Struggle, Strength and Striving

EIGHTThe number 8 in the Bible represents a new beginning—meaning a new order or creation—and, in general, a numeral rich in symbolism. I’m alert to the fact that last week marked eight years since the idea for Giving Back came as a gift to me while at a conference in Seattle. The Giving Back Project launched that night, if only in my imagination for the first few months. Since April 2007, a lot has occurred. Gully lows. Mountain highs. Jagged trails. Leaps of faith. Dreams realized. Some deferred. And still constant aspiration and so much more to do.

In its eighth year, the Giving Back Project is indeed set to begin again with Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited embarking on a national tour to museums and galleries at public libraries and colleges. In hopes of never forgetting the struggle, strength and striving that delivered me and the project to another new threshold, I’ve posted below the “Author’s Notes” from Giving Back, which I wrote while filled with gratitude just before the book was published.


Author’s Notes from Giving Back

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 both 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 authentic stories and producing a socially relevant book. This helped fend off some of 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 —I call it chicken and dumplings for the giver’s soul. 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


And ye shall sow the eighth year, and eat yet of old fruit until the ninth year; until her fruits come in ye shall eat of the old store.  Leviticus 25:22

Soul. Oh!

Portrait from "Giving Back" | Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Dreams are illustrations from the book your soul is writing about you.” ― Marsha Norman

Through the book Giving Back, we venture to dream a bigger dream and to ignite a movement of conscientious philanthropy by empowering a generation of Americans to recognize their power and responsibility to give back. ― 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

Keen Line of Sight on Philanthropy

Photograph from "Giving Back" | Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Everyday givers from African American communities have an acute line of vision and insightful stories to tell; yet these perspectives are often absent from dialogue and decisions in philanthropy.

Narratives about community and mutuality are woven into Black culture and influence how many people see the world, choose to give and define success.

Through storytelling and photography, Giving Back reveals motivations, reflects proud traditions and relays a wisdom about giving and generosity that has newfound relevance today.

Giving Back gives glimpses of the change we wish to see in the world and provides a springboard for deeper conversations on inclusive and responsive philanthropy. — 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

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

Thought for the moment

Overflowing with excitement, anxiety and wonder about my forthcoming book Giving Back, which arrives Oct 2011.