Tiny houses open big doors for Wisconsin’s homeless

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

In October 2012, we were jazzed to write about the tiny houses movement, and have been excited to watch it gain traction since then. Here’s an update about a new use for tiny houses being developed in the Midwest.

Homelessness is an unfortunate fact in our society, and one we consistently struggle to understand and address. In Madison, Wisconsin, a group called OM Build has a new take on the issue—and it happens to be tiny. Say hello to…

Tiny houses!


Too cute! One of OM Build’s tiny houses.
(photo courtesy Lauren Wagner)

These 99-square foot houses are built cheaply and without a need for serious, specialized construction skills. OM Build is betting they’ll help address the need for homeless housing in Madison and change the conversation around homelessness in the city.

Based on a similar project in Portland, Oregon, these tiny houses (for now) must be moved every 48 hours to comply with a city ordinance. (Good thing they’re built on wheels!) OM Build—which grew out of the Occupy movement in Madison last January (OM stands for Occupy Madison)—has been working with community leaders to change laws and make a more permanent “tiny village” possible. Not only would this alleviate the burden for residents of having to literally move house every two days, it would make it easier for people to form a community of neighbors.

As Brenda Konkel of OM Build says, “We started out doing this for homeless folks, but our ultimate goal is an eco-village where there are equal amounts of people who are formerly homeless and not.”

What makes it work?

  • The houses are cheap to build (around $5,000 per unit), easy to construct, and mobile.
  • Propane tanks for heat and pole-mounted solar panels for lighting make tiny house living both more affordable and environmentally friendly than many alternatives.
  • They are super cute and colorful—downright attractive! As Brenda puts it, “People don’t like tents.”
  • People approved to live in the houses contribute sweat equity toward their future homes (see the whole application process). This gives them work experience and a bigger emotional stake in caring for their new residence.
  • The project also appeals to people who are not homeless but who want to live in a more eco-friendly way. Garnering interest from multiple sides of the community is helping OM Build to crowdsource its ideas and tasks, and gain momentum across a wide audience.

Growing OM Build

OM Build completed its first two houses in the second half of last year, and house number three is currently in the works. They’ve also established a board of directors, of which half the members are homeless. They’re meeting with public officials regularly to get help navigating some legal red tape, and their offer to purchase a property where tiny houses could be parked permanently was recently accepted.

So far, OM Build has run on roughly $30,000 in donations. With the proceeds from an online fundraising campaign planned for this year and a recently-held silent auction, they hope to up their game.


Tiny houses offer us a new way to look at an old problem. They give us a chance to use public space in a different, helpful way, and provide a real, physical tool with which we can counter homelessness.

They also remind us that good things can come in small packages.

To learn more about OM Build’s tiny house project, visit their website, or check out their campaign on Indiegogo.

Linkedin #1-1


Jordan Kifer is the co-founder of the “Art Is” project and a graduate of the University of Michigan where she completed her thesis, “Como Ser Afro-Latino/a? Examining Afro- and Latino/a Identities in the United States.” Jordan is a regular contributor to INSIGHT Magazine and works as a development assistant for Sojourner Family Peace Center in Milwaukee. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.



Tags: , , , , ,

Fight for Light: Bringing clean, green awareness to black campuses

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of organizations working to increase awareness of climate change. If you take a step back though, it’s apparent that there are quite a few issues and population segments that are underrepresented in the environmental community.

One of these issues is how climate change affects people of color and the poor, and one of the most underrepresented groups of people in the environmental sector is African Americans.

Due to heat waves and air pollution in cities and increasing energy and food prices, climate change is poised to have a disproportionately large and negative effect on the urban African American community. African Americans are also generally underrepresented in the staff of environmental organizations, both public and private.

In 2009, Markese Bryant and John Jordan saw these growing problems as a call to raise awareness of environmental issues among African Americans. Then students at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, they teamed up and formed Fight for Light, which works “to transform Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into hubs for environmental sustainability and social innovation.”

Almost five years later, Markese and John are the leaders of a thriving nonprofit organization that’s inspiring campus leaders across the nation to become more environmentally active.

How did they do it?


John Jordan, left, and Markese Bryant.
(photo via fightforlight.org)

Find something you care about

It may seem obvious, but it’s essential to devote your time to an issue that really resonates with you. If you plan on turning an idea into something concrete, you’ll have to be prepared to spend a lot of time working on it.

Before they formed Fight for Light, Markese and John had been concerned about the environment as well as the lack of African American representation in many professional settings. After reading The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, Markese and John became interested in the idea of a “Green New Deal,” which would help lift people out of poverty while also encouraging the use of alternative energy sources and promoting conservation. Knowing this was something they could feel good about putting time into, they moved onto the next step.

Start small

Once Markese and John decided what to focus on, they wanted to get right to work. However, they were both still undergraduates, and couldn’t immediately invest all their energy into Fight for Light. So they started with small steps, first entering a nationwide student business competition and collaborating with organizations that shared their vision.

In 2010, Markese partnered with Green for All and helped develop the College Ambassador Program. This program encourages young leaders at 15 HBCUs to become advocates around the environmental issues that affect their communities. One year later, John began to manage a large grant given to Morehouse by the National Science Foundation, which helped Fight for Light encourage sustainability among the student body and also led to him managing student engagement at Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.

Somehow in that mix, Markese also found the time to team up with Green for All to film this music video:

Get support

All their efforts eventually led to a big reward. In 2012, Markese and John were selected as Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellows in recognition of their several years of slow but steady awareness-raising about environmental issues on HBCU campuses. With the fellowship came financial help and the freedom to turn Fight for Light into something bigger.


With the support provided by Echoing Green, Markese and John are now increasing the reach of Fight for Light across the country. Markese recently traveled to Nashville to serve as a keynote speaker at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference, while both Markese and John traveled with students from the Atlanta University Center to the Power Shift 2013 conference in Pittsburgh.

As Fight for Light makes new contacts and continues to expand outside of the Atlanta metro area, its core mission remains the same. Every day, more students at HBCUs come into contact with the organization, and each new supporter is a fresh voice in the environmental awareness movement.

Your turn

How can you get involved? If you’re interested in raising awareness of environmental issues, particularly at HBCUs, just get in contact with Markese or John. If you like what Fight for Light is doing, follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

What other organizations or people do you know who are addressing issues at the intersection of climate change and minority communities?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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. 


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.

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.


Tags: , , , ,

3 funding opportunities to help you jumpstart your ideas this spring

Spring is in the air—along with a new set of top-notch innovation contests with equally delightful prizes. Now’s the time to pitch that creative project you’ve been mulling over all winter!

GOOD’s Start Something That Matters Challenge

There’s nowhere to go but up.

  • WHO: Any social entrepreneur over 18
  • WHAT: The folks at GOOD are looking for innovators from around the globe with ideas that will change the world for the better. The contestant with the top solution will receive $50,000 to make their dream a reality.
  • WHEN: Deadline for submissions is May 17

Verizon Powerful Answers Award

  • WHO: Individuals 18 or older
  • WHAT: Verizon (yes, the phone company) is on the hunt for inventors and entrepreneurs with smart solutions to social issues of all sizes. The contest has three categories—health care, education, and sustainability—to direct submissions toward. Winners could  go home with up to $1 million bucks—and a marketable idea to boost.
  • WHEN: Deadline to enter the contest is June 30

CCEMC Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses

  • WHO: Open to (but not limited to) companies, research institutions, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and inventors.
  • WHAT:  A four-year long award program,this challenge aims to find one foolproof tech-based model to convert greenhouse gases into valuable products. CCEMC will narrow down the contestants every two years, first starting with a group of 20, given $500,000 to start developing their idea, and ending with awarding a sole winner $10 million to boost their product into the tech market.
  • WHEN: Deadline for applications is July 15

Know of more opportunities? Let us know in the comments below.

Tags: , , , ,

Latest from Latin America: Teaching technology to youth in Colombia


Founder Andrea Cornejo.

Medellín, a Colombian city once known solely for its powerful drug cartel, isn’t letting its past interfere with a bright future. Last month, Medellín was named the world’s most innovative city by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, launching its name into the global sphere.

The piece below on a Medellín entrepreneur was translated and edited from the original Spanish version on the blog of our Spanish site, Idealistas

Andrea Cornejo has a question: What role can technology play in reducing the levels of poverty and inequality in Latin America? Can we improve the economy of the region if more kids understand and are able to interact with technology to provide answers to the problems of their communities?

Her guess is yes—and she plans to demonstrate this through Coderise, a project that empowers young students from developing countries by teaching them to create web applications. After its pilot project, the first round will be held in Medellín in October this year.

But this is just one of the many initiatives launched by Andrea. This natural entrepreneur is certain that her mission in life is to reduce poverty. Today it’s called Coderise, but yesterday it was called Viña Vieja Project or Social Emprende, a website that seeks to aggregate social enterprises in Latin America.

She’s learned that in social innovation, failure does not exist. Here’s more about Andrea and her latest initiative:

What was it that led to the idea of creating Coderise? Where did you see a problem?
When you look at the most successful programmers out there, you realize that success does not depend on if you were born into a good family, but your curiosity and access to a computer.

When we talk about technology, any child could be the next person to change the world. You just need to have the tools of knowledge and inspiration to do so.

For example, in Coderise we are not only teaching students programming skills, but we are also teaching them how to learn. When students complete Coderise, they don’t leave as programmers because that was never the goal. The objective is to integrate the technology into the community and put the tools to create in their hands—so that they have the same opportunity as any other child in the world to make an impact.

What inspired you to take action?
In order to answer the question: “What is the potential of programming technologies in the economic development of our region?” you have to do more than read and write essays.

We have to find these young people and connect them with programming education and inspirational figures leading the technological revolution. And we have to start today.

This is why one day almost a year ago, we launched Coderise.

How do you feel working and devoting your time to a cause like this?
Coderise is breaking boundaries and trying something that has not been tried before. It is worth every effort.

I’m certain that soon Coderise can demonstrate how software development is a field where developing regions, such as Latin America, can catch up with advanced regions and may also reduce socio-economic inequality.

It’s been three months since our first pilot program ran. We can already see that many young people are determined to continue learning after the program and that many are already profiting financially.

Coderise will officially launch in October. For now, Andrea and her team are working on a fundraising campaign to guarantee the program will be completely free for participating kids.

To contribute or learn more about the initiative, visit coderise.org.

Tags: , , ,

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.


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.


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 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.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

4 funding opportunities for your big idea

Have an idea but a lack of funding is making you feel stuck? Here are some opportunities you won’t want to miss:

2014 Prize in Creating Shared Value

Did you know the company that brings you Crunch, Cheerios, and more also has a sweet spot for social innovation? Every other year Nestlé highlights local efforts making positive impact.

  • Area of focus: Nutrition, water, or rural development
  • Prize: One winner will receive approximately $530,000 to scale or replicate their project.
  • Eligibility: Successfully piloted programs, businesses, or social enterprises around the world.
  • Deadline: March 31, 2013

Next Century Innovators Awards

Funding makes the social innovation world go round. (Photo via B Tal on Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

The Rockefeller Foundation turns 100 years old this year. To celebrate, the foundation “is calling on the ingenuity of innovators to chart new paths that will transform the lives of billions working in informal economies across the globe.”

  • Area of focus: Poverty
  • Prize: Up to ten finalists will have the chance to apply for a $100,000 grant. Three nominees, one of whom will be a youth recipient, will also get the gift of being honored at Foundation’s Innovation Forum in NYC this year.
  • Eligibility: Individuals 18 and older as well as organizations, businesses, and schools around the world.
  • Deadline: April 1, 2013

Peace First Prize

Contrary to stereotypes, young people today don’t all play video games or ignore the news. The Peace First Prize honors youth who are committed to the triad of compassion, courage, and collaborative change in their community or school.

  • Area of focus: Peacemaking
  • Prize: Five winners will each receive a $50,000 Peace First Fellowship over two years to continue their work or put toward their education.
  • Eligibility: U.S. citizens between the ages of 8 and 22 who have implemented a project domestically.
  • Deadline: April 12, 2013

Caplow Children’s Prize

Run by the Whole New World Foundation, this online contest seeks ideas for life-saving innovations that prevent child mortality before the age of five.

  • Area of focus: Child mortality
  • Prize: One winner will receive $1,000,000 to implement their idea.
  • Eligibility: Individuals or organizations around the world.
  • Deadline: April 12, 2013

Do you know of more opportunities? Leave them below in the comments!

Tags: , , , , , ,

Propel your idea forward on Idealist!

You have an idea to make your community better. But you’re feeling overwhelmed, afraid, unsure, and more. Now what?

Idealist can help.

All you need to do is share your story with us: what you want to do and why, the challenges you’re facing, the help you’re seeking. We’ll post it on this blog for our extremely knowledgeable and friendly community to name resources, give advice, and perhaps most importantly, cheer you on.


Sharing your idea with others can help it bloom. (Photo from Zaggy J via Flickr/Creative Commons.)

I know it can be scary to put your idea out there. But chances are, people will think it’s awesome too.  Don’t believe me?

  • Erica felt extremely motivated by all the positive enthusiasm she received, and is in the middle of writing a play that includes elements of her hospice work.
  • Shannon has several leads to collaborate with others who want to connect U.S. and Afghan youth, including a penpal organization in New Mexico.
  • Melanie learned more about theatre of the oppressed practitioners and organizations that might want to work with her in the Portland area, and the support from others has helped her gain momentum on her idea.

No matter what stage you’re at, a small push can go a long way. Let us help you take your next step.


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: , , ,

Contest roundup: Funds to help ideas spring to life

Innovation is in the air! Dust the cobwebs from your brain and polish your ideas for a better world before these opportunities disappear:

Dell Social Innovation People’s Choice Awards

  • WHO: University students from around the world
  • WHEN: Deadline to submit and vote for projects is May 13
  • WHAT: Dell Social Innovation Challenge wants your brilliant solutions to global problems in categories from agriculture to health to technology. The community votes on which projects make the grade, with $1,000 awarded to the eleven most popular ideas.


    Want your idea to have the best chance at success? Increase the levels of serotonin in your brain by soaking up sunlight, spending time with loved ones, and encouraging others. Photo via Flickr user Spec-ta-cles (Creative Commons).

2012 Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Challenges

  • WHO: Individuals, organizations, and groups across the globe
  • WHEN: Deadline to apply is May 15
  • WHAT: To celebrate its 100th birthday, the Rockefeller Foundation invites you to submit your innovative ideas for the next century in three areas of focus: data, irrigation, and farming. Icing on the cake if your idea shows promise of being scalable and replicable, positively impacts poor or vulnerable populations, respects local context, and finally, is new and exciting. The foundation will grant funding from a pool of $100,000 to nine finalists.

GOOD Maker challenges

  • WHO: Anyone with a good idea
  • WHEN: Deadlines for the challenges vary
  • WHAT: The folks at GOOD are at it again. With their new tool Maker, organizations and individuals want to hear your ideas for social change, with the community deciding which ones will have the most impact. Right now challenges include a call for speakers at TEDxChicago, an ideal car-free day in Los Angeles, and new ways of learning. Rewards for ideas typically run the gamut from funding to promotion to more tailored goodies like—ready for this?—a vacation at a Hawaiian resort.

Know of more contests and awards our community should be aware of? Leave a comment below!

Tags: ,