“A shared purpose is what brings people together and makes them strong”
As the end of the year gathers together families and friends to celebrate and share, Johannes Romppanen, founder of CreativeMornings/Helsinki, offers us an agreeable winter walk through his thoughts around the idea and experience of “community”. Enjoy and keep nourishing the bonds that bring light to your life!
So, what do you do?
I meet people. That is what I do. This can take various forms and one of them is CreativeMornings: facilitating a space for people to meet. Then taking photographs is often about interaction with people. And I have been working on podcasts too and that is also about meeting people. So, that is the core of what I do. When I consider my activities in this way, it gives me some kind of freedom. If I think I am a photographer it somehow defines the idea of my profession and of what I am “supposed” to do. This notion is something I am exploring. I want to be with people and help and talk and communicate. But at the moment, I am making my living as a photographer.
What gives birth to a community? What makes a community?
A shared purpose is what brings people together and makes them strong. I don’t know if I can find any other definition than having a common goal… with many terms, I think there is a problem with how they are used. The word “community” is often used in a really loose way, even if there is not necessarily any community. Like these startups communities, are they really communities? How big can a community be and still be a community? Actually, it is very difficult to define what is a community.
What brought you to found Helsinki’s chapter of CreativeMornings?
I was — and I am still — looking for my tribe, my group. And I think the whole idea of starting CreativeMornings was part of that search, looking for the answer to the questions “Where do I fit?”, “What can I do that would be both true and a bit bold?” and I think I came to this feeling and idea of being a spark-setter to enable people to be better and be part of a meaningful change. I noticed that I have this capacity to bring people together, I can see if there is a need and I start something. I have this boldness to try something even though I am not sure where it will end up. It is really challenging. I have been in many of these co-working spaces and I have seen there is this huge potential for a community, for sharing something and then grow together. But then it is really, really, difficult to find that momentum, that common goal and I realised that the potential is not enough. To actually leverage that, it means a lot more… to create that space where a community can grow and build something.
How do you create this safe space that allows a community to grow?
It is something I have been slowly becoming aware of, aware of some of the characteristics that I have and that I had not really valued so far. Before, I had not seen them as anything special. Tina Roth Eisenberg, the founder of CreativeMornings, once said in an interview that a good host is someone who is interested in helping others, who doesn’t go with his/her own ego. And I have been thinking about that, what are the reasons for me to do CreativeMornings? It has never been something to make more contacts and grow my business. I wanted to bring people together — I had had this idea for a long time but I was lacking this kind of platform and then I discovered CreativeMornings and I thought “Why not try this?”. If the purpose is to gain more audience to your business — which I know some hosts have done -, I don’t know… then it reflects on how you run the events, what kind of speakers you invite. It is interesting to see how that kind of intention reflects on the whole experience. I remember in the beginning when I was thinking with whom I would do it and what kind of people I would bring in the team, somebody asked me something like “What do we gain from it?”. And I was a bit surprised, I had not even thought about that, what do I gain from it? It was interesting. It tells a lot about the world we live in, there is so much about “me, me, me”.
I was really unsure about what I wanted to do, I had no idea about how to do it and if I would be able to achieve it. It has been interesting to see nice things are happening. For example, the Q&A at the end of the talk is something I was afraid of because a typical Finnish audience is super quiet and nobody asks any question. So, I have been truly positively surprised to see how people are willing to really share. If the talk has been personal, the audience also starts to share personal stories. I feel truly kind of blessed because sometimes we have this really strong energy in the room. And for those moments you feel that there is a strong belonging and a feeling of community.
Is there a risk that a community becomes a closed, exclusive, group? If so, how do you face this challenge?
Yes, this risk exists. I think the most crucial part is awareness: being aware that this eventuality really exists, being self-aware and then adjust when you see that things go in the wrong direction. On a global level, we have had discussions about what it means for CreativeMornings when we say that everybody is welcome. For instance, we wouldn’t want someone aggressive and insulting to join… And regarding diversity, how do we open it up so that everybody feels welcome, that there is really a safe environment? Because that is the pure intention of CreativeMornings to be that place. I have been thinking a lot about this, how do we make it possible? One thing we can be aware of, for instance, is how we choose our speakers. In the context of CreativeMornings, it is very important that the diversity of the speakers reflects the diversity of the audience.
Are the speakers from inside or outside the community?
There has been both kind of speakers. The most beautiful talks have been those given by people who didn’t know anything about CreativeMornings and they were overwhelmed by the quality of the way it is organised and the warmth with which they have been welcome. It is nice to get that kind of feedback when speakers say it has been so beautiful to be together and to get such a warm hug in the morning with everybody so interested. Those are the qualities that engage people in CreativeMornings.
When we look for suitable speakers, sometimes names come from the community, sometimes they come from outside. For me, as a host, it is nice to find a kind of balance between both. Also when some people have attended regularly let’s say ten events, it is nice that then for one event they come to the stage and after that continue to come as a member of the audience.
As a host, do you feel part of the community or does being the organiser prevent you from being completely in it?
It does prevent. My last event as a host will be in December and I am kind of looking forward to being more on the community side. During the events, I don’t really have the opportunity to talk with people more than, like, 15 seconds and that has been a bit frustrating. My main responsibility is to see that things are going well and that the speaker is feeling secure and have everything they need, so after that, there is not much room to think about other things. I have been thinking about how to re-engage with people. For example last July we have organised this event that was more like hanging out and it was nice to see that also some of the regular attendees came and sat in a group for an hour just to talk and share things with others.
For me there are three levels of community at CreativeMornings: the local community, the global community and then the team. The global community is really about the organisers and that is quite strong. And then the team and it is really nice that there is this united group of five to ten people who also have become friends, who are there to support each other in other aspects of life as well. That is something I have been happy to see evolving. And also the idea that the team itself is a place where people can test different stuff, test their limits and try something that they have not tried before. That there is this vulnerability, that it is ok to show emotions. It is nice to see that it is present also in these structures.
Is there anything that matters to you that you would like to add?
Related to community? I started to think about the belonging and I am still kind of searching for my group. And then I also began to reflect on the responsibility. There are different levels. You can start something and then you can become part of that thing as a participant or then you can partake in it differently and grow into a leader’s role in a community. Or then you can be just kind of — you can be the visitor.
There are also different needs and then there come different kinds of phases. If I would be clear on what kind of group I need, then I would probably — if I would not find anything, then I would start building something. But I think now I understand better all kind of needs. I have been thinking about group therapy and that becomes some kind of community too, of a quite smaller type. It lasts a certain time, there is a certain time frame and then it dissolves when the purpose of meeting once a week is gone. There has to be some structure for a community to keep alive. And quite often it is about having regular meetings and a certain place and a certain time. As for that, the framework of CreativeMornings is nice, there is a kind of continuity that is outside of the time of the event where people meet and do things together, experience things together. I think CreativeMornings is really something that brings people together. The glue is curiosity. Because the audience too is really open-minded, is open to sharing — as I said for instance in the Q&A and that always surprises me. I think that is the only way to gain trust, to a certain extent is to be vulnerable.
What do I have to say about community? I guess I have something…? This morning I was thinking also, it is always interesting to see what is going to come next if I give some slack to CreativeMornings. There is probably something new and exciting that will arise.
Thank you, Johannes Romppanen, for sharing with us!
This interview is simultaneously published by CreativeMornings/Helsinki, December 2019/January 2020.