Month: March 2013

Organizations That Don’t Suck – Indy Convergence

Some of my readers have asked for suggestions of good organizations worth donating to.  Well, rather than just providing a list, I would like to start featuring different groups that I believe in and recommend supporting in individual blog posts dedicated to how awesome they are.  Organizations that you can give to without regret knowing that your money will be used wisely.  My first attempt at doing this is with an organization that I have loved since the day I learned about them, Indy Convergence.  They are currently gearing up for their annual event which takes place here in Haiti and is scheduled for this Saturday. One reason why I would like to start with them as a worthwhile recipient of your support is because one of the biggest excuses that I always hear for not donating to my own projects in Haiti is that people want to donate to something local because there are always “plenty of people right in our own backyard in need of help”.  Well, for those people, here’s a great, innovative, and young American organization creating really great opportunities for artists specifically in Indianapolis, but they come from all over the country.  They are also expanding to start programs in Haiti and also Canada.  So they’re really in everyone’s backyard.  And also, those who are interested in unique and trustworthy projects that do work in Haiti that aren’t your typical orphanage or food distribution group, they also provide that through their partnership with SA-K-LA-K-WEL.

They are currently in the middle of a campaign on Indiegogo to raise funds for their big event in Indianapolis that will be taking place in May.  Please visit their site and consider supporting the work that they do.  Thank you.

The following is an interview with Indy Convergence Executive Director, Caitlin Negron, where she shares just what Indy Convergence means to those who are involved and how others can get involved too.

What is Indy Convergence?

Indy Convergence is a two-week pop-up arts residency program where artists from different backgrounds gather in Indianapolis to collaborate, develop new work and teach free community workshops.

I know IC has a pretty broad definition of what it means to be an artist.  Who is the Indy Convergence open to and what kinds of different artists do you have participating this year?

IC is open to professional and pre-professional artists working in any field. The majority of participants usually are from one of the performing arts (dance, music, theater), but we’re working on broadening our ranks. This year we’ll have a few dancers, a visual artist, an opera singer, musician, choreographers, directors, lighting design students, a writer, puppeteer, arts educator, and actors.

What would you tell someone who doesn’t consider themselves an artist, but would like to get involved anyway?

Call me! We’d love to hear what talents and skills you have and are sure to benefit from your expertise. IC is always looking for writers to help get the word out, businesses to sponsor a day or project, volunteers to hang posters, and restaurants to donate meals (and coffee). Lastly, come to our workshops. They are all taught at an introductory level and designed to be shared with the community. Our detailed schedule will be available on our website in late April.

What can someone expect if they come to the IC open lab performance?

Our Open Lab Performance is an informal presentation of the work that is created in the two-weeks of IC. Each artist will introduce their project and show an excerpt of what they’ve worked on in just eight hours of rehearsal time. You can expect about a two hour show that includes a few pauses and an intermission. Audience members are encouraged to engage with the artists after the performance- we want your feedback. The Indy Convergence experience is about growing and moving forward in our work. Hearing what strangers have to say provides invaluable input that is difficult to get during the creative process. (We also serve delicious martinis)

How is IC different from other artist residencies?

The Indy Convergence defines itself by being a wholly collaborative residency program. This means that everyone who attends will work intimately with every other participant. Other artist residencies provide time and space for artists to work in a more insulated environment with a singular, personal goal and objective. The IC experience blasts all of your senses and asks each artist to call on skill sets they didn’t even realize existed. By the end everyone will be able to sing in public, do some kind of dance step, recognize yoga poses, write a poem, make a puppet and hang a light.

Tell us about your connection to Haiti and how that all came about?

IC is currently developing a relationship with a community center called Sa-K-La-K-Wel (SLW) just outside Jacmel, Haiti in a community called Oban. Through a series of re-connected friendships, our artistic director Robert Negron and alum Gabriel Pallo headed to Haiti in early 2012. There they found a vibrant arts community and an interest for more classes and educational course in the arts. IC now offers any of its alums the opportunity to travel to SLW for artist residency programs. The artists stay on the property and teach the students at SLW and the resident of Oban who pre-register for their classes. We also host an annual event similar to our Indianapolis event at SLW where local artists and aid organizations gather at the community center to share their talents and collaborate with IC artists. The IC-Haiti event is taking place this week!

How has this international connection influenced IC’s activities in Indianapolis?

We’ve had a generous outpouring of support and interest for our work in Haiti. We’ve been able to start connecting with other organizations to hopefully work on other, exciting collaborations. I think it’s also made us a much more attractive organization and allowed us to define ourselves from other small NPO’s with similar missions. Working is Haiti is truly connecting artists from different backgrounds who might not normally have the chance to meet.

We’re also hoping to foster a true artist exchange with Haitian artists traveling to Indianapolis as well as IC artists teaching at SLW. The first step of bringing our involvement in Haiti to the US is with your participation in this year’s “Umbrella Project” and the concept of “Otherness”. See a description of the project on our website (www.indyconvergence.org) under “Ellen Denham to direct Umbrella Project”.

Right now you are raising funds through an Indiegogo campaign, but what other funding needs do you have throughout the year when you are not preparing for the annual convergence?

Year round we have general administrative needs that most organizations do (things that are far less sexy than the projects we host each year.) We have a climate controlled storage unit to house all of our equipment, events in Indianapolis to attend, marketing, outreach and office expenses that need funding. We’re also looking ahead to find funding sources to support individual workshops year-round in Indianapolis.

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3 Golden Nuggets of Wisdom

I recently ate at a small family restaurant somewhere in the middle of South Dakota  that shared the following thought on its menu in between the fried chicken and homemade chili: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is knowing enough not to put it in a fruit salad.”  With that in mind, I wanted to share some different bits of wisdom that I’ve come across lately and perhaps you who read this will gleam something from their insight as well as you choose what to put into your fruit salad of life.

1.  “Expect disappointment.”

I recently came across a post on the blog A Life Overseas by contributor, Laura Parker, sharing 5 mistakes that she made her first year in the mission field, and this was one of her pieces of advice.  It is, in fact, one of the best pieces of advice I think people going into mission or international aid work can receive before they travel.  In her post, Parker writes, ” From yourself. From your marriage. From the ministry you came to serve. From the culture. From your finances. From the nationals and other missionaries. From your walk with God. From your kids. And while I am typically a sunshine-daily optimist, I know I would have done better during our first year if I had lower expectations.”  This may seem like a strange piece of advice coming from me for those who know me well because I typically maintain very high expectations for myself and those that I work with.  On multiple occasions when I have asked a staff member or a volunteer how a particular activity went and they answer “fine,” I have responded, “I don’t want fine, I want extraordinary.”  And I definitely believe that this is the standard that we have to aim for if we are going to find success in our organization.  However, although I communicate these very high expectations in order to motivate those involved to give their absolute best, I am never surprised when these expectations aren’t satisfied.  I prepare myself to deal with the inevitable disappointment in a way that we can all learn from and move forward stronger.  But I think that this advice is especially vital for anyone embarking on a new adventure that you will never find the reality you discover after being there will be all rainbows and roses like you saw on the website.  Living internationally is tough.  Working internationally and cross-culturally is even tougher.  So, although there are beautiful triumphs that happen everyday,  most of the time you will find yourself banging your head against the wall, screaming at the heavens, and asking unanswerable questions until you forget where you came from.  Expect disappointment.

2.  “Complain about the way other people make software by making software.”

I found this quote by Andre Torrez in the book Steal Like An Artist, written by Austin Kleon.  The entire little book is worth the read, but this  quote really stuck out and has stuck with me.  The most effective way to complain about others doing something in a way that you find unacceptable, or unsatisfactory, whether it be making software, making art, or doing international nonprofit work, is to do it yourself and do it better.  We can complain and criticize all we want, but if those complaints aren’t backed up by proof that something better can be accomplished as an alternative, then they go in vain.  It’s a good reminder to someone like me who does my fair share of criticizing in this blog, that the best form of complaining is better work, better products, better outcomes.  Always take what you’ve learned from your disagreement with the methods of others to make your own work the best it can possibly be.  This is really the biggest reason I ever started a nonprofit myself, not because I had always wanted to run a nonprofit, but I wanted to complain about the way I saw others doing nonprofit work, so I made a nonprofit.  And because of that now that nonprofit has turned into something that is providing the community with a lot of very valuable services that I’m very fortunate to be a part of.  And now I’m able to turn back around and share what I’ve learned through that process with many people.  Complaints only go so far but action can lead places you never expect.  Make software.

3.  “Don’t make people pay.  Let people pay.”

When I’m in the States with high speed internet and extra time (which isn’t often) I love to keeping up with the TED talks.  And just a day or two before returning to Haiti this time I spent some of that time enjoying one of the most profoundly unique and personally pertinent talks that I’ve ever watched.  It was by Amanda Palmer, musician, rock star, artist, and revolutionary in the business of music.  Her talk was titled “The Art of Asking” and in it she describes her background as a street performer and how that has led to her creating a career out of making music through the most extreme forms of audience and customer connections possible.  In the talk she says, “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we LET people pay for music?” She never puts a price on her music, she just gives it away for free and lets people pay what it’s worth to them.  As both an artist and someone who is used to asking people to give money for my nonprofit work, I found her story inspirational and began to look for how her example could apply to what I do.  Nonprofit work is all about creating that human connection where, through the act of giving, both the giver and receiver better understand one another.  It is not about providing a product and collecting a price but about building relationships that have indefinite values on both ends.  The same way that all art and music needs to create that human connection that cannot have a price tag stuck to it, the work that we all strive to do to develop our world into a more beautiful place for all to live must be understood as something much greater than just a market exchange.  Expecting a payment is cold.  Inviting someone to be a part of something that they find valuable provides energy to the human spirit.  Let people pay.

So, if you have time, please read the blog, check out the book, and watch the video.  May your life be forever changed and may you never find any tomatoes in your fruit salad.

3 Reasons Why I Should Never Travel During Spring Break

Dear Spring Break Travelers,

God bless you.  Thank you for deciding to make Haiti your destination for your break.  Thank you for choosing the path less traveled when all of your classmates are going to some beach to party for the week so they can star in Girls Gone Wild.    Thank you for sacrificing that grand opportunity during your one week off from class or work or whatever it is that you do the rest of the year to come experience the rich culture, beautiful land, and extraordinary people of this country.  I hope that you have the time of your life and I hope that your life is changed.  I hope that when you leave next week you feel like you made the right choice.  I’m glad you came.  God bless.

Yours Truly, Lee

Dear Self,

DO NOT EVER TRAVEL TO HAITI DURING SPRING BREAK!

Here’s why:

1.  The T-shirts.

Last time that I flew into Port-au-Prince from Miami it was Christmas day and I was THE ONLY white person on the full plane.  It was the first time that has ever happened to me and it was refreshing.  For a moment I thought that maybe things were changing in the popularity of foreign teams invading the country.  Then I remembered that it was Christmas, and I was apparently just the only American crazy enough to actually travel on Christmas day while all others are celebrating with family, while it was actually the most logical day for Haitians to travel back to Haiti so that they could be to their homes or with family by New Years day, when they would be celebrating.  Nonetheless, the fact was, I was riding on a plane to Haiti with probably 220 other people and no 2 people had matching outfits on.  Also the first time that has ever happened.  That was Christmas.  Now two and a half months later I go back again during Spring Break on another full flight from Miami but this time I could have counted the number of Haitians on that plane on my fingers.  And all the rest of the plane was color coded by t-shirt according to group.  There were four large mission teams and I was surrounded by t-shirts that made me wish I had business cards for my blog to hand out on the plane.  If I did have those cards, and those good hearted folks would read my blog, I would add a couple more rules to my mission team T-shirt list for their sake.  #1.  NOOOOOOOOOOOOO French.  No French.  No French.  No French.  No French!  Did you not do your homework at all before coming?  Before designing a t-shirt that would be your first impression to the Haitian people?  Did you not talk to any Haitians?  They don’t speak French!  And if you do speak French to them, even thought they will understand you, you will be viewed as pretentious and condescending.  The only way that you can actually get away with it is if you are indeed, from France.  Otherwise, NO FRENCH.  Especially on T-shirts.  Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, a less serious offense but still worth considering, #2.  Come up with a unique logo.  It’s probably a good rule of thumb to assume that if an image starts with the letter “H” it’s probably way overused already in logos in Haiti.  For example, heart, hand, house, hibiscus.  Probably want to stay away from images of any of these items simply because there’s already a million other groups trying to help Haiti have hope , healing, and happiness, and you want your group to stand out and to leave an impression and the logo you choose to represent your group can have a much bigger impact on that than you might think.

As we went through the airport, all of the employees and customs officials were remarking with surprise in Creole how they seemed to only allow white people on our plane.  Again, ashamed.

2.  The Airplane/Airport Conversation

Here’s how it goes for most people:

“So, what are you going to  Haiti for?”

-“Mission work, orphanage, relief, education programs, deal drugs, the usual.”

“Is this your first time to Haiti?”

-“Yes, I’m really excited but kind of nervous.” or “I go down every year for so many years.”

“What part of Haiti are you going to?”

-“I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it right, but…” or “Out in the mountains a place called…” or “Port-au-Prince”

“Well that’s really great!”

-“Thanks.”

Here’s how it goes for me:

“So, what are you going to Haiti for?”

-“I live down there.”

“Oh really, how long have you been living there?”

-“For about 6 years now.”

“Oh… so were you there for the…..”

-“Earthquake?  Yah.”

“Wow… so… what was that like?”

-“So what’d you say you were going to Haiti for again?  Tell me more about that.”

I understand why one would be very interested in hearing a first hand account from someone who was there and survived the quake.  It probably had a lot to do with why they chose to come to Haiti in the first place so they want to know more about it.  I also understand that one definitely does not expect to sit next to someone on the plane who did survive it so they aren’t prepared to factor that into the casual seatside conversations which would be expected to take an awkward turn at that point.  But I’m sorry I just don’t want to talk about it with someone that I just met on the plane and will probably never talk to again.  I’ve told that story a thousand times over and it never gets any easier.  You can buy my book if you want when it comes out if you really want to know my story, but I just can’t sit here while Parks & Recreation plays on the airplane monitors and tell you about “what that was like” for me.  So forgive me and tell me more about all of the cute babies that you hope to hold while you’re wherever you will be.

Any other time of year I’m much less likely to get stuck next to someone who feels it’s necessary to have this conversation.  But during Spring Break it’s pretty much a guarantee.

3.  Daylight Savings Time

Bad enough when you have to deal with it sitting in one place where everyone follows clear rules about the time change.  But it’s absolute hell when you have to experience it while flying across time zones and entering into a culture that already has a different definition for time for every single person within the culture and very few watches.

All things considered, we all should really just be glad that I made it back to Haiti this week without punching anyone, yelling at any children, getting on a wrong plane, or causing any security situations on the way.  I’ve learned my lesson in scheduling flights this time of year.