Guest Blogger Christine Byl | Thanks & Giving for the Arts


Christine Byl at the 8th Annual Tutka Bay Writers Retreat. Photo by Jeremy Pataky

On a recent road trip to visit family in the Southeast, a rural church billboard caught my eye: “Grateful people are happy people.” I don’t generally look to church yard proclamations for advice, but this quote stayed with me. It’s far from a novel idea—myriad scientific studies support the correlative relationship between articulated gratitude and happiness, and further, between philanthropic giving and deep satisfaction. In a week of thankfulness rituals, I appreciated the reminder.

As a child raised in a devout Protestant household, my early lessons on giving were brought home by stacking piles of dimes from my (sporadic) weekly allowance. The Christian notion of tithing originates in the Old Testament (the current word from the old English teogoþa, meaning “a tenth”), and though it was originally a way of funding the church, tithing is now more broadly interpreted as charitable giving in all forms.

Many cultures and religions practice some form of suggested or compulsory giving, from the Buddhist dana (the Pali word for “gratitude”)—the alms to support dharma teachers, who were generally unpaid; to one of the pillars of Islam, zakat (from Arabic, meaning purification and denoting the obligation to give); to the indigenous potlatch (from the Nootka p’alshit’, for ”give”), a ceremony of mutual gift-sharing practiced widely and diversely among North American tribes and nations, including Tlingit, Salish, and Athabascan.

Generosity need not arise from religion or spiritual practice, either—atheists and agnostics have historically been great philanthropists (see Bill & Melinda Gates); a common atheist refrain is “We don’t need God to be good.”

Whether you’re Baptist, Buddhist, Blackfeet, or none of the above, if you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer, or a reader. Which brings me to my pre-Thanksgiving point: we are all literary citizens. A writing community needs nurturing. Free speech requires protecting. Arts funding begs for advocates. Kids crave diverse books. Imprisoned journalists yearn for fair representation. Public libraries welcome donations. The possibilities are endless. #Giving Tuesday is coming up next week, when non-profits often run matching fund campaigns that give them more bang for your buck. Below are some of the places I turn to when making an offering to arts & culture:

  1. PEN America. One of the oldest and most vaunted of the nationwide literary organizations, PEN’s mission is both wide and deep: “PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.” PEN campaigns range from the political—resisting “fake news,” advocating on behalf of detained or imprisoned writers, and pushing for diversity in publishing—to the celebratory—hosting literary readings, awards, and festivals. One of my favorites among their offerings is the PEN Ten, a weekly Q & A with a wide array of writers.
  2. Local public library branches (or Friends of the Library organizations): Public libraries rely on a blend of public and private funding, and consistent donors help provide insurance against changing federal and state winds. Alaska Library Association is one place to start.
  3. Orion Magazine. A gorgeous quarterly journal publishing at the convergence of arts, culture and the natural world. Non-profit, ad-free, and getting better every year. A donation can include a subscription, for you or someone else. Journal of the Built + Natural Environments, is a web-based venue in the same vein, but with its own stamp, and daily/weekly content. Their “Letter to America” feature has been a welcome antidote to post-Trump despair.
  4. Broadsided Press: Putting Literature & Arts on the Streets. This non-profit web-based press is near and dear to my heart. Poet Elizabeth Bradfield founded it when we were in graduate school together in Anchorage, and now, 13 years later, she still runs it (pro bono) from Cape Cod. Broadsided has archived years of fine art collaborations, publishing poets from Danez Smith to Jane Hirshfield, who wrote, “I am thrilled by the samizdat nature of… this project.” Reliant entirely on donations and tiny submission fees to augment hours of unpaid editorial pro bono editorial labor, Broadsided will put a single of your dollars to great use.
  5. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. This organization became famous for its annual count tallying the gender disparity in literary publishing, and has grown to encompass a larger mission for tracking inequalities in publishing on many fronts. Their annual pie chart alone is data worth paying for, let alone all the other conversation-driving work they do.
  6. American Indian College Fund. Unencumbered and fair access to higher education is critical to a thriving arts culture. I choose to donate to funds that extend educational offerings to people who have been historically (and presently) prevented from accessing them. This scholarship organization is a long-standing one with a great track record for student success.
  7. We Need Diverse Books. I love this project’s mission: “Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children,” and their vision: “A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” How better to shape literary culture than to invest in young readers?
  8. Americans for the Arts. This nationwide group has done more to mobilize against cuts to government funding of arts than any other I know. Their mission: “to serve, advance, and lead the network of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain, and support the arts in America. Connecting your best ideas and leaders from the arts, communities, and business, together we can work to ensure that every American has access to the transformative power of the arts.” A for A works across party lines to lobby for arts funding (and this group is one of the few that counts both me and Lisa Murkowski as devoted supporters!).

I can’t end without a shout-out to a few of the many deserving organizations in Alaska. If you want to “buy local,” I highly recommend Storyknife Writers Retreat (donate to build Eva’s House, in honor of Eva Saulitis); Kachemak Bay Writers Conference (fund a scholarship for an attendee who can’t afford it); Alaska Quarterly Review (buy a subscription for a small-town library); and of course, 49 Writers, which has become a clearing house and a gathering place and a springboard for the writing community in Alaska. They do so much with so little. Consider becoming a member.

Two final thoughts. First, donations needn’t be monetary. If you have more time or skills than cash, consider volunteering for an organization that needs you. Petitions and phone campaigns are widely-touted, low-effort places to lend a hand, but there’s so much more to do: make a flyer for an event; tutor a kid; build and stock a Little Free Library in your yard; join a Board of Directors. Second, don’t forget that subscriptions, memberships, or donations in people’s names make thoughtful and waste-less gifts. Your aunt or boss or child’s teacher will likely appreciate knowing that you linked them with a cause you both believe in. That mutual happiness will outlast anything you can buy.

I know I’ve left out countless deserving organizations; please add your favorites in the comments. My deep gratitude to all who work on behalf of the arts!

This month’s guest blogger Christine Byl is a professional trail-builder and the author of Dirt Work: An Education In the Woods. Her prose has appeared in Glimmer Train StoriesCrazyhorse & Brevity, among other journals & anthologies. A recipient of grants from the Rasmuson Foundation & Alaska State Council on the Arts, she teaches classes on subjects from haibun to chainsaw mechanics. Christine lives in Interior Alaska where she is at work on a novel.

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