“People organize themselves in a different way than they used to. I think that secular groups have taken the place of churches in some cases.”—Kara Brickman

Kara Brickman: Dean, Boston Awesome Foundation / Boston MA

“people organize themselves in a different way than they used to. i think that secular groups have taken the place of churches in some cases.”—kara brickman

How often do applications for Awesome Foundation grants involve collaborative projects?
It is about 50/50. There are some individuals, some teams, and some community-oriented projects. Even with groups, there is usually a strong instigator. Actually, that’s also the same with starting an Awesome Foundation chapter—somebody makes it all happen, but it is a community program. For example, the Lorem Ipsum storefront from the !nd!v!duals arts collective involves five artists, but one guy was the frontman for the application. That monkey on top of the Revere Hotel is them. It is made out of salvaged material.

Sometimes the partnership is the instigation tool, like Increment. They are business partners who needed some launch help. They make toys for children of all needs, so special needs toys aren’t big and clunky, and don’t separate playtime between special needs kids and their peers.

Does it seem like collaboratives are more in need of resources because there are more mouths involved?
We get a lot of applications from people who write in saying, “Pay my rent for a month.” Or, “Sponsor my work.” The trustees of the Boston Foundation have diverse financial means, but the majority are thousanders. It’s not that we don’t connect to those issues, but we are looking for somebody who needs that piece of the puzzle, and takes something from an idea to an experience or a product. Generally speaking, those people are more focused on materials. If a group of five artists split the $1,000 grant five ways, that’s $200 each, and that’s not particularly effective. It is more beneficial for people seeking forward motion. It is a nice big bear hug for their idea when everybody else is telling them that they are crazy. Sometimes it is the publicity that helps. Often, just the group’s support for an idea plus the money are enough to fund the materials to do a proof of concept. That is probably the reason why the number is $1,000, as opposed to $100,000. The grant is intentionally limited because in order to do something with $1,000, you have to put some elbow grease into it. You have to have a plan. We are really kickstarting projects and ideas.

Are a lot of proposals from artists and designers?
There are some people with real design chops; we get a lot of makers and tinkerers. Some come out of the makerspaces. Some are parts of projects that came out of the residencies or schools, and the designer or artist wants to test it out in the world. It really runs the gamut. Sometimes it is the arts and sometimes it is community activism. Sometimes it is community events and social change. It really is quite diverse, but I think that in general, the applicants are people who want to make something, often an actual object: a monster suit, a mural, an educational experience for kids. It is not always physical, although usually it has some fundable physical components.

Do you feel that Awesome has tapped into contemporary views of community and collaboration?
People organize themselves in a different way than they used to. I think that secular groups have taken the place of churches in some cases. I live in the Northeast, and up here, education and ideas and experiences and community are all more secular. People want to affect things; they want to reach out, and touch things, and hug them, and talk to them, and interact with them, and understand them. They have the opportunity and means to engage in a diverse community.

I started working with Awesome four and a half years ago, but I had only planned on three months. I am doing it because I turn on the news, and I see all of the stories, and it’s so depressing. Even the good stories are kind of bad stories. “Something completely terrible didn’t happen, but it almost did, and here’s the terrible thing that did happen.” I wanted a broader picture of what was going on in the world. I wanted something more inspiring. I wanted something not depressing, and that is the stickiness of the Awesome Foundation right now, because a lot of mainstream culture and institutions do not connect and respond to the people in the community. This involvement as a friend, funder, and cheerleader of other people’s actions is a positive and empowering way to engage with the world.

Do you track the results of Awesome projects within the community?
Yeah, and sometimes the results are there and sometimes not. You can observe the presence or absence of an engagement or action, and both are valuable. There are people who we thought were going to invest the money in gear to create things in the public sphere, but they lacked that greater vision. There are no strings attached to the grant, because you can influence, participate, and engage, but once you try to control, co-opt, or lead a project in a certain direction, then that is not organic and things fall apart. We try to influence certain core things, but when we get too involved in something, it takes away the agency of the person executing the project. Sometimes we will ask people to come back to us, to think through certain things, and we will tell them what our reservations are and maybe give suggestions.

That’s why we have Awesome Hours, where we get some beer together and go to a different co-working space or office in Boston. We try to do that monthly. Getting together generates energy. Our events used to be focused on celebrating our winners; we would have a party. In the last two years, however, we have focused on the people that we were unable to fund, and we help those people flesh out ideas or find collaborators for their project. In turn, we’ve strengthened the pot of applications by strengthening the community of people interested in applying.

People who hang around our events get to know each other and bring people in from their group. It grows from there. The suggestions and ideas and encouragement goes a long way, because a group of people listens to you, they engage with you, and together they figure out ways to take an idea into a physical manifestation.

A recent venue that we have visited for Awesome Hours is Bolt, which is a seed-funding incubator and co-working space for manufacturing. We have also visited Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville a bunch of times. It is an absolutely amazing space. We have been to studios of different people. We have been to some of the spaces of people that we have funded, like the Lorem Ipsum Independent Bookstore by the !nd!v!duals artist collective.

Do you see a link between physically meeting people at events and funding their projects?
When we know the person, we have more information to go by. Experience has strengthened our ability to infer things from different cues and wording. Knowing somebody in the context of community, knowing what someone has done with us in the past, and understanding what they are talking about at an event, can all give us the impression that this is somebody who is a doer.