"Community is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. The question, therefore, is not 'How can we make community?' but 'How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?'" -Henri Nouwen
Photo by Lynn Buckler Walsh on her Moroccan adventure with her TOM BIHN special edition Life is a Verb Camp bag.
First there was the photograph of a camel in Morocco onto which an orange TOM BIHN medium cafe bag was secured. If you look closely, you can see a small grey “Life is a Verb” patch sewn onto the bag as it hangs from the camel’s back. Posted by Australian Lynn Buckler Walsh during one of her global adventures, the community of Life is a Verb Campers immediately responded to the shared emblem of our time together. We felt connected because of that bag, and felt a part of Lynn’s Moroccan adventure. In a sense, she took us along with her in that TOM BIHN bag.
Then, photos of the special edition TOM BIHN “Life is a Verb” bags in different colors started showing up from Iceland, Mexico, Ecuador, Paris, Mongolia, and beyond. Photos of bags from meetups of Campers around the world fill the Facebook stream of the Life is a Verb Camp alumni page, sparking the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a community--all from a bag. But not just any bag. And not just a bag, but something larger.
Campers have traveled around the world with their TOM BIHN special edition Life is a Verb Camp bags, and included the rest of the community with photos like this one from Mexico.
Since 2013, Life is a Verb Camp has brought together people from across the U.S. and around the world for four days of adventure in the mountains of North Carolina. Since 2014, TOM BIHN has sponsored the conference bags for the Camp, inadvertently and irreversibly creating a symbol of the strong community built around the Camp and its Campers, a signifier of togetherness and commitment, creativity and adventure, an emblem of what Camp is and means.
Life is a Verb Camp was begun as an experiment in community: How can we create a loving, open-hearted, generous, creative, generative community of people who are creative together, who can learn from the diversity in the group and practice being more inclusive, and who support each other through all that life can throw at them? What does it take to nurture giving hearts, to use Henri Nouwen’s language?
Lynn Buckler Walsh on an adventure in Madrid with her TOM BIHN special edition Life is a Verb Camp bags, a way she took Camp and Campers with her on her travels.
Now in its sixth year, the lessons of Camp are clear. To build community, you must have a shared vision, shared language, shared signifiers, and, paradoxically, a broken heart.
Community Holds a Shared Vision
From the beginning, Camp has focused on Courage, Creativity, Community, and Compassion (including self-compassion). Why? Because it takes courage to be creative; creativity blossoms in bumping up against others in community; being in community builds compassion for self and others; and compassion builds trust, which sparks courage, which helps us be creative, and so on back around the feedback loop.
When I don’t have COURAGE,
I play small and don’t take risks,
Instead, I sabotage my own CREATIVITY by
Minimizing myself and others,
Making it difficult for me to be in COMMUNITY
And when I am alone, I often don’t have COURAGE and….(back to first line and repeat)
When I have COURAGE,
I take risks, am more innovative, and lean into my own
CREATIVITY, which deepens in a diverse
COMPASSION for myself and others thrives,
Creating a community
where I feel the kind of trust that provides me with courage and… (and repeat)
People come to Camp, whether once or every year because they share these values and are actively looking for ways to inhabit them in more significant ways in their life. The people who come to Camp are mothers, fathers, grandparents, teachers, therapists, artists, writers, activists, trainers, musicians, and more. What links them, other than the Camp experience itself--including their TOM BIHN bags--is their attraction to these core values of Camp: Courage, Creativity, Community, and Compassion.
While it is easy for us to sit inside a culture--whether familial, community, organizational, or national--and act as if we are merely visitors to it, Campers know the Camp community is built by everyone there--culture is co-created with every decision and action made or not made. The talents and resourcefulness of Campers is integral to the Camp experience.
Where Campers gather (in this case, San Francisco), so do their TOM BIHN Life is a Verb Camp bags.
Community Requires a Shared Language Built Over Time
Shortly after the first Camp in 2013, a Camper was experiencing a difficult time in her life and posted about it on Camp’s private Facebook page. Within moments, photographs of other Campers appeared in the comments, each wearing their Camp t-shirt from that year. “Shirt on” became code for “I hear you and am sitting with you through this.” Six years later, “shirt on” remains a way Campers signify care and compassion for others.
As with the shirts, our custom TOM BIHN bags signify community in a similar way. When Campers gather, a photo of their TOM BIHN bags together is a given. In such a way, they have become so much more than bags. In carrying these special Camp bags, Campers know they are carrying a piece of Camp and Campers with them wherever they go. The bag is not just a holder of things, but is also a holder of memories, friendships, and transformational experiences.
Photo by Muse. Some call it #Camp365 because Campers gather throughout the year, always bringing a piece of Camp with them.
Community Requires Relaxing Into Relationship
Parker Palmer said it best: “When we treat community as a product that we must manufacture instead of a gift we have been given, it will elude us eternally. When we try to ‘make community happen,’ driven by desire, design, and determination—places within us where the ego often lurks—we can make a good guess at the outcome: we will exhaust ourselves and alienate each other, snapping the connections we yearn for. Too many relationships have been diminished or destroyed by a drive toward ‘community-building’ which evokes a grasping that is the opposite of what we need to do: relax into our created condition and receive the gift we have been given.”
Just as a “search for happiness” ensures that happiness will elude us, so too “engineering” community-building thwarts our deep need for community. For community to happen, a space must be created that is safe enough and challenging enough for people to bump up against one another, build relationship, and share experiences.
Community Requires a Broken Heart
As Parker Palmer also said, “...leadership for community will always break our hearts. Here, ‘breaking your heart’ (which we normally understand as a destructive process that leaves one’s heart in fragments), is reframed as the breaking open of one’s heart into larger, more generous forms…”
To lead a community, the leader must hone their own capacity for connectedness, their own belief in the resourcefulness of any group, their own ability to relax into community rather than engineer it. Their role is to open the space, hold it, deepen it, and create shared experiences that will tie the community together. Campers co-create Camp onsite because they are more than Campers--they are creative leaders themselves.
Campers Alison Campbell, Susan Lucas, and Jeanne d’Orleans on a meetup in Alexandria, Virginia
Community Requires Shared Signifiers
From Morocco to Iceland to Ecuador and beyond, Campers and their TOM BIHN bags see the world and report back to other Campers, posting photos of Camper meetups that simply show all the TOM BIHN bags from Camp, a symbol of community, and an agent of community at the same time. The TOM BIHN bags have become a signifier of the hallmarks of Camp: courage, creativity, community, and compassion.
The signifier is the bag itself. The signified is what it means to Campers--the extra significance it holds because it is representative of a shared, lived experience. It is not just a bag.
Just as the official Camp t-shirts each year have become a symbol of belonging, care, and connection, so have the TOM BIHN bags. As a result of TOM BIHN’s generosity, Campers have started making pilgrimages to the TOM BIHN showroom when in Seattle, and have become TOM BIHN ambassadors around the world. As one does.
Thanks for helping us build community, one great bag at a time, TOM BIHN.
Photo by Muse. Decatur, Georgia, USA.