Friday, June 13, 2014

The Totally Unexpected Truth of Urban Campfire

Last week, I had the utterly surreal experience of going to a “networking” event that far, far exceeded its marketing promise.

If you have any experience in the world of entrepreneurial gatherings, you will have some idea of just how very rare this is.

I put “networking” in quotation marks, since that term really doesn’t do justice to what happened last Tuesday night, June 3rd, at Urban Campfire’s first Denver event.  

I have been in the academic, business startup, and personal growth worlds for 20 years now, and as you may already know, these are three communities in which personal expression and connection are highly valued, at least in theory.  And I can honestly say that this was the most magical night of expression and human connection I have experienced since. . . since. . .

Oh yeah.  Since summer camp as a kid.   Since camping on the beach in Hawaii with my big sister. Since camping with my best college buddies in our late twenties (remember the night the bear attacked our log cabin, and we were so scared and wasted we all had to pee in my ex-husband’s expensive Nalgene bottles?)

That’s the type of atmosphere that CRAVE founder Melody Biringer has been able to generate with her latest invention, the Urban Campfire. 

No, nobody peed in my Nalgene bottle, but my point is that every detail of this particular gathering conspired to bring us in immediate intimate connection with our table-mates—rather like some of us once bonded with our tent-mates at summer camp long ago.

First, some background. 

Urban Campfire is the brainchild of Seattle native Melody Biringer, a self-described serial entrepreneur and founder of CRAVE, a city-by-city book and event company that features the stores and services of women entrepreneurs.

As Melody herself explained to us last Tuesday, a few years ago, she hit a serious wall.  After 30+ years of entrepreneurial gusto (many companies, many failures, some successes, some big successes), she was dealing with some of the nastier aspects of depression, frustration, burnout, and, oh yeah, turning 50—the age that women in our culture are unofficially decreed Past All Hope of Anything Juicy or Interesting.

So she did a weird thing—she started talking about these feelings and experiences in places where such things are not usually discussed—like as a featured speaker at a big corporate event for a big successful company (you may have heard of this company.  They sell coffee and have a green logo).

And after speaking, she was swamped with audience members who wanted to thank her.  For those totally unexpected things she brought to the room: honesty and vulnerability.

(It’s interesting, when you think about it.  Here we are living in this post-Brene Brown world of Vulnerability, this world where every self-styled social media expert tells us to “be transparent,” and “be authentic.” Yet this evidence suggests that such authenticity is still very much the exception rather than the rule.)

At about the same time she was causing this bizzaro disruption to the field of business as usual, Melody was also talking with her best friends in private.  They asked her, “Okay, CRAVE founder.  What do you crave?  What do you love? What makes you happy?”

Melody’s answer (“the movie Flashdance and roasted marshmallows”) turned out to be the spark that ignited the Urban Campfire flame.  As she told The Huffington Post, ‘There is something about the conversations we have around a campfire . . . we are more vulnerable and open to sharing.” 

So, bringing us back to the evening of Denver’s first Urban Campfire. 

We walk in, and the tables are arranged in a big circle around a central focal point, the “campfire” where the speakers will share.  Each round table is also its own campfire, where a facilitator and eight women will do their own private sharing.

As a facilitator, I got an early look at the discussion topics, and I suspected that this was not going to be your typical networking event when I saw the first question:  “Share a story of personal failure—business, personal, or life.”

Wait.  We’re going where?

As a teacher, writer, and branding/blog/book consultant, I have some experience generating the kind of Listening that gets people to spill.  I have a black leather couch in my home office that has collected the tears of many a therapist writing her first book, so I know my way around a heartfelt conversation about the strangely disappointing tendencies of reality.

But now I was going to be partially responsible for generating that kind of authenticity for eight strangers around a dinner table in a noisy room full of rotating catered food?

Oh my.  I sense the opportunity for another wonderful moment of personal failure to occur right here, right now, over this tastefully prepared dish of locally-sourced root vegetables.

But then.  The first speaker, Jessica Bachus, crutched to the center of the room (she had recently broken a foot).  She began to tell the story of her daughter’s untimely death, and how that tragedy had led, slowly, painfully, drenched with alcohol, to her decision to live anyway, and later to found a nonprofit, Dolls for Daughters.

Love, sorrow, anguish, and compassion began to fill the room as her listeners audibly gulped and wiped away their tears.  A huge, magnificent, electrifying sense of mutual trust began to engulf us, as all our usual ways of “being with strangers in public” fell forgotten on the floor, like old gum wrappers.

The next speaker, Ashley Kingsley, founder of Daily Deals for Moms, stepped into that space and blew what was left of our composure with her forthright description of addiction, depression, anxiety disorder, and being told repeatedly that she would never amount to anything.  And what she decided to do anyway.

Former Marine-Turned-Meditator Sarah Plummer followed Ashley, describing her time in Afghanistan, and what it’s like to have 24-hour access to an automatic weapon that you long to turn on yourself.  And her discovery that the smallest thing can save you—the intent awareness of your own breath.

At this point, we turned inward to our own tables for sharing.  Some of us had more epic failure readily available for public consumption than others, but all of us—even the more reserved—were able to meet in that place of uncanny honesty that campfires, as Melody points out, seem to encourage.

One woman told a story about her formerly transgender son.  As a young child, he was contemplating suicide, so wrong did he feel about being a boy.  As this woman said, when it’s a choice between letting your kindergartener “pass” as a girl, or kill himself, well.  Really a pretty easy choice, when you think about it.

Our table became an eerie silent oasis in the middle of a room of buzz and chatter.  Our eyes riveted to her face, our hearts riveted to her story, we heard how most of this woman’s family stopped speaking to her.  And now, years later, the son is a teenager who wants to be a boy, and can’t forgive his mom for the embarrassment of female peers who remember him attending their Barbie birthday party back in the day.

As my beloved friend, noted speaker and author coach Kristen Moeller wound up saying in her own Campfire speech later in the evening, sometimes the Hero’s Journey doesn’t turn out according to pattern.  Sometimes you just get to sit in the flames for a while and burn.

And Kristen would know.  Her dream house, the one she and her husband raised from a pup, was one of the ones that burnt to the ground in the Colorado wildfires of a couple years back.  But being Kristen, she is going to do three things with this:

1)   REALLY feel this loss, like for real.  Because Kristen is one of those lucky individuals who gets to feel ALL her feelings.  Yayyyyyy.
2)   Write an amazing book about what happens when you lose everything and your well-meaning friends say, “Well, at least you had insurance!”
3)   And, of course, what any of us would do in this situation, which is buy a tiny house to put up on our burnt land and then be featured on an A&E reality  show about tiny houses.  Probably called “Tiny Houses/Big Lives.”  Yup, that’s my girl.

The final two speakers of the evening gave us some perspective of how things look when you’re coming back up the ladder, or getting on the ladder for the first time despite protests from your friends and family who are baffled by your career choice. 

Gloria Scruggs, a phoenix who rose from the ashes via the Women’s Bean Project, now a CCD graduate who shines at Kentwood Homes, was so utterly warm and magnificent a presence that her 10-minute talk passed in about thirty seconds.   I don’t think I was alone in my longing to go live on her floor and absorb her divinity on a daily basis.

Jessica Acosta, an up-and-coming environmental construction guru, ( told us about how a former boss had pointed out that she had three strikes against her: she’s a woman, a Latina, and an outsider in the construction industry—no family connections to help grease any wheels.

Jessica decided to see what she could do to turn those obstacles into assets, despite the additional obstacle of looking like—how do I say this with the respect that is intended?—a well-dressed version of a Maxim cover model.  The Denver Business Journal recently named her one of their “Top 40 Under 40,” but many of her friends and family members still think she ought to get a “regular job.”

Having now washed our dirty failure linen in public and lived to tell the tale, Melody’s next direction was that we come up with a list of ten things we crave to share with our table.  And to tell the story of “Why” for one of our cravings.

This, in my opinion, is another piece of sheer timing genius.  Had we started with this exercise, I think our “Crave” lists might have been more tame or conventional, but having already shared the less appealing versions of our Shadow Selves, we were bolder, edgier, more greedy.

I don’t want to betray the sacred circle of campfire craving confessions, but I will say that one craving expressed by many was a desire for more close friendships, and more time with close friends.  You know, like we used to have, back when we went to sleepovers and summer camp, before we had to go to office parties or networking events.

For the next couple of days following the campfire, I pondered what I had witnessed.  How, exactly, did all that happen?  Is it just a matter of creating a space—a physical environment, an emotional atmosphere—that simply allows this level of intimacy and honesty? Or is there some other mysterious ingredient?

On the one hand, every bit of this conversational richness was carefully tended by Melody and by our own lovely co-city leader for CRAVE Denver, Brit Stueven—an event planner and emcee whose graceful, natural Audrey Hepburn-like charm tends to mask all the hard thinking and hard work she does to makes these events successful.  By the way, if Brit sounds like someone you need, you can find her at Pollinize Media   

Special credit also goes to longtime Denver CRAVE city leader Mia Voss, who so carefully tended the collective ground for Mile High CRAVE members on their way up to Awesomeness, a place that Mia occupies effortlessly.  Have you seen her photo on The Mia Connect  Damn! Now that’s a power pose.  Such careful care of a city like Denver is what keeps a camping ground ready for a good Campfire.

(Also, Mia and I were both wearing white pants, and were thus mutually oppressed by all the concerns that white pants can engender.  Which is a subject for another blog.)

I was still contemplating the whyfors and whatnots of this “authentic connection” phenomenon in the back of my mind as I watched an old episode of Mad Men.  Advertising powerhouse Don Draper is talking to Sterling Cooper’s consulting psychologist Fay Miller about why he doesn’t approve of some of her methods. 

Miller tells him, “Look, we’re both in the same business.  And I’m not ashamed to say it’s about helping people somehow sort out their deepest conflict.”

“And what is that?” Don asks. 

“In a nutshell?” Faye replies, “It all comes down to What I Want vs. What Others Expect of Me.”

Ah, I thought.  Yes.  We came into the doors of Urban Campfire that night, each of us to some degree in our professional or semi-professional guise of “What Others Expect of Me.”  And we left with our cravings spoken out loud, our “What I Want” cards laid on the table.

And being women, many of us moved quickly to offer help, guidance, or simple, heartfelt belief and support for each other’s dreams.  Because what women do naturally (unless we’re all discombobulated by our efforts to “compete” in the model encouraged by much traditional business, and even much newfangled entrepreneurial business—have you noticed a certain bias on the cover of Entrepreneur magazine?) is collaborate.

And this turns our “What I Want” into a “What We Want” that can be shared, savored, and yes, actually realized in the real fucking world.

I close with a profound “Thank You” to Melody, Brit, Mia Voss, and all the speakers who made this divine evening possible.  And I can’t wait to come back to the Campfire, back where we belong.

You can attend the main Urban Campfire even in Seattle in August: Urban Campfire Seattle.
Or come join the campout at: The Urban Campout.

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