Learning by Going #3: The Surprising Value of Free



Teaching free writing classes through the Writing Home project has been turning some of my ideas about money on their heads.

I’ve been surprised at how valuable it has been to offer writing classes for older adults for free

It was something of an accident that Known by Heart Writing Home workshops are being offered at no charge to participants. The budget for the project did not depend on charging participants and in discussions with site partners, I trusted their sense that not charging a fee would make it easier for people to try something new, even if they had enough dollars in their pocket to pay. I was fine with the decision, and yet….

A chorus of inner voices protested the decision to offer classes for free. Like most people, it turns out I have a lot of beliefs about money. In this case, they included:

1.Paying is a form of respect. Artists deserve professional respect and in our society professional respect means money. It’s just plain weird in our culture how one minute someone can be talking enthusiastically about the amazing value of art in people’s lives and the next minute practically fall off their chair when an artist or teaching fee is named that represents something south of minimum wage when all of the artist’s time is taken into account, not even touching the professional training. I don’t like to reinforce the idea that artists should do things for free, just work for love.

2. Paying is a form of ownership. I learned this back in my community organizer days, when I worked organizing tenants. I worked with folks who lived in deep economic poverty. Paying to be part of the tenants union, meant you had a stake in the direction of that group, the power to speak up.

3. Paying is a form of commitment. I’ve seen how paying for something makes me take it seriously.  Even though I’ve been writing for decades now, signing up and paying for a class means I will do the assignments. I’ve seen this time and again in others as well.

4. Paying/charging money is a  form of solidarity. Poets and novelists and dancers and a host of other creative folks rarely make a  living directly from the production of their art. Teaching—in educational systems, in community settings—is one relatively stable form of income stream for many artists. So I don’t want to undermine others’ ability to legitimately charge for their teaching work.

In addition to trusting my site partners’ abundant expertise, I made peace with not charging in the following ways:

1. Many of the older adults I work with don’t have money for all their ongoing bills, much less to pay for a class.

2. Not everything of value is about money. For example, Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift, makes a strong argument for the possibilities of de-coupling creativity and art-making from the money economy.

3. Barriers: Sometimes people have so many barriers to art-making or  writing that anything we can do to remove a barrier is all to the good. Elders often have mobility issues.  And there’s the barrier of negative messages people have gotten about art and art-making—“you shouldn’t say that” or “that’s not important” or… if offering a class for free can somehow be a counterweight to those messages, then that has value.

4. Pay it forward: Known by Heart’s been given the gift of cash and in kind support so making the resultant programming free to participants feels like a way of paying it forward.

Enough of the inner voices. How has it played out? So far

People value free.

I heard several participants say to me or in how much they’ve wanted a class like this. How they’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time. And part of what they are looking for is that it’s free.

People show generosity when it’s shown to them.  Participants in these free classes have been so generous with each other—in bringing in treats, in supporting each others words and stories.

People can still manifest a strong commitment to something free. People showed up (which as I’ve observed elsewhere—in an interview with Knight Foundation’s blogger Ira Brooker —is sometimes no small thing). People worked hard on their writing and on supporting each other in their writing.

I have to say my site partners have been abundantly right. Not to negate the importance of my arguments for charging above, but I’ve been learning from this experience.

I can’t speak to whether people’s barriers to paying for a class are perceived or real. But Maybe it doesn’t matter. I haven’t given up my values around seeing teaching artists be well compensated for their work. But it’s educated me a bit about the importance of having free offerings for people. It can open up a certain kind of creative community. It can invite people to the table.

I think that’s worth something.

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