Community astronomy project urges Canadians to space out

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

Welcome to Dreams Week on Idealists in Action.

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

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

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

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

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Indian designer sees the dreamer in everyone

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this week and people across the U.S. come together to help each other and work toward solving our common problems, we’d like to pose the question: what exactly is social good?

Sonia Manchanda and the DREAM:IN project started with a simple idea: instead of asking people about their needs, find out their dreams.

As a co-founder of Idiom Design and Consulting in Bangalore, Sonia thought the design thinking approach, where solutions arise from human needs, was too simplistic and too top-down to create new value and meaning, especially in emerging nations.

People are more complicated than a list of needs, after all. And for the complex nation that is India, with its great divides between rich and poor, marginalized voices often go unheard. Empowering people to dream reveals what is truly meaningful in their lives.

“If you can hold a mirror up to people and ask them about their tomorrow and understand the future they’re imagining, then you’re actually doing a good job already,” Sonia says.

In 2011, in collaboration with Carlos Teixeira of Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, the team trained 101 youth from all over India to go to its smallest towns and ask people what they want for themselves, for their communities, for the world.

They traveled 15,000 miles by road and rail and filmed thousands of conversations with people from all walks of life. The DREAM:IN “imagination network” was thus born.

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Sonia holding “dreamcatching” conversation cards
(photo via yourstory.com)

The “dreamcatching” methodology seamlessly combines ethnography, design research, and filmmaking. It goes like this: a facilitator holds up a series of conversation cards that feature images from advertisements: a date with a Bollywood starlet, driving a fancy car, etc.

Once people can laugh about the things society wants them to dream about, they’re encouraged to let their imaginations loose and get to the heart of what they really want. The ultimate goal is to move past the fears that so often freeze us.

“A lot of people may think, ‘I may hate this job that I am doing, but if I don’t go outside and carry bricks on my head and help build this house and get my daily amount, then I’m not going to survive. I don’t have the time or the right to dream. I shouldn’t be dreaming,’ ” Sonia says. “So there are all these fears and anxieties, and there’s nothing worse than the death of dreams.”

DREAM:IN shows that dreams are alive and already inside of people—you just have to want to discover them. What the group has found is a beautiful array of humanity at its most hopeful, with dreams ranging from opening a museum to creating a newspaper for rural communities to seeing a tobacco-free India—and much more.

And the team doesn’t hit the snooze button there. Once dreams are collected, they share the data with design scholars, business leaders, change agents, thought leaders, bureaucrats, venture capitalists, and others to inform future development in the country.

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Dreamcatching boards. To date, 1901 dreams have been captured.
(photo via DREAM:IN on Flickr)

Since its founding, DREAM:IN has morphed from a project on the fringes of Idiom into an independent venture centered around open innovation. The ultimate goal? A dynamic database of dreams and a global network to help bring those dreams to life.

One of the ways DREAM:IN is getting there is by putting select dreamers and seasoned entrepreneurs in the same room for a series of Dream Camps—where things like start-up advice, ideas for funding, encouragement, and connections are shared—to help transform dreams into reality.

“Start early, prototype fast” is the guiding principle. Young entrepreneurs are trained in Dreamscaping, a scenario methodology, and the Dreamplan, a business plan tool.

“It’s good to have your head in the clouds and be imaginative, but also have your feet planted firmly and moving steadily on the ground,” Sonia says.

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Dream Camp 3 held last April to help people “dream, believe, and realise.”
(photo via DREAM:IN Facebook page)

Despite societal challenges—older generations conditioned to rigid ideas regarding jobs and social mobility, for example—many dreams have already taken flight thanks to DREAM:IN. Youth, especially, are inspired to see local problems as opportunities.

One young boy invented a machine to incinerate sanitary napkins that often get clogged in toilets, which is starting to be installed in colleges. A law student who had long dreamed of becoming a small business owner changed his professional course and opened a canteen. Another duo created a reusable water bottle for attendees of rock shows.

DREAM:IN has already been replicated in six universities in Brazil and three in China. And this year, they’re launching a product brand with farmers in Tumkur and creating a groundswell of entrepreneurship across South India with over 100 academic institutions. They also plan to create tools and educational materials based on their methodology for people to copy and encourage more dreamers in communities around the world.

This openness, Sonia believes, is ultimately at the heart of good, lasting, and scalable innovation.

“At the same time you have a dream, it’s already somewhere out there in the universe,” says Sonia. “It’s a shared thought. So it’s better you go do it, do it openly, and include all the others who may think similarly to what you’re thinking and make it a big shared dream.”

We hear you, Sonia! On March 11, Idealist will be launching a new network that will help dreamers worldwide take their next steps. To learn more and get in on our launch event, sign up here.

Share your own dream and help others by joining DREAM:IN. What are you waiting for?

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Fight for Light: Bringing clean, green awareness to black campuses

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of organizations working to increase awareness of climate change. If you take a step back though, it’s apparent that there are quite a few issues and population segments that are underrepresented in the environmental community.

One of these issues is how climate change affects people of color and the poor, and one of the most underrepresented groups of people in the environmental sector is African Americans.

Due to heat waves and air pollution in cities and increasing energy and food prices, climate change is poised to have a disproportionately large and negative effect on the urban African American community. African Americans are also generally underrepresented in the staff of environmental organizations, both public and private.

In 2009, Markese Bryant and John Jordan saw these growing problems as a call to raise awareness of environmental issues among African Americans. Then students at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, they teamed up and formed Fight for Light, which works “to transform Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into hubs for environmental sustainability and social innovation.”

Almost five years later, Markese and John are the leaders of a thriving nonprofit organization that’s inspiring campus leaders across the nation to become more environmentally active.

How did they do it?

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John Jordan, left, and Markese Bryant.
(photo via fightforlight.org)

Find something you care about

It may seem obvious, but it’s essential to devote your time to an issue that really resonates with you. If you plan on turning an idea into something concrete, you’ll have to be prepared to spend a lot of time working on it.

Before they formed Fight for Light, Markese and John had been concerned about the environment as well as the lack of African American representation in many professional settings. After reading The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, Markese and John became interested in the idea of a “Green New Deal,” which would help lift people out of poverty while also encouraging the use of alternative energy sources and promoting conservation. Knowing this was something they could feel good about putting time into, they moved onto the next step.

Start small

Once Markese and John decided what to focus on, they wanted to get right to work. However, they were both still undergraduates, and couldn’t immediately invest all their energy into Fight for Light. So they started with small steps, first entering a nationwide student business competition and collaborating with organizations that shared their vision.

In 2010, Markese partnered with Green for All and helped develop the College Ambassador Program. This program encourages young leaders at 15 HBCUs to become advocates around the environmental issues that affect their communities. One year later, John began to manage a large grant given to Morehouse by the National Science Foundation, which helped Fight for Light encourage sustainability among the student body and also led to him managing student engagement at Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.

Somehow in that mix, Markese also found the time to team up with Green for All to film this music video:

Get support

All their efforts eventually led to a big reward. In 2012, Markese and John were selected as Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellows in recognition of their several years of slow but steady awareness-raising about environmental issues on HBCU campuses. With the fellowship came financial help and the freedom to turn Fight for Light into something bigger.

Expand

With the support provided by Echoing Green, Markese and John are now increasing the reach of Fight for Light across the country. Markese recently traveled to Nashville to serve as a keynote speaker at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference, while both Markese and John traveled with students from the Atlanta University Center to the Power Shift 2013 conference in Pittsburgh.

As Fight for Light makes new contacts and continues to expand outside of the Atlanta metro area, its core mission remains the same. Every day, more students at HBCUs come into contact with the organization, and each new supporter is a fresh voice in the environmental awareness movement.

Your turn

How can you get involved? If you’re interested in raising awareness of environmental issues, particularly at HBCUs, just get in contact with Markese or John. If you like what Fight for Light is doing, follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

What other organizations or people do you know who are addressing issues at the intersection of climate change and minority communities?

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How the Natural Burial Company is putting old ideas about death to rest

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 individuals tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

Cynthia and some of the wicker coffins and acorn-shaped urns which break down easily in the soil.

Cynthia with a selection of her company’s biodegradable woven coffins and urns.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

Two weeks after she registered the Natural Burial Company name, Cynthia Beal was diagnosed with cancer. Worried that she might be her first and last customer, Cynthia walked in the footsteps of future clients by writing out her wishes to be laid to rest under a cherry tree in a biodegradable coffin.

She never made it to the cherry tree, but she did take another journey.

Through the process of planning for her own death, Cynthia says she reached a deeper understanding of how being in the business of natural burials could help customers and families like hers through the somewhat misunderstood process of being buried in this way.

“I realized my friends and family knew what I’d meant about natural burial, but no one—not they or the professionals—really knew exactly what to do,” she says.

Founded in 2004, the Natural Burial Company sells biodegradable and eco-friendly coffins, caskets, and ash burial urns. Constructed mostly from wicker, wood, and recycled newspaper, the coffins are designed to break down quickly in the earth, returning the elements of the body back into the surrounding soil system and the plants and trees that rise above.

These coffins, woven from seagrass and sugar cane, break down easily in the soil.

Seagrass and cane coffins.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

As she slowly worked to build her business, Cynthia was challenged by the public’s general lack of knowledge about end-of-life options and rights, as well as by dominant end-of-life industry monopolies on distribution.

Many existing cemeteries and funeral homes didn’t know how to offer natural services like a vault-free burial with biodegradable coffins. They didn’t believe there was any demand for this, either.

Working as a natural and organic grocer for 14 years, Cynthia knew this wasn’t the case. She planned to use the same strategies employed by the organic food movement to promote natural end-of-life products and services.

“Because of my natural products experience, I knew customers would want to have this kind of option. But I could also tell that the cemetery was the main bottleneck to going forward—sort of like when we needed more organic food choices but didn’t have the farmers to grow them yet.”

Giving new life to old cemeteries

Supplying natural coffins was relatively easy, but providing natural graves for her customers was a lot more complicated.

The newly emerging natural burial movement needed more information about sustainable burial practices to get cemeteries on board for this kind of management practice. Cynthia partnered with the soil sciences department at Oregon State University to build the curriculum for a first-of-its kind online course focused on sustainable cemetery management.

By teaching current and future cemetery business operators as well as policy makers, she hopes to change the dominant narrative of cemeteries today.

Trees mark the graves of the dead at a natural burial site the UK. (Photo credit Cynthia Beal)

Lush, young trees mark graves at a natural burial site the UK. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Beal)

“Without knowledge, we can’t make wise group decisions. Without research, we won’t ever know the potential for cemetery pollution, or be able to compare the post-burial costs of buried materials, or transition them to sustainability.”

And what would a sustainable cemetery look like exactly?

“Not all of us value highly manicured lawns and sterile, wildlife-free ‘zones of vegetation,’ and we don’t have to do cemeteries that way, either,” she says.

So, more like a park with flowering trees and bushes instead of a golf course.

“Cemeteries are the places we go to honor the lives of others we care for, to remember the people who helped build our communities. Cemeteries shouldn’t be just uninteresting parking lots for the dead that get abandoned to the taxpayer someday.”

On death and dying

Ultimately, Cynthia hopes to change the way we think about the bodies of our dead.

“I think one of the main challenges for us is that we don’t really see death in our daily lives the way our grandparents once did. And because we don’t encounter it, we don’t talk about it,” she says.

Changing our somewhat squeamish attitudes about death and dying is also an important step to building safer and more sustainable burial practices.

“When we realize that we’re walking around in bodies that were soil before they turned into us—and that we’re just borrowing the elements while we’re alive, and that we should return them in good condition when we’re done with them—we’ll have come a long way toward understanding the real cycle of life.”

Would you consider a natural burial? Why or why not?

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Bronx Reentry: Life after prison, from the grassroots up

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 prison.

The idea

Pamela Valera grew up in South Los Angeles, where she witnessed friends, family members, and neighbors face tremendous difficulties after they had served time in prison and attempted to reintegrate with their home communities.

Ramon Semorile grew up in the Bronx in the 1970s and knows firsthand the barriers returning citizens come up against when they leave incarceration and try to get back on their feet.

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Long story, but Ramon and Pamela were cool enough to try on
some of our wigs when they visited the Idealist office.

The two met in New York a few years ago through professional connections and quickly learned they were both interested in tackling the same question: how can we help people who’ve been pummeled by the correctional system come back to society feeling hopeful and whole, especially when they come up against a slew of external hurdles as soon as they’re released?

“Returning from incarceration is a nationwide issue,” says Pamela, who is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. “We currently have 700,000 people coming home annually nationwide. In the Bronx alone, thousands of people are coming home from jail and state prisons. The implications of reentry are many, and they impact everyone. If we don’t do something to make this scenario better now, future generations are going to pay for it.”

For the past three years, Ramon and Pamela—with many other colleagues and volunteers—have been growing the Bronx Reentry Working Group (BRWG), a grassroots coalition that helps returning citizens of the Bronx get social support, find jobs, stay out of jail, and work to overcome the societal stigmas associated with involvement in the criminal justice system.

“We help one person at a time,” says Ramon, who is now a Crew Supervisor at Bronx Community Solutions, an initiative of the Center for Court Innovation. “When you come home [from prison], you don’t feel secure; you’re afraid of going back. You don’t even want to cross the street, you don’t want to talk to anyone. The BRWG wants to give people confidence that they can make it. That if they commit themselves to change, they can hold their heads up. That it’s a long process, but it will happen.”

Obstacles

Though they describe their journey so far as mostly an “upward climb,” Pamela and Ramon have of course faced challenges.

Obstacle: Identity crisis

Since it’s founding, the coalition has won state funding for a Bronx County Reentry Task Force; hosted large community forums and support groups; and offered returning citizens services to help with basic needs, from education and employment to physical health, food, and housing. It all seems essential, but Ramon and Pamela wonder how they can better focus the BRWG.

  • Solution: Agree on what you can

“We’re all volunteers—none of us work full time on this—and it can be difficult to reach consensus on our direction,” Pamela says. “But we do know we want to work more with individuals—to help more people write their resumes, help them talk about their incarceration with those on the outside. We know we want more people who have benefited from our services to come back and help others. And we know we want to spread the word—to profile successful returning citizens in the media so others know it’s possible.”

Obstacle: Lack of funding

“We’re a grassroots community group, not a nonprofit,” Pamela explains. “We don’t get any financial support besides what we ourselves put in. So that limits us in a way—limits the speed at which we can work.”

  • Solution: There is an upside—focus on it

“Lots of wonderful projects have collapsed when their funding is depleted,” she says. “But we’re not tied to any external funding, so we’re not always stopping to look for more. Our people are doing this because they want to. We can’t move as fast as some other organizations, but we’re free to do what we want; we’re sustainable.”

Obstacle: Societal biases

“Not everyone who’s killed someone did it because they like to kill people,” says Ramon. “There are all kinds of circumstances. You never know what will happen. There are so many reasons and ways—truly, anybody can wind up in jail. But a lot of people who have no experience with incarceration think all ex-cons are bad. The biggest problem we face is the stigma.”

  • Solution: Education

“We have to educate people so they know that helping returning citizens helps everyone,” Ramon says. “People do want to change, they don’t want to go back to prison,” says Pamela. “But there are systems in place that tell them they’re still criminals. We have to change that so people are given a true chance to change. If you’re a ‘model inmate’ inside, you should be given a chance to become a ‘model citizen’ outside.”

Their best advice: stick with it

Despite the challenges of shifting focuses, money issues, and stigmas, Ramon and Pamela say they’re in it for the long haul.

“You don’t have to have a college degree to bring people together—you just have to have a passion for the work,” says Ramon. “You have to be committed for the long term. We’ve been able to really help some people. We know they’re not going back to prison. We know it. And that helps me sleep at night.”

If you’d like to volunteer with the Bronx Reentry Working Group, or have a question for Ramon and Pamela about their experience, get in touch with them through Idealist or email info@bronxreentry.org.

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This food truck is driving change for youth just out of prison

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

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Jordyn and her sweet food spread. (photo courtesy of Jordyn Lexton)

In her English class at East River Academy one day, a school for incarcerated youth on Riker’s Island, Jordyn Lexton had her students read Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem (A Dream Deferred).”

After the group discussion, one student asked if he could be an architect someday. She told him yes. Another student who had been sleeping throughout the class raised his head and shouted, “Hell no! No disrespect, Miss, but you’re selling dreams.”

In that moment she realized that most of these kids would never actually have a chance to live their dreams—not because they didn’t have the potential, but because the system was broken.

Her students were all 16, 17, and 18 years old, yet charged as adults in the New York state prison system, one of only two states to do so. And even if they were lucky enough to leave East River Academy with a high school diploma or GED, the chances of them ending up back in jail were high—70% would return, in fact. Future employment and further schooling would be also tough due to their felony record.

“Regardless of what I was doing inside the facility, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to literally stop selling dreams and actually create channels for young people to have a successful reentry experience,” Jordyn says.

So she left teaching at the beginning of last year to start working at the Correctional Association of New York on the Raise the Age campaign. She got interested in prison reentry, and afterward, worked at the Center for Employment Opportunities.

An unabashed foodie, Jordyn then had an idea: what if she opened a food truck in NYC and hired her students once they got out of jail? The idea stuck with her. So she started working at Kimchi Taco Truck to learn the ins and outs of the mobile food world.

“If knew if I was asking people to pick up the truck, drive it to a site, turn it on, get it going, do sales, clean up, bring it back—I wanted to know what that entailed and felt like. And it’s not easy by any means,” Jordyn says. “The knowledge of that experience gives me an edge.”

Food with a side of social justice

While organizations like Homeboy Industries and Mission Pie have been touting the therapeutic benefits of culinary arts for a while now, Drive Change is really the first of its kind.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to take the program and put it onto wheels,” she says.

One goal is that Drive Change will play parent to a bevy of other food trucks. Its first child, set for a soft launch at the end of November, is Snowday, inspired by the time Jordyn was 12 years old and had “the most amazing food in her life” on a family trip to Canada: maple syrup over snow. Other mouthwatering items on the menu include maple bacon Brussels sprouts and pulled pork bacon maple sliders, among others.

“I don’t want someone to come up to me and say, ‘This tastes like it has a social mission,’ ” she says. “I want you to walk away having this amazing food experience and then later, if you find out it’s one of the trucks by Drive Change, then you feel even better about the fact that you contributed to a lofty social goal.”

Although it won’t hit you over the head, that lofty social goal is the main entree. Jordyn envisions hiring a cohort of eight to ten formerly incarcerated youth, and training them over a period of eight months on everything from how to use propane gas to social media marketing to accounting.

The overarching goal of Drive Change is expansion: to train more kids who can use the skills they learned to get a job or open their own food truck; to make Drive Change the go-to caterer for social good events in the NYC area; and to help start lots more trucks in other cities.

The journey hasn’t always been easy for Jordyn, but it’s always felt right.

“If you have a good enough idea and the experience to know what it takes to bring it to life, and the ability to get investment from a number of community stakeholders, then I truly believe there’ll be enough support and noise whatever the hurdles,” she says. “And something positive is going to come out of it.”

Interested in seeing how this story progresses? Follow @DriveChangeNYC and @Snowdaytruck on Twitter, and like Drive Change and Snowday on Facebook. 

Drive Change is always looking for partners. If you know a corporate sponsor who might be interested in events or catering, or a food business interested in developing or donating menu items in exchange for promotion, get in touch with jordyn@drivechangenyc.org.

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Balkan brass band plays a new venue: Sing Sing prison

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

Slavic Soul Party! is a nine-piece New York City brass band dedicated to the Balkan brass tradition and its incorporation with American music. Formed over ten years ago by drummer and bandleader Matt Moran, the group plays upwards of 100 times a year in venues throughout the world.

In 2009, SSP! started performing in a much different space than nightclubs and concert halls: Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York—a maximum security prison.

SSPHangingOut

Slavic Soul Party!

About five years ago, a friend of Matt’s who worked at Carnegie Hall told him about a new program the venue’s Education & Community arm was initiating, called Musical Connections. The program would seek to “bring musical inspiration to people living with challenging circumstances,” and was recruiting musicians to play in places like hospitals, homeless shelters, senior centers, and correctional facilities.

Matt applied right away. For him, it was a no-brainer. “We wanted to be part of the program because as a brass band we’re always looking for situations where the fourth wall gets broken down. That’s what we’re about: street music, life music—not the separation of art and life.”

“When we auditioned, the Carnegie people asked us a lot of questions about ‘building community.’ I said, ‘We know about building community—building community means showing up. We’ve been playing at the same club in Brooklyn every Tuesday for ten years; we’ll come and play at the funeral when someone in our musical circles dies… That’s community: Be who you are, be honest, show up.’ “

They got the contract.

Sing Sing loves SSP

A portrait of the band painted by a Sing Sing inmate (Hurricane Sandy swirls in the background)

When they were accepted, the band was asked what type of place they wanted to perform in. They said prisons.

Matt explains: “For one, we’d never played in a prison. Two, of all the non-traditional venues Carnegie was serving, prisons were the one we as a band had the closest connections to, via personal experience or family members. And three, there is the undeniable cache of ‘cool’ about it—think of the history of music in prisons!”

SSP! was given their first gig at Sing Sing in the fall of 2009. Matt tells the story:

We were nervous as hell. We really didn’t know if what we were doing was going to be appreciated. We went through a tremendous security detail—they searched us personally, our instruments, our equipment… Then we were led to a room where we were suddenly turned over to a group of inmates. It was like, “What?! After all this security, we’re just let loose with these guys? Are we safe around these people?”

It turned out that the entire performance setup had been given as a task to a group of inmates—a handful of “good behavior” guys, who were also musicians, but no one had prepared us for that. We weren’t even sure what we were allowed to do—could we shake hands with them? There had been zero rules of engagement set.

Looking back, I realize that initially, their presence—because they were inmates—made us very uncomfortable, but that then they themselves—because they were so welcoming—soon made us very comfortable.

So we got on stage in the Sing Sing auditorium. The room filled up; over 400 people came. We got up and played hard; we didn’t want to leave any doubt that we were a really good band. They might not like it, but we wanted them to know that we were for real. It’s safe to say we all got goosebumps in that first concert.

The inmates are not allowed to stand; they have to remain seated. The fact that they’re in prison is always evident. They’re on total guard, personally, at all times. They’re always watching—everything.

But they still let it out, man! We have never played for an audience that’s yelled for so long between tunes; they even started chanting our names. When we were done and filing out, we continued playing in the hallways, which apparently you could hear in many places throughout the prison. We heard later from the Carnegie people, who had heard from the prison staff, that that little touch of empathy, that touch of rebellion expressed from us to them, made a big impression.

We went back to perform the next fall and the next—we’re currently in our fifth year—and in between we’ve been going back to teach some of the guys music and trade scores with them. Now when our band plays there, some of them get on stage and play with us. The community that’s been established there through Carnegie is incredible.

And the inmates’ own music group that they’ve formed together—they call themselves the Unofficial House Band—has codified into a real society within the prison. You can see they give each other tremendous support, and it’s given them peace, because it’s bringing music to everyone. Being part of that group offers a very real kind of protection: yes, emotional support and education, but also it increases their value in the prison, so they don’t have to worry as much about being threatened or shivved. That’s what inmates tell me.

matt_moran USE

Matt on vibraphone
(image courtesy sokillingman.com)

For anyone who’s interested in working with an incarcerated community, Matt says, “There are a lot of volunteer programs out there. It’s a bigger commitment than a lot of other volunteer work, that’s true. But it’s not that hard. Just go out and do it!”

He also offers these insights:

Dealing with the bureaucracy
“The paperwork load in advance of this gig was tremendous,” he says. “The Carnegie application process, background checks, researching to see if we had gang affiliations, security at the prison… Plus when you’re there, there are all these rules, like you can’t take photos, you can’t record any music situation where anyone’s full name might be said… But the experience has been so meaningful that I quickly got over the tedium of the logistical mazes.”

Rolling with the unexpected
Though the red tape Slavic Soul Party! has encountered has been extensive, they haven’t always been informed about what would or could actually happen. All that preliminary work and still they had no idea they’d be left alone in a room with a group of inmates minutes after their initial arrival? Or how about the time their performance was delayed because there’d been a slashing in the cafeteria?

“Yeah, it’s a tight system, but it’s still a volatile place,” Matt says. “Prisons are not the best places to work, as you can imagine. You have to realize that it’s potentially not going to be a Mr. Rogers experience all the time, and try to be okay with that.”

Relating to the inmates
“Almost everyone I’ve met at Sing Sing has seemed to me to be a serious, kind, compassionate person,” Matt says. “It’s hard to see people you’ve come to care about live their lives in there. You want to help them find ways to be happy and find peace.”

“No one talks to us about why they’re at Sing Sing. When our band is there, we’re all focused on getting into the music, because music helps you transcend adversity. It’s very clear that we all know that, and that everyone in the room is using music for that in their own way. So in that space and time, we’re all equals.”

Do you have experience working with incarcerated communities? Share your story in the comments.

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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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Looking back at the nonprofit pub in Portland, OR

Here’s an oldie but goodie: We profiled this innovative pub last year to spark discussion about the different ways people are leveraging their passions to give back. We’re reposting this story in the spirit of summer.

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The idea

Photo of Ryan from ©Neighborhood Notes in Portland, Oregon: www.neighborhoodnotes.com.

Ryan Saari, an Oregon native, knows that Portlanders love their beer as much as they love helping others. But given the amount of nonprofits that already exist in the city, Ryan realized that another nonprofit, while wonderful, may not be needed. “Instead we thought, what can we do to partner with the existing nonprofits?” he says.

Three years ago what started off as a discussion between Ryan and his friends about what good they could do in their communities turned into something bigger: The Oregon Public House—a soon-to-open nonprofit pub that will serve local beer and seasonal, locally sourced food, pay employees fair wages, and donate all its profit to charities.

Ryan foresees The Oregon Public House growing and hopes after a year or two of running successfully they can open another in Portland, eventually with plans to brew their own beer and sell six packs in stores where 100% of the money goes to a charity.

Obstacles

Ryan’s first step was to bring a team on board and find a building to set up the brew pub. To buy an already existing business, the team would need a minimum of $200,000. Instead, they found a fix it up rental attached to a ballroom that was still used as an event space.

Now that they had the building, they took the next steps toward owning the first brew pub of it’s kind. Here are some of the many obstacles they encountered over the past few years to get this unique nonprofit up and running:

Obstacle: Community push back
Solution: Worried about bringing a bar into a community, Ryan didn’t want to contribute to the already existing problem of people abusing alcohol. “At first people questioned what we were doing. People wanted to change the idea into a coffee shop, or take the idea and brew craft root beer instead,” he says. He knew it was important to establish the nonprofit as a public house and not a bar, a place where friends and family can come together to enjoy a beer and food in a friendly environment.

Obstacle: Never been done before
Solution: Without a model to learn from, Ryan knew trust was key when opening a nonprofit like this, which is the first of its kind in the country. “Customers need to know where the money is going,” Ryan says. Their books are public so customers can see where the profits go to help combat any skepticism. With the idea to one day expand and turn the pub into a brewery, The Oregon Public House is continually aware of maintaining the balance between giving to local charities and the operational costs for the pub.

The ballroom. (Photo from ©Neighborhood Notes.)

Obstacle: Opening without debt
Solution: With the largest donation only being $2,500, there needed to be other ways to raise funds. One way was to start a ‘Founders’ program, where people give to the nonprofit and in return receive a free beer each day, or week, depending on their contribution level.

Another way they stayed debt-free was not building until the money was available, a strategy they plan on continuing. While they received a grant from the city of Portland for the store front, they also didn’t take out any loans.

They likewise relied on volunteers to help reconstruct the building: pour the cement, paint the walls, and do whatever they could to help. Opening with zero debt will allow them to immediately begin donating the profits to worthwhile charities and to positively influence the community around them.

Obstacle: Staying profitable
Solution: Ryan says there are lots of questions about how to make a public house a viable business while giving away most of the earnings. He and his team pay rent by renting out the event space attached to their brew pub location for weddings, movie screenings, and more. “An event space is extremely profitable,” he says. They also plan on having the leadership all-volunteer run, with paid staff to cut down costs.

Advice

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Future home of The Oregon Public House. (Photo from ©Neighborhood Notes.)

After two years of countless hours from 100 volunteers, The Oregon Public House is in the final stages of officially opening it’s doors to the community.

“We’ve received emails from people all over the country saying they’ve had the same idea, and asking how they can do this where they are to help their own city,” says Ryan. “We want people to steal this idea.”

Whether or not you plan on opening your own brew pub for charity, here’s how Ryan thinks you can move forward on your idea:

  • Don’t be afraid to share your ideas, even if they seem silly.
  • Take it one step-by-step, and don’t worry about the time it takes you. People will still be invested in your idea.
  • Be cautious with money. Debt-free is the way to be.
  • Take initiative. Helping the community you live in isn’t as hard as you think.

“Make a living,” Ryan finally says. “But instead of pocketing the extra cash, why not give back to your city?”

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Want to steal this idea? Feel free to reach out to Ryan at ryan@oregonpublichouse.com.

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Respond and Rebuild: Community-led disaster relief in NYC

More than five months after Hurricane Sandy tore into the coasts of New York and New Jersey, many people are still feeling the effects. One neighborhood that suffered great losses and is still digging out is Rockaway, Queens, where the nonprofit organization Respond and Rebuild is working to repair damaged homes and get residents back inside.

The idea

Shanna Snider and Terri Bennett, two founders of the disaster response nonprofit Respond and Rebuild, met when they were volunteering with relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Neither woman had any prior field experience with disaster relief, but they both took an instant liking to it.

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Terri Bennett (all photos courtesy of Respond and Rebuild)

“It’s a weird kind of work to enjoy,” says Terri. “The world would be a better place if it wasn’t needed.”

After months spent helping in the Caribbean, Shanna, Terri, and three other good friends they’d made on the island scattered around the map. They watched from different vantage points in 2012 as Hurricane Sandy drew closer and closer, and then struck—hard.

The five friends, soon to be joined by another they’d meet in New York, dropped what they were doing and, in 24 hours, made tracks to the Rockaway Peninsula—11 miles of beach at the southern edge of Queens whose neighborhoods were devastated by the storm. Nearly 100 homes were completely destroyed and many more seriously damaged, over ten thousand residents were displaced, and the power was out for weeks.

“When we came out here, we just wanted to help,” says Shanna. “We didn’t intend for it to become an organization—we all had other plans.” When the hurricane struck, Shanna was weeks away from leaving the U.S. to serve with the Peace Corps in Jamaica, and Terri was halfway through a Ph.D. program in international development and humanitarian relief. “But this took off,” Shanna says. “So why would I leave? This is obviously where I’m supposed to be.”

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Shanna Snider

Respond and Rebuild is now the leading volunteer group working side-by-side with homeowners and community leaders in Rockaway to safely clean out and repair damaged homes so their owners can return to them. The water removal, mucking, and (their specialty) mold remediation they perform is funded by donations and comes at no cost to the residents.

“Organizationally, we wanted to do something different than we’d seen done before. We wanted to be community-led and centered—not to drop in and tell the community, ‘This is what you have’ and ‘This is what you need,’ Shanna says. “The community here has really shaped what we do; they’ve led us to be able to meet their needs very directly.”

Obstacles

Respond and Rebuild’s success has not come without challenges. Here are a few Shanna and Terri have come across:

Obstacle: Living conditions
Solution: For the first five weeks of their operation, the initial members of Respond and Rebuild all lived together in a one-bedroom apartment near the beach. At times, it was hard for the crew to keep the organization running without going crazy.

But when they reached out to the community for help, they quickly secured two larger apartments to live in rent-free. “Everyone is vulnerable to disaster. So it’s a cause that touches people in a different way: it’s very personal,” Shanna says. “When we asked for assistance, people really opened their hearts and homes.”

Obstacle: Narrowing focus and asserting expertise
Solution: Given that there are a lot of needs in disaster response, Shanna and Terri knew they needed to give a focus to what they were trying to do.

“One thing we identified early on was our signature ‘cause’,” says Terri. “Mold. We became ‘the mold people.’ We researched and outfitted volunteers, waged a public health campaign, reached out to experts and other city orgs who had experience… We were the most organized group you could speak to about it, and that gained us trust.”

Obstacle: The ebb and flow of a volunteer-led group
Solution: “Especially in the first few months after a disaster, people come and go,” says Shanna. “And that can be a very emotional experience. But the group that remains, the core that’s left behind, is the one that works best together. It can be hard to hang on and not burn out; to recognize when to step back and breathe and when to give 150 percent. The ones that are left are the ones who figured out the balance. And as things formalize and become more structured, it gets easier.”

Advice

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Volunteers pose in their ‘Mold Buster’ suits

Since the end of October 2012, Respond and Rebuild’s hundreds of volunteers have logged an average of 1,800 hours a week to bring more than 100 homes back to livability. And the work continues.

Currently, Shanna and Terri are developing a blueprint of their organizational model, which they plan to share with others. In the meantime, here’s their advice for people who want to coordinate their own disaster response effort:

  • Just do it. “Trust yourself and the people you work with,” says Shanna.
  • Share skills.“We all had different skill sets and experiences that complemented each other: logistics, construction, management, communications, fundraising. And we also worked to partner right away with other organizations, which was a great way to take what we all had and make it most effective.”
  • Ask for and accept help. “Never be so arrogant as to think you don’t need help,” says Shanna. “I make a lot of calls and ask for a lot of favors. No one has all the answers by themselves, but together, you can get close.”
  • Be open to advice. “If someone else has already learned the lesson, don’t waste time relearning it yourself,” says Shanna. “Take advice openly, then decide if it’s right for your mission.”
  • Maintain balance. “Initially, adrenaline pushes you forward in disaster relief,” says Terri. “But as the immediate relief period comes to a close, the pace changes. Now we’d like to focus on employing local people, moving forward with partnerships, and developing a case management system for homeowners.”

“In five years, I can see us doing this work around the world,” Terri says. “But having the patience to take on all these things can be difficult. We’ll have to balance focusing and growing.”

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Inspired to help with disaster relief in a community you’re close to? Read more about Respond and Rebuild’s successful model on their website, or contact them through Idealist. In the NYC area? They’re always looking for new volunteers and donations.

Respond and Rebuild is also always looking to make their nonprofit better. If you have experience with disaster relief, they would love your advice about what surprise obstacles they might expect to encounter down the road. Or if you have experience with volunteer management, they’d love to know your ideas on best practices to retain volunteers, and on the best volunteer and donor tracking solutions.

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