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Like many of the lessons I plan to discuss in this column, this one had to be learned the hard way, by letting my little ego get smashed over and over throughout the years of The Painted Brain‘s growth.
I can still remember the pride I felt, showing the very first issue of The Painted Brain to the Development team at the big nonprofit mental health agency where I started my career. It was 2006, just days after our raucously moving and utterly lovely Painted Brain release party at the Unurban Café in Santa Monica, CA. I strode into the Development Office with a story to tell, issue #1 tucked under my arm. The members of the team listened to my pitch, looked through the first issue of The Painted Brain Magazine and at some photos of the event, and smiled at me. “And…?”
“Well, so I thought that this might be a project the development team might want to get behind, maybe support me in doing more of it by helping to raise money for printing or supplies or helping me dedicate some of my professional time to the project. Maybe I can bring in social work interns as grant writers. I see it as a job creator, a stigma buster, and a public relations campaign for our agency all in rolled into one.”
Frankly, I was shocked by their utter lack of vision, they simply couldn’t see the potential of a media project created by, and for, mental health consumers, our agency’s very client base.
“Where’s the evidence that it works?” they asked.
“It’s in your hands, isn’t it?” I asked meekly, feeling smaller by the second.
While the meeting went nowhere, it did wake me up. In fact, it left me reeling. I was practically writhing on the floor of their office, which seemed suddenly “blingier” than the rest of the agency. I do owe them some thanks for their expensive plush carpeting (it broke my fall) and for the mint they offered to me on the way out, right back to the nine-to-five job that they’d hired me to do.
My mistaken belief (or as I look at it eight years later, my false sense of entitlement) was that doing something awesome or radical would be so self-evidently valuable that people in power would line up to help me do it. It just simply wasn’t true. I wasn’t looking for money or a raise, just time and a budget, but it wasn’t to be had so easily. Doing something radical is, by definition, doing something that is not already endorsed by the systems and funding streams. At the time, this project did not seem radical at all to me, it just seemed like a natural extension of the stated intentions of my profession and the agency that employed me. I did think it was pretty awesome, radical in the surfer sense, but not in the political sense. I still don’t think we’re doing anything that radical and it’s still shocking to me that what we’re doing is even that unique.
Running a nonprofit, especially one that pushes boundaries and enters new territory for social work and social practice, requires doing the work and demonstrating its worth. Cool concepts are a lot easier to develop than actual working projects. Your personal definition of working (“Look at this super cool magazine-shaped thing we made!”) does not automatically align with other people’s definition of what working means.
The single best thing I’ve done for myself in this whole process is to commit myself to earning a living elsewhere while running the Painted Brain. For the first six years of the project, The Painted Brain was something I worked on during my off-hours, as a side gig to a full time job while I worked at the previously-mentioned agency. I swallowed a lot of bitterness to keep it going there for another three years, consistently facing the same responses from our fancy-pantsed development team. This was more than compensated from the love on the other side, and the sense of shared purpose. I found ways to work on The Painted Brain while interweaving my efforts with the billing and work requirements of my agency job. At the end of the day though, my job was providing traditional mental health services, and I did this 40 hours per week. I must acknowledge here (for the first time) that I billed Painted Brain‘s very first fashion shoot (issue #3) as a “socialization experience” for mental health consumers, which it was.
I then worked in college counseling for four years and The Painted Brain became a side project on nights and weekends. This hampered its growth and nearly wiped me out personally, but it also allowed me to save up money (very important) and build up a private therapy practice as a secondary source of income. Both of these moves made my leap into the financial void of the nonprofit world a little less jarring and a lot less desperate.
Dave Leon is the founder and director of The Painted Brain. He is also radical, as well as totally awesome. (unsolicited endorsement from billy bang douglas, our esteemed editor)