Conflict averse? Expert tips to help you (tactfully) speak up


It’s perfectly normal to come up blank when faced with an uncomfortable situation. (Photo via tanatat on Shutterstock.)

We recently received this question from an Idealist member:

I volunteer with children through a youth organization. I occasionally see kids teasing each other, sometimes even to a point I would call bullying. We don’t have a clear anti-bullying policy, so I feel I should address this with the parents of the children directly. My problem is that I tend to avoid conflict—arguing has always made me very uncomfortable. Also, when I have tried to talk to parents, I’ve found that they don’t take these issues as seriously as I do. So, I end up not confronting them. What can I do to get over my fear of conflict?

To help, we consulted with three experts in relevant fields. Read on to see what they had to say about overcoming fears of conflict.

The Child Expert
Tom Brunzell, Senior Advisor, Teaching and Learning for Berry Street Victoria, Australia

Tom argues that it’s sometimes hard to differentiate the roles within bullying (the “bully” often has their own complaints, for example) and that bystanders are just as guilty. From his own experience, he’s learned that to engage everyone involved, having a public conversation is the way to go:

Often, when we take it to the class (in a supportive protocol like a classroom resolution meeting) solutions were brainstormed: NOT by the “bully” or “victim” but by the rest of the class or the third party students—however you set it up. A solution is given to BOTH “bully” and “victim” sometimes it’s as simple as “stay away from each other and use peers to help you do that.”

The actual solution doesn’t become the critical element here—rather the fact that all parties know there’s a greater accountability than they previously thought—the entire community. And in the process, hopefully, you can raise the expectations and consciousness of the community at the same time.

The Coach
Cathy Wasserman, LMSW, Self-Leadership Strategies

Cathy is of the opinion the fear of conflict is very common, and that the first step is to commit to confronting your fear. It’s not a bad thing to be afraid, she says, as it’s a sign that there’s something important at stake. This makes it all the more urgent for you to say something:

Before speaking up, role-play and get support from friends and mentors. Clarify your goal: I’d focus on sharing your perspective, NOT convincing the parents of anything. Whether they’re open to your view or not, your job is to be specific about what you’ve observed, convey your concern for all of the kids, and contribute and elicit solutions.

You may also want to let them know that many kids dip into aggressive tactics when building social skills and the situation presents a fertile and very manageable teachable moment. If you’re not trained in anti-bullying work, I’d consult resources to build your confidence. Whatever you decide to do, try to see your fear as a catalyst for your own teachable moment!

The Conflict Resolution Expert
Cliff Jones, Senior Consultant, Nonprofit Association of Oregon

Cliff believes reflecting on our own behavioral styles of conflict is fundamental, as is acknowledging that conflict often arises from miscommunication. Changing how we perceive the conflict can also help:

One of the keys to engaging in and resolving conflict is moving the focus from positions – what we want others to do; to our interest – what is important to us and others. For example – instead of “I want kids who tease other kids to be given an immediate time out” – a position. We might focus on “it is important to me for my child at all times to be in a safe environment at school” – an interest.

When we focus on positions, we often end up arguing. When we focus on interest we can often see that our interest are not in conflict with others (while our positions may be) and then we can look for solutions that meet our common interest. It takes time and skill to have conversations in which this communication and mutual problem solving can happen.

Often there are not quick ways to change behaviors that we have learned over time. To deal with immediate challenges it can be helpful to seek assistance from mediators, counselors and organizations that can help to facilitate the resolution of conflict.

We can become more comfortable in dealing with conflict by taking time to learn about our conflict styles and constructive ways of dealing with conflict. Bookstores and the world wide web are full of many resources and approaches for dealing with conflict.

If this an important issue – take some time to get an overview of the resources and pick one that resonates for study. Incorporate new ideas and behaviors into your relationships, practice and gain experience over time. It can be a great joy to learn that conflict can be an interesting exploration of different needs, expectations and priorities and not necessarily a scary, challenging encounter.

Do you have your own tips for handling conflict? Let us know in the comments below!

In the Portland, OR area? Cliff is leading an all-day workshop on Leadership Skills for Effectively Engaging Workplace & Organizational Conflict on December 4th.

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Staff spotlight: Sandy Cheiten and English education in Vietnam

In this series, we’re highlighting Idealist staff members who’ve made their ideas happen. Today’s spotlight is on Sandy Cheiten, a consultant who’s helping us develop a new project in New York. Sandy has lots of amazing stories; here’s one about how she helped turn a broad intention into a specific success.

In 1992, I was working in multimedia education at ABC News in New York. One day, I got a call from a friend who said he knew someone interested in starting an educational project and asked if I’d talk to her.

When I first met the woman with the idea, the journalist Barbara Stewart, she came to my formal, corporate office wearing a sweatshirt, sneakers, and jeans. She said she wanted to start an educational project of some sort in Vietnam, but she didn’t know what.

“Just come to Hanoi with me and we’ll meet with some people and figure something out!” she said.


Sandy, top left, and Barbara in Vietnam with some colleagues in the mid-1990s.

I was quite intrigued, as I had concentrated on southeast Asian studies in college and graduate school and had been a peace activist during the Vietnam War. Though it seemed a little crazy—I knew nothing about Barbara and we had no plan—I couldn’t turn down a free ticket to Hanoi. I had been to Vietnam during the war, but had never made it to Hanoi, and was so curious to see how the country had changed in the almost 20 years since the war ended.

As soon as we landed, we went straight to the Ministry of Education and introduced ourselves, then posed this question: if we could raise money for anything they needed, what would it be? They said they wanted English language textbooks for their schools. They knew that Vietnam was on the cusp of change in many ways, and among other goals, they wanted their children to learn English well so that they’d be ready to engage with other world economies whenever the U.S. trade embargo ended.

Now what?

When we came back to the U.S., we established BAVE, the Business Alliance for Vietnamese Education, applied for 501(c)(3) status, and hired a fundraiser. Through a number of trips over the next two years, we worked out a plan with the Ministry of Ed to produce the books; everything was decided in complete collaboration. I have no idea why they trusted us; maybe they actually didn’t. We were just so unusual, these two American women landing there unannounced, wanting to help.

For our fundraising strategy, we decided we’d form an exclusive club wherein our members—all corporations—had to donate at least one million dollars each. That might sound far-fetched, but it worked. Our fundraiser pitched to a bunch of companies that having their names on all these textbooks would introduce them to Vietnamese consumers, so that when the embargo was lifted (which turned out to be in 1994), they’d already be familiar and trusted brands. It really was a win-win.

The first order of business after we got our initial million-dollar gift was training a group of Vietnamese educators; we brought them to the U.S. for curriculum development and teacher training. When that was over, we raised more money and sent them back to Hanoi to draft and design the textbooks, and we rented a house for them all to live in while they did it.

The value of patience

It took a number of years to write and illustrate the books, which wound up being the country’s first color textbooks. We traveled with the Ministry of Ed to many regions in the country to pilot and evaluate the books in each setting. We eventually sent them to Hong Kong to be edited.

Finally, in the late ’90s, our first books were widely produced and distributed. We had a big launch event at the Hanoi Opera House. We were all over all the news. Everyone thought it was terrific because it showed the coming of a new age: the war was over, and our two countries could now work on a mutually beneficial project together.

Soon we realized that adults were using the books, too. And, with some additional funding, we worked with Vietnam Television (VTV) to produce an animated series that mirrored them.

My involvement started to taper off in the early 2000s, when the TV series was beginning. I had started a different job, and we had handed the reigns of the project off to VTV; it seemed like the right time to step away. But I had and still have a great sense of accomplishment about it, and am happy to say the books and shows continue to be produced today.

Watch this adorable BAVE video.

There were constant challenges, of course.

1. Disagreement
I love Barbara and we’re still friends to this day, but we’re very different and there were many times when we both had strong opinions—about how to work with the Ministry, for example, or what language to use in a certain place in the textbook—and we really argued.

Solution: No matter how much we quarreled over certain points, we always came to a final agreement and got back to business because, at heart, we had the same goal and intention—to see this project through and be of some help. That commitment never wavered, and it carried the day.

2. Logistics of working overseas
It would be very hot and we’d have no air conditioning, or there would be a monsoon rain or no heat in the winter, so you’d get soaked or freeze. And the language barrier, the time difference, and, back then, the absence of email… We faxed a lot of things, but that was difficult because of the money and technology restraints there. Also, sometimes people just wouldn’t show up for meetings, and it would be so frustrating because we were always working on a tight schedule when we were there.

Solution: We crossed each bridge as we came to it: hiring translators, scheduling calls at odd hours, buying people things like fax machines. Those expenditures became part of our budget. Just take obstacles one at a time, be patient and persistent, and allow that some idiosyncratic expenses might work their way into your plan.

3. Shifting cultural context
Sometimes it was just disorienting adjusting to a place where old and new were intersecting so dynamically. The country was changing before our eyes.

Solution: We just tried to appreciate it all. We got to see and make a very small contribution to these enormous changes that were bringing a country we were not long ago at war with to being an active trading partner on the world stage. It was exhilarating to witness the progress. They had a vision for their country, and you could see it taking shape everywhere.

Are you as blown away by Sandy’s story as we are? She welcomes your questions and comments below, or feel free to send her a message through Idealist.


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Want to be more inclusive? Try creating unisex bathrooms

Each June, millions gather worldwide in parades, rallies, festivals, and more to celebrate LGBT pride. In honor of this movement, this week we’re shining a spotlight on the LGBT youth community and the myriad of ways you can get involved. Today’s story is about how something as simple as a sign has helped transgender students in an Oregon high school.

In high school—a melting pot of teenage angst, drama and growth—any added stress to an already strained schedule can be the breaking point. For 17-year-old Scott Morrison, a transgender senior at Portland, Oregon’s Grant High School, this stressor came in the form of something seemingly harmless: Using the school bathroom.


Photo via Shutterstock.

Born female, Scott identifies as male, but feels uncomfortable using either a men’s or women’s restroom due to other student’s reactions. And he’s not alone in his discomfort.  In February, Grant counselors spoke with the school’s administration about the stories they’ve heard from multiple transgender or gay students of discomfort and anxiety triggered by using gendered bathrooms.

Their solution? Unisex bathrooms.

“When I heard that students were uncomfortable, and realized that what we had was not working, I knew we had to do it,” says Kristyn Westphal, Grant Vice Principal and main instigator of the bathroom change. “It was simple, really.”

So simple that the only change, once the cooperative building manager changed the building code, the entire project cost under $300—the price of changing locks and signs on the doors of once-gendered bathrooms.

Now, three months since the idea was raised, Grant is now home to six bathrooms—four for students, two for staff—that welcome all genders, in addition to its remaining gendered facilities. And the public response couldn’t have been more receptive.

“It really is a non-issue,” Kristyn says. “Students that need them use them. We haven’t had any conflict or negative responses.”

Emily Volpert, reporter for Grant’s school paper (and who broke the original story on the bathroom switch), echoes Kristyn’s outlook.

“Most students at Grant were very accepting and understanding of this request,” Emily says. “While there will always be people who choose not to accept others for their differences, high schoolers at Grant tend to be very progressive.”

This factor likely played a role in the program’s success. Already a campus with out and supported transgender students (and an established Gay-Straight Alliance club) in a city known for its liberal ways, Grant may have a step up on other schools facing the same issues. But, Emily says, the environment of a high school campus remains universally alike—no matter where you’re trying to fit in.

“In high school, there is enough pressure that students face from grades, peers, and figuring out who you want to be,” Emily says. “For the transgender students, it’s another big problem on their plate. The installation of unisex bathrooms is really an equity issue.”

And other schools are taking note. Kristyn says that since news of the bathrooms spread, school administrators and students across the country have contacted her for advice. One California high school student even hopes to make the switch his senior project.

“It’s great how interested communities are in bringing this to their schools,” she says. “It really seems like something people need.”

Want to bring unisex bathrooms to your school, workplace, or general community? Connect with Krisytn at for tips and support.

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Do you really need a mentor?


(Photo via Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

One of the obstacles to doing good we frequently hear from you, our community, is not having a mentor; that teacher, guide, coach (sometimes friend) who helps you navigate challenges, introduces you to new people, and continually encourages. In short, a person you can trust and who you know has your back.

Sure, it can be great to have a mentor sometimes. But do you really need one? Here are three people who would argue no:

Nancy Lublin, Dress for Success founder and current CEO of Do Something, in this MAKERS video says:

I have lots of people who I look to for various things. And they’re friends, but actually I think right now I’m getting inspiration from the people I work with, which sounds totally corny but I’m learning everyday. Especially being at a technology not-for-profit that works with young people. My COO pushes me all the time. She is 29, and a foot taller than I am, and bolder and smarter and I learn from her everyday. Everybody, at all levels of the organization, I am learning from them and  being kept on my toes and having to keep up. It’s a great feeling.

Our very own Allison Jones on her personal blog agrees:

The truth is, I have never really had the desire to seek out one person to be my sounding board and long-term coach; it’s a lot of work on my end, on their end, and is a little too hierarchical for my taste. Instead, I prefer to connect with people when I have a problem I need help solving.

I do this because I believe that when you start from a place of wanting to solve a problem—instead of wanting to follow a particular person—you open more doors. People younger than you, older than you, people in different fields and professions, people in different communities, become problem solvers. You are also more deliberate and focused about what you need, which makes it much easier for people to actually help you (I am struggling with creating a strategy for X vs. I don’t know what I’m doing about anything).

Finally, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on Quora echoes the sentiment:

I think the whole concept is fraught with peril.

I meet a lot of young people who waste a lot of time worrying about finding a magical mentor who will help them to greatness. But greatness will only come from within you. Yes, you need to learn from others, but seek wisdom from many.

What do you think? Have you benefited from “the one”? Or are you a believer in spreading the mentoring love?

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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.


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.


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.”

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:

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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How one Idealist is bringing affordable e-learning to Malawi

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching'oma school

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching’oma school

When Gail Swithenbank made a trip to Malawi this January, e-learning wasn’t on her mind. She was visiting the Ching’oma school to check in on a scholarship program she’d helped create for children to attend secondary school and study permaculture—low-tech, sustainable agriculture methods.

But when she visited one of the high schools the scholarship recipients would attend, she saw that they needed more support than just tuition.

“It was two rooms, no windows or doors, few desks. No books or paper. Just two blackboards. The teacher had one book that they all copied from. Kids are walking seven kilometers each way to get there,” she says.

Gail realized that for the scholarship to make much of a difference, the students would need textbooks and materials. A library full of books could really help, but it would be better if they could ‘leapfrog’ directly to e-learning using low-cost laptops.

Bridging the digital divide

But an e-learning program would be challenging to implement; only about 5% of Malawians have internet access, according the World Fact Book. Even if provided with low-cost computers, the students wouldn’t be able to reliably access the trove of knowledge and learning platforms online.

Some new technology offers a way around this problem. Developer Jamie Alexandre and a team of volunteers recently released a free, portable version of the content and software produced by Khan Academy, a free online educational platform. This new version, called KA-Lite, is designed to work offline. In addition to video lessons and interactive exercises, it allows teachers to track the progress of each student while they learn at their own pace.

When Gail heard about this, she saw the potential. She found more educational content provided by the RACHEL Initiative—free courseware, libraries, and an offline version of Wikipedia. By putting all of this on a Raspberry Pi, a $35 computer the size of a Smartphone that plugs into a T.V., she could provide a complete platform that’s nearly free and requires very little infrastructure. She’s spent the last few months learning about the technology and reaching out to her contacts in Malawi, who are excited about the idea.

The tools are new. The lessons are timeless.

As amazing as these new tools are, some of the most important takeaways from Gail’s story have very little to do with technology, and could apply to almost any project. Here are a few:

1. Expertise not required.
Gail admits she didn’t know much about e-learning or computer science before she started working on this project. So she reached out to people with related experience, like Janice Lathen of Powering Potential, who has been setting up computer labs in Tanzania since 2007. Gail has also spent hours on Skype with a nephew who studied computer science to get help with the technology. Sometimes, tenacity trumps knowledge.

2. Build on existing relationships and create new ones.
Great ideas can sometimes die on the vine without the right support. After working with school headmaster Gilbert Kaunda on the permaculture scholarship, Gail now has a local partner. He’s in a good position to make changes at the school and work with the local government.

She’s likewise reached out to potential partners, like Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches science and sustainability at Bronx Design and Construction Academy in New York, about a possible collaboration between the two schools. Ultimately, Gail hopes to work with them and others to build a new e-learning facility.

3. Use what’s already out there.
Gail could have started a new nonprofit to support this project, done lots of fundraising, hired a staff to curate the e-learning materials and build the building. Instead, she’s leveraging existing institutions and tools: the school in Malawi, content from Khan Academy, and the community that’s sprouting up around Raspberry Pi.

By focusing first on the problem in front of her and connecting the dots, she avoided getting bogged down in details and spending extra cash. Sometimes being innovative just means assembling the pieces in front of you.

Gail’s story is just one example of people using new tech to solve stubborn problems. Do you know of another? Share it in the comments below.


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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.

photo 2

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.”

Want to keep up to date with the campaign? Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

Inspired to bring “Own It” to your school? Email

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Try this! Bring TEDx to under-resourced communities

The idea

Over the past few years, TED talks have become a popular way of sharing knowledge on pretty much anything. From robot technology to guerrilla gardening, the topics tackled by TED speakers have a limitless breadth, and the events are known to pack auditoriums and concert halls across the world.

But what about smaller, isolated communities who don’t have access to this bottomless pit of information, whether it be in person or via TED’s online video archive?

They create their own version.

TEDx Kliptown participants outside of the local venue.

TEDx Kliptown participants outside of the event’s first venue.

Both Kelo Kubu and Kevin Otieno have championed these new kinds of TEDx talks in two African villages. Kubu used a “TEDx in a Box”—an all-in-one kit of equipment needed to put on a talk—to hold Kliptown, South Africa’s first talk in 2011 and Otieno used the aid of other veteran TEDx organizers to get TEDx Kibera (one of Kenya’s largest slums) off the ground in 2009.

“It’s important to share [TED talks] with other impoverished communities, since the majority of the people in these communities have lost hope in life,” says Otieno. “We’ve already seen the small impact made in Kibera. People can learn, be encouraged, be motivated and be inspired to think big and differently. And they didn’t have that before.”

While their events both followed a similar structure of a regular TEDx talk, both Kubu and Otieno worked hard to mold the events into something the locals would want to attend, if not continue on their own. From promoting a simplistic, bare-bones image—as to not intimidate the largely impoverished attendees—to knowing what snacks to bring, the two successfully piqued the interest and imaginations of their specific communities by finding common ground.

Why you might like to try this

  • Sparks local and global idea-sharing.  In Kliptown, Thulani Madondo, the leader of South Africa’s One Laptop Per Child branch spoke about the program’s efforts to bring new technology to remote communities and classrooms. In response, local children in the audience who had received laptops through this program recorded their own TEDx discussion on how they use it. “What was interesting to me was the ease at which the community caught on to the idea of TEDx and wanted to make their own,” says Kubu. “And to see both the creator of the laptop program and the children who received it side by side brought it full circle.”
  • Empowers community. Otieno says that TEDx Kibera has changed people’s perceptions on who can teach. “They realize that despite their socioeconomic status they are not different. They can’t choose where they are born but they can choose what they want to be.” Since TEDx became a reoccurring presence in Kibera four years ago, new businesses led by event attendees have popped up across the sprawling slum.
  • Provides insight on universal technologies. The TEDx in a Box kit contains tablets and smart phones that can be plugged into projectors to screen TEDx talks. Kubu says that bringing this usually foreign technology to small communities is a huge step in global education, especially for youth. “Kids catch onto new technology faster than adults. It doesn’t matter if they are in a rural community or in New York City. With just a simple tablet or smart phone in a classroom, children can become global citizens,” says Kubu. “This is the future of education.”

Gomba, a local artist, speaks about art, empowerment and life in Kibera at the TEDx Kibera event.

How you can replicate it

While each area‘s TEDx events should be uniquely crafted to make sense in their community, Kubu and Otieno agree that the idea is meant to be universal.  If you’d like to host a TEDx in your small community, or know of one that could benefit from a TEDx event, consider these tips from Kubu.

  • Do your homework on the location.  Community members will only be interested in the talk if the topics relate to real issues and ideas that are relevant to their society. For example, in Kibera, Otieno invited the head of a local art studio to speak, encouraging listeners to contribute to the space. “To make it work, you have to know something about the community. You have to know what their needs are and how it can benefit them,” says Kubu. “It has to make sense.”
  • Find the right messenger. Kubu says that, if you aren’t from the area, it’s key to connect with a community leader to spread the word about the event. People feel more comfortable hearing about a new idea when it comes from a familiar source.
  • Make the audience comfortable Be sure to create a welcoming atmosphere for attendees. If they’re used to sitting on the floor, don’t bring chairs. If social events in their community usually involve snacks, make sure you bring the right ones.
  • Make cost a non-issue. “It’s important to show the community that putting on a event doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” she says. “You can make money a barrier, and we don’t want that.  We want people to see that it’s easy and can be something they would have done on any other day.”
  • Provide tools to keep it going. Kubu left a stack of TED DVDs at Kilptown’s library—one of the few places in town with electricity and a DVD player. Now, locals visit the library weekly for an arranged viewing of a talk.

“Ideally, I’d like to see Kliptown put on their own TEDx talk,” she says. “But all we can do is start the idea. The rest is in their hands.”


Interested in curating a small-scale TEDx talk? Contact Kelo Kubu at or Kevin Otieno at 

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Step by step: Barefoot College brings rural ideas to a global sphere

Thirty years ago, in the small northwest Indian village of Tilonia, a rundown tuberculosis sanatorium lay vacant—its collection of once-crowded buildings gathering sand and bleaching to white in the desert sun.

Now, after an inspired rejuvenation, the 45-acre campus is home to one of the most successful education centers in the world: The Barefoot College.

Built in the 70s as a platform to empower local poverty-stricken villagers by sharing regional  skills (like farming, building, and manufacturing using local resources) and traditional knowledge, the Barefoot College now serves as a model of rural higher education throughout India and the world.

From teaching residents how to build successful and lo-tech water supply schemes to creating powerful working roles for women in communities where most jobs are left to the men, the college has sparked a shift in education tactics on both a local and global scale.

But what helped this small institution become so powerful? According to the college’s extremely modest and media-shy founder Bunker Roy, it all comes down to maintaining a solid focus throughout the development and growth of the organization.

Getting schooled 


A woman at the Tilonia Barefoot College campus works on a solar engineering project. (Photo by UN Women Gallery via Flicker Creative Commons)

In 1972, a small group of young professionals started the college with the intention of melding the minds of urban professionals, who were educated in a modern college setting, with poverty-stricken villagers, who were skilled in traditional tasks passed down through generations in their small community.

Bringing these two seemingly opposite pockets of educated individuals together could widen the minds of both groups, thus upending the hierarchical, wealth-based education system for the best, the staff thought.

This progressive model worked—but only for so long.

Changing the syllabus 

A decade after the college’s start, most of the urbanites had returned to financially secure jobs in metropolitan centers, leaving the villagers in complete control of the campus.

Thus began a new phase in the college’s direction. Cut off from external aid, the students boosted their self-sufficiency as a community, relying on their new-found knowledge of external technologies (solar energy and clean water systems) and already embedded traditional wisdom.

The women of Tilonia began to install solar panels in the college’s roofs, significantly cutting back on the village’s electricity bills. Teachers reintroduced puppetry, a past traditional teaching tool, into classrooms that once were struggling under western education-based lesson plans. They were pulling themselves out of a rut with the simple trust in their own developed skills.

Roy saw this as a substantial turning point in the school’s metamorphosis.

“This is one of the Barefoot College’s greatest accomplishments—to reduce dependency on the urban professionals and demonstrate the capacity and competence of the poorest of the poor,” Roy said.

The original idea of the college, to acknowledge traditional skill-sharing education platforms, had essentially remained the same, aside from shedding the urban influence. Which turned out to be precisely what Roy had wanted it to be.

“For an unemployed and unemployable semi-literate rural youth to be providing a vital service in a village, effectively replacing a urban trained paper-qualified doctor, teacher, and water engineer is a totally revolutionary idea,” Roy said.

This twist in focus helped steer the college onto the expanding path it’s on today.

Teaching by example

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At a 2008 Pop!Tech conference, Bunker Roy shows how the college uses traditional educational tools, like puppetry, to teach. (Photo by Pop!Tech via Flick Creative Commons)

The college has inspired 20 similar schools to pop up across India, and works with small, impoverished villages across Africa and the Middle East to train locals in creating their own similarly founded campuses.

More than 200 semi-literate people have been trained in solar engineering for village energy sources and 500,000 now have access to safe drinking water through an array of hand pumps and rainwater catchment systems designed by students.

And, many times, the students become the teachers. Recently, outside professionals have visited the Barefoot College to learn traditional construction techniques from skilled villagers to use in urban settings.

Locally, struggling villages have found a new sense of economic stability and self-respect through the college’s efforts.

“It has been the job of the Barefoot College to provide that critical space for the poor to grow from ‘no-human beings’ in the eyes of so-called civilized society to a responsible, respected and accepted ‘barefoot’ professional,” Roy said.

But while the college has found sturdy ground in Tilonia and across the globe, Roy said that the idea to create a new type of rural education system was fated to be a challenging push against the norm.

However, his original intentions have anything but diminished.

“It is an eternal struggle,” Roy said. “But the struggle and the challenge make it worthwhile knowing that it’s making a tangible difference.”

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Help Samuel send supplies to schools worldwide

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

Meet Samuel

After a service trip to a Guatemalan school during his junior year of college, Samuel McPherson knew he wanted to do something more to improve education worldwide.

“Going to the school with a group of 25 people and seeing the amount of change and impact we could have changed my perception of what was possible,” he says.

The 23-year-old Gainesville, Florida native is obsessed with all things social entrepreneurship. As an undergraduate Samuel studied entrepreneurship at Pace University, then got his Master’s at University of Florida. Everything he does is seen through this lens. Whether it’s interning for UNICEF or working in sales for an educational research company, Samuel views each experience as a learning opportunity for his new venture, Reciprocity.

The intention

The idea for Reciprocity is inspired by the one-to-one model made famous by TOMS shoes. When you buy a USA-made canvas bag, an international school of your choice receives a custom bundle of educational supplies. Bags because Samuel noticed on that on college campuses it was the one thing students all had in common, and education because he believes it’s essential for freedom of choice.

“Education is the bottomline of everything,” he says. “I strongly believe people should be able to make their own decisions about how their life plays out and the opportunities they take. That becomes very difficult without an education.”

Samuel is still figuring it out, but right now roughly 50% of the bag proceeds will go to the schools, who will keep the consumer update about how the supplies are positively impacting the students. Consumers who have contributed to the same school will also be connected to one another.


The concept of Reciprocity has gone through many iterations, and so far Samuel has a website and one of three bag designs ready to go. Currently in Washington, D.C., he is working on refining his idea and turning Reciprocity into an organization, seeking partners, and encouraging schools to participate.

“I’ve learned everything I can learn and now it’s time to put the feet to the ground,” he says.

Here are the challenges he is currently facing:

  1. For Reciprocity to work, Samuel needs to find schools worldwide to provide context about their institution, communicate with the consumer, and be the point person for the delivery of supplies. Schools say they are interested, but fail to follow through.
  2. Currently Samuel is solo, but would love a team of people who could give advice and mentorship about creating organizational structure and guidance, as well as working with youth and/or educational institutions.
  3. Since the company will have different bag styles, the development and production of the product can be expensive, the cost of which Samuel is currently self-financing. From investors to crowdfunding to grants, any potential avenues of funding would be beneficial.

How you can help


School in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where Samuel volunteered at. (Photo via Samuel McPherson.)

  • Do you know of any schools Reciprocity might be able to help support?
  • Samuel is considering moving toward a more project-based approach i.e. 150 individuals purchase bags and proceeds go to installing a well in a school/village as opposed to providing finite supplies that will run out. What do you think?
  • How can Reciprocity stay away from creating a dependency and instead have a lasting impact on the students?
  • How can schools can best keep in touch with consumers given tech limitations and time constraints?
  • Samuel is planning on launching a Kickstarter campaign. If you’ve done one before, do you have any advice on launching a successful one, especially when it comes to video creation?
  • Marketing folks: Recommendations on how to best spread the word?
  • Do you have any general feedback about the business model or website itself?
  • Do you know of any organizations that might want to develop a strategic partnership?
  • Are you interested in collaborating, mentoring, or giving any of your time to Reciprocity?

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

Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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