Creative Philanthropy

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Finding creative ways to make a difference in our communities

Putting together a magazinelike Utne Reader is, by far, the best job I’ve ever had. For the first time in my career, exploring my fascinations and interests is more than just an after-work activity; it’s one of my primary responsibilities as editor.

The process of curating articles for this kind of magazine also means daily exposure to new ideas, fresh perspectives, and highly-motivated agents of social change. When you’re constantly meeting people who are so interested in trying to make the world a better place, you start asking yourself what role you can play in that noble pursuit.

Some of us on staff have become involved in the local branch of Food Not Bombs (associate editor Sam Ross-Brown), while others are maintaining a permaculture-focused community garden that donates produce to local food banks (associate editor Suzanne Lindgren). In both of those examples, I realized that a personal passion is being put into action, and it got me thinking about activism and volunteering in a whole new light. In addition to our time and money, every one of us has a set of skills and talents that we can be using to better the communities we live in.

So when I thought a little harder about how I could contribute to the greater good, I considered my passion for creativity. I’ve been painting abstract pictures for a little over a year, and just recently started to display them in my office at work. One particular piece caught the eye of our publisher and editorial director, Bryan Welch, and he asked if he could buy one like it. My abstract pictures are spontaneously produced and never alike, so I decided to give him the piece that originally caught his eye (pictured above). As I finished the piece with a handmade frame, I realized I’d stumbled on a way to make a difference—a concept I’m calling “creative philanthropy.”  

I’ve come to believe that creativity is an essential human expression that can both allow us to revel in the beauty of our mysterious universe as well as teach us how to respond to and recover from the inevitable difficulties we face in our lives. My aim is to use my art to spread that message to young people whose access to creativity is limited by budget cuts in their schools, and to everyone—young and old—who has bought into the misconception that the only valid creative expressions are the ones that come out of formal education and training.  

I’m hoping that displaying my work publically will inspire others to pick up a paintbrush themselves, but I’m also aware that the simple act of looking at a piece of original art is enough to make a difference in one’s life. For that reason, I’m selling my work at an accessible price (the above piece was priced at $200). Most importantly, 100 percent of the proceeds are being donated to Van Go, Inc., a Lawrence, Kansas-based social service that provides job training for at-risk youth, and uses art as the vehicle for encouraging self-confidence and self-expression. Van Go does outstanding work in my community, and if you’re an artist or know one, I hope you’ll share this idea and support the organizations in your community that do similar work.  

I know I’ll be learning a lot through this project, and I’ll be documenting it all through this blog. I hope you’ll follow along as well as share the creative ways you’re trying to make a difference in your communities.

Image: Number 1 (2013) by Christian Williams, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. 

Christian Williams is editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at, and follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.
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