Before I die I want to share this awesome book with you

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.

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A page featuring South Korea from the Before I Die book.

What do you want to do before you die?

It’s a question that can make even the most certain of us uncomfortable. It makes us reflect on both what we’ve done with our lives and what we haven’t, and forces us to confront our mortality. We won’t be here forever.

But artist and urban designer Candy Chang knows it’s a question that can also make us do something about all of our unfulfilled dreams and desires.

Inspired by a mother figure who passed away in 2011, Candy stenciled “Before I die I want to _____” on an abandoned house in her home city of New Orleans. Anybody who walked by could pick up a piece a chalk and make their personal aspirations public. The results were heartfelt and humorous—and the project exploded around the world.

Candy says:

At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Knowing that there were vacant lots, campuses, construction sites, and more waiting to be transformed into community spaces around the world, Candy created a toolkit so that anyone anywhere could do the same. Walls that took months to plan and build started going up from South Dakota to Capetown to South Korea. To date, there have been 400 walls in over 60 countries. 

It was a beautiful example of an idea spreading. And people continue to pick up chalk and write.

This past year, Candy compiled some of her favorite walls and the stories of how they came to be into one book. It’s a breathtaking account of our humanity in all its hope, humor, sorrow, joy, and longing. I read the entire book on a recent flight across the country. Not even 30 Rock reruns could make me put it down.

Before I die I want to dance in every country in the world. What do you want to do?

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Need money for your idea? Creative financing starts locally

Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation is a New Orleans-based nonprofit whose mission is to tackle the city’s toughest challenges by supporting the creative solutions of its community members. Guest blogger Julia Stewart talks about community-focused ways to finance your nonprofit or social venture when you’re just starting out. 

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Propeller Fellows at a monthly meeting where we check-in about financial and social-impact numbers and goals moving forward. (Photo by Julia Stewart.)

Here at Propeller we emphasize a double bottom-line—that is, social impact and financial sustainability. Whether you are a for-profit or nonprofit, you must ask yourself: What is my business model? What is the market demand for my product or service and how will I generate revenue?

Selling your services to your community and beyond

Almost all of the nonprofits in Propeller’s Social Venture Accelerator have means of generating revenue. Here are a few examples:

How could you leverage your services to raise money?

Show your progress and ask for people to invest in you

“Fundraise, fundraise, fundraise,” is often the go-to mantra for nonprofits. Yes, donations and grants are important, but how can you engage your community to secure funding?

If you aren’t sure how to raise revenue through your services, but want to work closely with your community to support your idea, consider these small-scale (under $10,000) opportunities.

  • Crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and Crowdfunder. Propeller alum Tippy Tippens raised almost $6,000 on Kickstarter to launch the BirdProject, for example, giving her supporters everything from mac-n-cheese to a soap and ceramic keepsake. Keep in mind there’s usually a charge of 4%-9% of total funds raised.
  • Microfinance platforms like Accion and Kiva. These are perfect if you are considered low-income or don’t have access to typical banking services. Kiva New Orleans, for example, has 226 members who have loaned $27,025 across 930 projects since 2009. Keep in mind interest rates can still average 36% or higher.

Of course, if you’re seeking more money, there’s a whole other world of program-related investments and venture capitalists and angel investors to consider. But if you look to your community first, you might be surprised at the support.

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Keep up to date with happenings at Propeller by following them on Twitter and Facebook. Feel free to also reach out to Julia if you have more questions about both small and large financing options: jstewart@gopropeller.org.

 

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Taking urban farming to new heights in New Orleans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more about Louisiana month at Idealist.

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A taste of local food solutions in New Orleans

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

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Photo by Rush Jagoe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia

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

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

The idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

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

How you can replicate it

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the wall up

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

Maintaining the wall

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

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

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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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Grad Fairs in Atlanta, Houston, New Orleans, Chapel Hill

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Friendly admissions professionals want to get to know you in person. (Staff photo/J. Smith)

It’s time for our final four graduate degree fairs of 2011:

All of these events are free and open to the public, so please feel free to spread the word! The better our turnout at these fairs, the more likely we’ll be able to bring these free events back to the South in future years.

What happens at an Idealist Grad Fair? You get to meet admissions representatives from all sorts of programs that can help you further your social impact career – from education and social work to nonprofit administration and public policy to journalism and public interest law. Figure out how to make yourself a competitive candidate and clear up any questions about financial aid.

If you’re in one of these areas, we hope to see you this month!

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Idea File: Sticky solutions for a better community

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

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

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

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

Pros

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

Cons

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

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

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The New Orleans 100

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

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

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

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

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