I have the profound privilege to experience COVID-19 as a source of stress, not crisis. My family is healthy and able to shelter in place. My organization is well-funded enough to support our staff and continue our work. Like most folks, I feel waves of panic and fear. But my primary emotion is gratitude.
There are many, many people who don’t have my privileges right now. I’m talking daily to people who are losing income and housing and security and health. All this suffering makes me wonder: how can I contribute? What is the best way I can show up for others right now?
I started answering this question with the basics: staying home and practicing physical distancing. Reaching out to loved ones who are struggling. Donating to people and communities in crisis. Ensuring my colleagues have secure jobs and expanded benefits to support their well-being.
That all feels good. But I feel called to do more. And more is presenting itself to me — more opportunities to give, to volunteer, to be of service. So now I have a different problem: how to figure out what to do.
Don’t Let Production be the Enemy of Good
I’m not alone with this problem. In my industry — the nonprofit cultural sector — I see many organizations scrambling to engage right now.
In some cases, rapid response is phenomenal and highly relevant. I’m thrilled that art museums are donating personal protective equipment to healthcare workers. I’m amazed by historic sites that are offering their facilities up for hospital beds and food distribution centers. I’m grateful arts councils are setting up emergency funds for artists. I’m glad nature centers and parks are staying open as places of connection and healing.
These forms of rapid response are timely and meaningful. But I had to hunt for the above examples. Meanwhile, without my asking, my inbox is overflowing with a deluge of virtual museum tours, live-streamed opera performances, and digital educational resources. And it makes me wonder: is this the most meaningful way cultural organizations can contribute — or is it just the fastest way?
I’m not opposed to these offerings. I can see the hope and pleasure small snippets of art, music, history, and nature provide. But why are we doing it? Are we doing it based on some kind of expressed community need? Are we doing it with an eye towards serving communities that are struggling most? Or are we doing it to assure ourselves that we are “doing something,” to assure our donors we still exist— and that our jobs are worth keeping (which is in itself important!)?
You could argue that these organizations are contributing what they do best. But we’re a creative sector, and I think we could get more creative. In the race to deliver, I worry we may distract ourselves from the potential to envision and deliver true community value.
At first, I too felt pressure to produce and perform. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t using my platform to be of great service right away. But then I realized — I don’t know how to do that yet. There was a real possibility I might burn myself out producing something mediocre instead of figuring out what might be most useful.
So I gave myself permission to slow down. I thought about my organization — OF/BY/FOR ALL — and how we coach cultural organizations to learn from communities and increase their relevance and public value.
Here are the steps I’m taking to find a better answer to the question of how I can contribute.
If you’re like me, holding privilege and wondering how you can be of service (whether as an individual or on behalf of your organization), I offer this process to you.
1. SELECT A COMMUNITY OF FOCUS.
You can’t help everyone. So ask yourself: what community especially matters to you right now? Who do you care about who might be particularly vulnerable or at risk? Maybe it’s elderly people in your neighborhood. Maybe it’s immigrants without a safety net. Maybe it’s nurses. I believe in targeted, community-centric approaches — and that starts with identifying specific communities to support.
2. LISTEN TO THAT COMMUNITY.
If you take a blind guess as to what a particular community might care most about, there’s a good chance you’ll guess wrong. But there’s an easy alternative: listen to them. Find ways to hear and learn directly from individuals and community organizations. You can search for information online. You can follow community leaders and activists on social media. Try to learn as much as possible by observation and listening (as opposed to asking people to give you their time) so you don’t add to burdens that struggling folks are already facing.
3. MAP YOUR SKILLS AND ASSETS.
At the same time as you learn what matters most to the communities you care most about, try to learn more about yourself. What can you uniquely offer? What existing assets and skills do you have that might be relevant? If you’re exploring this as an individual, you might have assets like your time, your bilingualism, or your ability to cook. As an organization, you might have assets like a building, a digital following, or the ear of the mayor.
For me, the most important part of this step is creative dot-connecting. How can you use your creativity to make unexpected connections between what is desired and what you have? These connections don’t have to be huge to be meaningful. For example, my sister (who lives alone) was feeling socially isolated. She mentioned on the phone that she was going to see if she could foster a furry companion. When that didn’t work out, we gave her our dog for a few weeks.
I probably never would have put my dog on a list of assets I have that can help right now. But he is, and he does.
4. CHECK YOUR ASSUMPTIONS.
Once you have an idea that matches your assets to your perceived community interests, take a pause. Check in with community representatives before hitting go. You might think something’s a great idea, but value is in the eye of the community.
I didn’t drive up to my sister’s house and drop a 70-pound dog on her porch without asking. I heard her expressed interest. I thought I had a matching asset. And then I checked in to confirm if that was the case. I want to give communities the same respect and forethought I give my sister.
WHAT THIS LOOKS LIKE IN PRACTICE
I’m going through this process at different speeds with different communities. Here’s how I’m approaching it with two communities that matter to me right now: homeless people in my county and cultural organizations around the world.
Move Fast When There’s an Obvious Best Way to Contribute
When it comes to homeless people in Santa Cruz County, I’m moving quickly. I’m learning what matters most via communication from organizations I trust. I’m hearing what matters most is funding to fuel critical services during the crisis. I have a corresponding asset to offer — my own cash. So I’m increasing donations to homeless-serving organizations I trust. I’m also encouraging and supporting my husband in more direct service to homeless people (which is part of his daily work). I don’t have to get too creative here to make a difference.
Move Slow When the Path is Not Obvious and Creativity Could Lead to Better Results
When it comes to cultural practitioners around the world, I’m moving slowly. I think I have more potential to contribute something unique here, and I’m not sure what it is. So right now, I’m doing a mix of steps 2 and 3. I’m learning about what matters to this community, and I’m mapping my own skills and assets.
I’m learning what matters most by listening to cultural practitioners in my own professional network — in OF/BY/FOR ALL programs, emails, calls, and tweets. I’m focusing my listening on voices of black, indigenous, disabled, and people of color. I’ve made some small donations (like to the Arts Leaders of Color Emergency Fund). But mostly, for now, I’m listening.
To map my assets, I’m trying to stay curious and creative about what I might uniquely offer. There are others who are better positioned than me to provide cash to cultural organizations— and I’m thrilled several foundations are stepping up to do so. I believe there’s another way for me to support this community. I’ve got some assets at my disposal: a big online network, a history of leading change at an organization in crisis, an amazing team committed to equipping teams for transformation, and time to commit. I’ve got some skills to offer, like writing, dreaming, coaching, tool creation, and framework creation.
I don’t yet know how I can be most useful to cultural organizations. So I’m listening and mapping, mapping and listening. As I listen, I’m jotting down themes and trends. I’m starting to connect the dots with my assets and skills. I’m starting to dream about ways I might be able to uniquely contribute.
I think it will take me 3–4 weeks to come up with viable, concrete ideas grounded in what I’m hearing from the community. At that point, I’ll move into step four, and talk with colleagues and peers to check my assumptions and select a path forward. I believe I’ll come up with an answer that uses my skills in the best possible way to generate the most possible value.
This process is grounded in a fundamental realization (and acceptance) that I don’t have the skills and assets that are most needed right now. I’m not a health care provider, or a farmer, or a social worker. If I worked in health care or social service, right now I’d value expediency and rapid response. But I don’t. So I’m banking on a different skill: creativity.
Don’t burn yourself out before you can do the most good. Give yourself permission to get clear on which communities are most important to you right now. Listen deeply to what matters to them. Think creatively about how you can deploy your skills and assets to support their ability to thrive.
I hope we can use this time to create value in ways that nudge the world to greater interconnectivity, resilience, creativity, and care. If it takes a few weeks to figure out how you might be of best service, that’s ok. Take the time — and then take the action. The world will be better for it.