Some people see the forest – some see the trees. I like to pride myself on being able to toggle between the two: when someone is stuck in the details, I can zoom out to provide a map based on a vision of the big picture; when that big picture entices but the steps are invisible, I can zoom in and spell out how to get from A-Z. This is something I love doing for others; but damn, can I be bad at it for myself.
I have a little touch of Internal Aspergers; I’m unable to read the facial expressions of my inner self. Is she smiling or wincing? Is she raising her eyebrows in question or surprise? Is that peanut butter on her chin? How did my inner self get food all over her face? I suppose the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree . . .
At times I get stuck because I just can’t see the next steps quite yet, and a little patience will grease the wheels. However, sometimes I get stuck because my gut is telling me the idea I have is built on wet, rotted wood, and I don’t yet know it consciously, like a horse that refuses to be led further because it knows a landmine lurks under the surface of the dirt road just ahead. These are two very different things to deal with – not knowing the answer, or knowing that I’m stepping into dangerous territory. The fact that I’m unable to distinguish between the two internally can make for some very fraught moments and a serious intolerance of being stuck. Am I just being a terrible know-it-all, or is that sinking feeling telling me to step away slowly from an imminent disaster?
That’s been the case for the past week, as I’ve been mulling over a big idea I had a few weeks ago, for The Learning Center. I’ve become an Ancient Mariner with this one – I’ve brought it up with family, my doctor, in interviews for jobs, with friends, in emails to near strangers – I can’t seem to stop talking about it. Normally this would make me think that I’m passionate about it, and that this passion means it’s something I should go for, regardless of whether it seems difficult. But I am rendered immobile with doubt and fear. The thought of doing something that commits me to an actual space is terrifying. On the other hand, the thought of doing something that allows me to create a space where others can convene, meet, work, feel productive and inspired and taken care of – well, that just makes my bones tingle with excitement. Creating spaces is a huge commitment – but it’s also one of the most joyful parts of my life. I don’t normally think of myself as a commitment-phobe, but this is making me think otherwise.
I’ve been calling this project The Community Centre in my mind, actually. What would be there, you may ask? Well, let me take you on a grand tour!
Resources for Non-Profits & Community Organizations
I see three problems that need to be addressed here.
First is that, wonderful as co-working spaces here in Philadelphia are, I don’t know who I’m sitting across from, and I can’t necessarily collaborate with them. I like hearing about app development and copywriting, but I’d love to sit across from someone I’m pretty sure I can collaborate with; if I knew that everyone in the room worked for a non-profit or community based organization, I’d really feel encouraged to start talking to my neighbor – and would find the co-working setup incredibly useful professionally.
Second, there are a ton of non-profits that don’t have consistent meeting-space – especially those which are manned exclusively by volunteers – and trying to find a spot to get together becomes a serious problem. This past week, I spent 10 minutes of a 45 minute interview moving from one coffee shop to another, and we ended up finishing the interview with our coats on, half perched on chairs at the pick-up area for finished drinks. Some of these organizations lacking meeting space have over 500 local members; it’s not just little dinky projects that face this issue. If they had a clean, beautiful, professional, consistent place to hold their meetings, I think it would make people feel wonderful and well taken care of – which is incredibly important when you’re talking about working with volunteers.
Third is that many small non-profits or community-based organizations don’t have staff who can help with some of their most ongoing and basic needs, nor do they have large budgets to hire freelancers for marketing, graphic design, or grant writing. Part of membership at The Community Centre would mean you have access to discounted rates from professionals in the above areas who have been vetted by other members – sort of like an internal Angie’s List for services you’d commonly need. Additionally, we would have a variety of methods – from boards in our space, to a mailing list – where members could share opportunities and publicize events.
Part of what we would do at The Community Centre is connect people who want to volunteer to the opportunities to do so. In the Young Friends group we talked about creating a weekend volunteer program, and when I was sharing this idea with my aunt she suggested having something along the lines of “every Saturday at 9:00 am, come for bagels & coffee, and join us for our weekly volunteer opportunity at 9:30am,” and we would dispatch whoever shows up to the service opportunities lined up for that day. I LOVE THIS IDEA VERY MUCH and it would be something that really sets us apart from the other co-working spaces set up in the city, and is at the heart of the whole endeavor.
Classes, Talks, & Workshops
These would provide an opportunity for people to share what they know. Often folks who work outside of large organizations, or an academic framework that provides opportunities for presenting work, don’t really have a soapbox upon which to stand. Members of our community could really learn a lot from hearing talks or workshops given by the folks who are a part of The Community Centre, and it would also be a way for those members to gain recognition, make their work known, forge new connections, and also get practice in speaking and sharing their knowledge. I would love to also eventually expand these offerings to include a really wide range of topics, but at first they would pertain to the causes represented by our member organizations.
So – that all sounds vunderbar to me. But now what?
My usual path when stuck is to consult experts – I know when I don’t know something, and am more than happy to write an email to someone requesting an informational meeting, or the chance to pick their brain over the phone. My first thought here is to find a way to sit down with Alex Hillman, the co-founder of Philadelphia’s wildly successful co-working space Indy Hall. But when I imagine our sitting down together, I picture the following possibilities:
- #1: He patiently listens, thinking “this is the fifth presumptuous asshole in the past month who has wasted my time asking for advice about how they can do my job. I think I need a secretary or a pit bull.”
- #2: He tells me that I will lose money for the first five years and only break even in the sixth; I become overwhelmed and discouraged and file this one into the ever-engorged dossier of Good-Ideas-I-Never-Acted-Upon.
- #3: He thinks it’s a great idea and decides to incorporate it into Indy Hall, which I can’t compete with, and then I bang my head against a wall for the rest of eternity.
Nowhere is the vision I would hope to have – that my concerns are heard, but assuaged by the reassurance that this is a solid idea, and that while the path will be uphill it will be worth it in the end; that it is doable, and should be done; and some next steps to take to get going.
I guess there’s no way to find out but to ask though, right? Something still feels wrong, though.
Writing this, I leaned back in my chair and looked out at the coffee shop where I’m working. Stuck, again – scared, stuck, confused, frustrated. My neck hurts, my breath feels short. Sitting here kneading my shoulder, a memory fluttered in of a date I had last week with a new friend, to whom I was (of course) sharing this idea. She’s a member of The Junior League who is quite involved in their Fundraising & Leadership; she is a lawyer, a marathon runner, wears six-inch designer heels to work without looking trampy or overdressed, sports trim little navy bouclé blazers and lots of diamonds, and has a sailor’s mouth. I was instantly in love. I remembered in this moment a surprising turn our coffee chat took.
“I think it’s a great idea. The Junior League doesn’t have space to meet in Center City – it’s something we could use,” she said briskly.
“Really?”I asked, wrapping both hands around my cup.
She took a sip of her hot chocolate; the mug was as big as her whole head.
“Really. We could. It’s a good idea. Seriously.”
My shoulders dropped and I looked at the bubbles on the surface of my coffee. I sighed.
“I love it as an idea, but I just feel like it’s so – undoable? I don’t know, it just seems improbable. But thank you for – ”
“Oh come on – why can’t you dream big? Everyone I know has become so scared. Nobody has the balls to dream big any more. Why can’t it be done? Why can’t you just try something big and difficult and important?”
That sounded like something I would have said once upon a time – or, more precisely, something I would say now, but to someone else.
” That’s a really good question,” I replied and sipped my drink, feeling a strange mix of shame and encouragement.
As I remembered the twinge of excitement that made me buzz like a plucked string when she said that, I found myself googling something absentmindedly. Last Thursday, I was telling my colleague about The Community Centre (seriously, there is nobody to whom I have not blathered on about this), and she mentioned a project her neighbor runs up in Hastings-On-Hudson, called The Purple Crayon. While my mind was stuck on my surprising coffee of last week, and my insides were doing their best impression of a folk accordian, my fingers had typed The Purple Crayon into the search bar, and I was faced with something quite surprising.
Visit the website and tell me what you think.
I, for one, feel somewhat (surprisingly) re-inspired. Sometimes seeing things similar to what you’re doing can make you feel claustrophobic – and other times, it lights your fire again. The Purple Crayon (name aside) is exactly what I am hoping to create.
They have ongoing learning opportunities for adults & teens.
They have a Consult-for-A-Day program, where member professionals offer their services on a drop-in basis for members of the community, which benefits both those served, and those who get to give out samples of their services to a wide audience.
They are funded by a 501c3 Charitable Trust.
I love The Purple Crayon. Even the pictures really resonate with me – pink, warm libraries; clean communal desks, classes full of students leaning forward, looking up; be-turbaned gentlemen riffing on saxophones in a concert space with refurbished hardwood floors. Hello, my heart – how did you end up on the website of a Hudson Valley hippie dreamscape?
So perhaps I’m right – maybe reaching out to people is the right way to go, to find out whether I’m just scared and passionate, or delusional, in denial, & grasping at straws. I’d still love to talk to Alex Hillman about the way this works in Philadelphia, but maybe first I need to speak to the folks who have Dar Williams quoted on their homepage. It may be that they are more my people, surprising as that may be.
What do you think? Is this a bullet to bite, or to dodge? Tell me honestly – I’d rather hear it now than further down the line!