Community astronomy project urges Canadians to space out

On Tuesday, March 11, Idealist will launch a new network to help practical dreamers all over the world connect and take action on the issues that concern them. Preparing for the debut of this imaginative new effort has gotten us exploring the many facets of dreams: what are their purposes, their powers, their opposites?

Welcome to Dreams Week on Idealists in Action.

Viva and Michael twinkling with a few stars. Photo credit: CG

Viva and Michael, the stars of #PopScope
(photo credit: CG)

The night sky is one of those amazing human universals: it’s probably safe to say that everyone, everywhere, has at some point looked up at it and said, “Whoa.”

At least, Michael and Viva have. These two “civil servants by day, community enthusiasts by night,” are the creators of #PopScope, a new series of public astronomy nights in Ottawa, Ontario designed to reconnect people to the night sky—and to each other.

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Stumble on a bed in a public place, settle in for storytime

On Tuesday, March 11, Idealist will launch a new network to help practical dreamers all over the world connect and take action on the issues that concern them. Preparing for the debut of this imaginative new effort has gotten us exploring the many facets of dreams: what are their purposes, their powers, their opposites?

Welcome to Dreams Week on Idealists in Action.

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Erica Thomas reads to strangers in the park as part of Dreamland.
(image courtesy Dreamland)

What would you think if you were walking through a park and happened upon a bed, a rocking chair, a lamp, and someone reading stories? Would you think you were dreaming? Would you think your dreams had come true?

Welcome to Dreamland.

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The myth of “stranger danger” (and what to do about it)

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Seems like it should be easy enough to make a new friend in the comfort of our own city or town, right?

Many of us encounter hundreds of people over the course of our day, but how often do we actually say hello and make conversation? If you’re like me, probably not very often. Most people (myself included) can be shy about interacting with strangers, because we fear we might somehow be taken advantage of.

But do we really have reason to be so concerned?

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“Hey, is that tea good?” Why not strike up a conversation with a stranger and see if you can make a new friend?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

In 2010, at the University of Cologne in Germany, researchers Detlef Fetchenhauer and David Dunning created an economic game that required people to accurately judge the trustworthiness of strangers in order to win. They found that participants considered 52% of strangers trustworthy, even though a whopping 80% of strangers were actually deserving of their trust.

The big takeaway for me here was that the chances of encountering a trustworthy person are much greater than the chances of meeting someone who wishes you harm. If you’re super-cynical or risk-averse, you might say you’d rather practice caution than encounter someone with ill intentions. That’s fine, but if you don’t take the risk, you’ll miss out on meeting the 80% of strangers who are awesome.

If that’s not enough reason to reach out, consider this: the same study also confirmed that the biggest root of our cynicism is a lack of experience with strangers. What does that mean? Well, we established that approximately 80% of people are trustworthy, but if your first few encounters with strangers involved the 20% of untrustworthy individuals, then you’ve probably become skeptical about forging new friendships with mysterious people. On the other hand, if you’ve mostly encountered strangers from the trustworthy 80%, then every stranger is likely to seem more like a potential friend than threat.

Either way, remember that the odds are in your favor. If you’ve had some negative experiences with strangers, try reaching out and increasing your sample size—you’re due for an encounter with someone belonging to that 80%.

Turning strangers into friends is easier done than said. Read that again—it’s not a typo! This is thanks to the handy-dandy method I’ve drafted for creating a more stranger-friendly community wherever you call home. Caution: it sounds a little more like a dance craze than a fail-proof method for making friends, but bear with—it is tested and true.

My prescription for stranger-friendly cities is called the “UP, down, side to side method.” (No worries if you still prefer UP, down, side to side as a dance craze—feel free to bust the moves while walking down the street. No judgment here.) However, it has little to do with shaking-it-up or shimmying-it-down and everything to do with how you interact with your surroundings:

  • Enjoy the ride. Stop thinking about transit strictly in terms of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Give yourself time to travel through your neighborhood, and as you walk, bike, bus, or drive, take in your surroundings. Look UP, down, and side to side as you journey, and consider how you might add value to your community. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus, or take note of a new business in the area and plan to stop in.
  • Take a walk. Luminary author Henry David Thoreau said that an early morning walk is like a prayer for the entire day. I ‘Thorealy’ agree!, but I also go a step further and assert that walking has great value at all hours. Walks allow us to look UP, down, and side to side as we commune with our surroundings, and solo sojourns especially provide us with an opportunity to think about our communities and observe the small things that make our neighborhoods special. Try a croissant at the local bakery and leave a tip. Make conversation with your waiter. Find out when the coffee shop has poetry readings and go listen to what some “strangers” in your ‘hood have to say.
  • Commit random acts of generosity. Investing your time and energy in another human being—even a stranger—almost always provides a positive return. When we look UP, down, and side to side, we find little ways to make life nicer for the people around us. Does the woman checking out ahead of you at the grocery store need a dime so she doesn’t have to break a $20? Give her one from your pocket. Does that elderly man look like he could use a little help crossing that icy street? Offer him your arm.
  • Invite someone to dinner. If you’ve ever lived alone, you understand how difficult it can be to cook for just one. Two can even be trying, as many recipes are written for families of four. So instead of dividing a recipe, why not invite the neighbors to dinner? Even (or especially) if you don’t know them well. If nothing else, it will save you the headache of division! And now—I don’t even need to say it, do I?—pause before you start cooking, look UP, down, side to side, and consider who else could be sitting at your table. Then call them. All of them.
  • Say hello without words. A welcome mat is a quick and easy way to welcome visitors and passersby even when you’re not home. If welcome mats could speak, they would say, “Hello friend! Welcome to this house. Please come inside and get cozy.” Even the humble welcome mat is aware of the importance of creating a warm community vibe. Look UP, down, side to side and figure out the best place to put that mat (probably in front of your door, but you do as you like). 
  • Connect with the inspired. The Web makes it easy to contact almost anyone you admire, whether you’ve actually met them or not, so why not send a quick note to someone you think is doing good work? We can go digital with the UP, down, side to side method, too, if we use email to send kind words to deserving people. As an added perk, this kind deed helps you network with the people that inspire you the most.

My final plea comes even more directly from the heart: I ask you to be the type of person that shows others how kind strangers can be. We know that the most despairing communities and hardened individuals need kindness the most. So why not break the cycle and show them some goodness? Go ahead and get started with a little UP, down, and side to side action. It’s great for making friends out of strangers (and can also provide a nice little cardio workout).

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Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who believes in the power of creativity, positivity, and chocolate chip cookies. She’s written about happiness experiments and proliferating kindness on Idealist, and is always cooking up something on her blog, Apartment Wife.

 

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

 

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Why I bought a house in Detroit for $500

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Photo by Mike Williams (via Buzzfeed)

Drew Philip boarding up the windows of his house in Detroit.
(photo by Mike Williams, via Buzzfeed)

Drew Philip was 23 years old when he bought his home in Detroit for $500 at a live county auction.

This powerful essay, originally published on Buzzfeed, chronicles how the author rebuilds his house—and makes himself a home—out an abandoned building filled with plastic bags, rotting carpet, and broken car parts.

Although Detroit has been talked about a lot lately—both as an almost post-apocalyptic cityscape of decay, and as a new hotspot for young, poor, (usually) white artists—the author describes the community he’s discovered there in terms of its kindness:

It’s been happening quietly and for some time, between transplants and natives, black and white and Latino, city and country—tiny acts of kindness repeated thousands of times over, little gardens and lots of space, long meetings and mowing grass that isn’t yours. It’s baling hay.

It’s the Detroit that’s saving itself. The Detroit that’s building something brand-new out of the cinders of consumerism and racism and escape. I’ve attended a four-person funeral for a stillborn baby that could have been saved but for poverty. I’ve nearly been shot by the police during a stop-and-frisk. I’ve seen three structure fires within a block of my house. But I’ve also walked out of my house to see hundreds of tiny snowmen built by neighborhood children. I’ve seen tears in the eyes of a grown man releasing a baby raccoon into a city park that he had saved from being beaten to death by teenagers.

Some scrappy teachers just opened a school in a formerly abandoned building behind my house. I stretched a ladder through the missing window of the abandoned house next door and nailed it to the kitchen floor to reach the peak of my own roof.

Read the full essay here.

Have you ever taken on a tough project that’s brought you a better sense of home? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

 

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We’re getting closer. Let’s also get kinder.

In 1967, psychologist Stanley Milgram famously declared that there are only six degrees of separation between all people. 45 years later, two scientists in Taiwan incorporated Facebook networks into the six-degree theory and concluded that the average number of degrees of separation between two individuals is currently more like 3.9. 
 
This blog post by Jennifer Prod, which we’ve adapted below, explores some of the reasons for and implications of this shift.

Networked communities like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are narrowing the distance between global citizens. If you’re anything like me—working on your computer a lot and keeping up with various social networks—then you’re having daily interactions with people around the globe.

Chances are high that you’re even interacting with your Internet connections more often than your geographical neighbors. One reason for this is that social networks connect individuals based on affinity rather than geography. For the first time, we can make friendships based exclusively on interests and similarities, without proximity as a prerequisite. Amazing!

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We’re living closer together than ever now—physically and online.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

But here’s a more nuanced thought about this shift: As the geographical distance between the people we share our daily lives with expands, our definitions of ‘neighbor’ and ‘community’ are expanding, too.

Small town people are famous for their hospitality. We can reason that much of their kindness stems from the knowledge that they will inevitably run into the same people time and time again. Chances are high that if you smirk at someone in the grocery store, you’ll see her face pop up another time soon—when she becomes your new insurance rep, for example, or neighbor, or (worst of all) boss. Keeping this possibility in mind incentivizes polite and friendly behavior.

People in larger cities, though, where high density almost guarantees that we’ll interact with new people on a daily basis, are apt to take more social chances and risk being rude because we think we’re free from future consequences. But this is changing.

In today’s world, it’s very likely that you’ve interacted with many of the ‘strangers’ you see on the street on digital networks in the past. And it’s even more likely that you’ll interact with more of them on such platforms in the future.

So what’s the proper course of action for all the new faces—and concurrently, new irritations—that we inevitably encounter in our urban communities?

It’s called kindness.

Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet at the market, the café, the park, and the bus stop. Clearly, kindness is the best policy no matter where you are, but we’re poised to personally feel the effects of neglecting it now more than ever. You may not meet the same person again in the same physical space, but chances are good that you will reconnect with them in the digital sphere. And the closer everyone gets, the less you want egg on your face.

headshotoption(1)Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who likes to read in trees and start lakeside chats with strangers. She wrote about happiness experiments for Idealist this past December, and posts about creativity, positivity, and community all the time on her blog.

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Not sure how to get moving on a project? Stop cryin’ and start taking baby steps

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

The following post was translated from Elena Martín’s original on Idealist’s Spanish language site, Idealistas.

Do you want to help make a difference, but find yourself surrendering even before you begin because you don’t know where to start? Do you keep shaping an idea in your head but not taking any action?

You’re not alone. There are many reasons we can end up feeling lost when we want to change the world. Maybe…

  • You feel overwhelmed by all the elements you think it will take to make your dream a reality.
  • You believe you don’t have the time or energy to commit to a long-term project.
  • You’re not willing to pick just one of your good ideas to focus on.

The list could stretch to infinity. But whatever the reason, if you’re just standing by, paralyzed by procrastination and toying with excuses, fears, and doubts, you won’t ever start.

Luckily, there’s one simple key that can get any project going. It’s called: Just start somewhere.

It doesn’t really matter where. Your first step will dictate where your next one should be, and the dominoes will fall from there. You just have to get started.

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Don’t know where you’re going? That’s okay. Just take the first step.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Step by step

Here are some ways to take that first good step. Try them, and your project will begin to take shape.

  • Verbalize your idea. Share it with your friends and peers; speak it out loud. Talking about your project will generate a stronger commitment to yourself to take action. You even stand a good chance of finding allies among your listeners who will want to help so you don’t have to act alone.
  • Focus your magnitude. If you’re thinking of an idea so big that you can’t imagine how to address it, scale it back and start with something smaller. For example, if you want to fight hunger, don’t start with a goal to end hunger all over the world. Instead, begin by learning how to help those suffering from hunger in your own community and scale your efforts up from there.
  • Find a similar project. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Do some research and see if you can find a person or organization doing the same type of work you want to do. If you can identify a few, you can ask for their advice or see if they’re interested in joining your project—or you might find that you want to join theirs! This practice will save you time and enrich your perspective.
  • Divide and conquer. Define the main things you need to accomplish in order to reach your goal and write them out in chronological order as best you can. Then set time limits to meet each of the steps (you’ll have to estimate; just try to be realistic). Your goals and the timeline are likely to change as you progress, so modify the list as you go. But if you stay committed to it, you’ll keep your focus and avoid getting distracted.
  • Just take action, here and now. Think: what’s one step I can commit to right now? What’s one step I can take today? Don’t think about it too much; it doesn’t have to be anything big. In fact, at the beginning, it should be just enough to give you the feeling that you’ve taken action and gotten the ball rolling. This will motivate you to do more!

In short, if you don’t know where to start, just start by completing a first step as soon as possible. As Anne Frank wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

What project would you love to work on this year? What first step are you taking to start it?

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This new year, shake the world with a new dream

Today’s inspiration: activist, author, and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs.

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The fierce and graceful Grace Lee Boggs.
(photo courtesy boggsblog.org)

Civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs is still at it. At 98 years old, she continues to be an impassioned voice for blighted urban communities, empowering them to rise up.

How? By “putting the neighbor back in the ‘hood.”

In this video, Grace is with her neighbors in her hometown of Detroit. What I love about this footage is how unassuming Grace is. She’s a legend — and the subject of the upcoming documentary American Revolutionary — yet here she is, wearing a sweatshirt and having a low-key chat about bettering the community. This is grassroots activism at its core.

I could listen to her talk all day. She says:

“Whatever your walk of life, race, or class, you have the right and duty to shake this world with a new dream. Because the world is waiting for a new dream.”

It’s 2014. What’s your new dream?

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Uplifting billboard says don’t cry, pout, tells you why

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The Joy Team put up this billboard at NE Glisan and 27th in Portland, Oregon to spread acceptance and hope during the holidays.
(photo courtesy The Joy Team)

The holidays are a time to be grateful for the good things in our lives, but for a lot of people this season of celebration can also stir up feelings of loneliness and sadness.

To combat these winter blues, The Joy Team out of Vancouver, Washington has created a new billboard campaign to spread messages of acceptance and hope.

Here’s a sample:

  • You are so freaking awesome.
  • We believe in you.
  • Celebrate.
  • Cultivate your awesomeness.
  • Something wonderful is about to happen.

Nice work, Joy Team! I feel better already.

What encouraging message would you put on a billboard?

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Before I die I want to share this awesome book with you

As 2013 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to pay homage to Idealists who’ve made a commitment to doing good across 365 days.

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A page featuring South Korea from the Before I Die book.

What do you want to do before you die?

It’s a question that can make even the most certain of us uncomfortable. It makes us reflect on both what we’ve done with our lives and what we haven’t, and forces us to confront our mortality. We won’t be here forever.

But artist and urban designer Candy Chang knows it’s a question that can also make us do something about all of our unfulfilled dreams and desires.

Inspired by a mother figure who passed away in 2011, Candy stenciled “Before I die I want to _____” on an abandoned house in her home city of New Orleans. Anybody who walked by could pick up a piece a chalk and make their personal aspirations public. The results were heartfelt and humorous—and the project exploded around the world.

Candy says:

At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Knowing that there were vacant lots, campuses, construction sites, and more waiting to be transformed into community spaces around the world, Candy created a toolkit so that anyone anywhere could do the same. Walls that took months to plan and build started going up from South Dakota to Capetown to South Korea. To date, there have been 400 walls in over 60 countries. 

It was a beautiful example of an idea spreading. And people continue to pick up chalk and write.

This past year, Candy compiled some of her favorite walls and the stories of how they came to be into one book. It’s a breathtaking account of our humanity in all its hope, humor, sorrow, joy, and longing. I read the entire book on a recent flight across the country. Not even 30 Rock reruns could make me put it down.

Before I die I want to dance in every country in the world. What do you want to do?

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Life as Art: Naho Iguchi’s purposefully jobless year in Berlin

As 2013 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to pay homage to Idealists who’ve made a commitment to doing good across 365 days.

Naho Iguchi is taking a year off.

But the artist and former TEDxTokyo director isn’t studying on sabbatical, and she didn’t buy a backpack and round-the-world flight package.

She’s just being Naho.

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Naho at TEDxKyoto in 2012.
(photo via Shareable.net)

With the financial support of 22 donors, Naho is living without a job or other standard responsibilities for a yearlong experiment in what someone could do if she were free from social constraints.

“What could happen if a person completely follows her intuition and five senses when making decisions, without worrying about income or rent or about social expectations—in other words, the sources of fear and anxiety that drive people to stick with the current economic system?”

Here’s a taste of the answers (and additional questions) she’s found, from her blog:

Vision and goal are something that we human make up in order to illustrate our future and motivate us to keep going. I strongly agree that there are occasions where vision and goal are highly relevant and powerful to have. But, not all the time.

If we are contended with the present state and also the way that we’ve walked along there, then why do we need to be bothered to think about future and run after it?

For more on the ideas behind Naho’s project, read this interview with her on Shareable.

If you’ve been involved with a long-term personal project, tell us: what intentions did you explore?

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