Etsy offshoot offers idealistic vision of business’s role in building community

Matt Stinchcomb

Matt Stinchcomb

“We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing acquisitive and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” 

— Hillary D. Rodham, commencement speech at her graduation from Wellesley College, where she was head of the student government, 1969.

America is pretty much split down the middle between those praising the virtues of “our acquisitive and competitive corporate life” and those searching for “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” Ask Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

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“We are building community in the Hudson Valley,” Matt Stinchcomb of The Good Work Institute told a roomful of about 40 people in the back room of the Artbar in Midtown Broadway in Kingston on a Friday morning in early November. “The root of our problem is separation. The economic structure encourages that separation. Our earlier state had all these community values. We want to build a more fulfilling, connected and joyful world.”

Think of what he was doing as “business education for social good,” Stinchcomb had advised a Hudson Valley Meetup session in Kingston in the spring, “for those who want to shift the conversation from ‘which companies are less bad’ to ‘which companies are actively improving the world.’”

An offshoot of the pioneering peer-to-website Etsy.com, with which it was sometimes being confused, Etsy.org started with three million dollars of Etsy.com money. Etsy.org formally became The Good Work Institute this past September. At the present rate of expenditure, about three years from now that stash of capital will be exhausted.

Stinchcomb and his colleagues have chosen the Hudson Valley and Brooklyn as their venues for their programs. Stinchcomb told the Kingston audience Friday morning that he believed in community as “a natural state of connection.” Once you’re connected, he continued, you can and do “go out and do good work.”

“What are we doing?” asked artist Joe Concra, an organizer of Kingston’s O+ Festival, attempting to explain at Artbar the Good Work experience in which he is a participant. “It’s intense. It’s deep. It’s personal. It was fascinating. You have these skills. How do you put them into practice?”

Stinchcomb can wax eloquent. “What kind of a world do we want to live in?” he asked rhetorically. “We can shift the way the world works. How we’re spending our time and shaping the world. Our relationships have been separate from the natural world and from ourselves.”

It doesn’t have to be that way, he said.

The Good Work Institute seeks to provide kindred spirits an ecstatic experience that fosters the communitarian vision. Could the sparks it sets off kindle a generational fire in the Hudson Valley?

Good Work is presently accepting applications for its spring 2017 program. As before, this business leadership program will be free. Owners, local entrepreneurs and community leaders will come together to foster the compassion, confidence, and commitment needed to work in ways that allow their lives, enterprises, and the people and places of the Hudson Valley to thrive. “We’re trying to see if we can make it happen here,” said Stinchcomb.

All the participants in the program (Stinchcomb calls them fellows) are expected make a specific commitment “to honor both who you are and what the place needs.” They need to be part of a whole community of people figuring out how their own work can be the engine of good work for their region.

This community riff has a long and complex political history. An idealized society assumed to be practiced in the Golden Age of the Greek city-state was revived in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued in The Social Contract of 1762 that the individual gains much more from cooperating with others than he or she loses in giving up the “unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting.”

Since Rousseau’s time, his kind of thinking has erupted every generation or two, only slowly to make an impact and recede. Its vision of a connected, community-oriented world has a strong hold on the American imagination. But the pendulum swings both ways. This vision seems to lose ground to an increasingly more individualistic, selfish and competitive universe — only to pop up again.

The instrument for sharing the Good-Work form of consciousness is a six-month program that has been meeting every two weeks for a full day plus a couple of overnights. The first Hudson Valley cohort of 34 persons will end next month.

The program is dedicated to the proposition that transformation can and should happen here and now. It sees the economy as this generation’s vehicle for the transformational change. Its core, Good Work says, is the training of cohorts of select entrepreneurs, community leaders and placemakers to embrace a holistic approach to business. This is traditional business education on steroids.

“We’re connecting with Hudson Valley people,” said Simon Abramson, associate director of Wild Earth, a New Paltz-based educational experience (spending the summer “exploring, playing and connecting with nature”), and another of the present Good Work cohort. “It’s the philosophical moving into hard skills.”

From the feedback from about eight Ulster County participants who attended the Artbar session last Friday, the Good Work program has provided its participants a powerful experiential push. These fellows had been stimulated in unexpected ways. They were enthusiastic.

Good Work seems to have succeeded in connecting the fellows, creating a fellowship. “From the experience, we’re all connected,” said Micah Blumenthal, an artist who lives in The Lace Mill in Kingston, “because we’ve all had to challenge ourselves.” Sharing the same physical environment in the Hudson Valley, “we’re literally connected to the [same] land.” Good Work asks how you create benefit for everyone, not the “traditional” how you sustain yourself.

The curriculum is evenly divided between acquiring knowledge provided by experts (“We bring in people who have that to address more traditional topics,” said Blumenthal) and less structured interactions among the participants. Apparently, it’s been the collaboration and the relationship-building that has been the most transformative.

Here’s the formula: Gather a bunch of people from diverse backgrounds and hard business skills. Mix in specific business problems. Season with outside expertise. Slowly create a community container. Let the wisdom of the group emerge.

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