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James Wheale and Nomadic Community Gardens – Creating Community through Meanwhile Use

May 2, 2016

High costs and chemical contamination of fresh food is leading more and more individuals to seek to grow at least a portion of their own food, themselves.  But as global populations continue to shift from being rural to city dwellers, gardening can be a challenge.

 

Artwork by Monsù Plin in Nomadic Community Gardens. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Artwork by Monsù Plin in Nomadic Community Gardens. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Urban gardening seeks to fill this void.  Urban gardening is the practice of growing food within a city environment and can involve animal husbandry.  It is a way of mixing urban style and design with nature and can reduce food miles by growing foods local to their use.  Urban gardens help improve biodiversity, reduce urban rainwater runoff and help to mitigate the”heat island” effect caused by the concentration of infrastructure and lack of passageways of cooling air in cities. While most cities are far from the ideal envisioned by forward thinking urban planners, it is possible, with vertical farming, hydroponics, various agricultural technologies, and visionary architectural design, to conceive of a future where cities grow most of what the residents need, within the city confines.  In the meantime, current urban gardens, like those on the High Line in Manhattan, provide relaxing green spaces for residents and revitalise business in the area.

 

Artwork in the Nomadic Community Gardens by Artista

 

Making the most of this growing trend is Nomadic Community Gardens, situated in the heart of the hip East End section of London known as Shoreditch.  Nomadic Community Gardens works with city developers to care for disused urban spaces in a “meanwhile” use as they await planning permission to build.  The space provides a venue for not only gardening but for community gathering of all kinds.  The gardens are called “nomadic” because everything is portable and can be moved to a new location. Beds are built on pallettes to be transportable and to prevent contamination of and by the ground.

 

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On Sunday 1 May, Nomadic Community Gardens celebrated a first birthday.  The joyous celebration comes after several years of hard work to gain land use permission and a year of tenancy in the garden.  The success of the community garden is largely due to the vision and dedication of James (Jimmy) Wheale, co-founder and Director of Nomadic Community Gardens and the next in our series of individuals using their skills to make a difference.

 

James Wheale, co-founder and Director, Nomadic Community Gardens

James Wheale, co-founder and Director, Nomadic Community Gardens.  Art by drzadok.

 

We met with Wheale earlier in the spring to discuss the social enterprise that has brought new life to a disused space off Brick Lane.

 

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“I came across and idea in Berlin, when I was living there several years ago.  It was a meanwhile use of space in an old carpark that they’d gotten the permission to use and so they created a cafe and a garden in a sort of foresty area and I thought: ‘Wow! There’s no reason this kind of thing can’t happen here.'”

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Wheale admits “Continental Europe are light years ahead of us in terms of using space for the meanwhile time period and with a concentration on the creation of communities and the qualitative benefits that they bring to people’s lives,” yet, he was determined to turn his idea into a reality, in London.

When Wheale returned from Berlin, he described the idea to his friend, Junior, who had moved into a flat near to a disused space.  Over the next couple of years,  the two developed a winning proposal for the disused land, and when the land was sold to London Newcastle, they pitched the idea to the new owners.

We’re attempting to act as a conduit between a corporation that finds it difficult to reach communities and the communities who need resources and who need space.  Our project is there to find space and organise it so that communities can make use of it and if local authorities support what we’re doing it becomes more attractive to development companies who are trying to get permission from local authorities to do developments.   If they can subside something in the meantime it almost offsets the damage that can happen in development.”

 

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“Luckily for us,” Wheale says “their leadership has vision and believes in social responsibility and so they allowed it.”

London Newcastle quickly gave approval and although the team hoped to have access to the space in February 2015, in order to prepare the land for the growing season, they only gained access in May.  This meant that there was a tremendous push to get garden beds ready for the remainder of the growing season.  Fortunately, they built over 100 beds, and because of the position of the garden between two railway lines, without overshadowing buildings, the conditions were perfect for growing vegetables.  In a densely occupied city like London, Wheale notes, this “breadth of horizon is unheard of.”  With such a great deal of sunlight, the vegetables grew quickly in the first season and gave the residents the boost they needed to their enthusiasm for urban gardening.

 

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The space was initially leased to Nomadic Community Gardens, to act as caretakers, on an initial 6 month lease.   Wheale admits that he couldn’t demonstrate to the owners that he had done this sort of work before and that the plan would work, and he credits London Newcastle for their faith in the team.

“They took a real chance on us,” he says.

The lease has now been renewed, but the garden could be given 2 months notice, at any time, to vacate the space.  

“But, you know, that’s part of the deal,” he adds.

In anticipation of this, Wheale has been talking with other landowners about taking the garden elsewhere, when London Newcastle begins to develop the land.  Wheale explains that the intent of the project has never been to reclaim land from development but to make use of the resources, for the community, in the meantime.

Beds in the garden are free to residents and the garden is self supporting through the hosting of events that generate a minimal income to cover basic running expenses.  Wheale hopes that in future gardens, development companies could subsidize start up costs to allow gardens to focus on being self sustaining once they are operating.  In this way, the garden does not need to apply for funds from limited charity funding sources.

“Obviously we’ll never be earning big bucks,” Wheale says “but it doesn’t need it.”  

For the Shoreditch Nomadic Gardens, Wheale used in his own savings for start up costs to get the ball rolling.  Some of his investment has been repaid, though he admits that not all of it has.

“The boss always gets paid last,” he says, smiling.

 

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At present, the garden is tended by volunteers, but Wheale has plans to pay certain key roles in the garden and if the garden concept spreads to other areas, he hopes to be able to provide employment opportunities, training and skills development along with community garden resources.

 

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Wheale has a degree in Cultural Studies and has developed an eclectic set of skills.  He worked in construction, and gained problem solving skills and determination in his time in the theatre industry. He has managed bars, where he learned to create ambiance and to nurture the social relationships of a community.  Wheale also has prior experience with organic gardening.  He argues that bringing vegetation into the urban environment is important for increasing biodiversity, and allows wildlife to flourish.  The gardens also provide habitat for bees, which are currently under threat in many countries.

Vegetation, Wheale says, “softens the urban environment so you’re not always facing hard, impenetrable surfaces and there is a sort of therapeutic and health benefit to vegetative life, whether it’s just walking around it or growing it and tending to it and reaping rewards from it.”

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Whilst Wheale likes the idea of offsetting carbon emissions with more vegetation, his main reason for creating the garden, was the social aspect and potential to improve urban quality of life.

 

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“One of the most important things for people is quality of life.  We are the sum of our relationships, and I saw that spaces in cities were being restricted with austerity measures and space is really where we get to build those relationships.  Creating a community garden I thought was important, with the idea of growing vegetables because I felt that was a universal language that would create more cohesion as they all share in an activity.  And that grew into trying to meet the more diverse needs of people in the community.”

 

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In our trips to the garden, TTDOG experienced the great ambience of camaraderie and community.  Friendships have been established and grown through the experience of being a part of the community garden.  TTDOG asked Wheale how community became so important to him.

“It really came from my studies.  It opened my eyes to the way society is structured and the way that structure affects people’s experiences, and I think that there is something to be said for support networks.  We need to feel like people are caring for us and know our name.  Anonymity is a really dangerous kind of experience to fall into and the way that society is organised and the way it atomises people not only affects their quality of life but also means that they’re under a level of consciousness that isn’t really benefitting them.  They’re sort of really propping up something that is benefitting out of them.”

 

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The garden has a wide reach through what Wheale calls various “spheres of influence” from the sphere of the immediate community that tends to their beds to the wider community that comes to the garden for workshops and social events to an even wider sphere of tourists who visit the garden and take ideas back to their own communities. And, because they have so much manpower and materials now, the team at the garden has been able to help other community projects, building beds for other gardens, and hosting workshops for other community gardens.

Nomadic Community Gardens currently hosts skills training in pallete furniture building, pallets bed building and basic DIY skills. There is also knowledge sharing in gardening.

Individuals experience a sense of satisfaction from the relaxed atmosphere and previously frictious relations between different communities have been eased and bridges built between members of these communities who have come together in the garden.

 

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There are cafes in the garden and market stalls can be established to accommodate people’s enterprise.

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The garden plays host to street artists who paint the walls with beautiful murals, musicians who jam on music nights and interactive theatre events.

 

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Art by Fanakapan provides a backdrop for an impromptu market stall in the garden

 

TTDOG wondered how the community might respond when the landlord chooses to develop the land, removing this wonderful oasis for gathering, learning, sharing and gardening.  Wheale philosophised that there may be a saturation point for community resources, when their impact begins to ebb.  This may be because people have had the benefit of it, learned the skills they wanted to learn, or the limit is reached in terms of the number of beds.  At that point, the garden can become more exclusionary than inclusionary and moving to a new location allows a new community to reap the benefits of the life cycle of the public space.

And, when there is a void that is left behind, this can create the impetus for the community, who has had the benefit of the space, to create it for themselves.  His hope is that this can create a kind of community activism to rejuvenate and develop their own public spaces.

 

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TTDOG asked Wheale’s advice on creating a community garden using meantime use:

“Come to me and I’ll give you the lowdown.  I underestimated what it was going to take to get this project off the ground.  There is a whole world of stuff that you have to do from writing literature that inspires people to having the practical knowledge of how to build things to the social knowledge of how to manage relationships, create and hold space and see yourself as the gatekeeper and not the possessor, how to relinquish control and allow stuff to happen organically, and, how to have discipline to turn up and work and inspire.  One of the things is also creating the relationships with the PLCs and have them believe in you.  You have to come with a proper proposal and a plan and some sort of strategy.

It’s no mean feat.  You need to have a bit of self confidence and self love, because there’s been so many times when you think:  ‘Should I just walk away?'”

Wheale looks around at what he and his team have created, and continues:

“It’s not an easy task and it looks great because it’s come through the really hard work of people that believe in it.  But the only way to have more of these gardens is if the communities run them, themselves.  I’d like to provide consultancy and maybe have some sort of a manual and some Youtube videos.”

 

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“You’ve got to be the change you want to see in the world.  One of the beauties of consciousness is that you can learn by doing.  You don’t have to necessarily know how to do, before you do.  There needs to be a certain conviction and a direction of purposeful intention that you go towards a goal and stick with it.  Appreciate the down times and have gratitude for when it’s all coming together.  You just have to start and you’ll find your way.  And you may have a couple of false starts but it’s about the personal journey.

We’re all destined for greatness as long as we tread that road.”

 

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As is our practice at TTDOG, we asked Wheale:

For what are you grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?

 

“I’m grateful for the experience to experience life. We are eternal spirits that have entered a soul to experience this space time.  And I’m grateful for the tools that I have to experience it.  I’m just happy to try to make the most use of them as I can in my lifetime and hopefully encourage others to live to the maximum of our potential and the fullness of our being.”

 

James Wheale, enjoying the community gathering at Nomadic Community Gardens’ 1st Anniversary Party

 

“My greatest joy is in that experience: the emotions that come from the sensory communications that we have in our life.  As much joy as I can feast myself on, really.  And not without sadness.  I think sadness is as valid an emotion as joy and happiness is.  You need to sit with your pain and work through your demons and I think that everybody has insecurities and everyone has something traumatic happen to them and those are the two defining experiences of our lives, and those are the important things to work on.  

Once you work on those, the door is open for more joy.”

 

Nomadic Community Gardens is located off Brick Lane and is open Monday – Sunday 10 am to 10 pm.  The garden hosts special events and workshops daily. Meeting of Styles UK will hold a major event on the UK bank holiday 27, 28, 29th in the garden with dozens of artists gathering in an annual Paint Jam. The public is welcome to come and watch live painting, enjoy food, music and drinks in a relaxed community setting.

 

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Meeting of Styles wall organised by artist Jim Vision and End of The Line. Various artists are represented.

 

For other events, and to follow Nomadic Community Gardens or to contact James Wheale, click the links to be directed to the Facebook page, Twitter account, or Website.

 

Articles, Community, Compassion, Service

Alexandra Jackman: Youth Advocate for Special Needs and Autism

April 1, 2016

April is National Autism Awareness Month in the United States of America and globally, the world marks World Autism Awareness week from 2 April – 8 April.

Next in our series of individuals, using their skills to make a difference in the world, is 16 year old special needs and autism advocate, Alexandra Jackman.

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Alexandra Jackman. Photo by Susan Harvey Cook.

At the age of 13, Jackman created the 2013 award winning film “A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism.” The film has been shown and taught in schools across America and exhibited at film festivals around the world. Jackman created a Spanish language version of the film late last year, which Autism Speaks has agreed to include, alongside the original film, in its resources. The original film has been made available to every school principal in America, as a teaching tool and resource, and Jackman is regularly asked to speak at screenings of the film.

Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) “are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.” (Autism speaks.org)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 American children are on the autism spectrum.   Three million people in the U.S. and tens of millions of people are affected by ASD, globally. Despite these high numbers, ASD is still not well understood.

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Art by Simon Harris. “Autism Awareness”

 

In advance of Autism Awareness Month, we met with Alexandra Jackman via Skype, to discuss her film and learn how she had become, at such an early age, an advocate for special needs people, particularly those affected by ASD.

 

Special Needs Volunteer and Autism Advocate

Jackman recalls her first exposure, at the age of 8, to a person with special needs. She had been attending a family camp in Vermont and noticed one girl in particular who sat alone with a carer. At first, Jackman assumed the girl wanted to sit alone, but soon decided to approach the young girl and ask if she might join her.  Jackman learned that Jaime had Cerebral Palsy and could not speak, but that she could communicate in other ways.  Getting to know her, and understanding both the girl’s special needs and what they shared in common was the spark that ignited a passion within Jackman to engage with peers with special needs.

Given that peer pressure begins early, TTDOG was curious about what motivated the young Jackman to approach someone different, when all her other friends were not engaging with the girl.

“I’ve never had a problem doing..what I wanted to do….I feel like every teenager, at some point, goes with the crowd…but for the most part…I would say that I’m confident enough to do… regardless of what my friends are doing….what I think is right.”

In fact, following Jackman’s positive example, other girls at the camp befriended Jaime, too. We asked if Jackman had ever felt somehow different to her peers.  Jackman was never bullied or treated unkindly.

“I was always naturally interested in taking care of those who were different and….I don’t really know what I was thinking at the time but I’m obviously very glad that I went over to her…It feels weird for me to say but, I’d like to think I’m naturally an empathetic person.”

In advance of our interview, Alexandra Jackman’s parents, Michael and Lisa Jackman recounted for their daughter some particular examples of her empathetic character, which she shares with TTDOG:

“We’re Jewish but we celebrated Christmas, one year for fun, and to try a bit of a different culture… when my parents asked what I wanted, I said that I wanted to help someone in another country that doesn’t have food for Christmas…

I just feel so bad if I…see someone upset and if there’s something I can do to help…it’s so often so easy to help people and it can really make a difference…”

The two girls remained friends for many years and Jackman, at the age of 10, became a volunteer and youth advocate through Autism Family Times peer mentoring program.

We were curious as to why Jackman chose to make this commitment at a time when her peers would be spending their social time differently.

“There’s an honesty and openness with people with special needs…It’s hard to be accepted as a teenager or pre-teen, and people with special needs tend to just be so accepting.  There’s no pettiness, there’s no judgement…people with special needs….are so themselves and so honest and I love that.  It just makes me so happy.”

As a youth advocate, Jackman gives talks at school assemblies in her local area of New York and New Jersey.  She has been requested to speak further afield but as a junior in high school, commitments further afield would be too demanding at this time.  Also, at her Synagogue, Jackman is in her 5th year shadowing a teen with special needs and she runs a monthly teen night for teens with special needs.  Speaking about the Friday night teen night, Jackman says:

“It’s a party and its accepting and it’s so much fun!…So many people don’t look past the special need and don’t get to know the person and its so upsetting because they’re so much more…they’re people who are so interesting, and creative and funny that you would never get to know if you’re not accepting…or you’re not aware…of the special need and that it’s not who that person is.  At teen night,  it’s a lot of really talented, unique people interacting and working on social skills and having a good time, being themselves and making new friends.  It’s really special.”

Photo: Ian Schneider

Photo: Ian Schneider

Jackman also founded “the hangout club” at her school where, on a monthly basis, people with and without special needs have the chance to get to know, understand and appreciate one another.  Jackman is continuing her personal advocacy for people with special needs, and particularly ASD, through school projects like her junior year research paper, in which she is currently examining the contribution of people with autism to the advancement of our culture and society.  As her schedule allows, Jackman contributes to ad hoc advocacy projects and in the summer months, she will be undertaking an internship at an autism centre in her area.

 

“A Teen’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating with People with Autism”

To date, Jackman’s advocacy work has had its widest reach and impact through her film.  The film is the output of school work Jackman undertook in the full year Teddy Roosevelt Scholars program.  In order to participate in the program, Jackman had to demonstrate a high academic performance in her area of study.  She considered a few topics but it was her passion for special needs and ASD that inspired her application.  As with most creative projects, the film did not emerge in Jackman’s consciousness as a fully formed concept, but evolved over time and through collaboration and research.

“I wasn’t sure what type of teacher to work with…so I talked to my Vice Principal and….there was a social studies teacher….at my middle school, who is also a Special Ed teacher, Mr Dominick Ceccio.  I talked with him to see if he might…be interested in working with me, and he was!…I wrote my application…and I got in.  We started brainstorming and it took me awhile to know that I wanted to do a project on autism and even then, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.  I didn’t know if I wanted to do a pamphlet or a video or…what way I wanted to get out the message.  I just knew I wanted to do ‘Autism,’ which was so general.”

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Art by Caitlyn A Shea. “Autism Awareness Day”

 

As Jackman embarked on her research and reflected on her own experience as a volunteer and advocate, the idea began to take shape.

Identifying a gap in the existing literature and developing material to fill the gap is difficult for the best of us.  TTDOG was curious how Jackman identified her niche:

“There was a boy in my Math class who had special needs…and he always liked to sit in his one spot in the corner.  That was what he was used to; he sat there every day.  When we changed seats at the beginning of the new semester…the idea of switching seats was nerve wracking… I realised that people were getting annoyed with him…And I understood that if people don’t understand…why it’s difficult for him…they’d be frustrated….I realised that so many people know so little about special needs… I also realise that they didn’t want to bully their peer.  They just didn’t understand what was different.”

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Art by Nayonika Ghosh “Autism and Cyber Bullying”

 

“My experience has largely been working with people with autism… From my experience….there wasn’t a resource that was a neurotypical teen talking to neurotypical peers.  I’d never seen anything like that and I felt that could be really valuable.  I’m glad that it seems to have been, so far.”

With a plethora of options as to the media for her message, TTDOG asked Jackman how she settled on making a film.

“Once I decided I wanted it to be for my peers, middle schoolers, and my school specifically, I wanted to do it in a medium that would be most interesting. In order for it to be effective, I thought it needed to be…short…and present the message in an interesting way. For middle schoolers, video tends to be more enjoyable and my Dad works in the film industry and that was useful in where to hold the camera…lighting….and so on.”

Jackman notes that the project been envisioned as a “video” designed to get a message across about autism awareness and acceptance.  The medium, whilst an effective tool to convey the message, was not her main focus.  Jackman’s equipment was low-tech and readily available. The film was shot on an iPad, edited on iMovie and graphics were generated with a simple to use, Creative Commons, graphics package.

She admits that it wasn’t until she was approached at a film festival about her editorial choices for certain shots and angles that she became conscious of her many choices, having worked intuitively within the medium.  Editorial decisions were driven by the mandate to make an accessible product that conveyed her message in a compelling way.  Scenes that had been integral to the storyboard were cut from the final version, whilst her spontaneous responses as a director allowed her to capture moments and stories she had not imagined in pre-production.  One clear decision Jackman made was that the film would not be fictional.  She chose the documentary format because she wanted it to be as immediate, factual and relatable as possible for her target audience.

“I’m very glad that I ended up doing it in a film…Often in the news you hear about how media is really bad and dangerous and it can cause depression…which of course it can, but…having the video on YouTube and..on Facebook…people can share the video so quickly.  (This) has been very valuable in spreading the message of acceptance.”

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Art by Ajinkya Bhangdia “Film making project”

 

The film has made a much bigger impact than Jackman had ever imagined it would.  Her goal had been to help people to be more understanding, in her own school.  She wanted the project to be spread as far as possible, in her school and in her own community.  So far the film has been screened and taught all over the USA, in the Guam International Film Festival and she has been asked to come to speak at screenings as far afield as the UK and Indonesia.

The film has won the “Best Home Grown Student Short Documentary” at the Garden State International Film Festival and “Best Emerging Filmmaker Award” at the Queens World Film Festival, the 2015 “International Humanitarian Gold Award” at the World Humanitarian Film Festival, and the International Film Festival for Spirituality, Religion and Visionary (IFFSRV) “Award of Merit” in Jakarta, Indonesia.

 

Outcomes

Jackman regularly receives feedback from parents and siblings of people with autism, from teachers of students with special needs and from people with ASD.  Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and many share how the film has helped them to understand their family member, students or themselves better and to accept these differences with an open heart and mind.  What makes Alexandra Jackman perhaps most proud of the work is that a project which she intended to be delivered to teens in her own school is having an impact on all types of people, of all ages and in so many different countries and cultures.

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Art by Umar Ansari “Art for Geneva Centre For Autism”

 

“There are comments on the YouTube channel…that are so touching….A man commented and said that his stepson has autism and…this video helped him better understand his stepson..And a mom saying that her son with autism was watching this video and said ‘Oh yeah! That’s why I do that!’  And the fact that the video can not only help neurotypical teens be more understanding of autism, but people with all sorts relationships to special needs…shows that it’s having a broader impact.”

And in terms of the impact on herself, Jackman admits that the process of making a project over so many months taught her good time management skills, flexibility and discipline.

Jackman gratefully received the help of teachers, professionals and families of people with ASD, who generously shared their time and knowledge with her.  Amongst those participating in the film were Adrienne Robertiello, Autism Educator at Children’s Specialized Hospital and member of Autism Family Times board, and Jed Baker, Ph.D., an expert clinical psychologist, behavioural consultant, lecturer and author on the topic.

Jackman was initially intimidated to reach out to professionals for interviews but, with support of her family and teachers, she quickly overcame her fears.

“My parents were really supportive…and when people ask me, I don’t think I thank them enough and talk about them enough.  My Mom is…really good with people…and she reaches out and contacts people…every day.  It was really valuable to have input from both my Mom and my Dad who work in fields that work with other people and kind of have to do with this…And, as I went along, the process got a lot easier as I learned that people were willing to help and as I learned about myself and making a project like this.”

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Photo: Nick Karvounis

 

And whilst seeking contributors was challenging, Jackman was also challenged to grow as a media professional in learning to adapt her independent spirit to a collaborative medium.  Because it was a school project, Jackman initially struggled with accepting advice from her father, Michael Jackman, a film industry professional.  He pointed out that in any filmmaking enterprise, the director does not undertake all of the roles, especially when they are conducting on-camera interviews.  Learning to accept some assistance and advice on camera angles, lighting, and sound was a growing experience and education in filmmaking, for the young auteur.

Following the release of the film, Jackman has been exposed to varied opportunities for public speaking and has learned to pitch her message appropriately for different groups, ranging from medical professionals to school aged children.  This has helped Jackman to continue learning, well beyond the initial year-long project.

 

Lessons Learned

Of all that Jackman has learned, she speaks fondly of the talented individuals with special needs and ASD.

“There are so many people that I’ve gotten to know with special needs who are incredible and are so interesting and have cool talents…I love working with people with special needs and doing that inspires me to get out the message of acceptance any way I can and so without a doubt, who motivates me and what keeps me inspired is my friends and the people that I know with special needs.”

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Art by Cathal Duane “Autism Awareness Day Illustration”

She continues:

“People with special needs have taught me that there’s not one mold for success….There are so many ways that you can be happy and successful…and sometimes it can be good, and sometimes not, conforming to society.”

We asked Jackman to share a few words for others who might want to make a difference in the world, somehow:

“You’re never too young or too old to make a difference.  You might have to be creative and do something that others aren’t doing to get the message across, but that sometimes makes for the best projects and the best outcomes.  If you feel like you have something to contribute and you want to make a difference, there’s always someone that can help…Once you look, you can find someone that is passionate about the same thing you are.  And, if not, then make people passionate!  Make people care….Get the message out, spread the word. Use social media.  Use whatever connections you have….And I wouldn’t be surprised if you found someone that has a similar goal or passion as you.”

 

Watch Alexandra Jackman’s short film, now:

 

 

As always, TTDOG asks: For what are you most grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?

 

“I’m really grateful for my friends with special needs and…without special needs…  And for my parents – I am so grateful for all their support and they are very encouraging.

And my greatest joy?

Going to teen night.  I just love it and the relationships I’ve built…  Also being able speak to people, and being able to spread the message of acceptance, especially to other students, that really makes me happy.”

 

 

 

Follow Alexandra Jackman’s film on Facebook

 

Articles, Community, Service

Elie Calhoun: Promoting Global Advocacy Through Mobile Technology

March 8, 2016
Photo: RC Cipriani

Photo: RC Cipriani

Everywhere we turn, we see individuals engrossed in their smart phone and disconnecting from the world.  Blamed for outcomes as diverse as theft, fraud, motor vehicle accidents, and the disintegration of family and intimate relationships, the smart phone and mobile device technology has brought with it a number of challenges.

The potential exists, however, for creating social good, with this very same technology.   With the falling prices of smart phones and mobile devices, and with the lowering costs of data services, mobile technology is now reaching remote and underserved populations around the world.   This technology has already been used for banking, trade, education and medical services, transforming lives in Lower Income and Middle Income Countries (often referred in development circles as the  global “South”).  In fact, for the last decade, the South has been the largest market for Information and Communication Technology.

Working at this intersection is Elie Calhoun, designing a project to create a global community of support around vulnerable individuals, through mobile technology.

Elie Calhoun. Photo courtesy of the sitter.

Elie Calhoun. Photo courtesy of the sitter.

Calhoun is a public health expert, an aid worker and a US certified rape crisis counsellor.  Together with her husband, Nathaniel Calhoun, they run Code Innovation.  With expertise in public health, and in delivering mobile apps for education and development in Africa, they “take solutions to problems…and digitise them so they can scale.”  Code Innovation was a key player in providing mobile education in West Africa during the recent Ebola epidemic.  This education played a part in preventing additional infections and the spread of the virus.

Her current project, a Rape Crisis Counseling App, will be a free mobile version of the training that is provided to certified rape crisis counsellors in the USA.  The training will focus on providing an advocate with the tools to assist a person who has been raped, as they navigate receiving the medical care required to prevent pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Working with the 42 year old DC Rape Crisis Centre, the Pittsburg Action Against Rape Coalition and with a team of humanitarian, gender based violence experts, women’s rights defenders and UI/UX specialists, the project will digitise the training to provide mobile access (although not certification) to anyone, anywhere in the world so they can train themselves to act as an advocate and support for a person who has been raped.  The app will be translated into several languages to facilitate this, globally.

 

Photo courtesy of Elie Calhoun

Photo courtesy of Elie Calhoun

 

 

The Context

To set the context of advocacy around rape, a little background is required.

Photo: Ismael Nieto

Photo: Ismael Nieto

Feminists have variously used the terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ to refer to a person who has been raped.  Early feminists working in advocacy around the issue used the term ‘victim’ to highlight the criminality of the act and to reinforce that it was not the fault of the one who had been raped.  Later, the term ‘survivor’ became popular to recognise the agency of the person who had been raped and to aid in the healing process.  Recently, some advocates have reclaimed the term ‘victim,’ especially in the global South, to highlight not only the crime, but the systemic abuse that faces those who have been raped.

Rape is not a women’s issue.  Both men and women are vulnerable to rape and sexual assault, although, in the majority of cases it is a woman who has been raped.  All of us have a responsibility to prevent rape and sexual violence.

 

Attribution non commercial, taken from Behance

Artwork by Clive Nigel Periera from the Break the Cycle Campaign

As a global average, 1 in 5 women will experience sexual violence in her adult years.  In countries experiencing or that have experienced conflict, this figure can be much higher, with figures of 75% reported in some regions.  Rape knows no age limit, and the elderly and children as young as infants are amongst those vulnerable to sexual assault.  In  England and Wales alone,  85,000 adult women and 12,000 adult men are raped every year.

In Higher Income Countries, (the global “North”), we commonly recognise that rape is a violent crime, although most rapes still go unreported and unprosecuted.  In the UK, only about 15% of rapes are reported and, of those that are prosecuted, studies show the conviction rates are lower than other violent crimes, at only 5.7%.

When we consider conflict zones, the systemic failure and abuse is even more horrifying. In the past 20 years alone, countries in both the global North and South have seen rape committed in such a way as to be deemed, by the UN, to have the potential to be a crime against humanity and an act of genocide.  This week, a UN report to be published Friday, will provide details of rape, on a massive scale, in South Sudan. The report claims that Pro-Government soldiers are being allowed to rape women, in lieu of being paid wages.

 

Photo: Jordy Meow

Photo: Jordy Meow

In this context, it is important discuss these issues in language that is both sensitive and representative, so that it does not, through the best of intentions, further traumatise, silence, or oppress anyone who has been raped.

 

Rape Crisis Counselling App

We caught up via Skype and email with Elie Calhoun, currently in the the field in Indonesia, to talk about her current project and the crowdfunding campaign for it.  We asked Calhoun about her approach and choice of the terminology for the app:

“Both terms are extremely valuable. In the context of dealing with the police to gather evidence and report the crime, it’s common to use the term ‘victim’ services. Legal material uses this terminology and to use it helps us to highlight the criminality of rape.

Within the context of rape crisis counselling, we prefer the term ‘survivor’ to recognise that you made it through and you survived and to help minimise self-blame. A specific tactic that rape crisis counselling uses is to acknowledge what the survivor has been through, remembering that in many cases, rape is life threatening.”

 

Photo: Eddy Lackmann

Photo: Eddy Lackmann

 

Scope of the app

Understanding the scope of the app is also important.  Legal advocacy, advocacy around prevention of sexual violence and long term psychological counselling for survivors would be needed, in addition to the critical medical advocacy that this app provides, in order to provide a full spectrum of support services.  These are currently outside the scope of the app.  And, of course, TTDOG would add that, where rape is systemic, intervention beyond the individual level would be required.

Admitting that this is only one piece of the advocacy puzzle surrounding a rape, Calhoun notes that it is an easy access point which can quickly deliver a discrete set of much-needed and highly impactful information without the complexity of  extensive adaptation to cultural and legal context.

 

Importance of the App to Survivors and Advocates

Calhoun recognizes that while both men and women are vulnerable to rape, she uses the situation of a woman’s rape as a default.  She explains that when a woman is raped, she has a limited time period during which she can access medical care that will prevent pregnancy, HIV and other STIs.

A survivor may not know that she needs these services, or she may know that she needs to go to the doctor but doesn’t know exactly what she needs. The app will…say: ‘Yes, you need to go to the doctor…right away and bring someone with you..”

The app is important because it provides the training for the person that survivor chooses to bring with them, to serve as a volunteer advocate.

“If the survivor gets talked down to, if she’s denied care, if she’s shamed – and there are…cases even in the US where this happens – she may not ask a second time.”

Calhoun explains that if a survivor must advocate for themselves in that situation it is far more challenging.  She points to the rape crisis counselling research that she has gathered to support the app development.  In the research, survivors share their experiences of  the secondary trauma of discrimination received from medical personnel.  Rape can leave a devastating sense of powerlessness for anyone. And, given that victim blaming is a commonly reported issue for survivors, an advocate who stands with the survivor and  resists discrimination is a valuable support in seeking appropriate medical care.

“That kind of fierce pushiness, within a system, is quite valuable to have someone else do.”

“Rape crisis counselling is…a nexus point…”  Calhoun continues.  If a survivor is able to access treatment, with the support of an advocate, this is likely to have positive outcomes for healing.  Following an assault, a survivor may experience stress, depression and Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). And while Calhoun notes that these are natural psychological responses to a violent crime, “to have an advocate say ‘This was wrong, this was not your fault,’ begins to give agency back to the survivor….Of course…rape crisis counselling does not take the place of psychological support services for survivors…”

 

The Development Context

As outlined in her FAQ, the idea for the app originated when Calhoun came across an article about an aid worker who had been raped whilst in post for an aid agency.  Following the rape, she didn’t have access to the information she needed to obtain appropriate medical care and advocacy.  As an aid worker herself, Calhoun shares:

I…felt it in my gut and I felt something had to be done. And of course I knew about the power of mobile technology as an education and advocacy tool.”

Calhoun tested her ideas with the aid worker community, rape survivors, gender-based violence experts and rape crisis counselling centres, gathering a growing coalition of support around the project.  Given that the idea for the app came from her experience with aid workers, we asked why the app was important for development:

I wouldn’t say this is only for developing countries…” Calhoun admits.  Survivors exist everywhere in the world and require the same medical care.  In terms of human development, sexual violence, she asserts, has a direct impact on women’s contributions to society and family systems.  And, of course, it is important, Calhoun reiterates,  to work to prevent sexual violence and violence in general.

 

Photo: Annie Spratt

Photo: Annie Spratt

 

What If Services Aren’t Available in a Country?

Calhoun admits that in many places, it can be a challenge to find adequate care for rape survivors.  Existing rape crisis counselling material “assumes you’re in an industrialised country” and that the medical care is adequate.  However, the app aims to reach people in environments where the medical context may be very different.

Calhoun asserts that creating awareness for “the survivor and her advocate to know that some piece of the care she needs is missing doesn’t solve…the health system’s inadequacy for that person in that moment.  But, it does give her the information she needs…”  Having this information, Calhoun says, allows a survivor to make the best choice, in the context.

 

Photo by Hoshin Ai

Photo by Hoshin Ai

 

Where a part of the medical care is missing, Calhoun notes that this is an advocacy opportunity.  Having these resources, she asserts, is an important part of primary health care services and they should be “available without red tape or moralising.”

 

Representative Voices

In adapting material originally designed for use in Higher Income Countries, there is always the risk of failing to represent the needs of those in other socio-economic, political, cultural and religious contexts.  We asked Calhoun about the mix of her coalition, and particularly, whether the perspectives of the global South and of rape survivors would be represented in the development and testing process.

Calhoun confirmed that her team was diverse and included women’s right defenders and non-profit organisations from different countries to ensure that the app is “a resource that is applicable in different cultural settings and in different medical contexts…” and where there are “different levels or resources.”

“We’re…keen to have more women’s rights groups and anti-violence organisations from around the world join us so that we can…expand…our reach.” 

 

Photo: Tatiana Nino

Photo: Tatiana Nino

During the interview, we discussed ways in which rape survivors would be represented in the development and testing process.  Subsequently, Calhoun edited her response to offer only a confirmation of representation of rape survivors.

 

Reaching Rape Survivors

To reach rape survivors, Calhoun and her coalition will take a three-pronged approach.  Firstly, the app will be promoted within aid organisations to create awareness about what the app is, that it is freely available, and that the material is in the Creative Commons.  At the same time, the team hopes to receive media coverage of the launch of the app.

Secondly, the app will have a dedicated microsite that will point to the resource.  And, finally, the team will use common app developer strategies to make both the app searchable and findable through the app stores and app microsite.  These strategies include good Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and keyword matches for phrases a rape survivor might use to search for resources.

Initially, the app would, realistically, only be available to upper-middle income individuals who are able to afford a smart phone, but with the falling costs of technology, Calhoun is confident that the reach will widen, with time.

We asked if there was a plan to approach Ministries of Gender in various countries, where populations might be difficult to reach.  Calhoun states they do not plan to do so directly, although they do hope that various organisations will trial and adopt the resource as a tool for responding to gender-based violence and sexual assault.

 

Photo: Melody Bates

Photo: Melody Bates

 

Why Crowdfunding?

“We see crowdfunding as an opportunity….

Because sexual violence, and particularly rape, is something that affects everyone, we want to use the campaign…to create a community of support.  First, to raise awareness around the issue…Even if someone gives $1,…they agree that this is an important enough project to give their resources to…if they share about it on social media it’s important enough to lend their social capital to…”

Ensuring that rape crisis counselling is available to everyone who needs it, via the mobile app, is what Calhoun describes as “our own small part of trying to solve the larger issue of sexual violence.

Calhoun adds that funding the app by people’s contributions from around the world makes an important statement of support and solidarity.  She goes on to say that when we hear about rape, “we feel powerless…like there’s nothing we can do.”  In this context, giving people the opportunity to participate in the creation of this app is, to Calhoun, worth the risk of not achieving full crowdfunding.

“Anyone, anywhere, can…stand with us…to support rape survivors.”

 

Photo: Mario Purisic

Photo: Mario Purisic

 

For more information or to support #RapeCrisisCounseling, see the campaign materials,  here.

 

As is our practice at TTDOG, we asked Calhoun:  For what are you most grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?

 

“I am most grateful to be alive on the planet at this time.
It is a time of extraordinary change and also great challenges…
And what gives me joy?
To be able to take a fleeting vision…and to be able to sit with it..and let it ground
and then to be able to mobilise and attract people..who will…
bring something into the world and community.
There is joy and awareness in feeling the vulnerability
and the messiness and the unknowing of it all.”

 

 

 

Art, Articles, Community, Happiness, Intimacy, Joy, Oneness, Service

WRDSMTH: Aspiring to Inspire – Every Day

February 12, 2016
image

“Happy in London, UK” by WRDSMTH. Photo by @D7606. Photo provided courtesy of WRDSMTH.

We continue our series on individuals making a difference in the world, with the skills they possess.  As a Valentine’s Day special, we feature LA based street artist WRDSMTH.

Each day, WRDSMTH touches hearts around the world with a new WRD – spray painted images of a vintage typewriter, topped with his messages of motivation, love and humour.  WRDSMTH mixes a sense of nostalgia with pop culture in his art and for a world lost in the complexity of the “extreme present,” his WRDs evoke a simpler time – perhaps imagined – when we were all a little kinder to ourselves and one another, and when love was a committment for life.

Every piece, in its own way, feels like a love letter, sent out to the world, from the artist.

"Hate Love" by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

“Hate Love” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

WRDSMTH calls his WRDs “indelible messages” which he “tattoos on walls” in cities around the world. WRDs can be found in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Diego, West Palm Beach, London, Paris, Edinburgh, and Melbourne. His art is best experienced in its public context where its position in the surrounding environment adds another layer of meaning. However, for those unable to see it in situ, clever use of social media enables worldwide followers to participate in the daily experience, with photographs of his work appearing on his Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts.

Hoping to achieve a modest following of 500-1,000 followers, WRDSMTH currently has over 75,000 followers on Instagram and the number continues to grow, daily.

"Instagram" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Instagram” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

We emailed WRDSMTH in LA, to ask him a little more about his work and his motivations for being a force for positive messaging in the world.

 

TTDOG: In a recent article you were quoted as saying: The aim of art is “to inspire, entertain, or woo other individuals” Are you trying to woo us, Mr. WRDSMTH? As my father would say: What are your intentions for us?

WRDSMTH: No and yes. I recently used the word woo mainly to refer to the romantic WRDs I put up all over the world, as opposed to the motivational ones which inspire and the funny ones which I hope entertain. However, yes, I am trying woo people with my words. My intention is to affect. Period.

"Shine" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Shine” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

I hope my work makes people ponder, smile, and maybe laugh. The notion that people turn a corner and see a piece of mine or are driving by one and my WRDs affect them in a positive manner, makes me happy and, in turn, adds fuel to the creative fire. If a percentage of those people notice the name attached to my pieces and at some juncture look me up, fall into the rabbit hole that is the my body of work, and possibly become followers/fans, then my wooing was successful.

 

TTDOG: Why do you think positive WRDs from an anonymous stranger are so important to people and why is that craving so universal?

WRDSMTH: When I began WRDSMTHing, I just felt that this city (L.A.) and the world needed some positivity. I think it’s easy in this day and age to feel negative toward current events, politics, and even most of what’s deemed entertainment these days. I shy away from those heavily debated topics and instead choose to focus on the individual – the person that happens upon my WRDs – and, again, I aim to affect them in a positive manner.

"struggle pays" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Struggle Pays” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

And even though my messages reach a wide audience, I think people find the words compelling because of that one-on-one experience. I often am told people feel like my WRDs are speaking directly to them, which is a huge compliment, in my book. And the mystery of who is putting all these WRDs all over the world definitely works in my favor, which is a big reason why I retain my anonymity.

"two believe" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Two Believe” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

Born in Ohio, WRDSMTH moved to Chicago, where he crafted words into slogans designed to sell dreams through consumption. Realising that time waits for no one, he risked all to chase his own dream of being a writer and moved to Los Angeles. Following a very successful run, in 2013, he again turned his craft to selling a dream, with his WRDs. This time, it was the most cherished but often abandoned dream – fulfillment.

"Dream Bigge(r)" by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of WRDSMTH

“Dream Bigge(r)” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

Despite his startlingly rapid rise as an international street Artist, WRDSMTH remains dedicated to his first passion: writing. He writes, every day. For solitary people of letters, his WRDs offer not only a dose of motivation but a sense of community.

"Create Every Day" by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesty of the artist.

“Create Every Day” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesty of the artist.

 

TTDOG: One of your most famous WRDs says: “Aspire to Inspire Others and the Universe Will Take Note.” In what way do you feel the universe has taken note – for yourself as well as for those who have been inspired by you?

WRDSMTH: ‘Aspire’ has definitely become a mantra for WRDSMTH, but that’s because those words are so in line with what I aim to do and aimed to do from the get-go. I began this endeavor speaking to all the creative individuals doing time in Hollywood. However, I quickly realized it wasn’t just about those doing time here, but those doing time everywhere. Everyone has a dream – whether it be a creative one, a productive one or a romantic one.

"Aspire To Inspire" by WRDSMTH. Photo by Playboy. Photo provided courtesy of WRDSMTH

“Aspire To Inspire” by WRDSMTH. Photo by Playboy. Photo provided courtesy of WRDSMTH

We all aim to inspire others and if that intent is truly altruistic, I firmly believe the universe will take note. And hopefully good karma ensues. My success has been unexpected. I actually started WRDSMTHing for me because I needed an active hobby. The fact that my WRDs are resonating with so many is thrilling on a daily basis, which is why ‘Aspire’ is a mantra. The messages I get from fans and followers are amazing and are always welcome. I love hearing how I have inspired and motivated others. I also love hearing how my romantic WRDs have helped bring people together.

In a city and in an era where ‘authenticity’ is simply an attribute for branding, the nostalgic warmth and sometimes gut wrenching honesty of his art hints at the character of the man behind the WRDs.

 

TTDOG: Is the open hearted, playful, and vulnerable quality of your WRDs an extension of your professional writing, or is the anonymous WRDSMTH an alter ego that doesn’t get space for expression in your other writing? Why put yourself at risk, in a renegade medium? What impact does the medium and your anonymity have on what you communicate?

WRDSMTH: Both. I think the most compelling stories in any medium are open-hearted, amusing, and vulnerable. At least my favorite novels, movies, TV shows, and music have those characteristics. My professional work includes novels and screenplays and I follow that path, along with a strong belief that “less is more” in all my writing. WRDSMTH is such a merger of worlds for me. I used to work as a copywriter in advertising, so I think I understand how to be effective and affect with as few words as possible. However, WRDSMTH is not like advertising in that I have the creative freedom to say what I want with no agenda or boundaries. That is refreshing and addictive. As far as the risk in a renegade medium . . . isn’t that a vital ingredient in most success stories?

"trump" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Trump” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

While affirmation is a great drug, I was not seeking it when I started WRDSMTHing and I always say I’d still be doing what I do even if I only had 500 followers. I will always say what I want to say and will always express myself in a myriad of personal and vulnerable ways because that’s what writers do. Hemingway once said “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I love that. Another mantra of mine that I penned is, “Do it for yourself and hope that what you do resonates with others.” I guess where Hemingway and WRDSMTH intersect is where my WRDs are born. The medium of street art seems to add a level of cool to my words.

"f ck out of u" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“f ck out of u” Original artwork by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

The action of putting pieces up at all hours of the night while dancing a line of legality romanticizes the words to a great degree. There’s a difference between potentially reading “You got this. You know you do.” on a motivational poster or “You are amazing. You deserve amazing.” in a greeting card, versus seeing those words on a wall on the corner of Sunset and LaBrea. And the action of taking a picture of those pieces and Instagramming them or sending them to a loved one is more meaningful in this day and age of texting and social media. However, while I am aware of all this, it doesn’t change or alter what I put out there. My WRDs come from my life and my experiences, not from the expectation or hope that they will be Instagrammed or forwarded.

Specific laws, enforcement and penalties for street art vary from city to city and from country to country. In some cases, artwork is specifically commissioned or ‘permissioned.’  WRDSMTH’s installation at SYNDCTD creative agency in LA, and in Lululemon’s shop windows are recent examples of such work. Without such permissions, the question of legality is always a concern for artists painting in public spaces.

"Tell Stories" - photo courtesy of WRDSMTH

“Tell Stories” by WRDSMTH, on the wall of the SYNDCTD offices in LA. Photo provided courtesy of WRDSMTH.

While second guessing what the law would consider ‘acceptable placement’ for his street art, WRDSMTH has stated that he never paints on private property in order to have his WRDs seen. Sensing what he terms a renaissance occurring in street art in Los Angeles, he points to promising changes on the horizon. Some city council members have begun to work with street artists to attempt to provision public spaces for art, as part of urban rejuvenation and beautification.

"Face The Facts" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Face The Facts” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

Not to detract from the LA cool of WRDSMTH, the street artist, his midwestern kindness goes beyond messages of love, humour and inspiration.  A proponent of the Pay it Forward philosophy, WRDSMTH gives of his time and notes that most of his sales have some component of charitable giving attached to them.  In 2015, he gave time and artwork to several causes including after school programs for LA children, local youth centres, the city’s homeless and for breast cancer research.

 

TTDOG: You help and inspire many people. Who has helped and inspired you, along the way? Who helps you these days, and what inspires you to stay positive and keep going, even on those days when things look bleak?

WRDSMTH: I am inspired by a lot of things: Friends. Family. Love. Music. Sunsets. Sunrises. Wanderlust. A really great burger. Cookies and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Honesty. Laughter. Great conversation. Really good wine. Art in all its forms.

"Wanderlust" by WRDSMTH. Photo by Dean Sunshine, provided courtesy of WRDSMTH

“Wanderlust” by WRDSMTH. Photo by Dean Sunshine. Photo provided courtesy of WRDSMTH.

Someone once said, “Life is a struggle. But every now and then, we stumble upon something magical and it just makes everything all right.” My list includes things I often stumble upon – and they just make everything all right for me. Maybe for some, my art is something stumbled upon. At least I hope it is. And I stay positive by immersing myself in the things I love, by surrounding myself with people who challenge me, and by finding the good hidden in all the bleak on this big blue marble we are spinning on.

 

TTDOG: Many people want to make the world a better place but feel that they alone can’t make a difference or that they don’t have the skills, talent or opportunity. What would you say to them?

WRDSMTH: Find a way. There’s always a way.

"give take DTLA" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Give Take DTLA” by WRDSMTH. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

 

TTDOG: What do you wish people would ask you about yourself or your work, but never do?

WRDSMTH: I like when people ask me my name instead of calling me Word or Mister Smith. I enjoy when fans inquire about my other writing. I like when they ask about my muse(s). I love when they ask if they can buy me a drink. I’d like more single girls to ask if I am single. I also wish people would ask me what my favorite palindrome is. The answer: racecar.

Heads up, ladies: WRDSMTH is single!

As is our practice at TTDOG, there is one final question for the artist:

TTDOG:
For what are you most grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?
"joy of life" by WRDSMTH. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“Joy of Life in New Orleans, LA” by WRDSMTH. Photo by Scott Allen Perry. Photo provided courtesy of the artist.

WRDSMTH: 
I am most grateful for my life – the amazing and baffling opportunity to spend some decades living and making a mark in the world. And my greatest joy is knowing that my work, words, and WRDs are reaching and affecting people all over the world.

WRDSMTH’s original artworks  have been sold at Julien’s Auctions, Art Share-LA, In Heroes We Trust, Q Art Gallery, The Gabba Gallery, Stone Malone Gallery, and LabArt. He currently has prints, photos and wearable art for sale at Paper and Fabric.

To learn more about WRDSMTH and be inspired by his daily artwork, follow him at:
WRDSMTH on Instagram
WRDSMTH on Facebook
WRDSMTH on Tumblr
WRDSMTH on Twitter
Email WRDSMTH at: WRDSMTHinLA@gmail.com
Art, Articles, Community, Compassion, Gratitude, Oneness, Service

Matthew Del Degan and Lovebot: Heroes of Compassion and Love

February 9, 2016
Lovebot. Art by Matthew Del Degan. Photo by @Pinkstarpix

Lovebot. Art by Matthew Del Degan. Photo by @Pinkstarpix

You may have noticed stickers of a retro-styled robot with a vibrant red heart popping up across your city.  If you have, chances are these are part of the Global Love Invasion.  Next in our series of people making a difference – with the skills and talents they have, where they are – is Toronto based artist and designer, Matthew Del Degan, creator of Lovebot.

TTDOG reached out to Matthew Del Degan to discuss the spread of compassion and kindness through the icon of Lovebot.   If you haven’t seen the character on the streets of your city, you may be wondering: What is Lovebot?

“It’s a cold concrete object in Toronto with a big heart, or warm center,” says the artist, “It’s a metaphor for the robotic interactions of people in our city…” 

Lovebot was Del Degan’s design response to the way urban commuters were failing to engage their emotions, particularly their compassion, when interacting with one another.

PEOPLE HAVE UNIQUE LIVES and THEY ARE ALL SPECIAL!” He ardently asserts. ” That grocery store clerk is probably going through some things, just like you.  You have feelings and the ability to love, and so do they! Maybe I’m an odd ball, but when I get groceries I ask people how they are doing, what they have been up to and if they feel good today, so that it’s not a robot interaction.”

 Lovebot, with its faceless solidity and seemingly incongruous vibrant red heart “lovingly disrupts the robotic routines of humans and reminds them that there is love in their cities and kindness around every corner.”

The artist’s design appeared on the streets of Toronto in the form of a Lovebot sticker and paste-up, which won the hearts of street art fans, and quickly made its way around the world through volunteers eager to spread the disruptive visual message of compassion, kindness and love.

All I ever wanted them to do was to make people smile,” says the artist.

And he did.  Not content to rest on his success, the artist expanded beyond the quickly changing art gallery of the street. He took the visual language of the project to a wider audience through a more permanent type of installation that engaged the entire community.  The aptly titled “Love Invasion”,  saw the artist embark on a series of trials and errors to create a 250 pound, 2 foot tall concrete Lovebot.  This unusual sculpture and several models of various sizes were installed in the footfall of commuters to encourage city dwellers to reflect on their surroundings and their participation in the culture of the concrete jungle that typifies a big commercial city centre.

“If I can make a cold hearted person smile then good, and if a child stumbles upon a concrete robot in the city, then I’ve caused magic or wonder in someone else’s life.  It’s about creating true value, and for me that’s a positive change in someone else’s life.” 

Matthew Del Degan’s “Love Invasion” went beyond the messaging of a single artist to a wider community.  By using his Lovebot in the service of illuminating and amplifying kindness and love, the character became the image of a global art-based social movement for love and kindness.

Working with a team of friends and volunteers, Matthew Del Degan created and self-financed an army of 100 Lovebots.  He called on the people of the city of Toronto to help recognize individuals and organisations who had engaged in outstanding acts of kindness by nominating them to receive a concrete Lovebot sculpture.  This act not only recognized the kindness and love that already existed in the city, but stood as a reminder that small acts of kindness can be monumental because they contain within them the potential to be exponential – inspiring more compassion and kindness from those who witness or remember them.

“Attaching a sculpture or small monument to kind acts caused, well, kindness to seem monumental.”

 

 


 

“I’m not thinking that a concrete robot can inspire someone to love…the stories behind them may.”  

 


 

 

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) prepared this introduction to his work:

Matthew Del Degan belies the well-worn stereotype of Millenials as selfish, disengaged individuals with a sense of entitlement and solely preoccupied with sex, partying, video games and music.  Whilst Matthew is a skydiver with over 130 jumps, a motorcyclist, active public artist, and is a notoriously avid gamer –  an aspect of his aesthetic that is reflected in the retro feel of the Lovebot – he is a man on a mission and living from a sense of purpose.

His mission to be vulnerable and to share his love feeds his purpose to make the world not only a kinder place, but one where love and kindness is amplified.  A muscular man sporting a platinum-blonde mohawk, he not only thwarts stereotypes of his generation, but also of his gender.

“In North America we have an idea of what manly is:  big, strong, brutish, often overbearing, tough, and aggressive. To me that sounds like a large baby.  I am a very physically strong man.  I kickbox, and I lift concrete robots often, however, I recognize that compassion and love is what makes a man a true hero.  A hero, is someone who fights for good, who is loving and giving .  A true man looks after others and their safety.   They are powerful, yes, but also supremely gentle.

I guess I just had the perfect father who was all that and more.  And, my mother was also just spectacular.  The women in my family are top notch. I owe a lot of my love to my grandmother, who was my best friend and took me everywhere.”

As head of the Love Invasion project, Matthew awarded the first concrete Lovebot sculpture to his grandmother, in recognition of all her kindness and love.   To borrow from the American journalist Hodding Carter, the artist’s family has given Matthew Del Degan the roots from which to take wing with his dreams.

 


 

“…compassion and love is what makes a man a true hero.”

 


 

 

And in like fashion, the father of Lovebot gave his creation its own wings to soar.  Taking a back seat, he provided the platform through which the kind deeds of others could shine, deepening the meaning of Lovebot and the committment of Toronto citizens to its ethos.

“I’m not thinking that a concrete robot can inspire someone to love,” he says, humbly, “but, the stories behind them may.”  

By recognizing acts of kindness, compassion and bravery, the Love Invasion not only raises awareness of all the good that is being done in the community but acts as counternarrative the media’s unrelenting message of bad news and trouble in the world.

“Love became my focus because this world is missing it. It’s a sad world.  You know: starvation, animals going extinct, pollution, corruption, beheadings…people wasting their lives on Facebook laughing at cats and fail videos of people falling off things.  This world is a sad world, but I’m not going to sit…and watch it be that way. So, because I know how to love, and this world needs it, that’s what I do.”

Subverting the zeitgeist of disaster, disconnection and disempowerment, Matthew Del Degan’s work for love, kindness and compassion becomes an avante garde occupation.  As has always been the case for society’s vanguard, the way is not always easy.

“I cry. I bleed for my work. I suffer,” admits the artist.  “People don’t see that part. I never asked for this to be easy, and I’m not surprised when it’s hard. I receive hate.  It’s unbelievable.  But, at the end of the day, I have something to fight for and I’m living my dreams…Sometimes I question everything… But now there are too many people who respect what I do, and who support it or have contributed to it and like I said, this world needs more love. I just choose not to stop or give up.”

The Love Invasion of Toronto is mapped out on the Lovebot website to encourage visits to the monuments and reflection on one’s own memberships in communities of friends, families, coworkers and neighbours.  For those who are inspired by what both Matthew Del Degan and those who receive the Lovebot honour have done to bring love, compassion and kindness into their community of the city of Toronto, but who are perhaps at a loss as to how they can make a difference in their own communities, he has this advice:

“If you sit there and do nothing, this world will only get worse. ..Get up and do something. Be a small part of the fight for love. You don’t have to change the world, but if you make one person smile… you change their world… 

It’s perspective. Change your attitude and your world changes. My perception or circumstance is seen though my lens. When I change that lens what I feel is very different, but the circumstance may be the same….I’m only heading towards better things and now I’m biting off far more than I can handle… but that’s how I got this far…Work and bite off more than you can chew, then swallow… that’s how you grow…

Just don’t give up on this world or yourself. We all deserve better than that…Don’t waste your life. Do what you want to do. “

When the artist is not creating concrete sculptures, he is busy creating new projects and art for sale.   He recently launched the first Lovebot toy, and is busy molding his special edition Valentine’s Lovebot which allows fans to have a piece of his art in their home.  As well, he is currently organizing an art event ‘spectacular’ showcasing some of the finest art talent in Toronto.  But Matthew Del Degan remains committed to his vision of making the Love Invasion a global art-based social movement.

“I’m also working on a new sticker package designed to be shared globally. Lovebot fans often want to share the love when they travel or in their respective countries. So I’m designing a larger, cheaper, package for them to do just that.  I’m also building my group of volunteers around the world.”

 

Matthew Del Degan recently shared more about the kind acts which have merited a Lovebot monument with MTV:

 

 

TTDOG sends Matthew Del Degan and Lovebot much love and best wishes for continued success. As is our practice, we asked the artist one final question:  For what are you most grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?

 

“I’m thankful for my life, and I’m thankful for everything I had been given and what I’m managing to do with it.

I find joy in living. I’m not waiting for heaven, that would be so stupid when it’s right here, right now in front of me.”

 

 


 

“Just don’t give up on this world or yourself. We all deserve better than that.”

 


 

 

 

To learn more about Lovebot, to volunteer for the Global Love Invasion or to support the art and design of Matthew Del Degan:

 

Websites:  Matthew Del Degan, Lovebot
Instagram:  Lovebot, Matthew Del Degan
Facebook:  Lovebot
LinkedIn: Matthew Del Degan

 

 

 

Art, Art, Articles, Nature, Oneness, Service

Louis Masai and His Tribe: Shepherding Consciousness Towards Animal Welfare

January 20, 2016

We kick off 2016 with the first in a series of articles featuring individuals who are making a difference in the world – where they are, with the talents they have – through Service.  Our first interview features the UK artist Louis Masai, who uses his skills as a contemporary fine artist and muralist to give a voice to the voiceless and promote environmental conservation.

The global climate summit COP 21 concluded last month and Louis Masai traveled to Paris to add to his works with the environmental NGO, Synchronicity Earth, on endangered species.  In advance of the climate talks, he painted a coral mural outside Paris which is part of a series of murals he is painting in several countries.

In September, Louis Masai began the series by creating the largest mural he has painted to date, in London.  The painting depicted a coral reef with various reef dependent species to highlight the biodiversity of marine ecosystems and corals under threat.  The work was the artist’s first interactive piece, with members of the public suggesting species to include in his design as he painted, and the work received tremendous media attention.  The artist has gone on to paint smaller coral follow-up pieces in Ireland, South London and Paris.

 

#LondonLovesCoral Mural by Louis Masai with Synchronicity Earth, in London

#LondonLovesCoral Mural by Louis Masai with Synchronicity Earth, in London. Photo by Tania Campbell

 

Marine ecosystems are vitally important to life on the planet.  Oceans cover more than 2/3 of the surface, and plankton in marine ecosystems provide 50% of the world’s oxygen as well as food and livelihoods for vast numbers of the global population, particularly for the world’s poor.  As part of the marine ecosystem, coral reefs are home to a multitude of marine life but with climate change, coastal runoff, overfishing and marine pollution, 75% of the world’s coral reefs are currently under threat  with some environmentalists projecting that 90% of the worlds reefs will be under threat by 2030.   The worlds largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef, barely remained off the UNESCO endangered list in 2015 and remains under a severe threat watch for the next several years.

These threats have serious implications for mankind.  Seagrasses and mangroves have been lost with the worsening health of marine ecosystems.  When coupled with coral losses and degradation, this has promoted the growth of disease spreading algal blooms in coastal waters which threaten to change disease vectors for masses of populations of humans and terrestrial wildlife.  The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) scientists responsible for projections about the likelihood of climate change and the risks and impacts of that climate change  confirm in their 5th Assessment report the vulnerability of coral reefs.  The existing and projected degradation of coral reefs exacerbates the threat of sea level rise to coastal systems and low-lying areas and this will persist, even if the world manages to stabilise temperatures.

The environmental threat from degradation of the world’s reefs and marine ecosystems is extreme and it will take the concerted effort of the world’s population to improve our combined destiny.  Digesting this grave information is not easy but  Louis Masai has teamed up with Synchronicity Earth to help raise awareness by making all the frightening statistics more accessible and personal.

 

Louis Masai workng on his mural #LondonLovesCoral. Photo Courtesy of London Calling Blog

Louis Masai working on his mural #LondonLovesCoral. Photo Courtesy of London Calling Blog on Instagram: @ldn_calling_blog

 

Whilst the COP 21 Climate Change summit was underway in Paris, we had the opportunity to connect with the artist via email for an interview.

 

TTDOG: You have shied away from the term activist in the past, but I know that you care deeply about the rapid wave of extinctions of species and of biodiversity loss. You have expanded beyond individual species and animals now to a much wider crisis – that of the vanishing coral reefs and, therefore, of entire marine ecosystems. You have painted in Paris at the start of COP21 where all the world’s leaders gathered to set the agenda that will affect the world’s climate which is arguably at a tipping point.  What does this wider vision and forum mean to you and how do you hope your work will impact on leaders, environmentalists and individuals?

LM: Well, to be honest, I doubt very much that politicians that aren’t already engaged in the thoughts of environmental issues will become altered by stumbling upon my coral hearts in Paris or by the other paintings that I have done.  In fact, they are probably blissfully unaware that I am doing it.  There are other art projects happening in Paris that might reach them, but even still, I don’t personally believe that visual language can reach an unethical mind.  However, I do believe that the people that vote governments in to power will be affected by visual language and I also believe that these images can inform the general public and, hopefully, unite the people to encourage the right politicians to lead countries and represent us at environmental summits.

Environmentalists love my work for the simple reason that it addresses issues that they are concerned with;  It depicts them in an attractive way, and it helps to reach the wider audience.  And, as individuals, I think 1 in 10 people will take note and allow for the message to override the actual image itself.  I hope so, anyway.

 

TTDOG:  You have said before that you inject a human element in your work.  Have you done this in your recent series of coral paintings with synchronicity earth? In what way?

LM:  Well the big coral mural I did in London doesn’t depict human juxtaposition in the way that my other work does, but if you look into the centre of the shape, there is a heart shaped hole which I have coined “the keyhole” which means the  biodiversity that I have created is a padlock.  Every keyhole has a key.  

 

Detail from London mural #LondonLovesCoral by Louis Masai with empty heart "keyhole"amidst the biodiversity padlock. Photo courtesy of Instagrammer @m_frenchie

Detail from London mural #LondonLovesCoral by Louis Masai with empty heart “keyhole” in the upper left circle.      Photo courtesy of Instagrammer @m_frenchi

 

The coral hearts that I painted in South London, Paris and before in Ireland are the keys.  This idea of keys and lock symbolises that to unlock a sustainable ecosystem, like the coral reef, we must all have a key to invest into its survival.  The keys become metaphors for the human itself, and thus, the juxtaposition of human and animal becomes a little bit more obvious.  Essentially all my coral paintings are connected together in some way because of the heart, which by the way is not shaped like I have painted them, this shape is a human interpretation.

 

Coral Key in South London by Louis Masai. Photo by Tania Campbell

Coral Key in South London by Louis Masai. Photo by Tania Campbell

 

TTDOG: Your work seems to focus on environmental crisis. What drives you to give a voice to those who do not have one within your paintings and then to engage and include so called marginalised people who are not otherwise part of the environmental discussion through interaction with your art?

LM: I haven’t ever stopped to figure that out, it’s just something that happened naturally, over time.  I guess I’m just creating large real life jigsaw puzzles.

 

TTDOG: Your name is “Masai” and it is a word that seems both sacred and integral to your painting. Would you be willing to share how you gained the name and how it’s meaning infuses your work? What does it mean to you to call your followers “Masai Tribe?”

LM: I have fond memories of wild tales from my Opa about my dad in the Cameroons (now part of Nigeria and the Country of Cameroon) and it is those stories twinned with the Archeological treasures we had at home that steered me in the direction of tribal cultures. I soon discovered an amazing book called Africa Adorned (By Angela Fisher). I became fixated with a tall tribe bearing spears and shields, dressed in beautiful red tartans.

I later understood them to be the Masai warrior tribe.

I have a particular interest in the idea of one’s creation and the way that a person can shape and define who and what they are perceived to be by the general public. Being that I am an artist and one that engages in the public domain on a daily basis, I realised that my love of graffiti and the ideology of fame through a moniker or alter ego was, in many ways, no different from the inventions of the band names and frontmen that I was listening to, on my records. It’s also not uncommon for fine artists to invent their own names. Man Ray, for example, even took it a step further and his name became the art itself. Again, I found this very interesting and something that I wanted to incorporate with my own work.

With these factors all combined and running around my busy head some 8 or 9 years ago, I decided that I wanted a powerful name that I hoped could one day become as important as the work i was creating. I feel it’s starting to approach that place now, especially as my work is about raising awareness for endangered species and threatened ecosystems. The Masai are shepherds which is a nice link to the idea of an artist collecting consciousness amongst the peoples for animal welfare.

The reason for using Masai tribe in my social media is as a way to remind my followers that we are all unified in the success of one mans objectives. If mine is to spread awareness then it’s the tribe’s to move it from my page to theirs and further. I feel the word tribe removes any superiority amongst us.

 

TTDOG: I admire the way you have worked so incredibly hard and collaborated with activists to both make a living as an artist and to make a difference in the world. Both the art world and the world of socio/environmental/political change are really challenging.  People often fear that they alone can’t make a difference. What would you say to them?

LM: Well, to start with, it depends what that one man standing solo is trying to achieve.   You can’t play football on your own, but you can play a game with that ball on your own.  So I guess what I’m saying is that if you want to make a difference and you feel isolated and alone then change the way you address it or go and knock and some doors and get a full team of football fans to play with you.

For me words like “original”, “unique” and “individual” are misused words because someone else has done it before, thought it before, and there will be many to follow.   What i mean is that there are many more “you”’s out there and they care just as much, so find them.  Your mission is to create the links, make a tribe and spread the message further.

 

Throughout his career, Louis has been evolving, creating connections and spreading his message.  Although not always connecting his painting with specific conservation projects, he has long had a special ability to paint character-filled animals.  Painting for several group and solo contemporary art gallery exhibitions, he also honed his skills with public murals in London and in several other countries.  Louis’ evolving relationship with visual communication between animals as subjects and the public as viewer matured through several series of works, and began to focus on raising awareness of endangered species.  His earlier work with Synchronicity Earth marked the passing of the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List for endangered species.

Shortly after this project, TTDOG  had the pleasure to meet the artist at his solo exhibition “Batteries Not Included”, in London.  There, Louis spoke about his work with Synchronicity Earth and of the importance for the public to understand and act now on the IUCN Red List for endangered species.  His deeply moving connection with his subjects and his conviction to try to make a change was palpable to all in attendance.

A film by Synchronicity Earth was launched at the opening of the exhibition and provides a glimpse into the passion and purpose of Louis Masai and the Synchronicity Earth Team.

 

Whilst busy creating several other series of paintings for gallery exhibitions and as public art, Louis Masai teamed up in 2014 with fellow artist Jim Vision to turn their skills towards an urgent issue – the collapse of pollinator communities across the UK.   Engaging with the public to educate and raise awareness, the pair created a series of murals in London.  The project culminated in a day of community consciousness and awareness raising around the delicate ecosystem and the threats to the food chain, and textile crops from colony collapse.  Local beekeepers, Friends of the Earth, Hiver honey beer, Thompson Morgan seeds and Rockwell House joined the artists’ cause, to help make the project a success.
The project to save the bees caught the attention and inspired the imagination of the UK public.  A short film by Emil Walker helped deliver the message of the dangers to humanity of the collapse of bee colonies to audiences beyond the UK.

 

 

The project has been featured in social media by environmentalists such as Greenpeace, and Ecowatch, activist sites like Films for Action and the trend setting site Bored Panda as well as mainstream media.  As the debate around banning neonics continues in countries like USA and Canada, and as Europe and the global South works to revive the pollinator population, the project provides a perfect example of how communities are both impacted by and can impact upon bee colony health.

 

Although the global climate meeting of the Conference of Parties 21 concluded late last year with a landmark climate agreement to end fossil fuels use and limit carbon emissions, implementing this agreement and limiting the other greenhouse gasses which threaten the climate will be a complicated process involving unpopular political policy and major lifestyle adjustments for the world’s population.  We know this work cannot be done by governments alone.

As the world struggles to back away from climate disaster,  Louis Masai’s paintings, as real life jigsaw puzzles, help remind even a fraction of his audience that we each hold the key to unlock the preservation of biodiversity.

 

We asked Louis Masai one final question:

 

TTDOG:  For what are you most grateful, and where do you find your greatest joy?

LM:  I just give thanks for the life I live.     For me,  joy is in nature,  so I hope to find ways to preserve it.

 

 

For further information on the work of Louis Masai:
Louis Masai’s Website
Louis Masai on Facebook
Louis Masai on Instagram
Gratitude, Service, The Daily Practice, The Practices

On Service

November 11, 2015
Photo by Lotte Löhr

Photo by Lotte Löhr

The fourth of our daily practices, which arose organically during the first year of daily Gratitude practice, is that of daily Service.

It seems natural that when we feel abundant, our impulse is to “give back” through service.  Indeed, research by Fowler and Christakis revealed that those who were recipients of abundance are statistically more likely to be generous and “give back” to others.

For many, the word “service” is laden with emotional linkages.  For some, it evokes religious connotations, for others, notions of subservience.   Yet, when considering the alternatives, it is arguably the best term for training ourselves in a daily practice of giving.

 

 

What is Service?

Many other words could have been chosen to express the act of giving.  Kindness and charity, are both good words, but we will see that they each have implications, in common parlance that we do not wish to adopt in our practice of daily giving.

One might, in fact, wonder why not simply use the word “giving”?

 

Giving is a word that references the individual who is doing the action.  Inherently, it contains no implication that the gift must be of benefit to the receiver.  Presumably, whatever we give is fine, as long as it is a gift.

However, consider this: how many times have we received an unwanted gift and found it to be, rather than helpful, a burden? It is a burden because we have to express appreciation for something we did not want, because we have to ensure we don’t hurt the feelings of the otherwise well meaning giver, and because we need to devise a manner in which to store, use or dispose of the unwanted gift.  We see this in humanitarian disasters when boxes of unwanted donations clog the transportation systems of aid, and are often useless in solving the most urgent needs of the crisis at hand.

By giving someone something that is unwanted, it is as if we are taking a stance of superiority and saying “I know what is best for you.”

 

Service, on the other hand, is meant to benefit the welfare of another, not to be a burden upon them.  Service implies no superiority but respects the dignity of the one served by taking their needs as the guide for where and how to act.

 

 

The term Charity is a term found in most major religions, and is a virtue to be performed in order to gain the favour of ones God or create karmas.  Any hope for reward, including eternal reward, is transactional.  When we are transacting we are not serving. The two are fundamentally different acts with different interests as their motivation.

Moreover, the concept of charity has often been associated with a sense of pity which stems from a sense of superiority of the giver over the receiver.

 

Service,  is a selfless gift of our time, effort and resources to benefit the welfare of another.  Service implies no superiority and is tied to no particular spiritual tradition, but forms a part of practicing secular ethics.

 

The term kindness describes the quality of being considerate, generous and friendly.  Friendliness implies a social benefit not only to the receiver but also to the giver. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the warm feelings that service engenders, there is always a danger that setting out to be ‘kind’ may include an underlying and self serving motivation to improve our welfare through social connections that make us feel good about ourselves or improves our image in the eyes of the community.

A broader sense of connection, through compassion, often fuels our will to serve, and that service creates positive effects on our social connections which promotes further service.  Any positive impact on our own feelings of social connection as a result of service, must not be the motive for service.

It is possible to conduct acts of service for those with whom we have no relationship or indeed, those who will ever know we have served them. In many traditions, acts of service are conducted anonymously, in order to remove the temptation of expectation of reward through improved social standing.

 

Service can be for the benefit of any sentient being, known, or unknown, of present or future generations and can be for the benefit of the living planet.  Through a recognition of oneness through compassion, service is performed with the humility of knowing that were it not for our own good fortune, we may be the ones in need.

 

Photo by Angelina Litvin

Photo by Angelina Litvin

 

This sense of commonality with the one being served is a kind of oneness which we might call empathy.  When empathy is coupled with a desire to act to alleviate, suffering, this is compassion. the Buddhists call compassion a particular sort of kindness, “loving kindness” (mettā).  This special (loving) kindness  – compassion – is cultivated by the Buddhists to enhance the human preponderance for altruism.

 

Altruism is a good synonym for service except that it implies conditions which can be challenging to sustain on a daily basis, for most individuals.   To be altruistic  is to act to improve another’s welfare, even at risk or cost to ourselves.  Service includes a cost to ourselves of time, effort, or resources, however, altruism describes the most noble forms of service wherein we not only forego benefit, but we are willing to experience personal sacrifice in service to others.

By way of example, when we share our meal with someone who is hungry, this is a cost to ourselves and benefits the other.  This is service. When we forego eating, in order that another who is hungry can eat a meal, that is a personal sacrifice.  That is altruism.

The highest form of service is altruism. Through performing daily acts of service and cultivating compassion, we can train ourselves for altruism.

 

Summing up, we can define Service as the following:
Service is a humble and selfless act of giving, to benefit the welfare of another sentient being, known or unknown to us, of current or future generations, and is ultimately guided by the needs of the one being served.  Service involves a cost, and may involve but is not dependant upon personal sacrifice.

 

 

 

Why Practice Service?

When one experiences abundance, cultivated by gratitude practice, it seems natural to want to share that abundance with others.  One could choose to be selfish and bask in the experience of abundance, but research shows that we adapt to the level of hedonic pleasure received from the things (not the relationships) that fill our lives and our happiness cannot be sustained, all things held constant, without the addition of more “things.”  This generates a never ending cycle of wanting more and more, in order to be happy.   Psychologist Michael Eysenck has termed this adaptation phenomenon “the hedonic treadmill.”

Service as a key to Happiness

What can make for lasting happiness, according to research by positive psychologists, are non material qualities such as fulfilling social relationships, a sense of gratitude, and a sense of meaning in one’s life.  Service generates all of these – for oneself, for the receiver and for the community.

Service not only improves the wellbeing of the receiver, it improves the wellbeing of the community.  Service, by contagion, creates a more generous social circle as those who have benefitted from an act of service, tend to be more grateful and inclined themselves toward service.  And while service can provide meaning to our lives, making us feel fulfilled, often it is those who have benefitted from an act of service that find meaning in their own lives by helping others.

When we focus outside of ourselves through cultivating oneness (through, for instance, compassion) and by giving (though service), we create a loop in which our own and other’s happiness becomes self sustaining.

And it isn’t just individual happiness that is in question. In his talk on Altruism in Monterray, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard describes why cultivating compassion and service (what he calls: altruism) may be what is needed to save ourselves, our planet and our future generations.

 

 

 

Where do we begin?

Saving the future of mankind is a daunting task for any one of us.  And whilst a life of altruism may be a noble goal to which many of us aspire, for many more of us, it is likely that the idea of daily personal sacrifice is inconceivable.  Through daily service and the cultivation of our capacity for compassion, we can build our capacity for compassion.

 

The service contagion

We need not despair by thinking that we cannot make a difference.   By cultivating compassion and performing daily acts of service, we help to create a more altruistic planet.  Researchers Chistakis and Fowler, conducted a study in Massachusetts and found that among adults, all emotional states and behaviour is contagious.

Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, their findings indicated that negative emotions and behaviour were no more contagious than those that are positive.  Giving (what we call “service”) was found to inspire others to do acts of service to there by a factor of three, meaning that in any network of people, a single act of service could impact on tens or even hundreds of people, some of whom the person conducting that original act of service had never met.

Research by Paul Zak found that service or giving or altruism released chemicals in the brain like oxytocin that make individuals feel good.  This chemical response causes individuals to increase their acts of service in a reward loop that makes an individual more and more inclined to altruism.

Anyone who doubts that a single person can make a difference through service should consider the mathematics of these findings.

 

Cultivating Compassion

Cultivating compassion isn’t just of benefit to mankind and the planet, it benefits each of us in our own lives.  According to the Stanford University Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, individual benefits include an increased ability to feel compassion for self and others, increased calm and ability to cope with stressful situations, increased ability to cope with feelings of overwhelm, better relationships, better job satisfaction, and a more nurturing and fulfilling family life.

We can cultivate compassion in many ways.  Developmental psychologists Rosenberg, Fabes and Hoffman have found that we can cultivate compassion in children by teaching them lessons through induction and reasoning rather than reward and punishment.  As an adult, loving kindness meditation helps to develop our capacity for compassion.

Being able to increase our compassion muscles great news because according to research by Pearl and Samuel Oliner, compassionate individuals do tend to be more altruistic.

 

Simply Serve and Serve Simply

Daily acts of service need not always be sacrificial acts of altruism.

As long as we act from an attitude of humility, and selflessness and our action is guided by the need of the other, our daily service can have ripple effects within our families, community and world.  Service can be as simple as holding the door for another person, offering directions to lost tourists, offering temporary companionship by striking up a conversation with an elderly person who is alone or simply offering a compassionate smile to a forlorn or grumpy seeming stranger on the tube.  Smiling is contagious and feels good.

Spreading a smile, therefore, is one of the easiest ways to spread good feelings, as we see in this famous Ted Talk by Ron Gutman, founder and CEO of HealthTap health apps.