The Art Shanty Project creates a dreamy village on a frozen lake

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Not your typical ice fishing hut.
[image via Art Shanty Project Facebook]

When winter comes to Minnesota and encases the lakes with a thick layer of ice, you start to see little shacks popping up. Just one or two at first, and then by the dozen, the small wooden or fiberglass houses line up in tidy rows out on the lakes.

“Ice fishing shanties are really like this whole other kind of village. They’re created to be temporary and unstructured, but together they really become a whole community,” explains Melinda Childs, Executive Director of The Art Shanty Project.

“We wondered what would happen if we applied an artistic lens to this kind of temporary public space.”

A far cry from the walleye jigging and beer sipping typically associated with ice houses, The Art Shanty Project, a nonprofit organization, commissions local artists to build mini art shacks and interactive gallery spaces out on the ice.

Designed to bring people together and get them thinking about art, the shanties are a one-of-a-kind artist-driven community that’s different each year—adding a little bit of Burning Man to what is usually just Grumpy Old Men.

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The Art Shanty dance troupe spells it out!
[image via Art Shanty Project Facebook]

In operation since 2006, The Art Shanty Project sets up camp on the surface of one frozen lake in the Twin Cities metro area and is free and open to the public every weekend in February until the 23rd.

This year it’s on White Bear Lake, a northern suburb of Saint Paul, and features 20 unique structures each with a different theme.

The lineup includes an elevator shanty that simulates the sensory experience of riding in an elevator, a sunrise shanty where dawn breaks every 30 minutes, a dance shanty heated completely from bodies in motion, a shanty where people can brush up on their curling techniques, and a gallery where people can encase small treasures like keys and rings in tiny blocks of ice.

There’s also a giant bicycle-powered polar bear puppet that leads a ‘sparkle parade.’

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Seriously.
[image via Art Shanty Project Facebook]

“We encourage the artists in each of the shanties to have an interactive element. There are also performances out on the lake. In the case of the sparkle parade, led by the polar bear bicycle, they’ve been encouraging people in the community to make costumes and there will be a participant parade through the village,” Melinda says.

With temperatures dropping well below zero for a good portion of the winter, the public is primed for a little pick-me-up. This year, Art Shanties is expecting over 20,000 visitors.

“Art Shanties is a creative way that winter can be fun because you can build community, you can participate in the arts, you can be physically active,” Melinda says. “It’s really about embracing winter.”

See more images of this year’s Art Shanties here or make a donation to help keep them on the ice.

What’s your favorite community-building way to “embrace winter”?

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Seeing beauty in dying: Why volunteering at a hospice is perfect for this cosmetologist

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

On Monday mornings, hair designer Rose Stephens donates her time to help the sick at the Heartland Hospice in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“If improving their looks with a haircut or style can give them a boost, then I love to help out,” she says. “While I’m there, I try and make them forget about their problems and treat them with the respect they deserve.”

A Milwaukee native, Rose has been doing hair since she was in high school. Having four sisters to pamper and experiment with helped Rose develop her craft.

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Rose in action. (photo courtesy Rose Stephens)

“I love talking with people and I knew I had a special talent early on,” she says.

Volunteering with Heartland appealed to her precisely because of this: they needed someone to make their patients feel rejuvenated and cared for as they approached their final days, and she knew she had a skill to offer.

With her children grown and out of the house, Rose wanted to do something meaningful with her time that scouts and soccer had previously occupied.

Now, she looks forward to her Monday trips to Heartland, as do the patients there. Though she considers them to be more than that—they’re also friends who have impacted her more than she ever thought they would.

“I visited my first client on her birthday and we all sat around and listened to her tell her story,” Rose says. “She was a little girl in the Holocaust and a survivor. Years later when she and her husband came to America by boat in the 1950s, they decided on that voyage they were going to forgive and not live life bitterly. She was really inspiring. I’ve never met anyone like her before.”

Drawing out people’s stories is something Rose is good at. The minute she meets a patient, she’s talking with them like she’s known them forever, putting them at ease. Anyone’s who’s ever been to her salon knows that the human connection with the hairdresser is every bit as important as the haircut or style itself.

It’s what keeps Rose going.

“Now it’s a part of who I am,” Rose says. “As long as Heartland needs me, I’ll be there.”

In Milwaukee and want to volunteer with Heartland? Contact Danielle Ferguson: 4658officestaff9@hcr-manorcare.com.

Do you know someone who’s taking a small step toward making their community better? Email celeste@idealist.org.

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Breaking new ground: How a Kansas City organization is helping refugees put down roots

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

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Khadijo Yussuf, a graduate of New Roots, broke ground at her own farm site this past spring.
(photo courtesy New Roots Facebook)

Now that they’ve harvested the last of the tomatoes, the farmers at New Roots are spending the winter cultivating some of their other skills: driving, English, and small business management.

New Roots—a partnership between the food justice organization Cultivate KC and Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas—provides refugees in Kansas City the space and resources they need to gain income and self-sufficiency for their families through farming.

Many refugees who come to the U.S. already have extensive agricultural experience, but lack the resources and language skills needed to set up their own farms.

New Roots runs a four-year program with 16 refugee families who are each given a quarter-acre of land to grow their choice of crops. They’re also given access to seeds, equipment, and other important resources like English language classes, help setting up bank accounts, and driving lessons.

Rachel Pollock, program coordinator for New Roots, says that six of their graduates have gone on to buy property and start their own farms.

One of her favorite success stories is that of Khadijo, a Somali woman who was relocated to the U.S. a few years ago. Women are especially well-suited for the program, Rachel says, because they’re used to working hard to provide for their kids.

After four years in the New Roots program, Khadijo now drives her own van to the market to sell the food she’s grown. A mother of six, she’s recently purchased a home with a vacant lot where she’s planted vegetables and fruit trees.

“She loves being able to raise her kids in the garden,” says Rachel.

While the learning curve is steep for refugees like Khadijo, they’re not the only ones who learn from New Roots.

“When our farmers sell their vegetables at the markets, it gives families here in Kansas City the opportunity to interact with people that they might never interact with otherwise—we get to bridge cultures both ways.”

The best part about working with refugee farmers, says Rachel, is the chance to offer homes and security to people who have felt unsettled for years.

“Being able to grow your own food is so important—especially for people who haven’t felt safe or felt self-determination over their lives in a really long time,” says Rachel. “Food is so tied into feeling like we’re home.”

Interested in refugee issues? Search Idealist for over 2,000 opportunities around the globe.

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Giving fossils new life with Jurassic Geriatrics

Welcome back to Small Acts: our series highlighting people who use their passion to make a big difference in their community.

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David holds a T. rex jaw at The Renaissance assisted living apartment community in Wausau, WI. (photo courtesy David Daniels)

When David Daniels walks into a retirement community, he’s not carrying a meal or a magazine or an oldies music collection for the residents.

He’s carrying a jaw. The bottom jaw of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, that is.

It’s a win-win: residents get respite from the typical entertainment of bingo games and Frank Sinatra impersonators, and cool artifacts like bear skulls and wooly mammoth bones are given new life.

As founder of the Wisconsin nonprofit Colossal Fossils, David is all about spreading his love of extinct creatures and helping communities while he’s at it. Besides retirement homes, he’s shared his hobby with at-risk youth, the blind, and more.

The idea began a couple of years ago when David, whose professional background is in business, was rummaging in his basement and found an old, dusty box of fossils he’d been curating since childhood.

Sad to see them wasting away, he and his wife started talking with science and nonprofit folk in their hometown of Wausau to see if they could resurrect them. Wanting to help bolster local science programs, they started taking the collection into schools for show and tell.

Then David called up a retirement community on a whim. Knowing such places often have small entertainment budgets, he thought it could be a way to break up the monotony of the day without breaking the bank. They agreed.

“One lady came up to me afterwards,” David says. “ ‘She said, ‘I just want you to know I have Alzheimer’s. Chances are, tomorrow morning when I wake up, I won’t remember any of this. If I could have one wish, I would remember everything you taught me today.’ ”

So far, David has been to a dozen retirement homes in Wisconsin, with many repeat visits. The eventual goal is to create portable museums he can take across the U.S.

For David, who was admittedly one of those kids who wore dinosaur t-shirts all the time, it’s been an epic journey to circle back to his childhood passions as an adult. And while you could say Colossal Fossils is the dawn of a new era, their small focus is what David hopes will make them stand the test of time.

“There are plenty of large organization that focus on larger cities and larger venues. But there’s nobody that will go and talk to six seniors citizens about mastodons,” he says. “We’re okay with that.”

Do you have a niche hobby you’ve shared with others to make your community a little bit better? Tell us about it in the comments!

*Update: Colossal Fossils is looking to make their collection bigger. Get in touch with David here if you have fossils to donate.

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Put a bid on it: How a Portland, OR auctioneer is keeping the city’s nonprofits afloat

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Johnna at the 3rd Annual Shake It Til We Make It fundraising auction and event for The Brian Grant Foundation,
held last year at the iconic International Rose Test Garden. (Photo credit: www.iamatrailblazersfan.com)

Every weekend for nine months out of the year, auctioneer Johnna Wells stands up in the center of a room filled with hundreds of people, sometimes thousands, and tries to raise the most money possible for that night’s nonprofit.

Her auction chant is automatic at this point; the mental juggling is all about reading the body language of the bidders at key tables, making sure she gets the minimum amount for the donated goods, and sustaining the energy of the crowd.

It’s become second nature for Johnna, who is admittedly shy otherwise.

“I’m more uncomfortable in a room of ten people than a thousand,” she says. “But once I get up there and get a microphone in my hand, it’s almost like my superhero cloak. I feel at home, and less exposed in that way.”

From artist to auctioneer

Johnna’s been around the rapid-fire auction environment her whole life. Her mom and dad owned and operated auction houses in Coeur D’Alene and Post Falls, Idaho, which specialized in antiques and collectibles.

As kids, every day after school, she and her brother would help their parents get read for the weekly Friday night auction, and every Friday night, they would listen to the patter of their dad’s bid call, rolling out their sleeping bags in the clerking room while buyers checked out with their treasured wares.

“It seems nerdy, but it’s an interesting and cool community of little vignettes of stories and lives,” she says.

But Johnna outgrew the family business as she got older. After studying art at the University of Idaho, she moved to Portland and began a series of art-related jobs ranging from window dressing to jewelry design. During this time, she started to question whether or not she could continue to pay the bills as an artist—and if it was fulfilling her desire to do good in the world.

Then her dog died back home. On a whim, she quit her jewelry store job, got on a plane, and chose a seat that happened to put her next to two old-timers who’d known her grandparents and told her tales of days long ago.

“Sometimes it feels like once an action is put in motion, you know you’re on the right track when the rest of those pieces start to fall into place and remind you that you made the right decision,” she says.

She ended up staying in Idaho for the summer. Coincidentally, her father’s health took a bad turn and she further learned the ins and outs of the auction method when her parents opted to leave the family farm and move into a condo. It was during that summer that she decided to go to auction school and, afterward, apprentice at a local fundraising auction company back in Portland before starting her own business.

Portland’s powerhouse fundraiser

Now Johnna is one of the seven percent of women auctioneers around the world, and a 2005 International Auctioneer Champion.

Her company, Benefit Auctions 360, works with a variety of Portland nonprofits including Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Cascade AIDS Project, and the homeless youth organization p:ear.

The fundraising auctions, which Johnna likens to “original crowdfunding,” are anything but small affairs. Throughout the course of the year, her team works with each nonprofit to strategically plan and promote each auction and event. Venues range from art museums to the Veterans Memorial Coliseum; performers have included local and famous musicians alike, from Julianne Johnson to KISS; and donated goods run the gamut from an original Gus Van Sant photograph to being a roadie for the band Rush.

This spring alone, Benefit Auctions 360 has raised a total of $14 million—and they’ve made their own donation to every organization they’ve worked with. For many of city’s nonprofits, the money they raise in one night is what keeps their doors open throughout the year.

“Years ago, I had my very first auction with p:ear. Seconds before I took the stage, Executive Director Beth Burns came over to me. She put her hand on shoulder, squeezed it firmly, and said, ‘We’ve barely got any money in the bank. So don’t mess this up,’ ” Johnna says. “I was shocked, but it really set the tone early on for how important this work is.”

Johnna is successful any way you look at it, but she doesn’t let it get to her head. In fact, she’s anything but comfortable.

“There’s always the potential to make whatever you’re doing bigger and better. And there’s also the potential for it to unravel at the seams. It all depends on you,” Johnna says. “I’m scared every day that I’m not doing the right thing, that I’m not doing my best. I think that’s a good thing. It keeps you on your toes and makes you work that much harder.”

Check out the Benefit Auctions 360 blog for tips on fundraising, auction planning, and more.

Follow them on Pinterest for auction and event ideas.

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Try This! Host a Summer Commune

 

SummerCommune

The idea

Josh Heller and Nicole Kelly tried an experiment last summer. What would happen if they got their friends to descend on a small town in the U.S. as part of an intentional, temporary community?

“Cities are really expensive and it’s crazy to think that someone who is a struggling artist or creative should have to spend half their income on rent,” Josh says. “The thing is that less affordable places are less desirable. The idea for Summer Commune was that we could make a place desirable by bringing the people we think are cool.”

Josh, a travel writer for Matador Network, and Nicole, who was a grad student at UC Irvine for fiction writing at the time, were perfectly poised to lead the project. Avid travelers by nature and community builders by default, the couple already had a list of people they knew they could reach out to.

So they got to work. They read books about communes past, deciding that in the age of Craigslist, people could simply sublet their own apartments. They set up a Facebook group, website, and Tumblr blog. They called it Summer Commune, and at the beginning of June, rolled into the city of Moscow, Idaho to find their faces on the front page of the local newspaper.

“Moscow was a perfect place. It’s this unique city that is close to Washington, has two major universities, and there’s only several hundred thousand people. So it’s pretty remote and isolated, but you still have artists, intellectuals, and old hippies. A lot,” Josh says.

What happened

Before they arrived, Moscow residents ranging from farmers to Buddhist professors were waiting to welcome them with open arms. Those who came from other places—thinkers, comedians, designers, and other creatives, some of which Nicole and Josh knew and some of which they didn’t—were at a liminal time in their lives and excited to connect and explore. What started out as an initial way to live cheaply became something much deeper.

“A lot of people who came were looking for an alternative. People wanted to test out another way of life, another way of having community, another way of doing things. They were open-minded and curious,” Nicole says.

Over the course of the summer, Nicole and Josh held weekly open meetings at a nearby tavern for the core group of 10 Communers and the 60-plus interested locals to commingle. They also hosted literary readings, salons, a variety show, and a Pecha Kucha night at other venues throughout the city.

“The mayor told us that the tourism initiative we put together was something she had tried to pay for and it had not come out so well. Our grassroots efforts had really stimulated the local economy during the summer,” Josh says.

When Nicole and Josh weren’t orchestrating events, they and other Communers were hanging out with punk and bluegrass bands, dining with aging hippies, making friends with the coffee shop and co-op crowd, hanging out on a farm, and volunteering at the city’s Artwalk. They fell in love with Moscow—and with an alternative way of living.

“For me personally, it made me be more open to living other places and seeing other parts of America I was less interested in before,” Nicole says.

3 things they wish they did differently

From the beginning, the two wanted Summer Commune to be a model that anyone anywhere could take and copy. If you want to create one of your own, here are three tips to keep in mind:

1. Be clear about who you want to target.

They initially pitched the idea just to artists, but realized halfway through that Summer Commune would’ve been great for anyone who worked remotely or wanted to, like freelancers, small business teams, etc.

2. Write a manifesto.

While Summer Commune was always an exploratory project which they wanted to give room to breathe, having principles of community framework from the beginning would’ve helped. “We wanted it to be collaborative, but I realize now that was unrealistic,”  Nicole says. “I think people wanted a structure but they didn’t want to help build it. A lot of people felt, ‘We’re happy to be here, but what do you want from us?’”

3. Email the mayor.

Nicole and Josh were so focused on amassing a crowd to go with them that they unintentionally forgot about local outreach. When they saw how responsive Moscow was, they realized they could’ve easily gotten in touch with local government, city council, and more much earlier, possibly tapping them for budget and infrastructure help.

Nicole and Josh are currently back in California, and are taking a break from communing this summer. But for them, it was an experience that changed how they relate to the world and their place in it—not to mention boosted their confidence in moving from intention to action.

“It was cool to see something come to fruition. I’m now more excited by having ideas and actually building them out,” Josh says.

“When people would ask, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ that would’ve stressed me out a year ago,” Nicole adds. “Now it’s fine. I know now opportunities will present themselves and that I can make my own things.”

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Of course, Nicole and Josh did many things right and would love to share their tips on choosing the right place, branding, and more. Get in touch by emailing hello@summercommune.com.

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Meet the dad who started an alternative Boy Scout revolution

This post originally appeared on good.is, a global community of people who give a damn.

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Scouts from Missouri’s 10th Daniel Boone Scout Group. (Photo via Baden-Powell Service Association.)

Over the past year, alternative options to the Boy Scouts of America have spread across the U.S. like wildfire. From Portland, Oregon’s 55th Cascadia Scouts, clad in homemade kerchiefs (and named after the kitschy camp troop in the Wes Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom), to the 5th Brooklyn Scouts in New York, building forts in Central Park as part of their wilderness survival training, the new troops are primarily formed by families fed up with discriminatory policies.

But these troops would still be up a creek without a paddle if it weren’t for one frustrated father: Missouri dad and Cub Scout leader David Atchley, the humble computer programmer who reintroduced “traditional” scouting to the U.S., and in the process, furthered LGBT and gender equality.

Six years ago, David attempted to dodge the Boy Scouts’ commitment to excluding female and gay would-be participants by asking them to let his troop be all-inclusive. Instead, they threatened to take away his pack’s membership.

So he took things into his own hands. He turned in his Eagle Scout badge (the black belt of scouting), severed all ties with the Boy Scouts of America, and began crafting the country’s first all-inclusive scouting alternative.

But he didn’t have to start from scratch. In David’s search for other scouting options, he found Europe’s Baden-Powell Service Association (the original scouting model that the U.S. Boy Scouts was founded on in 1910) and was quickly hooked by its no-nonsense approach. With straightforward, loophole-free rules laid down in 1907, the association stressed outdoors-y goals and an all-inclusive atmosphere.

After convincing some of his current scouts and local families to join forces, David started the 10th Daniel Boone Scout Group, officially igniting the BPSA U.S. program. The goal? To bring scouting back to its roots. “Sure, the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policies made me leave the program, but that isn’t the focus,” says David. “It’s time we bring back traditional scouting.”

To him, this means swapping “programming” and “computer game design” merit badges for those scouting was founded on, mainly outdoor survival and navigation. David agrees that youth tech education is important—it’s just not part of the scouting platform.

“Scouting is supposed to be focused on two things: outdoor skills and public service,” he says. “These seem to have been forgotten over the years.” David’s own troop reflects these values by spending weekends cleaning up trash alongside the Missouri River and honing their campfire cooking skills on camping trips.

Soon after his troop got off the ground, he began hearing from interested parents and ex-members across the country. There are now 24 BPSA-chartered groups, from New Hampshire to New Mexico, empowering scouts and leaders of all ages, sexual orientations, and genders. David’s been the national commissioner since 2009, both arranging national events and connecting interested scouts on a local level, thanks to their site’s handy Scout Finder application.

Still, he remains modest about his program’s achievements and long-term effects on gender and sexuality biases.

“I just wanted to find another alternative for my kids, one that focused on equality and traditional scouting,” he says. “But it wasn’t a new idea. I was just the first to make the move.”

Interested in starting a local BPSA troop or know a community that’s looking for an alternative to the BSA? Contact David Atchley at david.m.atchley@gmail.com or look for nearby members on the Scout Finder.

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Try This! Team up with other literary organizations to pack a real punch

The idea

What do you do when you have an awesome literary nonprofit organization that happens to have a very similar mission to other groups your area?

Well, instead of competing for resources by throwing down in a bookish rumble for supporters and donors, some of the leading literary organizations and independent presses of the Twin Cities decided to join forces. The love child of their cooperation is LitPunch, an outreach initiative with a shared community-building goal.

Originally designed to draw in a new audience, LitPunch is a series of social networking events hosted by the editors, book reviewers, directors, and volunteer coordinators of the five participating literary organizations. Chris Jones, Marketing Director at The Loft Literary Center, explains that sharing responsibilities between the organizations has worked well for LitPunch because of good communication and mutual respect between the partnering groups. “We have a great working relationship because we’re all open and flexible,” he says.

punch cardEver-evolving, LitPunch offers community members a chance to chat with the minds behind some of the most prominent literary organizations and presses in the country. Back when LitPunch got its start in 2011, the gem of the program was an actual punch card that participants could get stamped at “punch worthy” readings and lit events around the cities. After filling a card by attending 12 events (a “knock-out”), the card could be used as a $15 gift certificate at a participating indie bookstore.

While this was a fun idea at first, about a year into the program, participants started complaining about losing or forgetting to bring their punch cards and the program started to lose steam. Rather than giving up on the idea, the organizers decided to tweak their approach and transformed the program into a series of social networking events (from punch cards to punch bowls, some would say).

Why you might like to try this

  • Distributes your marketing efforts. With literary events like readings, there is sometimes a burnout effect that comes from inviting the same core group of followers again and again. Pooling your lists and inviting a bigger number of folks to begin with can help avoid this. Teaming up also lends a razzle dazzle effect to events and makes them really special—people love knowing that this is the literary event to go to.
  • Lightens logistical responsibilities. Nonprofits and small presses are usually strapped for staff time and have a lot to do besides organizing community events. By sharing the responsibilities of who does what, you can lessen the burden on all of the groups.
  • Increases fans and supporters. One of the big questions the members of LitPunch had in the beginning was if they were already sharing the same core group of supporters. They each sent out a survey to try and figure this out, and what they found was encouraging. “Most people were at least aware of the other organizations, but they definitely became more aware after we teamed up. It seems like most felt connected to one or two of the organizations, but few were circled into all five very strongly,” Chris says. He considers this one of the biggest successes of their coalition—that LitPunch really has exposed people in the community to new opportunities.

How you can replicate it

Creating new coalitions can be a challenge, but Chris has some advice for nonprofits looking to team up, whether for a literary endeavor like LitPunch or otherwise.

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Guests mingling at January’s LitPunch mixer.

1.Pick your collaborators wisely.
There comes to a certain point where without a central leader, trading off on responsibilities just isn’t efficient anymore. For the folks at LitPunch, five organizations is just right: “Any more and I think it would become a little unwieldy.” The most important trick to forming a strong coalition is to make sure that your missions are really on point. You want to be able to focus your efforts in the same direction when it comes to the consistency and style of your events, including collaborative efforts in grant proposals and reports, and reaching out to the right potential audience members.

2.Stay flexible.
Community projects need to be focused enough to have a clear goal that fits into what your organization does, but—especially when you’re working with other organizations—coalitions need to be able to change and grow with time. As Chris says, “If you’re too rigid, it’s just not going to work.” LitPunch has changed dramatically since its start in 2011, and its constant evolution has been a big part of its longevity.

3. Ask for feedback.
As LitPunch has grown up, the participating organizations have been very committed to seeking out and responding to feedback from their attendees. When people reported they were losing their punch cards too often to make it worthwhile, LitPunch did away with the cards. When people said they wanted to meet with more editors and talk books with the best of ‘em, LitPunch delivered. Give people what they want, and your program will be successful.

4. Make it fun.
The spirit of LitPunch comes from that nostalgic drive for racking up points and winning awesome prizes that many folks have carried with them since childhood. This fun energy has electrified all of the events and marketing efforts of LitPunch, even after the end of “knock-outs.” At the next LitPunch mixer in June, for example, attendees will be able to win prizes from their favorite presses and bookstores by playing literary signature bingo which rewards them for mingling with the editors and organizers of the participating LitPunch groups.

This consistent effort of LitPunch to give “normal” readings and literary events extra flare has certainly attracted a great deal of attention for the program and for the participating organizations.

“The turnout was overwhelming,” Chris says about the 2013 LitPunch kick-off this past January. “It was so cool to see a bar packed with people who were all there because they love books as much as we do.”


Interested in forming a similar coalition? Have questions about the upcoming LitPunch mixer in the Twin Cities on June 19? Contact Chris Jones at cjones@loft.org.

Rebecca Olson

 

Rebecca Olson is a writer and arts advocate living in Portland, Oregon.

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How do you put your intentions into practice?

Being International Women’s Day, we’d be silly not to highlight a woman who’s working hard to inspire and challenge her gender every day. Although her focus is on young girls and women, her approach can easily apply to anyone at any stage of their life.

“What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

The question, casually brought up by a friend five years ago, took Ann Drew Yu off guard. At the time, Yu was a middle school English teacher in Minneapolis, eager for something new.

She recently had become fascinated by the art of feng shui—specifically the way it uses the physical orientation of a room to spark mental inspiration—and had wanted to find a way to share its intents with her students. But she had never seen it becoming a reality. Until then.

“One thing led to another,” says Yu. “And the idea came for the Intention Box.”

After working first-hand with middle school and high school-aged girls (and having once been a teenage girl herself), Yu saw a need to empower young women through an objective-based tool, dubbed the Intention Box for Girls.

The box set contains a deck of cards asking thought-provoking questions (“What positive thought would help me today?” or “How can I get more comfortable speaking up?”) and a journal to record girls’ responses and own unique goals.

Yu says that her Intention Box for Girls "gives young women life skills that go hand in hand with change."

Yu says that her Intention Box for Girls “gives young women life skills that go hand in hand with change.”

Now, two years after Yu’s first box hit the market, the kit is widely popular among young girls across Minnesota, and Yu’s new 8-week public school program based off of the box has attracted interest from a handful of teachers.

But how did she ignite her own intentions to bring the product to this stage?

It all goes back to analyzing her own missed intentions in her youth.

“I would have loved something like this as a girl,” she says. “Imagine being able to explore forgiveness, kindness and self-exploration at that stage. If you learn how to form your intentions in life early on, it sticks with you.”

To understand the real questions that would help pre-teen and teenage girls visualize their goals, Yu met with teachers, parents, and therapists to get inside their heads. But, she says, she found the real answers in working with young women themselves.

“It amazes me how intuitive younger girls are,” says Yu, who test ran her first intention box with a group of 10 to 15-year-old girls. “To hear how they made [the box] their own and what they thought it was missing, that was the most helpful.”

But there were certain parts in the development process where Yu had to rely on her own creativity. To financially kickstart the Intention Box, Yu took out home equity loans on her own house and reached out to already-cemented supporters across the city for a financial push.

“The whole project was very intuitive, driven by passion and creativity,” she says. “And I had to take some chances.”

Yu says that the money put into the project has almost paid itself off. But, she stresses that it was far from easy.

“This was no overnight success story, it took over ten years to bring my intentions into something tangible. But that’s not meant to discourage anyone,” she says. “It’s best to just always have your eye on the immediate future. Take it as it comes, step by step, and you will get there.”

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Do you know a young girl who could benefit from the Intention Box? Or have your own questions about setting personal goals? Feel free to contact Ann Drew Yu at anndrewyu@comcast.net

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

The idea

featured

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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