I've had something on my mind since Camp Mighty two months ago but the seeds of thought were planted much earlier, in 2008, when I wrote about my reaction to a man who smelled on the subway. That post was about my emotions and the overwhelming helplessness I feel when witnessing need in others. I wondered why I kept finding myself torn apart, just absolutely floored, by sadness because I wasn't always so wobbly-kneed. I then answered my own question by guessing (rightly so, I believe) that I'd been missing an important part of my life since I'd started working on music tours. Before touring, my work had a strong bent to social action with a few notable exceptions (Don Pablo's Mexican Kitchen! And all those pubs!) and without it I eventually I felt a void and I felt guilt. Guilt isn't my motivator nor my predominant sense, mainly because it's not useful long term and I'm finally getting inspired to brainstorm on ways to create more meaning for myself since I'm probably not going to quit my job to become an organic farmer or work in an orphanage any time soon.
One of the speakers at Camp Mighty was Kenna. I used to think about Kenna as just that guy on my iPod because Matthew had given me his music but I hadn't taken much time to listen. When I saw that he would be speaking at camp, I was intrigued and when he took the stage, I was rapt. Kenna spoke about the music industry and his place in it. He spoke of the ego involved, the publicists and stylists, and the pressure. But first we had to call his mom to sing her happy birthday. He put her on speaker but didn't tell her right away that there were a hundred people listening.
"Happy birthday, mom."
"Are you taking your vitamins?"
"Have you met a nice girl yet?"
"Mom, I've got a bunch of people here. They want to sing for you..."
It was very endearing. After we sang and laughed and listened to Kenna and his mom chat more and got our heartstrings all but manhandled, he hung up and continued his talk. He had reached a successful point in his music career and was living large, following the sparkly path of fame, when he had a conversation with his father. In the conversation his dad mentioned that as a child in Ethiopia he'd suffered for years with a waterborne illness and that his brother died. Kenna was struck. He didn't know that he'd had a uncle who died as a child and that his own dad had lived ten years with the physical pain that comes from drinking contaminated water: crippling diarrhea, nausea, cramps, dehydration, vomiting, fever and the looming threat of death. His dad told him that he had saved $10,000 and that he wanted to use it to help a community in Ethiopia build a well.
Kenna's parents immigrated to the United States due to persecution by the government in Ethiopia, his father a former Minister of Agriculture. After spending two years separated from his parents and living with his grandfather in Ethiopia, Kenna joined his parents in the US and grew up in Virginia. He was close to his parents and lived in a generous house that took people in and helped family still in Ethiopia. The Zemedkum family sounds like a big-hearted and open-armed clan that instilled deep values in Kenna which hurt him all the more to realize he'd been oblivious to a huge, formative fact about his father's life. To hear Kenna speak about this was powerful. It was a moment in which he questioned his choices and how he'd been living. I don't want to put words in his mouth but what this sounded like to me, when I compared it to my life was: I may not be doing anything wrong but am I doing enough right?
Kenna's response was to turn his attention to the matter of clean water worldwide and from that Summit on the Summit took shape. To draw attention to the fact that a billion people don't have clean water to drink, he got high profile people to hike to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and got other high profile to donate money if they made it. Kenna proposed his idea to Justin Timberlake on a snowboarding trip and while J. Timbo wasn't able to do the climb, he introduced the documentary that was eventually made for MTV and Jessica Biel, Lupe Fiasco, Emile Hirsch, Isabel Lucas, and Santigold climbed with a number of experts, sherpas, documentarians, and, of course, Kenna. They made it to the top of the 19,340 foot peak on January 12, 2010 and Summit on the Summit's work is ongoing.
After Kenna's talk and Q & A session with Maggie, I approached him to say thanks. I told him that I'm a tour manager and that I struggle to keep my job from taking over my life at the expense of activism that's important to me so his story resonated big time. He laughed and told me to tell Randy Jackson what's up for him. I didn't get into the fact that while Randy and I have passed in the hall a few times, I have no interaction with the TV judges since I've taken over Idol only when the TV show ends and my link to the judges are more along the lines of "Yeah, I saw Paula Abdul on her phone out by the dumpster when I was on the way to the bus." Plus, I have since then left the Idol tour and am working for one of the Idols, Lauren Alaina, on her solo career. That's also beside the point. I'm just as busy as I ever was and still need to pay close attention to what's important to me.
Kenna was incredibly friendly and approachable and told me to get the contact info of one of the people he works with because collaboration is good. Regardless of what collaborations I forge or what issues I throw myself into, it was a good reminder how much is possible, at what scale, when you reach out to others and step out of your comfort zone whether that zone is calling someone you don't know or hiking at an elevation in which your eyeballs can freeze.
Something I've enjoyed while working with Lauren is the number of shows that we've done as benefit fundraisers. She's sung her heart out for cause after cause, one recurring topic being children's cancer. We've visited the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis once and are going back again soon. ST. JUDE BLOWS MY MIND as one of the most intense examples of positive energy coexisting with crushing sorrow I've ever beheld. I'm in awe of the supreme strength of the children and families at St. Jude, not to mention those who work there.
I've set a goal for myself to find an organization that I can volunteer for when I have down time in Nashville. The side note to this would be to create down time when I feel like I don't have any. On an ever deeper level, I am mercilessly drawn to the idea that I need to write about my brother and my family. My parents spent years advocating and fighting for disability rights when I was young and I appreciate this more and more all the time. I face a huge amount of resistance to actually writing our story and have finished a total of only two chapters in two years but I also have an idea of how resistance works and am pretty sure that this just means I find the weight and meaning of it all intimidating. I believe, however, that telling stories is a potent way to build and create community. On the way to the coffeeshop today, I had a text conversation with Kelly who'd written out of the blue to offer writing support. Do I need a reader? Can I send an outline of ideas? What about a summer retreat in Tennessee? Do I realize that a chapter a month is a whole book in a year? Kelly has a lot of energy, as we all do especially when we channel it in the direction we truly crave.