Reason and Rhymes

April is National Poetry Month and I’m taking the occasion to acknowledge and thank the poets—those in spirit and those in practice—who contributed important concepts and content to Giving Back.

Q | Photography by Charles W. Thomas Jr.

While wrapping up the book’s content during spring 2010, about a year and a half before the public release of Giving Back,  I asked a couple of close friends who are ardent readers to review and provide feedback on my near-final manuscript.

One friend in particular (we’ll call her ML) commented that it would be great if the book contained more than prose. To paraphrase, as I recollect it, she said, “You should include some kind of stream-of-consciousness, free-flowing, spoken word-like narratives.”

Huh? Hmm? What?!?!

After trudging through a litany of Herculean tasks, which included years of carefully collecting and curating content and meticulously crafting stories, that bit of feedback was far from well received.

Weaving in poetry was a valid suggestion—if fact, a brilliant one—but the protracted book-writing process had left me so thin-skinned that ML’s otherwise benign comment felt like a brutal assault on my long labor of love. “Apparently, what I’ve slaved to create is insufficient,” I sulked. Perplexed and seething in silence, I never asked ML to explain her rationale nor did I share my irritation.

Though pouting is admittedly an unflattering trait, the emotional churning served to heat up my creative juices and resulted in potent new content. (Call it poetic injustice :-)) ML’s casual suggestion had fueled this overachiever’s resolve: If she thinks poems are needed, then poems she will have! I promptly reached out to one poet and reached within for the other.

“Q”, a highly regarded poet and friend, had developed a spoken-word piece on philanthropy years prior for an event I organized. At my request, Q polished up the poem in writing, titled it and kindly submitted it for the book project. Entrancing as well as enlightening, “Full Circle” aptly closes Giving Back.

Ava, the other poet, seemed to come out of nowhere with a couple of spot-on new poems for the book. Timid initially, Ava and her poetry evolved, both becoming surprisingly bolder with encouragement from my friends and guidance from Q.

“Truth Be Told,” a poem expressly written by Ava for Giving Back, opens the book and has become a crowd-pleaser at book events. Even so, there was a time when I questioned whether her work was a good fit. Emphatic feedback from ML, Q and another friend, RG, made it clear that Ava’s poem merited not only inclusion but also prominent placement in Giving Back.

After reading “Truth Be Told,” RG gushed about it and wrote, “I want schoolchildren to read this poem!”

Q emailed a response I treasure most: “Ok . . . so the poem is DOPENESS!!! That last stanza is fiyah!”

I’ll wrap up by finally thanking ML for her discerning critique and by sharing another of Ava’s pieces. This one, haiku that’s featured in Giving Back.

Gave away my soul.

Giving back to get it back

Given what I know.

Ava Wood

Why and how are you giving back with your time, talent and treasure? — VF

Sold Out.

Yep. Due to steady public demand, we’ve sold out the first printing of Giving Back and a second printing is underway. This fact thrills me almost as much as releasing the book in October 2011. (Note: If you want a copy before June, there are still a limited number available at bookstores, online and for specific events.)

Back in December, we realized our supply would run out quicker than anticipated since we were distributing 100 books a week on average. So at the start of 2012, we put brakes on marketing and promoting Giving Back while we scrambled to devise a plan to print at least another 1500 books.

I find it ironic that reaching sold-out status in just months is largely attributed to our not selling out the original vision for the book. It should be noted that the term sellout—as in a betrayal of principles—is one I generally choose to steer clear of. I don’t indulge in second-guessing the motives behind somebody else’s artistic decisions, but I will refer to the term here while reflecting on my own creative experience.

Without benefit of a famous author or a celebrity foreword contributor or well-known faces  in portrait or rich-people stories or a corporate marketing machine or even a commercial publishing deal, Giving Back has nonetheless stirred interest among readers and sold out quickly.

Remarkable sums up what we’ve accomplished. The collective “we” in this instance comprises Charles Thomas and me, members of NGAAP-Charlotte, Casajulie, Buppy Hipster PR and our sponsoring partners, project participants, donors, family, friends and, of course, book buyers. I credit the book’s promising start to an uncompromising stance on compiling stories we knew were worth telling and a dogged pursuit of our vision.

During my 1621-day push to produce Giving Back, every day seemed to hand deliver a temptation to narrow my scope, drop expectations, clip corners…or to just cut myself some slack. Those options certainly looked the easiest and less painful. Actually quitting appeared the sanest choice of all. Despite the pressure, existential struggle and odds, I chose, or better still, surrendered to that which my soul seemed intent to seek.

Gifts that come at inopportune times are still gifts. The mixed fortune of conceiving Giving Back carried an obligation to see it through without underestimating its value. The experience, though brutal as it was at times, showed me how humility, hard work and the hand of a higher source can transform the ethereal into the real. At first sight of the final, hardcover version, my soul sighed and smiled in satisfaction. Giving Back is the perfect manifestation of a beautiful idea gifted to me years prior and stands as a tangible affirmation of my and others’ stewardship.

Truths revealed on the pages of Giving Back are key to it becoming sold out. I gave my best to usher the content into the spotlight and, once there, humanity undeniably shone through the portraits and stories. I cannot sell the idea that publishing a book and pursuing your passions are easy. From the start, my plan lay clear but the path was not. My circumstances while navigating the book’s development swung between circus and chaos. Tight-wire walker, trapeze flyer, lion tamer, fire-eater, juggler and ringmaster, I took on an endless stream of roles for nearly five years to get this book done and eventually did it.

The experience has left me unwilling to judge others who choose a smoother path. I will, however, attest to the joy of being a grateful receiver of gifts, of not selling yourself short and of putting your soul out there to satisfy its search. I found that when I dropped giving up from the options, my gifts—those given and those received—multiplied.  VF

On Doing Good Work

“…there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” — Teju Cole, author, photographer and art historian

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

As a friend noted today, there’s a lot to unpack in Teju Cole’s article titled “The White Savior Industrial Complex” and featured in The Atlantic. That’s an understatement, particularly when you begin comparing and contrasting the layered stereotypes, indignities and pain characterizing both the Kony 2012 campaign and the Trayvon Martin shooting. Cole’s incisive commentary stirs questions about where we choose to see injustice and why, when and how we take action in struggles for justice.

What Cole observes about the bleaching of our civic discourse, how certain voices are pushed to the margins and others amplified and the perils of failing to “think constellationally” are at the core of my current interests in philanthropy. My struggle with such issues led me to pen Giving Back. The book brings to the forefront seldom-heard voices, with authenticity and respect, to reveal important perspectives at the nexus of justice, philanthropy and progress. Through Giving Back, I aspire to enliven and deepen public discourse on these matters. I believe that community-led strategies strengthened by philanthropy that is inclusive, responsive and respectful are central to “good work.”

— VF

Blue Dream

“I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.”  — e.e. cummings

And what’s a blue sky without a cloud…or two.

From readers of Giving Back

An Exquisite Truth

Earlier today at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, I participated in the annual meeting of North Carolina Network of Grantmakers (NCNG). Joining me on the panel were CIN members Tim McIntosh and Darryl Lester. Our session on bold and unconventional philanthropy drew an audience of over 80 people, who listened intently and posed thoughtful questions.

Over lunch, Martin Eakes, founder of Self-Help, delivered a stirring and, at times, eyebrow-raising keynote message about moving people from “poverty to justice” and the possibilities and responsibilities of philanthropy, today and into the future. His speech punctuated the words and philanthropic deeds of the panelists in my session. In wrapping up, Martin shared a passage from one of his favorite quotes (and mine, too), which is featured in Giving BackIf only more work in philanthropy were threaded with this exquisite truth.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass

Things That Matter

Today I’m participating in a radio interview with Kirsten Sikkelee, executive director of the YWCA Central Carolinas and Rob Harrington, attorney at Robinson Bradshaw. Rob has a story featured in Giving Back, and he recently participated in a panel discussion hosted by the YWCA.

The topic of our discussion on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks is philanthropy and racial justice. Throughout the country, YWCA’s mission is “eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity of all people.” As a part of its mission, Charlotte’s YWCA hosted a community forum last month that centered on the intersection of philanthropy and racial justice and focusing on my book Giving Back.

The aim of writing Giving Back was to spur conversation about inclusive and responsive philanthropy and to shift thinking and actions for the betterment of our communities. I’m ecstatic about being a part of the Charlotte Talks interview this morning. The discourse I hoped for has definitely begun, as shown here and here and here. — VF

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” —  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today’s Forecast

Warmth with Scattered (Word) Clouds

Wordle.net

“A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” — William Arthur Ward

Ninety-One Years

Aunt Dora, a great aunt, indeed. Photography by Charles W. Thomas Jr.

My muse and great-aunt, Dora—whose hands provide evocative imagery for the cover of my book Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists—celebrated her 91st birthday last week. What a blessing!

When I called Aunt Dora with birthday well-wishes that night, she told me about her day. She began with a swim and water aerobics class. Then she had lunch with the friendly faces at Our Daily Bread, the soup kitchen she founded over 20 years ago. She delighted in the steady inflow of birthday calls and cards from folks around the country. And she wrapped up her special day with a family dinner at her favorite seafood restaurant.

If I’m granted 91 years on earth (or anywhere near that many), I hope each one is filled, like Aunt Dora’s, with a fair share of faith, health, family, friends, passions and purpose. May your year and every one to come be filled with the same. — VF

Swept Up

Last week, as a guest blogger, I posted a written piece on Collective Influence, the Community Investment Network (CIN) blog. CIN is a national network of donors and giving circles and its mission is to inspire, connect and strengthen African Americans and communities of color to leverage their collective resources and create the change they wish to see.

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

My giving circle New Generation of African American Philanthropists is a member of CIN, and my experiences within the Network were instrumental in the development of Giving Back. I’ve posted the CIN blog piece here for followers of my blog. It’s titled “A Confluence of Influence,” because that is precisely what has swept the Giving Back Project into a whirlpool of exciting possibilities.

A Confluence of Influence

“The nation’s premier multi-cultural awards show celebrating the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in the arts as well as those individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors” — About the 43rd NAACP Image Awards

More on the awards program a little later…first, I’d like to say that you never know what life has up her sleeve. Until it’s revealed, the best we can do is to stay purposeful, pursue our passions and prepare for the twists and turns that come our way.

About a year into forming our giving circle, I approached the members of New Generation of African American Philanthropists (NGAAP-Charlotte) with the idea of publishing a book about Black philanthropy. [Click here to read the full story]

Home Again

Earlier this month, I was a guest blogger on The Blair Essentials, the indie book blog of John F. Blair, Publisher. Blair is a publishing house in Winston-Salem, NC that distributes Giving Back to the book trade.

The blog piece was a joy to write and share, and as I prepare to return to my beloved hometown for the holidays, I thought I’d share it again.

So much about Giving Back is rooted in Morganton, North Carolina. Though a large share of the book’s stories and photography feature people and places in Charlotte, the city where I now reside, my hometown is without a doubt the book’s epicenter.

Morganton, a hilly prelude to North Carolina’s western mountains, is where I grew up and…read the entire blog post.