Notes from Plywood Presents
Last week, I got to be in Atlanta for Plywood Presents.
How do I explain Plywood? It’s basically, a gathering for problem-solvers. Most attendees were social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, or creatives who were motivated by purpose than profit.
In other words, this was totally my crowd.
Pretty much everyone I met asked me how I got connected with Plywood in the first place. My honest answer is that I have no idea, but it feels like I’ve kept tabs on the community for years.
When I went to the gathering in Atlanta, I had a strong suspicion that Plywood’s greatest asset was its community. I was totally right. I met so many people who confirmed that theory. If you’re working to solve problems, you’ll go so much further if you aren’t working alone.
Maybe that was my main takeaway. But it definitely wasn’t the only one.
Here are a few of the other ideas that stuck with me:
Doing good requires purpose. Make your work about something bigger.
Two of the speakers I was most excited about hearing were Zim Ugochukwu and Sarah Kate Noftsinger. As they each shared about their work, I noticed how they both managed to create something fun and meaningful by going beyond norms and expectations.
Sarah Kate is the marketing director for Atlanta United, Atlanta’s new MLS team. In other words, she was in charge of creating a fan base. She began her talk with a video, featuring other sports commentators talking about how bad of a sports city Atlanta is for sports and how soccer would never thrive in the city. At this point Atlanta United is not just a soccer team, it’s a statement about Atlanta- a city with a chip on its shoulder for being long underestimated.
Zim founded the magazine Travel Noire after realizing there was hardly any representation of people of color in your typical travel magazine. What she created wasn’t just a magazine- it was about visibility.
Purpose matters so much, and difficult work becomes possible when you know the reasons why you’re doing it.
Doing good requires madness. You need to be just a bit crazy to change the world.
Bob Dalton, founder of Sackcloth + Ashes (and a Portlander) shared the company’s origin story- which essentially kicked off when he saw how homelessness was affecting his mom. He sprung into action, having little experience in what he was about to do.
“Not all people choose to become homeless,” he realized. “Some people just need a second chance.”
He challenged us to get started on our ideas, and not to let ideas get trapped in the world of overthinking. It reminded me that so many things can be learned along the way, and that a fully complete idea isn’t worth waiting for.
Doing good requires a heart check. You can’t change the world until you take ownership of your story.
Lecrae spoke at the end of the first night. As a rapper with a lot of fans from the evangelical world, things took a turn when he started speaking out about issues he couldn’t stay silent about- particularly the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Immediately so many of his fans turned against him. “I lost so many social media followers it would drive a 14 year old crazy,” he said. The death threats started coming in too.
That moment pushed him to wrestle with his own traumas- including stuff that went way back to childhood. Confronting that gave him the drive to continue speaking out on important issues without waiting for other people’s approval.
He had one of the most vulnerable talks, and it was powerful for that reason.
“We show off our scars to let the world know healing is real,” he said.
Doing good requires togetherness. Rarely in life do you do anything on your own.
This goes back to my observation that Plywood’s greatest asset is the community it built. So many people knew each other and were excited to introduce me to new connections.
People within Plywood had helped each other get small businesses and startups off the ground, helped each other learn new skills, and helped each other overcome the hurdles along the way.
It reminded me of what Michele Sullivan, the president of the Caterpillar Foundation (yeah, Caterpillar like the trucks) said during her turn to speak-
“Rarely in life do you do anything by yourself... and we have to work together.
Doing good requires commitment. The pursuit of serving others has no end, and that’s okay.
There were a number of other speakers who stood out to me for how committed they were to difficult but important work.
Austin Channing Brown showed remarkable commitment to shining light on racial disparity, in spite of how difficult and frustrating that work could be.
Lee Allen Jenkins was committed to working with local police chiefs and pastors to addressing issues where officers displayed bias. He persisted in spite of numerous death threats.
At the end of the day, and the session, Scott Harrison gave his talk about the origins of Charity Water. I’d heard him give some variation of this talk several times, but this time he ended it on a new note:
He added his own words to a quote by Rabbi Avot de Natan to remind us that “the pursuit of serving others has no end, but do ‘not be afraid of work that has no end.’”