Your inner introvert or your gas tank might be rejoicing at the industry-wide shift to a work from home structure. But you still probably desire community. I know I do. The pandemic might’ve freed us from conventional 9-5 workdays in the office. But those tiny doses of personal connection that used to leave us glowing are missing in the quiet of our home offices.
You want people who get you – not just your lovable personality, but your challenges, your workflow, and creative process. We know who we are. People who must discipline themselves to set aside time to create naturally. Creative minds who grapple with procrastination every week. People who have also said “bandwidth” way too many times this year.
Where do you find those creative communities – or even better– how do you build them? If there was ever a time to go out of your way to get people feeling connected, it’s now. I think the student publication Dialogue has been asking the right questions to get there,
Shifting to Center Student Need
In early December, Dialogue, Calvin University’s creative journal, held a release party for their 54.1 issue. This student run publication opened its arms to welcome students into a comfy space. The school year had been uncertain: trying to resume class at a “normal” pace, but still riddled with Covid-19 complications. These circumstances delivered a tired student body into the Dialogue release party space. Fortunately, this emotional and physical fatigue was thoughtfully anticipated by the Dialogue staff, and the event was wonderful.
The Dialogue community was building on a two-year shift towards filling students’ communal need. Covid-19 highlighted opportunities that Dialogue’s older format was missing. Jurying was submitted through individual online forums. This missed a chance to deeply connect an isolated art community operating out of Calvin University’s basement – a spot rarely frequented by most people on campus. (Not that we minded having the space to ourselves).
The publications’ editors decided to work on this disconnect. Dialogue has tremendous potential to connect people and showcase the art community as an inextricable piece of Calvin’s identity. Dialogue staff began working towards more in-person events, learning to host more reciprocal jury meetings, brainstorming interactive projects for release parties, and collaborating with other student organizations.
Here’s three questions about building community that led to the refreshing release party Dialogue hosted this fall.
How do you make it easy to get involved?
It’s about finding the easiest way to try something new. If you want people to come to your event, what’s in the way? You’re competing with the comfort of someone’s home and the familiarity of a lazy night in. Literally. You’ve got to make it easy. Ridiculously easy. Here’s some of the ways the talented Dialogue team transformed the austere gallery space of Calvin University into a comfortable art-fest.
Food, Food, Food. Free Food. Two giant boxes fully stocked with donuts sat next to three coffee dispensers, accompanied by half and half. Free sugar and warm beverages are not easily passed up.
An Easy Crafts Activity. Like kindergarten-muscle-memory-easy. When people entered the gallery, there was a whiteboard filled with your classic refrigerator magnets. It took very little prompting for people to start creating their own poetry on it.
Shopping or Perusing. Student artists with small businesses of their own were able to set up shop and do business for a few hours. The visual excitement of their paintings, ceramics, and crafts easily drew people in.
Chilling in Your Living Room. The gallery was adorned with quirky plants on chic wooden stools, while a pathway of colorful rugs lined the floor. Cozy chairs and an assortment of lamps gave the gallery a friendly glow. You felt as if you were sitting down for a chat in your living room.
Each aesthetic decision helped knock down any hesitation to attend. But don’t worry. You don’t have to bend over backwards to lure people into your event. If people want to connect, they’ll come connect. Any extra effort on your part simply reinforces their confidence in the community you’re trying to create.
Decenter Yourself – Share the Spotlight
Instead of inviting people to simply listen or observe, invite people to engage your audience. When people see an organization share their platform, the organization is more accessible. Dialogue is truly living up to being the students’ publication when more students are invited to tell the story & take ownership of the publication’s direction.
Using a hands-on medium. Even creating the visual motif for the 54.1 issue was communal in nature. We used Letraset, a brand that produced dry transfer design tools for designers in the 60s-90s in the form of scrape on typography & symbols. The nature of Letraset was incredibly accessible. As co-editor Izzy explains in the 54.1 issue, “Letraset [is] as organic and hands-on as design gets: designers had to painstakingly apply each individual letter, with love and a prayer that it wouldn’t flake off the page”. It didn’t require an expensive design program to participate in building. Just your own two hands and creativity.
Dialogue supported small artists’ businesses. Artists were able to do business at the release party. It’s a great opportunity to have while you’re in a college community. Even on campus, it’s hard for overworked college students with competing obligations to find or provide consistent support. Fortunately, the Visual Arts Guild at Calvin partnered with Dialogue this year to set up an art sale that was bustling throughout the entire event.
Speaking with the Artists. Not to mention the main event of Dialogue’s release party was a sit-down moment to interview some of the artists featured in the publication. Artists didn’t just share their thoughts and stories behind their pieces. They were also invited to talk about their individual practice and vision.
What Part Does this Community Play in a Larger Conversation?
You rarely need to start from a blank canvas to build a community. The need is probably already there. Covid highlighted need in a lot of areas, and community building is often a responsive act. The release party was particularly responsive to the needs and conversations already happening on campus. Calvin University students have been addressing the lack of funding for and the divestment away from the humanities on liberal art campuses. Creating a space for those conversations was a natural extension of the publication’s creative duties.
Respond to the Need. A good way to evaluate is identify the verb. Are you coaching, validating, redirecting, teaching, educating? The community you’re building is probably responding to a need. It’s not rocket science (even though I’m sure event planning logistics probably feel like it).
But stick with the basics. If the need is “I kinda wish I had a creative community to talk to about stuff”. This semester, Dialogue pulled up a chair, offered some coffee, and said, “Let’s talk.”