Do we miscast rural communities as places to leave behind?

Rural communities are often portrayed in the media as unfortunate starting places—restrictive, provincial hometowns that promising individuals must escape in order to reach their full potential.

But possibility and wealth of different kinds can be found outside big, prosperous cities. Read how one Guyanese woman saw great potential in a tiny community in eastern Ethiopia.

This post written by Grace Aneiza Ali originally appeared on OF NOTE, an online magazine focused on global artists who use the arts as catalysts for social change. 

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School girl from Harrare, Ethiopia.
(photo courtesy Grace Aneiza Ali)

There are no paved roads directly to Chaffe Jenetta—a small Muslim coffee farming community nestled in the remote terrains of Harrar in eastern Ethiopia. Telephone lines and electric wires are rare in these parts. Women are immersed in their day—fetching water, gathering wood and sticks to stoke fires, and cooking for their families.

Among their company, lush mountains and endless blue sky, I felt at home.

It was 2010 and my first time in Ethiopia, in fact my first trip to Africa. I had learned from growing up in Guyana and from a year traveling throughout India that there was no preparing for the rural countryside. You simply show up and let the land lead. So, I embraced Ethiopia with the same deference.

The journey to Harrar had started in New York City where I live. I was invited to travel with the staff and board members of The Abyssinian Fund, an NGO with a home-base in Harlem, New York, that works with coffee planters in Ethiopia’s rural villages like Chaffe Jenetta, helping them to grow better coffee, earn higher incomes, and improve social services with clinics, schools, and access to clean water.

While members of our group toured the village, I spent most of my time with the school children. One little girl in particular, about nine or ten years old, caught my attention—simply because of the way she clutched her notebooks. I asked for her name, but either she was too shy to tell me or didn’t understand my question. I pointed to her books and asked if I could look at them.

Her notes, written in Oromo, the local language of Chaffe Jenetta, filled up every usable blank space. Her handwriting was in the margins, on the inside and outside of the covers, written horizontally and vertically.

I recalled my own primary school days in Guyana when notebooks and paper were a luxury. Instead, we had hand-held chalkboards and little bits of chalk. It was cheaper, but it meant everything that was written had to be erased. So I would gather sheets of paper wherever I could find them and glue or sew them together to make books.

It was within those pages that I could invent the life I wanted. I wanted to be a writer.

Like that little girl at my side in Chaffe Jenetta, I left no free space unmarked in my hand-made books. I too wrote in the margins, within the covers, and sideways. As I turned the pages of her book, I wondered if this was where the stories of Chaffe Jenetta were being kept. Were they scribbled within the margins? Were they tucked in between the covers?

One of the Ethiopian guides that accompanied our group had remarked, “These are the forgotten people.” He had never been this deep into the mountains of Harrar and was visibly moved by the agrarian way of life in Chaffe Jenetta.

Perhaps what he was witnessing made him feel as a foreigner in his own land.

But as I stood there looking through this little girl’s notebooks, nothing about her seemed forgotten to me. There was a boldness about her. There was a joyfulness about her. What I saw was a young girl thriving amidst her circumstances.

I’ve found this to be universal from Harrar to Harlem—people thriving amidst contradictions, thriving in the messiness of life, thriving in the tragedies, thriving in the challenges, the hurts and the disappointments.

Notebooks may seem trivial when compared to the serious needs in Chaffe Jenetta like clean water, clinics, and paved roads. But they represent the freedom to dream, to create, and to imagine a future for oneself.

For that little girl, her future begins within the pages of her notebook—just like my dreams began for me. It was clear by the way she clung to her books, their pale blue covers tattered and torn, that what was written in them was of value. They were sacred to her.

Far too often the narratives about women and girls in rural communities whether they be in Asia, or Africa, or South America, are centered on an urgent call for them to look past the proverbial courtyard, to aim for a life beyond the confines of the village, to shed the veil. And we tell them that not doing so would render them invisible, marginalized, or trapped.

We’re wrong.

Chaffe Jenetta is not another nameless village in another ubiquitous story of poverty in Africa. It is a challenging but wealthy place—albeit not material wealth. It is not a place to flee from, but one to be nurtured and supported.

The little girl I met could one day turn out to be a powerful voice for Ethiopia. She might become a writer herself, sharing with the world its multiple stories. And to do so, perhaps she will find herself returning to those very notebooks.

GRACEGrace Aneiza Ali is the founder and editorial director of OF NOTE. She’s also an Adjunct Professor of Literature for the City University of New York, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, and a Fulbright Scholar. She currently hosts the Visually Speaking series at the Schomburg Center, which examines the state of photojournalism through the lens of contemporary photographers and image-makers. Grace was born in Guyana and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen years old. Guyana continues to inform and influence her worldview.

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Reciprocity + Co: The power of collaboration and perseverance

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One of five tote bags from Reciprocity + Co. The blue straps indicate your money will go to a featured health project. (photo courtesy reciprocityandco.com)

Almost one year ago, we wrote about Samuel McPherson, a young social entrepreneur who was starting a company to help improve education worldwide. The idea for Reciprocity + Co. was simple: buy a canvas tote bag, help a school get needed supplies.

But executing this model proved difficult, and Samuel realized the one-to-one model wasn’t sustainable. Wanting to support more long-lasting projects like installing wells and building schoolhouses, he made some changes.

In the time since we last spoke, Samuel developed a partnership with the crowdfunding website GlobalGiving, with the goal of raising $1,000 for projects across five issues: health, hunger, human rights, children, and education. Now when you buy a Reciprocity + Co. tote bag, a portion of your money goes to a cause of your choice.

During his journey, Samuel realized the power of collaboration—and perseverance. He wrote on his blog after a meeting with GlobalGiving:

As I was leaving their office, filled with adrenaline and excitement, I began thinking about the history of Reciprocity + Co. and all that has happened over the years. I started to reflect on one of the most important lessons I have learned about starting the company: nothing is more important than never giving up.

There were a number of times when most signs were suggesting that I should close up shop and consider Reciprocity + Co. a failed attempt. There were times when I had no sense of direction, nobody asking what was next, and moments when I realized my friends and family were convinced it was done.

There came a time about a year ago when I had to decide if I was going to keep the website or shut it down. I couldn’t bring myself to do this. It was not in the cards. I began working through ways to reinvent the company. I took a fresh perspective and brought new life into the idea. I started from scratch and rebuilt everything.

How did Samuel know he needed to keep going and make it through the dip? It was a gut feeling.

Have you ever wanted to quit but your instincts told you otherwise? Tell us about it!

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A bloody good idea: How StreetDoctors is teaching young offenders to save lives

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

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Among the many things students learn from StreetDoctors is the fact that there’s no “safe place” on the body to stab someone.
(photo via StreetDoctors on Facebook)

Stabbing a bottle of juice with a pair of scissors is actually a pretty good visual aid to teach someone about blood loss in a knife fight. If you remove the scissors, the juice spurts out. If you lie the bottle down, more liquid stays inside.

This is the type of interactive demonstration that UK-based organization StreetDoctors uses to teach young criminal offenders what to do if they’re involved with or witness to a stabbing or shooting. Every second counts when it comes to stopping blood loss, and young people who are out on the streets are often the first at the scene.

“Some of them will come out with quite horrifying stories about witnessing a violent attack,” says Dr. Charlotte Neary-Bremer, CEO of StreetDoctors, in a recent Student BMJ article.

Instead of preaching non-violence, anti-gang messages to the young offenders who may be deaf to them, StreetDoctors wants the kids to take away two main ideas: apply pressure and call an ambulance.

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Interactive models help students learn how to apply pressure.
(photo courtesy of Adrie Mouthaan)

The organization started in 2008 when two medical students, Nick Rhead and Simon Jackson, were teaching first aid to young offenders. They figured out that what the kids really needed to learn wasn’t CPR, but how to deal with blood loss.

“From then on, Nick and Simon started teaching young offenders in Wavertree [near Liverpool] informally—just a few times a year. After a year they thought it would be better to build a team of people… We gradually formalized our teaching and from there it just grew organically,” says Neary-Bremer.

Since then, StreetDoctors has taught more than 1,400 young offenders in six cities around the UK how to survive street violence—and how to help.

Though the impact of this kind of effort is hard to track, the message seems to be getting through to at least some of the youths.

A week after taking the StreetDoctors class, one of Neary-Bremer’s students was out walking with a friend when they were attacked. Thanks to his training, he knew how to apply pressure to the wound, and ended up saving his friend’s life.

Read more about the story behind StreetDoctors in the full Student BMJ article.

With safety and empowerment in mind, what other skills and subjects should we teach young offenders to help deter street violence?

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The world is a blank page. What will you write?

Today’s inspiration: author, professor, and filmmaker MK Asante.

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photo via facebook.com/asantemk

I recently saw MK Asante speak at Wordstock, a writing festival here in Portland, OR. He was reading from his memoir Buck, which tells the tale of a Philly kid gone wild only to get back on track when he picks up a pen to write.

He’s got a ferocious energy and spitfire charm that’s irresistible, and lots of great things to say about making things happen the way you want them to. Take this excerpt from Buck:

The entrepreneur sees the world as the writer sees the blank page—as a chance. The game changes, but the hustle stays the same.

When you look at your blank page, what do you see?

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Links We Love: Why your IQ doesn’t matter, classroom hacks for teachers, jobs & events galore

This week’s edition: all things education.

Watch an inspiring video from TED Talks on Education, like this one about how grit is key to success:

Read:

Take action:

There are over 250 events worldwide on Idealist right now with the tag “education.” Search the site and see what grabs you.

Idealist is currently hosting over 6,500 job postings throughout the world tagged “education.” We also have almost 4,000 education-related internships and 9,000 volunteer opportunities to choose from.

September is back to school time. Dive into Idealist.org and see what you can learn!

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One thing I didn’t learn in school: How best to help

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

When I was in middle school, I had the annoying habit of giving my friends advice they didn’t ask for.

Eventually I learned that forcing my opinions on others was not the best way to help them. But then the question shifted from, “What’s the best advice I could give this person?” to “If I’m not going to give advice right now, how can I best help?”

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How should you help? Sometimes the answer is clear-cut; sometimes not.
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

I pursued this question throughout college and thought I found some answers. After I graduated, about a year ago, I looked forward to further exploring the concept of help when I joined an intensive yearlong program that prepares recent college graduates for working in urban schools.

When I started the program, I knew three things: 1) I loved all my past teaching experiences, 2) my teachers had shown me how transformative education could be, and I wanted to pass that on, and 3) I believed every person should have access to the high-quality education I had been blessed to grow up with.

What I didn’t know was how I could best help if I became a part of the education system. I didn’t know all its rules, contours, and controversies, and how I could best help from within it. The program I found seemed like a great opportunity to work in the field, help while I learned, and learn how to help. But…

Maybe here you expect a “I was horribly wrong!” confession. And maybe I half-expected the same.

But actually, the surprise was more subtle. At first, I thought I had everything I needed to launch into a perfect, meaningful career. I had teachers who knew the field inside and out, with experience teaching in and managing public, private, and charter schools; I identified intellectually with the mission of the program, and really wanted to be there—I really wanted to fight the good education fight. And yet, even with all the pieces in place, something didn’t fit. It dawned on me that no teacher, no theory, no discourse, no trend could answer my question of “how best to help.”

It would always be a question I’d have to answer for myself, case by case.

So many factors come into play: what’s “best” depends on what my skills are and what type of work I find fulfilling, as well as what are perceived to be the best methods of affecting change with any given issue. Plus, there are so many noble, legitimate, necessary ways to help—there’s no need for us to force ourselves into one way or another because that’s what we’ve been convinced is the “best” role.

So right now, I am no closer to answering my “how best to help” question than I was a year ago. But now I know I’ll never answer it once and for all—and that’s the lesson I really learned in school.

That’s also what makes finding one’s niche in the world such a wonderful, confusing, soul-poking challenge. I didn’t discover that education is not, and will never be, for me. I didn’t even find out whether teaching might be my career true love—I still don’t know!

But I do know that no matter what I wind up pursuing, I’ll ask myself “is this how I can best help?”, instead of hoping for someone else to answer.

How do you determine how you can best help in any situation? Share your thinking in the comments.

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Want to make your classroom better? Try design thinking

 

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

Here’s your homework: identify a problem in your classroom, school, or district and come up with an innovative, collaborative solution in less than an hour. Sound like a tall order? Well, here’s a cheat sheet.

IDEO, an award-winning global design firm that takes a human-centered approach to helping organizations improve, teamed up with educators at Riverdale Country School in New York City to create a free toolkit to help teachers apply design thinking to school-related questions—from how best to incorporate technology into curricula to where to place chairs in the library.

According to the toolkit’s introduction, design thinking is a problem-solving process which is “human-centered, collaborative, optimistic, and experimental.”

It’s the same open-minded and creative problem solving that good teachers already push their students to practice—but here it’s framed for teachers’ conundrums instead.

Curious about using design thinking at your school? Download the complete Design Thinking for Educators toolkit to learn more.

Have you used design thinking in your classroom? Tell us about your experience.

 

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The Future Project: Helping students change the world with their wildest dreams

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

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Dream Director John-Michael Parker performs with his students at the 2013 RevolutionNYC at Columbia University, a celebration of the impact and growth Future Project students created during the school year.
(photo courtesy The Future Project)

What are your wildest dreams?

That’s the question Dream Directors are asking students in 14 high schools across New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Washington, DC this year as part of The Future Project.

“We want students to be unleashed to follow their dreams. When we think of unleashed, we think of possibilities rather than potential, which is an interesting word but sounds finite,” says National Dream Director John-Michael Parker. “Our Dream Directors push students to be the best version of themselves, and help them realize that their passions give them enormous, even infinite possibility.”

The Future Project started in 2010 when Andrew Mangino, a former speechwriter in DC and John-Michael’s schoolmate from Yale, along with fellow speechwriter Kanya Balakrishna, first dreamed up the idea of giving youth the encouragement and tools to aim beyond getting straight A’s.

Their original plan was to support volunteer coaches at underperforming schools; however they saw an even bigger possibility in more directly unleashing the passions and dreams of the folks right there in the school. Now, their model is all about having paid, full-time Dream Directors at schools that, more than anything, want The Future Project there.

“There’s so much goodwill and so many good ideas that aren’t being acted on because of all the other expectations placed on schools,” says John-Michael. “We realized if we could find the very best folks to put in high schools to do a job that utilizes the incredible resources, energy, and passion that already exists, and be someone that sparks other people to act on their ideas, then that would be an effective way for the Future Project to work.”

The name of the organization is the tool Dream Directors use to help their students make their ideas happen: “future projects” are any ventures that use students’ passions to enact change, like starting a club or launching a school-wide campaign.

At Wilson High School in DC, for example, future projects so far have included everything from a dance-a-thon to an art magazine to a nonprofit that will bring baseball equipment to poor communities in Nicaragua.

Not shy about their love for Ashoka, you might think of The Future Project as a community of young social entrepreneurs in training.


 

Do you want to help students unleash their imaginations?

While Dream Directors are a little bit of everything—part teacher, part guidance counselor, part performer, part intrapreneur, part coach—there’s nothing stopping you from playing that role in your school right now.

If you’re an educator or school staff member, and proudly have your head in the clouds, here are John-Michael’s tips for drawing out the best in the youth around you:

1. Ask students about their dreams.

What realities do they want to create for themselves, their school, and/or the world they live in? Listen to their answers. Then ask questions to figure out what’s holding them back, and challenge them to take their next step.

2. Tell them about yours.

Share your dream to write a novel or sing in a band or make healthy food widely accessible. Shout it from the bleachers. If you can’t be an example of passion, inspiration, and dreaming, how can you expect them to be?

3. Make it okay to fail.

Let your students know that the worst that can happen from failing is that their ego is momentarily bruised; the best that can happen is they gain a newfound sense of purpose and direction.

4. Work passion into the classroom experience.

Great teachers do this all the time: they create an environment where all sorts of expressions of creativity are encouraged. Allow students to do assignments through the lens of what they love to do, whether that’s drawing, making videos, etc.

And finally, there’s no need to limit dreaming to just the classroom.

“We created something new with this character that is a Dream Director. And we don’t want that to be limited to the means and resources of our company, or the employees we can get,” says John-Michael. “As we look to the next phase, we see a vision where The Future Project offers a way for folks to be Dream Directors in all sorts of communities and institutions: prisons, companies, hospitals, and more. We want it to be an idea out in world that people can take and act on themselves.”

What are your wild dreams to make a better world? Share them in the comments below and at dream.org

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Schooling the old school: How Reach, Inc. is creating the next generation of readers and leaders

Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling social entrepreneurs tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

This week’s spotlight: all things education.

Rashaan talks about the impact of his experience as a Reach tutor
(video courtesy Stone Soup Films on Vimeo)
 

The idea

“I’m a firm believer that we all do better when someone gives us responsibility for something we care about,” says Mark Hecker, founder of the Washington, DC-area educational nonprofit, Reach Incorporated.

That makes sense for everyone, but especially for teens. When they’re turned on to something they care about, they’re unstoppable. Reach taps into this power by hiring and training high school-aged tutors to help elementary school students get better at reading.

When the goal is improved reading proficiency, the responsibility is real and the stakes are high. High school students totally get this—especially in a school district where 85 percent of ninth graders read below grade level. Many of Reach’s tutors have reading challenges of their own and understand where their kids are coming from.

This kind of tutoring program benefits both tutors and students: teens are given leadership experience, professional literacy training, and as much disposable income as they would make working in a fast food joint. Younger students are given the chance to work with a cool older kid who is totally invested in their success. Everyone ends up learning a ton.

Reach’s founder Mark is a former social worker who worked with teens in foster care and juvenile detention. He believes that every kid is teachable, but thinks that school systems where students are expelled and suspended for bad behavior—and clustered into groups based on standardized test results—aren’t doing a good job of this. If kids are written off or ignored for any reason, they can slip through the cracks.

Obstacles

To remedy this, Reach has practiced a “no one gets kicked out” policy since their start in 2010. They’ve worked with over 90 tutors over three years and have seen improved reading and comprehension abilities in nearly all of those students.

This year, they expect to serve 75 tutors and 75 students. Despite their growing success, getting Reach off the ground was about as easy as finding a pot of gold at the end of a reading rainbow.

Mark talked with us about some of his biggest challenges along the way:

  • Obstacle: Lack of business and nonprofit development knowledge

Mark didn’t have a strong project management or business development background when he got the idea for Reach. He figured that enrolling in a school leadership graduate program at Harvard would give him a good foundation to work from, but found that much of his education was focused on higher level theories and less on the nitty-gritty details of how to actually run an organization.

“I took a finances course and we were evaluating a decision that the University of California had to make a few years ago and I’m like, Well I’m going to have $30 next year—what should I do with those $30? Grad school wasn’t dealing with that.”

Solution: Mark says he learned the most about running an organization by just jumping in and giving it a try. He found that mentor relationships and the help of a professional coach also helped him enormously in the process.

“I sought out, pretty intentionally, leaders of organizations that I respect so that I could ask questions of people on a very basic level when things come up.”

Makes sense that the founder of an organization that’s all about mentors would have a few himself, right?

  • Obstacle: Drain on emotional energy

Even though he had good support from his mentors, Mark was basically alone in getting Reach off the ground for the first few years.

“Starting an organization is by far the loneliest thing I’ve ever done and it is just really hard,” he says.

Mark faced even more challenges as he tried to find the balance between networking, cheerleading, and saving time for himself to recharge.

“I’m a pretty strong introvert, so making my profession talking to people and networking and convincing them that this idea is worth building… I collapse on my couch a lot.”

Solution: Mark gets energy from the successes of his kids and also from the success of the organization overall. “I admit to being hugely excited and feeling very validated about the fact that it’s actually working.”

  • Obstacle: Confronting people’s assumptions about the model

When people can’t openly talk about injustice in the educational system, it’s hard to get the conversation moving in that direction.

“The most challenging thing about our model for most people is that they really have trouble trusting an underperforming teenager to work with a little kid and do a good job,” he says. “I had one person who actually said, ‘Wait, you let the illiterate thugs teach?’ I think the reality is that a lot of people think this even though no one will say it. And I can’t have a conversation to change their mind because they won’t admit that’s what they believe.”

Solution: To combat this, Reach strives to be as transparent as possible. They’re honest about what they do and who they work with in hopes of starting a different kind of conversation about what’s effective—and what isn’t—when it comes to student success.

“The most powerful discussion in education right now, in my mind, centers on the things we’re refusing to say,” Mark says. “At Reach, we work to surface some of those things very intentionally.”

Are you interested in learning more about Mark’s model and potentially bringing it to your area? Connect with Mark on Idealist.

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Help Bethany start an art bus for homeless youth

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

Meet Bethany

In between sludging through snow banks to bring supplies to homeless camps in Utah and working at a homeless women’s shelter in Portland, Oregon, Bethany Haug took some time off to get her MFA in creative writing.

She spent two years writing poems about love, transportation, and motor homes. She also started teaching developmental writing and creative writing to young people. Put all of that together, and you can see where she might have gotten the idea for the art bus.

“Kids who are homeless and aren’t in school or have large obstacles in their lives could definitely use a creative outlet. They need to be encouraged to read and write and create. And even if you take self-expression out of it, being creative is just something positive to do with your time while you’re trying to survive,” she says.

Bethany Haug

Bethany in Portland’s International Rose Test Garden

The intention

Bethany wants to build a traveling arts education center and zine-making bus to give homeless youth the chance to express themselves.

She understands that drop-in centers don’t always work for homeless teens and runaways, but hopes a mobile center could bring arts programming and non-traditional educational resources directly to them.

“The advantage of mobile outreach is that even though you might be affiliated with a drop-in center that has rules and obvious hours, you’re outside of that. You are stepping into their space as opposed to asking them to step into yours,” she says. “Because of that, mobile outreach has been particularly effective in reaching people who live in camps or who might be for whatever reason uncomfortable in social service buildings—especially with homeless youth who might be runaways or have come from foster care and don’t want to share their identity with authorities.”

And while the opportunity to be creative is important, the secondary purpose of the art bus would be to team up with existing homeless service organizations to connect the kids who come to her bus with other essential services and survival resources.

“Only after those needs are taken care of can someone start to think about self-expression,” she says.

She envisions the bus working in one of two ways—either as a center that moves across the country teaming up with many organizations that might not have the resources to offer arts programming, or as the mobile branch of one drop-in center in a city where there’s a lot of need.

“I live in Portland right now, and we’re lucky to have some of the best homeless youth services in the country,” she says. “But I wonder what other communities could really benefit from this.”

Obstacles

Bethany has researched some existing creative mentoring services but hasn’t reached out to any organizations just yet. While she feels confident that this is a great idea, she’s never done anything like it before and feels pretty overwhelmed.

“I don’t even know if existing agencies would take me seriously. Like, do they even care?” she says.

Some of her biggest obstacles so far include:

1. Funding. Bethany currently works full-time as a caretaker for disabled adults, but she would rather be working on the art bus. She wants to know if there’s enough money out there that she could make this her primary job, or if any existing social service or community arts organizations would hire her to run this kind of program for them.

“I’m preoccupied with having to survive right now. I have student debt and I don’t have any savings—it’s just not financially feasible for me to think about doing this full-time right now,” she says.

2. Lack of business development and budget management experience. “I don’t have any knowledge or training in this. I have nothing to compare to and no experience, so where do I start?”

3. Building partnerships. Bethany wants to run this program in tandem with other organizations but isn’t sure how to start the conversation.

“I want to approach organizations that work with homeless youth but don’t have any creative writing programming, or with literary arts or community service organizations that don’t reach out to homeless youth but would like to,” she says. “But what do I say to them? And why would they work with me if I’m basically on my own and have no experience or money?”

How you can help

  • Does this project already exist somewhere else?
  • Can you think of an organization that might benefit from a partnership with the art bus?
  • Can you connect Bethany to other organizations or programs that work in creative mentoring for homeless youth?
  • Can you offer any advice about organizational structure or funding options for a program like this?
  • Do you know of any other mobile programs Bethany could look at as a model, whether for social good or otherwise?
  • Do you have any tips for how to approach a homeless youth organization?

If you have any bright ideas for Bethany, leave them in the comments below or send her a message through Idealist. 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 a part of this series, or know someone else who would be a good fit, email celeste@idealist.org.

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