“Innovating to Build Communities Where All Can Flourish” featuring K Scarry

Leading Ideas Talks
"Innovating to Build Communities Where All Can Flourish" featuring K Scarry

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Podcast Episode 145

How can a passion for helping people flourish lead to social innovation? We speak with K Scarry about social innovation and the ways she is supporting local artists, helping create spaces where everyone can thrive, and more.

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Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

Leading Ideas Talks is also brough to you by Discover and Dream, a new online course from Wesley Pathways for Ministry. You’ll learn how to engage your community in new and exciting ways, think outside the box, and make use of resources beyond money. Discover and Dream puts you on a path for vitality that breathes new life into your congregation! The course is free through June 30, 2024. Learn more and enroll now at wesleypathways.com.

How can a passion for helping people flourish lead to social innovation? In this episode we speak with K Scarry about social innovation and the ways she is supporting local artists, helping create spaces where everyone can thrive, and more.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center, and your host for this talk. Joining me is K Scarry, owner of Creative Impact Studio. Our focus is social innovation. I’m really excited to have K joining us today. K is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met in my life, and I’m going to begin by just having her share a little bit about herself and how she got into the space of social innovation.

K Scarry: Yeah, thanks so much, Dr. Powe. It’s good to be here. I’m K Scarry. I have always really been curious about communities and how they form and how we build relationships of mutuality. When I think about how this started for me, a couple of stories come to mind:

One is that when I was younger, I had a couple of really dear family members, one of whom was experiencing homelessness, and one of whom was incarcerated. I remember being a kid and being in spaces where I heard how other adults, or other families, or people, or culture were talking about the unhoused population, or about incarcerated individuals, and I remember even from a young age being like, “there’s more to the story here.” So, it really drove a curiosity in me and an inability, even from a young age, to dehumanize people in scenarios that I haven’t had to experience before. I think that started a spark of curiosity in me alongside some real empathy and longing for, “wait a second, what happens when the people in our communities actually don’t have the support they need in order to be well?”

When I was in middle school was when hurricane Katrina hit. I remember being really devastated about watching that on the news, and my dad kind of walked me through a series of, “you can’t seem to let this one go so maybe we should come up with something you can do about it.” He helped me think about some things I could do. He was like, you can make a phone call to a grocery store, organize a bake sale, and send the money. Even from a young age, I feel like I was really empowered about looking at what you have in front of you, considering where you are, what you have, what you can do, do something, and trust that contributes to something bigger than you could do on your own. So, that really sparked something in me that I feel like has been a thread my whole life of exploring what it is to build communities where everyone can flourish, where everyone has the support and tools they need, and how do we creatively invite people into imagining what might be possible for them?

Doug Powe: Thank you for that and I would say 100% you have. What I find is fascinating is the way that you sort of marry—you have a master divinity—your love of theology with this love of creativity. I want to begin really practically diving into this conversation. Lately, you’ve come up with this really interesting and creative idea of vending machine art as a way of sharing the work of the community. I want you to talk about that, but then talk about how this actually could be helpful for a congregation in thinking about doing something creative like this.

K Scarry: Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s not totally my original idea, I will say. My husband and I were on a trip to Miami a year and a half ago and had a long layover in Chicago, and we stumbled upon what’s called a creative vending machine. It had nontraditional items in it, like nostalgia items or vintage items, and some local art. We were really taken by this, and at this point I’d already built a practice of keeping a note on my phone of anything that inspires me, and noticing where there are red threads, resonance, and through lines. There is a D.C. company that vends locally made snacks, which is also a cool iteration of vending with the local community in mind. But we really wanted to do it as a way of supporting local artists. Also, I like to buy local art, so it helps satisfy that in me. But we started, a year ago, exploring what it would look like to buy art from all kinds of local folks making different things—art and other handmade things. Like we have somebody who has a lathe and makes wood turned items and makes bottle openers we have in the machine. So, it’s not just like fine art, if you will. The first one we had is set up in a brewery in Sterling, Virginia, where we vend all locally made goods, for the most part. There’s a couple of items that are like convenience items and that’s kind of how we make business work is by having 75% of it be locally made and then about 25% of it be not locally made but higher profit margin so that we can pay artists well while also making the business work without requiring the growth of the business to be on the shoulders of artists.

I love so many things about it. On the one hand, it’s become a really cool hack of now we know 40 different…well, we’re working with 43 different local artists in this one machine right now but are in the process of expanding pretty significantly this year is our hope. I love that it’s meant we’ve gotten to know different venues. I like that it’s meant other types of collaboration. So, we have like a soap maker in the machine who can make soap out of beers. Since we’re in a brewery, he and the brewery have already connected to make soaps out of their beers. That’s kind of fun, that it’s generative in that way.

I love thinking about how we get people into a backdoor conversation about— or a backdoor into the most important conversations of our time. So, by that I mean, people have lots of questions about our vending machine. What I get to tell them is about the artist who’s a single mom who can never go to an artist market on a Saturday, or the three men in our town who are nonverbal and who have autism, who make a suite of really excellent like skincare body products that we have in the vending machine, but obviously they can’t ever sell at a market. Now suddenly we’re having a conversation about access and equity with people who might never show up to that seminar, which I think is interesting to the point of what churches can do?

Also, in a moment when I feel like the dominant conversations heard about churches are [focused on]long term survival, capacity, energy, and resources, it’s not that expensive to start up a vending machine company and it doesn’t require staffing. You get to kind of stock it on your own time, and you can set it up and it becomes a really interesting storytelling device, really interesting connective device. I’m not saying all churches should start a vending machine. What I am saying is like what’s the kind of energetic, creative space of…what are things that connect us to our local community and the places that they come alive? What are the things that don’t require a ton of time, energy, capacity, resources, that we maybe don’t have, but that also don’t compromise our loving of our neighbors and our local community? If we want to get really theological, there’s also something kind of fun about the reclaiming of an item that was used for one thing and transforming it into using it for something else.

Doug Powe: I appreciate you’re sharing that and what I think is particularly important is the relational piece, and this leads into my next question. I know that you also—I’m going to call it house church—you sort of did a version of a house church by hosting people weekly in your home. So, can you share about how that got started, and how did you sort of build relationships with these different individuals?

Because again, I think, one of the challenges for congregations is that relational building piece, particularly with those who are outside of the congregation. It’s something that I think for you sort of comes naturally, so it might be hard to think about, but how did you just sort of go throughout the community and say, “hey, come to my house so we can get together and sort of do what I’m calling house church.”

K Scarry: Sure. Yeah, I will share the…the story of it. We still do this, and I will also push on the it coming “naturally.” I mean I also feel you’ve gotten to know me at a point where I’ve built up some serious musculature around this, but it didn’t start that way. So, I can talk about some of how I would say I’ve built my own hacks for getting myself to do the thing that I want to do (that I often get in my own way around). So, in 2015 we started what we affectionately called Tuesday Night Dinner and we was mostly me, but now my husband and I do this together. We weren’t together then, but now we do this together. I don’t know. I think it started out of a real conviction that people needed a consistent place they could belong. You know. That they could come.

I love, you know, even when I was a kid, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I thought a lot about how cool would it be if you, if I was so faithful to have dinner at my house at the same time, every week that someone could just be passing through that I hadn’t seen for 20 years and be like, “Oh, K lives here and it’s Tuesday night. There’s dinner at her house and I can go.” I love that as like a vision for community and hospitality and connection and trust between people. So, I had had a really hard couple of years and was in this place in 2015 of really struggling to know—struggling a lot to find my own creative spark and energy and this felt like a thing I could do. What if I just decided I was going to do this thing I’ve talked about doing forever? So my hack was that I would invite anybody I found out was in my town that I had grown up with, (I’d moved back to the town I grew up in), and what was great about that is it didn’t give me the ability in a moment to find out someone was back in town and then do the mental gymnastics of, “should I invite them? Is that going to be weird?” It also gave me a little bit of cover, if you will, that was, I could tell everybody. This is a commitment I’m making. I’m inviting anybody I find out who’s back to town. I could narrate it for them in a way that cut my own fears that they would think I was weird, which maybe they do, you know. That’s also fine. It became a really fun practice. It kind of, I didn’t design it this way, but I noticed that the people who are most apt to say yes to an invitation like this were in their, like, 20s and 30s. So that narrowed a little bit of who I was doing inviting to.

I told people I was doing this every Tuesday. I kept myself from the mental gymnastics on Tuesday afternoons when I was tired of should I do this tonight? Not to say we never let ourselves off the hook, but I realized how much energy that kind of those moments of, “I’m about to do something vulnerable, should I?” was taking, and I just tried to design something that let myself off the hook of that as much as I could.

Doug Powe: Because I think, again, sometimes congregations get trapped in numbers game and you weren’t really worried about numbers. You were committed to consistency, that “we are going to create community with whoever shows up, we’re going to be hospitable, and we’re going to basically create a space for those individuals to be with us.”

K Scarry: Certainly. I still had moments that I was worried about. I mean, yes, it wasn’t designed to be a numbers game; but there’s no way around being a person who’s thinks that a certain number of people is a mark of success in our current culture. So, I pretty much wrote out everything I was afraid of and then re-narrated, pre-narrated them for myself.

So, if one person comes, what an opportunity to have a deep conversation with them. If 20 come, what a neat thing to have 20 people at the table. If nobody comes, which has only happened once, then I get a night to myself that I wasn’t anticipating and, like, what a gift, and food probably for three weeks, you know, so yeah. I mean it’s interesting. I often say that space is the most—one of the most—formative places for me as I think about ministry. It, we never had any sort of programmatic aspect except that every week we do “happies and crappies” where everyone has to share a high and low from the week before. That’s it. It’s by design, not very churched in a lot of ways.

Discover and Dream is a new online course from Wesley Pathways for Ministry. You’ll learn how to engage your community in new and exciting ways, think outside the box, and make use of resources beyond money. Discover and Dream puts you on a path for vitality that breathes new life into your congregation! The course is free through June 30, 2024. Learn more and enroll now at wesleypathways.com.

Doug Powe: Right. Let me shift gears. As you know, when we start talking, we could talk a while, but let me shift to your latest sort of creative endeavor. You are going to be opening up a bar, but you would like to have, basically, theologically trained individuals to be the bartenders in this space because you think this is a place where they can actually do wonderful ministry. You’re also being very intentional about non-alcoholic options because you want to make sure that anybody would feel comfortable in this space so that, while it is legitimately a bar, you’re actually stocking a lot more non-alcoholic options than most people would typically do. So, share a little bit about why bar ministry, you feel like, is a great space for someone who has a Master of Divinity degree.

K Scarry: Yeah. Yeah. So the bar is called Giggle Water and the whole intent is to create a space of, again, similarly belonging, like how do we create a place where people come in and feel like they were thought of, feel like they were not an afterthought, but that there are a lot of details that were intended to create a type of experience of possibility and connection.

I’ve been really coming alive myself in the thinking about all of those details. I want our staff to be people who really can do the type of—I really appreciate Will Guadara who was the former owner of 11 Madison Park in New York City, and they’re known for their hospitality. He talks about, “one size fits one,” and I really appreciate that. There’s so many kinds of impulses and hospitality spaces to be like, “here’s the blanket thing we’ll do for everybody,” and I like that, the, “what might it look like for us to give a stipend to staff that they can access to implement their own idea to do something for our customer base?” and, “how can we make this a co-created space?” As I think about the people who, I think, are most in tune with that kind of ethos, I think about people who are theologically trained just because that’s my background. I think it’s an easy…it’s an easy sell, if you will, as far as maybe not a bar. But hey, how do we actually create this as a place where we’re welcoming people in, where we’re really like meeting people with whatever they’re coming in with?

You know, yeah. I think I have some friends who don’t drink for a number of reasons and have experience with them going out and it just feeling like an afterthought that the only options are you can get a soda or something that we might call a mocktail, but it’s really a juice or something. Or oh, actually, like the nonalcoholic options are on the kid’s menu, and I watch how that feels. When I think about even some of my beloved people who have needed to get sober, like some of the long-term struggle, is there’s not a place for them. So yeah, I want that to be one of the hallmarks of this place kind of a continuing with the ethos of people were thought of here. Like, “how are we thinking about all the different people that might come through our doors, and how this can be a place that they feel thought of, that they feel like they were prepared for that?” So, it’s been really fun to work out a mocktail list. We’ve partnered with a woman in D.C. who runs—who owns a company where she makes canned mocktails that are in a lot of retail spaces, and we’re going to have her stuff in our bar, which has been really exciting. It’s been fun too.

Similarly, there’s a lot of local collaboration as we’ve been building out this bar, which has also been fun. How do we connect with people who are in their own sweet spot and give them access to this space so we can kind of co-create together.

To the question of what do I think bar ministry can be? It’s a natural community gathering space and it’s natural for people to show up in spaces like that in all phases of life. Every time I’ve lost a family member, my family’s gone out to eat. Every time we’ve had a celebratory moment in our family, we mark it by going somewhere to eat, and so—or to have a drink or whatever. So, I think about that, how do we kind of, again, go where people are already gathering around the ins and outs of their daily life, both the mundane and the significant and connect with them in those spaces.

I have been thinking a lot about, at the bar, what are some little things we can have that might rotate quarterly that are our ways of connecting with people? I think part of it is giving customers moments of surprise that open up possibility and play, and we want it to be a really playful space. I’ve been thinking a lot about collective like D.C. rituals, too. What if we become the space where anytime something happens in the Supreme Court, we pass out a glass of something to everybody who’s in this space right when that decision is read? Or, what if in five years it becomes like, “oh, this significant decision is happening in the Supreme Court, we’ve all got to get to Giggle Water.” If the thing that we don’t want happens, we’ll hand everybody a cookie for some comfort food. That might have been your idea, or thinking about what if the day after the government shuts down, we do free coffee or something? What are those kind of rituals that again, kind of anchor our customer base in what it is to be identified as part of a larger collective people in this particular place. So those kinds of inquiries, I think, have a lot of possibility in a bar.

And I think a lot about, as we’re thinking about community innovation, how do we lower barriers to entry to people to connect? One of them is to use a space like a bar because there’s no barrier to entry for people. They’re going to go to spaces like that anyway. So, if we already have people in a space, how do we how do we be faithful to that in a way that open up some other type of possibility?

Doug Powe: So, we’re drawing near the conclusion, we’ve done some very practical examples. So now I want to think more about the church in general, because the church struggles with being creative and innovative often. You know, in some ways, you were brought up this way and you had the freedom to have a lot of these ideas. How can you…as I’m listening today, I think you’ve said a couple of key things. One is most of your creativity centers around belonging. Like, how do we create spaces where people belong regardless of whatever the innovation is? Belonging is critical to it. Also, it seems what is critical is how do we think about an experience where there can be real community. So, if you’re thinking about a congregation, as a pastor or lay leaders are listening to you, how can they adapt some of that belonging and create a space for authentic community? How can they think about doing that in their space and thinking of something that might be innovative for them.

K Scarry: I might access that question from a little bit of a different place, which is, what are all the things that get in our way? I would say: follow a thread. If something sparks for you, try it, even if you don’t know where it’s going to land, you know, cultivating kind of practices, like using what you’re already good at.

So, a practice I have is at least once a week, I read our local Facebook groups and our, like, local paper with a chaplain eye. What if I was reading what people are posting as a chaplain? You know what that means is things like this, a couple of weeks ago, a woman posted—I saw her comment on someone else’s post in my town that she had just gotten her citizenship and I don’t really know her, but I know she owns a business in town.

So, I just wrote a quick note that was like, I’m really glad you’re my neighbor. Congratulations, this is a big deal. I dropped it off because that’s what I would do if it was my parishioner, right? I would show up and mark that moment with them. She was moved to tears. It led to this hour-long conversation about the work that she’s been doing, and the complexity of what home looks like. But all I did was take on my own, I know that I know how to read something with a chaplain eye. So, I translated that outside of a traditional space.

I have all these little things like I mentioned earlier, keeping a list of anything I think is inspiring. Then if you do that for a month and then notice where there’s connection, you know, there’s something about it that’s really neat. Or the bar, I didn’t know how to make a mocktail that tasted good, but I set out with this intention that I didn’t have to have all the answers before I took a step towards something I thought was meaningful and then I could let other people in to co-create the thing. That also is true of the vending machine. We didn’t know that many artists, but we knew a couple, and then they knew other people. Then it became like one woman, her daughter came over who’s nine years old and pitched us an idea of a thing she wanted to do in the vending machine and what a gift to get to be the person that says “yes.”

As much as we count all the possibilities of things that can go wrong or that cannot work, I think that’s legitimate. Also, we never count what could be possible. So all of that stuff, I think, wrapped up is some I think the reason people aren’t innovating is much more of internal work than it is. Because we don’t have creativity, or possibility, or ideas ourselves. It’s much more of all the ways we get in our own way.

Doug Powe: Let me just do one final question that I think will be helpful. You sort of talk about it: course correcting. So, how often—with even the ideas you named—did you have to adapt or, you know, do differently? Because I think sometimes, we think like we get an idea and you just follow that through until it’s complete. But the reality is, it’s an experiment. You’re constantly looking at what’s happening and having to adapt. So, you know, just share a little bit about how often you have to adapt and how do you know when to adapt? So how do you know like okay, we’ve got to adapt and not continue and stay on the course?

K Scarry: Great question. I feel like I’m always iterating, you know, like there’s no—and some of it I think is honesty with my own self about how much I can’t possibly know. We didn’t start a vending machine company having any idea about how a vending machine worked. Our first vending machine we got off Facebook Marketplace and it had a rat’s nest in it once we brought it home.

I, like, have come to love those moments because I feel like they’re the hero’s journey. Like, when we have 50 vending machines, we’ll talk about the rat’s nest, you know? So, I feel aware even as I’m in this particular phase of my life, which is launching this new creative impact studio and accompanying different people and their own innovative ideas. I know that in three years, I’m going to like cringe at some of the work I’m doing right now, because it’s going to be different. That’s a success to me. You know, there’s not a totally clear answer for me on how, “do I know when to iterate, when to stop, when to stay the course?” It’s always a values question for me.

A couple of years ago, I tried to launch something during the pandemic as trying to rally the community to show up for one another in creative ways to get the community through. It just didn’t have any traction because nobody had any energy, and people were in a really low spot. So, we let it go. But those relationships have turned into some of those relationships—are ones that turned into people I could connect with around the vending machine. So, I kind of trust that I just follow, and I throw an idea out, I see if there’s community resonance, I keep in mind the value set underneath and then trust that something will come of it even if it isn’t the outcome I intended. You know, there have been times that I know in my own self, I’ve had to look at historically, like, when have there been moments in my own past that I’ve had to say no to something or where I’ve had to keep doing something when it seemed like irrational or…you know? I know what that feels like in my own body, and I imagine that people who are listening do too. You know thinking about other moments you’ve been forced to make some of those decisions. What does that feel like in your body? How can you keep in mind, again, the kind of values underlying the ideas you might have? Then, how can you keep in touch with your own self enough to be able to discern accordingly? How can you—if you keep the values at forefront, the particulars of whatever the idea might be is held really loosely, I think, because it’s not ever about the particular idea. It’s about the impact you’re trying to make in your own neighborhoods.

Doug Powe: Okay. As always, this has been wonderful. I appreciate your spending time with us today.

Scarry: Thank you.

Doug Powe: And I just look forward to hearing what you’ll be doing next.

Scarry: Thank you. Thank you for having me so much.

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About Author

Reverend K Scarry, a lifelong member of the First Baptist Church of Herndon, VA, is curious about the intersection of the gospel, justice, and community. She runs her own creative impact studio, consulting with nonprofits, churches, local governments, and other businesses to design high impact initiatives that make their communities better. She also owns a creative vending machine company- where she vends local art as a way of elevating and supporting makers in her neighborhood. When she's not working, she can be found doing things that bring her joy: hosting a weekly open community meal in her home, hanging with her husband and two pups, or writing her substack!

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.