come, don’t take the tickets.’
She blinked a couple of times, and reached for the tickets. In a shaky voice she thanked me, and said today had been an amazing day, full of so many kindnesses, she was feeling truly blessed. She promised to come and bring a friend.
On the day of the event, as we were setting up the stage and steering people to the buffet, I saw Joyce come through the door with a friend. The friend was holding several smallish canvasses. Joyce came up to me: “I’d like to make a presentation,” she said. “You want to pitch?!” I asked, grinning from ear to ear. “Yes. Well, I think so. Can I?”
I said of course she could pitch, let her know we were a very supportive crowd, and we chatted a bit–I was thrilled she was going to pitch, but I confess I was a bit nervous for her, as she certainly was timid and uncertain.
When Joyce came up to the front to talk to the lunch crowd, she was indeed tentative–but wonderfully determined. Her friend displayed the various paintings on the canvasses while Joyce took the mike and explained that she wanted to teach elderly people how to paint.
She said that she had started painting herself about five years ago, and referenced the canvasses propped up behind her. She said she had wanted to paint for her entire life but never did anything about it until she retired, and now she just loved it.
She spoke for another few minutes, gaining in confidence, as the audience responded positively to her story and her quiet, impassioned voice. She needed $150 for paints, brushes, empty canvasses and easels so she could go to seniors’ homes and offer classes to residents.
“And they can’t tell me they’re too old to start because I just started five years ago!” she concluded. “And they can’t tell me they can’t do it because of a disability because I have a tremor, and it doesn’t stop me!” she added, holding up a wavering hand to prove her point. A warm round of applause and laughter followed Joyce as she sat back down to rejoin the lunch crowd.
When it came time to vote (we send the pitchers into another room for this), Joyce received a unanimous response from the crowd: yes. Full funding. All $150.
That was this past fall. We hope to continue inviting successful fundees to come and update us on how they’re doing. I can’t wait.
I am reminded of the now-famous social media ‘paperclip’ story, where he keeps ‘up-selling’ from that paperclip and eventually gets a house.
I wonder where our small experiment with radical intent–and my even smaller experiment with radical intent, which was only possible within the framework of the larger–will take us? As an experiment in empowering individuals and building community that cost me twenty bucks, it has already taken me, and Joyce, further than either of us could have gone without the other.