The Olympics are about collaboration as much as competition

At Idealist, the sporting world is not our usual beat. The Olympic Games, however, hit us where we live as an inspiring, international gathering of outstanding individuals and teams. So we’re taking this opportunity to pay homage to excellent athletes, winter beauty, fun games, and a host of other concepts we could tie (even tenuously) to Sochi. Welcome to Olympics Week on Idealists in Action.

When you think of the Olympics, you probably don’t think of international collaboration. In fact, many of the most famous moments from past Olympic Games are competitive struggles between two nations.

However, the Olympics would never be possible without an impressive effort by each country involved to set aside their differences and come together for two weeks every four years.

This year, the Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi, Russia. Amidst the controversy surrounding the current games, it’s easy to forget that multiple Olympics have been boycotted for various reasons. In recent history, the United States and its allies boycotted the 1980 Olympics held by the Soviet Union, while the Soviet Union and its allies returned the favor when Los Angeles played host in 1984.

Adorable bear mascot or not, Jimmy Carter definitely boycotted the 1980 summer games in Moscow because of US/Soviet relations.

Adorable bear mascot or not, Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 summer games in Moscow due to poor U.S.-Soviet relations. (image vis Dmitri Melnik/Shutterstock)

In short, it takes a massive amount of compromise, understanding, and cooperation to host the Olympics, and we at Idealist would like to celebrate Russia for taking on the task. Yet we know this endeavor is just one collaboration taking place between our two former-enemy countries every day, and we thought we’d take this opportunity to highlight another excellent example that’s about to get underway.

The National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) is a combination museum, exhibition space, and research organization based in Moscow. It was established in 1992, around the same time the Russian Federation was created from the fall of the Soviet Union. Its mission is to aid the development of contemporary Russian art within a global context.

To do this, the NCCA often partners with arts organizations from other countries. On February 23rd, the last day of the Olympics, the NCCA will welcome the venerable experimental, collaborative new music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars to Moscow. These visitors from New York City will participate in a five-day residency with 11 Russian artists in a partnership they’re calling the Bang on a Can Institute. If you’re in the Moscow area around the end of this month, you can check out one of the group’s performances.


Experimental music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars will be welcomed to Moscow for a five-day residency immediately following the Olympics. [image via Stereogum]

By entering into this collaboration, all the musicians involved will learn something new and have an opportunity to expand their knowledge of their craft. Just think of the many other masterful musical collaborations that have taken place through the ages (particularly in the 1980’s)! Of course, regardless of what these musicians compose together, the cultural interchange will be worth the effort.

So when you’re watching the Olympics over the next two weeks, remember that the games aren’t just about getting a gold medal. They’re also about international unity, and about the hope that we can create a better world by interacting with and learning from people that come from different nations and cultures.

And, of course, they’re about curling.

What are some of your favorite international collaborations?


Tags: , , ,

Lou Reed: Lessons on doing from one of rock’s lifelong mavericks

“I always believed that I have something important to say and I said it.”  —Lou Reed


Lou Reed
(photo courtesy Michael Ochs Archives, via

Last week, punks everywhere mourned the loss of Lou Reed, the iconic singer-songwriter from New York City whose signature toughness, honesty, and dark romantic sensibility have influenced rock music for the past 40-plus years.

But Reed wasn’t known only for his musical contributions; he was a figure to be reckoned with.

Clad in black leather in the age of hippie cotton and beads, notoriously deadpan in interviews, and collaborating with artists ranging from John Cale to wife Laurie Anderson to Metallica, Reed was always his own man, doing the things he wanted to.

We can all take a lesson. Read this Fast Company writeup—“Lou Reed on how to be as creative, dynamic, and difficult as Lou Reed”—to see how he illustrated many of the cornerstone principles of turning your ideas into reality—learning from the best, working hard, keeping it simple, and more.

Who inspires you to do the things you want to?

Tags: , ,

Balkan brass band plays a new venue: Sing Sing prison

This week’s spotlight: all things prison.

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

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


Slavic Soul Party!

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

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

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

They got the contract.

Sing Sing loves SSP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

matt_moran USE

Matt on vibraphone
(image courtesy

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

He also offers these insights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: , , , , ,

Ask Ero: Answers for confused and baffled Idealists

Ero is Thoughtful Adjusted Cropped3In this series of blog posts, I’ll try to answer all your questions (regardless of how ridiculously unqualified I am to answer them.) Consider me sort of a tech-literate, bearded, Ann Landers, or a work-safe Dan Savage.

In the last installment of this series, I answered questions about Google Voice, finding a career path in an unusual field, and the meaning of life. How were my answers? I hope you’ll tell me. Now, on with the questions!

I am writing you from the library of a renowned university, and I have cried my eyes out. I am a doctoral student, and need to know how I can cut five thousand words from a proposed chapter for publication, while still adding more information. Is there a trick to radical editing? St. Hildegard said one should lick sapphires to clear a dull mind. I’ve done this with the ring that my husband gave me for our tenth anniversary, and it did help me cut another 300 words. But I can’t keep licking sapphires from now until my deadline. Or can I?
-Your Friend Flora

Editing is much harder than writing! I think you have what’s known in the writing world as “too many ideas.” Whether you’re writing a chapter like yourself, a grant proposal, or a Kickstarter plea, what a beautiful problem to have.

The unfortunate truth is that what’s really important in writing is the ideas themselves, not how they’re expressed. Being understood often means using as few words as possible. Your goal here is the simplicity and austerity of a children’s storybook.

It’s never easy. But you can try to take a sadistic pleasure in destroying your own beautiful words. Repeat to yourself: “The more I delete, the better writer I am.” All those pretty metaphors, all those decorative phrases and moving examples and colorful asides are going to have to go. All of them.

Keep an untouched copy of your text so that you don’t have to feel like you’re losing everything. Then, in your new copy, be absolutely brutal. Reduce a paragraph to a sentence. Then another. Then another. Before you know it you’ll be left with ugly, bare, bony sentences that say nothing except tiny little ideas. This is your best writing.

You’ll have created something rare and perfect and you’ll be glad for all the struggle that got you there. I hope your ring will still be okay.

l have some substantial ideas for solving this healthcare crisis, and it does not involve ObamaCare. How should I try to promote it? It involves attempting to save Medicare and Social Security, for future generations, so I thought some might be interested in looking at the proposals.

Hi Jamesmmm! I’m glad you have substantial ideas. Ideas are important and powerful, and they’re how we start to change the world. (You can’t make an idea-list without them). There are a lot of great ways to share your ideas with others: you might, for instance, attend a Sunday Soup Potluck. Or an Ignite event. You might even find someone who’s an idea collector!

Now, the healthcare crisis is complicated, and a lot of very smart people have worked on it over the decades. You also mention Medicare and Social Security, which are big, complex institutions that aren’t much like each other. So your ideas must be pretty powerful.

What we really love at Idealist is people who take good ideas, and make them real, by finding ways to take action. Otherwise ideas aren’t worth very much, and you may as well just write blog posts, like me.

If you want to really make a difference, do things. There are 446 volunteer opportunities listed on right now that involve healthcare. Maybe you’re an expert in government planning, or maybe you’re a financial wizard who understands long-term budgeting. There are plenty of financial planners, economists, and budget experts needed in this world, and our site is full of organizations that need your help!

So please, make your ideas real, and take action to help people in your community. If you’ll do it, so will I; and we can start making this world a little better.

Top 5 albums you’d prefer to be stranded with (with a listening device)?

How’d you know I’m a fanatical music listener? Well, I don’t really believe that one person’s recommendations are better than any other’s. Music is one of the best ways to make sense of the world, and so it’s very specific to who each of us are and what we need.

This list totally misses all sorts of other things I love, but if I was really going to be stuck listening to only five albums, these would certainly do the trick:

  • Midnight, by Pandit Pran Nath. An amazingly rich document of Hindustani classical vocal. Listening to this album is like praying.
  • Bach Cello Suites, by Pablo Casals. Much of the beauty of European classical music is here; a belief in a divine order, in mathematics. But it’s balanced against the rustic, almost earthy, sound of the cello, and there’s repetition and sequential iteration that reminds me of raga.
  • Daydream Nation, by Sonic Youth. Noisy and punk-rock artsy and intellectual.
  • Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, by Charlie Patton. The foundation of Mississippi blues, and thus: rock and roll, jazz, blues, R&B, funk, and, well, most everything else afterward. And impossibly beautiful.
  • Monk’s Dream, by Thelonious Monk. This was one of the first albums I ever bought, and that crackly record, with its strange rhythms and inexplicably haunting chords, still sounds like everything I could ever hope for from good music.

That’s all for this installment. Have questions about anything I’ve said? Or about anything else (and I do mean anything)? Ask me.

Ask Ero anything (anything anything anything) at

Tags: , , , ,

Help Tamara build bridges through music

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

Meet Tamara

Tamara Turner follows the beat of her own drum – literally and figuratively. Her passion with music began when she was five years old composing piano pieces in her hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. Tamara hasn’t skipped a beat as an adult, dabbling in everything from film scoring to music journalism, and studying a wide range of musical styles from West African drumming in Ghana to tin whistle in Ireland to Gnawa music in Morocco.

Most recently, Tamara graduated from Boston’s Tufts University with a masters degree in ethnomusicology. There, she helped organize a “Music and Islam” symposium where, by connecting with the local Moroccan community, she brought in a Moroccan band to host workshops that culminated in a big concert. For Tamara, music plays a critical role in challenging the Islamophobia she often comes across in the U.S.

“Because music has the ability to build connections artistically, creatively, and emotionally, it gives us an opportunity to lead with the heart, transcending the medium of ‘discourse’ and offering a different kind of relationship with which to understand others,” she says.

The intention

Broadly speaking, Tamara envisions an organization that utilizes music for cultural advocacy, outreach, and education, starting with but not limited to the music and cultures of North Africa. One of the first issues she would like to address through musical bridges is Islamophobia.

The idea is two-fold: Similar to the program she helped organize at Tufts, she wants to connect with local immigrant communities in the U.S. to help share their music through concerts, education, and more. Travel is also key, as she’d like to work in North Africa to help record and archive musical traditions.

Besides fostering cross-cultural understanding, and of course, celebrating the inherent joy that music brings, Tamara also hopes to counter the exotification of non-Western music cultures that can sometimes result, however well-intentioned.

“That’s part of the vision, too. Not just piecemealing and romanticizing certain elements of other cultures, but allowing ourselves to be challenged by and uncomfortable with differences as well,” she says.


Tamara learning the guimbri with her teacher, Abdellatif El Makhzoumi, in Marrakech, Morocco. (Photo via Tamara Turner.)


So far, Tamara has been researching similar organizations around the world and is in the process of refining her idea.

Here are some challenges she has identified:

  1. Reaching out to immigrant communities in the U.S. seems clear cut to Tamara given her experience, but incorporating the North African component is both nebulous and daunting.
  2. She doesn’t want to reinvent the wheel, and is considering becoming involved with an existing organization or program at first.
  3. Although she’s been encouraged by the nonprofits she’s been in touch with, she always hears a version of the same story: “Contact us after you get funding.”
  4. Sustaining enthusiasm and momentum around the idea after it’s no longer fresh is a concern.

How you can help

  • Do you know of any similar organizations or programs to add to her list?
  • Besides initiating conversations, is there more she can be doing to get her foot in the door with people who are already doing similar work?
  • How can she inspire the average person to get outside their comfort zone and, for example, be open to new music from the Islamic world?
  • For music fans and non-music fans alike, what are some other effective and fun outreach strategies besides concerts?
  • Aside from major cities, are there other areas in the U.S. that could benefit from such an organization?
  • What are some potential funding avenues she should pursue?
  • How can she best balance her vision with logistics, and prevent getting so bogged down with logistics that her vision deflates?
  • If you’ve started your own nonprofit, would you be willing to share your story and the lessons learned?

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


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

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Nonprofits That Rock Hard

Maybe rocking out and meeting the band don’t usually correspond with your day job or volunteer activities. But check out the work of these nonprofit organizations that are shamelessly devoted to rock music!

Black Rock Coalition works to support progressive black musicians “who defy convention.” The national organization, founded in New York City in 1985, helps secure performance and recording opportunities and other resources for bands and artists, documents and promotes promising acts, and organizes educational events and discussion forums for the public. Among its list of featured bands and artists are Ben Harper, Bloc Party, Sevendust, Toshi Reagon, and TV on the Radio, to name just a few.

By Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls (Creative Commons)

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls is dedicated to youth empowerment through music. At its summer camp sessions in New York City, 8- to 18-year-old girls learn to play musical instruments, write songs, and perform with a band; all while making strides in self-confidence, self-expression, and teamwork. A slew of other rock camps for girls are cropping up throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe: for starters, check out the list of 13 camps that belong to the Girls Rock Camp Alliance.

There’s no shortage of other nonprofits that combine important social and environmental causes with rock music. Rock the Earth works with the music industry and its fans to advocate for environmental sustainability. Rock the Classroom brings music and songwriting into public school classrooms to help students improve their literacy skills. Rock CAN Roll, Inc. collects canned food at rock concerts to distribute to families and seniors who need it.

Ready to rock? Look into these 16 related volunteer opportunities.

[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.]

Tags: , ,