Recently Ive become a part of a movement in my little home town called CoCreate Adelaide. Its a community start-up initiative (as seems to be the fashion these days post-GFC) that aims to connect people together to find and act upon ways of engaging with the people around them to Get Shit Done that Governments and other top-down institutions seem to be failing at. There are varying different needs being expressed by the people involved with this group, from food sharing groups, community gardens, group meditation sessions, art collaborations, and networking spaces, but they all revolve around the concept of sharing.
My involvement with this group has brought up a lot of thoughts and issues I’ve been struggling with over the past few years relying on trust, openness, and the act of giving. Amanda Palmer iterates this nicely in her seminal video ‘The Art of Asking’, where she outlines that you don’t have to MAKE people pay for music (or help, or lawnmowers, or fabric offcuts, or time), you can ASK them, and in return they will give you unforgettable experiences and have their own unforgettable experiences in turn.
There’s a huge sense of community here in Adelaide and a lot of people willing to connect and to give to each other, but its also juxtaposed with sense of the “my patch” mentality. People are too quick to jump on the “This is My Thing”, or the “Oh, you belong to THAT collective” bandwagon, which just adds to the image that we are a group of selfish, fickle hipsters masquerading as a capital city with a ‘cultural hub’ which, because of this attitude, mostly remains empty of cultural capital whatsoever.
This results in the sense that Adelaide is so tiny that there’s not a lot to go around, and we, like seagulls, are constantly fighting over the scraps tossed to us by higher organisations parading The Cultural Dream. We become disillusioned with the fact that no one else is ‘fixing it’, that it’s too hard to start something, nothing is sustainable, and that other cities like Melbourne or Sydney are the way to go to be a part of something (anything!).
I think some of the root of this ‘lack-of-community’ conundrum is not that people don’t want to GIVE, but they don’t know how to ASK for stuff to be given. It makes them feel weird and useless, and so they bitch and moan and move to Melbourne instead where the Giving is plentiful and you don’t have to try to have things thrust in your face.
I know well both sides of this quandary from running the now-on-permanant-haiatus communal space the reading room. Time and time again we would have to ask volunteers, artists, musicians, random members of the community for their time, their energy, their washing-up skills, their muscles, their endorsements, and their money. We didn’t MAKE them, we ASKED them, and in return we got art shows, music gigs, clean dishes, clean floors, and a whole treasure trove of amazing experiences and stories. Soon we had people coming to us saying “Can I please play a gig here?” “How do I volunteer?” “Can I help you move that couch?” “I’ll wash the glasses!” “How can I contribute?” ” Here’s $20, I love what you’re doing!”.
That’s the happy end of the story, but to start off we really had to ASK the community to help us out, and as much as I’d like to say we got to a point of self-sufficiency (as is the ultimate ideal of the ReNew Adelaide scheme) we never were in a position to stop asking. The bigger we got and the more things we did the more we had to ask for help, and believe me it never got any easier.
I’m one of those people with low self-esteem and other negative-mental-health-issues (there, I said it, you can all stop acting so bewildered at those late-night D+Ms now). Due to a childhood full of bullying, sporadic-friendships, an inability to learn social norms and parents that didn’t really know how to deal with my weird ways I’ve grown up with this sense that no one wants to help me with anything, I have to do it all by myself, that I’m incapable of anything and all that I do is doomed to failure so what’s the point. Fortunately I’m also ridiculously stubborn and ambitious, and so battle these feelings everyday to try and make for my self a life worthy of living.
To do that I’ve had to overcome this fear of asking for help. Its easier in a professional context, like at the reading room (“Hey, would you mind helping me shift this massive rug?”), but on a personal level it still grates somewhat (“Hey..um…I’d really like.. to.. uh.. do a photo …thing… for this project… thing… I’m inspired by.. um.. want to catch up sometime? You know, whenever…” Awkward.). Its not that people aren’t keen, there’s lots of people wanting creative things to happen, its just that it makes me feel like shit asking for it.
Apparently though, I’m not alone in this. Millie Roony’s an Australian PhD student studying why in our culture it’s so hard to ASK for stuff. This awesome article shows that I’m not the only one who finds it painful to put the word out when I need help with something. Australians, while loving the philanthropic attitude of giving and supporting a cause, terminally find it hard to admit they’re lacking and need support. What we seem to be failing to realise though, is that the act of asking can lead to many greater opportunities and life experiences than suffering away in a corner just wishing you had some fresh peaches for that upside-down cake (or ten grand for that art show).
What we need to remember, and what Amanda Palmer’s TED talk hammered home for me, is that in the act of trusting your community enough to ask for help you not only remove your own sense of vulnerability, but also enrich the lives of those around you in the act of letting them in. We can change that ugly obligatory sense of ‘repayment’ into cultural exchange so that value lies not in the perceived debt and resulting power-play, but in the act of connection to a community. We strengthen our city and our culture through aid given, and given again in return.
Perhaps if we were all a little less scared of perceptions of uselessness, a little more honest, and a little more open to receiving, we’d have a lot more culture on our doorstep, and a lot more to stay home in Adelaide for. The possibilities are endless.