Learning to Serve / by Vanessa Christman

Posted March 29th, 2010 at 1:03 pm.

It’s not even daylight yet. I have scrambled to catch a 7:20 a.m. train and find that I forgot to put on my earrings. They are jammed in my coat pocket, along with the four quarters I am now trying to untangle from them. I remove my glove and have success with the coins, but now I have one more thing in my hands. Juggling bag, binder, glove, and coins, I successfully pay the fee to park at the Rosemont train station and race under the rail tunnel, frantically climbing the stairs to the platform.

Why have I left my warm bed so early? Why am I here again on a Tuesday morning, about to board a train into Philadelphia, instead of simply driving the 1.8 miles to my office? The answer has something to do with the arts, their importance in our lives, and some good Pennsylvania Dutch practicality.

After a recent Thanksgiving dinner, my mom, my uncle, and I were washing and drying dishes following the generous meal my sister-in-law had provided. We asked another member of the extended family to give us a hand. “I don’t wash dishes,” she said. My mother turned to her and gently pronounced, “Somebody has to.”

I realized in that moment that this matter-of-fact, Pennsylvania Dutch practicality was the primer by which I had been taught so many things, including civic engagement. Ours was not the world of charity balls and patrons. We simply knew that, if there was work to be done, we should lend a hand. Somebody had to.

My mother and father taught my brother and me the importance of helping others through their example. My mom also demonstrated by example the value of ongoing commitment to local organizations. When I was in high school, she helped run rummage sales and other ventures to benefit the local women’s club. She was very hands on, sorting clothes, affixing prices, and counting the proceeds. She understood that she had something important to offer: time, two hands, and a strong work ethic.

My mother was also involved as a volunteer for the town’s community theater, again offering her hands-on energy. When my brother and I were very little, this kind of civic engagement proved to be a challenge. Once while she was painting stage sets in an outbuilding on the grounds of our town’s airport, my brother and I wandered off. We had a grand adventure, which ended when a grounds worker for the airport returned us to our mother, informing her that children shouldn’t be wandering around on the runways. When we were a little older, Mom volunteered in the cloakroom for the community theater’s performances, and my brother and I served as volunteers as well, taking coats and ushering patrons to their seats. We saw practically every musical theater piece in the canon, as well as visiting artists like Andre Watts, Van Cliburn, and Marcel Marceau.

And so I came to love the arts not as a patron in the orchestra, but as a volunteer standing at the back of the house or sitting on the steps high up in the balcony. My mother’s civic engagement presented the opportunity to learn about the performing arts and gave birth to a lifelong passion.

Although my career has been in the field of education, I have pursued my love of the arts as well. In the spring of 2004, after more than a decade of teaching, I went to work with the First Person Festival in Philadelphia. That summer, I helped share the stories of such national figures as the Weather Underground’s Mark Rudd and such local luminaries as chef Georges Perrier. When I accepted a position at Bryn Mawr College that fall, I was delighted to learn that my new relationship with First Person Arts did not have to end. I was offered—and enthusiastically accepted—a position on its board of directors.

Thus began my steep learning curve with civic engagement. I had never before examined the difference between simply “pitching in” and offering strategic leadership. I had volunteered for things my whole life, but now I would have the chance to make a larger impact through board service.

My education and personality prepared me to encourage people to tell their personal narratives and to celebrate the impact of shared stories. They did not prepare me to create a board handbook, research donors, or review the organization’s budget. But these were things that needed to be done, and someone, as my mother would say, had to do them. For six years I helped the organization grow and assured its solvency. In addition to the annual festival, First Person was soon presenting monthly story slams and frequent salons, as well as community writing projects and memoir classes. Over the years, my leadership enabled First Person Arts to share the stories of countless people, both well known and little known, from Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl to mural artist Michelle Ortiz.

Much of the time I served on First Person’s board, funding was hard to come by. Though the staff had some gifted proposal writers, city, state, and federal money was scarce. Corporate donors had to be convinced of the value of our programming. In the most recent economic downturn, even private foundations were pulling out.

Why did First Person’s programming matter, when people were without homes and jobs? I remembered an interview with Isaac Hayes, in which he was asked about his efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans and in other American cities. He spoke of the ludicrous notion of cutting the arts when times are bad. “The arts,” he said, “are the last thing that should go. The arts reflect a culture, a society.” Peggy Amsterdam, the late director of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, wisely noted that, in very hard times, it is the arts that sustain us—that get us through. I knew that this was true, and I was driven to promote the mission of First Person Arts whenever and however I could.

The sun is beginning to emerge over the suburbs, and the tracks of the R5 are a mix of rose and gold. The air is still winter white, palpably frigid. The train approaches, all noise and sulfur. We shift our briefcases and handbags, the cold making us impatient to line up for the open door. Toting my board binder and bag in one hand, I grab the railing with the other and hoist myself up the steps. It’s my last day of riding the R5 into Suburban Station for an 8 a.m. board meeting. After six years of contributing my time and talent to First Person Arts, I am wrapping up my board service. But I won’t have too much time on my hands. I am already in my second year of service to the alumni board of my alma mater. My children’s schools still have a critical need of volunteers. And, probably, there will be other organizations asking for my time and leadership. When these opportunities present themselves, I will probably say yes. Somebody has to.

Vanessa Christman is assistant director of Intercultural Affairs. She feels fortunate to mentor student leaders at Bryn Mawr College and continues to learn about leadership in her work with them. Vanessa looks forward to attending First Person Arts events as a plain old audience member.

Filed under: Issue 4 by Diana Vergara

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