The cavalry is not coming

Wednesday November 6, 2013

written by Mark Fairbanks

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This past June, I had the good fortune to attend an event hosted by Creative Alliance Milwaukee during the GMC’s “Flying Car” week. The guest speaker was Dennis Cheek, Executive Director at National Creativity Network, who of course talked extensively about the importance of creativity.

Two things struck me about his talk. The first was a slide with three words: imagination, creativity, and innovation. Dennis spoke about how the combination of these three had the power to positively transform commerce, culture, education, and government. I found this perspective very appealing—because while we are constantly bombarded with the word innovation, we rarely hear the previous two mentioned in connection with it.

The reason behind that seems simple enough. Innovation is a deliverable—a tangible thing that is tied to commerce (and of course, everyone wants commerce). Creativity and imagination on the other hand are a bit fuzzy. Because they are not easily quantified, they come off as uncomfortable. But without those two, I don’t think you ever get to true innovation.

The other slide forms the title of this post: “The cavalry is not coming.” Dennis Cheek asserts that if we are waiting for national, state, or local government to solve our toughest problems—we will all be waiting a very long time. (See October 1-16, 2013). It is therefor incumbent on us—particularly creative problem solvers—to take on a larger role in tackling the challenges we face.

That one slide became the impetus for this Friday’s creativemilwaukee@work 2013 summit. Intentionally designed as a prototype for a larger initiative, the conference brings together a diverse range of speakers—self-identified “creatives” and ordinary citizens doing extraordinarily creative things.

Gary Mueller will be there to talk about the work Serve has done, including the fantastic results recently announced for the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative. In an interactive twist, he’ll also enlist the audience in an impromptu concepting session for an upcoming Serve campaign. This application of creativity is familiar to us—using our talent to create awareness campaigns that can positively affect social change.

On the other hand there is Ken Leinbach—Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center—a self-described “non-creative science teacher.” And yet, the Urban Ecology Center he has helped build is nothing short of creative brilliance. I’ve personally heard Ken define community as “the people who care enough to show up.” In Riverwest, the people who showed up were concerned neighbors who wanted to take back their neighborhood park and replace crime and litter with learning.

Throughout the course of working on designing the experience for the event, I’ve had the chance to meet amazing people working on incredible projects throughout the city—in education, race relations, sustainable food—the list goes on and on. Many do not describe themselves as creative. They see opportunities for change, and they act on them. For them, there is no waiting. Their only option is doing.

In a wonderful occurrence this past weekend, Kathleen End, a student community service coordinator for MPS, had the audacity to show up with an idea at Startup Weekend Milwaukee—and won first place. End pitched an “idea based in need” on Friday night. Sproutr is a platform that connects high school students with volunteer opportunities, tracks their efforts, and rewards them with a Foursquare-style badge system. Prior to this, it had all been tracked on paper.

9 people joined her team, built a working prototype, and took home first place on Sunday night. Bravo.

No, the cavalry is not coming. It is already here—and it is us. Armed with creativity and imagination, we are an incredible force that can create meaningful positive change.

When I was a college sophomore, I had the nerve to give some samples of my creative writing to the esteemed Irish poet James Liddy, who was teaching a class at UW-Milwaukee. He wrote me a very kind note, and in it he told me “go do great (not good) things with your talent.” I often passed those exact sentiments on to interns and young creatives that I worked with when they moved on to bigger opportunities.

Many years later, I have discovered a new understanding of that passage, and I have rewritten it in my own words: With our creativity and imagination, now is the time to do great things in the service of good.

You can follow the creativemilwaukee@work summit with the hashtag #MKEcreates on Instagram and Twitter

Mark Fairbanks is cofounder of Translator, an experience design agency in the Third Ward, and cofounder of Islands of Brilliance, a creative academy for children with autism.

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