OTA – The Intersection of Creativity and Community

We must be boldWhy? Because there is power in coming together and using our creativity to address society’s most challenging issues. OTA, founded in 2010, is a Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota movement that has been hosting semi-annual conferences since its inception and garnering a lot of attention. It’s purpose – to bring entrepreneurs, educators, community builders and creatives together – is fulfilled through events with inspirational speakers and attendees with a passion to tap into these ideas, pursue their own ideas and create something broader.

Being bold comes in many forms. After attending the afternoon portion of OTA14 in Sioux Falls, SD, on April 4, I got a taste of this boldness. The quirky Kate Bingaman-Burt, illustrator, teacher and researcher, shared her social experiments that tap into consumerism through her gift of illustration. She boldly set out with project goals to capture information and do research, not knowing where the somewhat lengthy projects would end or what their results might be. Her drive to rid herself of $24,000 in debt was a six year venture! She also embarked on a 28-month project to capture photos and illustrations of her daily consumption of things (note, this was before the debt project). This led to Princeton Press’ publication of three books focused on consumerism including What Did I Buy Today?

We heard from the rapper-like Baratunde Thurston, former Director of Digital of The Onion and co-founder of Cultivated Wit (see his short bio for lazy people). He shared his family history of activism, politics and journalism, insight from his time at The Onion and his inspiration for his organization and projects like How To Be Black. I laughed so hard, I cried. The premise for Cultivated Wit is “one that badgers less, can persuade all the more. Artful ridicule can address contentious issues more than can severity alone.” Thurston and team display definite boldness in creating just the right amount of humor in their work to strike an emotional chord with an audience that turns negativity into inspiration for positive action. See the bit on Congress.

Next up, the soft-spoken journalism and graphic artist husband and wife duo Tina and Ryan Essmaker, co-founders of The Great Discontent (TGD). TGD is an online and now print magazine featuring interviews on beginnings, creativity, and risk. They boldly tackle long-form journalism style stories that take anywhere from 20-40 minutes to read (another case for transitioning to print, as they originally envisioned their publication). They both were raised in small town Michigan and talked in general about the Creative Class idea – creativity doesn’t come from a location (like a big city) – it comes from within and can happen anywhere.

Illustrators Bring Creativity to Life

OTA did a great job showcasing that diversity with speakers from San Francisco (Roman Mars) to New York (Thurston and Scott Harrison) to local artists and entrepreneurs. Throughout the day, talented illustrators created lively graphic presentations of the concepts by speakers to display on poster boards (see picture). The day ended with Brant Cryder, President Yves Saint Laurent, sharing ideas about what it means to be a legend and introducing his good friend, Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water. Harrison, a 10 year NYC city nightclub promoter, shared his eye-opening experience on his first trip to Africa to document doctors’ healing work for people in Libya through photography and stories.

It changed his life and began his quest to help 800 million people worldwide who are without clean, safe drinking water. Boldly, Harrison flipped the idea of charity on its heels. By delving into the essence of emotion and delivering stories, results and actionable opportunities for people in his immediate circle, he founded Charity: Water. By being as transparent as possible, training people as engineers in their communities for management of clean water drinking sites and through technology co-ventures (i.e. with Google), Charity: Water to date has funded 11,712 water projects in 22 countries.

Harrison closed out the day by sharing the story and video of 9 year-old Rachel, a legend in her own right whose wish has given 37,770 people clean water. What a powerful testament and inspiration for the entire crowd to do the Birthday Pledge though Charity: Water.

My 10 year-old Creative Mind at Work

On the drive home (which was MUCH safer than the snowstorm-induced slush-covered I-90 on the way over) to small town Jackson, MN, where I was raised, I thought about the elements of a creative class. Several speakers, especially the artists, talked about the making of things and accepting the unsettling feelings they had when they were not inspired or creating. These feelings are what drives creatives to create. Before I left my small town for college in the big city, I had this desire to make and create things. What happened to that?

Coincidentally, when I reached my parents’ home last Friday night, my Mom had boxes of saved memorabilia including my own illustrations as a 10 year-old of everyday items (like Kate), storyboards of plays and graphics and type clipped from trendy magazines that adorned my walls throughout childhood. I absolutely loved to create. Could I get some of this back? Not sure yet, but the conference inspired me to boldly contemplate it.