Good Idea: Open mic for connection-making

One of the best things that came out of the Portland Team’s meeting a couple of weeks ago? Nick Berger’s idea for an open mic.

It’s simple: bring together Connectors and people/organizations who need support for their ideas in one space. Think Sunday Soup (a grassroots model for funding small- to medium-sized creative projects through community meals), but instead of giving funding, you give connections.

stage

Connectors, think about all the potential this stage has! (photo via MaggyMcMagMag on Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

“Portland is full of people that have tremendously exciting and progressive ideas,” Nick says. “I imagine that the collective group of Connectors would be able to leverage resources, provide perspective, offer assistance, and/or connect them to resources that they might not have known about—in real time.”

Connectors would be encouraged to invite people whom they know personally. That way, there could be a more focused approach.

“Having Connectors bring in specific people with action-oriented ideas would also create a certain level of vetting, screening, and investment that might allow the process to find more stable roots and support,” he says. “This would also help keep Connectors ‘neutral’ through the initial incubation stage of the process, and allow us to take on some specific case studies or trial runs for larger-scale connecting.”

Right now, the idea is in its beginning stages. There are more logistics to be thought through, including space (maybe the Idealist offices or The Oregon Public House?), what the invitation would look like (casual or more formal with a space for listing needs?), and in general, how the night would flow (on the spot connections or more advance thought?).

For Nick, an open mic event would give Connectors a better sense of needs and strengthen what already exists in the community.

“There’s power in bringing people together in a space where organic dialogue and collaboration can be supported through reflective listening, inclusion, and openness,” he says. “There’s a greater potential to ignite sparks and create fire when all of the elements are in the same place at the same time.”

What do you think? Could this idea work in your community? Do you have thoughts on how best to organize such an event?

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Meet an Idealist Staff Member: Megan O’Leary on teamwork

Megan O’Leary, Community Relations Manager at Idealist, will be the first to admit that working on a team is hard. Really hard.

“It’s some of the hardest work we can do. I tell groups of people all the time, if you think it’s easy, you’re probably missing something,” the AmeriCorps alumna with City Year says. “But I think it can be really worth it.”

With the Idealist Network, Megan’s evolving role is part-cheerleader, part-resource, part-guide. So far she’s been reaching out to Teams with upcoming meetings, troubleshooting any problems, and in general, being a source of support for Connectors.

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Megan thanks her Girl Scout Brownie Troop in Tuscon, Arizona for introducing her to community service all those years ago.
(photo courtesy Briana Cerezo from Humans of PDX)

Being a part of a team is her favorite way to get work done. From her time with City Year, Megan has a ton of experience working with others toward a common goal.

She started out twelve years ago implementing service learning projects with middle school students in San Jose, California then formally came on board City Year as a fundraiser. Before long, she was leading the team as Deputy Director.

Then she moved to Sacramento in 2011 where she was in charge of opening a new site. It was a crazy time – her team was made up of strangers thrown together from ten different City Year sites and they had six months to open the doors.

As the new kids on the block, they worked extra hard to build bridges with the community, and get to know the systems already in place.

While reflecting on all these experiences, Megan’s had some realizations about what it’s meant to be a part of a team all these years, which as an only child, she admits she’s drawn to.

“Something I really struggled with in my first year of AmeriCorps is that I couldn’t always tell if the people on my team cared as much as me. There were any number of ways I felt offended that they weren’t always demonstrating their commitment in a way I thought was satisfactory or identical to what I was doing,” she says. “But I think everyone’s 100% looks different. You can’t give 100% everyday. You give what you can when you can.”

Her other advice for Connector Teams? Have a shared goal. Figure out what you’re doing and more importantly, why. Take the time to get know each other on a human level and share a meal. Realize the value you bring to the table. Appreciate one another. Lean into the process even if it seems scary.

“This might be hard or feel funky, but try it anyway. What do you have to lose?” she says.

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Megan would love to help your Team and hear what you’re up to. Whether you’re wondering what should be on the agenda to how best to do local outreach to which tech tools to use, Megan’s here for you. Get in touch: megan.oleary@idealist.org.

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Alex’s collaborative movement for fair taxes in Oregon

Welcome to Ideal-to-Real Updates, a series where we check in with idealists taking action on their good ideas to see what they’ve been up to and what gems of wisdom they’ve learned along the way.

A little over a year ago we wrote about Alex Linsker, an Oregonian who was undertaking the ginormous task of overhauling the state’s tax system through his initiative, Tax and Conversation.

It’s a big project to lead, but Alex has been taking small steps forward. Since we last spoke, he’s talked with thousands of people—friends, influential people in the state, tax experts, people affected by underfunded state and local services—to learn more and get buy-in for the project.

“Sometimes the work gets tiring but then I talk with someone who is affected by tax and who cares about people, and that inspires me and shows me the way forward,” he says.

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Alex taking notes at a City Club of Portland meeting.
(photo courtesy Rachel Loskill, Program & Communications Director, City Club of Portland)

Most of the people he’s met with have been referrals. Others have been chance encounters with everyday Oregonians.

Once, when Alex was biking home from an event, a guy walking on the sidewalk stopped him while he was at a stoplight. He was a farmer and former Marine from Eastern Oregon, and started telling Alex about his son and grandson, and a motorcycle they all rode over the years. He talked about limits and rules, and Alex saw the connection to Tax and Conversation, which on a fundamental level, is about the same thing.

“He leads an agricultural co-op and he sends out two trucks each day: one sells milk to Idaho, and the other gives cream, cheese, and gas to Oregonians who can’t afford it. He wanted the tax system to change so the people around him can buy those things,” Alex says. “Even though he doesn’t speak the same words I do, we realized we share a lot of the same values. We talked about tax, food, medical care, government, courts, schools. I listened, he listened, we learned and agreed.”

The idea is that this farmer’s voice and thousands of others are informing the rewrite of the current policy, which in a nutshell is this: people and companies who have the most money pay less tax.

Alex wants to flip this system by refunding all payroll tax to residents, ending Oregon income and property taxes, and progressively taxing net assets. This will simplify tax law so that people can better understand where their money’s going, and create more jobs, especially for teachers.

Of course, it takes time to build momentum. As the co-founder of The Collective Agency, a democratically-run shared workplace, Alex knows one thing for sure: only move forward if the majority agrees to move forward.

“There was one week last year where I had an idea, and asked people about it. They all said it was terrible. If I think something is good, and everyone else says it’s terrible, then it’s not worth pursuing,” he says. “So there are a lot of checks and balances.”

The project has had its ups and downs and there’s a lot of work ahead—like raising $15 million (!) for a statewide campaign—but for Alex, the sometimes taxing nature of it is anything but an obstacle.

“This project is a mix of statistics and empathy. It’s similar to how I started Collective Agency, but a lot harder,” Alex says. “I’m constantly choosing to work on this. It’s challenging, but I’m meeting amazing people and it’s fun.”

Want to help? From referring to writing to donating, there are many ways you can support Tax and Conversation.

If you’re looking to start a similar initiative where you live but don’t know how to begin, feel free to get in touch with Alex for tips and advice: Council@TaxAndConversation.com.

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How the Natural Burial Company is putting old ideas about death to rest

Each day, people like you have ideas about how to make the world a better place, but don’t know how to put them into action. To help you take the first step, we’re profiling individuals tackling issues that are important to them, one step at a time.

This week’s spotlight: all things death.

Cynthia and some of the wicker coffins and acorn-shaped urns which break down easily in the soil.

Cynthia with a selection of her company’s biodegradable woven coffins and urns.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

Two weeks after she registered the Natural Burial Company name, Cynthia Beal was diagnosed with cancer. Worried that she might be her first and last customer, Cynthia walked in the footsteps of future clients by writing out her wishes to be laid to rest under a cherry tree in a biodegradable coffin.

She never made it to the cherry tree, but she did take another journey.

Through the process of planning for her own death, Cynthia says she reached a deeper understanding of how being in the business of natural burials could help customers and families like hers through the somewhat misunderstood process of being buried in this way.

“I realized my friends and family knew what I’d meant about natural burial, but no one—not they or the professionals—really knew exactly what to do,” she says.

Founded in 2004, the Natural Burial Company sells biodegradable and eco-friendly coffins, caskets, and ash burial urns. Constructed mostly from wicker, wood, and recycled newspaper, the coffins are designed to break down quickly in the earth, returning the elements of the body back into the surrounding soil system and the plants and trees that rise above.

These coffins, woven from seagrass and sugar cane, break down easily in the soil.

Seagrass and cane coffins.
(photo courtesy Cynthia Beal)

As she slowly worked to build her business, Cynthia was challenged by the public’s general lack of knowledge about end-of-life options and rights, as well as by dominant end-of-life industry monopolies on distribution.

Many existing cemeteries and funeral homes didn’t know how to offer natural services like a vault-free burial with biodegradable coffins. They didn’t believe there was any demand for this, either.

Working as a natural and organic grocer for 14 years, Cynthia knew this wasn’t the case. She planned to use the same strategies employed by the organic food movement to promote natural end-of-life products and services.

“Because of my natural products experience, I knew customers would want to have this kind of option. But I could also tell that the cemetery was the main bottleneck to going forward—sort of like when we needed more organic food choices but didn’t have the farmers to grow them yet.”

Giving new life to old cemeteries

Supplying natural coffins was relatively easy, but providing natural graves for her customers was a lot more complicated.

The newly emerging natural burial movement needed more information about sustainable burial practices to get cemeteries on board for this kind of management practice. Cynthia partnered with the soil sciences department at Oregon State University to build the curriculum for a first-of-its kind online course focused on sustainable cemetery management.

By teaching current and future cemetery business operators as well as policy makers, she hopes to change the dominant narrative of cemeteries today.

Trees mark the graves of the dead at a natural burial site the UK. (Photo credit Cynthia Beal)

Lush, young trees mark graves at a natural burial site the UK. (photo courtesy of Cynthia Beal)

“Without knowledge, we can’t make wise group decisions. Without research, we won’t ever know the potential for cemetery pollution, or be able to compare the post-burial costs of buried materials, or transition them to sustainability.”

And what would a sustainable cemetery look like exactly?

“Not all of us value highly manicured lawns and sterile, wildlife-free ‘zones of vegetation,’ and we don’t have to do cemeteries that way, either,” she says.

So, more like a park with flowering trees and bushes instead of a golf course.

“Cemeteries are the places we go to honor the lives of others we care for, to remember the people who helped build our communities. Cemeteries shouldn’t be just uninteresting parking lots for the dead that get abandoned to the taxpayer someday.”

On death and dying

Ultimately, Cynthia hopes to change the way we think about the bodies of our dead.

“I think one of the main challenges for us is that we don’t really see death in our daily lives the way our grandparents once did. And because we don’t encounter it, we don’t talk about it,” she says.

Changing our somewhat squeamish attitudes about death and dying is also an important step to building safer and more sustainable burial practices.

“When we realize that we’re walking around in bodies that were soil before they turned into us—and that we’re just borrowing the elements while we’re alive, and that we should return them in good condition when we’re done with them—we’ll have come a long way toward understanding the real cycle of life.”

Would you consider a natural burial? Why or why not?

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How a female-focused bike shop is shifting gears

gladys

Leah Benson behind the counter at her new shop.

In the new Gladys Bikes shop on North Williams Avenue in Portland, Oregon, there’s a sign on the mirror next to the rain gear and helmets. It says “you look perfect.”

Owner Leah Benson opened the shop last month with the intention of starting a bike repair and fit studio specifically catering to women and women-identified individuals. The name come from famous women’s suffragist Frances Willard who called her beloved bicycle “Gladys.”

“Everybody deserves to feel comfortable on their bike and welcomed in a bike shop, and unfortunately that’s not the case for a lot of people,” Leah says.

She knew she wanted to offer an alternative to the intimidating and exclusive vibe of many bike shops, so she left her job at a local nonprofit a year ago and dedicated herself full-time to setting up the business. To help her get started, she tapped into some micro-enterprise development classes offered through Mercy Corps and talked to a lot of shop owners in the Portland bike community.

Part of the reason Leah opted to start a small business instead of a nonprofit or bike coop was the frustration she’d felt with the constraints of grant cycles and funders at her nonprofit job.

“You can do a lot of good work in the nonprofit sector, but you’re always going to be beholden to other people’s deliverables,” she says. “I wanted to step out of that.”

Before she started setting up Gladys Bikes, Leah was pretty dismissive and negative about the for-profit world.

Gladys Bikes' saddle library. (photo via Gladys Bikes Face Book)

There’s a saddle for every body.
(photo via Gladys Bikes Instagram)

“I used to think that if you’re making money, you must be doing something wrong,” she says. “And then I was like, no, small businesses are usually just trying to make enough to get by while providing a valuable service.”

An experienced fundraiser from her nonprofit days, Leah raised a fair amount of the capital she needed to start her business from private donors. She also worked a handful of odd jobs over the past year to make extra money: juice truck cashier, nonprofit consultant, assistant stylist for a Nike photo shoot.

To keep her budget on track for the coming year, she’s also in the process of setting up an Independent Development Account (IDA) with Mercy Corps, a special type of savings account that helps small business owners build assets with a 4-to-1 matching program.

The people have spoken

One of the most useful things Leah did to make sure Gladys Bikes was on target with its services was to ask people directly what they wanted from the shop. She ran focus groups made up of people she knew, people she respected, and people that were referred to her to find out what they asked for most.

“It was one of the most fun and productive things I’ve ever done,” she says. “It was a great way for us to air our frustrations about bike shops that aren’t set up with women in mind while brainstorming some wildly great ideas.”

One of the awesome ideas inspired by the focus groups is Gladys Bikes’ one-of-a-kind saddle library.

“A comfortable saddle [the part of the bike seat you sit on] can be really body-specific in some pretty personal ways,” Leah says. “And a lot of the time, when there’s a piece of bike gear made for an ‘average person’ or ‘unisex,’ that usually just means ‘man.’”

To help achieve a more comfortable ride, customers can check out different saddle shapes and sizes from the library, try them out on their bikes for a full week, and bring them back later.

“Feeling good when you’re on your bike is really important,” she says. “It’s all about getting it set up in the way that’s most comfortable for you.”

What are some of your favorite socially-conscious small businesses?

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Realism over reverence: A loveable soil nerd’s advice for sustainable activism

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon.

James Cassidy harvesting lettuce with his OSU growers club members at their student farm in Corvallis, Oregon. (Photo via Facebook)

James Cassidy, a soil sciences instructor and faculty advisor to one of the longest-running organic student farms in the country, comes into his office at Oregon State University wearing a t-shirt that says “eat locals.” It shows a zombie chasing a guy on a tractor.

I’m here today to talk with James about food, sustainability, and the little things we can all do to make a difference in our food system. Now that there are so many different food organizations, sustainable farming projects, and trendy restaurants, the myriad of all things we “should” do when it comes to food can be overwhelming.

“A lot of people think you’re supposed to convert to sustainability like you have to join this religion or something,” James says. “But the creation of real lasting change isn’t about going full blast, it’s about doing little things over a long period of time. That’s what sustainability really means—an action that is possible for you to sustain for a long time.”

Doing small, reasonable acts to participate in sustainable food systems—like eating a little less meat than you might normally, or buying vegetables at a farmer’s market once a month—might not seem like much. But if enough people did these little things, it would make a big difference.

“If we could snap our fingers and get everybody to eat 5% less meat and 2% more whole grains, we could change the entire agricultural system overnight.”

It’s maybe not as sexy as becoming a full-blown urban homesteader with chickens and pickles and homemade soap, but that’s the point.

"Eat food, not rocks," says James.

“Eat food, not rocks.” (Photo via Facebook)

“Look, change is slow. And it’s not very dramatic or exciting. So you have to build activism into your life in a reasonable way,” he says. “The activism itself has to be sustainable.”

Less guilt, more fun

Having a whole bunch of fun helps too, he adds. Especially when it comes to mobilizing volunteers or starting community projects related to sustainability.

“You have to give an incentive for people to be there, not just tell them that they really ‘should.’ You gotta get the BBQ in there, you gotta get some music, you gotta make it actually fun and they’ll actually want to come. Less strict ‘eat your vegetables’ guilt-tripping and more birthday cake.”

Prioritizing reality over reverence has helped Cassidy’s student garden come into its own. In the early stages, he saw a lot of students sitting around having philosophical conversations about communities. It was too grand, too hypothetical. People kept dropping out because they weren’t having fun.

Now kids come out to the garden for a few minutes to pull weeds, have a warm meal together, and then get back to whatever else they want to do. It’s no pressure, and that works better for busy students who are more likely to come by if it’s not a huge commitment—and if they’re getting food out of the deal.

“Look, communities happen, they’re not built. And they happen if there’s a reason for them to happen. So if you can provide some reason or some opportunity for it—for us it was serving dinner to people who come to help—then you give it a chance to form itself.”

I ask him if there’s one thing he would want everybody on the planet to do or think about to help us become more sustainable. The simplicity of his answer surprises me.

“I think that every single person who lives on this planet Earth should put a seed into soil and water it and put it under a light or in the sun at least once a year. If everybody participated in this little tiny ritual, it would remind us how life on our planet actually works—seeds going into a porous media and swelling and growing and becoming something out of nothing. I think if everyone did this, it would actually improve people’s lives and change their perspective. I think it’s really as simple as that.”

If you need some inspiration for having fun and expressing ‘what’s on your mind,’ check out this Information Society video (NOTE: that’s James on the left with the big blue bass).

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Want to be more inclusive? Try creating unisex bathrooms

Each June, millions gather worldwide in parades, rallies, festivals, and more to celebrate LGBT pride. In honor of this movement, this week we’re shining a spotlight on the LGBT youth community and the myriad of ways you can get involved. Today’s story is about how something as simple as a sign has helped transgender students in an Oregon high school.

In high school—a melting pot of teenage angst, drama and growth—any added stress to an already strained schedule can be the breaking point. For 17-year-old Scott Morrison, a transgender senior at Portland, Oregon’s Grant High School, this stressor came in the form of something seemingly harmless: Using the school bathroom.

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Photo via Shutterstock.

Born female, Scott identifies as male, but feels uncomfortable using either a men’s or women’s restroom due to other student’s reactions. And he’s not alone in his discomfort.  In February, Grant counselors spoke with the school’s administration about the stories they’ve heard from multiple transgender or gay students of discomfort and anxiety triggered by using gendered bathrooms.

Their solution? Unisex bathrooms.

“When I heard that students were uncomfortable, and realized that what we had was not working, I knew we had to do it,” says Kristyn Westphal, Grant Vice Principal and main instigator of the bathroom change. “It was simple, really.”

So simple that the only change, once the cooperative building manager changed the building code, the entire project cost under $300—the price of changing locks and signs on the doors of once-gendered bathrooms.

Now, three months since the idea was raised, Grant is now home to six bathrooms—four for students, two for staff—that welcome all genders, in addition to its remaining gendered facilities. And the public response couldn’t have been more receptive.

“It really is a non-issue,” Kristyn says. “Students that need them use them. We haven’t had any conflict or negative responses.”

Emily Volpert, reporter for Grant’s school paper (and who broke the original story on the bathroom switch), echoes Kristyn’s outlook.

“Most students at Grant were very accepting and understanding of this request,” Emily says. “While there will always be people who choose not to accept others for their differences, high schoolers at Grant tend to be very progressive.”

This factor likely played a role in the program’s success. Already a campus with out and supported transgender students (and an established Gay-Straight Alliance club) in a city known for its liberal ways, Grant may have a step up on other schools facing the same issues. But, Emily says, the environment of a high school campus remains universally alike—no matter where you’re trying to fit in.

“In high school, there is enough pressure that students face from grades, peers, and figuring out who you want to be,” Emily says. “For the transgender students, it’s another big problem on their plate. The installation of unisex bathrooms is really an equity issue.”

And other schools are taking note. Kristyn says that since news of the bathrooms spread, school administrators and students across the country have contacted her for advice. One California high school student even hopes to make the switch his senior project.

“It’s great how interested communities are in bringing this to their schools,” she says. “It really seems like something people need.”

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Want to bring unisex bathrooms to your school, workplace, or general community? Connect with Krisytn at kwestphal@pps.net for tips and support.

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Idea File: Would you live in a tiny house to help the environment?

The idea

The average home size in America is roughly 2,000 square feet. The average tiny house is less than one quarter of that size.

Tiny houses are literally what you might imagine: miniature dwellings complete with everything you need to live. (Think the adult version of a doll-house.) While most common in the U.S., tiny houses are gaining in popularity around the world, and can be found in countries from England to Japan.

The size may be less, but the options are many. You can buy a pre-fab home, or build your own. You can use straw, or wood. You can opt for a modern style, or a rustic one. Regardless of how you go about it, everyone who lives in a tiny house will agree: Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Ecologically sustainable. Tiny houses not only use less materials, but often try to be as ecologically sound as possible, from energy to water to light.
  • Increases self-awareness. The design is completely in your control. Every single decision has to be considered, which makes you examine how your choices align with your personal philosophy and needs.
  • Frees up time. Forget spending your weekends organizing the basement or mopping your kitchen. Smaller square footage means not only less clutter, but less time spent on the drudgery of cleaning, and more time to dedicate to family and friends, your hobbies and passions.
  • Intellectual challenge. Most tiny house advocates find there is a certain draw and excitement about making a small space perfectly functionally efficient.
  • Freedom of mobility. Tiny houses are often on wheels, and no matter where you are in the world, you always have a place to come home to.

How you can replicate it

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Portland, OR is one of the leading cities in the tiny house movement. (Photo from nicolas. boullosa via Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

Herbalist Karin Parramore in Portland, Oregon has recently started to build her own tiny house. As someone who’s always loved small things – her first doll named Tiny was two and half inches long – and traveled all over the globe, the idea of a miniature dwelling was immediately appealing.

Her future home will be built on wheels and include recycled materials. It will have solar power, an alcohol stove, electrical heater, and clear cabinets so she can see what she does and doesn’t use. For Karin, it aligns with her core values about ecological sustainability and fits with her nomadic lifestyle.

It’s been a three-year-process, from which she’s learned a lot from. Here’s what she has to say about building your own tiny house:

Philosophy

  1. Consider your relationship with personal space. From living all over the world, Karin has seen that there are radically varying ideas about what personal space means. Before you begin, examine your relationship with personal space, and know your limits. If you don’t like little spaces, then little spaces aren’t for you.
  2. Be willing to confront your philosophies. “It’s easy to say you believe in this or that,” Karin says. “But when you’re making the decision to live that philosophy, it really takes facing it head on and asking, Is it true? Do I really believe this? Is this how I want to live my life?”
  3. Set a minimum. Stop and reflect a moment. If there are amenities you absolutely have to have, or a certain amount of square footage to make you feel comfortable, it helps to know that from the beginning.
  4. Be open to the possibility of tossing physical memories. Some people give their memory boxes to family to keep. Others, like Karin, pick and choose which photos, objects, etc. to discard.

Building

  1. There’s always an answer to a problem. Because so many people have done this before you, there are a ton of ideas for you to steal. Don’t know what to do with your waste from the toilet? Try worm composting. Concerned about how to do laundry? Look into the Wonderwash. Perplexed about bathing? Consider a Japanese soaking tub, where you can store stuff when not in use.
  2. Know your zoning laws. Laws vary from state to state, county to county. Oregon, for example, prohibits dwellings less than 200 square feet. But because this is still a bit of a gray area, it’s a good opportunity for you to help influence the legal process from the start.
  3. Talk to your neighbors. To help lessen the chances that a neighbor will cause problems, go around and knock on doors to make sure there aren’t any issues.
  4. Don’t let cost deter you. Depending on what you want to do and your time constraints, expenses can range from next to nothing (if you use salvaged materials) to thousands of dollars.
  5. If you build it they will come. Karing found that once she started telling people about her idea, offers to help came out of the woodwork from friends, family, and the ever-growing tiny house community. Don’t be daunted by zero building experience; there are lots of resources already available from video blogs to networking events to books.

“This is my solution to despair about the state of the world,” Karin finally says.”It’s selfish. I want to feel better. I don’t want to feel like I’m hopelessly watching the world devolve. This is my way of remaining hopeful.”
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Interested in building a tiny house of your own? Feel free to reach out to Karin for advice: herbalearn@yahoo.com.

 

 

 

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Support Alex in rewriting Oregon’s tax law

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

Meet Alex

Alex Linsker has done a little bit of everything. He studied playwriting and business as an undergrad at NYU, did marketing for an online T.V. seller, created a software company, interviewed shoppers, and most recently, co-founded and acted as president of the democratic co-working space, Collective Agency in Portland, Oregon.

But one common theme threads his pursuits: the less he knows, the more he wants to do it. So when his time as Community Organizer of the Collective Agency was up, he turned to an issue he knew little about yet would affect any business choice he’d make: taxes.

“As a playwright, I really like figuring out what the false story is and finding what the true story is,” he says. “There’s a lot of mythology about how jobs are created. The truth is that a higher tax rate on people who are the richest grows jobs.”

The intention

Alex wants to introduce a progressive income tax in Oregon through a lobbying group called Tax and Conversation.

He envisions a diverse group that writes an Oregon constitutional amendment, acquires 100,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, and petitions people to vote. He also sees the group building community and promoting education about tax, government, and civics through workshops, meetups, and more. Similar to Collective Agency, the structure will be democratic with membership fees that go to representatives.

The hope of Tax and Conversation is two-fold: On a practical level, getting rid of tax breaks will mean more money for quality K-12 education, healthcare, and other basic services in Oregon. “There’s this scarcity mentality that’s been created and talked about in the news. But there’s more than enough to go around if we choose,” he says.

On a deeper level, Alex believes that a fair tax will help reduce income disparity and therefore generate more trust and empathy in society, a viewpoint he shares with the social researcher Richard Wilkinson.

Obstacles

Alex has been reading, networking, talking, and working with various people and groups such as Tax Fairness Oregon as much as he can. So far he’s created a website that includes a first draft of the amendment.

Here are some current challenges he’s facing:

  1. Alex finds that there is a general lack of awareness about how the tax system works and subsequently, myths about what government services our tax dollars go to.
  2. Communicating the value of the group can be tricky. Different people will read different things into the description.
  3. Some of the feedback he’s gotten from others is that it’s too big of a project given the scope, and they question whether or not will it make a difference.

How you can help

One of many public parks in Oregon Alex hopes more money can go to. (Photo from Ian Sane via Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

  • Do you know of any organizations and/or community organizers he could partner with to help him reach people of all ages, races, incomes, etc.?
  • How would you make the Tax and Conversation website even more relevant? What else do you want to learn about tax in Oregon and/or our government services?
  • What are the benefits of a project like this?
  • What issues and questions does it raise?
  • What would motivate you to become a member? What would you need?
  • What government services do you like, and what government services would you like to see improve?
  • Civics education, which promoted the idea of citizens having an active role in solving problems in their communities, was phased out of schools in the late 60’s. What specific examples of civics education are you aware of? What kind of optional civics education for adults would you value?
  • If you’re Oregon-based, would you like to get involved? (Alex is also open to support from outside the state.)

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

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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.

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