Let’s Do This

Let's Do This (LDT) is interviewing individuals across the country who are making waves in their communities to learn more about their background, day to day work and passions.

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Mike Marcus, Assistant Director for The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design

Let’s Do This is excited for you to learn more about Mike Marcus, the Assistant Director of Property Development and Creative Placemaking at The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD), located in Asheville, North Carolina.

GET TO KNOW THE CENTER FOR CRAFT, CREATIVITY & DESIGN

The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD) advances the understanding of craft by encouraging and supporting research, critical dialogue and professional development in the United States.

There are three national award programs: the Craft Research Fund Program for independent and graduate scholars, the Windgate Fellowship Award Program for emerging craft artists graduating from universities, and the Windgate Museum Internship Program for craft-focused curatorial internships within museums. In addition, the CCCD convenes national meetings, curates exhibitions, programs lectures and workshops, and sponsors international residencies. The CCCD is developing an urban creative campus in its downtown Asheville, North Carolina headquarters. The development includes galleries, a maker space, coworking space, event space and auditorium.

MEET MIKE MARCUS

Mike Marcus is originally from Benicia, California, an East Bay suburb of San Francisco. He unexpectedly returned to his hometown after college when he accepted a job as Assistant City Planner, and later, Sustainability Coordinator. Mike then worked in a renewable energy finance startup in Oakland, California. He is currently interested in how cities can leverage their unique assets to create a vibrant, authentic and ‘homegrown’ sense of place that provides opportunities for all of its citizens.

In his current position, he is working to catalyze Asheville’s creative sector by creating a ‘community innovation lab’ that incubates and develops artists, makers, craftspeople, designers and entrepreneurs. He sees the cultural sector as having an obligation to create safe spaces for all citizens that empowers young and old. Sometimes one chooses the road less traveled and sometimes the road chooses you. Mike moved to Asheville in June of 2013 after an interesting series of events and the rest was history.

Read on to learn more…

LDT: How did you get to Asheville?

MM: By plane… I moved here in June of 2013. I had visited five years prior. I had a friend who was working at a backpacker inn for the Appalachian Trail in Hot Springs. I had visited him and spent time in both Asheville and Hot Springs in 2008. I thought Asheville was really cool, but also had no idea how I would ever end up here.

Fast forward – I got laid off in 2009 from a renewable energy finance start-up, living in San Francisco, working in Oakland. The company pioneered what’s known as Property Assessed Clean Energy bonds, or “PACE Bonds”. PACE Bonds were a completely new type of finance mechanism w that allowed property owners to finance renewable energy, energy efficiency and water efficiency upgrades through their property tax assessment, which allowed the debt to run with the property instead of the person. This was a breakthrough innovation that had the potential to completely change the way energy was financed in this country. For a short period of time, the company was on the cover of dozens of major magazines and news publications, it was pretty amazing. Many of our programs had received seed funding vis-a-vis the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) was signed into law by President Obama on February 17th, 2009. It is an unprecedented effort to jumpstart our economy, create or save millions of jobs, and put a down payment on addressing long-neglected challenges so our country can thrive in the 21st century. The Act [was] an extraordinary response to a crisis unlike any since the Great Depression, and [included] measures to modernize our nation’s infrastructure, enhance energy independence, expand educational opportunities, preserve and improve affordable health care, provide tax relief, and protect those in greatest need.” (Treasury.gov)

My role was amazing while it lasted. I co-managed a Statewide pilot program of 150 cities that sought to provide PACE finance solutions at-scale. However, we got caught as a political pawn in between The White House and Congress. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) ended up issuing a one-paragraph statement that threatened to ‘red-line’ any community that passed PACE Bond enabling legislation. FHFA controls mortgages in our country, so this was a very significant threat. Through that action, Congress effectively ended all of our programs,  and as a result, I was laid off from my what was my dream job at the time.

My college education was in city planning and  I went from working for a city and hired the renewable energy company, to moving over to work with that company. When it ended, it was very traumatic. Really forced me to look at everything. I went into a really dark space and I ran through the gamut of… should I get my MBA…? All the traditional things someone living in start up sector San Francisco is supposed to do, and they all sounded more depressing than the space I was already in.

After being laid off, I took the opportunity to reflect on my life to that point. It was a difficult period that in retrospect was one of the most important growth opportunities of my life. My mom and I already had plans to visit my sister who was studying abroad in India at the time. I decided to extend the trip and take the opportunity to do a deep dive into myself and other cultures, something that had fascinated me since studying abroad in Thailand years before. So instead of the original two-week trip, I packed up my apartment and traveled for five months.

I spent two months in India, two months in Nepal and a month in Bali. When I got back to the States, I took the first work opportunity that landed in my lap.  Unfortunately, I let fear get the best of me and accepted a really brutal corporate consulting position that paid well. I was representing a wireless provider to the City/County of San Francisco as it related to their land use interests. In essence, I was developing cell phone towers for a company that was undergoing a  massive network expansion in San Francisco. Other than the monetary benefit, I saw a lot of value in learning how to deploy technology at scale within an urban environment. It so happens that wireless technology infrastructure is the most similar technology infrastructure -at- scale as distributed renewable energy technology.  

What I hadn’t thought through prior to accepting the position was the intensity of going from sensory-rich Nepal to a stark corporate office with white walls and corporate drones  The environment and culture was not a good fit for me. I’m creative! I care about people and our planet! So, I created workarounds. I studied urban permaculture and worked out of an amazing co-working space whenever possible.

After my contract was up, I decided that I wanted to continue my travels and explore an epiphany that had come to me while I was on a three-week trek through the Himalayas in Nepal. There was a moment on the trail when I realized, these people actually know what sustainability and regeneration is. I only know how to write strategy documents, develop policy and come up with financing. That’s not good enough. I need to know how to grow food! I need to learn what sustainability is beyond writing on a page!

So began the next leg of my travel adventure…

I had met a guy in India who was American that owned a pearl farm in French Polynesia. He had extended an open-ended invitation to visit the pearl farm. The farm is a completely off-grid, eco-friendly operation. I thought to myself, how many times in my life am I going to get that invitation?! So I went with an open-ended plan.

From there I continued on to  New Zealand where I stayed for four months, and then three months in Australia. I had met a travelling companion in New Zealand and months later, we reconnected and decided to travel to Sri Lanka for three weeks over Christmas and New Years. In previous travels, I had heard great things about Sri Lanka and wanted to explore it further. So, for whatever reason, we decided that it would be a great adventure to embark on together. Once we were there, it all kind of fell apart. Flash floods, physical ailments, etc. To make matters worse, we learned that under stress, we were really bad travel companions.  I had an intense yearning to return to the United States.

Within 48  hours of making that decision, I was back in San Francisco. Being back in San Francisco so unexpectedly presented a wonderful experience of being fully present. In the past, I had always had a plan, even if the plan was to not have a plan. This was one of the first times in my life that I was really living in the moment. And in that space, I decided that I  wanted to explore a new place and culture in the United States. I also knew from previous experience that I wanted to take my time to find the right fit.

I spent around 6-months looking into different opportunities around the country and came across an opportunity with a startup nonprofit organization based in Asheville that was hiring a Chief Operation Officer (COO). Suddenly Asheville was back on my radar and I got really excited. Everything felt like a really great fit and I relocated here in June 2013. After three months or so, it became clear that the organization wasn’t a great fit but that Asheville was. And here I am!

LDT: What kind of work do you do now? What is a typical day in your life?

MM: I have an amazing position where I’ll go from a meeting with architects and contractors to a meeting with a University provost, to a roundtable of artists, to an advocacy meeting with elected officials.  It’s great for my personality – I’m able to go deep into the weeds on something for an hour, and then spend the next hour exploring something conceptual. I’m able to move between the public sector, private sector and nonprofit sector. In that way, it’s a very entrepreneurial role because in my experience most entrepreneurs are doing a little bit of everything and are having to be in perpetual learning mode. In many ways, I see myself as a civic and/or cultural entrepreneur. I don’t have a typical day.

LDT: What is your target audience? Who do you work with?

MM: I mainly work with other people and organizations that are working to make their respective community a better place, many times through a creative lens. Their methods and approaches often vary quite a bit, which is what I really enjoy.  

LDT: What is your outlet from work? What is your passion, what gets you out of bed in the morning?

MM: I love working with creative, passionate people to solve complex problems… My favorite part is waking up in the morning and realizing I have three meetings with three awesome people that day – there may be a lot of other things in between that aren’t as fun, and that’s okay. That’s part of making change happen!

LDT: How do you maintain work-life balance?

MM: I don’t. Laughs. I think for me, I dive so deeply into my work, it’s extremely important to me that I am grounded in my highest purpose on this planet and express myself professionally from that place. That said, exercise, meditation and getting outside keep me centered.  

LDT: What do you want to do next with the CCCD?

MM: I’m really interested in the concept of ‘community innovation labs’ – and at a 30,000-foot level, that’s what I see us developing. In this case, its specific to the creative sector. ‘Community innovation labs are places where ideas, projects and products are incubated, prototyped and experienced. It’s a place where community is built, and as a result, commerce and economic development are catalyzed.

I would love for CCCD’s approach to inspire other communities to do the same thing in ways that look and feel unique to their place. Spaces that seek to build upon the assets of that particular community by empowering those who are in the community, across all economic strata and racial/ethnic backgrounds.

I’d also love for Asheville to build other similar spaces that are specific to other industries – craft food and beverage, for instance. Perhaps music and the performing arts.

LDT: What kind of connections are you looking to make or need?

MM: What interests me most are people who are connecting different industries, sectors, and ideas in their communities. Weaving together partnerships and collaborations among seemingly disparate parts.

LDT: How do you think your market and the arts are going to change in the next 5 years? 10 years?

MM: We might not have the National Endowment for the Arts, which will have a huge impact on funding for the arts. My hope is that the silver-lining to this is that it will force more creativity, much of which will be authentic to particular communities and cultures. Artists are tenacious and passionate by nature. They are social disruptors who channel emotion in a way that others can relate to and be inspired by. With all of the craziness in the world today, perhaps they will be the ones to evoke the empathy, compassion and urgency needed to progress and reevaluate our priorities as a country and civilization.

GUEST QUESTION

Each interview on Let’s Do This features a guest question from a previous collaborator. This question comes from Koral & Ferrell Alman, Co-Founders of Roanline. Roanline is a destination for the best outdoors (and outdoors-inspired) clothing, gear and accessories for women and men. Read more on Let’s Do This.

Koral & Ferrell Alman: What is/was your biggest unknown unknown i.e. what you didn’t know that you didn’t know, and how did you handle or approach it?

MM: There’s something about the power of giving ourselves permission to communicate our ideas; to speak them aloud, no matter how bold or outlandish they might seem.

Personally, my inner-critic can be extremely overbearing and I’ve found that I  have to make a conscious decision to be kind to myself and give my ideas the merit that they deserve. When I do,  so much more is possible that I might have otherwise imagined. My experience is that people want to inherently help other people who have a compelling vision and who are seemingly able to bring about that vision, no matter how wild it may be.

My hunch is that’s true for most of us. So be bold. Speak your truth. You’re worth it.

LDT: What is going to be your question for next interview?

MM: What responsibility do you feel in the current political environment and how are you meeting that responsibility?

LET’S DO THIS! STOP, COLLABORATE & LISTEN

If you’re interested in a future collaboration or learning more aboutMike Marcus and the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design, you can connect and follow their journey using the links below.

MIKE MARCUS
Email: mmarcus@craftcreativitydesign.org
LinkedIn: @MikeJMarcus

CENTER FOR CRAFT, CREATIVITY & DESIGN
Website: www.craftcreativitydesign.org
CCCD General Email: info@craftcreativitydesign.org
Facebook: @centerforcraft
Twitter: @centerforcraft

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