Arts/Culture
10:21 am
Fri January 6, 2012

Reimagining what work can be

Many people view Michigan as ground zero when it comes to job loss and unemployment. Yet despite the tough economy, some people are quitting their jobs in an effort to pursue their creative passions, which are often unpaid. 

From fast food to felt toys

Danielle Smith started Alphabet Emporium, an eco-friendly toy company, two years ago. She creates by hand these really charming food toys out of felt: felt bananas, felt squash, felt burgers. Alejandro, her five-year-old son, likes the felt eggplant best. 

Though it's hard work,  she loves what she does. Something Smith, 26, couldn't say two years ago.

"I was working at McDonald’s before I came home and stayed home," says Smith.

Before that, she was a cook in the Coast Guard, where she met her husband, John. After they left the military, they rented a condo in Tecumseh, Mich., and moved there with their son. They made about $12,000 a year -- with John working nights at Wal-Mart, and Danielle working days at McDonalds. 

The day he popped the question

Smith says they were both pretty miserable at their jobs. Then, one day Smith says, her husband asked her this simple question:

"Why don't you just do what makes you happy?"

Smith says they sat down, crunched some numbers, and figured out they could make it work. So she quit.

"I will never ever ever do this to myself again. I will never take a job just because," explains Smith. "And I know in these times there's probably a lot of people that are like, 'I'll take whatever job because I don't have a job.' I completely understand that, but if I can do it, then I think anyone can.

"It's a struggle," she says, "but doing what makes you happy should be a lot more important than doing what just gets you by."

Still, the chances of survival for a small business like Smith’s are low. According to the Small Business Administration, roughly half of all new businesses will fail in the first five years. That's a hard statistic to face  when you’re just trying to get food on the table.

Getting back to your senses

This idea -- that it's more than just a paycheck, it’s about doing something that sustains you, something that brings you happiness -- has been gaining traction. The nonprofit Boggs Center recently held a Re-Imagining Work Conference in Detroit, which they say hundreds of people from around the country attended.

Documentary filmmaker Andrea Maio thinks Michigan, the poster child for job loss, unemployment and post-industrial decline, is a great place to think about reimagining work:

"Because of the economic situation, people are taking a leap that they wouldn’t have in the past, because sometimes they’ve hit rock bottom and they’re going to be screwed either way, and so they might as well be working towards something that has the potential to bring them happiness."

To that end, Maio, who lives in northern Michigan, wants to make a web TV series called “Back to Your Senses." The show would follow folks like Danielle Smith; folks who are trying to make a living doing what they love to do. She's looking for examples that "aren't afforded by privilege." She admits finding those folks isn't easy.

Maio herself could be a subject in her own series. She quit her part-time job in order to make the documentary Web series. She doesn't want to become another small business failure statistic, but she has yet to raise the $15,000 she needs in order to film the pilot episode. She has until Jan. 8 to raise the money via Mobcaster.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Share your story here.