Dressember and Starting Where You Are

“The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” -Fredrick Buechner

For much of my life I believed that I must forego my own talents and interests in the interest of altruism. I felt like it was selfish of me to pursue what I liked while there are so many in the world who cannot. I spent most of my undergrad trying to forget the “trivial” interests I had like fine arts, dance, fashion, etc. which were not seen inherently bad, but distractions from what I perceived as the “real work”: advocating for the rights of those who are marginalized.

So when I came across the quote above, it immediately made me uncomfortable. What did gladness have to do with anything? In my mind dance couldn’t change the world; art couldn’t end oppression; fashion doesn’t matter when people are starving to death.

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While the intention is good, and these thoughts are not completely wrong, I’ve realized just how limiting this kind of thinking is. It is the voice of the cynic, creativity’s antithesis.

A better way of looking at it is through the lens of “how?” How can dance change the world? How can art end oppression? How can fashion feed people? How can a beautiful meal end violence? How can running challenge inequality? How can good design make a meaningful impact on people’s lives?

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For many (the cynics), the initial response is: it can’t. For them, life is a zero-sum game, so they hoard, and steal, and blame, and complain -but never do they transcend the binary world they’ve created. They see the world as “us vs. them.” It doesn’t matter which “side” they claim to be on, the projected superiority in their choice is what speaks and contributes to the disconnectedness of the world.

But then there is another group, the creatives, who realize that everything is connected and if one person wins it does not mean everyone else loses. These people and groups are truly open. Love, compassion, and kindness flow out of them. They seek to contribute to the beauty of the world. They do not resent anything or anyone, but recognize the brokenness of the world and, through their own wholeness and joy, seek to change it.

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Currently I am participating in a unique awareness/fundraising event by started by a group of these “creatives.” International Justice Mission (IJM) -a non-profit that rescues victims of human trafficking- has organized a campaign called: Dressember. The premise is that participants wear a dress everyday during the month of December to raise awareness about human trafficking and money for IJM to use for rescuing more victims. (85% of the money IJM receives during the Dressember campaign goes directly helping victims.) The event is the brain-child of Blythe Hill, who started Dressember just for fun/the challenge of wearing a dress everyday for a month because she loved dresses and fashion. It was only recently that she attached it to a greater cause when she and IJM got connected. The event has since taken off, fundraising more than $200K to fight human trafficking.

I believe the order in which this story developed is important. She started where she was, with something she loved, and THEN used it to change the world through her creativity. So often those who want to change the world get too fixated on the problems facing the issue and ignore what brings them joy. They forget that what the world really needs is more joy. That’s what it looks like to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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If you’d like to contribute to my Dressember campaign, I would love it! Follow the link! support.dressemberfoundation.org/rlcreations

The Impoverished Humanitarian

My senior year of college I took a grant writing class. One day one of my classmates said that he believed that everything, even non-profits, should operate like a business or a for-profit venture. Eye-rolls abound in the classroom, his sentiments were shrugged off and even passionately rejected by much of the class (myself included.) Two years later his words still reverberate through my head -but I’m no longer rolling my eyes.

So what has changed for me in those two short years?

-Looking for a non-profit job in the proverbial “real world.”

Like most recent college grads, I was not born into the privilege of money. I have loans, I need money to eat, for shelter, for transportation, etc. UNlike most recent college grads (or at least some of them) I am really passionate about fighting poverty and would like to apply my talents, knowledge, and abilities to the cause. This means getting involved in the non-profit world. The issue that arises from this is that it is hard to get a job in the non-profit world as most non-profits run largely on volunteerism. While volunteerism is not completely a bad thing, for me it is almost completely out of the question because of the aforementioned needs that can only be met with a position that pays.

Furthermore, I have found that there is some level of hypocrisy to be found when an organization that is trying to help people get out of poverty is forced to doom a large portion of their workforce to the same fate.

Dan Pallotta, in a talk he gave for a TED Conference, expounds upon this idea further. He too believes the stigma placed upon non-profits that pay their workers decently is stunting the growth potential for these organizations, and is driving out some of the most talented people to the for-profit world because of the inability to earn a decent living in the former pursuit:

We have two rule books: we have one for the non-profit sector, and one for the rest of the economic world. It’s an apartheid and it discriminates against the non-profit world […] We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money NOT helping other people. You want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids -go for it, we’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine, but you want to make half-a-million dollars curing kids of malaria and you’re considered a parasite yourself.

He makes an excellent point. It seems to me that there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a company to make as much money as it possibly can exploiting people, animals, and the environment, but placing monetary limits on organizations that are set to help protect those same potentially vulnerable things. Essentially, it is like rewarding a child that destroys a room for his own personal enjoyment, yet punishing a child that tries to clean up the mess for the betterment of those who occupy the room.

I understand that the idea of paying non-profit workers larger salaries is an idea that opens up a whole host of potential complications. Many would argue that human nature is to be selfish, and that non-profit employees would exploit their position for their own profit. Honestly, this could happen with some organizations. However, just as non-profits have a strong obligation to their patrons to provided services that help them with their plight, conversely, businesses have an obligation to their customers to provide an excellent product. If a business has a crummy product and/or crummy service, the business fails. What’s wrong with non-profits operating similarly?

 

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Title: Traditional Business, Social Entrepreneurship, and Non-profits
Watercolor on paper by author

Heartside GR: Gentrification or Blended Community?

Much of life is lived -if we are living it right, and honestly- in the tension. It is in those moments that can be found not in the perfectly cultivated and contrived moments, rather in those moments where our own control is forfeited to that which forces our consciousness to really pay attention to what is around and in us. Inner and outer tensions abound, the most open and fully engaged lives are often lived by people who are able to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this is rarely how society functions and instead we live in blandness and comfortability if we are “lucky” or else fear.

Welcome to Heartside

Welcome to Heartside

In my city, one of the most uncomfortable places for many is the Heartside Neighborhood. Often thought of as Grand Rapid’s “Skid Row,” the Heartside Neighborhood (usually referred to just by a single street name: Division) is where a large majority of the city’s homeless/poor reside and is also subject to much fear, disdain, and apprehension by the other parts of the community at large…

And it is also becoming one of the biggest sites for “urban renewal” (although not quite to the gentrification level) in the area.

Could problems arise? Yes. Have they already arisen? Possibly. Is there tension? Undoubtedly. Should this lead to a zero-sum geographic battle between the original, poor occupants and the new, affluent ones called gentrification? Absolutely not. It should be seen as an opportunity for growth, honesty, and mutual gain between seemingly contrasting parties.

For now, Heartside is in a liminal space. It is neither the run-down “eyesore” it used to be, nor is it completely “cleaned-up” and posh. Some of the trendiest businesses and loads of art galleries have moved into the stigmatized area. However, they have not driven out the poor that already occupied the area, as true gentrification is known to do, but have built around them. Besides, the area has been home to the missions (that claim they are not going anywhere) long before it was home to these businesses. One of the local missions even has a large art gallery itself that features art and a newsletter filled with poems and stories all created by its patrons which could act as a buffer zone between the homeless, mentally/physically ill, and drug addicts that live in the area and the business owners and artisans that work there.

The artists in the area have begun to band together to transform the area into “The Avenue for the Arts.” However, instead of these artisans running the mission patrons out of the area, the current set up seems to offer the chance of collaboration and a symbiotic relationship between people who may seem very different at first, but may very well have similar stories.

I visited the area a few weeks ago for the annual market that is a part of the Festival of the Arts celebration, to see a plethora of Heartside Ministries patrons sitting outside the mission, proudly displaying their artwork for sale alongside traditional artists and business owners. Let’s hope this image remains, or better yet, the groups homogenize even more.

In a polarized world, truly diverse areas are rare. Heartside has the opportunity to do it right, if it dares, and lean into the tension that the area presents to create a vibrant, homogenized neighborhood.

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To learn more about this area, follow the links:

http://therapidian.org/development-heartside-part-one (parts two and three can be found on the sidebar)

http://www.avenueforthearts.com/index.php

http://www.dwellingplacegr.org/

The Business Section

By Paulsmarsden (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today I have created my own business section for you. I have compiled some links to articles and business resources that may be useful if you are looking to start your own business as well as some interesting/inspirational pieces. This is particularly geared toward those who would like to start a small business in “developed” countries and in particular the US.

For general business resources including mentoring, workshops, templates & tools, and definitions for business related terms here are two resources:

http://www.score.org/ -A lot of great resources are provided like how to write a business plan, and information on the legal, financial, marketing, and management sides of a business.

http://www.investopedia.com/ -This has a great business dictionary, professional quizzes and tests, personal finance and investing advice.

Another good resource to have is a funding source like kickstarter.com. Kickstarter funds creative projects and has funded over 42,000 projects to date. Micro-loans are also available (as I have talked about a lot on this blog) and are not just for those of developing countries. Kiva.org is a great resource for that.

Here are a couple of articles that challenge some of the traditional ideas in business:

An article on creating a Business plan or business map?

Another article that challenges the need to attend business school

Finally, an inspirational yet in some ways challenging article about a business that I frequent and its business model: “For-Benefit” business

I’d like to end this post by encouraging you, if you are a budding entrepreneur, to think creatively about your business and find out how you can make a greater impact worldwide as well as in your community with it as a for-benefit business. Henry David Thoreau advised individuals to “be not simply good; be good for something,” but his advice can also apply to business. For-benefit businesses seeks to not only provide a good product and good service but also be “good for something” as well.

Some Customer Service Guidelines

Original photo titled "Feels Like Home" by Quinn Dombrowski (Quinn.anya) on Flickr. Licensed under the creative commons attribution and share alike conditions. http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/7306741752/

Original photo titled “Feels Like Home” by Quinn Dombrowski (Quinn.anya) on Flickr. Licensed under the creative commons attribution and share alike conditions: http://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/7306741752/

Have you ever gone into a store just to look around only to notice that the attendant working that day was also looking, but this time just at you. Unnerving, right? It almost feels as if that person suspects you are going to steal something at any moment and thus must be on guard while you are in the store. This may not be their intended message, but it quickly becomes the communicated message to the customer who is thinking the whole time: “I’m not going to steal anything; I’m not going to steal anythingI’M NOT GOING TO STEAL ANYTHING!” and eventually gets so uncomfortable that they flee the store. THIS is bad customer service at its finest.

Customer service is a crucial part of any business, but it can also be an art if done well. Art as customer service is not , but there are some dos and don’ts that are. Here are some examples that I have learned through not only my own experience with customer service this past year, but also through observation of good and bad customer service by others, as well as some pointers found in books.

Don’t: Be a “Hawk-er”

From someone selling high-end diamond jewelry to a local garage sale operator, a “hawk-er” (one part traditional definition, one part gawker, and one part the phrase: “to watch like a hawk”) is that person I mentioned before. Their eyes are on you the whole time, and they tend to make people think that they suspect them of stealing. It’s important to note that this offense can be intentional and unintentional.

Sometimes the worker may not be concerned about the customer stealing or not, but is watching them for a number of other reasons. One may be boredom, another may be due to a company policy, and another yet may be a genuine interest in the person and wanting to address their needs. Unfortunately, on the receiving end the message is the same: “I don’t trust you.”

To avoid this, make yourself useful (clean lightly, work on small projects that others can interrupt, etc.) The objective is to not freak people out, but also not abandon them either (more on that later.)

Do: Make sure you have some anti-theft methods in place

So while customer service workers want to their customers to feel trusted, it is a fact of the industry that too much trust can go awry. Therefore, there must be a balance between accusatory behavior, but making sure that theft is (as much as possible) not going to happen.

Don’t ignore people:

On the flip-side of the don’t be a hawk-er rule, is the don’t ignore people either, rule. My roommate has come home on at least two occasions being really frustrated by workers who seem to ignore her or another customer in the store. One was bad enough that she has told nearly everyone with whom she was discussing the product (frozen yogurt) about her experience there. Word of mouth is really important when it comes to retail/customer service -this cannot be stressed enough.

Do: Be generous

Seth Godin’s book Linchpin focuses on this idea a lot. Give lots of gifts. This doesn’t necessarily mean give everything you in the store away -it would very quickly cease to be a business if you did that. Generosity can be shown in many different ways. Be generous with your time, your patience, and occasionally your product.

An anecdote to help elaborate: My roommate and I went to a Galleria in our area that has a lot of various things like pottery, some clothes, funny cards, etc. The store doesn’t necessarily cater to our demographic, but my roommate did buy some lotion there. The woman who rang her up was the owner and chatted with us for a bit. Near the end of the conversation she told us that she knew how tough it is to be our age –fresh out of college with little to no substantial income- and that if there is anything in her store that we really wanted but couldn’t afford we should let her know and she could help us out. We walked out of the store completely astounded. Neither one of us had ever had a customer service experience like that. She will definitely continue to have our business because of that one generous gesture.

Don’t: Have an attitude

This seems like it is pretty obvious, but it does happen pretty frequently, and can be pretty tempting. Here are a few anecdotes to help elaborate further:

My roommate and I went into a retail store the other day just on a whim. I had gone in the store a few times before, and the owner (who seems to be the only worker) had left a good impression on me the first time. When I had visited then (my roommate was there that time too), we talked to her before leaving and she told us that her customer service style was more laissez faire (my words, not hers) in that she preferred not to bug her customers. This time when we visited her store, her style seemed too extreme. She didn’t greet us at all when we entered and when we left, my roommate told her as tactfully as she could that a word on a hand-written sign was spelled wrong. The lady gave her a disgusted look, to which my roommate replied: “Well, I thought I’d let you know just incase someone else notices.” The lady then retorted with “Yeah, or if anyone cares.” We are never going back there, and have begun to spread this story amongst our friends.

The second anecdote is about a former co-worker of mine. Working with her was really difficult because of her attitude and eventually she let it spill over into her treatment of customers. Every night when she would work, the more people that came in the closer to closing time, the more her irritation grew and grew apparent to everyone around her. Eventually she pushed the envelope so far with one group of customers that they complained pretty strongly and she no longer works there.

Do: Make eye contact

My roommate swears by this. A fellow server at a restaurant she worked at told her this and she says he is one of the best servers she has seen. I tried doing this at my job for a while and when I remembered, it seemed to make a difference. (I also got a lot of people going gaga over my eyes though –another story for another time- so that may be why I didn’t do it as much by the end.)

Do: Connect with people

This is essentially what results from the previous dos and don’ts. It is the ultimate goal. Connecting with people is what customer service is all about. It takes an ordinary task and turns it into art.