In May of 2018, Endless Beautiful launched a new program called Community Keepers. The program ended up being a great success, and I feel like we learned a lot about EB. I want to chronicle how the Community Keepers Program came together while it’s still fresh in my mind. I also want to use this article as a means to reflect on valuable lessons learned and talk about where we want to take Endless Beautiful in the future as a result.
Hi, my name is Lucas Pralle. I am the co-founder of Endless Beautiful. My partner Carolyn Decker is the other co-founder of Endless Beautiful. We’re based out of Providence, RI. My “day job” away from Endless Beautiful is something called an Employment Specialist for the social services non-profit Community Care Alliance in Woonsocket, RI. I help students craft resumes and search for work. I also set up internships and other work experiences.
At the end of April 2018, I was assigned to work with the CCA’s Harbour Youth Center’s internship program called PAID or Pathways to Adulting, Independence, and Dignity. In this program, students between the ages of 18 and 28 go through 3 weeks of development courses and 3 different 2-week paid internships. The PAID program is designed to help students explore different career and education paths.
By the time I met with the students from PAID, they had already completed their first round of internships. The students were meeting on Friday to check in during a class, and the program’s coordinator, Beth Killian, was having them do an ice-breaker. Beth had set up two facing columns of chairs in the center of the classroom. The students sat down and Beth instructed them to answer a prompt regarding their experience at their worksite that previous week. After a few minutes, one column of students shifted to the right and the new pair of students responded to a different prompt.
I joined the group and sat down in a chair across from a charismatic young man named Shakur Bratton. He told me that his job shadow the previous week had taken place at a small art gallery in Woonsocket. I took a few more things away from my 2-minute conversation with Shakur.
1. Shakur was extremely thoughtful and expressive.
2. It was important for Shakur to have creative outlets in his life.
I continued the ice-breaker with several of the other students and came away from my initial meeting with them thinking that they were a great bunch with a heck of a lot of potential.
Although many of the internships were already locked in for the students, some of them were not. Either something had come up on the worksite end, where they couldn’t bring someone on for a couple weeks or the students were still not entirely sure where they wanted to intern. As the Employment Specialist, it would be my job to reach out to employers and try to establish last minute worksites.
It just so happened that Endless Beautiful had a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts sponsored workshop coming up on May 19, 2018 at the NeighborWorks community space in Woonsocket, RI. I had actually locked in the date with NeighborWorks a few days prior to meeting with the students in PAID.
Since founding Endless Beautiful a few years ago, Carolyn and I had been running every aspect of this business. We had hosted and produced our podcast, recorded every soundscape in our EB Sessions, coordinated with event hosts, media, and guests, and written grant applications. We enjoyed having this creative control and are passionate about these different aspects of Endless Beautiful. However, there was certainly no shortage of work to be done leading up to the events. I sensed an opportunity to both try something new with Endless Beautiful and alleviate some of the pressure of my other duties establishing these last minute work sites for the PAID students.
I spoke with the director of the Harbour Youth Center, Stump Evans, about Endless Beautiful being a work site. Endless Beautiful was a business after all. I explained that it would be a meaningful experience for the students, and that they would not only pick up a few multimedia skills, but also help put on a unique community art event. I promised Stump that I wouldn’t need to supervise the students that much and that I would still be able to perform the functions of my job for the other students.
She agreed to let me do it! Of course, this was all dependent on whether or not one of the PAID students would actually be interested in working with Endless Beautiful.
That night, I told Carolyn about my idea. We didn’t really know what the internship was going to look like. We did know that we needed a cool name for the program and the participants! Carolyn and I bounced some terrible names off one another before she landed on one that stuck:
We liked the name because it had a few meanings. They would be the keepers of the creative flame in Woonsocket. They were also “keepers” as in exceptional individuals that you wanted to have around in your community.
Carolyn and I had just purchased a Scorpion Jr. camera stabilizing handle, a GoPro knockoff, and a shock mount for our Zoom H1 recorder. We decided that we would send Keepers out with this rig. They would use this equipment to collect sounds, make short videos, and create a record of their experiences as Keepers. Coupled with their own personal creativity, the rig would act as the Keepers’ tools of the trade out in the community.
When I got back to the Youth Center, I typed up a quick list of tasks that students could expect to perform during our internship and handed it out to the students. I got a bite right away. Shakur was interested in becoming a Community Keeper!
Now I just had to build a meaningful curriculum on the fly while still helping the other students out at their job sites. Yes, it was a bit daunting, but I also had some concrete anchors that I would work with.
Carolyn and I had basically been doing research for this moment for two years. I knew that the Endless Beautiful Method – writing while listening to a 15-minute audio session worked. We had run several workshops in different communities and classrooms over the last two years, and regardless of how hesitant someone was at the beginning, every single one of them came up with something worthwhile during the writing portion. For every participant, we had been able to develop a meaningful conversation out of their creative work. Heck, we even had children that couldn’t read or write yet come in halfway during one of our workshops and they had drawn some pictures for us. The method was rock-solid. So I knew we didn’t have to worry about any of those details.
Another guide post was our recording methods. The Zoom H1 that we would be entrusting to Shakur and any other Keepers was an effective and easy to use tool. Minimal training about operating the recorder would suffice. Things like making sure you hit the record button to actually save your file to the SD card, watching input levels, minimizing handling noise, keeping close to your subject, and staying out of the wind as much as possible are pretty easy lessons to teach.
I honestly wasn’t sure how easily the Keepers would take to the editing portion at that point. I knew that they would have a lot of fun recording. Carolyn and I had been enjoying recording 400+ sounds at that point. And if the recording portion was the only thing that the Keepers got to participate in, well that would be fun and different, right?
So the first step was to have Shakur try out the EB Method. This would not only give him an example of a session, but also show him what he was going to be asking others to do when it came time for the actual workshop.
I had Shakur go on our website (endlessbeautiful.com) and choose a High Quality Session. He chose HQ Session 61: Science. This was a fun one that we had debuted by doing a workshop with the incredibly talented Darian Dauchan – the man behind the amazing web series, Brobot Johnson. You can check out our podcast episode here.
I gave Shakur a pen and paper, and he got to work. I had to check in with Beth regarding some of the other PAID students. When I got back to my office 15 minutes later, I had Shakur share what he came up with. I explained to him that sometimes participants are shy about sharing what they have written, but it is vital to the process. You might need to prod some participants more than others. You need to be firm and understanding. Shakur nodded and shared what he had just written.
Shakur had written a poetic journal entry about getting lost and finding himself. It sounded good and it was sincere. He obviously understood what the workshop was all about. This was very promising.
I then showed him the rig and went over a few of the recording fundamentals that I mentioned earlier. I instructed Shakur to try and get 2 minutes worth of audio per sound clip whenever possible. I explained that he would seldom use the full 2 minutes, but having that extra recorded slack was good so you had plenty to work with when it came time to edit. Shakur appeared to pick up what I was telling him quickly, and we decided that he would go out into Woonsocket for a few hours to record and meet me back in my office at the Employment and Training Center. And just like that, Shakur was off. I had no idea what to expect when he returned.
I was blown away by what Shakur reported when he checked in with me. He hadn’t covered a lot of physical distance. I told Shakur to stay in the relative vicinity of my office, just in case if something came up. Shakur had covered a huge amount of experiential distance though!
In an hour and a half, Shakur had walked down to the nearby park in Woonsocket to record the water and had already had interactions with local business owners and pedestrians. Shakur shared the story of going into a nearby antique shop. Apparently, the shop owners were leery of Shakur with the recording rig at first, but he quickly won them over, and they were happily wheeling antique clocks out front for him to record in no time!
Shakur was definitely excited to be a part of the project. I told him to go home for the day, and I would teach him to upload the sounds the following day. After he had left, I thought about what had just happened.
Equipping Shakur with the recorder and with the mission of creating a session for a community workshop had given him the tools necessary to connect with people in the community and his environment in general. The recorder provided a different lens for him to see the world through and the mission of creating the session for the workshop gave him common ground and a talking point to engage those around him. Shakur had been able to go out and make all of this happen after about 20 minutes of instruction!
That night, I told Carolyn about what happened. She had been concerned that we weren’t fully prepared to give our Keepers the tools and skills they would need. She was impressed to hear what Shakur had accomplished so quickly. When Shakur came in the following day, I created a Soundbank in Adobe Audition just like the one that we use for our sounds. I showed Shakur how to upload his sounds and name them. We have a few foundational rules for editing Endless Beautiful Sessions that I shared with Shakur to get him started.
These rules were established when I created the very first Endless Beautiful Session.
1) The audio clips cannot be altered beyond basic fades and trimming. I use some compressors to boost the levels of our tracks and to make it so you can hear the details more clearly, but beyond that I do not add any other effects such as reverb.
2) Never use the same sound clip twice. Every Session features never-before-heard material.
3) Save your work!
Shakur got to work right away.
Shakur seemed to be picking the work up quickly. He also suggested that we get a flyer together for the workshop. This would help him explain the concept quickly and efficiently when people would ask why he was recording.
By the third day, Shakur began running into a problem that I have encountered and had to overcome many times before. He was running out of sounds to record. Or, at least, he thought he was running out. Shakur had been hanging out in the general vicinity of my office on Main Street in Woonsocket. This area is dominated by traffic noise out on the street, with the Blackstone River and the River’s Edge Park a five-minute walk to the west. At least those are the obvious sounds. Until you start looking a little closer around you and you realize that you have only scratched the surface. Shakur decided to add a little creative spark of his own to the equation as well.
Few sounds are as universally communal and enticing as a campfire. Shakur told me how he had built a small contained fire with his friend, Ashley. Together, they had recorded the crackling and twinkling of the flames. Ashley had been excited to help in the recording process, and I was excited about both of their excitement. It wasn’t until later when I told Carolyn about the fire that I realized that it might be a bad idea to let my interns play with fire and possibly get into trouble. Maybe featuring it as part of the workshop was a bad idea. Lesson learned but no harm done!
The important thing was that Ashley had joined our team as our second-ever Community Keeper. The third Keeper, Thomas joined soon after. Ashley and Thomas also became EB Community Keepers through the PAID program.
Ashley led the way in distributing the flyers for the upcoming event. She came back to me right away saying she had already handed out the entire stack to community businesses and people she met while doing outreach. Her enthusiasm, positive attitude, and communication skills made her a great addition to the team.
Thomas was a bit more reserved when it came to the creative aspect of Endless Beautiful. He gravitated toward the recording and editing aspects.
I watched an interesting progression happen with Thomas during the Community Keepers Program. Thomas ended up spending more time recording and editing than the other two Keepers. I found that Thomas was driven by the idea that the session needed to be curated and maximized for the creative potential of future listeners. He took that responsibility seriously and spent a considerable amount of time ensuring that the session had a variety of sounds.
When May 19th rolled around, Carolyn and I loaded up all our workshop equipment into my car. That meant our portable PA system, microphones, mixing board, recorders, cameras, banner, writing pads, pens, stickers, and the milk-crate full of various cables. At noon we arrived at 40 South Main Street and began setting up the equipment in the Millrace cafe art space belonging to NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley. Tamara, the event coordinator (one of her many hats) got us all sorted with tables, chairs, and coffee. Our Keepers helped us arrange the equipment and materials and greeted our arriving participants. Our photographer, Tom, documented the workshop set-up and got ready to record video and pictures throughout the event.
We actually had Tamara on as a guest on our podcast about a year ago. You can check that out on the podcast episode page, Session 22: Weedwacker – Featuring Tamara Burman of NeighborWorksBRV.
We began the event with introductions and a brief Q&A discussion of what the Keepers had done during their three-week internship, and what the experience had meant to them. Without giving away any of the details about the sounds, the Keepers spoke about how they had gone out into their community, encountered people and places, and challenged their own perceptions of sound. They talked about the work of editing, re-editing, and the hard decisions and teamwork that had gone into the creation of the Session we would debut in the next few minutes.
I have to admit I was nervous that something would go wrong when we played the Session. In order to preserve the integrity of the workshop experience (and because I had never before gotten to use an EB Session without knowing every detail of it), I hadn’t listened to it. I had spot-checked the levels and that was it. I had to trust the Keepers. They had promised me that the Session sounded really good, that “it sounded really smooth.” The Keepers let on that they had used 18 different soundscapes, a record number for any EB Session. How would all those sounds fit together?
We all got out our notebooks and laptops and got ready to listen, create, and share. Thomas pressed play. The chime sounded and we all got to writing. The Session was flawless. Using sounds collected exclusively in Woonsocket, the Keepers put together 15 minutes of captivating audio.
Check it out for yourself here:
The Keepers incorporated natural sounds, mechanical noises, sparse muffled bits of conversation, and lots of unexpected but artful transitions and movements in the audio.
Every person in the room was busy simultaneously listening and writing, using their imaginations to respond to this piece of artwork the Keepers had made to enhance our collective creative capacity. When the 15 minutes was done, it was time to share.
I started the group off. I went up to the microphone and read the story I had just written about a widowed antique shop owner and her companion. The Keepers and Carolyn asked me questions about what sounds had influenced me, how I had tried to shape the scene with details from the Session. From there we took it in turns sharing and discussing each person’s writing.
Everyone who was called on read their work aloud at the microphone in front of the group and got detailed feedback, questions, and reactions. Journal entries. Poems. Reflections. Vignettes. Some shorter and some longer. Some more action-packed, others more contemplative. As had happened before at our EB workshops, the group was supportive of one another, positive, and affirming of the creativity in each person.
As the discussion went on, the Keepers and community participants got into some deep and metaphysical territory! The Keepers had discovered things in three weeks that had taken Carolyn and I much more time and experimentation with Endless Beautiful! They talked about the hidden relationship between the sounds in the environment. Shakur envisioned the entire planet as a unified organism, its many noises all interrelated. Ashley commented on the valuable connections that she was able to make out in the community. Thomas explained how he discovered that “sound builds upon sound” and how our individual experiences add their own weight to what we hear.
Three o’ clock came all too soon and we had to wrap up the discussion and call an end to that workshop. As a gesture of appreciation to our inaugural group of Keepers, Carolyn and I presented Shakur, Ashley, and Thomas each with a peacock feather. The idea was to symbolize our mascot Eby the Peacock and give them a ‘keepsake’ of their experience with Endless Beautiful.
We packed up our gear, shook hands all around, and headed out.
If you made it this far in the article, well, thank you! This first round of the Community Keepers Program was important. I’m finishing this article up almost a month after we held the event. The contest that we’re running with Literative.com that features the Session created by the Keepers ends in about 5 days. Looking at the numbers, I think we might be pushing 100 contest entries from around the world!
The Keepers program has rapidly pushed us in new directions. Carolyn and I are currently developing a program with the public access television station DoubleACS in Attleboro, MA. We plan to have 6 recording rigs for that program! We will be running that Keepers program out of DoubleACS’s fully featured television and radio station. Students will have access to their own recorders, workstations, and staff for support. More news on that later. I told you this was a good idea and that it was going places!