Activism & Organizing

ReWired for Change: Keeping the Spotlight Burning on Baltimore

Baltimore, by Michael King (Creative Commons)

At the Emmys last week, George Clooney received the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, an honor that recognizes an actor’s do-gooder work and highlights television as a catalyst for change. As Clooney talked in his acceptance speech about “keeping the spotlight burning” on issues after the cameras disappear, I couldn’t help but think about the HBO series The Wire. Why? Because it’s one of the few shows whose stars not only act for entertainment, but are collectively acting on their social conscience through a nonprofit called ReWired for Change.

From 2002-2007, The Wire portrayed Baltimore’s most neglected and most powerful communities, delving deep into complex institutions—the drug trade, law enforcement, unions, politics, the media—and showing how they’re ultimately all related. I reference it all the time, at work, at the hair salon, at a recent bachelorette party…If it’s possible to have a crush on a T.V. show, I’ve got it bad.

After watching five seasons, it’s hard to miss one of the show’s central themes: the wasted potential of misguided youth. And it’s hard not to feel like you want to do something about it. Sonja John, who played the tough cop Shakima Greggs, decided she wanted to keep the spotlight on this issue after the show ended, starting in Baltimore. With support from the cast and creator David Simon, ReWired for Change was born.

What’s cool about ReWired for Change is that it uses episodes from the show as a teaching tool to empower “high risk youth” to seek better opportunities. The curriculum also incorporates other forms of art and media to encourage youth to think constructively about themselves and their surroundings, as well as a street-based intervention component. The ultimate goal is to implement the model on a national and global level; in the meantime, ReWired for Change has been busy with local initiatives, such as a youth community center and a coalition of citizens working to improve the quality of life in Charm City.

At the risk of sounding like a gushing schoolgirl, I really believe The Wire is a prime example of reality inspiring art, and art (hopefully) inspiring reality. It gives me hope that American pop culture isn’t so self-absorbed as the media portrays it to be, and that the reach of television can be harnessed for good. [Editor’s note: ReWired for Change has a profile on Idealist; keep an eye on it if you want to get involved.]

Besides The Wire, what other arts and entertainment platforms out there have inspired change?

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Helping in Haiti – Six Months Later

By Erin Barnhart.

This past January, in response to the many requests we received from people seeking information on how to volunteer in Haiti following its devastating earthquake, we blogged that one of the best things would-be volunteers could do was donate money to those organizations with trained personnel already in-country and then wait for the situation on the ground to stabilize before seeking to volunteer themselves. We also advised that the work of recovery and rebuilding following major disasters is enormous and complex and that volunteers would be needed to partner with local communities for months and years afterward. We suggested that individuals be patient and keep checking back for expanded opportunities to get involved.

From the UNDP via Flickr/Creative Commons

Now, six months later, we thought we’d take a look to see what new volunteer projects and roles have emerged in the intervening months for those who are eager to lend a hand in or for Haiti.

Volunteering Today

The heartbreaking news is that there is still so much work to be done for Haiti to recover from the devastation of January 12. But the good news is that more and more opportunities are opening up for caring global citizens to lend a hand and partner with local residents in recovery and rebuilding efforts.

A quick search of volunteer opportunities posted on our site turned up over 70 Haiti-focused volunteer projects and roles, both on the ground in Haiti as well as from local communities around the globe. In addition to there simply being more opportunities, there has also been an expansion in the sheer range of skills and talents sought. Here are some that are currently in demand:

  • Agricultural assistance
  • Animation
  • Business consulting
  • Carpentry
  • Child care
  • Counseling and trauma assistance
  • Database management
  • Engineering
  • Environmental and conservation roles
  • Food distribution
  • Fundraising and development
  • Graphic design
  • Human resources management
  • Legal assistance
  • Medical and health care (including physical and occupational therapy)
  • Oral history
  • Organizational capacity development
  • Outreach, advertising, and public relations
  • Photojournalism
  • Project management
  • Social media
  • Tax advising
  • Teaching and training
  • Translation
  • Urban planning
  • Videography and filmmaking
  • Volunteer coordination
  • Water resource management
  • Website design and maintenance
  • Writing

Want to learn more about how you might help? Search our site for volunteer opportunities. Also, if you were interested in helping in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, consider looking for opportunities to participate in disaster response training in your local community now; getting trained today could prepare you to serve as a first responder in a future disaster situation.

For more information on what’s happening now in Haiti, check out Hope for Haiti now.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Gooooal: Make the World Better Through Soccer

The Quarterfinals of the World Cup began this morning and with soccer (or football) on our minds, we wanted to take a look at how nonprofit organizations around the world have used the sport in different ways as a catalyst in their work for social change.

In Brazil (home of the 2014 World Cup), two members of the Brazilian national team have founded centers that combine academic study and sports. Each day ends in a game of futebol to keep at-risk children and teens off the streets of the favelas where the schools are located. The game helps channel the youths’ energy, anger and frustration into a positive outlet, lowering rates of recidivism and increasing school enrollment.

In Kenya, the Kibera Community Self-Help Programme uses football as a meeting point for important discussions about sexual health. The organization arranges soccer matches for the young men and boys of Kibera, where one fifth of the estimated 2.2 million Kenyans living with HIV and AIDS reside. After tiring them out on the field, community workers draw everyone in for frank discussions about promiscuity, contraception and the role of men in the transmission of the disease that has ravaged their community. For most of the boys, it is the only formal education on sexual health that they will ever receive.

Although it is the world’s most played sport, children in refugee camps on the mine-ridden border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan are just being introduced to its allure. Games were largely banned under the rule of the Taliban, so soccer is now being used as a means to teach youth how to play, work in teams, and interact across gender lines. The right to play is included as a fundamental right of all children in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and with little to do at the camps during the day, organized sports are helping to keep morale up in what could be long periods of refugee status.

What is it about soccer that has so many nonprofits employing it as a tool for social change? UNICEF says it is because soccer is a universal language —Â a worldwide passion that easily translates across the markedly different realities where it is played. Regardless of what you call the sport, the rules are always the same, all you need is a ball, and the sport’s ability to elicit community interest and direct young people away from the lures of drugs, unsafe sex, or violence are tried and tested.

If soccer is your passion, even outside of World Cup season, try searching for ways to get involved with organizations that employ it as a major tool in their work. Do you have any other examples of how nonprofits have employed sports as a tool to carry out their mission? Tell us about them!

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Is Your Town a Fair Trade Town?

This post by Elena Martín originally appeared in Spanish at

Via flickr user jetalone (Creative Commons)

Fair trade coffee, chocolate, and other products have been growing in name recognition and popularity for years now. But recently, the fair trade movement has received a boost at the local government level as entire towns, villages, and cities work to meet the requirements of the Fair Trade Town designation.

Fair Trade Towns have a few things in common, starting with a commitment by the City or Town Council to support and serve fair trade products at government functions. They also establish a committee of individuals representing different sectors of the community who work to further the goals of the fair trade movement, and generate buzz in the community in favor of this type of commerce.

A town or city isn’t just its government, though. To be a true Fair Trade Town, there must be a commitment from schools, businesses, places of worship, and community organizations to support the fair trade movement and use fair trade products whenever possible. That being said, you can’t be a Fair Trade Town without a plethora of fair trade products readily available for purchase at local retailers, more so than just the options for fair trade coffee you’ll find at some supermarkets.

The Fair Trade Town designation from the Fairtrade Foundation is an example of how scaling ideas at the community level can help propel a movement. When a whole town commits to buying and selling fair trade products, local markets have greater access to fair trade wholesalers who are then able to provide more choice to consumers. More demand for fair trade goods ultimately benefits the producers at the heart of the movement.

What do you think? Would this work in your city or town?

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Photo Project Puts Poverty into Perspective

Portrait of Edward Kabzela courtesy of Duncan McNicholl

Edward Kabzela appears in two photos. In one, he wears a ripped shirt and has a look of despair on his face. In the other, he wears a business suit, holding a cell phone and grinning from ear to ear.

The photos are part of the Perspectives of Poverty Project, a photoblog which seeks to challenge inaccurate assumptions and counter the all-too-often negative images of people living in developing countries. The project is the brainchild of Duncan McNicholl, who is currently based in Malawi working on improving water sanitation with Engineers Without Borders Canada.

The idea for Perspectives of Poverty came to him when he returned from a trip to Africa and saw pitiable photos of his adopted homeland. “I compared these photos to my own memories of Malawian friends and felt lied to. How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people?”

So Duncan decided to take opposing photos of community members, one of them displaying typical signs of poverty and another of them looking their finest. The results are striking. When looking at the photo of “destitute Edward,” for example, you would never guess that he grows his own tobacco or works as an area mechanic to service over 60 water points. I’m much more inclined to support Edward after seeing him in his suit anyway. Why? Because it doesn’t feel like a handout, and his confident pose tells me he’s a capable man.

Duncan certainly isn’t the first to explode stereotypes about developing countries through the arts. PhotoPhilanthropy, for one, features photo essays from around the world that focus on the positive, human aspect of development. But I appreciate Perspectives of Poverty because it raises lesser asked though more provocative questions: when does poverty voyeurism go too far? Is it even ethical in the first place? And do we, especially those of us involved in the nonprofit sector, have a moral obligation to ensure that the people we engage with are always treated and portrayed with dignity?

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

Lasagna with a Side of Organizing

By Flickr user natashalcd (Creative Commons)

Community organizers may not have much free time, but they do need to eat.

That’s the idea behind Dining Organizers, a program of the New Organizing Institute that encourages community organizers to get together once a month. From the website:

“The hope is that organizers from different schools of thought, issue campaigns, and walks of life get together to share their unique perspective on organizing. All of this is done, of course, while enjoying a glass of wine, some homemade lasagna, and making new friends.”

Each month there’s a certain video or article that everyone agrees to watch or read. That way, not only is there something to discuss at dinner, but the activists can learn about and reflect on various organizing philosophies, strategies, and examples.

So far there are 38 groups who’ve met for dinner throughout the United States as well as Berlin, Dublin, and Sydney. Why not join a group or start your own?

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

Personal Democracy Forum Discount for Idealist Community

From PDF 2009

From PDF 2009, via Flickr user neotint

Personal Democracy Forum is “the world’s leading conference exploring technology’s impact on politics and advocacy.” This year, the conference takes place in New York at the CUNY Graduate Center on June 3rd and 4th, and attendees will take part in the conversations that are driving real changes in technology, governance, and the non-profit world.

Non-profit and government rates are available, and the PDF organizers have offered a special discount for Idealist users. Visit to find out more and use the coupon code “idealist” to get an extra 15% off your registration.

If you go, you’ll have the chance to learn more about how to use technology and social media to mobilize support for your cause. You’ll also have the chance to hear from featured speakers Allison Fine and Beth Kanter, authors of the forthcoming book The Networked NonProfit; Deanna Zandt, author of the forthcoming book Share This!: How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, and the founders of OneWebDay,,,, and more.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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One More Reason to Be an Activist: Happiness

A recent article on The Guardian website highlights a study showing that there may be a link between political activism and happiness. Researchers Malte Klar of the University of Gottingen and Tim Kasser of Knox College compared a sample of college students and activists with a control group and found that “several indicators of activism were positively associated with measures of hedonic, eudaimonic, and social well-being.” In other words, activism may not always be fun, but it might make you happier.

In part of the study, college students were divided into two groups. The first wrote letters to the college cafeteria management asking for better food. The second group were told to take a more activist approach and requested that local or fairly traded products be offered. The activist group reported stronger feelings of vitality after the activity.

Many Idealist users have probably already intuited the connection between civic engagement and feelings of happiness. This study provides some data to back up our claims, and to encourage others to get involved.

To find opportunities for activism on Idealist, try searching for a volunteer opportunity using a keyword of your choice. Or select from the list of “Areas of Focus,” many of which can be politically oriented (some examples include: Disability Issues, Energy Conservation and Green Living, Government Oversight and Reform, Human Rights and Civil Liberties, Politics, and Prison Reform).


London to Little Rock: Powerful Gatherings for a New Generation of Changemakers

If you identify as a young(er) person effecting positive change in your own backyard or around the globe, or you work in a field related to youth empowerment, digital activism, or careers in social change, here are two events and networks you should know about:

London Eye, by Flickr user Maurice (Creative Commons)

The Alliance for Youth Movements is only two years old, but they have made quick progress. This week in London, organizers have gathered “global technology giants, youth leaders, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and organizing experts together to discuss how youth activists have launched social movements using online and mobile tools to reduce violence in their communities.” Watch a live stream of the conference today and tomorrow, or take a look at their new website,, which will serve as a hub for discussion, resources, and news about digital activism around the world.

By contrast, the IMPACT Conference was founded more than 20 years ago, and it is historically the largest convening in the United States of campus community members involved in service, activism, politics, advocacy, and other socially responsible work across philosophical and ideological lines. This year, IMPACT will take place March 19-21 at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Arkansas. Become a fan on Facebook or follow the conference on Twitter to learn more.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Book Review: Creating a Culture of "Can"

From the website for the book

Pollyanna Whittier is the name of the heroine of a 1913 novel that added a noun to the English language. She is a relentlessly cheerful orphan whose determination to find something good in every situation transforms the village of Beldingsville, Vermont. The novel was wildly popular, and there were many sequels and several film adaptations.

The Pollyanna Principles presents a set of six straightforward observations about everyday affairs. In this book, author Hildy Gottlieb calls for a transformation of the way nonprofit organizations conduct themselves. She is convinced that transformational change in communities is “possible, simply because it is not impossible.” She urges her readers to create a “culture of Can” (rather than “cultures of Can’t”), and offers a new way for community organizations to plan and execute their work. Her book follows confidently in Pollyanna Whittier’s footsteps.

Gottlieb’s relentless optimism is founded in practical experience. She and her colleagues at the Community-Driven Institute have a long record of successful work with organizations of many sizes and types, in many parts of the United States. They also have the personal experience of having imagined, initiated, and successfully let go of the flourishing Diaper Bank in their home town of Tuscon, Arizona.

Applying the Pollyanna Principles will lead board members to “govern for what matters most.” Doing so will build an organization that exists “for the community, not for itself.” A board that works this way will always be “conscious of the power it has, in every decision, to change lives, to make a difference — to create the future of its community.”

Gottlieb dismisses the familiar label “nonprofit” organization. She proposes instead that people who care about this work should substitute the term Community Benefit Organization. That phrase, she argues, highlights “the future we want to create for our communities, to ensure that we do not continue to default our focus to the day-to-day.” Toward the final pages of her book, she wonders at the limited investments that are made for ensuring the success of community-benefit work and makes a strong case for finding ways to expand those efforts.

Reading all the way through The Pollyanna Principles can feel like a bit of a chore. Gottlieb offers examples of how the six principles can transform community-benefit work in a wide range of settings. The result is repeated presentation of the basic idea in a variety of contexts and settings. The differences do not come through clearly enough to overcome a growing sense of familiarity.

That said, there is strength in the core logic of the Pollyanna Principles. Gottlieb challenges us to proceed with renewed commitment to community benefit in every detail of “planning, program development, funding, governance, resource development and other systems.” Readers who follow this lead will indeed find themselves living in a happier place, in a culture of can. Not a bad end to keep in view.

Note: If you buy The Pollyanna Principles from, you can use this link; a royalty will be paid that helps to support

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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