It’s Thursday night at a downtown Arts District loft. Heavy yellow-gold curtains block the remaining sunlight and red and blue lanterns suspended from the ceiling light the space. Kate Tonge, who has just started serving lunches out of her nearby apartment, is cooking in the kitchen. Karen Silva, who just moved back to L.A. from New Orleans, is making rum and vodka drinks behind a counter across the room.
Two guys at a table beneath a white board near the door, one a designer and one an art fabricator, are problem solving in a wide-open sort of way. Shouldn’t a quarter have a parking meter on one side and a washing machine on the other? Maye one person living in the building should be the designated cigarette seller, and another should keep a stock of bottled water.
These men know each other, but most of the 30 other people milling around don’t. Generally, encounters in the room are starting with “Why are you here?” followed by some version of “What do you do?” ]
This is Los Angeles’s inaugural Junto, a meeting of minds modeled after the “mutual improvement” club founding father Benjamin Franklin started as a 21-year-old in 1727, and no one quite knows what to expect, not even Dougie Campbell, who initiated it. Campbell has been running Mindshare L.A., a genre-blurring event series that he envisioned as a hybrid between Ted Talks and Burning Man, since 2006.
“We pulled out a lot of stops with production values,” he says of Mindshare events, which can include a talk on identity followed by a masquerade ball or an open-mic tournament. But he had started wanting to do something more intimate and low-key. “The most important thing is the connection that’s made,” he says of the Junto model.
Campbell had seen the 2002 PBS documentary on Ben Franklin, and the story of Franklin, then a just starting out as a printer, pulling together other Philadelphia businessmen (a clerk, a cobbler, a carpenter) for Friday night meetings stuck with him. At Franklin’s meetings, each member was expected to speak on a pre-selected topic and at one point, to keep members from constantly affirming rather than challenging each other’s ideas, positivity was banned. According to the American Philosophical Society, founded as a direct result of Franklin’s meetings, a lending library, volunteer firefighters and public hospitals were all ideas proposed during the original Junto.
When he searched for present day Juntos on the web, Campbell found none in Los Angeles, but groups in New York, London, Paris and Philadelphia. Over the past decade, Juntos have popped up in Silicon Valley and Hong Kong, too, often catering to entrepreneurial or self-searching business people who want to think a little harder about what they’re doing and why.
Geoff DiMasi, who started the Philadelphia Junto out of his design and development firm P’unk Ave around 2007 (they were working to start the co-working space, Indy Hall, around the same time), may be closest to Campbell in motivation. “In the spirit of Ben Franklin, it was the idea that people would come together and support each other,” says DiMasi.
At first, he and co-worker Alex Gilbert didn’t have a fully developed plan. “We thought, let’s just come to our studio and do something,” he says. “What should a modern Junto be?” Over time, the meetings began tackling more specific topics, often proposed by participants (aging in place, mapping).
In 2013, the Philadelphia Junto became an annual weekend-long retreat with a series of small dinners held throughout the rest of the year. “Now it’s more focused on purpose-driven people who see business as a tool for good,” DiMasi says. These are people interested in community-oriented, sustainable business practices — not startups and “the boringness of burning through other people’s money.” He and his team have invited speakers like Sarah Filley from Oakland, who started Popuphood to help small urban pop-ups become permanent. Sam Calagione, who started Dogfish Head Brewery, is on the schedule. “He has been a person who gets it — he knows that we rise together and fall together.”
Two days before the Los Angeles Junto convened, Campbell explained that part of his motivation was “wanting [intelligent] people around myself,” to start building a community where someone’s “weakness compliments someone else’s skill.” While Ben Franklin used to have a list of 25 fairly specific questions (e.g., Hath any body attacked your reputation lately? And what can the Junto do towards securing it?) that Junto members could respond to, Campbell decided to ask everyone who came three fairly general ones: What are you passionate about? What are you an expert in? What do you need help with?
“You don't need to do anything in this life,” Campbell says as he relays the process to the group, “but if you want to, it helps if you can be concise.” Everyone has a minute or less to answer.
This works surprisingly well. Thirty people take turns at a mic at the front of the room and introduce themselves in under an hour. Brandi Veil, who co-runs a workshop/skillsharing venture called Learn Help Teach (LHT) out of the space we're in, introduces herself and says she needs help finding people to teach in her space. Ashley Booth an oceanographer who wants people to take a more rational approach to psychedelics, needs help finding a building in which she and Campbell can start a co-living space. Ashwin Gopinath, a post-doctoral researcher at Caltech, wants to change science writing, which he finds limited — it's as if journalists can't help seeing everything through a science fiction lens while the actual possibilities are much more better than anything Ray Bradbury described.
Afterward, people do seek each other out, sometimes to offer real estate leads, make publishing suggestions to an aspiring writer or simply talk and drink. “This is just the first one,” Campbell says at the end of the night. “It's a first experiment.”
The next Junto is tentatively scheduled for Thursday, August 21, at Learn.Help.Teach.
Catherine Wagley on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: