Interviewsand Articles

 

You Bloom, We Bloom: Interview with John Chambers

by Bela Shah, Sridevi Chalasani, Nov 28, 2011


 

 

John Chambers, founder of BloomBars grew up in a small town in New England. The son of an interracial marriage and parents deeply passionate about social activism, he later attended Howard University in Washington, DC, where his interest in media led him into a career in public relations and social marketing. Successful at an early age, and as a Senior Vice President at the global communications and advocacy firm, GMMB, he never imagined slowly giving it all up and investing his life in a nonprofit community arts organization. As we sat down to interview John, we were initially struck by his warmth and ease, despite the endless responsibilities and financial insecurity that comes along with running a nonprofit organization that relies on volunteers and donations. As we learned more about who John is as a person, we couldn't help but to feel sincere gratitude for having people like him in this world. Talking with John reminded us of the moment to moment exchanges in life that we can choose to infuse with trust or skepticism and compassion or apathy. While he sat in front of us, absent-mindedly playing a rhythm on his drum, we were drawn into the beating heart of BloomBars, an incubator for artistic expression and human to human exchange.   

Sridevi Chalasani: So we wanted to start by learning more about John before you found BloomBars, or perhaps, before BloomBars found you.  

John Chambers: I'll start with my parents. They met in the early 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. My mother was an only child from a very well-to-do family from New Jersey. Her ancestors were among the country's founding fathers. My father was the youngest of five. His parents, my grandparents, were from Southern Georgia and they had migrated up north in the 1930s like many during that time. My grandfather became the first Black foreman in a steel factory in Chester, Pennsylvania. My father was the first to attend to college.  

When all of the anti-war and civil rights protests started happening, he found himself in the center of that movement in Chester. At the same time, my mother was attending Antioch University, a very activist sort of university founded by the great educator and humanitarian Horace Mann in Yellow Springs, Ohio.  Basically, every other semester you're sent out to try and improve the condition of humanity. It was during one of these periods that she was organizing for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and leading voter registration efforts in Chester that she met my father. In the midst of all this, my parents met and fell in love.  

Interracial marriages were not very common at all during that time but both families accepted them and they went on to continue their activism pretty much their entire lives. They later moved to Western Massachusetts to attend graduate school at UMass and then became social workers and therapists. That's where they raised us in a small town. So I spent most of my time growing up there and many summers were spent in Chester, where my father grew up and where my parents met. Chester was a pretty rough kind of area after most of the factories shut down. In Greenfield, Massachusetts, I didn't encounter many people who looked like me, but in Chester it was a completely opposite type of situation. 

So it definitely became like this identity sort of thing you know: where did I fit in? But both my mother and my father came from progressive backgrounds and they instilled in me this sense that I was part of humanity and something much bigger where I was meant to make some kind of positive change in the world. With that identity, race didn't figure as prominent, not that it wasn't important. 

Bela Shah:  Something struck me about your reflection on struggling to grasp your sense of identity while you were growing up. How did this influence your decision to leave New England? 

John:  I don't like portraying myself as a victim but I felt like at that time. I was in the center of a lot of negative thoughts and people didn't necessarily have my best interests in mind, like my guidance counselor who said I should consider technical school instead of college. I think I was the only person of color in my entire school who wasn't placed in Special Ed. And if it weren't for my parents fighting for me, who knows? There was definitely an expectation of failure and my family felt the same way, so we agreed it was time for me to go somewhere else and prove myself in a different environment. So I left my senior year to attend Solebury School in New Hope, PA. This one-year experience before college really changed the way I thought, the way I structured my thoughts. It also forced me into leadership positions. I kind of reinvented or discovered myself. Probably both to be honest. How fast a person can change in a nurturing environment was another lesson. 

There was a math teacher who taught math applications, which sounds pretty basic, but one of the things I enjoyed the most was that everyday we had to bring in the NY Times. We had to read and identify an article that we wanted to deconstruct and find out how the story might be manipulated. I was always interested in journalism, especially because my sister, who was a couple of years older, was already working at newspapers and TV stations in college. I was like, "I want to be a journalist. I want to do communications." And I thought it was going to be in front of a camera, or writing, and then I realized in college that it was really the behind the scenes public relations aspect of it that was interesting to me. I think something like 75% of all news stories originate from a communications person contacting the journalist. So that was what I wanted to explore.

Bela:  As a Historical Black College, what attracted you to Howard to study public relations? 

John:  I started to look at schools in this field and I knew that I didn't want to go down south. For some reason I thought anything below the Mason-Dixon line wasn't for me. My first time in the "South" was a visit to see a friend in Huntsville, Alabama in high school. I wasn't but a few hours off the plane when a pick-up truck drove by and offered the all-to-familiar "nigger" - and that was on a military base. It left an impression. I also didn't want to be in New England where I grew up. I just wanted to be somewhere different yet international, so that's how I decided on Washington, DC and Howard University. I knew that I still was sort of longing for that Black intellectual experience and this was sort of the mecca of Black intelligence. I just felt like there was so much more I needed to experience culturally in a place where I thought I could thrive and in a city where I could also pursue my education.  

Bela and Sri:  So how did your experience at Howard turn out? Did it further your search for your own identity?

John:  It was an amazing experience, I learned a lot, and I met a lot of people who I still keep in touch with. It's become who I am and it's a part of my story. Anyone who went to Howard will tell you that there are a number of other barriers outside the academic realm that are placed before you that prepare you for the outside world. But it was a great learning experience to be in Washington, DC and have access to a network that believed in young people and allowed someone like me an opportunity to prove myself at a very young age. I can still close my eyes and hear several professors' voices, especially my eccentric track Coach Moultrie in his strong Texas Accent, "You will run here, or you will run from here!"

Bela:  And in what ways were you able to prove yourself?

John:  I had a really interesting internship after my freshman year. I was doing communications and PR with this guy who sort of became a mentor. He had started a small communications firm after working at the Department of Transportation. Most of our clients were corporate foundations and large non-profits. One day, he brought all this radio equipment and asked, "Can you do something with this?"

Around this time there was a lot of media consolidation. Radio stations were being bought up and news departments were being completely slashed, or farmed out to the union-busting Metro Networks. A lot of stations didn't have access to all the news happening in Washington, DC. So we started going out ourselves, covering stories, and sending them to mostly urban radio stations for free. It was sustainable because we also covered other news that people wanted to pay for and coordinated media tours with notable people who wanted to reach the audience we created. At the same time, we started bringing in civil rights leaders and national figures and focusing our stories on social justice issues.

I'm especially proud of the work we did to highlight racial profiling, disparities in healthcare, and economic empowerment. I really enjoyed telling these stories and learning to tell them in ways that motivated people to act. We became a voice and our outreach grew to 150 radio stations that received our news and information. I also helped the leaders of the NAACP and National Urban League produce a weekly radio commentary that was especially popular with our stations. Soon, I found myself meeting and encountering presidents and leaders of various organizations and causes, and even traveling to Ethiopia for the first time to explore expanding beyond the United States.  

Bela:  So let's fast forward a little. How did public relations eventually lead you to BloomBars?

John:  After college, I wanted to continue to work in cause-oriented communications. I left the communications firm and radio network for a job in the Clinton administration working on Census 2000. This was an amazing experience because of its singular focus and fundamental importance - being counted. Even more than your right to vote, the Census determines where billions of dollars are allocated and how representation is apportioned. Sadly, most of those not counted are children and communities of color, with significant negative consequence. And even sadder, one political party seemed to be okay with that if it meant that they would get more seats in state legislatures, thus giving them the power to draw legislative districts. As the director of communications for the democratic side of a "bi-partisan" monitoring board, I became a voice in a very partisan debate. It is not something I enjoyed even if I was passionate about the issue. 

So working for the Census taught me that communications in politics was not a pretty thing and not for me, even if I would later gravitate back in my next adventure, working at a communications and advocacy firm, GMMB. I was hired to work primarily on a public safety campaign called "Click It or Ticket" that was in the early stages of trying to get people to wear their seatbelts because it was the leading cause of death, with children the most affected. Seat belt use was stagnant at 61% for years and no one could figure out how to motivate people to buckle-up. Research led to the successful formula: stronger laws, stricter enforcement, and of course, a serious advertising and media push. It was very effective and moved seatbelt usage to 82% and reduced child deaths by 21%. It's also how I first met a state senator from Illinois at a bill signing to strengthen the state's seat belt law. He was a co-sponsor and author of a part of the bill that would address any potential racial profiling. That first encounter with Barack Obama was significant in that it might have foreshadowed my transition, if not served as inspiration. 

I went to work on some other great campaigns with organizations like the Casey Family Programs, the UN Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and finally the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which I think is what ultimately burned me out. I felt completely disconnected and disassociated with my passion, my creativity. I had to read the paper everyday to see how many lives were impacted by our work.  

So back to your question about the beginning of BloomBars, while I was still working in the communications firm, I started to explore other creative outlets to bring social change. A few friends and I started a pilot thing called CauseChange, and we held events with artists in different cities to channel and elevate energy in the community. It was also an outlet for me, to manifest what I think needed to happen. This was all happening around the time of the 2008 presidential election. After the election, I thought, instead of looking up at the President to bring change, instead it was really going to happen at the grassroots level as individuals.

Bela:  How did CauseChange evolve into BloomBars and what internal shifts were you experiencing during this time?  

John:  It's not one of those things that just happened. I sort of went through the storm and challenges and identity came up again. When you reach a certain position in your career, you get to a point where you feel like you're no longer touching the impact, even though you are having real impact at the macro level. I felt disconnected and a little lost. 

At the same time, the strand that ran through my experiences in communications is that we had all these tools that we used to try and move people and the afterthought was usually how we could use arts and culture to build a movement. I always thought this was an area I wanted to go into, working with grassroots artists and connecting communities for the common good. 

When I was describing my PR background, one client that I left out that actually had a really profound impact on me was an organization called the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Their whole mission is to build compassionate communities and bring awareness about the power of love and forgiveness. So that really got me thinking about trying to build compassion in Washington, DC, on Capitol Hill, you know? How do you do that? It made me that bigger things were possible. 

I asked myself, "Why was I with this organization that worked on these big causes at the global level, but that had never been on the other side of 16th street?" When I was still at the firm, I had been hosting events at BloomBars for more than a year, and no one seemed to know until the Washington Post wrote a story about it.  

So to answer the first part of your question: I organized a few CauseChange events and some of those events were taking place here in Washington and artists were coming here from other parts of the country. I was trying to get other opportunities for them in the city but saw that there weren't a lot of other venues for artists to exhibit, to perform. So we decided to just clear out this building, which I had bought around the same time when I was already thinking of something like BloomBars. So there was a sort of a merging of these ideas between doing CauseChange events in different cities and bringing in technical expertise to run a nonprofit.  

It was a light bulb that went on in that moment and I asked myself, "How do I bring this idea that I had while working at this big PR firm to a place run by volunteers without a staff of 20 people?"  I realized it needed to just happen here in Washington, DC. So I mortgaged everything and used my savings to buy this two-story building in the same block as my home where I've lived for over a decade. 

Bela:  Did you proactively choose the Columbia Heights neighborhood as a space for the concept of BloomBars? I know that it's a neighborhood that has undergone a lot of change and gentrification in the past ten years or so.  

John:  When I moved up here in 1999, this community was really at the brink of transition.  I knew my neighbors and had I become more active in the community and conscious of getting to know people. This was also around the time of community list serves, like yahoo groups, and I think people could say anything about each other and it became really nasty and you really saw people's prejudices. You could follow it and see a lot of negative dialogue and this was significant because there weren't a lot of places to have conversations about gentrification, about rent control, about poverty, about all these things that were shaping our lives. It didn't happen at the bar, at the supermarket, or in churches because we were still in these silos and people weren't coming together to talk, people weren't having eye contact and there was no opportunity to build any kind of compassion. So it felt like it was the right time and the right community. This community is representative of communities all over the world that are going through changes and experiencing disparities.  

Sri:  I remember when we first met, you described how your parents were social activists your whole life and because of that, you didn't really grow up with a lot of money and had decided that you didn't want to be in that kind of situation again as an adult. So how did you make that transition? 

John:  At a deeper level, I felt that there are other shifts happening in the world and there is a lot of suffering. There are transformations and transitions happening that I felt as I was having this awakening of consciousness, awakening of purpose. It was like you're shedding a skin and it's a metamorphosis and it's painful because I didn't have the title anymore or the business card and I had to reinvent myself. But I felt like when we opened this space, people were coming in and gravitated to this idea and this opportunity to have their growth and creativity supported.  

Bela:  You were seeking a deeper purpose and you were able to align external change with the internal change that was already taking place within you. You took a huge leap of faith. Tell me more about the first few weeks and months at BloomBars. How were you able to keep alive this faith in an idea and this increased awareness?  

John:  A couple years into this, I took leave from the communications firm to figure my life out. It took a moment, but I finally decided to take plunge and commit full-time to BloomBars. My heart was beating fast all the time and sometimes I felt like, "What's going on here, what I am doing?" and I was sensitive to the fact that I was in this new space, in this new community where I'm not an expert. 

Sri:  How did you come up with the name?

John:  It came from space. A supernova is when a star reaches its full potential. A flower, when it reaches its full potential, blooms - and that's beautiful. This is a way to celebrate that and strive for that and think about it as a metaphor for our own personal growth. It just fit. I can't take credit for it; it just came. And then pairing it with bars, I guess it was a little bit of wishful thinking. I wanted to plant that seed and also think about bars differently and redefine what can be served at a bar and I think a lot of different things can be served. This gets people because they think they're coming to a bar and I never say we're not a bar. I don't think you have to serve alcohol and if you came here thinking that, I want you to feel like you were served something else. I want you to consider looking at that, at the value of what you get, at what the offering is. The idea was to have multiple bars that served books, vegan foods, and even causes; a "cause" bar that served different organizations every week. It was all about serving things that were feeding your soul in different ways. That's still a part of the vision. Our motto and mission, You Bloom, We Bloom, was painted above the entrance instead of a BloomBars sign. It kind of funny, a lot people know us as the "you bloom we bloom" place as a result. 

Bela:  What kinds of activities and events does BloomBars have throughout the week?

John: I like to suggest folks just spontaneously stop by and see what they find, but those who are into planning can check our website calendar or Facebook page. It's hard to have favorites but I try never to miss the Garden Open Mic, BloomScreen Indie Film Night, Poetry in the Morning, Washington Sound Museum, Sunrise Cinema, drumming and Wednesday meditation. We also have dance and music classes, music and theater performances and rehearsals, workshops, community meetings and whole hodgepodge of other stuff. There is also an art gallery on the second floor that exhibits the work of local artists and we also support larger community needs, like hosting a bone marrow registry, or holding fundraisers for various causes. We also curate music at festivals and events around the city, and we also have a stage at the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace every Saturday.

Bela:  Who are the people who inspire you the most? 

John: If you asked if you had a million dollars to give, who are the two people, besides BloomBars, that you would want to invest in? Shane Evans and Jason Jasper, who are like my brothers, are two incredible artists. I look at their current struggles and the potential that they can have on people's lives through their art. To have witnessed that first hand, to see that on a small level and imagine the impact on a larger scale...I want to be able to affect that. Shane Evans is just so humble and he would never tell you what he does but if you're with him for more than 10 minutes he will probably start sketching an interpretation of something that just happened in the conversation. He's talented in so many ways but he uses his talent primarily to effect children as an author and illustrator. He has published nearly 30 children's books. Jason Jasper is my favorite musician and songwriter hands-down. Think Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder all in one, but all conscious music. But because of an illness in his wife's family, he's running their family business - a funeral home. Talk about a light in the middle of darkness. When you see fatal result of violence first hand, I guess it can take you in two directions. He chose the northern route. 

Bela:  It seems that your whole being lights up when you talk about these people...it sounds like they inspire you, maybe even day to day when you're feeling weighed down or stressed.

John:  They are my lights, best friends and brothers. They are also the inspiration for the "Artists in Bloom" residency program at BloomBars. 

Bela:  Can you tell me more about the "Artists in Residence" program?

John:  It just happened that really positive amazing artists came into this space and another light bulb went on that we should have "Artists in Bloom" residents and nurture their growth holistically. To give a little background and context, I used to serve on the board of UMECS (United Movement to End Child Soldiering) an organization based in Northern Uganda that works with former child soldiers in Uganda and women that were abducted and forced into sex slavery. This organization had a holistic approach to education and rehabilitation. Sponsorship alone, in and of itself, is a form of cruelty, when you're not supporting the family and acknowledging the structure of the family and the community and other necessities to be able to attend school, whether its eye glasses or tampons. In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Kitcum, Northern Uganda, with a group of actors to teach youth in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps theatre. It was a transformative experience that taught me at a very deep level, how art can heal, inspire, and transform. It actually turned into a pretty amazing documentary film called "Staging Hope." 

That's when my attention turned more toward focusing on art, my own creativity, and bringing artists together to have an impact in their communities. An artist has the potential to reach millions of people so how do we support you so that holistically so they can grow and bloom? So the second part of the mission became to really empower and create a bigger stage for artists on the world stage. 

Right now, there is an artist in residence named Asheru. He is a Hip Hop artist who wrote the theme song to the Boondocks and he won a Peabody Award for writing an episode about Martin Luther King, but he considers himself an educator first. He uses Hip Hop as a literacy tool and has created a curriculum and workbooks that are used in schools across the country. It's called the Hip Hop Educational Literacy Program or H.E.L.P. We're also proud that a former Artist in Bloom resident, Carolyn Malachi, was nominated for a Grammy last year. 

Bela:  I like how earlier you described the artists in residence as these lights.  They have so much potential and power to shine on the lives of others.

John:  You know, I just think of the issues that each one of these artists is addressing, whether it's an artist who has adopted an anti-texting campaign in her songs-you know texting while driving is three times more dangerous than driving while drunk? People drive three-ton killing machines without paying attention. I know if we could reach just a few people, we could save lives. Veganism is another issue for health reasons, for the environment, spirituality, not to mention our evolution as humans. We're excited to be helping incoming Artist in Bloom Tamika Love Jones build a campaign around this issue now.  

When you think about the world and all the things I want to affect, the things I want BloomBars to affect, how do you do that? By empowering artists who are really rooted in these causes and their art. This goes back to public relations. Really seeing the power of communications in the development of those artists and looking at them as "the campaign". How do we pour all of these resources into pushing their message out instead of investing in what we commonly hear all the time through what the corporations put out to make money instead of to make change? So that is what inspires me (sigh).

Bela:  Just getting that out of your system I think exhausted you!

John:  [laughs]...it really did.

Bela:  Do you think the messages artists send out really stick with people? Do they have impact?

John:  That's what PR is about, messaging and understanding how to relate to and talk about it in a way that you can get people to relate to the issue. In communications, you have all these vehicles to try and communicate a message but with artists, it's happening in a more organic way. The message reaches people in a different way, in a deeper way. I don't know but I have to think-actually I do know that the potential to have a greater impact is there.

So it's about us investing in the community. When I say "we", of course it's myself and everything that I can give to them but it's also all the people who want to support what we're doing and investing in that, in their potential and connecting the art form with the cause, whether it's through music or activism. We have to still recognize that this is all very young, all of this started four years ago and I feel like we haven't even started yet and we're still figuring it out. We always get calls and people want to know how we did this. The answer is that it still needs a lot more investment to be sustainable.

Bela:  What's the vision for BloomBars?

John: The vision is to be more than this one location and to have several BloomBars which would form a network of like-minded communities, but very localized and relevant to the communities that they're in, supporting artists and allowing them to travel, serving the community, and welcoming all ages. To be a space that is respectful of all communities and one that presents an opportunity for people to break through their walls and maybe experience a moment of wisdom, of light. 

I think we're changing a model of how an organization can exist without thinking about profits but instead investing in the community and in artists and appreciating and valuing art differently. The idea is not to demand anything, not to have a cover charge or a bouncer behind a rope. You do see the diversity of the neighborhood here. You see 12 year-olds perform at the open mike and they can bring their grandmothers. You can also be here on a date and still feel like this is cool, like your guards are down, and you see people come and say, "I was inspired and I'm more true to myself."

Bela:  How have you seen community members invest in each other and experience change?

John:  I'll tell you a story. We have an open mike every Monday night and there was this 16 year-old kid who stopped by one day and said he wanted to do poetry. I thought he was talking about the open mic but he said, "No you don't understand, I meant I want to teach poetry in the morning before I go to school." That just blew me away! I half believed he wasn't going to do it because lots of kids come in with ideas. At the same time, I really wanted to believe that he was going to follow through with his idea. The following week, while I was in line in the neighborhood coffee shop down the street from BloomBars, I saw him talking to the coffee shop owners. He was asking them if they could donate coffee for the poetry in the morning event he was going to host! 

Bela:  That takes some gumption!

John:  Yeah and he came and hosted Poetry in the Morning for a while until his grandmother got sick. And it remains a weekly program with a small but loyal following.  

Sri:  Do people immediately get the pay it forward/gift economy concept?

John:  I think people want to participate. We did this flower arrangement workshop for youth recently and the leftover flowers were gifted to people in the audience at a concert that night. Then that person in the audience had to gift it to someone else and start a conversation, and then that chain of giving and connecting continued outside of BloomBars. People went outside onto the street and gifted the flowers to surprised strangers who stopped in their path and just smiled. So I think people get it. Not everyone gets it the first time; sometimes it takes a bit longer. You know they come in, see "donation" and sometimes for a lot of people donation translates into "free," which is ok as long as they understand that you can give something. There is a saying here, "share something you value or value what is shared." This could mean so many things, such as singing a song to a child or sharing yourself. That's why I love going to Karma Kitchen on Sundays before coming back here for our Sunday Seed the Sound event. I talk about my experience at Karma Kitchen to the audience here, which is my way of paying it forward, by spreading the word.  

Sri:  You started with the idea that BloomBars would be donation based, has this changed?

John:  The idea has morphed and grown in several directions, but the fundamental principle that money, or lack there of, will not be barrier to experiencing BloomBars, has not changed. My family and friends will sometimes ask, "Why don't you just get a liquor license?" And my response is like, "What? Whoa! Alcohol would totally change the vibe and experience and would exclude so many people we want to feel welcome, like teens and youth, seniors, people who are in drug or alcohol recovery, women who don't want to get hit on. It would also change acoustics. Who wants to hear glasses clinking when you're listening to something beautiful? Oh, and then there's that bar smell. Sorry I didn't mean to go on an alcohol tangent but it's the question people ask most. 

Bela: But that question is out of concern for you, right? 

You know, my friends and family see me struggling to pay my mortgage and live and eat. But it's the stories of people continuing to come in and having these "aha" moments that keeps me going sometimes. People come by and they say, "You bloom, we bloom." It's like a mantra. Sometimes I keep that window open and I hear people walking by and they talk about BloomBars and how they discovered it and what they have seen here. Or sometimes I'm in the grocery store and hear two people strike up a conversation, "Oh, didn't I meet you at BloomBars?"

Bela:  I'm reminded of one of the fundamental principles of Karma Kitchen, which is moving from scarcity to abundance. How does a gift economy model create abundance in communication and action?

John: I think a gift is like an offering or affirmation of friendship. It builds a deeper connection by tapping into something deeper. Love. And if love is currency, geesh, imagine the abundance. 

Bela:  Would fundraisers also go against a "pay it forward" model for you?

John: Not at all. Yeah, there just hasn't been the time to do the big one that needs to happen but there are a lot of smaller ones. It's an issue of capacity and we're still challenged with staff. DC is transient so a lot of people come in and then leave. For things to come to completion, it's been taking a while. That's a little honesty there. But we do have a pretty amazing core group of volunteers that treat it like a full-time job. We'll figure it out. 

Sri:  In order to make it more sustainable, have you thought about monetizing it?

John:  The entrance? No.

Sri:  Or some other way?

John:  We're going to have a tea and juice bar. Also, we do rent it out to organizations that use it as a retreat space as long as they stick to the rules, no drinking and no profanity. Also, the art on the walls is for sale. Most galleries take 50% from artists and we would take 30 or 35%. It's artist centric so we're trying to stick to that but still be sustainable. My godfather, Oz Scott, is in the industry and has been real helpful in pushing the music side of sustainability. I'm excited to get some pretty incredible and inspirational music out there. We're also looking at ways to monetize our content and the stories we're telling through video and film. BloomTV, our YouTube channel, has some great footage, but the production is ready for the next level. 

Sri:  How has BloomBars used social media to spread awareness about its message? I know you guys don't have a sign out front but you have more than 2000 Facebook followers without marketing.

John:  Yeah, that's just on the Facebook fan page but there is also a Facebook group. The community has really expanded, not just locally but all over the world and that's without any traditional marketing; it's all been social media. Every story that has been written about us has come unsolicited. We try to bring in artists from all over the world and send our artists to other parts of the world. Cultural exchange is part of the idea as well. We do have an amazing social media person and I come from a background in social marketing but there has been no formula. It's more like karma, you put out the good intention and you show that there is incredible talent in an area and you put that on display in a place that has good vibrations and good intentions. That pure intent sells itself and social media just allows that to spread because it allows us to have a consistent presence online, whether it's Twitter or Facebook, or something else.  

For example, you can come to an event like tonight, where there was a film on water, which was an amazing film but there were probably about 10 people present. But maybe three or four thousand people may have heard about the film through the website and Facebook and they may have read just a little bit about it and some of those people will say, "They feel good that it's happening even though they're not able to be here." So it feels like whatever happens here, it reverberates and people are still sending out that energy that is bringing people back and letting the community grow and it's why people who are in other places still get our e-newsletter, "The Weekly Bloom" about things that happen in a small neighborhood in Columbia Heights. Because the things that are happening are so relevant to the world that we are in now in relation to the arts, but more importantly, some of the challenges that we are facing and how there are connections between artistic expression and what's going on in the world.

Sri:  Do you feel competition with similar organizations?

John:  It's more of a spirit of collaboration. One of the ways we have been successful, in some sense, is because there has been no competition. We really try to partner with organizations to advance similar causes so I would say half of the events we do here, there is some kind of joint effort with another organization, whether they want to raise money or talk about a certain issue. There are a lot of organizations out there that are doing similar things. In our newsletter, we can just have events about BloomBars but we always have a section, "Art Blooms in the City", that supports people that are doing good things. There is no belief that this way alone can change things. There could be 200 organizations just like BloomBars but I still think there would be a need for what we're doing. So, if it's inspiring people to do similar things, wonderful. We recognize that other people have come before us and done similar things and we honor it and learn from it. This idea came from somewhere so it's not about owning it or ego or taking credit for it. It's about asking the important questions. Is it working? Should we get behind it? And if it is and has good intentions, then hopefully it will succeed. And if it doesn't, then hopefully there are other ways to have a bigger impact and they're waiting to be revealed but I'm committed to this for as long as I can.

Bela:  You exist in the same city as Capitol Hill, which is sometimes surreal.

John:  It exists because of Capitol Hill. There are decisions that are being made that can affect millions of people around the world yet only a small percentage of those that work on the Hill own passports and that's a little frightening. The hope is that a place like BloomBars can expose people to other parts of the world and cultures.

Bela:  I feel really lucky to meet people like you, genuine people that have faith in something good.  You overcome your fears through your faith...it's amazing to me.

John:  I struggle everyday...

Bela:  I can see that. The way you shared with me so generously. I can see that and that's why I think it's even more moving. Everyone has struggles and fears and most people get lost in their little microcosm but you have this ability to stay inspired.  

John:  If there wasn't a two-story building looking at me everyday, the weight might be too much. But so many people rely on this space.

Bela:  But why do people rely on it? You know, that's the thing, you created this space for people to have something to rely on, to nourish their spirit and be able to express their artistic energy. It's so beautiful, it really is. I'm sure people must be telling you this all the time?

John:  Hmmm...sometimes. You know, what I wanted to say is that we have been fortunate to get some media coverage and they all touch on similar things in different ways about BloomBars but this is the first interview where I'm part of the story. You know, in the past people have told me that I should put myself out there more but I'm always cautious and reluctant to do that. That's one of the reasons I like PR, because it's behind the scenes. But I'm starting to see more the value of being a communicator and communicating my story. I think this is the only interview I've done like this that really gets into some areas that I've never talked about publicly.

Bela:  I can appreciate how it's a fine balance. There is not even a sign out advertising BloomBars. What's beautiful about this place is that it is so natural and organic. So how do you promote something without losing that?

John:  Yeah, and that's part of my fear. When something is tied to a personality, it's easy not to like a person but if it's tied to something that everyone believes in, you know it's not tied to an individual, it's a lot easier to accept. I have that fear, and I think everyone has that fear. I don't want people to not like me. We all have that fear. It's a lot easier for people to embrace an idea and that's why you hear a lot more "we" than "me."

I'm also trying to continually embrace humility. That's part of what goes into thinking about "we" more, you know "you bloom we bloom". Something about "I" and "me" just feels uncomfortable. I remember studying Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address delivered just after the civil war ended. He did not use "I" once in his speech. It was about healing and unity. I think all of our stories should be first-person plural. 

Bela:  Is there something else you wished that I had asked you?

John:  Maybe if there is a question about how people can help?

Bela:  It's all volunteer driven, right?

John:  Right now but at some point we would like to move to a paid staff. I would like that people have health insurance and not be in poverty while still committing themselves to something they care about. We talk about reaching our full potential but we need resources, whether that is financial or time. When you talk about the gift economy, I don't think there is anybody that could offer something that we couldn't utilize to advance our goals. A large financial gift would help us scale-up a lot faster, but we're not in a race. Tax-deductible contributions are welcome. Visit us in Columbia Heights, introduce us to someone you think should be connected to, support local artists, or just pay it forward. 

Bela:  Do you have a core group of volunteers?

John:  We have a core group but there are important roles we need to fill like a volunteer coordinator, booking manager, administrative support, and someone to totally rethink and redesign our web presence.  

Bela:  Is it challenging to keep everyone motivated all the time? I thought about this when you invited us to your home for the Wednesday. You shared later that evening how this has been a really stressful week for you and I just thought about how you have to be when you're here. It's volunteer run and people are relying on you for that motivation and energy and hope and faith and all of that. Where do you fill yourself up? How do you keep going? 

John:  I'm working on it. Sometimes I just go off the grid for a minute when things become overwhelming and I feel like my energy would not help someone. When I'm home, "it's like, oh thank god." But here it's different; it's kind of like acting class a little bit:). Especially this time of year, I can feel like George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," but then something amazing happens and it all feels like Bedford Falls, bringing me to tears. What a gift that film is, and it's in the public domain, where all masterful works of creativity should live. BloomBars is it's own motivator volunteers. The experience and engagement is up to them. I just try to stay out of the way, which can be the challenge. 

Bela: What's next at BloomBars that's really got you excited? 

John: We've got a ton of new programming for babies, youth and teens coming in January, under a new "BloomU" banner. We're adopting Ballou Senior High School in Anacostia, DC, so we're super excited to bring several of our classes and programs to these students and teachers. We've partnered with the National Symphony Orchestra to present a concert on January 8th that we hope will expose classical music to the Hip Hop generation through a historical ambassador in Le Chevalier de Saint-George.  Asheru, Christylez and Tamika Love Jones will perform to one of Saint-George's classical compositions. I'm crossing my fingers that a reunion with South African mega-star Hip Hop Pantsula will come to fruition in late Winter or early Spring. He was a visiting Artist in Bloom resident in 2010.

Bela:  Your daughter just turned one, right? How has she changed your life in relation to keeping BloomBars going?

John:  She represents the hope, the future; she is the sun. And to be able to have her grow up in this environment, being supported by all the people that are so special to me in this space is something I really am thankful for and want to continue. It's great to see her run around this space. She is exploring and climbing, she bangs on things like drums, she loves to dance, and she plucks the strings on the guitar. She is my reason for being. 

Bela:  Is there any other wish or desire that you would like to express?

John: I wish that more people would allow themselves the space express their creativity. I wish that more people would actively seek conversation with strangers and return smiles on sidewalks. I wish that people would watch less television and spend more time trying new things outside over their homes and comfort zones. I wish that more people would grab a youngster under their wing. I wish for less consumption and consumerism. I wish for more compassionate communities. I wish for the success of artists who use their voices to help transform lives and communities. I wish for a more service-minded society. I wish for a global shift in consciousness. I desire peace. I wish for love. And anyone can own this. This doesn't belong to me. It's for everyone to own. It's really a gift to the world and I hope that it's accepted. That's how it's going to grow. That's how it's going to bloom. 

 

About the Author

Bela Shah and Sridevi Chalasani are contributing editors for Servicespace.

 

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