This September I traveled 5,000 miles across the United States interviewing individuals I met in bowling alleys, church parking lots, and graffiti parks (among other places) about their communities and about the individuals or organizations in their town or city that help make it a better place. I also met with change leaders who oversee grassroots organizations that seemed to capture a spirit of innovative, positive change. 11 states and over 50 interviews later, we have the beginning of a documentary project entitled, the Tangible Hope Project. This documentary will capture a living snapshot of America through the lens of local citizens and organizations that are building a positive vision of their community on their own terms.
Tangible Hope Project was inspired by a desire to bring attention to stories about ways that people are working to create the world that they would like to live in that is not defined by, and in reaction to, the headline-grabbing political and cultural flashpoints that seem to consume most of our collective attention.
Just as there are similarities and differences in the cultural personalities of each part of the country, so to are there similarities and differences in the nonprofits that serve them: from Austin Classical Guitar, to Uncommon Construction in New Orleans, to Rural Resources in east Tennessee, to the nearly 20 other organizations that we spoke with, each offers a snapshot of their community that captures something unique about its location. They also reflect a national trend that is overshadowed by the overheated political and cultural moment we live: namely, that in every part of the country, there are innovative changemakers that are making a tangible impact in the lives of the individuals that they serve and in their communities as a whole. They create lasting relationships and impacts that rarely makes headlines, but that generate models of change and social movements that have the potential to affect the world around them in significant ways.
Maybe the most profound takeaway I was left with after all of these conversations was that whether an individual or organization was focused on youth, construction, music, or agriculture, the most important thing that they did was not just to put food on someone’s table, or teach someone to use a hammer, or play guitar, but to connect people with each other in a meaningful way. Matthew Hinsely of Austin Classical Guitar put it to me this way:
“We reach kids that are incarcerated in a variety of ways. We spend time with them and the guitar becomes the organizing principle…when that child is able to go through the underground secure tunnel and pop into the courthouse and perform for the first time in their lives in a courthouse with a hundred people in it, one of whom is the judge that has adjudicated them, one of whom is their mom who could not have imagined their child doing this and have a room full of people stand for them, what you begin to see if you think about it are all the spectra of impact. We’re not teaching the judge to play guitar, we’re not teaching the mom to play the guitar but the impact is powerful and it’s specific to them.”
I was struck by how the impact of the organizations and individuals I met with seemed to be as profound on the volunteers, the families of the individuals served, and the community at large, as on the single moms, low income youths, or recent immigrants they served directly. I started to see the ripple effect of meaningful impact that benefited everyone in a community, regardless of socio-economic, political, sexual or cultural affiliation.
“Hopefully what we do here will benefit the community in the fact that we won’t have so much substance abuse which will in turn domino effect to less homeless and more productivity, less illness, which will cause people to be healthier to be more productive and to be citizens of our community.” -Sarah Wozniak, Clinic Manager of Mission City Community Network Clinic in Barstow, CA.
It’s not just not-for-profit institutions that are making communities a better place. Many of the people who I spoke to in small towns talked about how the changemakers in their communities were not any organization or even a single individual but the community as a whole. They felt that when someone needed a hand they could rely on the community to come to their aid. They spoke about the benefit (and, yes, the challenges) of living in a place where you know everyone:
“I’ve never been part of a community where I’ve seen so much of people taking care of each other…when there’s something traumatic, when there’s something wonderful to be celebrated, when there’s something unimaginable, it’s just amazing to see how they come (out)…it doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, race or anything like that, they’ll just be there. And we’ve seen that.”
“It’s like a family, it’s not perfect…You can’t have road rage here, you’ll run into them at church or see them at the grocery store.” -Gabriella & Benjamin Nielson of Primm, UT.
So what’s next?
My tireless collaborators on the shoot, LA-based producer, Jenni Fontana, and Berlin/DC-based filmmaker, Todd Ford, and I are currently going through the footage, pulling out the common threads and narratives between the different interviews (and in the process being inspired all over again). Check out our newly created Facebook Page for updates. Our intention is that it can be a place to share info and updates about the project as well as be a place where the far-flung community of interviewees, followers, and supporters of the project can connect with us and with each other. After hearing so much about the impact of connection, we want to do some of it ourselves. Additionally, we’re working on a website that will create a more permanent online home for the project.
We’ll be posting profiles and photos of our interviewees with links to each organization’s websites and social media feeds so that you can find out more about them and connect with them directly.
And, of course, we’ll begin the process of editing the footage and putting the interviews together to present as multiple episodes of a documentary series and/or a documentary film.
Follow along, stay tuned, and stay in the conversation.
If you’d like to support the development of Tangible Hope Project, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative. HERE.