Just because Tales from Planet Earth was such a big part of my life during the past few months, it seems fit to describe it in somewhat more detail (whether for posterity or for those few of my friends who actually read this blog...). The entire event and activities leading up to it were a crucial balancing force on the lopsided academic thing that is sometimes my life. I have felt grounded and sane this semester largely because of this opportunity to reach outside the academy, to find inspiration in community and children and people's goodness and their hope for change.
First the background:
Two years ago, when we (that is, my academic home, the Center for Culture, History and Environment, or CHE) put on the first Tales from Planet Earth, the film festival was a huge success and left many people excited and inspired. But this time around, it seemed like it was worth filling in what had seemed like the only missing piece last time: How do we make it so that this film festival can have a lasting impact on the larger Madison community? How do we leverage the films and people's excitement into action and activism? How do we create a direction for people to turn, a place for them to funnel the energy coursing through a theater as the lights come up? So, out of the collaboration between Gregg Mitman (my advisor) and Judith Helfand (an amazing filmmaker and activist who organized a group called Working Films) was born this class called Community Engagement through Film. Now, I was finished with all my course requirements and would've otherwise just spent the semester working on my dissertation proposal, but I was so excited about the idea of this class, and the idea that we could positively shape this film festival, that I couldn't resist signing up.
Through this class, and my own interests, I've spent the last semester working with a local organization Community GroundWorks at Troy Gardens (where I also worked last summer as a garden educator) to link their goals and projects with one of the festival's amazing films, What's On Your Plate? This outreach work has taken many forms, from organizing and fundraising to writing press releases and planning events. You can read more about this partnership here, or by looking at my Twitter account, or by visiting the website I built for one of our projects.
One of the goals of our partnership was to find local businesses to be festival sponsors. But instead of the usual model of sponsorships where businesses give money to the festival itself and get positive publicity in return, we encouraged them to donate specific materials to our community organizations instead. So I (with the help of one of my classmates when I was down with the flu!) pitched my project and this outdoor kids' kitchen that we're hoping to build to a bunch of local businesses a month or so ago, and ended up getting three who were willing to help out! A local home building company, Marling HomeWorks, offered to donate $500 in building supplies for the kitchen; our favorite brewpub in Madison, The Great Dane, gave $300 toward mosaic glass and tiles that are going to provide the foundation of the kitchen; and our awesome local grocery, the Willy St. Co-op gave $200 in store credit for use in buying items for cooking that we can't grow in the kitchen. So I raised all this money for Community GroundWorks, and it felt awesome. Just awesome. We still need more, though, so please visit our gift registry, if you're so inclined, to help stock the Kids' Kitchen!
In short, I've found this sort of community work so exciting and rewarding and the perfect balance to the rest of my life. I need to remind myself, again and again, that I have to be proactive about keeping this sort of element present and central to who I am. Otherwise, I wither away...