Blog: Justin Fenwick

Justin Fenwick seeks to bring positive change, creativity, and advocacy to every project. To accomplish this he successfully blends traditionally oil and water combinations. In a traditional vein, this included being a college athlete, student of business and economics, and social media nerd. But behind the M.B.A., consulting gigs, and etc. he is a studied poet, conflict mediator, and an advocate on issues pertaining to diversity and social justice.

Justin is the community outreach manager at the Arts Alliance, in charge of web outreach, trainings, conferences, and networking events. Through this, he manages the A2 Area Emerging Leaders Network (a3eln), which earlier this year hosted a successful SOUP micro-funding event.

He is also the co-founder, co-owner, and business strategy officer of Community Records L3C, which seeks to build community through music. CR L3C does community music workshops, mostly with at-risk youth, and seeks solutions to support local musicians through employment or artist support.

Justin is eagerly taking his growing experience in the arts to formulate the most effective route to long-term change, one that involves creativity as part of shared social and financial motives. Fortunately for him, Washtenaw County is full of projects with alternative approaches and is fertile ground to develop them.

Wakefulness, cultural experience, and worldly empathy and the ability to act on this knowledge capstone his approach to life. This was shaped by experiences like living in China, serving in AmeriCorps, studying in Seattle at Bainbridge Graduate Institute, and his many local efforts.

Justin was born, raised and spent most of his life in southeastern Michigan. He currently lives in neither Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, but Pittsfield Township (to him this counts as both) with his partner and a few other housemates.

Justin Fenwick - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: Social Media, the Bellwether of Generation Gaps in Organizations

A lot has been written about the aging leadership and future transitions in organizations, especially among nonprofits, a structure that captures most arts organizations. I have attended nonprofit conferences themed on this topic alone. I know this issue existed before it came into my reality and is likely to only get more prevalent in the future. Like with social media, the training and topic pops up everywhere in varying forms of success. I know this hyper-occurrence is an indicator of a deep desire to understand, explain, and strategically position oneself.

Social media serves as a great tool to think out loud about this difference, instead of the more charged topic of this generational divide. In the same way that people dismiss social media as a bunch of junk, folks of different generations can look at each other with dismay. On the surface, the popular examples of behavior we see and descriptions of the tools can emphasize a reasoning for failure or feelings of frustration. This is of course instead of looking at the differences from a point of understanding or opportunity.

When I consult or teach on social media I clear the air immediately by allowing the frustrations and examples of stupidity out of the box, so it doesn't get in the way of my point. By giving people the chance to complain about FarmVille and posts about their cousin's dog, some space is created for me to communicate a message. This message is primarily that you must be social for social media to be effective. I use in-person examples of friends and social groups as an anchor for the type of behavior that builds brands online. The opportunity lies in the same place that we find annoyance in the medium – the massive reach and continuous messaging actually opens up the possibility to reach traditionally unreachable people and audiences.

This is why so many social media workshops are hit or miss. They don't separate effective from popular use before praising the tool and sharing examples. In the same vein, most sessions on the generational divide focus on the differences, in hopes that either side can better understand each other. This leaves it up to the participant to run away with their own conclusions on how to use the information. Even calls to cultivate new leadership by supporting younger generations can be taken in a negative direction of dismissal. Too often, this search for understanding only reinforces the case against these things.

In social media, each successive session leaves someone more frustrated and only more sure that the medium is not effective or useful. In the same way, with each session on the difference between the Boomers, Xers, and Millennials, one builds their case for why the other is dumber, useless, and ineffective. So the action taken is inaction, or worse, they have a greater understanding for what's "wrong" with the other and actively fight against it. In my case, I've had experiences where after reading a book, my supervisor had a specific list of the things I needed to work on or change. This attempt to understand me didn't invite me to the table but formulated an understanding of what was wrong with my generation, just in more detail.

Of course, the differences between generations has always been a hot topic but not with the unique traits we face today. As the age of retirement rises, experienced leaders aren't retiring but just moving from organization to organization. This frustrates the Xers as they can't vie for leadership positions and it leads to natural alienation of the Millennials as they enter the job market with bosses further away from their own reality.

The problem isn't just interpersonal, it's about survival. We're dealing with a natural interruption in innovation and evolution that comes with leadership cycles in organizations. That is, if differences are feared instead of embraced as an opportunity.

Just like with new technology, change is inevitable. What is funny to me is that there is nothing more inevitable than shifting generations, yet the debate and resistance feels stronger than ever. The issue is more personal, so the wrong approach can feel like an attack instead of just a difference in opinion.

Even wide sweeping generalizations of the differences between generations expose an opportunity at the crossroads with social media. Baby Boomers are accustomed to operating in groups and initiating social causes, the Xers bring individualism and stronger subculture, and Millennials have a dedicated "me" or "I" focus highlighted by hyper-communication through technology. That means the skills to community-organize, create a brand on the individual level, and personalize a message or cause exist within our current workforce. These are all things needed for a successful social media campaign, each with a varied understanding of social media. Our annoyances are becoming the tools necessary to execute something well, and everyone gets the chance to be an expert on something.

Still having trouble? Are you about to throw your boss or employee out the window? Try getting on the table the annoying things first and let them stand as an example of misunderstanding. Seek to understand behaviors and the beliefs behind them and how to best put the differences to work. With three generations being broadly squeezed into the labor market, the variety of perspectives could come up with wildly successful solutions to redefining a successful new economy.

Washtenaw County is no exception to the age gap. Our nonprofit and arts environment is vibrant. Talent can be very young, as folks leave the university system. I think it's essential to start forming relationships and understandings that breed innovation and opportunity. It's the only way to retain talent and to ensure the stability of an organization into the future.

This generalization can be used to expose other opportunities. What do you see?

Post 2: You Want Free? At What Cost?

When exploring topics for these posts, I got a slew of suggestions from folks on Facebook. One friend suggested the following:

"How about the hidden costs of free? Free music on the radio = lowest common denominator dreck. Free water means that valuable resource is commonly wasted. Free curbside parking hides the costs of using that space for vehicle storage when it could be made to benefit everyone."

Now as my first post suggests, I've got a thing for creative types and projects. Creativity and social service is part of the hip(ster)/millennial lexicon, so consider three points for a moment.

1.    These projects are affordable and accessible.
2.    The demand will grow as scalable customization takes over our markets.
3.    As support for creativity moves away from the grant-funded market, the gap that remains is an unmet demand.

And in a down economy, more of these ideas are made into fruition. While not a hard fact, the stressors and low employment of a down economy traditionally fuel would-be entrepreneurs to take the leap. Lower costs and weaker competition helps too.

It's true that Washtenaw County was not hit as hard by the recession, especially by Michigan standards, but it was nonetheless. In a county where over 50% of the population has a college degree, competition for well-paying professional work is fierce. Not to mention that fewer people are retiring and leaving the workforce. This creates an unfortunate perfect storm fueling our poor retention rate on talent. Given this climate, who would stick around?

Free, you ask? Don't worry, I'm getting there.

From where I sit, I see an opportunity. The biggest innovation of this downturn will be as much the new ideas and projects as it will be the new structures and approaches to building organizations. L3Cs, collectives, co-ops, co-working spaces, crowdfunding/sourcing, etc., are all being used to create Hybrid organizations, on the edge of nonprofit, for-profit, and art, that have found traction in the scramble to survive the recession. These are led by the Creative Hybrids I mentioned in my last post, but also by all sorts of recession refugees and doers.

Free, you ask? I sit under a mountain of debt, nearly all student loans. In a head-to-head battle I usually have the larger mountain, save some of the med and law students out there. From my poetry to my M.B.A., I know these skills were worth every cent. In fact, I'm positive that the idealism, skills, innovation, and added social and environmental sensitivities were a direct result of my education. From here I find my drive, 20-something insanity, and all the things that help me find passion. I can do anything (but this might just be the 20-something speaking). This is a sentiment, or at least energy, is expressed by many going for their dream idea right now. But what now?

People like me are starting businesses and creating projects out of an under-organized creative market. This area has historically used support from the umbrellas of foundations and grants and doesn't stand up, yet, for its value in the market. Both a new model for creative arts and access to capital to fund it are needed. Because we are cultured to think that the arts and creative education are supported through a social pact (our taxes), the void is currently being met for nearly no money at all, especially at the local level. It stays this way because the resources remain unorganized.

Education recently has churned out business-minded liberal arts graduates or laid-off professionals taking their skills and mixing it with their hobby. In fact, it's a business model to utilize free creative capital. This blog, or more extremely so, the Huffington Post, sources free content in exchange for an audience and platform from which to speak. Not wrong, just is. This is the crowd aspect known popularly in wiki, open-source, and other models.

People like me are seeking support in droves and real opportunities for all interests reside here. A market is slowly monetizing out of necessity. Yet, it is not supported by a funding world that is moving like molasses to adjust to including for-profit/independent entities. In addition, banks are on lock down and along with traditional investment routes, they in general have a myopic and narrow focus. They don't see similar opportunities in this field, mainly because of a huge communication gap that needs to be bridged. Our efforts are deeper than free, they are built on promises from our education, stresses from being unemployed, and the resulting debt of both. I want to say, "Hey, we are over here!"

It's not that starting something shouldn't and hasn't always included this amount of upfront work, but it's that the options are limited after you burn out your free resources. Not every idea is a good idea, but we need people to start doing the sorting process. Ann Arbor churns out successful and wildly creative tech companies all because of existing investment capital or support systems. This infrastructure will follow opportunity, which is at our doorstep.

The opportunity to build this infrastructure is now. As my friend suggested, this is to avoid lowest common denominator outcomes, waste, and hidden costs. I don't mean to overstate myself, it may just be greatest most profitable project, but without resources to scale and self-sustain, the impact is stunted.

Market adjust
The technology, resources, and willpower to utilize the philosophy guiding these projects exist. Washtenaw County is bound to be one of the richest in this way, especially in S.E. Michigan. Unable to work for free, some things have sprung up that take the free crowd-generated philosophy to funding. Examples include: Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, ProFounder, investedin, crowdrise, givezooks!, Creative Capital, and social wish. Additionally, on a local model, things like Ann Arbor SOUP, a micro-funding event, have been hosted by groups like A2 Area Emerging Leaders or the Shadow Art Fair, which raise money for local creative projects. We see coaching for artists popping up at the Arts Alliance and their Art Meets Business program.

These feel like baby steps, not infrastructure. I also know some larger foundations are opening up their funding beyond nonprofits, but they are still few and far between. Donald Jones who is a senior consultant to the New Economy Initiative and COO at Venture Inc. in Pontiac said to me at a recent conference, "You are five years ahead of your time." Sounds like the right time to invest, right?

We need more. We need mentors, funding, and a space to grow what will be a new economic territory. We need a different understanding of charity that allows for social investment, donor plus+, micro-loans, and other reward models for social or environmental change. In this area, funding designed to support growth, not survival, increases both impacts and efficiencies. This is about opening up and supporting the funding model in an environment where creative energy is only just being organized. There are monies and livings to be made here.

According to an IBM 2010 Global CEO Study: "Creativity Selected as Most Crucial Factor for Future Success", chief executives believe that -- more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision -- successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity. Washtenaw creates the talent; for example, Eastern Michigan University has had a long standing Arts Management Program and U-M has an Arts Enterprise chapter.

Free at last? This is not just a creative boom, but a creative uprising. Where creative meets social and environmental ends, we find solutions. Washtenaw County has the right foundation set up to foster this environment to. Are you on board?

To my friend's comment at the beginning, to support this world with local talent will provide a greater benefit to everyone. Only extremes are supported in an unorganized system. But successes show that things are adjusting, each organization with their own balance to be financially sustainable. Out of a sudden, and unfortunate, increase in need for alternative options to arts education, my company, Community Records L3C, has been able to step out early into this middle ground mission-based business. Songwriting and other music workshops (listen to songs) meet a need for youth development, arts education, and a framework for skill building. This work employees musicians and has reached over 2,000 students.

Additionally, we are on our way to being financially sustainable. My experience has been that we go through the same start-up cycle and growth as a healthy start-up should, with traditional cash flow problems up front.  The landscape feels like an endless friends, family, and acquaintance funding dance, ready for the next step with few options. We spend half our time explaining the new business structure and larger landscape of options to support organizations, instead of the company and its growing impact.

Our journey is one of endless informational meetings, old school networking. This is my informal meeting with all of you, in long form. Like any good informational meeting, I should try to set up a follow up conversation or get a referral to another contact. So who wants a follow up? Make a referral to everyone by sharing some examples of local support systems or other organizations walking this same dance. How can we jump start this engine to build an economy and fund social change?

Note: I may be a bit generationally blind on this, so correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this trend isn't as limited by age as I describe it. The creativity required to set up a business or independent venture is insane. Often it's a head-first into accounting, marketing, advertising, and a bunch of other things people never learned. When your life is starting over again and you are being dumped into a wacky market, doesn't that make us all young again, staring directly at our passions with tons of work to do but life is now ahead of you?

Post 1: A Third Way to Look at Art

Recently I went to a conference, Rust Belt to Artist Belt III, hosted in Detroit by Detroit Creative Corridor at the College for Creative Studies. The focus, "Cultivating Talent and Innovation to Transform Post-Industrial Cities" was lofty, but having been to a previous RB to AB in Cleveland, I also noticed a distinct difference in the attitudes of this regional transition. At RB to AB the focus was on business owners, universities, creative social entrepreneurialism, and the social issues of Detroit; this was markedly different from Cleveland.

On one hand you have Arts Purists. Cleveland's story was that artists first occupy, then revive an area, then ticket-based arts move in, thus creating a cultural destination with an arts foundation. Artists remain artists, mostly, and people love it.

Detroit, on the other hand, is being occupied by industrious creatives, or Creative Hybrids. Whether the Motor City legacy is influencing it or not, these individuals are artists and both entrepreneurial and industrial too.

Creative Hybrids are the few emerging adults sticking around in Washtenaw County. They churn out innovative events and organizations that break old paradigms. Some must-see examples are, in no particular order:

Arts Engagement:
  • 826 Michigan  - Their robot store is a fantastic approach to helping pay the rent.
  • FLY Children's Art Center  - Crafting/art outreach to adults at Corner Brewery and other events is genius for attracting energy to the project. 
  • Neutral Zone  - The FreNZ of Neutral Zone puts on fantastic fundraising events
  • Dreamland Theater  - Collaborative space for more than just a wide array of puppet shows.
Arts Events:
Collections of Creatives:
The majority of these are for-profit, but to particularly socially positive or innovative ends. The pressure to survive without old-school funding streams is forcing a change in idea execution. It's a scramble to self-sustain. Creativity combined with other influencers, instead of what we know as "the arts" is driving the passion required to solve this problem and energize our communities. Now the art is in starting something, not just art itself.

For example, Community Records L3C, a local organization I co-founded with Akili Jackon and Jesse Morgan, falls into all of the above categories (and so do a few I listed). CR L3C is a social mission organization that builds community by bringing together diverse populations through music and music education. We create relationships with people, organizations and communities to produce creative solutions to social barriers using art. We promote positivity in community music workshops (listen to youth songs), as well as, by providing musician support and employment.

We are a provider of alternative arts education. Everything we do is with the flair of building community, diversity, creativity, and relationships.

For us, running a business is about finding the best means possible to reaching our goals and successfully providing self-sustaining programming and services that have a positive impact on the communities that we are involved in. Everything from our incorporation, organizational structure, and way we focus on community relationships reflects our values and is unique. A for-profit with a nonprofit soul, something we like to call "The Third Way".

Uniqueness is common amongst this thread of Creative Hybrid projects, all with their own flavor of "The Third Way". They are doing it differently because common knowledge is failing. Michigan's long downturn is fueling fantastic change. I foresee a boom where creativity and collaboration dominate. The raw template left behind by our manufacturing past is rich in affordable assets as people or property. Positive creative sentiment is high. This is filling the market with some of the most innovative solutions nationwide. Once these get to scale (they could be both hyper-local or super-national), and some already have, we will see a creative boom that is very different from the old-school revitalizer we are used to.

Share your own example of a Hybrid or bring light to one I already listed. Is this where you see things going?

Note: The similarities in energy between Washtenaw County and Detroit requires stronger attention of us on forming partnerships, any examples?