Artist Meetup Blog Entry 6

June 2024

Selfishness as a practice

In this final letter before our July 18th Celebration of Expression event, I’d like to muse a bit on what it means for me to be a community organizer.

You may know that this is not the first community I have founded.

I’ve been making formal gathering spaces for and with artists of all media for over a decade now, always leading in silly, experimental ways that my comrades occasionally find frustrating due to my steadfast lack of conviction and meandering leadership. Here are some truths:

  1. I do not believe I have anything exceptionally special to teach.
  2. I know that I have a strong passion for bringing people together—and it seems I am pretty good at it!—but that does not position me as someone with more power, wisdom, or skill.

My desire to create gatherings comes from a sort of selfishness, a tendency toward self-preservation in a system that seeks to keep us divided. I do not want to lead. I want to share.

I dream we find a cave together. It’s my passion and dedication that alights my peers’ interest in the veined surface of the rock, the inconceivable scale of movement in the stalactites’ drips, the vibrant, invisible life within pools of deep water. We bring tools to chisel and carve, and together we integrate ourselves into the system to form a temple, a space of safety, in honor of each other. A community’s gathering space is both a place we go and a place we take with us.

As a teen, when I first started learning to play music, I was eager to jam with as many other musicians as I could find. In fact, I think this was very possibly my first expression of community leadership. I would beg and plead with friends to get together so I could play music with, for, and at them. Many of these friends were uncomfortable with improvisation or experimentation, and it was my reassurance that got them to be vulnerable. The feeling of drawing someone’s deepest creativity out into a shared space was intoxicating. It became my saying that I wanted “to only play with musicians who are better than me.”

Oftentimes, this would receive pushback from fellow teens, concerned that meant other, better musicians judging us for being less talented. On the contrary, it was my belief that I could help create this feeling for all musicians in the room: we were all unique and had something to offer, and we should all be enamored by that in one another.

I stand by that today. This feeling has become one of my pillars of organizing. When I enter one of our gathering spaces, I am blown away by the talent, compassion, and dedication I receive. I am awed by you. Each and every one of you are better than the rest of us at being you; we all have something important to teach each other.

What do I mean by selfishness and how does it play into my community organizing?

Let’s crack the word into a million little pieces and glue them back together into a beautiful statue we can place at the center of our temple.

Selfishness is self-preservation. But it’s also self-tenderness, self-expression, the willingness to center oneself and speak up, trust in the community to hear your voice, self-dedication to know when to listen and receive, and so much more.

As we approach this celebration, now only a few weeks away, I am reflecting on which parts of myself I have shared with our community over the past year and which parts I still have yet to share. In a past entry, I wrote about “leading through vulnerability.” There is always more work to do in finding grounding to lead through one’s vulnerability. In this past year, I think I have spent so much of my energy (both in the room and in preparing our meetings each month) on crafting the space and ethos of our gatherings as that of safety and honesty, where you can flourish, that I have not given enough energy to sharing my own artistic self in the room. That is detrimental to us all.

I am so excited for our celebration. I am overjoyed to be able to host a gathering, to provide funds for our performers to share, space for our vendors to sell, food to fill our bellies, and the moment for us to convene and see each other. I am equally ecstatic to step onto the stage as a performer and share my own art with you all! It has been so lovely considering which of my poems I will read, writing the evening’s opening and closing remarks, and curating the performers. As we enter this second year, I hope to find the strength to share more of myself with you. May this year be one in which we practice sharing the joys of being the artist, audience, and organizer.

On my mind:

  • As I was drafting the initial (very different) version of this letter, I was reading a powerful article about Abraham Maslow, whose name you may recognize from his “hierarchy of needs.” At some point a few years ago, I had learned some half-information about him and his research that had soured him for me, and while thinking about “selfishness” as a community practice, I decided to dive back in and learn more. This article, “The Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow’s Hierarchy” by Teju Ravilochan, is really well-written and helped to reposition Maslow in my mind as someone who was doing the best he could in a broken system. I strongly recommend a few minutes with the article. Here’s an excerpt:
    “As Blackfoot scholar Billy Wadsorth (of the Blood, or Kanai Tribe) summarizes in dialogue with Cindy Blackstock (2011), Maslow did not ‘fully situate the individual within the context of community.’ If he had done so, and also more deeply integrated the Blackfoot perspective, ‘the model would be centered on multi-generational community actualization versus on individual actualization and transcendence.’

    “Maslow himself may have agreed with this critique. Scott Barry Kaufman (2020) shares an excerpt from an unpublished Maslow essay from 1966, 23 years after he published his paper on the Hierarchy of Needs, called ‘Critique of Self-Actualization Theory,’“‘…self-actualization is not enough. Personal salvation and what is good for the person alone cannot be really understood in isolation. The good of other people must be invoked as well as the good for oneself. It is quite clear that purely inter-psychic individualist psychology without reference to other people and social conditions is not adequate.”
  • I am currently reading Diana Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas and it is rewriting the way I think. Here is a paraphrase from a moment early on in the text that I jotted down in my phone’s notes app: “performance cements and makes visible a social order.” If you are interested in diaspora studies, gender studies, performance studies (of course), translation, ritual, etc etc etc, I suggest adding this to your reading list.

Our Artist Meetup series is supported by New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, a nonprofit that funds initiatives to benefit the State’s civic life and meet the evolving information needs of New Jersey’s communities. A first-in-the-nation project, the Consortium reimagines how public funding can be used to address the growing problem of news deserts, misinformation, and support more informed communities.