A gift of passion: 25 people got the chance to do whatever they wanted
Seattle Center selected 25 people and asked them what they would do if given a chance to engage their passions.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Passion project workshopsWhat: Three free public workshops are planned for anyone interested in learning how participants in a nine-month experiment went about pursuing a dream or goal they were passionate about it.
When and where: The workshops, all beginning at 7:30 p.m., will be Aug. 13, 20 and 27 at the Intiman Theatre in Seattle.
What's your passion?
About a year ago, Seattle Center identified 25 people from throughout the region — people at different stages in their lives, of different ages and races, different levels of ambition and wildly different personalities — and asked them what they would do if given the chance to tap into that thing that really moved them.
One man who grew up in a household of high achievers shut down his window-washing business and began traveling the world to learn about shamanism.
A former nun who came out as a lesbian when in her 50s is writing the memoir she'd always wanted to write, revealing abuse she endured at the hands of a priest when she was 7.
And a Seattle attorney discovered that she could incorporate into her professional life a lifelong passion for dance.
The point of the experiment was to explore how differently people might learn if they could do those things that most interested them, based on the premise that traditional methods of education and learning are misaligned, said Julia Colson, managing artistic director at Seattle Center Productions.
"We decided that rather than trying to lecture people, we should do a project that demonstrates that people will have a greater capacity to learn, and feel more fulfilled if we tapped into what's interesting to them."
The Center, built in 1962 for the World's Fair and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year around themes that include learning in the 21st century, recognized that learning is rarely done in isolation.
So organizers paired the 25 people, whom they called voyagers, with 25 mentors, or guides — mostly strangers who had some experience pursuing their own passion and could offer guidance.
What the organizers discovered from the nine-month project, called People Passion Purpose, or P3, will be discussed at a series of public workshops later this month.
"We had no idea where we'd end up," Colson said.
A small stipend
To find participants, they sent emails to several community organizations, asking them to spread the word.
The 25 voyagers selected from a field of nearly 200, were a diverse mix:
There were high-school and college students, an attorney and a 15-year-old member of Mensa. Some of the participants were retired, some unemployed and some still trying to figure out what to do with their lives.
Colson said there was no attempt to match voyagers with mentors of like interest or tell them how to build a relationship.
Men were paired with women, gay with straight, older people with younger, sometimes with the younger person acting as the guide. Participants were told up front that except for a small stipend to travel to workshops and a tablet to build video journals, the program wouldn't pay for anything they chose to do. And by no means was anyone encouraged to quit a job.
Some of the pursuits were as basic as becoming better parents, finding a dream job or reining in multiple interests.
"We tend to think passion has to be this big thing you're going to create, like Michelangelo," said Mary Dispenza, the ex-nun. "But there's this ordinary level. It's what gets you up in the morning and keeps you going.".
By the time the project ended last month, some of the pairs had formed friendships they expect will endure.
Five of the voyagers, including Dispenza, who call themselves the Sky Fire, formed a bond and continue to get together regularly.
Of course, as human relationships go, some connections also flamed out.
One original pair — a transgender woman and her male guide in his 40s — never even had an initial meeting for reasons that are not entirely clear to her. She was assigned another guide.
Some pairs simply didn't click.
A nun's story
From the beginning, Dispenza believed the project would give her that nudge she needed to share her life story — that of a former nun, abused by a priest when she was 7, who at age 52 finally came out as a lesbian.
"It wouldn't have happened by now without P3," she said.
At first, she thought she might make a documentary about it, but after going through the passion-search phase of the program she realized that writing a book first made the most sense.
But it took her two months to get going, and the people in her Sky Fire group constantly chided her about why she was stalling. If you really want to do it, why aren't you?, they prodded.
"I think I hadn't truly committed myself to it," the 72-year-old said.
To write it she had to remember — to recall her days in a Catholic school in East Los Angeles where, in the second grade, she was molested by a parish priest in the school. "I told God," she said, but no one else.
At 18, she joined a convent in Santa Barbara, Calif., assigned first as a teacher and later as a principal. But Dispenza received a papal dispensation from her vows after 15 years, realizing that for her, being a nun was no longer a good fit.
She became principal of Saint Mary School in Aberdeen, where she stayed for 10 years. She next served as principal at St. Louise in Bellevue before taking a position with the Archdiocese of Seattle. Through all these years in all these cities, Dispenza said, she dated women and men at the same time, "too confused to be able to say my affection and attraction really was for women."
Through her job at the archdiocese, she said she had a chance to confront the priest who molested her all those years before. It was also during that time that she also finally came out as a lesbian — essentially ending her career and connection with the church.
"I struggled until I was 52 to be heterosexual."
Robb Atherton saw the P3 project as a way to broaden a mission he was already on: helping fathers like himself — ex-convicts and recovering addicts — re-establish relationships with their children and families.
In 2005, two years after being released from prison, where he served time on drug-related charge, the 43-year-old had a son with a woman he met in his recovery program. When the child was just 4 months old his mother asked Atherton to come get the boy, saying she could no longer take care of him.
"It was the first time in my life I had to think of someone other than myself," he said.
Atherton said he put himself on a 10-year-plan to get a college education, get off parole, buy his own home, get a career and make a life for his son. He moved from Stockton, Calif., to Longview to live with an aunt, having no idea how to be a father.
After his son was accepted into the Head Start program, he was invited to a parent-teacher meeting. He knew nothing about the program and had lots of questions. But by the end of that night's meeting, Atherton, who is covered in tattoos, was asked to be the group's president.
Later he told his sponsor in his recovery program about it. "My sponsor said something that changed my life: 'They know who you are, they don't know who you were.' I realized I could be whatever I wanted. I didn't have to be an ex-con. I could be Jason's dad." The Cowlitz County man began volunteering with the program and at the end of the year was named Head Start parent of the year for the state.
He was asked to join other programs that help parents advocate for their children; he traveled to Olympia to testify. Recognizing how few resources there were for fathers, Atherton began a support group to help fathers navigate the system and bring their children back into their lives.
"Every parent or family-oriented program was for mothers ... " he said.
And Atherton began telling his story. He traveled to the U.S. Capitol — and later, on a separate trip, visited the White House — to talk about parent engagement and advocacy. When he got an email about the P3 program he saw an opportunity to expand his work beyond Cowlitz County.
Through P3, he said, he's gained greater self-awareness. "My passion is to inspire others and help them understand they don't have to be labeled by the bad decisions they've made."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @turnbullL.