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John Chambers: Art and Activism

You Bloom, We Bloom: Forest Call with John Chambers

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Last Saturday’s Forest Call swept in the powerful presence of John Chambers! An artist, community organizer, father, and compassion warrior, John has this incredible gift for creating art out of the people around him, and out of the moments that pass us by. You can hear it in his stories. You can catch it in the details of his insights. You can picture the sparks in his eyes as he talks about the people he’s encountered, and events that have passed.
If you’d asked him maybe 10 years ago, John would have never imagined that he’d be here today. Once a senior vice president at a global advocacy firm, he veered off the commercial route and plunged into something undefined, but palpably real: BloomBars. A space that brings people together for creativity and, as Bela and Sri put it, human to human exchange.
And it’s only fitting that in the opening circle of inspiration, the thread of human connection, and the presence that comes with it, had already begun to unfold: Rajesh shared the idea of looking at the same thing differently each day; Amit tagged a woman with a cookie on the train and reflected on the power of the moment when you make the decision to give; Michelle highlighted the power of stories from a recent gathering of women; and Rahul took us on an adventure that led him from disguising his handwriting for an act of kindness to learning what inspires a coworker, just to name a few. 
There were so many beautiful lessons that sprang from the call. Here are 3 that stood out:

1. You Bloom, We Bloom.
“Since we planted this seed in front of this building and called it BloomBars, I’ve struggled to define what it is, and what it’s going to be,” John started out. 

“I tell folks, when they come in—and we’ve never had a sign in front of Bloombars. This friend of mine who lives in Kansas City wrote across the top— “You Bloom, We Bloom.” It’s a very simple idea. We all want to bloom. Blooming is just reaching your full potential. And to grow, we don’t just grow alone. We’re all connected. And if we support one person’s growth, we support all of our growths.”
By helping others bloom, we cannot help but bloom ourselves. :)
2. Power of the Small and Measureless
“It sounds like your background in the corporate world had a great degree of scale, in terms of reaching out in mass media.” Rahul observed. “How do you think about this difference between big and small?”
John: “In the corporate world, you’ve got to have results. Immediately. You’ve got to be able to show the results in a year. At the end of this campaign you’ve got to measure this. One of the most successful public health campaigns we ran in this country was “Click It or Ticket”. It was moving people to buckle-up. And all the lives it saved, moving seatbelt usage from 62% to 81% in just 7 years. Okay. That’s possible. But is it lasting? Is it going to sustain? And what are the motivations? You’re motivating people with a threat.
So I think looking at things differently with BloomBars—we don’t want to threaten people to do things. We don’t want to get inside people’s heads and push the buttons that we know are going to influence them. We want them to open their own hearts. And discover their own changes. And introduce them to the possibilities that that could be, whether it’s through organizations. Whether it’s through meditation. Art. Dance. That it’s their own self-discovery. What greater power is that? I think that’s bigger and better than any campaign that I did at the big level.”
On top of that, when Lavanya asked, “How do you measure impact or change? How do you know what you’re doing is right?” John shines light on the power of community.
“Part of our process is to be able to have the self-evaluation, and to be able to empower people to communicate. To have a democratic environment where people are accepting and providing feedback.” Measurement is not so much in a number, but in the lived exchange between people.
3. Love Trumps Fear
John lives 100 yards away from Bloombars. “It’s in my backyard,” he laughed. It’s also in a neighborhood of Washington DC that’s extremely diverse—where poverty, affluence, and everything in-between rub shoulders on a daily basis.
Just the day before, John had witnessed a robbery outside his home. By youth that had come into BloomBars four years earlier.
“I’m still a little shaken from this,” he described. “Last night, I stuck my head out the window just in time to see their faces committing an armed assault and robbery in front of my house. I knew the police officer, and we went around looking for these guys. They really did this guy…you know, this guy was really…” His voice trails off.
In an instance of such blatant violence, it’s easy to feel fear. “A lot of people would look away. Because they don’t want to be bothered, they don’t want to be troubled, they don’t know what the impacts will be,” Amit commented. “Are you scared of retaliation? Or is there just something that pushes you past that?”
“No,” John immediately responded with a tenderness in his voice. “You can’t live in fear. Love is king. And if you believe in that—if you have that intention—these kids can be reached.”
As we moved through story after story, then finished the call with a silent moment of gratitude and big thank you to all, there was no doubt about it: Love is king.

For more, check out Bela and Sri’s inspiring conversation with John, the BloomBars website, and what happens when National Symphony Orchestra members come together with Hip Hop and Soul artists one evening at BloomBars.

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