Wonderland: A STORY 2018 Recap

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I’ve spent the past week in Nashville, mostly there to attend the STORY Gathering. It’s a conference that’s… well… you know what, of all the conferences I’ve been to, it’s easily the hardest to describe. Give me a second and I’ll do my best.

STORY Gathering might be a pretty open ended name, but it was in fact a gathering of storytellers of all sorts. From storytellers like David Paull who tell stories with data, to storytellers like Ruth Carter who tells stories through the costumes in films like Black Panther and Selma. I was surrounded by musicians, illustrators, ministers, people who work at nonprofits, children’s book writers, marketing consultants, and so many other brilliant minds. Pretty much everybody I shared the Schermler Symphony Hall with was an artist of some sort with a big passion project to help improve our world.

I went to make some new connections. I always head to these types of events seeking people to collaborate with, finding new opportunities for Plant With Purpose, and helping us build relationships. I definitely did that, but I also did so much more. I got to think about the last sound I want to hear before I die. I went to a tea party with the Mad Hatter and a random stranger-turned-friend. I had my life story written by typewriter in less than a minute. I shook a lot of hands that made things that moved me- thinks like The Lion King, Sesame Street, Chef’s Table, and Kid President.

Ultimately, I got to reconnect with the heart behind my hustle, the why behind my work. I remembered what it was like to be immersed by a story and to let it move me. The joy in my work comes from being able to call other people into wonder, and this helped my see that again more clearly. The current three month window I’m in has been busy, busy, busy. I’m thankful for the chance to take a step back and remember that.

Anyways, I could fill pages with all the take-aways and connections I made at the three day event. For now, here’s my little attempt at a summary.

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Your platform’s value comes from its purpose.

Our ability to gain attention via social media is incredible. At the same time, our appetite for it can be insatiable. I don’t like to slap a blanket judgement on something as big as social media and call it good or bad in its entirety. It’s what we make of it. A screening of the film Social Animals showed us just how far some of those extremes play out in the lives of American teenagers.

What about in my life? My main platform these days is promoting Plant With Purpose. I often wish I could do so to a larger audience. I work for an amazing international team that is eliminating poverty in hundreds of villages– it just doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s a tall order when it feels like its up to me to change that. I’ll be honest, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game. It’s easy to try and engineer an account to start accumulating followers. Heck, it’s sleazy, but you can even buy them. This doesn’t just relate to social media, though. When it comes to any platform- a church podium, a political campaign, or a music tour, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers and to lose a sense of meaning.

Pei Keton would know something about building a platform meaningfully. She’s one of Instagram’s top travel photographers. She pointed out how disingenuous a number of the most popular posts were, how repetitive @insta_repeat could be, and how absurdly people use fairy lights all to remind us that what matters more than having a bunch of people to say stuff to is having the right thing to say. Her talk went hand in hand with CJ Casciotta’s reminder for us to embrace our own weirdness and to let it shine.

These talks, surrounded by many others made me want to be sure I was diligent in checking in with myself frequently. I want to start every creative project by asking myself- “why are you making this?"

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Empathy will tear down that space between us.

“When we create empathy, something special happens. The narrative changes. The story of me versus you falls apart,” explained Abby Fuller, director of Chef’s Table.

Abby had one of the talks that resonated with me the most. It doesn’t hurt that she tells stories through the lens of food and people, and I love that approach. Her talk would’ve been great on its own, but then she previewed a scene from Chef Table’s upcoming season, an episode she worked on featuring Cristina Martinez from Philadelphia’s Barbarcoa. Martinez’s work has gone beyond making amazing tacos, to also creating a space for activists and immigrants in the Philadelphia community to connect and organize.

Just when I thought she was done with that clip, she then invited Cristina Martinez herself to join her on stage. She responded to a round of Q&A with grace, fire, and passion.

Empathy is a big deal. Right now, it’s so badly needed. There are a lot of us-versus-them walls that need to be torn down, and that is a key belief that drives Plant With Purpose’s work.

I was moved by seeing how other people had similar opportunities to tear down those walls through their own work. Vera Leurng stood out to me, well, because her talk was great, but also because she has my same role at IJM. Empathy was present in the short film Supermaarko that she presented in front of us. Empathy also drove the creators of Black Barbie and Ruth Carter to pursue better inclusion and visibility in places like Mattel and the Marvel Universe. Even data can be empathetic, as David Paull taught us ways to present hard statistics that resonate more effectively with people’s humanity.

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As an artist, be bold, take risks, and bring your whole heart.

Jason Jaggard taught me a lot of things about Martin Luther King and his famous speech that I didn’t know. Namely that he was never supposed to give it. “It’s trite. It’s cliche,” said his speechwriters. It was a refrain he had tried out already at several cities before the March on Washington, and it never went the way he expected it to in his head.

He wasn’t going to include it during the March on Washington. It isn’t until he pauses after he thought he was done speaking when Mahalia Jackson prompts him- “tell them about the dream!”

He went off script, from the heart. He took a risk. It became the greatest speech of an era.

Making things and creating wonder requires risk-taking. I especially appreciated Don Hahn, a legendary producer who worked on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. His talk consisted almost entirely of debunking some of the biggest fears that creatives might have. Of not being original enough. Of not —. Of not—.

The most important thing is to keep making your work and to not let the fear of things coming out wrong stop you from saying anything at all.

Sally Koering Zimney and Ally Fallon both hit on this in their respective talks. Sally, a public speaking coach, urged us not to wish away moments of imperfection. Ally, a writing coach, also encouraged us to keep writing, even when —.

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You cannot fill the world with wonder if you don’t have it… and it’s gotta be your genuine wonder.

That was one of my favorite quotes from the week and it was said before the conference even started, at Brad Montague’s Wonder Workshop. I have been digitally connected with Brad for a long, long time, and he’s really become such a remarkable voice for exercising wonder and creativity.

Brad encouraged us to stay in touch with our inner child, remaining childlike without being childish. I mean, you kind of have to do that if you’re opening up an event like STORY as a time traveller hosting a pep rally for the future. So much of STORY was an immersive experience, and that’s what Wonder often feels like. From the entire cast of Alice in Wonderland roaming the halls of the theatre, to host and organizer Harris III making it snow in the auditorium, we were reminded to never lose our sense of awe for the world.

This sense of awe surrounded my own immersion into other cultures and our opportunity to make the world better through justice. It’s why I work in the arena that I do, and it’s what guides the sort of work I do. These moments of awe remind us of what really matters. They don’t have to be big things. You just have to remember how they’re marvelous things.

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You’re inviting other people to a party!

Brad Montague seems like the kind of guy who could teach you a lot about what it takes to go viral. After all, he’s done it! The thing so many of us dream of. But- he admits that he’s not even sure it’s a retraceable formula.

What he does know is how to plan a party, and people are drawn to parties. Community, surprise, delight. Those are the things that attract others, and he suggested Martha Stewart as somebody for us all to learn from. There’s nothing too unpredictable about what it takes to plan a party; the basics like location and budget, your guest list, your invitations, executing, and enjoying the party yourself. When you take that approach and treat your creative work as a party, it becomes less about “going viral” and more about inviting and connecting.

“Stay light and work hard,” he advises.

That perfectly set up my favorite mantra of the week. Todd Henry’s call to “die empty.” Leave no story untold, song unsung, book unwritten, or good deed undone. We all only get 1440 minutes every day to leave it all on the table. Showing up to each one of those minutes with our whole heart is what matters.

I’m on my way back to California feeling full. My bucket is full, and I’m ready to pour out into my work. I’ve got deadlines coming up, requests coming in, and quite a bit to do. But I’m ready. I’m refreshed and I can’t wait to see where this leads.

Philippe Lazaroblog, blog18