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”?

*****

Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

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The myth of “stranger danger” (and what to do about it)

This week on Idealists in Action, we’re exploring the concept of Home.

Seems like it should be easy enough to make a new friend in the comfort of our own city or town, right?

Many of us encounter hundreds of people over the course of our day, but how often do we actually say hello and make conversation? If you’re like me, probably not very often. Most people (myself included) can be shy about interacting with strangers, because we fear we might somehow be taken advantage of.

But do we really have reason to be so concerned?

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“Hey, is that tea good?” Why not strike up a conversation with a stranger and see if you can make a new friend?
(photo courtesy Shutterstock)

In 2010, at the University of Cologne in Germany, researchers Detlef Fetchenhauer and David Dunning created an economic game that required people to accurately judge the trustworthiness of strangers in order to win. They found that participants considered 52% of strangers trustworthy, even though a whopping 80% of strangers were actually deserving of their trust.

The big takeaway for me here was that the chances of encountering a trustworthy person are much greater than the chances of meeting someone who wishes you harm. If you’re super-cynical or risk-averse, you might say you’d rather practice caution than encounter someone with ill intentions. That’s fine, but if you don’t take the risk, you’ll miss out on meeting the 80% of strangers who are awesome.

If that’s not enough reason to reach out, consider this: the same study also confirmed that the biggest root of our cynicism is a lack of experience with strangers. What does that mean? Well, we established that approximately 80% of people are trustworthy, but if your first few encounters with strangers involved the 20% of untrustworthy individuals, then you’ve probably become skeptical about forging new friendships with mysterious people. On the other hand, if you’ve mostly encountered strangers from the trustworthy 80%, then every stranger is likely to seem more like a potential friend than threat.

Either way, remember that the odds are in your favor. If you’ve had some negative experiences with strangers, try reaching out and increasing your sample size—you’re due for an encounter with someone belonging to that 80%.

Turning strangers into friends is easier done than said. Read that again—it’s not a typo! This is thanks to the handy-dandy method I’ve drafted for creating a more stranger-friendly community wherever you call home. Caution: it sounds a little more like a dance craze than a fail-proof method for making friends, but bear with—it is tested and true.

My prescription for stranger-friendly cities is called the “UP, down, side to side method.” (No worries if you still prefer UP, down, side to side as a dance craze—feel free to bust the moves while walking down the street. No judgment here.) However, it has little to do with shaking-it-up or shimmying-it-down and everything to do with how you interact with your surroundings:

  • Enjoy the ride. Stop thinking about transit strictly in terms of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Give yourself time to travel through your neighborhood, and as you walk, bike, bus, or drive, take in your surroundings. Look UP, down, and side to side as you journey, and consider how you might add value to your community. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you on the bus, or take note of a new business in the area and plan to stop in.
  • Take a walk. Luminary author Henry David Thoreau said that an early morning walk is like a prayer for the entire day. I ‘Thorealy’ agree!, but I also go a step further and assert that walking has great value at all hours. Walks allow us to look UP, down, and side to side as we commune with our surroundings, and solo sojourns especially provide us with an opportunity to think about our communities and observe the small things that make our neighborhoods special. Try a croissant at the local bakery and leave a tip. Make conversation with your waiter. Find out when the coffee shop has poetry readings and go listen to what some “strangers” in your ‘hood have to say.
  • Commit random acts of generosity. Investing your time and energy in another human being—even a stranger—almost always provides a positive return. When we look UP, down, and side to side, we find little ways to make life nicer for the people around us. Does the woman checking out ahead of you at the grocery store need a dime so she doesn’t have to break a $20? Give her one from your pocket. Does that elderly man look like he could use a little help crossing that icy street? Offer him your arm.
  • Invite someone to dinner. If you’ve ever lived alone, you understand how difficult it can be to cook for just one. Two can even be trying, as many recipes are written for families of four. So instead of dividing a recipe, why not invite the neighbors to dinner? Even (or especially) if you don’t know them well. If nothing else, it will save you the headache of division! And now—I don’t even need to say it, do I?—pause before you start cooking, look UP, down, side to side, and consider who else could be sitting at your table. Then call them. All of them.
  • Say hello without words. A welcome mat is a quick and easy way to welcome visitors and passersby even when you’re not home. If welcome mats could speak, they would say, “Hello friend! Welcome to this house. Please come inside and get cozy.” Even the humble welcome mat is aware of the importance of creating a warm community vibe. Look UP, down, side to side and figure out the best place to put that mat (probably in front of your door, but you do as you like). 
  • Connect with the inspired. The Web makes it easy to contact almost anyone you admire, whether you’ve actually met them or not, so why not send a quick note to someone you think is doing good work? We can go digital with the UP, down, side to side method, too, if we use email to send kind words to deserving people. As an added perk, this kind deed helps you network with the people that inspire you the most.

My final plea comes even more directly from the heart: I ask you to be the type of person that shows others how kind strangers can be. We know that the most despairing communities and hardened individuals need kindness the most. So why not break the cycle and show them some goodness? Go ahead and get started with a little UP, down, and side to side action. It’s great for making friends out of strangers (and can also provide a nice little cardio workout).

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Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who believes in the power of creativity, positivity, and chocolate chip cookies. She’s written about happiness experiments and proliferating kindness on Idealist, and is always cooking up something on her blog, Apartment Wife.

 

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Join Idealist on March 11 as we launch a new global movement for action and change!

 

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We’re getting closer. Let’s also get kinder.

In 1967, psychologist Stanley Milgram famously declared that there are only six degrees of separation between all people. 45 years later, two scientists in Taiwan incorporated Facebook networks into the six-degree theory and concluded that the average number of degrees of separation between two individuals is currently more like 3.9. 
 
This blog post by Jennifer Prod, which we’ve adapted below, explores some of the reasons for and implications of this shift.

Networked communities like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are narrowing the distance between global citizens. If you’re anything like me—working on your computer a lot and keeping up with various social networks—then you’re having daily interactions with people around the globe.

Chances are high that you’re even interacting with your Internet connections more often than your geographical neighbors. One reason for this is that social networks connect individuals based on affinity rather than geography. For the first time, we can make friendships based exclusively on interests and similarities, without proximity as a prerequisite. Amazing!

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We’re living closer together than ever now—physically and online.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

But here’s a more nuanced thought about this shift: As the geographical distance between the people we share our daily lives with expands, our definitions of ‘neighbor’ and ‘community’ are expanding, too.

Small town people are famous for their hospitality. We can reason that much of their kindness stems from the knowledge that they will inevitably run into the same people time and time again. Chances are high that if you smirk at someone in the grocery store, you’ll see her face pop up another time soon—when she becomes your new insurance rep, for example, or neighbor, or (worst of all) boss. Keeping this possibility in mind incentivizes polite and friendly behavior.

People in larger cities, though, where high density almost guarantees that we’ll interact with new people on a daily basis, are apt to take more social chances and risk being rude because we think we’re free from future consequences. But this is changing.

In today’s world, it’s very likely that you’ve interacted with many of the ‘strangers’ you see on the street on digital networks in the past. And it’s even more likely that you’ll interact with more of them on such platforms in the future.

So what’s the proper course of action for all the new faces—and concurrently, new irritations—that we inevitably encounter in our urban communities?

It’s called kindness.

Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet at the market, the café, the park, and the bus stop. Clearly, kindness is the best policy no matter where you are, but we’re poised to personally feel the effects of neglecting it now more than ever. You may not meet the same person again in the same physical space, but chances are good that you will reconnect with them in the digital sphere. And the closer everyone gets, the less you want egg on your face.

headshotoption(1)Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who likes to read in trees and start lakeside chats with strangers. She wrote about happiness experiments for Idealist this past December, and posts about creativity, positivity, and community all the time on her blog.

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Can cookies connect us? One Minneapolis blogger’s year of happiness experiments

As 2013 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to pay homage to Idealists who’ve made a commitment to doing good across 365 days.

I used to work as a grant writer for a Minneapolis poverty-fighting organization, and respected the all-encompassing approach they took to their work: meet people’s basic needs for food, housing, education, and employment, and also try to give them hope through encouraging pep talks and personalized action plans.

But I realized over time that our program didn’t really complete the circle. After basic needs and a sense of hope, people also need to have a connection to others, to their community, to thrive instead of just survive.

After realizing this, I reflected on different aspects of connection for a couple of months: how can we foster connection with people, especially strangers? What makes one person feel they can connect with another, and what turns them off? I decided that the best (and most fun) way to answer my questions would be with a public experiment.

I wrote three simple poems that morning:

 

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“Magritte Jennifer” with balloons.
(photo courtesy Jennifer Prod)

“I talk to strangers

hoping to meet

someone like you”

 

“a day without you

is like a morning

without coffee”

 

“your smile

made me forget

my parking ticket”

 

Then I called a screen printer and had them transferred onto large balloons. I filled them with helium and hung them in fun places around the city: attached to a bicycle, wrapped around a doorknob, twisted around a tree trunk.

Now, I can’t speak for the strangers in the street since I never saw them find the balloons, but I did get an amazing response online when I blogged about the experiment—lots of nice comments about how people wished something like that would happen to them, and even more about how they would like to do something similar in their own communities.

The feedback inspired me to plan more extreme “random acts of happiness.” I wanted the next to be interactive so I could gauge its true impact.

I’ve long been a fan of Henry David Thoreau, and try to live by the simple wisdom imparted in his classic book Walden. So this past July, I decided to celebrate America on the 4th, and Thoreau on his birthday, the 12th. I baked cookies to look like Walden Pond, made fun cards out of Thoreau quotes, and threw a little birthday party in the streets of Minneapolis.

Planning the experiment felt similar to throwing a birthday party for a friend. The excitement level was high, and I was anxious to make sure everyone had a good time. But my nerves about the public’s reaction skyrocketed as I walked out the door with cookies and cards in hand. Would anyone be receptive? Would people laugh, or smirk? I steeled myself for the worst and started off down Hennepin Avenue.

The first two people I approached denied my cookies, looked at me askance, and probably thought they had just avoided being poisoned. The third beamed when I mentioned Thoreau and asked if she could have two cookies (of course!). Then a trio of guys came over and asked if I was giving out treats. I told them about Thoreau’s birthday, they said they’d never heard of him, then each took a cookie and a card and walked away, munching happily.

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Jennifer’s Thoreau Birthday Party experiment.
(photo courtesy Jennifer Prod)

I met senior citizens, hipsters, big burly men, and women in sundresses. I talked with some about Thoreau, some about cookies, some about other topics altogether. Overall, I’d estimate that 10% thought I was disguising a kind act as a malicious crime, 20% thought I was weird, and 70% wanted me to meet their mom—not bad!

But I’d say that in 90% of cases, these strangers and I made a genuine, if brief, connection. I reached out with a simple gesture, and most of them reciprocated with kind curiosity. We met on middle ground. Over cookies.

Plus I had more fun talking to a bunch of strangers on the street than a bachelorette has dancing in Vegas.

That night in bed I journaled my ideas for more connection experiments. I wanted to find other ways to make people smile, see whether I could get a participation rate greater than 70%, and, selfishly, continue to feel the levity that comes with creating random acts of happiness.

Since then, I’ve enacted 40 more experiments—ranging from bubblegum competitions in the park to making ice cream with strangers at a lake—and there are 50 more I want to do next year. These random acts have put me in contact with hundreds of new people, let me in on unique stories about my neighbors, and taught me how easy connections can be to make—and how happy and whole they make us feel.

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Jennifer Prod is a blogger who believes in the power of creativity, positivity, and chocolate chip cookies. Most of Jennifer’s project ideas are replicable almost anywhere; if you want to get happy and create some connections, check them out on her blog.

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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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