At Idealist, the sporting world is not our usual beat. The Olympic Games, however, hit us where we live as an inspiring, international gathering of outstanding individuals and teams. So we’re taking this opportunity to pay homage to excellent athletes, winter beauty, fun games, and a host of other concepts we could tie (even tenuously) to Sochi. Welcome to Olympics Week on Idealists in Action.
When you think of the Olympics, you probably don’t think of international collaboration. In fact, many of the most famous moments from past Olympic Games are competitive struggles between two nations.
However, the Olympics would never be possible without an impressive effort by each country involved to set aside their differences and come together for two weeks every four years.
This year, the Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi, Russia. Amidst the controversy surrounding the current games, it’s easy to forget that multiple Olympics have been boycotted for various reasons. In recent history, the United States and its allies boycotted the 1980 Olympics held by the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union and its allies returned the favor when Los Angeles played host in 1984.
In short, it takes a massive amount of compromise, understanding, and cooperation to host the Olympics, and we at Idealist would like to celebrate Russia for taking on the task. Yet we know this endeavor is just one collaboration taking place between our two former-enemy countries every day, and we thought we’d take this opportunity to highlight another excellent example that’s about to get underway.
The National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) is a combination museum, exhibition space, and research organization based in Moscow. It was established in 1992, around the same time the Russian Federation was created from the fall of the Soviet Union. Its mission is to aid the development of contemporary Russian art within a global context.
To do this, the NCCA often partners with arts organizations from other countries. On February 23rd, the last day of the Olympics, the NCCA will welcome the venerable experimental, collaborative new music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars to Moscow. These visitors from New York City will participate in a five-day residency with 11 Russian artists in a partnership they’re calling the Bang on a Can Institute. If you’re in the Moscow area around the end of this month, you can check out one of the group’s performances.
By entering into this collaboration, all the musicians involved will learn something new and have an opportunity to expand their knowledge of their craft. Just think of the many other masterful musical collaborations that have taken place through the ages (particularly in the 1980’s)! Of course, regardless of what these musicians compose together, the cultural interchange will be worth the effort.
So when you’re watching the Olympics over the next two weeks, remember that the games aren’t just about getting a gold medal. They’re also about international unity, and about the hope that we can create a better world by interacting with and learning from people that come from different nations and cultures.
And, of course, they’re about curling.
What are some of your favorite international collaborations?
As 2013 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to pay homage to Idealists who’ve made a commitment to doing good across 365 days.
The portrait of Maya Angelou was the hardest.
Illustrator Lisa Congdon says that it was partially her struggle to capture the poet’s essence that made the finished product turn out so well.
“I was able to capture her decently in the end because in the beginning I was ready to rip it up,” she says.
But most of her portraits come out a little easier than that. Lisa paints a different one every week as part of The Reconstructionists, a yearlong collaborative art/writing/history project she started with Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova.
Every Monday in 2013, an inspiring woman has been featured on their website with a hand-painted portrait and a micro-essay about her life and work.
Named for twentieth-century novelist Anaïs Nin’s idea for “woman’s role in the reconstruction of the world,” The Reconstructionists celebrates women who have reconstructed “our understanding of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.”
It’s featured some well-known feminist figures of the past like Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, but many subjects—like Patty Smith, Diana Nyad, Janette Sadik-Khan, Joan Didion, and (of course) Maya Angelou—are still alive and well (and changing the world) today.
Lisa and Maria decide who they’d like to feature on a week-to-week basis depending on what’s going on in the news or in history or what’s been on their minds. With only 52 weeks in the year, they can’t pay homage to all the women they’d like to, so they focus on picking someone whose story is important to them.
“In that way it’s a personal project for us,” Lisa says.
While this is Lisa’s first time working on a collaborative project, this isn’t her first rodeo when it comes to yearlong projects. In 2010, she shared her collections through A Collection A Day, which is now a book. In 2012, she featured more of her artwork in 365 Days of Hand Lettering.
All of her yearlong art projects have been started through blogs. Lisa says she’s liked sharing The Reconstructionists this way because it’s “educational for people and low-pressure for us.”
“When you do a blog, there’s an expectation that you’re going to post every week,” she says. “It puts a self-imposed deadline and structure on personal work that might not exist otherwise.”
When asked if Lisa has a project in the works for 2014, she’s a little noncommittal.
“There are a few things stewing in my head,” she says, laughing.
What women inspire you?
Josh Heller and Nicole Kelly tried an experiment last summer. What would happen if they got their friends to descend on a small town in the U.S. as part of an intentional, temporary community?
“Cities are really expensive and it’s crazy to think that someone who is a struggling artist or creative should have to spend half their income on rent,” Josh says. “The thing is that less affordable places are less desirable. The idea for Summer Commune was that we could make a place desirable by bringing the people we think are cool.”
Josh, a travel writer for Matador Network, and Nicole, who was a grad student at UC Irvine for fiction writing at the time, were perfectly poised to lead the project. Avid travelers by nature and community builders by default, the couple already had a list of people they knew they could reach out to.
So they got to work. They read books about communes past, deciding that in the age of Craigslist, people could simply sublet their own apartments. They set up a Facebook group, website, and Tumblr blog. They called it Summer Commune, and at the beginning of June, rolled into the city of Moscow, Idaho to find their faces on the front page of the local newspaper.
“Moscow was a perfect place. It’s this unique city that is close to Washington, has two major universities, and there’s only several hundred thousand people. So it’s pretty remote and isolated, but you still have artists, intellectuals, and old hippies. A lot,” Josh says.
Before they arrived, Moscow residents ranging from farmers to Buddhist professors were waiting to welcome them with open arms. Those who came from other places—thinkers, comedians, designers, and other creatives, some of which Nicole and Josh knew and some of which they didn’t—were at a liminal time in their lives and excited to connect and explore. What started out as an initial way to live cheaply became something much deeper.
“A lot of people who came were looking for an alternative. People wanted to test out another way of life, another way of having community, another way of doing things. They were open-minded and curious,” Nicole says.
Over the course of the summer, Nicole and Josh held weekly open meetings at a nearby tavern for the core group of 10 Communers and the 60-plus interested locals to commingle. They also hosted literary readings, salons, a variety show, and a Pecha Kucha night at other venues throughout the city.
“The mayor told us that the tourism initiative we put together was something she had tried to pay for and it had not come out so well. Our grassroots efforts had really stimulated the local economy during the summer,” Josh says.
When Nicole and Josh weren’t orchestrating events, they and other Communers were hanging out with punk and bluegrass bands, dining with aging hippies, making friends with the coffee shop and co-op crowd, hanging out on a farm, and volunteering at the city’s Artwalk. They fell in love with Moscow—and with an alternative way of living.
“For me personally, it made me be more open to living other places and seeing other parts of America I was less interested in before,” Nicole says.
3 things they wish they did differently
From the beginning, the two wanted Summer Commune to be a model that anyone anywhere could take and copy. If you want to create one of your own, here are three tips to keep in mind:
1. Be clear about who you want to target.
They initially pitched the idea just to artists, but realized halfway through that Summer Commune would’ve been great for anyone who worked remotely or wanted to, like freelancers, small business teams, etc.
2. Write a manifesto.
While Summer Commune was always an exploratory project which they wanted to give room to breathe, having principles of community framework from the beginning would’ve helped. “We wanted it to be collaborative, but I realize now that was unrealistic,” Nicole says. “I think people wanted a structure but they didn’t want to help build it. A lot of people felt, ‘We’re happy to be here, but what do you want from us?’”
3. Email the mayor.
Nicole and Josh were so focused on amassing a crowd to go with them that they unintentionally forgot about local outreach. When they saw how responsive Moscow was, they realized they could’ve easily gotten in touch with local government, city council, and more much earlier, possibly tapping them for budget and infrastructure help.
Nicole and Josh are currently back in California, and are taking a break from communing this summer. But for them, it was an experience that changed how they relate to the world and their place in it—not to mention boosted their confidence in moving from intention to action.
“It was cool to see something come to fruition. I’m now more excited by having ideas and actually building them out,” Josh says.
“When people would ask, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ that would’ve stressed me out a year ago,” Nicole adds. “Now it’s fine. I know now opportunities will present themselves and that I can make my own things.”
Of course, Nicole and Josh did many things right and would love to share their tips on choosing the right place, branding, and more. Get in touch by emailing email@example.com.
What do you do when you have an awesome literary nonprofit organization that happens to have a very similar mission to other groups your area?
Well, instead of competing for resources by throwing down in a bookish rumble for supporters and donors, some of the leading literary organizations and independent presses of the Twin Cities decided to join forces. The love child of their cooperation is LitPunch, an outreach initiative with a shared community-building goal.
Originally designed to draw in a new audience, LitPunch is a series of social networking events hosted by the editors, book reviewers, directors, and volunteer coordinators of the five participating literary organizations. Chris Jones, Marketing Director at The Loft Literary Center, explains that sharing responsibilities between the organizations has worked well for LitPunch because of good communication and mutual respect between the partnering groups. “We have a great working relationship because we’re all open and flexible,” he says.
Ever-evolving, LitPunch offers community members a chance to chat with the minds behind some of the most prominent literary organizations and presses in the country. Back when LitPunch got its start in 2011, the gem of the program was an actual punch card that participants could get stamped at “punch worthy” readings and lit events around the cities. After filling a card by attending 12 events (a “knock-out”), the card could be used as a $15 gift certificate at a participating indie bookstore.
While this was a fun idea at first, about a year into the program, participants started complaining about losing or forgetting to bring their punch cards and the program started to lose steam. Rather than giving up on the idea, the organizers decided to tweak their approach and transformed the program into a series of social networking events (from punch cards to punch bowls, some would say).
Why you might like to try this
How you can replicate it
Creating new coalitions can be a challenge, but Chris has some advice for nonprofits looking to team up, whether for a literary endeavor like LitPunch or otherwise.
1.Pick your collaborators wisely.
There comes to a certain point where without a central leader, trading off on responsibilities just isn’t efficient anymore. For the folks at LitPunch, five organizations is just right: “Any more and I think it would become a little unwieldy.” The most important trick to forming a strong coalition is to make sure that your missions are really on point. You want to be able to focus your efforts in the same direction when it comes to the consistency and style of your events, including collaborative efforts in grant proposals and reports, and reaching out to the right potential audience members.
Community projects need to be focused enough to have a clear goal that fits into what your organization does, but—especially when you’re working with other organizations—coalitions need to be able to change and grow with time. As Chris says, “If you’re too rigid, it’s just not going to work.” LitPunch has changed dramatically since its start in 2011, and its constant evolution has been a big part of its longevity.
3. Ask for feedback.
As LitPunch has grown up, the participating organizations have been very committed to seeking out and responding to feedback from their attendees. When people reported they were losing their punch cards too often to make it worthwhile, LitPunch did away with the cards. When people said they wanted to meet with more editors and talk books with the best of ‘em, LitPunch delivered. Give people what they want, and your program will be successful.
4. Make it fun.
The spirit of LitPunch comes from that nostalgic drive for racking up points and winning awesome prizes that many folks have carried with them since childhood. This fun energy has electrified all of the events and marketing efforts of LitPunch, even after the end of “knock-outs.” At the next LitPunch mixer in June, for example, attendees will be able to win prizes from their favorite presses and bookstores by playing literary signature bingo which rewards them for mingling with the editors and organizers of the participating LitPunch groups.
This consistent effort of LitPunch to give “normal” readings and literary events extra flare has certainly attracted a great deal of attention for the program and for the participating organizations.
“The turnout was overwhelming,” Chris says about the 2013 LitPunch kick-off this past January. “It was so cool to see a bar packed with people who were all there because they love books as much as we do.”
Interested in forming a similar coalition? Have questions about the upcoming LitPunch mixer in the Twin Cities on June 19? Contact Chris Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Olson is a writer and arts advocate living in Portland, Oregon.