How NYC’s Doers Network is overcoming skepticism to promote random acts of kindness

NYC’s Narrative.ly brands itself as “a community of talented storytellers who are devoted to uncovering and sharing in-depth local stories with a universal appeal.” A couple of weeks ago, they published a Do Gooder series, including a story about Doers Network founders Jesse Speer and Josh Goolcharan. Here’s an excerpt from Helaina Hovitz’s piece, “If You See Something, Do Something,” which details how hard it can be sometimes to do a random act of kindness, no matter how good the intention.

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Jesse Speer, founder of The Doers Network, asks random questions to commuters on the 5 train in the New York City subway. (Photo credit: Jika González.)

On the day of the train stunt, Speer and Goolcharan try to raise awareness of their efforts in Union Square. The heat threatens to melt the pavement while drug addicts and pierced teens lay on backpacks, Hare Krishnas dance, and men in cowboy hats blow whistles. People sitting on the steps—everyone from skateboarders with headphones still in their ears to wayward shoppers briefly stopping to enjoy entertainment and a snack—glance over at the Doers, who have posted up a bright blue sign reading “Free Favors.”

Few bother to inquire.

“If it’s doable we’ll do it for you within a five-block ra-di-us!” they rap.

Five minutes pass with no takers. They rotate the sign.

“It was nerve-wracking,” says Goolcharan. “Some people gave us dirty looks.”

Another five minutes, and they move again to meet the flow of traffic coming from the end of the greenmarket. One man, apparently mistaking them for some kind of knowledge gurus, tells his wife to go up to them and “ask them anything you want to know.” Finally, a woman asks, “Can someone drive my son to a two-week camp up in Pennsylvania every morning?” That seems like a perfect job for the Doers, a first for the day. “Send us the request on our website and we’ll try to find a way to make it happen for you,” answers Speer, handing her a card.

Jesse Speer negotiates reasonable free favors with Patricia, 14, in Union Square Park.

Things take a weird turn when Robert Elliconell, a 24-year-old with a mop of curly brown hair and brown bloodshot eyes, rolls up on his bike and asks, “Wow, anything?” as he takes off his shirt and drops the bike. “Within reason,” Speer answers. Soon Goolcharan is walking the young man to Walgreens, where he buys a giant Red Bull.

After that, Elliconell escorts more people over, instructing them to “ask them for anything.”

A young man wearing a do-rag and and carrying two plastic swords tells Speer he needs $20 because he lost it at a party the night before. “Can I have five bucks to get on the train?” pipes another man. Speer ignores the question, but he persists.

“Actually, I want a monster,” the man with the swords says, changing his mind.

The awkwardness is palpable.

Speer knows that they are being taken advantage of, but wants to stick to what the sign says.

“We also didn’t want to cause a scene,” he says in hindsight. “I didn’t want to turn them away in case they didn’t go away—it would reflect badly on the Network if we had to go get the cops or start yelling.”

Goolcharan jumps in with a compromise. “We’ll buy you anything you want to drink from Walgreens,” he offers. The guys try to get him to buy them cigarettes, which he declines to do.

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“I feel like everyone has a desire to help, but they don’t have the channels to do it through,” says Goolcharan. “I think people want to see other people taking the first step. It’s like waiting for two people to get on the dance floor at the school dance. Then, slowly, more people join.”

The Doers decide for a change of strategy. They try to “mysteriously” buy coffee for strangers, but the Starbucks on 14th Street doesn’t let them: they can’t participate in such a stunt unless it’s an official business partnership. Speer offers to buy a can of Pepsi for a woman from a hot dog cart, but she repeatedly refuses.

Then comes more inspiration: they give $15 to an ice cream truck driver and tell him to cover the next five people’s cones. “Most people will refuse it unless you basically force it upon them, which is what we did,” observes Goolcharan.

Steven Medina, 22, learns that the cost of the cherry slushy he ordered at a Mister Softee’s truck is covered by The Doers Network.

“It’s weird, you don’t really see things like this in New York, says 22-year-old Steven Medina, walking away with a free slushy. “It makes me want to do something nice. I have too many pairs of sneakers. I think I’ll give them away.” He contacts the Network later that day to ask how he can become involved with the project.

Eventually, Speer and Goolcharan end up handing out money again, which makes for an eerie coincidence when, four days later, Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream stands in the same square handing out dollar bills as part of a campaign to stop corporate financing of politics.

But even giving out money in New York isn’t as simple as one would imagine. This time they try a more complicated tack. They use a tag flyer—the same kind of tear-away sheets people stick on lampposts offering services, but with a plastic sleeve holding their business card and a few dollars in each slot instead of the phone number. They place it right by a rack of Citibikes, and people walk by, in droves, without taking or noticing anything. Finally, a little girl sees it. “Oh my god, there’s money!” she screams when she takes one down, looking at her stunned mother. Without missing a beat, she rips off the rest and runs away, disappearing into the crowd, while her mother tries to tell her to somehow “put them back.”

Walking along 14th Street, Tiffany finds a cash tag containing a couple of bucks left by The Doers Network.

“The cash tags went as I expected,” says Goolcharan. “The same thing happened the first time Jesse and I did a trial with it.” That was in a park in New Jersey, and the Doers were dumbfounded that over the course of two hours, not one person took the money.

“Most people would look at it and keep going, and you will always have that one person who, rather than just take one, snatches all of them,” says Goolcharan. “You can’t control what people do with an act of kindness.”

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Read the full story here

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Why I keep sending books to prisoners

This week’s spotlight: all things books.

Letters

Letters from prisoners requesting books. (Photo via Kristin Stadum.)

I hate Wednesday.

I really hate Wednesday. The day wrecks me. I end up cold, tired and hungry, except in the summer I end up hot, tired and hungry because after work on Wednesday, I spend hours with DC Books to Prisons.

When a couple of friends mentioned the group, I started volunteering and in no time at all, I found myself wrapped in the cogs of this purely-volunteer organization that seemed almost organic in nature, surviving despite itself, because of itself, without rules, without structure, to put books in the hands of prisoners.

Over the years, I have picked and packed books, established a data repository, taken packages to the post office and fought to find a fiscal sponsor. Photography, writing, fundraising – whatever the group needed, I tried to do, but it wasn’t until I spearheaded a holiday fundraiser that I realized how wildly unpopular prison issues could be.

The project doesn’t have a steady source of income. The group survives on meager grants and responses to letters of appeal. The only real costs are the cost of the website, the mailbox, and shipping (media mail), which continues to rise. Even operating with such lean overhead, the organization struggles to survive.

Over the holidays, a local bookstore gave us the opportunity to tie together our skills – books and wrapping – by giftwrapping customers’ purchases for donations. The first year, I worked eight of the nine shifts we had, serving as the public face of DC Books to Prisons.

We don’t have a charming mascot, color or theme. We send books to an underserved and incarcerated population. A lot of people have problems with that. Very few are likely to wear our name on their sleeves and raise funds for prisoners. Many believe that prisoners just ought to be punished.

“Why?” a man asked as I wrapped his books. “Why do you care?”

While I quoted statistics on the current rate of incarceration (higher in terms of both sheer volume and per capita than anywhere else in the world), all I really wanted to say is that I care because somebody has to.

Our system is broken. Our justice system claims rehabilitation as a goal, not punishment, but in a world of diminishing resources, prisoners suffer. Libraries are cut as are educational programs, and recidivism is high. Those who enter prison on minor drug offenses walk out as hardened criminals without skills, resources or hope for the future, with criminal connections, without an education, and literacy helps stop that from happening. Showing basic human decency helps stop that from happening.

“Maybe in a way it’s a form of hope, which is nice considering all this negativity,” a prisoner from California recently wrote, expressing his wonder “to actually know that there are people out there who can do what they want, anytime they want, and still donate and volunteer their time, raise money… now that has an effect on a person to make him stop and think.”

The (mostly) men who write us don’t extoll their innocence. We don’t ask them to. We read their letters, try to find books that match their requests and include a brief note wishing them happy reading.

Even such brief notes reach their readers. Sometimes, I feel more than vaguely uncomfortable with the letters I get in response, the ones calling me an angel, a savior, a princess, the ones asking how many bedrooms I have, the ones offering information about impending parole dates. We don’t sign our full names or give personal addresses but we would not be hard to find, any of us, and I do get a lot of letters.

A lot of letters.

For some reason, though, I keep going on Wednesdays. Wrecked. Uncomfortable. Unsure of my own motivation but for the fact that someone needs to care. Then, something happens to remind me why I volunteer.

The day before Christmas, with a broken water heater at home and plans for one final giftwrapping shift, I found myself engaged in a conversation with the plumber’s assistant. In the July just past, he was exonerated of a crime he did not commit and released after serving 23 years of someone else’s sentence, someone identified through DNA evidence, someone who would never be tried because the statute of limitations had passed.

What do you do after 23 years behind bars? How do you move from 1989 to 2012 without climbing the steps in between? Cameras, music, and communication in pocket-sized computing devices with far too much information about everyone ever met with people checking in, checking out and checking their email all at the same time.

How do you explain a 23-year gap in a resume? How do you develop a relationship after 23 years on the inside? How could you ever go back inside any building ever again with the sun shining and a breeze blowing? I gave the man my attention, some cookies and a book on exoneration from my own shelves at home; then, I went to raise money for the project.

Since 1999, DC Books to Prisons has been answering individual inmates’ requests for reading material –fiction and nonfiction – with requests from all 50 states. Volunteers work with a donated library in borrowed space (from a local church) to pick and pack books. Requests range from dictionaries, drawing books, and westerns (all incredibly popular) to history, psychology, woodworking and electronics. Some of the prisoners are lifers, on death row or “in the hole” (solitary confinement) looking for a mental escape while others hope to learn a marketable trade for after their release.

Most of the prisoners who write us weren’t wrongfully convicted. They very well might deserve the sentences received but the ones who write us have nothing, no family or friends for support, no money, no options. We are their last resort, and whatever they did, they are serving their time. We can afford them basic human kindness and maybe a chance to learn, and so every Wednesday, cold, tired and hungry (except when I am hot), I send books to prisoners.

20130609_NYC0165Kristin Stadum lives and works in Washington DC, volunteering regularly with DC Books to Prisons as well as The Reading Connection where she reads books to (and encourages a love of reading in) children at a domestic violence shelter. In her free time, she travels, writes, walks, and raises money and awareness for breast cancer research.

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Stuck? Try problem-solving like a designer

The idea

People first, ideas second. Might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many of us forget this – even in the social good world.

This idea of empathy is the key driver behind design thinking, a creative approach to problem-solving that’s gained buzz in recent years thanks to the mammoth design and innovation consulting firm IDEO.

But it’s not just the territory of big companies. Brooklyn-based The Design Gym is taking design thinking and putting it in the hands of the community. Through facilitation and storytelling workshops, giant hackathons, and their Weekend Workout, (which attempts to solve a problem from a real organization or company)  their belief is that anyone can be innovative – if you just exercise that muscle.

“There are lots of organizations that don’t talk to customers. That part of what we’re doing isn’t groundbreaking, it’s just showing them a new approach. You get so stuck in management and growth and systems and all of a sudden you lose touch with those people who can provide you very simple solutions,” co-founder Jason Wisdom says.

Design thinking in action

A typical Weekend Workout works like this: You come in on Friday night for a crash course on design thinking complete with beers and improv exercises. On Saturday, you go through the entire process on a problem that everyone can relate to, like park services or airline issues, using the 5 phases: learning from all the people who touch this problem in someway, making sense of what you learned, generating solutions from those learnings, experimenting or testing those solutions (many failing), and telling the story of what you learned. When Sunday comes around, you’re challenged to use that process again on a real client.

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Kelly presenting the user journey her team created for miLES.

There’s been seven workouts so far, with past clients including the Acumen FundMakeshift Magazine, HolsteeThe Future Project, and Made in the Lower East Side (miLES).

With miLES, for example, students were asked to find a way for artists, teachers, and more to utilize the 220+ vacant storefronts in the Lower East Side, and also keep the landlords who wanted to rent them to higher paying customers (i.e. bar and restaurant owners) happy. They came up with pop up shops. And not only that, but a central hub of carts where people could find signage, seats, tables, and more so they could set up and take down their store with ease.

A few of the clients from the Weekend Workout, such as Makeshift and Holstee, took on students after it was over to help put their ideas in action. That’s one of the big goals of Design Gym: develop relationships with companies and organizations so the students can gain both experience and exposure.

“They’ve been our biggest evangelists in terms of helping us find new opportunities, “ Jason says. “And we support them getting jobs or consulting gigs, or give personal coaching around their careers. As long as people know you’re absolutely committed to their success, they’ll bend over backwards to help you as well.”

Tips for replicating the idea

Jason and his team would love to first get The Design Gym firmly planted in NYC, then expand to other places.

But if the idea of a Weekend Workout makes you want to immediately start to do the heavy (or light) lifting of bringing one where you live, here are his tips on how to make it successful:

1. Find a point of focus.

Sit with the organization or company beforehand and tease out the problem. “We want the problem to be big enough to satisfy the organization and do something significant, but small enough that it can be implemented,” he says. Things like, “What’s the future of our organization look like?” is way too wide for a short timeframe, narrow down those problems or opportunities.

2. Tap into different communities and locations.

Bounce around to different spaces. Or if you can’t do that, partner with a space that can bring in diverse clients. Design Gym frequently hosts their classes at the Brooklyn Brainery, an eclectic, community-driven education space where you can find classes on everything from how to run a marathon to making marbled papers to being a connector.

“One of our primary drivers is to continually enforce that diverse community. Because the solutions are so much more interesting due to the communities diverse backgrounds and it’s fun to connect with people who would never get  to be around each other otherwise,” Jason says.

3. Make everything in the space fair game.

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A team, client (Holstee) and community celebrating after a fun-filled and exhausting weekend.

During the prototyping phase, when students are experimenting with ideas to see if they’ll work, encourage them to use whatever is front of them. At the Brainery, students will often use stuff from the classrooms: frying pans, duct tape, 2×4’s, etc. “The more props you can show us, the better off it is. We’ve had students present back in haikus and built structures, also some teams presented through brilliant songs,” Jason says.

4. Embrace your students’ inner geek

Anyone can attend the Weekend Workout and everyone who does is there for one reason: to learn new things. While most students tend to be in their late 20’s to early 40’s, their backgrounds run the gamut from novelists to 5th grade science teachers to product leads at Google.

“With the problems we’re working on being so diverse, people start to feel this applies to them, whether they’re in healthcare or a tech startup or construction,” Jason says. “What they have in common is that they’re geeky people.”

5. Don’t be a helicopter instructor.

The less you do, the better off your students are. “We found if do a really good job at the explanation and creating structure, and leave them alone, the better off they are,” Jason says. “Allowing them to go through and fail a little bit and do things wrong and learn from that is an important part of the process. And it takes us standing back a little bit for that to be able to happen.”

Another tip: Don’t try to force groups based on personalities you think might work well together. Whether you group people together or randomize it, the results ware usually the same.

6. Show your appreciation.

“Everybody has busy lives in this city. So we want to thank people for deciding that out of all the places they could possibly be, they’re spending time with us,” says Jason. They’ve shown their gratitude by giving students a bag with a Moleskine notebook, bottle of wine, and handwritten thank you card.

7. Empower.

Design Gym just launched a train-the-trainer program, where they have students come back from previous weekends and learn the skills necessary to become a really strong facilitator. Finding them long-term engagements with organizations or companies is another priority, and they’re toying with creating a consulting firm run by students.

8. Create continual opportunities for community. 

They’ve hosted happy hours, rotating potlucks, and more. “Our big epiphany was our first happy hour. We had 23 students in the class, and 21 came out to happy hour and said they wanted to continue to be involved in whatever it is we’re doing,” Jason says. “That to me was such validation we’re doing something right. And in the end, they become close friends.”
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Are you an organization in the NYC area that could use some creative problem-solving at a Weekend Workout? Or want to implement a similar project where you live? Get in touch with Jason: jason@thedesigngym.com.

If you’re in the NYC area and want to participate, the next Weekend Workout will be May 31-June 2.

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What makes YOU weird? The “Own It” campaign wants to know

At NYC’s Lab School for Collaborative Studies, you‘ll find tables for group work, encouraging notes on lockers, and students openly admitting their dreams, failures, and what makes them unique. Here’s how the high school is celebrating vulnerability in their hallways and beyond—and combating bullying while they’re at it.

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The idea

Senior Lena Jacobs owns that she can ride a unicycle. After years of trying to hide his disability, her classmate Bryan Stromer owns that he has cerebral palsy. Tim Shriver, the school’s in-house Dream Director whose job it is to challenge and support students in putting their dreams into action, owns that he has his heads in the clouds.

In February this year, the three of them helped kick off “Own It,” a campaign at Lab to encourage students and staff to embrace individuality and end bullying. Walk down the school’s hallways and at every turn you’ll find questions on the wall such as: What makes you weird? What’s your wildest dream? What’s your greatest failure? What makes you you?

“Have you ever been in a classroom and the teachers would ask you what animal you’d be and why? You’d always hear people say a lion, tiger, or some other really strong animal. I remember I once heard this girl say she’d be a pig because she could roll around in the mud and and not care what people think of her. That’s such a positive thing; why can’t we all do this?” Bryan says. “ ‘Own It’ is a nicer way of saying be a pig.”

How it came together

At the end of the fall, the idea for “Own It” starting taking shape. With Lab being a relatively quirky school (students are asked on a daily basis to plot their feelings on a mood meter, for example), Tim would talk with students and Future Project Fellows about how to create a shared identity. At the same time, Bryan and Lena started thinking about how it could tie in with their work with the Stand Up to Bullying club, which Bryan co-founded three years ago.

“We knew we had an idea, and everyone was excited about it, but we weren’t sure how we were going to engage people around why this actually matters,” Tim says.

So they got to work and within a few months had planned a high energy, interactive campaign launch event for February. There were poets and emcees, videos, music, and art —and lots of momentum that continued after it ended.

“People say ‘own it’ now like it’s part of their vocabulary,” Bryan says. If you get something wrong in math class, instead of everyone laughing, people will say, ‘Own it!’ It’s a nice way to embrace mistakes and embarrassment.”


Tips for replicating the idea

A big part of “Own It” is spreading the idea to not only other NYC schools—three recently met with the Chancellor of NYC’s Department of Education—but beyond.

Whether you’re from a suburban or urban area, or attend a large or small school, here are their tips on how to make it happen where you live:

1. Keep it real with student leadership.

While it’s definitely a bonus to have Tim providing guidance, ultimately the campaign is student-created and student-led.

“At end of the day, it’s not a club. It’s something that exists within the entire school and affects everyone. It raises the spirits of the entire population,” Lena says. “We want it to stay in the student vibe.”

2. Grow a support network.

Aside from having a staff member they could trust, engaging other students kept them from getting stuck.

“You’re your own worst enemy. If you don’t have someone to keep pushing you to move forward, then sometimes you can end up holding yourself back,” Bryan says. “There are probably 20 of us who are equally invested in this idea and concept. If any of us are having doubts, we look to the support of peers.”

3. Create a catchy brand.

“Own it” is just a fun thing to say. And to create even more excitement, they pasted black and white flyers of the questions all over the hallways to create a buzz before the launch, keeping an element of surprise.

3. Toss out the notion of a standard school assembly.

Instead of an assembly, they called it a campaign launch and made it engaging from every angle. They showed a video Lena made of the teachers disclosing little-known facts about themselves. Poets read in the aisles. The audience participated talk show-style, complete with shouts and claps. Macklemore’s “Same Love” provided the soundtrack.

4. Create continual opportunities for people to own it.

At the launch, students were asked to sign a pledge. The pledge is now up in the hallways, along with index cards they filled out during the event of what they owned: fear of being locked in a coffin, love of Bugs Bunny, and dreams of traveling the world, among others. They even update their Instagram account daily.

“That’s been really cool because people have started following Instagram, and they look forward to it. I’ve been asked by a couple of people who are not directly involved with ‘Own It’ if they can be on it,” Lena says. “Even if we’re touching only one or two other people, it’s an impact we’re making and it’s exciting.”

5. Own your commitment to it.

The campaign had a rocky beginning at first, as people didn’t understand what the group was trying to do. But they persisted.

“Keep going forward and making progress no matter how small it is. It might seem really challenging to start, but once you figure out the idea, keep moving,” Bryan says.

Lena and Bryan may be heading off to college next year, but the hope is that “Own It” will live on. For them, being part of the campaign has helped them strengthen their friendship and connect with others they might not have ever known they had something in common with. For Tim, it’s confirmed something he’s had a suspicion about all along.

“The people who can say where they are most vulnerable are the ones who rock this world. If you look at history, you see it. You look at this school, you see it,” he says. “This is the opportunity we have. Not only to say you can stop bullying, but this is the way to make you the most powerful person you can possibly be.”
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Want to keep up to date with the campaign? Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspired to bring “Own It” to your school? Email nycownit@gmail.com.

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Help Lisa help job seekers find new careers

An ongoing experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

Meet Lisa

For Lisa Melendez, “local” means much more than where she buys her groceries or sees a movie. It’s a way of life, a way of connecting with others, a way of giving back.

“I’m a community activist at heart, and a person who can find and identify opportunities where a lot of people don’t,” she says. “I love bringing people together. I love making conversations happen. I love convening.”Lisa

Lisa was born and raised in East Harlem, NY and has a wide range of experience working on community initiatives. She’s done everything from lobbying local government to change welfare laws to coordinating an international HIV/AIDS panel to matching prospective board members with nonprofits to working in administration at a hospital.

A mother of two, Lisa is now living in upstate NY as a stay-at-home mom. When she’s not taking her kids to extracurricular activities or attending school events, she spends her spare time developing a new organization geared towards matching early childcare providers with local families.

She’s ready to jump back into the workforce, this time with a different focus. Tech companies seeking to improve the quality of life are appealing to her, but she lacks the skillset required for most positions. Still, she’s hopeful and has been applying nonetheless.

“I’m not afraid of first times. Just because I’ve never done this before doesn’t mean I am not capable or shouldn’t do it,” she says.

The idea

Given her experience looking for jobs, and the experience of many in the U.S., Lisa would like to connect prospective job seekers looking to switch industries with the right resources to give them the best chance of success.

Starting with her home state, New York, her target audience is middle-aged, male and female displaced workers.

“We have no real choice here but to begin embracing the notion that your career can begin in one place and end up in another,” Lisa says. “I see it everywhere. People are reinventing themselves all the time.”

She envisions three components:

  1. On-line product/community that includes a search engine, services clearinghouse, emerging industry profiles, career paths, industry-specific skill profiles, and more.
  2. Live tour for candidates who want to meet an actual person and learn about a particular industry from an insider.  This would also be a chance to identify shadowing, returnship, and matching opportunities.
  3. Matching of non-traditional, prospective job seekers for shadowing of established employees in area of interest.

“In a time where so many of us feel as if we are submitting our resumes into the great abyss, we are having to become innovative in how we present ourselves to potential employers,” she says. “Many are asking the question, “How can I get employers to see I can do this job?”

Obstacles

Windingroad

Career paths can be long and winding, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Photo via allison.hare on Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

This is the first time Lisa has shared her idea. Here are the challenges she currently faces:

  1. She doesn’t know where to start.
  2. It’s been hard for her to anticipate the resources – human, financial, and otherwise – she needs to move it forward.

How you can help

  • Besides VocationVacations, which Lisa finds pricey, does this idea exist somewhere else?
  • Has there been any thinking around this issue, and if so, what kind of progress has been made?
  • Who are the key players and organizations she should tap into?
  • Where can she find more information on career transitions?
  • What kinds of expertise would be most helpful in the technical development? Are there low-cost or pro-bono services?
  • For the live tour component, how can she best identify experts who’d be willing to share insider information?
  • Given job competitiveness, would folks even be interested in having somebody shadow them? Why or why not?
  • Regardless of which industry you work in, would people be interested in participating?
  • Would you be interested in talking about or helping out with this idea?

Leave a comment below or send her a message through Idealist and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

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Are you a practical dreamer with an idea that’s just starting to take shape? If you’d like to be part of this series, or know someone who would be a good fit, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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