Snooki, cupcakes, and me: Idealist meets reality TV

Love it or hate it, reality TV can inspire some good ideas.

Recently I had an appendectomy. Part of my recovery plan was staying home all week – which meant I watched a lot of reality TV.

Now I’m healed and thinking full-time about Idealist again. But I can’t get those shows out of my mind! If you get sucked in to petty drama like I do but also care deeply about the world beyond the camera, here are some ideas inspired by my week as a voyeur…

The Jersey Shore
Admittedly, the so-bad-it’s-good value greatly diminished by Season 3, but I’m from Long Island and the boys hollering “Gym, Tan, Laundry” still hold a soft spot in my heart. It’s fun to imagine my favorite self-proclaimed guidos and guidettes getting all DTD (down to do good). Here’s how they might:featured

  • Sustainable gyms and danceclubs. A while back, my colleague Joanna wrote about clubs and gyms that absorb energy from the dance floor or exercise equipment, generating electricity. JWOWW, if you come to Portland, I’d love nothing more than to share my membership at the Green Microgym with you.
  • Informed tanning. File under surprising: a tanning salon in Nashville raising awareness for local nonprofits; skin cancer education for Maryland teens; a solar-powered salon in Nevada.
  • Laundry with a purpose. Volunteers at the Laundry Love Project wash clothes for the homeless, while the Laundromat Project brings art programs to local laundromats in low-income communities.

Cupcake Wars
The goal of the show is to make pretty, delicious cupcakes. In the episode I saw the bakers were dueling it out for their cupcakes to appear at the LA Auto Show. But what if were for a good cause? Fundraising strategies involving baked goods are an age-old trick; here are a couple that take the cake:

  • Cancer awareness. Created by a 13-year-old in 2007, Cupcakes for Cancer encourages children to “make a difference, one crumb at a time” by raising money for research.
  • Charitable bakery. Sprinkles, owned by one of the judges on Cupcake Wars, donates leftovers to local food banks in Los Angeles and gives 100% of proceeds from special cupcakes to worthy causes.

Confessions: Animal Hoarding
I’m not a pet person, so this show made me a little uncomfortable. One woman had 97 dogs and 15 cats! Luckily, animal rescue services came at the end of the show to place them in shelters and find new homes.

Shelters can be a bit depressing, but here are a couple that renounce the fluorescent lights and Sarah McLachlan soundtrack that flood my mind when I think of animal rescue:

  • Eco-friendly, animal friendly. Green shelters are becoming all the rage. The Humane Society’s Animal Community Center in Silicon Valley, for example, has solar panels, a water reuse system, and innovative heating and cooling ventilation to reduce the spread of illness.
  • No more sad violins. The Pixie Project in Portland, OR cites Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” to describe their unique approach. Billing themselves as a “personalized dating service” for pets, they are committed to changing the image of animal rescue.

Extreme Couponing
This show blew my mind. It features people who spend most of their waking hours cutting coupons from circulars and scouring the Internet for deals. The grocery store total reaches into the thousands of dollars…but they end up paying virtually nothing.

My husband Craig and I sat there, mouths open, wondering how it was possible and what use they had for all the stockpiled items. But one guy donates his winnings to his church, which got us thinking about couponing for good. Here are some hypothetical scenarios:

  • As a courtesy for saving so much money, the grocery store makes it a policy that couponers must donate a certain percentage of their items.
  • Couponers go to places such as homeless shelters, where goods are always needed, and voluntarily teach staff how to find the best deals.
  • A site where organizations post what they need, and coupons that match pop up.

I would love to feel that my week of cupcakes and Snooki served some purpose. Does this spark any ideas for you? Has reality TV ever inspired you to take action?

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ReWired for Change: Keeping the Spotlight Burning on Baltimore

Baltimore, by Michael King (Creative Commons)

At the Emmys last week, George Clooney received the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, an honor that recognizes an actor’s do-gooder work and highlights television as a catalyst for change. As Clooney talked in his acceptance speech about “keeping the spotlight burning” on issues after the cameras disappear, I couldn’t help but think about the HBO series The Wire. Why? Because it’s one of the few shows whose stars not only act for entertainment, but are collectively acting on their social conscience through a nonprofit called ReWired for Change.

From 2002-2007, The Wire portrayed Baltimore’s most neglected and most powerful communities, delving deep into complex institutions—the drug trade, law enforcement, unions, politics, the media—and showing how they’re ultimately all related. I reference it all the time, at work, at the hair salon, at a recent bachelorette party…If it’s possible to have a crush on a T.V. show, I’ve got it bad.

After watching five seasons, it’s hard to miss one of the show’s central themes: the wasted potential of misguided youth. And it’s hard not to feel like you want to do something about it. Sonja John, who played the tough cop Shakima Greggs, decided she wanted to keep the spotlight on this issue after the show ended, starting in Baltimore. With support from the cast and creator David Simon, ReWired for Change was born.

What’s cool about ReWired for Change is that it uses episodes from the show as a teaching tool to empower “high risk youth” to seek better opportunities. The curriculum also incorporates other forms of art and media to encourage youth to think constructively about themselves and their surroundings, as well as a street-based intervention component. The ultimate goal is to implement the model on a national and global level; in the meantime, ReWired for Change has been busy with local initiatives, such as a youth community center and a coalition of citizens working to improve the quality of life in Charm City.

At the risk of sounding like a gushing schoolgirl, I really believe The Wire is a prime example of reality inspiring art, and art (hopefully) inspiring reality. It gives me hope that American pop culture isn’t so self-absorbed as the media portrays it to be, and that the reach of television can be harnessed for good. [Editor’s note: ReWired for Change has a profile on Idealist; keep an eye on it if you want to get involved.]

Besides The Wire, what other arts and entertainment platforms out there have inspired change?

[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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