A couple years ago, right after I moved to Milwaukee, two people contacted me on Twitter to invite me to a lecture series. Prior to this, I had never met strangers from the internet in person, but I was new to the area and looking to make friends so I acquiesced.

What I encountered was a unique community of creative people doing work all over Milwaukee, who came together to hear a fascinating person speak in a fascinating place. It was called CreativeMornings, and it took place once a month, except not just in my city. It was happening in cities across the world, reaching creative professionals in the fields of design, video, photography, fashion and more, with everyone focused on one monthly theme like Mystery, Survival or Language.

One of the 2016 monthly themes was Sound, beautifully illustrated here by Derry Dillon. Every month there's a new theme and a new illustration that CreativeMornings events around the world all share.

One of the 2016 monthly themes was Sound, beautifully illustrated here by Derry Dillon. Every month there's a new theme and a new illustration that CreativeMornings events around the world all share.

I felt a little out of place, but after that first experience (hearing local chef Justin Carlisle speak on the theme of “ugly”), I was hooked—not least because they served free coffee and breakfast treats, and located their events in cool spaces that were easy to get to (like museums, coworking spaces and music venues). Back then, I wasn’t even working in a creative field; I was managing a housing program at a homeless shelter. Yet I found a way to justify the time off from work and the escape toward this magical creative sanctuary on the last Friday of every month.

After every lecture, I came away with something surprising: insights that impacted my current job, and if not that, then my life in general. A local architect, Tom Kubala, introduced me to the book, A Pattern Language, and talked about using this process to redesign a Unitarian church to be more welcoming, with a layout that flowed more logically toward the congregation’s goals. This in turn got me thinking about how low income housing and homeless shelters are designed. Were there ways we could redo the layout at the shelter where I was working to be more welcoming and coherent? Could I one day design an affordable housing building using the pattern language process?

Another CreativeMornings lecture was presented by a husband and wife design team, Patrick and Libby Castro. They talked about the challenges and rewards of working closely with a partner, how to balance career and life commitments, and how their individual skills complemented one other at their design studio. It helped me reflect on my own work-life balance and my dreams of one day opening a business with my own partner.

CreativeMornings attendees partake in an interactive design project.

CreativeMornings attendees partake in an interactive design project.

By the time I started working for Strong Towns, the connections between CreativeMornings presentations and my own work were even clearer. During every meet-up, I encountered strong citizens doing fascinating things to make my city better and help my community thrive. These presentations helped me think about how to build strong towns in new ways too.

The most recent event I attended featured the Community Engagement Coordinator for our local bikeshare system who had a lot of valuable insights about how to make bikeshare more accessible for everyone (the theme of the last CreativeMornings gathering was Equality). I hope to feature her on the Strong Towns podcast soon.

This week, I looked up the mission of CreativeMornings for the first time. It reads:

Everyone is creative.

A creative life requires bravery and action, honesty and hard work. We are here to support you, celebrate with you, and encourage you to make the things you love.

 We believe in the power of community. We believe in giving a damn. We believe in face-to-face connections, in learning from others, in hugs and high-fives.

 We bring together people who are driven by passion and purpose, confident that they will inspire one another, and inspire change in neighborhoods and cities around the world.

Everyone is welcome.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so surprising that I felt immediately at home in this CreativeMornings community. I don’t need to be a capital “C” Creative to get a lot out of the experience. And neither do you.

I highly encourage you to go look up your city on the CreativeMornings website and see whether there’s a group that gathers near you, then give it a shot. Even if you’re a civil engineer or nonprofit manager who doesn’t think a moment of your day requires creativity, I guarantee you will take away something valuable, whether it is a connection, an idea or a resource. Then use that creativity to help you build strong towns.

(All photos from CreativeMornings Milwaukee Facebook page)

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