We’re getting closer. Let’s also get kinder.

In 1967, psychologist Stanley Milgram famously declared that there are only six degrees of separation between all people. 45 years later, two scientists in Taiwan incorporated Facebook networks into the six-degree theory and concluded that the average number of degrees of separation between two individuals is currently more like 3.9. 
 
This blog post by Jennifer Prod, which we’ve adapted below, explores some of the reasons for and implications of this shift.

Networked communities like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are narrowing the distance between global citizens. If you’re anything like me—working on your computer a lot and keeping up with various social networks—then you’re having daily interactions with people around the globe.

Chances are high that you’re even interacting with your Internet connections more often than your geographical neighbors. One reason for this is that social networks connect individuals based on affinity rather than geography. For the first time, we can make friendships based exclusively on interests and similarities, without proximity as a prerequisite. Amazing!

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We’re living closer together than ever now—physically and online.
(image courtesy Shutterstock)

But here’s a more nuanced thought about this shift: As the geographical distance between the people we share our daily lives with expands, our definitions of ‘neighbor’ and ‘community’ are expanding, too.

Small town people are famous for their hospitality. We can reason that much of their kindness stems from the knowledge that they will inevitably run into the same people time and time again. Chances are high that if you smirk at someone in the grocery store, you’ll see her face pop up another time soon—when she becomes your new insurance rep, for example, or neighbor, or (worst of all) boss. Keeping this possibility in mind incentivizes polite and friendly behavior.

People in larger cities, though, where high density almost guarantees that we’ll interact with new people on a daily basis, are apt to take more social chances and risk being rude because we think we’re free from future consequences. But this is changing.

In today’s world, it’s very likely that you’ve interacted with many of the ‘strangers’ you see on the street on digital networks in the past. And it’s even more likely that you’ll interact with more of them on such platforms in the future.

So what’s the proper course of action for all the new faces—and concurrently, new irritations—that we inevitably encounter in our urban communities?

It’s called kindness.

Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet at the market, the café, the park, and the bus stop. Clearly, kindness is the best policy no matter where you are, but we’re poised to personally feel the effects of neglecting it now more than ever. You may not meet the same person again in the same physical space, but chances are good that you will reconnect with them in the digital sphere. And the closer everyone gets, the less you want egg on your face.

headshotoption(1)Jennifer Prod is a Minneapolis-based blogger who likes to read in trees and start lakeside chats with strangers. She wrote about happiness experiments for Idealist this past December, and posts about creativity, positivity, and community all the time on her blog.

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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?

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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.

Expand

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?

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Help Kirsten start a nonprofit incubator

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

Kirsten Doherty can’t say enough good things about Lowell, Massachusetts. As the birthplace of the industrial revolution in the U.S, home to numerous public institutions and a diverse immigrant population, the city has a rising creative economy with new projects and initiatives springing up all the time. Many are calling it a renaissance.

Kirsten LinkedIn

“We also have very smart people with brilliant ideas to make Lowell a better place to live,” she says. “What we are missing, I believe, is a physical space—like a resource center or incubator—for people who want to be creative and do good.”

Kirsten knows a thing or two about the situation, having spent 15 years working in fundraising and lived in the city of 100,000 for six years. She’s also currently interning with Lowell’s Department of Planning and Development.

“But there are some gaps in my training. I want to see this happen, but need help.”

The intention

Kirsten says she often notices artists and others active in the community having meetings at Starbucks because they don’t have a place to do business. She sees a need: these people should have a space to work.

“A lot of the people starting things here have great ideas,” she says, “but they’re often on these tiny staffs where they’re experts in their program, but need back-office support and help with the other stuff—graphic design, accounting, grantwriting—so they can focus on their missions. I want this place to provide one-stop shopping for those services.”

Obstacles

Kirsten says she’s very well connected in Lowell, but admittedly, she doesn’t know everything. So far she’s planned meetings with Third Sector New England and Space With a Soul, two nonprofit spaces in nearby Boston, to learn more about how they got started and get a sense of how they operate.

She also recently submitted an application to the UMass Lowell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Merrimack Valley Sandbox project, which gives annual seed money awards to local aspiring entrepreneurs. But the more ideas she can collect and connections she can make, the better.

Kirsten is most concerned with getting advice to help shape the following three aspects of her idea:

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Boott Cotton Mills Museum, Lowell, MA. (Photo via Kirsten Doherty.)

1. Spatial and organizational layout. “I’d like to get different ideas, especially about how organizational membership could work—like, would you need to have a 501(c)(3) to join, or maybe just a fiscal sponsor? How would we handle groups with controversial missions?—and the physical layout of the space. What are some different models for those things?”

2. Funding. “I’m particularly interested in ideas for funding and governing/leadership models,” Kirsten says. “I sort of picture a place with reasonable rental fees that the participating nonprofits would pay for—and maybe they could get some help from government grants or private philanthropy?”

3. Staffing and maintenance. “I want to see this happen, and am up for helping to launch it—maybe be on the advisory board?” says Kirsten. “But ultimately, I don’t think I would be the best ED or manager, so would need options for that. And for staffing, I’m not sure if full-time people or consultants would be the way to go… Or what!”

How you can help

  • Do you know any nonprofit spaces like the one Kirsten envisions?

  • Do you have advice to share about organizational structure, membership, fundraising, governing, or staffing options for a center like this?

  • If you’re part of an organization that belongs to this type of nonprofit space, or would like to, share notes on your experience or needs with Kirsten.

  • Do you live in the Lowell or Boston area and want to help turn this intention from ideal to real, or know anyone else who might?

  • Can you think of another way to address the community issues Kirsten’s identified, besides opening this type of nonprofit space?

If you have any bright ideas for Kirsten, leave them in the comments below, or send her a message through Idealist. If the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

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Are you a practical dreamer with an idea that’s just starting to take shape? If you’d like to be part of this series, or know someone who would be a good fit, email celeste@idealist.org.

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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.”

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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Idea File: Drive change through PARK (ing) Day

The idea

Every year in September, groups of people band together to transform parking spaces in cities across the world as part of PARK (ing) Day.

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Idealist’s Idea Swap at PARK (ing) Day 2009, where we asked New Yorkers for their suggestions for a better city. (Photo from IIP State via Flickr/Creative Commons.)

From their website:

“The mission of PARK (ing) Day is to call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat … at least until the meter runs out!”

The event began in 2005 when the art and design studio Rebar temporarily planted themselves, a sod of grass, a bench, and a tree in a parking spot as a way to challenge San Francisco’s use of downtown outdoor space.

Since then, thousands of activists, artists, and everyday citizens have put their own local spin on the event as a way to playfully engage their communities. Think flash mob — but with a social conscience.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Open source community development. Locals decide what issues in their communities they want to address, and how.
  • Purposeful repurposing. From health clinics to free bike repair shops to urban farms, creative participants all over the world are careful to not let one inch of empty space go to waste.
  • Attainable impact. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s recently inspired city governments to take action. NYC’s pop up café program temporarily places table and chairs in front of businesses to utilize limited street space, for example, while in San Francisco small urban parks called “parklets” can frequently be found where cars used to be.
  • Takes fun seriously. Sure, the ultimate goal is to drive change, but who says you gotta have a straight face to do it? Play a community piano, explore a mini-jungle, or show off your moves at a dance party: the possibilities are endless.

How you can replicate it

In 2011 alone, there were 975 parks in 35 countries from Brazil to South Korea. Rebar has made it easy for you to add to that number this year, providing a comprehensive how-to manual and promotional material such as posters, T-shirts, and more.

We also reached out to the folks behind Brisbane PARK (ing) Day, who’ve helped numerous other cities in Australia get organized, for their advice on how to host a successful event.

Here’s what designer and urbanist Yen Trinh had to say:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Be tenacious about tapping into the knowledge of the international network.
  2. Partner with the community. Design schools, cafe owners, landscape architects, and urban designers can offer a lot of good ideas.
  3. Know the local laws. There is no quick answer as to whether or not the event is legal. Make sure you know what you can and cannot do, and speak to your local politicians.
  4. Ignore the haters. You’ll likely encounter people who think it’s risky; chances are you’ll pull off the event trouble-free.

“Urban design and public spaces are critical to the well-being of our cities,” Yen finally says. “Things like Park(ing) Day are just one small step to broaden the discussion of what kinds of places we want to live in.”

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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