Volume 3: What is your gift?

Chapter 3: Standing at Places Where Worlds Meet

  By Maryo Ewell

Maryo 11-05 b To a good Midwestern protestant, this question prompts the kneejerk response, “Aw, I don’t have any special gifts.”  But a couple of years ago, I had the fortune to be in a group which was given this assignment: “Starting from age 5, and going in five-year increments from then till now, write down moments in each period where your joy was so great that time stood still. (In some periods, there might not be any such moments; in other periods, there might be many.)”  Then, we had to tell a partner our autobiography based only on these moments, and our partner had to identify the themes she heard.

 My partner noticed how many edges and intersections there were in my story.  “When I was 11, our apartment building was at the place where the woods met the open field.”  “I’m a Wisconsin girl even though I live in Colorado.” “I’m neither completely of the state arts agency field nor of the local arts agency field.”  “I have been the token arts conservative on a radical board, and the token arts radical on a conservative board.”   She suggested that perhaps this was a theme that I needed to consider as I reflected on my life: the theme of standing in two worlds at once, at places where worlds meet. Funny, I hadn’t noticed that. 

When I mentioned this to my husband, who taught in an environmental studies department, he said, “Well, in ecology it seems that the richest crucibles for life and evolving life are in the places where two ecosystems overlap.”

I got to thinking that this might be the role, the gift, of the community arts developer. 

I was part of a study team recently that looked back at 50 years of community arts in Wisconsin, assessing what makes an effective community arts developer.  One woman, who had interviewed thirty people, said something like this: “I am noticing that the really effective community arts activists are simultaneously insiders and outsiders.  They accept this even if it makes them uncomfortable. Some outsiders have lived in their community for years and years. Some insiders may not have lived there very long. The question is not one of longevity so much as of perspective. The effective arts developers I heard about cultivated – sometimes unconsciously - both roles. And they understood the importance of putting aside a little loneliness, a longing to play just one role, because they were at their most effective when they played both.”

 Makes sense to me!  Insiders know how things work and who makes things work, and they are reputable and broadly trusted and have good networks of people from many divergent walks of life in the community. Outsiders can compare their community to others more objectively, less parochially. Maybe they are more alert to what is happening culturally in the state or the nation and think about how to bring new ideas home, find resources no one had thought about, see unrealized possibilities. Outsiders can sometimes pose questions that insiders cannot. They can bring in new language. They may be more likely to notice the stories that a community tells about itself. Are they stories of successfully overcoming odds?  Or are they about being worn down by outside forces?  These stories may give the leader clues about developing a plan for the role the arts can play.

It resonates for me, living in the overlaps. What about you?



Chapter 2: The Gift of the Partnership Path

William_Cleveland_Photo This is a personal story about a precious gift.

At one time I had the privilege of running one the largest arts colonies in the world.  Actually it was a franchise.  We started small but ultimately we had 38 sites operating under the auspices of California Department of Corrections.

Here’s the story: In the late 70’s, I worked with a woman named Eloise Smith, from Santa Cruz. Eloise was a battler and inveterate seeker of truth and justice.  One of her great quests was to insinuate the arts into  community life as a force for healing and self expression.  After a lot of research and musing she came to the conslusion that that the best way to make the case for the doing this was go through societies back door-- with the prisons. 

When we made our first prison visit, to the California Medical Facility, in Vacaville, the first prisoner she talked to was a guy named Verne McKee. Verne was president of the both the visual arts and musicians guilds. He told Eloise straight out that a small investment in the Vacaville prison arts community would save lives.  Verne was a con with the gift of gab and Eloise was a hard sell, but, after a lot of back and forth, she decided he had it right.  As a result of their work together, a lot of other folks came to that same conclusion. 

A few years later, after we started the Arts in Corrections Program the bean counters at the Department came and told us that when prisoners made art, their incident rates went down inside, and they committed fewer crimes when they got out.  By 1986, there were art programs in all of California’s prisons. And, as the system grew, so did our franchise.

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Chapter 1: What is your gift? Why is knowing your gift important?

Pua In the past fifteen years I have developed exercises which are part of a community-building and conflict transformation process I call, “Building the Beloved Community.”  In one of the anchor exercises I call, “Guts on the Table,” I ask people to tell three stories.  The name of the exercise,“Guts on the Table,” comes from the Hawaiian understanding that your na’au, your gut is the deepest place from which you think:  it’s the place where your mind, heart, intuition and experience come together.  It is the place where mana, your spiritual core lives.  The Hawaiian  word for thought is mana`o.

This is a formal process, a ritual.  The methodology is simple:  create a safe space and help people to find their stories and to tell them.  This exercise was designed to help people get deeper, faster.  People sit in a circle, on chairs or on the floor, and each person will tell their stories, one-by-one.  In this exercise, I usually begin [one of the core principles of doing this work is that you should never ask someone to do something that you haven’t done or aren’t willing to do first].  So, I as the facilitator will tell my stories first, and then the circle moves to my left and continues until it circles back to me.  Within the past 15 years, I have been part of over 1,008 circles.  Here are the stories people will tell:

1.  Tell the story of your names, all of your names.  Usually, we just introduce ourselves with our first names and leave out all of their other names which contain much of our personal histories.  People tell the story of how they were named or who named them; the meaning of their names or how they feel about their names.  When you tell the story of your names you tell the story of your people, your family, and what you feel about your name(s).

2.  Tell the story of your community, however, each participant defines “community.”  When people tell the story of community, they tell the story of how they live as part of a group. 

3.  Tell the story of your gift(s).  This is usually, the most difficult story for people to tell.  The belief is that if you talk about your gifts, then you will be “bragging on yourself,” which in many cultures is not appropriate behavior.  The emphasis is for people to tell what their gift(s) is/are,  rather than their skills.  The importance of this story is to enable them to wonder what their family, organization or community would be like if it were gift-based and not just skill-based.  (Most of us, when applying for a job, have only been asked to detail our skills and experiences, not our gifts.  My theory is that gift-based organizations do work that is more spiritual and satisfying and long-term.)

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