Why do we compete?

Two interesting experiences from this weekend that I’d like to share:

I spent Saturday evening onstage at the Kimmel Center, acting as a judge in Southeast Philadelphia Collaborative‘s talent show. While I’d originally been asked to act as a judge for the visual arts exhibit, I ended up being roped into judging the performance component as well. It was a pretty amazing event with a bit of a bittersweet ending for me…

For those of you who aren’t familiar with SEPC, they’re an umbrella group that brings together all sorts of organizations and stakeholders working on behalf of youth in their area. I’ve been wanting to get more involved in working with youth, especially since encountering a few great inspirations in PSU, PYPM, and recently catching PYOS at TEDxPhilly. I was excited to discover what these young people had to share with us.

The visual arts component took place in the lobby, where throngs of people milled about and had a chance to meet the young artists and see their work. There was a wonderful diversity of subjects and mediums, and a wide range of technical skills on display. The one thing in common was the enthusiasm of the participants, and it was great hearing them talk about their work.  As we packed into the Perelman Theater, the energy was pretty great.

After a brief intro, individual students and groups took to the stage and I was pretty universally blown away. One of the first groups, a dance company from South Philly High, totally stunned me with more and more dancers pouring onto the stage in perfectly executed high energy choreography. Others poured their hearts out in song, and there was some breakdancing that my fellow judge Varissa McMickens rated equal to or better any professional work seen on the streets of DC, NYC, Miami etc.

The performers were all gorgeous on their own… but one of the best parts of the evening was the audience. They were so receptive, so enthusiastic, so excited that the hall thundered with shouts and applause. It was one of those heart-warming moments, seeing so much beauty in the culture created by the youth in our communities, and seeing the excitement generated when they have the opportunity to share these talents.

It was perfect, until the end…

So what happened to such a beautiful evening that left it feeling bittersweet?

Votes were tallied, and winners were announced. And by that strange phenomenon of judgement, some were declared “better” than others; by declaring two “winners”, what was left unspoken was that the rest had therefore become “losers”.

I felt the energy shift onstage right away. Where seconds before, the place was full of a universal feeling of joy, reminiscent of one of the How Philly Moves photo shoots,  now students were saddened, disappointed, frustrated and resentful. I saw several of them commenting that others had been “robbed”, etc.. it was a subtle shift, but significant.

The event was called “After School Idol”, and much like the TV show that the title is inspired by, it became about celebrity and competition.

Now, there are certainly moments where competition is appropriate, but there are also places where it is unnecessary. Why this emphasis on creating “idols”? Honestly, any of those students could have won, and I don’t so much care… From the amount of talent and enthusiasm that I saw in that room, it was clear that it’s Philadelphia as a whole that has a potential to be a winner, if we just embrace and nurture the beauty that we have in our communities. Couldn’t such an event be simply presented as a “talent show” and not a competition?

What does it mean to be a winner? I couldn’t help thinking of how the SugarHouse casino uses the slogan that “Philly loves a winner” while running a business model based on generating losers.

Here’s a little quote from Stephen Mitchell’s excellent little pocket translation of the Tao Te Ching:

When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.
—Tao Te Ching

There may be places where competition is appropriate, and I’ll tell you about my plans to compete in a second… but first let me tell you about my experience the next night.

Peace is a Haiku Song

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Sonia Sanchez speak at Christ Church in Old City. If you’re not familiar with her work, go to the library and check out a few of her books. If you don’t know where to start, try Homegirls and Handgrenades.

The event, part of the 2011 First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art, was co-sponsored by the Mural Arts Program. There’s piles more going on with the festival in the coming days, and the great folks at Mural Arts are creating Peace is a Haiku Song, a mural project involving Sanchez’ work and haiku that you submit.

Sanchez spoke eloquently about the need to not just talk about peace, but to live it. During the course of the workshop/presentation, the crowd was invited to write their own haiku and all were welcomed up at the microphone to share theirs. She started us with a prompt “Blue Midnight”, and here’s what I read:

Blue midnight, stillness…
I stare at the moon and it
shines on all of us.

This is definitely not the most brilliant thing that I’ve ever written. But it was great to be welcomed to share, without fear of judgement. In coming to the microphone, we weren’t competing… rather we were communing. It was a special evening. Here’s three more that I wrote to submit to the mural project:

“photogenic” means
“something that illuminates.”
That is what you are.

There is no such thing
when they say “us versus them”…
There is only “us.”

Open your eyes and
take simple pleasure in how
lovely we all are.

And so what next?

It seems to me that sometimes our world puts too much emphasis on independence and competition… it’s important to remember our interdependence, and to share in celebrations of our community. That’s why How Philly Moves is so special. That’s why I go on on rants about the idea that everyone is photogenic.

And so I’ll compete. But not with you.. rather I’m going to compete with myself. Trying to be the best incarnation of all of my possible selves that I can possibly be, working so that my business and life can thrive while living my dream and creating imagery that supports positive change in my community.

Last night, Sonia Sanchez made a little joke about the idea that we could teach Peace in the US if it were made profitable… because war is profitable, and therefore so many market forces build upon it. It was only a joke, but there is a bit of truth in there. Money is a stand-in for value in our society, and the media market values conflict far more than it does peace.

That’s why it’s particularly exciting for me that such a huge group of people came together to support the most recent community photo sessions of How Philly Moves. This first successful attempt at an ambitious fundraising campaign allowed my business to step outside of the media market, and devote resources to creating a celebration of community in a sustainable way that allows both my business to thrive while creating images of the things that I know to be truly important: my neighbors and the culture that they create. It was an amazing weekend and I still haven’t finished sifting through the 14,000+ frames generated, but I look forward to sharing them with you soon.

So what’s next?

These explorations into photography as community-supported public art (check out this interview on Shareable) are just a beginning for me. There’s a lot to learn in developing new models like this, but it’s exciting to be using my work in this way… it seems like the natural continuation of the transformation that digital technology brought to photography. I’m competing with this media market whose values don’t reflect mine. As my business grows and thrives by making this kind of imagery, it’ll be a sign that the market is shifting, that our society is valuing the things that are truly important in our community. So stay tuned, as I’ll need your help as I keep working on transforming myself and my business, knowing that all of us together every day transform the world…

Peace.