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The role of curiosity, creativity, in showing up 100 and driving toward change by Josh Miller

Photos by Josh Miller, courtesy of IDEAS xLab 

Oh, the outrage. Maybe you’ve heard the recent Hidden Brain episode Screaming Into The Void: How Outrage Is Hijacking Our Culture, and saw President Obama’s remarks about the increasingly toxic “cancel culture." Or, you’ve been on the receiving end of the outrage unleashed online through Facebook and Twitter: often rooted in quick assumptions, a limited amount of evidence, a group ready to like, retweet and chime in, and a rush to post that undermines curiosity to understand the full picture.  

The very idea of what it means to be curious, to make space for ourselves and others to inquire, to seek understanding and to be wrong, has been replaced with polarizing viewpoints and quick to judge mentalities.  

Sitting in a recent conversation, I heard from a woman about a team-building workshop focused on diversity. She talked about how participants moved from table to table, each with a different topic. But the intersection of being politically correct and polite and the fear of being vilified meant that most participants sat silent.  

Looking across the table from me over coffee, another woman said that she usually avoids saying anything because she is unsure how it will be received. Later in our discussion, she felt comfortable enough to ask, “Josh, how do you identify?” while we were talking about gender identity.  

Through our work at IDEAS xLab, I’ve become convinced that curiosity plays an increasingly important role in collaboration, in building trust, and in sustaining meaningful connections. When combined with creativity, expressed and unlocked through arts and culturally-rooted practices, curiosity will help us to foster strong cross-sectors partnerships for driving the systems-level change so needed in our country.   

During the first Creating Healthy Communities gathering in Cincinnati in June 2018, Laurie Baefsky of UC Denver (formerly with a2ru), and Jill Sonke, Director of the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine opened with the question, “What gives you oxygen?” The deeply curious part of me loved this prompt, because it wasn’t the normal “What role do you play within your organization?” It was much more personal. It provided insight into the motivations and values of those we were sharing space with, connecting us in new ways.  

Each time I’ve asked this question of a new connection, it has prompted a bit of a smile, a darting look of excitement as they think about how they might answer it. So, what gives me oxygen? Seeing communities step up as the champions of their own stories. Combining running and photography as a way to explore the world. The belief that people should be able to show up 100 where they live, work, worship, learn, and play – and having them recognize that worth – the crown jewel.  

Since I’ve had the honor of attending multiple CHC convenings, I started an ongoing portrait series featuring the faces of new and long-time friends from these meetings paired with their “What gives you oxygen?” response. It is in those moments, where curiosity is king, that trust is built. I’m asking you because I want to know you.  

Some of the responses stick out to me.  

“My love for the Uŋčí Makȟá -Grandmother Earth helps me to honor humans of unique cultures to transform their own narrative,”said Mitákuye Oyásʼiŋ (Billi Jo Gravseth). “I will continue to love and liberate the sacred.”  

“As someone who grew up in a rural area, who has a sense there are multiple ways to be in these spaces,” said Derek Hamm. “I want people from rural places to know there is room for all people - there is possibility here.” 

“Mine is two-part. I’m a mother of two young children, one is five, one is 10 months. Especially for my 10-month-old who is breastfeeding, we have a strong and clear physical connection, that provides for quiet intimate moments. My five-year-old likes to be close by me - and it is in the times with my children I am at my best - fully present with them - and they are giving me oxygen and I them,” said Chera Reid. “The giving and receiving with them require making time for things like exercise and self-care, having things just for me gives me the oxygen I need to come back and be in that reciprocal relationship. Seeing me be active helps my children know we take care of ourselves - it’s a priority.”  

During our second day in Lexington this past fall, convened by CHC, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation around the impact of the arts on the social cohesion, we launched into a discussion about how it can be difficult to step into cross-sector rooms when the norms and traditions of those groups may feel at odds. An artist talked about hiding their emotions about a performance because of the formal, research-focused nature of the convening. I shared that walking into the hotel for the conference, and during multiple interactions with the hotel staff on the first day, I had been misgendered as female by the staff from the front desk to dinner service, although I use he/him/his pronouns.  

Underlying these experiences was the role of assumptions we all walked in with, in contrast with living out a curiosity mindset. I personally catch myself making assumptions in my head about people – who they are attracted to, how they identify, their socio-economic status, their education level, etc. What I have started to practice is an internal curiosity-based exercise. Reminding myself that in reality, I cannot make those assumptions, but I do have the opportunity to learn about them if I step into the discussion from a place of curiosity.  

During my presentation at the Creating Healthy Communities Conference in Orlando, FL, I talked about Our Emotional Wellbeing, the 2-year initiative my team and I at IDEAS xLab are currently implementing with 12-20 years old, leveraging an arts-based co-creation process to impact hope and belonging. We have seen how curiosity is activated through creativity - expanding how young people relate to each other and understand their value, role as leaders, and contributions to the group.  

The example I used was the Showing up 100 portrait and collage activity I led, where the young people visualized what showing up fully would look like, even if at that moment, they were in a place in life where they felt restricted. We talked about what happens when we have to hide or cover parts of who we are and the impact that showing up fully can have on others. This is another place where curiosity can drive change and enhance our ability to innovate, think creatively, lead, and feel authentically connected.  

So, whether it’s naming and acting out curiosity as a value within partnerships, or cultivating a curiosity mindset for engaging with the ever-evolving landscape that is our global workforce, my hope is that each of us will play a role in combatting both outrage and silence by stepping into our work seeking to learn, grow, and make new meaning together.  

Josh Miller is an artist and Co-founder + CEO, IDEAS xLab

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