Remember Why You Started.
Oddly enough, the annoyance of Facebook advertising is responsible for the title of this post, as they have not let up on showing me a revolving series of "inspirational" coffee mugs for the past month or so. Most of the time these fluffy statements, affixed to cheap products, do very little to solicit a reaction from me. Today, though, they got me. "Remember why you started" this blandly designed mug told me. Solid advice.
Over the past decade of this adventure, I would remember a few key experiences from those initial days of starting Saving Cities, but - mostly - I didn't dwell on them. It's been a windy, complex path. However, given a forced, pandemic-driven life reset, I tripped into a refection period that has done more good for my soul and for my company than I ever would have guessed.
Why did I get involved in this line of work in the first place? What about the idea of Saving Cities was so compelling to me that I quit a good job, racked up debt, and dedicated my entire life to the pursuit of building better places? Why did I aggressively move back home to a city that I knew would/could never offer me a chance to fully utilize my overpriced degrees?
Saving Cities' first adopted slogan was "Actively Believing in People" and we did. Our small team was very ambitious when it came to supporting local folks who were doing the work we thought mattered most. We helped create programs with partner organizations that financially rewarded evangelists of the city for their time and commitment; we hosted parties and other engaging events to celebrate the entrepreneurs and creative disruptors of our places; we made "Red, White & Blueprints: A Rust Belt Documentary," which aimed to introduce some of those same people and ideas to a wider audience. These efforts, when implemented in a struggling region like the Rust Belt, held real weight.
All the while, I was living in a loosely-converted attic without some pretty basic utilities like heating and cooling. I slept on an old air mattress and shared spotty internet with my friends who lived on the lower floors of the two-flat (which we call a Cleveland Double). The shower was so awkward that I had to tilt my head 45 degrees just to get in it...and there was no hot water. The "kitchen" was a repurposed mobile home sink and a hot plate. This was largely a choice I was making, and I am aware of how privileged that position was.
I could have easily split time between paid work and creating the foundation for Saving Cities, but - in the beginning - I simply didn't see that as a viable option. I was far more willing to live in a poorly insulated attic, with no heat in a Cleveland winter, than to spend any of my waking day working on anything else.
When reliving these memories, I realized that I hadn't felt that way about Saving Cities in many years. After the burnout from the documentary journey (a story for another time), Saving Cities had largely become a one-man operation; an old jacket that I only put on whenever I wanted to take a side gig outside the purview of my day job.
I imagine an adult who "peaked" during high school feels a whole lot like I do, in moments, when I think back to the earlier years. It was magical, even though I was incredibly poor. I was being written about regularly in local and national publications, my name solicited genuine ire from some folks at the highest levels of local government (an honest accomplishment that I'm still proud of), and I was winning awards for my work and my love of the city. I was polarizing - and still am - but I had curated a small army of folks who believed in this idea as much as I did. They knew I had their backs, and they had mine. I had earned all this by being unwavering and relentless; I had earned it by being passionate and true to who I was.
Eventually though, I needed money more than I needed another award I didn't have the means to display. I accepted a gig that sounded promising, but took me away from my place. In some aspects, I'm very grateful for that job: it introduced me to my partner, it paid me a reasonable salary, and it gave me some serious perspective. It also killed my ambition. What I didn't know when I took the job was that it was a political mess of an organization, with warring factions, and it was all-consuming. I was only there for a year, but it feels like a lot more than that. I left angry, devoid of purpose, and trapped in a place that wasn't mine.
The in-between years were largely jumping from one work experience to the next, searching for some semblance of my former self, to no avail. I was passionate about doing a good job, but never found the spark for the work itself. I started longing for the least stable jobs I'd ever had: waiter, line cook, 3rd shift night clerk. I think it's because, in those environments, you knew where you stood at all times; if the chef hated you, he told you...many times per shift...with a variety of expletive flourishes. I didn't miss the work, but I missed the honesty of it.
Then we got smacked with COVID-19. The company I was with let the entire staff go, near immediately, with no stated plans to rehire. I didn't know what to do. Add the abrupt need to navigate "virtual school" for my then-10 year old, and I fell in to an immediate routine of self-doubt and existential fear, coupled with crippling anxiety (not new, but now..."improved"?).
Thankfully, unemployment benefits and the modest savings I accumulated during the aforementioned "working for money" phase, allowed me to take a brief pause. After the initial shock and pandemic depression started to lessen, and with the support of an incredible partner who works harder than anyone I've ever known, I was able to start to think about where I actually wanted to go with my career for the first time in a long time. This is when I began to remember why I was willing to sleep on a crappy air mattress in untenable conditions all those years ago:
Every city, town, and neighborhood deserves to be loved, and every resident deserves to be celebrated for their contributions. Good ideas are to be embraced, nurtured, and championed, regardless of what income bracket they come from. Worthy battles are to be fought by armies of passionate stakeholders, never in isolation. The voices of the "voiceless" are to be amplified, not replicated or repackaged. Development is for everyone or for no one, especially when it comes to housing, education, and employment. Ongoing accountability of elected officials and government employees, at every level, is paramount.
These are just a few of the reasons why I started Saving Cities. And why I will continue. I believe helping people is most important thing any one of us can commit ourselves to. I will never stop working towards that end. I will never stop learning and using that gained knowledge to educate, inspire and drive others to action.
And to think: all it took was a global pandemic to remind me of that truth.
How about you? Why did you start?