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Volunteer, Give to Free Ideas

What happens when you volunteer? Do you feel enlivened? Do you get when you give, whether you intend to or not? More specifically, do ideas come unbidden when you donate your time and talent?

I asked the last question on social media recently. One person reacted angrily. I guess he assumed I’d never volunteered or had only selfish reasons for doing so. In truth, I’ve volunteered a lot over many years. Two of my paid office positions came from volunteering. As part of both jobs, I supervised volunteers and interns—work I loved. A few years ago, I volunteered to organize other volunteers. To prepare, I read a stack of studies and managerial how-tos.

There are many reasons people give their time. Pure altruism isn’t one I’ve encountered, at least among spiritually mature souls. They know that however selfless their expressed motivations, professional (skills and contacts) and health (physical, mental, and social) benefits accrue from their offering free aid to people and the planet. Some of what volunteers receive can be measured—and has been.

Their saintliness and co-creativity, their net giving, are for a higher force to quantify.

More intriguing in this realm—and what I was trying to uncover on social media—is the mysterious birth of ideas from volunteering. Joining others to solve a problem, when there is no promise of monetary reward, can set off light bulbs. Some of them brighten the lives of individuals or populations in need; others shed light on our own creative pursuits, including writing. The dark pressure of competition lifts to release thought. New programs, new artworks emerge.

We leave behind the stingy ego to cycle between giving and receiving.

We become “otherish,” a term Adam Grant introduces in his book Give & Take, if not altruistic. The more people give, the more they produce, he contends. When well developed and given with joy, their gifts generate positive change.

Givers Who Got—Ideas

Take Robert Egger, who once ran a nightclub. One night in 1989, he reluctantly boarded a van to help feed homeless people on the streets of the nation’s capital. He saw inefficiencies, dreamed up improvements, and started a food-recovery operation that morphed into DC Central Kitchen, a number of other programs, and a career as a writer and speaker. Twenty-five years later, he started LA Kitchen.

In The Gift, now a classic, Lewis Hyde tells the story of Walt Whitman, who found inspiration by nursing soldiers in a Civil War hospital. By transcribing into letters and transforming into poetry the experiences of wounded and dying servicemen, he used his genius for healing. He thrived, creatively and psychologically, while collaborating with others to alleviate suffering. Though he later returned to nature to find his muse, he spent his happiest moments in the wards, engaging the edginess of life—gratis.

Giving—to nature too—is intrinsic to our creative health, corporately and individually. The circular miracle of gifts given and ideas received happens everyday. Mick Ebeling, winner of the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, shares his story in Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done. Read Bill Shore’s The Cathedral Within for more examples of giving through meaningful work.

Advice for Volunteers

  • Just as you might start exploring art by coloring with your children or nature by walking to work through a park, begin volunteering by performing simple acts of kindness. Do something for someone you know, then, for someone you don’t know, and, finally, for someone out of your comfort range.
  • Decide what you can give. To whom do you want to give—people, animals, or plants? How much time do you have? Adam Grant recommends two hours, “chunked,” one day each week. Where do you want to volunteer? Locally or farther away?
  • Make certain you choose a place that has a formal volunteer program and requires the skills you want to offer. Be sure it schedules opportunities for learning and socializing and respects volunteers’ time and input. Ask around, as you would about a prospective employer.
  • To start, pick an institution whose mandate has nothing to do with your day job. Experiment. Learn new skills. Later, you can do pro bono work for an organization in your field. Caution: Will your volunteering negatively affect the job or freelance market in your profession? If so, will you be giving? Also, you may want to avoid pro bono positions if you’re in your prime working years. You may find people question why you’re available or undervalue your contributions. Although interning may lead to employment when you’re young, volunteering rarely results in paid work when you’re older, according to sources no less prominent than Richard Bolles in What Color is Your Parachute?
  • Be wary of those on the take: Keep your boundaries. Break down your barriers. Listen. Hold your opinions lightly. Practice empathy.
  • Stay only if you enjoy it. Gage when you’ve given all you can. You won’t be able to give, and others won’t receive, if you work out of duty. You want to feel energized, not sapped. Ideas need to escape.
  • Try volunteering virtually—across the world!
  • In keeping with my last post on arts in development, let me suggest Ten Thousand Villages. Stores across the United States depend on volunteers. You’ll learn a lot about fair trade.

Here’s a quote to ponder:

The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up. . . . Bestowal creates that empty place into which new energy may flow. The alternative is petrifaction, writer’s block, ‘the flow of life backed up.’

(Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World [New York: Vintage Books, 2007], 189)

***

What do you feel driven to give? Who will benefit? Does volunteering free ideas? Tell us quickly, before the sheer rush of creativity drives us from the subject of writer’s block forever . . .

And I run out of time to wish you a happy Volunteer Appreciation Month!

Career Marketer, Crafts Spur Development

In corporate circles, she was always on the fringes of the artisan sector. Maybe she heard her true calling when she was in China to help masons salvage antique stone from the gravel industry. Or maybe it came to her in Argentina, where she worked with craftsmen who carved furniture for the high-end market in New York. Whenever it hit her, Monika Steinberger decided she wanted to join the nonprofit world and dedicate her business savvy to artisans. She wanted to help them preserve their cultural heritage and make good incomes through the fairest possible trade.

In the mid 2000s, Steinberger got lucky. Aid to Artisans (ATA), now part of Creative Learning, needed someone multilingual who could fly to Afghanistan, Egypt, and Haiti, where it had upcoming projects. It was in New England; she was in nearby New York. She knew people the world over who worked with their hands and creative professionals in the United States and Europe, who specialized in marketing, branding, advertising, and photography. A native of Austria, she spoke German, English, French, and Spanish. Most important, she was willing to travel in dicey times.

Into the Field

For eight years now, Steinberger has collaborated with craftspeople in the remotest and poorest regions of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, including the Middle East. She enjoys her daily interactions—often via cellphone—the most. She can hear about, if not see, the impact of ATA projects on people’s lives and livelihoods. She can measure changes in family health, education, and overall well-being by collecting stories, sometimes statistics. “It’s been an extraordinary experience. I would almost do it for nothing,” she volunteered.

Haiti’s desperate poverty and environmental devastation really got under Steinberger’s skin. ATA fulfilled the livelihoods component of a three-year project supported by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and the UK Big Lottery Fund. She and her Haitian colleagues held a workshop in Cap Haitien for women and men to help them design and produce bamboo bangles (see picture, above) for the local tourist market. The artisans spent one dollar on raw bamboo for each bangle they fashioned and sold the finished bracelets for five dollars each to passengers on Royal Caribbean Cruise ships docked at Labadie. The bangles were later a hit at winter and summer wholesale shows at the Javits Center in New York. Global Girlfriend, an online retailer of women-made gifts, ordered 500 with 2,500 to follow, for a total of $13,000—a fortune for the Haitian artisans. The project showed the immediate impact craft can have on an economy and environment. For every bamboo stem they harvested, the artisans had to plant two shoots. The grass grows rapidly, stabilizes eroded soil, and lends itself to craft.

Behind the Scenes

As in all ATA ventures, the first step in the Haitian project was to assess the local, expat, tourist, and international markets for demand. Funders, whether public or private, usually approach ATA with a craft medium or region of the developing world in mind. ATA then consults its vast network of craftspeople. “We never start from nothing,” Steinberger said. “We are there to bring information from the market to them.” ATA assists artisans in developing or upgrading their crafts and links them to buyers. Through workshops and in-country management, ATA imparts business acumen to craftspeople, always mindful not only of the markets, but also of the environment and relationships. Artisans, who are usually women, are part of communities. They have to support their families, even more than save the cultural patrimony of their countries. Matters of money and spirit have to jive.

But they do not always readily synch. In Chiapas, Mexico, Mayan women weavers did not trust each other with trade secrets, nor could they band together to buy raw materials at wholesale prices. If they could get a formal business license from the government—a cumbersome process even for ATA— they could expand. The interpersonal and practical realms collided until ATA/Mexico began organizing the weavers as a uniquely Mexican association. Most ATA projects continue as registered businesses or nongovernmental organizations with local staff. Some, like CREATA in Columbia, grow to partner with ATA.

Steinberger calls that success, but the project she’s working on is always closest to her heart. Right now, she’s busy in Yemen, where ATA is part of a five-year U.S. Agency for International Development agricultural project implemented by the Land O’Lakes Foundation. She just returned from evaluating Yemen’s craft market. The country’s cultural heritage—gingerbread architecture, silver jewelry, and painted windows—entranced her. She fixed on an active hand-weaving tradition that merits expansion: men weave skirts on simple ground looms for the local market. If the community agrees, Steinberger would like to engage a small group of women to produce similar cloth for the international market year round.

“Identification of the artisans is a crucial part of our work. We have to be careful not to do harm. We are empowering people by giving them access to income they didn’t have before. That changes a family and community,” Steinberger said. At harvest time, she will help men and women export artisanal honey, coffee, spices, fragrances, and herbal lotions by connecting them to buyers. She knows the products will sell.

Arts in Development, Then and Now

ATA’s approach to arts in development was once unique. Well-meaning donors still sometimes send consultants to countries without exploring the markets or sounding out local craftspeople. They might train women to produce pillowcases on sewing machines they donate to a community center with sporadic electricity. In two weeks, the foreign experts are gone. Pictures of smiling faces enliven thick reports. But there’s no follow-up. The women have wasted time they could have used making money and are left with a skill and machines they cannot use. No locals or foreigners need pillowcases. Traditional crafts lie fallow. Three months later, there’s no trace of the intervention. Nothing is sustainable—except the women’s newfound cynicism.

Such projects have not helped arts in development, which, as a field, endures skepticism from practitioners who favor huge agricultural or infrastructure interventions with statistically measurable results. “Scaling up” is the buzzword of the moment, according to Steinberger. The international development community wants to fund projects that have the greatest impact on the largest number of people, even if they take decades to show results. Funders prefer to underwrite livelihood projects that help hundreds of women in the garment industry produce thousands of inexpensive shirts for Western consumers. Although craft is often a country’s second biggest employer after agriculture and has a more immediate, sustainable effect on a population, it’s hard to scale up without sacrificing quality, incomes, health, environment, and the intangible cultural heritage it embodies.

Sometimes Steinberger sees intercultural conflict while saving cultures. Artisans everywhere tend to be poor and very jealous of their turf. Aymara in Northern Chile told her they lost much of their international market in native alpaca products when Americans started raising the animals in the States. The Americans, in turn, had to lower their prices to compete with cheaper imports. “You have to measure your market impact and tailor your intervention accordingly,” she cautioned.

State of the Artisans

Partly as a result of the worldwide recession and partly because of lessons learned by practitioners of international development, ATA now competes for places in massive undertakings in tourism, environment, agriculture, health, and women’s empowerment. It cannot find funding for crafts-only projects as it did for over thirty years. Nevertheless, in the past two years, Steinberger has seen renewed emphasis on cultural preservation among funders. In March, ATA will start collaborating with the Smithsonian, its once-frequent partner, to protect pottery and nomadic crafts in Tibet. Steinberger is excited about using cultural mapping during the assessment.

When asked if she thought craft sales fed Americans’ insatiable consumerism, Steinberger pointed out that buyers everywhere help safeguard cultural traditions. Many big-box companies are now following the ATA approach, at least in part. Although large corporations have recognized the demand for crafts in Europe and the States, they want artisans to create them at high volume and low cost. The crafts and craftspeople do not prosper. Consumers need to pay more to preserve quality and support the artisans. Still, Steinberger commends the multinationals, some of them ATA partners, for establishing fair-trade sidelines.

“The key is to educate the consumer,” observed Steinberger. “Telling the story is really our reason for being. It’s an economic reality that something that’s handmade will be more expensive than something that’s mass produced. If you want to sell it, you have to explain that it’s an original work of craft that has been touched by the hands of a real live artisan in a particular place. It’s a losing proposition to take out the story. You take out the soul, meaning, and value. So it’s our daily work to make sure that the cultural content is known because in the end, that’s what makes craft sustainable. That’s what attracted me and still attracts me to the mission of ATA—making culture a building block of the economy.”

Like the Chinese builders who inspired her years ago, ATA’s Monika Steinberger helps protect old traditions. Like the Argentine craftsmen she once advised, she helps create new custom.

Art Therapist, Arpilleras Heal Trauma

If Lisa Garlock were to sew an arpillera (story quilt) of her life, it would necessarily be busy. In the upper left, she might start with a scene from her youth overseas, when she wanted to be a scientist. Still on the top half, she might incorporate a print illustrating her education as an artist at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a small painting of her graduate work in art therapy at Nazareth College. In the center, she might place a mandala to represent her recovery from years of osteoarthritis in her hands, which hampered her artistically as it strengthened her spiritually. And in the lower panel, bordered by her vibrant handmade beads, she might show herself leading George Washington University art therapy students to India, where in Chennai, they guide women in telling their tales of gender-based violence using arpilleras. After she finished, Garlock might tack a pocket onto the back to hold a written narrative.

Through arpilleras, Garlock practices art therapy, a field of arts in health. But she wasn’t always interested in mental health. To fund her life as a young artist, she taught printmaking, waitressed, and worked in a gallery. Then, she took a job as an employment counselor to youth and adults. She loved counseling but missed art. One day, she attended a workshop on reducing recidivism in prisoners. On her way home, art therapy popped into her mind.

“The self-focus and almost isolation of being an artist wasn’t enough for me and often isn’t enough for other art therapists,” Garlock said. “I asked,  what can I do socially with art? Also, as an artist I always felt bad about using so many different materials. But art therapists need to know a lot of media. Art and therapy were a perfect match for me.”

Art Therapy and Arpilleras

For the rest of us, art and therapy can be scary. We might not have drawn or gotten knee-deep in glitter or finger paint since we were children. And most of us don’t take time or have money for analysis, self-driven or professionally led. We think we have to withhold every emotion, conquer all tragedy, and produce only perfect art. But we might find art therapy intriguing and fabric surprisingly friendly. It’s tactile and forgiving. Sewing can be soothing. Women, who so often make their families’ clothes, find great solace in quilting. When working in groups, they connect. They share stories of poverty, war, illness, and gender-based violence. Their stress lifts. The fabric holds their tears—to paraphrase Chilean artist Roberta Bacic, as Garlock did.

Arpillera means burlap in Spanish. To their creators and art therapists, arpilleras de adorno are colorful appliqués that heal and endure. They were born of the first September 11, the one in Chile in 1973, when the military overthrew the government and declared martial law. Dissenters, mostly men, were questioned, and many were imprisoned and tortured. Others simply vanished. The Catholic Church intervened to help women produce arpilleras to generate income. In their story quilts, they combined paid work, political resistance, and their own version of talk therapy. To memorialize the “disappeared,” they stitched in three-dimensional figures of loved ones dressed in bits of left-behind clothing. Through the women’s artistry, word spread beyond Chile of the horrors of the dictatorship.

Arpilleras, as art or art therapy, flourish throughout Latin America and in Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laos, Northern Ireland, the United States, and Zimbabwe. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is but one example. But they didn’t enter Garlock’s world until a few years ago, even though she had minored in textile arts. The Latin American crafts gallery, where she had worked years before, exhibited Chilean arpilleras and Guatemalan traditional clothing, which decades of conflict (1960–1996) had virtually wiped out. She became fascinated by the narrative quilts of African American women of Gee’s Bend and Esther Krinitz, a seamstress who wanted her children to touch her personal history forty years after she had escaped from the Nazis. Garlock admired the patterns, colors, and the women’s resiliency, how—together or alone—they had sewn up their lives.

Arpilleras in Prison

She went back to prison. She held her first arpilleras group for women in transition. She confessed she found her task frustrating: “Most had been told they shouldn’t dwell on the bad things, but if you haven’t processed trauma, then it’s going to be hard to stay focused on the positive and move forward,” Garlock said.

They needed to find jobs and housing, stay clean, and reconnect with family. Most had no sewing background and were unfamiliar with art therapy. They could hardly see the connection between art and their health as returning citizens. Some joined the group to learn sewing; others were severely traumatized. Many were unaware of traumatic experiences in their pasts. One stitched quietly, unengaged, and couldn’t finish her arpillera by the time the group disbanded. Another spoke only with Garlock. Drawing in pastels was enough to satisfy one woman, while another put great care into creating the border of her arpillera but couldn’t decide what to put inside. Yet another, who couldn’t physically sew, used sticky tape to connect fabric images to the background of her quilt. She managed to tell a complete story— some of it fantasy, some of it real—remained in the present, and enjoyed the process.

“Art does intimidate a lot of people. It’s a different language, so it takes time to teach the skills. There can be a lot of storytelling going on in a group but not a lot of sewing,” Garlock said.

Rachel Cohen, Garlock’s colleague in Switzerland and founder of Common Threads, introduced mindfulness practices and arpilleras to trained artists and therapists in Ecuador. They, in turn, worked with women who had survived gender-based violence in a frontier town. Although they came from a culture of sewing, most had never worked with fabric. Three or four women in the two twelve-week programs recorded trauma; the others stitched idyllic scenes. Recently, the women exhibited their work in Quito. Cohen and Garlock want to document the results quantitatively.

Current Endeavors, Future Plans

For four summers, Garlock has supervised George Washington University art therapy students on two-week trips to India, where they have worked in schools, hospitals, and a shelter. Last season, Garlock’s students collected bags of beautiful fabric scraps from local tailors. At first, the women in the shelter didn’t want to use the castoffs. But by the last day, they preferred them. An Indian art therapist now uses recycled material in her arpilleras therapy.

This year, Garlock plans to offer a class on sewing arpilleras to her art therapy students at George Washington, and in September in Geneva, she and Cohen hope to hold the first international conference on narrative textiles.

When asked to cite her most heart-warming experiences, Garlock mentioned her work with students and the invitation to show her arpillera, School Field Trip (see photo, above), at the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires. It tells Silvia’s story. One day, leading up to the Argentine Dirty War (1976–1983), Silvia went on a school field trip. As she and her classmates returned to the bus, riot police descended on nearby protestors. Things got ugly. Silvia went into exile, alone, and later became an architect, a nun, and then a social worker. In Garlock’s quilt, wind tears off tiny garments from a clothesline. They disappear, just as so many people did. The little banner is a ribbon from a rally held years later to commemorate the lost. It bears the name of one victim, whose life nobody—not even an artist and art therapist like Garlock—can weave back together.

 

Crochet Coral Reef Sends Woolen Warning

Before me lay a room-high mound of warm-woolen fuzzies and lanolin-puffing fringees in blues and greens, reds and golds, white-beiges and browns. Mesmerized, my inner child waited for Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat to pop out to tell the story of the Crochet Coral Reef, an international project started in 2005 by the Los Angeles–based Institute for Figuring. Its founders, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, knew that the Great Barrier Reef of their native Australia was in bad shape. They called for help.  Artists responded.  Together, they crocheted a reef that grew faster than corals ever did, even before climate change.

I saw the reef in 2011 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The show brightened an otherwise dim hall near museum cases about living corals. The juxtaposition drove home the relevance of the arts to environmental issues and inspired me to learn more about corals, global warming, and ocean pollution. I had just the reaction the reef’s creators and museum’s curators planned. In fact, based on my visit, I decided to blog on where health, environment, and the arts meet, my tagline.

Crochet is a “feminine art.” So when the reef set out for Washington, DC, four homeless women of N Street Village joined 200 local crocheters to spawn baby corals for the 4,000-piece reef. Women combating poverty and ill health came to the aid of embattled corals through art. With their hooks, they crocheted model hyperbolas, the shapes corals take that have fascinated mathematicians for centuries. While the curvy, yet straight linear forms grew so did the bonds between threatened human artists and corals, between land and sea creatures.

As the women and exhibit goers learned, excess atmospheric carbon, water pollution, destructive fishing, coastal development, coral mining, and careless tourism have already killed 20 percent of the world’s reefs. Coral reefs are the largest biological structures on Earth; the Great Barrier Reef is visible from outer space. But reefs grow slowly. Most are 5,000 to 10,000 years old. They harbor 25 percent of all marine life and provide food, income, coastal protection, and the ingredients of life-saving medicines for millions of people. With the rise in temperatures and release of carbon, oceans are becoming acidic enough to kill reefs. One colony of the Crochet Coral Reef is white and beige to represent bleached, skeletonized corals. Another is full of human detritus—beer tabs, plastic bags, and cassette tape.

Depressing as the state of the world’s corals is, the Crochet Coral Reef is probably the most effective and delightful means of delivering an environmental message imaginable. If only the Cat in the Hat’s VOOM would emerge from all the colorful yarn to clean up the mess we, the Little Cats, have made of the ancient reefs!