All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.
— Abraham Lincoln
Mounting pressure triggers thoughts like, “something’s gotta give”. That is, a sense kicks in that something needs to shift—recognition that a tipping point is imminent. Intensified moments such as this converged on me too many times to count over the last 10 years, leaving me anxious and wondering, “what next?”
Ten years ago, on April 27, 2007, while attending a Women’s Funding Network conference in Seattle, an idea came to me with astounding clarity. That moment marked the beginning of the Giving Back Project. Below are excerpted notes from a decade ago about evocative imagery of the human hand that illustrate the specificity of my initial thoughts.
“The fragrance always remains in the hand that gives the rose.”
“Hands — both the image and the words — are rich with symbolism, particularly in the context of giving. Hand out. Hand up. Hand-me-down. Give a helping hand. Hand in hand. These are just a few of the many common expressions containing the word “hand” that connote philanthropic concepts and stir a broad range of sentiments.
“Images of human hands will feature prominently on the cover and will be a point of detail in the portraits of honorees. Evocative images include: Strong, leathered hands of the aged (envisioned for cover), hand on cane, a handshake, hands serving food, hands knitting, hand holding a photo, hand pressing a Bible, hand writing a check and hands tending to a child.”
After its conception, the book Giving Back took 1621 days to complete and publish. Even with crystal clear vision, a litany of unexpected and sometimes brutal challenges blocked my path—the 2008 economic implosion, fundraising woes, skeptics, critics, distractions—which often left me saying, something’s gotta give. Despite nearing boiling points, I resisted temptations to escape the heat by compromising my vision. The experience was an assault on every front, and yet somehow I pushed through. If something had to give, it wasn’t going to be me. After enduring the breaking points of the 1621 days, I believed I was, at last, free. I was wrong.
After 10 years, the struggle endures, but I’m now essentially heat resistant. The early years of the project rendered me unbreakable. Like pottery, the fire has continuously strengthened me to carry a God-gifted vision. The Giving Back Project still teaches me daily about faith and purpose, patience and persistence, grace and philanthropy, because something has got to give, indeed. #getyourgiveon
Below are photos from the past decade. Enjoy!
“If there is a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” — Toni Morrison
Yesterday, April 27, marked the 10th anniversary of the birth of The Giving Back Project, which was sparked the night the idea came to me for Giving Back. To commemorate the conception of my now decade-long labor of love, below is the excerpted Author’s Notes section (p. 338) from the book.
Grace is a gift always welcome. And I was showered with grace while developing Giving Back. When I first conceived of the idea, zeal and naivety blinded me to its magnitude. I thought it would take a year to develop the book; instead it led me on a four-and-a-half-year odyssey that proved torturous and joyous.
At times, doubts would swarm with stinging questions about whether the vision was attainable. I questioned whether I was up to the sacrifices and risks that seeing it through seemed to require of me. People I spoke with believed in the project; they saw the significance of documenting our stories and producing a socially relevant book. This helped fend off some my fears. Even with dispiriting episodes, I could never suppress for long the call of these stories.
Interviewing people was a privilege and extraordinarily gratifying; yet the gravity of the undertaking weighed heavily on me too. Each set of interview notes seemed so delicate. I gained deeper recognition of how precious each story was and how potent it could become if I possessed the wherewithal to craft a compelling body of work and get it in front of readers.
I felt like a surrogate entrusted to carry not one but scores of seeds, each exceptional, fragile and bundling possibilities. Humbled and often daunted I knew I had to take care in crafting each story with due reverence. Demanding equal finesse was clearing an uncertain path to bring the book’s narrative and photographic content out of the obscurity of our families, our communities and my laptop into the light of the wider world. Guidance, often from unexpected people and places, came at each crossroad.
Always brightening the journey were the hopes and confidence expressed by family, friends and giving circle members. I remember the excitement of Ohmar, Renee and Rashad when they first heard my idea while on a road trip to a Black philanthropy conference. I think about Aunt Dora’s smile upon learning she inspired the book. I recall early conversations with Charles about my vision and the alignment of our artistic aspirations. Collaboration with Charles has been a God-sent steadying force, from his initial blind faith in the project to his ease, professionalism and quiet generosity.
The most beautiful gift while writing this book was being immersed in its content. I couldn’t help but become re-inspired when each day required me to delve into literally hundreds of narratives and photographs meant to inspire and motivate. Gratitude bubbles over when I look back on the gracious acts that brought Giving Back into being. Without a doubt God’s grace is greatest, but grace granted by the people around me was wonderfully sweet too. — VF
Additional photos and posts, reflecting on my experiences and learning, will follow over the next few days.
The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts. — Marcus Aurelius
Bated-breath high, gift, curse, fate.
I see and can’t wait.
— ava wood
Poem, Day 13
“I really didn’t see myself as being a philanthropist but now I really do, I feel like I am philanthropist, it is really sweet. I think it is future-looking to bring this exhibit and share it with the community.” — ROMAINE HARRIS, visitor to The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited
Poem, Day 2
March, fickle, left last night.
She blew a kiss and was gone.
I’ll love her still though — ava wood
(And ya know what that means…National Poetry Month is here :~)
Poem, Day 1
On the last day of Women’s History Month, it’s fitting to pay tribute here to the magnanimous muse of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, my great aunt Dora—now 96 years old and as vibrant as ever. The piece below, The Face That Launched a Thousand Days, is about Aunt Dora and was first published by Indiana University the year I was named “Lake Distinguished Visitor.”
392 manuscript pages
76 quotes from the ages
200 narratives on what it means to give back
180 portraits of everyday Black philanthropists
4 centuries of an American legacy rooted in Africa
999,999 reasons to give
1 book that reframes portraits of philanthropy
Muse seems a fitting description for Aunt Dora. Hers is the face that launched a thousand-day odyssey and twenty-five thousand words. The generosity of my 92-year-old great-aunt inspired me to embark on developing the book Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists. Giving Back is a 400-page hardcover publication filled with revealing stories and artful photography about traditions of giving within Black communities. In prose, poetry and portraiture, my great-aunt’s philanthropy and that of 199 other benefactors of African descent fill every page.
When the idea for the book took hold of me, little did I know that seeing it through and publishing it would require a high-wire walk of faith, spanning four-and-half years or one thousand days—well, 1621 days to be exact. With each day that passed, the vision for Giving Back grew so clear it haunted me. The pathway, however, grew obscured by episodes of frustration and weariness from setbacks.
On those clouded, dark days, brightening my steps like bursts of light from a beacon were the narratives and biographies of the people I was chronicling. In a twist, the volume of stories that I was inspired to start writing had come to speak volumes to me and thus supplied inspiration to complete the book. Being immersed in accounts of “lovers of humankind”—their aspirations, motivations and tribulations—compelled me to push on.
Fittingly, the story of my original source of inspiration and great-aunt, Rev. Dora Atlas, opens Giving Back. After reading “Rich Aunt,” indeed, you will see that she is a great aunt in deed. The book’s collection of stories and photographs forever altered my thinking and my work in philanthropy, and I expect it could have the same effect on you.
Shared here is a TEDx video of my faith-fueled story of philanthropy, identity and epiphany that produced Giving Back.
VIDEO: A Picture Reframed | http://youtu.be/CZ9k18BzDV8