Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What's Your Story?

Last week Hui No'eau participated in National Philanthropy Day at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, the aim being "to recognize and pay tribute to the great contributions that philanthropy—and those people active in the philanthropic community—have made to our lives, our communities and our world."
Joined by 400+ colleagues in nonprofit management with missions focused on a wide variety of causes ranging from social justice and conservationism to cancer research and providing safe havens for abused children, this 2-day conference was an invigorating way to connect with what was largely a non-arts group of extraordinary individuals, with one important common characteristic: a passion for our work.
It's no secret that nonprofit workers are gravely underpaid throughout the entire sector, which calls for a staff that very personally relate to the organizational mission. Board members volunteer their time and energy (hence the term "nonprofit") to govern (what are largely) small businesses and protect the financial viability of their programs & services. Community members step up to the plate to contribute in any way they can. Many constituents donate time, products, services and, of course, money to see to it that these missions are carried out in their respective communities. While many of these people serve very different purposes, they are ultimately exhibiting a strong sense of philanthropy in support of a common cause.
As I networked with conference participants, trained with expert instructors and listened to the inspiring words of foundation panelists and exemplary nonprofit innovators, it occurred to me that the mission of Hui No'eau may not be as easily recognized as its Hui may think. Example: I have just listened to a health reform executive director describe his latest fundraising effort to install a Skype-like application in the hospital rooms of terminally ill patients unable to say goodbye to their loved ones living thousands of miles away when he takes a look at my name badge and says, "wow, the arts, huh? How's THAT going in this economy?" Despite the clear recognition that he and I were plainly doing work of a different scale, my response was, "Great, actually." It seems that many folks hear the term "arts education" and stop short at the word "art" when, in fact, what we are trying to accomplish is so much more. 
About a month ago, one of our teen students' parents called my office to talk about a recent program we concluded with a group that helps at-risk high school students deemed unable to cope in a "regular" classroom environment get back on track, both academically and socially. She wanted to thank me first for offering scholarships to all of the participants and then for simply developing the series of workshops. As we began to chat about the group and all of the progress they made, she broke down into tears saying that the program completely reopened the lines of communication between she and her son, who have not been able to talk without arguing for a very long time. She mentioned that it took some time, but gradually her son came home wanting to describe the projects he was working on in the ceramics studio and eventually, thinking about ways to incorporate the work into his regular high school curriculum. Though it may not seem too far of a stretch for our general constituency of artists, this was clearly a breakthrough for this woman and I felt a sincere sense of gratitude for having touched her family's life in some small way.

While we may not be saving lives, I profoundly believe that we are making lives more fulfilling, and for many, offering life-changing experiences. Whether it's the Baldwin High School student I met at last weekend's Portfolio Day who had no intention of going to art school, but by the end of the say felt like he "actually (had) a future as an artist" and felt like he "finally figured it out," the students I met at this year's Annual Student Exhibition who were joined by family & friends to celebrate their very first exhibition, visibly thrilled to be shown alongside their teachers and mentors, or receiving a note on our Facebook page saying, "Hui No'eau gave me the confidence to be an artist. I did ceramics and photography and had one of my paintings exhibited when I was 18 years old. Since then I went to Art Center College of Design to study photography and got sucked into computer graphics. This lead me into the CGI business for feature and animated films. Some day I would love to come and speak at the Hui and tell others how inspiring it is and what it did for me," I believe it is these individual accounts that need to be shared to make our message clear.

As I finished telling the gentleman from the health reform organization these stories, he completely changed his perspective and said to me, rather surprised, "that is really remarkable. Why don't I know more about this?"

I will leave this response to you. How have the visual arts made an impact on your life? What's your story? We'd love to hear it. 

-Hui No'eau

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