“It is through experiences that make you uncomfortable that you will grow, and you will learn lessons that you could never learn in a classroom. Force yourselves beyond comfort zones, and your world will expand, your vision will widen, and your capacity for empathy will deepen.”

-Jonathan Sgro – MP ’03, Chair, Bethesda Project’s Young Professionals Advisory Board

One insomniac night during the last month before Empty Bowls, while browsing through Bethesda Project’s website, I found their merchandise page. Inkster Cares partners with nonprofits to create ‘feel-good fashion,’ which is a smart and entrepreneurial concept in itself. The quote made me stop in my tracks – then Google it to learn where it came from. 

(I finally ordered a sweatshirt while writing this reflection.)

Arthur Ashe’s life story is far more than a soundbite. His story is a powerful one, and if you’re reading this post, you should read it. Yet I’ve found few quotes that more thoroughly or accurately sum up what we’ve done with our Empty Bowls project for the last nine years.

Start where you are. My students have full-time jobs. I’d argue that their work exceeds what most adult professionals expect for a work week. Seven hours at school daily, two or three hours of athletic commitments, two or three hours of homework, add it all up to a sixty-hour week or more. My own full-time job as a teacher consists of coaching and supporting my students during at least as many hours – and firing lots of kilns.

Where are we? The constraint is that we are here, working our full time jobs of students and teacher. We are not spending our current jobs in places that are very far outside our comfort zones, like homeless shelters. We are in a comfortable community that values brotherhood, in an academic climate that strives to make it safe to take risks.

When we start here – how can we help?

Photo, Mike Flanagan ’16

Use what you have. What we have, here, is the privilege of working in a ceramics studio. We work with clay. It’s a material that we can recycle when it fails, but once it’s permanent, lasts for thousands of years. It’s a material that has a hundred entry points – from a first connection with the hand to the sensitive touch of an experienced potter, from the freshman holding a paintbrush for the first time since third grade to the artisan who has glazed a hundred pots. It’s a material that, frankly, is a better teacher than me.

We have time, too – time in class, time outside of school, time that we carve out from schedules that are breathlessly busy. That word – busy – may be our biggest constraint.

When we have privilege, materials, and time, how can we use what we have to help?

Walter McDonald ’17 + Cullen Robinson ’17 at work

Do what you can. For the last nine years, Empty Bowls has felt like something we can do. Our students develop talents in the ceramics studio, and it’s a natural progression to put those talents to use in the service of others. In a community based on brotherhood and family, organizing a shared dinner feels within our customs. Among schools that collaborate on many programs throughout the year, pulling student volunteers together to share their talents and organize their peers feels possible. For me, as the adviser and coach, I’ve learned to prioritize my time around this event from September through January each year.

With the constraints of location, time, and materials, we can do Empty Bowls.

Our student chairs, post-event

And so, if we can do this, why wouldn’t we?

Many of our collaborators have heard my prediction that this year’s event would be the last Empty Bowls in its current format. Obstacles of logistics and time have grown for the last few years, and almost hit a breaking point as we prepared for this year’s event. The student chairs could tell this story better than I.

Beyond the obstacles, I have some big questions.

After this year’s Empty Bowls dinner, I’ve been running through Jonathan Sgro’s remarks, over and over. He’s right. Experiences that make us uncomfortable help us to grow.

When does it become time to force ourselves outside our comfort zones of what we can do?

When is it time to expand, or widen, or change our approach – even if that makes us uncomfortable?

If the real goal is to deepen our empathy and understanding for the people Bethesda Project serves – does creating 1000+ bowls a year truly get us there?

Or are there ways we might change this process to address that goal more directly?

My heart is filled with more gratitude than I can express for all of our collaborators and stakeholders on this year’s event, and over the last nine years. The student chairs and I would welcome your feedback and ideas on these questions as we move forward. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, or by contacting any one of us.

Here are some additional media items from this year’s event that you may enjoy.