Meet a Connector: Stephen in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Growing up in the small town of Brusly, Louisiana, just outside Baton Rouge, Stephen Hebert felt like an oddball. The environmental issues that mattered to him didn’t seem to matter to others. So he left eight years ago and was surprised to discover like-minded tribes in other states.

“I spent a lot of my life thinking that no one else thought like I did. So once I started to discover similar people, I became kind of greedy,” he says.

Stephen is now back in Brusly and is all about reconnecting with the community and finding more socially-minded people through the Idealist Network. As an ideas guy, he’s even dreamed of something similar that would match people’s needs to other people’s skills, and make it easy to get involved.

“It was pretty much that first email I got from Ami,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh! It’s here. Someone is building this network.’ ”

 

Stephen

Stephen at a recent Team meeting. (photo courtesy Ashifa Sarkar Vasi)

Stephen’s learned a lot about working with people as a result of all of the different roles he’s had over the years—from software developer to gas station attendant to Americorps teacher in a jail to, currently, restaurant manager. It’s in this last role that Stephen sees an especially good opportunity to become more engaged with Brusly as the owner is all about bringing the community together.

As part of the Baton Rouge Area Team, Stephen is hoping to share and learn with others who are as interested in connecting with their community as he is.

“Our local team is small, but we are pithy. It has been a great experience in co-leadership, as each of us brings something unique to the table that adds strength as well as perspective and balance,” he says.

Given his background in IT, Stephen is currently working on a wiki, blog, and map for the group.

He’s also been thinking about how to best categorize and make accessible all the resources, local events, public spaces, and good ideas happening in Baton Rouge for an inventory similar to the ones Brooklyn and San Diego created.

For Stephen, being a part of the Team also gives him the same satisfaction teaching does—that is, giving people an understanding and power they’ve never had before.

“The Connector role just seems so fundamental. You find out what’s good and then share it with other people looking for it,” he says. “That’s what I want to do. Empower others to get the things they want.”

Want to learn more about Stephen and his thoughts on community engagement? Feel free to get in touch.

Live in Baton Rouge? Join the Team! Live elsewhere? Look for a Connector Team near you or start one of your own.

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Tales of Tools and Tactics: Hold a 3Qs meeting

Tools and Tactics are replicable templates Connectors can use to multiply and amplify action and collaboration in their communities. We find they also make for great stories about people all over the world who are promoting good in interesting ways.

The goal of a 3Qs meeting is to surface people’s intentions by inviting them to share their answers to three short questions (the 3Qs):
  1. What do you care about/what do you want to do for the common good?
  2. What’s stopping you or getting in your way?
  3. What would help you take the next step?

Wherever you are, you can do the 3Qs as a one-time exercise to engage people in your community and find out what inspires or concerns them. Or you can make it a regular event—a way for people to connect in person and inspire follow-up.

Some Teams find the 3Qs especially good as a getting-to-know-you exercise at their first meeting. Below, Connector Ashifa Sarkar Vasi of Baton Rouge, Louisiana tells us about her experience when her Team did the 3Qs:

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Ashifa Sarkar Vasi

Q: What are some particular memories you have of doing the 3Qs exercise with your Team?

A: I had not really thought about how it would go. I went to the meeting expecting anything since I did not know my fellow Connectors. It was a surprisingly easy and comfortable meeting that set wheels in motion for ongoing conversations and meetings.

I remember that towards the end, despite our differences in passions, we all felt a sense of common desire to improve our local communities and the lives around us. And that it was a wonderful feeling to find like-minded individuals. We may be called Connectors, but that meeting connected us to each other in a powerful way.

To learn more, read the Tool and Tactic here. Interested in becoming a Connector? Get started here!

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Field Report! Team meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Baton Rouge’s Team may be small, but they have a lot of passion.

The city’s three Connectors, who have backgrounds ranging from global health, information technology, restaurant management, cultural anthropology, and youth development, met last week at a local coffee house to see how they could increase opportunities for action.

“We were all just so happy to connect with others who felt the same as us,” says Connector Karim Johnson.

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The State Capitol area in Baton Rouge
(photo courtesy Karim Johnson)

They started with the Three Questions (3Qs) Tool & Tactic, then talked about the skills and resources they each bring to the Team that can help their hometown. Though it covers a large geographical area, Baton Rouge doesn’t have a lot of nonprofits, social enterprises, or community groups.

“The Idealist Network is a highly-needed resource that can act as a catalyst to grow these types of groups so that communities can begin to shape their own change,” Karim says.

The Team’s next steps include defining the Connector role as they want to approach it, encouraging others to join the Network, and getting more people and organizations on Idealist.

They’re also in the early stages of developing their first public meeting and have committed to chatting in-person each week to keep the fire burning.

For Karim and others, the Network comes at an exciting moment in Baton Rouge’s history.

“There are so many young people and so much energy as the city is growing and rejuvenating,” Karim says. “It’s a good time to give people the tools to ensure it grows in a direction they envision.”

If you’re in Baton Rouge, join the Team! If you’re not, look for a Team—or start one—near you. And if you’re not a Connector yet, learn more and sign up here.

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Taking urban farming to new heights in New Orleans

VertiFarms co-founders Kevin and Doug with one of their vertical farm installations on top of Rouses market. (Photo credit: Tulane New Wave http://tulane.edu/news/newwave/)

VertiFarms co-founders Kevin and Doug with one of their vertical farm installations on top of Rouses market. (Photo credit: Tulane New Wave http://tulane.edu/news/newwave/)

Astronaut. Firefighter. Trapeze Artist. Few occupations kids set their sights on at age 13 end up being a reality. Doug Jacobs begs to differ.

After visiting Florida’s Disney World theme park as a preteen, Doug was inspired to start a hydroponics farming business, a form of gardening that requires no soil, only nutrient-rich water, to feed plants.

“As a child, I was always scared about the inevitable lack of food in world, based on the fast pace of population growth,” says Doug, now 28. “So when I went to EPCOT and saw that exhibit on aeroponic farming [similar to hydroponics models], it all clicked. I thought, ‘This is the farm of the future.’”

After the visit, there was no turning back. Doug’s not entirely sure what kept his intentions afloat through high school, but he’s certain it was meant to be.

“It is hard to explain it,” he says. “I just had this internal drive that kept telling me this is the right thing to do. Also, part of it was a lot of loathing being stuck inside when I was in school and then at work. I day dreamed a lot. I wanted to be outside in the sun, growing food.”

But it wasn’t until moving from Florida to New Orleans to study at Tulane University that Doug started rooting his intentions to create a low-impact, mass-output farming system, not dependent on large plots of fertile land.

“In New Orleans, a lot of good soil is polluted by flooding and it’s a city—so there isn’t much open land to begin with,” Doug says. “With our vertical farms, those factors aren’t an issue.”

Vertical farms (or tower gardens)—six-foot-tall aeroponic gardens suspended in the air—are the core models of Jacob’s fast-growing company, VertiFarms. Motivated by wanting to offset the depleting supply of fertile farm soil, Doug officially kicked off the company with fellow student Kevin Morgan-Rothschild in 2012.

Now, the duo’s vertical farms are commonplace across New Orleans in restaurants wanting to grow their own herbs on site and teachers educating students on urban gardening. Rouses Market, a grocery store in downtown New Orleans, has been one of the business’ top clients, hosting more than 90 vertical farms on its rooftop.

But the interest hasn’t stopped at the city limits.

Doug teaches a local Girl Scouts troop about aeroponics. (Photo credit: VertiFarms)

Doug teaches a local Girl Scouts troop about aeroponics. (Photo credit: VertiFarms)

“We’re now working on selling our system to a town in Alaska,” Doug says. “And Vietnam already bought a few of our farms. It’s pretty incredible how fast we’re growing.”

Despite VertiFarm’s recent growth, Doug admits that it wasn’t always a smooth process.

“The up front capital is not cheap, that is definitely the hardest part of the job,” Doug says.

Fortunately, in April 2011, VertiFarms won a $10,000 award from Tulane University for its social innovation, giving the company a boost. Aside from that, however, the duo works hard on their own and in collaboration with New Orleans social entrepreneur incubator, Propeller, to secure grants and supporters of all sizes.

“But it’s something that works universally to make a global shift. So it pays for itself, really.”

However, Doug stresses that VertiFarms’ contribution to food security won’t save the world single handedly.

“We know we’re only one part of the solution. It takes changing diets and mindsets to start the change,” he says. “We’re just a piece of the puzzle.”

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Want to introduce vertical agriculture to your community, or know someone who’d be interested in using the model? Contact Doug at doug@ampsnola.com.

Learn more about Louisiana month at Idealist.

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A taste of local food solutions in New Orleans

Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation is a New Orleans-based nonprofit whose mission is to tackle the city’s toughest challenges by supporting the creative solutions of its community members. Guest blogger Julia Stewart talks about the successes they’ve had in bringing healthy food to those who need it most.

Propellerphoto

Photo by Rush Jagoe.

While New Orleans is known for being one of America’s most vibrant, fun, and culture-rich cities, it’s also a city that struggles with health and food challenges. There are approximately 30 grocery stores for New Orleans’ 350,000 residents, a statistic that marks the city as one of the nation’s worst food deserts. We also have one of the highest obesity rates in the country.

But it’s not all despairing. One area Propeller has made substantial investment in is healthy food access. By the end of May this year, we’ll have incubated 21 new ventures, both for-profit and nonprofit, in our Social Venture Accelerator Program. A little more than half have missions related to public health and food access.

From production to distribution to consumption, each venture offers a solution to gaps in the local food system. Here are a few we’ve helped get off the ground:

  • VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, VertiFarms, and Sheaux Fresh operate aquaponic, hydroponic, and/or traditional urban farms that grow produce for grocers, community members, schools, and restaurants.
  • Jack & Jake’s food hub connects local growers with large-scale buyers such as public schools and the New Orleans Convention Center.
  • James Graham of KIPP New Orleans brought one million healthy lunches to 20% of public school children in New Orleans in our first year, revolutionizing cafeteria food.
  • “Get Fruity About Trees,” a fruit orchard in the Lower Ninth Ward, recently won PitchNOLA: Lots of Progress, our competition that sources innovative strategies to utilize the city’s vacant properties.

Collectively, in just ten months, they’ve grown over 11,300 pounds of produce for the community.

It’s been our experience that to truly change our city’s dismal health statistics, cooperation is required at all levels from policymakers to grassroots groups.

Propeller is helping by doing what we do best: incubating new ideas, identifying the roadblocks to change, and connecting the players who can make real and lasting improvements.

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To learn more about Propeller-led initiatives, visit www.GoPropeller.org. Like what they’re doing? Visit them on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

Think these food solutions can work in your community? Reach out to Julia Stewart to learn more: jstewart@gopropeller.org.

Julia

Julia feels fortunate to be situated on the front lines of social innovation, helping New Orleans’ entrepreneurs transform their ideas into reality as Propeller’s Communications & Programs Manager. Julia received a B.A. in International Relations from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. In the past, Julia has worked on organic farms, and has written for several environmental publications including The Bear Deluxe, Table Magazine and Edible Vineyard.

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Idea File: What do you want to do before you die?

The idea

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A piece of the wall in Yankton, South Dakota. (Photo by Sarah Mannes Homstad.)

Look around you. Chances are, there’s an unused space nearby. Maybe it’s the abandoned building by the train tracks. Or the empty lot next to your office. Whatever it is, it speaks to a bigger problem that many of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods have: lonely spaces that just sit there, desperate for human interaction.

Artist Candy Chang wants to change that. Her most recent project, Before I Die, helps transform these neglected areas into communal gathering spots for people to reflect on their lives and declare what’s most important to them. How? By writing on a giant chalkboard.

The hopes and dreams to date are humorous and somber, profound and silly:

Before I die I want to open my Museum of Chocolate
Before I die I want to walk on stilts
Before I die I want to have the courage to forgive my father
Before I die I want to help 10000000 people
Before I die I want to be mine
Before I die I want to eat a banana

The project was inspired by a friend Candy lost in New Orleans, which got her contemplating the fragility of our time here.

“Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life,” she says in a TED talk.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Encourages you to confront your mortality. Then makes you want to do something about it.
  • Exposes a shared vulnerability. You might be surprised to find out that your neighbors have the same hopes and dreams as you do.
  • Holds you accountable. Sure, the chalk will be erased in time but the mere act of writing might help you act on what you want to do.
  • Public beautification. Aside from the giant statue of Marilyn Monroe in Chicago, who doesn’t like public art?

How you can replicate it

The wall by Meridian Bridge, which connects South Dakota and Nebraska. (Photo by Sarah Mannes Homstad.)

So far, communities in 51 cities around the world from Oklahoma City to Beirut to Asunción have created their own Before I Die walls to be featured in an upcoming book.

But the project isn’t over, and Candy wants you to take this idea to where you live. With the help of her Civic Center colleagues, she’s created a toolkit for purchase to help you get started: stencils, chalk holders, and more. Can’t find the cash? Check out the free online guide that includes a sample letter of intention for government officials to help you avoid potential pitfalls.

We also reached out to architect Sarah Mannes Homstad who recently created a wall in Yankton, South Dakota from August-October this year with the help of her husband, a carpenter, and the local community.

“The most common themes were family and love. There were almost no hateful posts, except for a few directed at Justin Bieber,” she says.

While she can’t guarantee the teen heartthrob won’t appear on your wall, here’s what she has to say about implementing the project in your community:

Putting the wall up

  • Give yourself time to get city approval. Bureaucratic tape is redder than you think. “If you’re going to insist on doing it on city property then you have to sell the positives, take responsibility for the wall, and not give up if people start pushing back,” she says. “Emphasize that it’s a temporary project and that you can take it down if there are problems.”
  • See if Kickstarter is right for you. Sarah’s group successfully used the crowdfunding site, but it’s helpful to know 1) it excludes people who want to contribute but who don’t have an Amazon.com account and 2) projects that don’t meet their fundraising target by the deadline don’t receive any funding at all. If you decide to use Kickstarter, still connect offline. “I found it was important to connect with three or four key individuals in the community who were: prominent and influential figures, internet savvy, and well-connected through social media. They helped get the word out about the campaign and even appeared at community meetings to help promote and advocate the project,” she says.
  • Host a kickoff event. The event was a nice reward for Kickstarter backers, and a way to attract local newspapers and T.V. stations.
  • Choose a location that has a lot of pedestrian traffic. Meridian Bridge was an ideal choice not only for the amount of people who walked over it everyday, but the opportunity to highlight city architecture and encourage creativity along the riverfront.

Maintaining the wall

  • Think about how you want to divide responsibilities. It was important to Sarah that the wall be documented consistently, so she took on the majority of maintenance, with two people as backups if she wasn’t available. But more volunteers could easily help lighten the workload.
  • Keep the season in mind. Maintaining the wall takes effort – from washdowns to removing profanities – which Sarah found more enjoyable in warmer weather.
  • Believe in the goodness of your community. Ninety-five percent of the posts on the wall were in keeping with the spirit of the project, and defaming comments were either erased in the morning before anyone could see them or scratched out by others. “We viewed ourselves as “facilitators,” not “censors.” For example, a few people wrote that they wanted to legalize marijuana before they died, and we didn’t erase it. Others wanted to see certain politicians win/lose, and we left those, too,” she says.

“Find a couple of people you enjoy working with and then figure out how to do it,” Sarah finally says. “The first time you stand in front of the blackboard after it’s been filled with people’s hopes and dreams, it’ll be one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen.”

Inspired to create your own wall? Feel free to reach out to Sarah for more advice: sarah@mannesarchitects.com.

Do you know of other projects that are fun and potentially replicable? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, leave a comment below or email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

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Idea File: Sticky solutions for a better community

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Image: http://candychang.com/i-wish-this-was/

It’s been more than five years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. While the city is still grappling with rebuilding efforts, its residents have proven nothing less than resilient. From floating homes to affordable health care for local musicians, NOLA has seen a recent resurgence of innovation and community.

With so much potential, the city has become a breeding ground for new ideas.I Wish This Was” is an art initiative that collects citizen’s thoughts for re-imagining the space around them. The project is the brainchild of Candy Chang — co-founder of the design studio Civic Center — and was born because her neighborhood still lacks a full-service grocery store.

The concept is simple: free stickers are distributed throughout the city in cafes, bookstores, hair salons and more. You pick one up, and pen your wish, dream or hope. Afterward you stick it on an abandoned building or any other public space that could use some wishful thinking. Wishes so far range from the practical (butcher, bike rack) to the abstract (owned by somebody who cared, heaven) to the cheeky (big old cupcake, Brad Pitt’s house).

Pros

  • Awareness. The stickers publicly merge your innermost desires with the city’s pressing needs.
  • Inspirational. The hope is that the creative, collective consciousness will spark actual transformation.
  • Easy. It’s super simple to do. And democratic distribution so that anyone, regardless of class, race, age, etc., can participate.
  • Ecologically friendly. The stickers are made of vinyl, not paper, so they don’t damage storefronts.
  • Accessible. If you’re not currently based in NOLA but want to follow along, Chang is working on a digitized version of the ideas.

Cons

  • Free, but not for long. Vinyl stickers are more expensive. Unfortunately, the free supply has run out, so you’ll have to throw down some dollars to make a wish.
  • Art or trash? Some may view the stickers as added blight.
  • Good intentions…but will stickers lead to action?

Plenty of cities, towns and villages have abandoned spaces and could implement a project like this one. Could this benefit your community?

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The New Orleans 100

Three years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Louisiana. Now, beyond the stories of nightmarish relief efforts and a dysfunctional city, old and new residents are refashioning New Orleans into an ideal place to live.

All Day Buffet has listed 100 of the most positive, creative, and innovative projects in post-Katrina New Orleans. The New Orleans 100 highlights nonprofits, businesses, websites, and artists that embody the new energy found there. To give a few examples: NOLA 180 is a nonprofit that transforms failed public schools into high-performing charter schools; NOLA YURP is a network of young professionals who are working to build a sustainable city; Bio Liberty is a company that uses biodiesel-fueled machinery to clear lots in Louisiana.

Check out the list, add to it, and pass it on!

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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