Field Report! Team meeting in Washington, D.C.

Connectors in the capital of the U.S. are all about action.

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A few of D.C.’s Connectors. (photo courtesy Brad Ogilvie)

Last Wednesday, seven of them met for the first time at the William Penn House. Their backgrounds ranged from community development to environmental sciences to county politics.

“The collective wisdom and experience in the room was great to see, as well as the shared passions to try new and creative things to bring people together. I think we also were energized by the fact that we see the challenges of collaboration, but believe that with good planning, we can overcome them,” Connector Brad Ogilvie says.

The Team started by introducing themselves and taking an inventory of the skills and networks in the room. Then they identified next steps, which included pledging to deepen connections with their communities over the next six months to get a better sense of what’s already going on.

More specifically, they all agreed to sign up on the community websites Nextdoor and Meetup. Longer term, their plan is to host a “Vision/Imagine D.C.” event early next year that would get people together to talk about concretely addressing social issues in the city.

In Brad’s opinion, the D.C. Team can help provide a stronger sense of community in a place where politics and power rule.

“We hope to break down some of the divisions that exist,” he says.

In the Washington, D.C. area? Join the Team and keep an eye out for their next meeting in late June or early July.

Live elsewhere? Look for a Connector Team near you or start one of your own.

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Ami and Megan field questions from Seattle

A couple of weeks ago, six Connectors met in Seattle for an awesome kick-off meeting that included lots and lots of Post-Its.

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Connectors Talya, Nic, Alyssa, Lisa, Traci, and Kimberlee

The Team talked about what brought each of them there, and why they were excited by the Network. They also generated a great list of questions that we’re sure some of you have also been thinking about.

Here are a few of them and our answers from Idealist’s Executive Director Ami Dar and Community Relations Manager Megan O’Leary:

Q: How will Groups form? (and when?)

A: We’re planning for the Groups functionality to be ready in late April. You’ll hear about it when it goes live! At that point, any Connector will be able to start a Group.

Q: What is the relationship between Connectors and Groups?

A: Connectors start and admin/moderate/facilitate Groups.

Q: How many Connectors do we need? Are we aiming to get more or have a core group of Connectors (there are 34 of us on the Seattle Team now)?

A: The more Connectors the better. We have been waiting until Groups are live before doing more outreach, but soon after that – and with some more materials for outreach – we will be sending many more people your way, and also unleashing you to invite others.

Q: What does it mean to be neutral in the role of a Connector (what are some examples)? What if this conflicts with us moving forward (moving from talk to action)?

Neutrality: all it means is that your focus is on generating action, and connecting and match-making, as opposed to coming up with specific projects or actions. Your role is to invite people to voice what they want to do, and help them (or help them help each other) do it. You are a moderator, facilitator, cheerleader, mini-coach, cross-pollinating bumble bee. But you don’t take sides on specific issues.

Q: Is there a structure we can use as a guide as we continue with our in-person meetings?

A: Structure for meetings: we will be providing more of that asap.

Q: How can we make sure we’re not duplicating work already being done?

A: Individually or as a Team, it might make sense to set some goals for what success looks like in Seattle to help shape your offline connection and to avoid duplication. Maybe it’s to grow your Connector Team, maybe it’s to recruit any missing nonprofit organizations to join Idealist, maybe it’s promoting Idealist as a resource in Seattle, or maybe it’s none of these and something totally different! There’s lots of room for it all.

What other questions do you have? Let us know in the comments!

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Try This! Host a birthday conference for good

We’ve heard about the trend of “donating your birthday” to a specific cause, but what about going one step further with an all-out conference? Read how Emily Pearl Goodstein hosted one in Washington, DC this year—and how you can do the same where you live. (Warning: may not suitable for introverts.)

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The birthday keynote, Emily Pearl Goodstein
(photo via Tosha Francis)

Emily Pearl Goodstein is an unabashed birthday enthusiast. Her recent celebrations have included 80s prom fundraisers, potluck picnics in DuPont Circle, a crafternoon featuring decoupage picture frames and cupcakes, and a Jewish Soul Food dinner with the pop-up restaurant service Feastly.

And for her 30th? She hosted a conference.

Yes, a conference. Now, some of you who aren’t particularly keen on wearing lanyards and attending panels might be wondering: why on earth?

It started as a joke. But it turned into so much more.

Emily, a self-professed “sweatpants enthusiast, reproductive justice activist, photographer, online organizer, and rabble-rouser” wanted to do something big, fun, and with a nonprofit feel.

Seeking inspiration, she thought back to her enjoyment of Learn-a-Palooza, a daylong skill-sharing event, and a summer camp she went to as a kid where she got to be crafty all day long. When she put the two together, what did she get? A birthday conference.

So this past May, over 100 of Emily’s friends and family came from down the block and out of town to spend a day at the George Washington Hillel experiencing her favorite things.

Her cohort hosted sessions that ran the gamut: cookie decorating, sailing, yoga, tips for keeping email under control, competitive Cranium, massage, flower arranging, a paid sick days for restaurant workers campaign, and the Minnesota State Fair (think giant cookie tubs, unlimited milk, and a personal message from State Senator Al Franken himself).

Emily spent ten minutes at each session—including belting Kool & The Gang’s “Celebrate” at the top of her lungs as part of the Fair’s Giant Sing Along.

But it wasn’t just about Emily. She charged attendees a $30 registration fee, with all the money after costs going to Planned Parenthood and Gift of Life, the latter in honor of her good friend and activist Elissa Froman who sadly passed away during the planning process. Both nonprofits had tables at the conference where people could learn more, and Gift of Life even gave cheek swabs to add to their public bone marrow registry.

Combining social justice with life’s pleasures: the day couldn’t have made Emily happier.

“The whole time I was planning it, I knew it was a super weird idea and people had trouble visualizing how it would all shake down,” she says. “For me, I imagined us all eating cookies and empanadas and singing songs. Then the day arrived, and people literally had notepads. I was surprised at how seriously they took it.”

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(Photo credit: Tosha Francis)

Do you want to host your own birthday conference?

Here are Emily’s top four tips:

1. If you’re jazzed about it, others will be too.

After Emily had the idea, she posted it on Facebook and within minutes had dozens of likes, enthusiastic comments, and her first confirmed speaker. She then asked a friend (the owner of Mr. Yogato, a local frozen yogurt shop) to be the first corporate sponsor; that move brought even more attention (one great example: Phickles Pickles, a small pickle company located in Athens, Georgia, found out about Emily’s birthday on Twitter and sent her a few cases of personally branded pickle jars!). Day by day, people started to realize she wasn’t kidding.

2. It’s your party and you can choose what you want to.

It’s the one day of the year when you can be selfish and unapologetic about it. Craft the sessions to your liking. If someone wants to present a sesh on zombies and The Walking Dead isn’t your thing, just say no. Everyone will understand.

3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Emily wanted to have a balloon arch. Really badly. In the end, though, it just turned out to be too complicated and she had to forgo it. Nobody noticed (not really even her).

4. Ask.

Don’t be afraid to ask your friends who have skills and talents to get up in front of a room full of people. Ask nicely, personalize your request (no mass emails!), and try to provide publicity in exchange for sponsorship. People will want to help. Really.

At the end of the birthday conference, Emily was starting her new decade with deeper knowledge and a stronger community.

“The spirit of coming together and taking a chance on a crazy idea was very impactful for me,” she says. “I’m having trouble even now figuring out how to thank the people who made the day possible. People really brought it.”

Now that the candles are blown out, how will she ever top the big 3-0?

“Maybe for my 31st birthday, I’ll do an unconference,” she says.

Want to host your own birthday conference? Feel free to reach out to Emily for advice on the best free online tools to use, further insights on the art of asking, or any other questions: emily.goodstein@gmail.com.

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Why I keep sending books to prisoners

This week’s spotlight: all things books.

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Letters from prisoners requesting books. (Photo via Kristin Stadum.)

I hate Wednesday.

I really hate Wednesday. The day wrecks me. I end up cold, tired and hungry, except in the summer I end up hot, tired and hungry because after work on Wednesday, I spend hours with DC Books to Prisons.

When a couple of friends mentioned the group, I started volunteering and in no time at all, I found myself wrapped in the cogs of this purely-volunteer organization that seemed almost organic in nature, surviving despite itself, because of itself, without rules, without structure, to put books in the hands of prisoners.

Over the years, I have picked and packed books, established a data repository, taken packages to the post office and fought to find a fiscal sponsor. Photography, writing, fundraising – whatever the group needed, I tried to do, but it wasn’t until I spearheaded a holiday fundraiser that I realized how wildly unpopular prison issues could be.

The project doesn’t have a steady source of income. The group survives on meager grants and responses to letters of appeal. The only real costs are the cost of the website, the mailbox, and shipping (media mail), which continues to rise. Even operating with such lean overhead, the organization struggles to survive.

Over the holidays, a local bookstore gave us the opportunity to tie together our skills – books and wrapping – by giftwrapping customers’ purchases for donations. The first year, I worked eight of the nine shifts we had, serving as the public face of DC Books to Prisons.

We don’t have a charming mascot, color or theme. We send books to an underserved and incarcerated population. A lot of people have problems with that. Very few are likely to wear our name on their sleeves and raise funds for prisoners. Many believe that prisoners just ought to be punished.

“Why?” a man asked as I wrapped his books. “Why do you care?”

While I quoted statistics on the current rate of incarceration (higher in terms of both sheer volume and per capita than anywhere else in the world), all I really wanted to say is that I care because somebody has to.

Our system is broken. Our justice system claims rehabilitation as a goal, not punishment, but in a world of diminishing resources, prisoners suffer. Libraries are cut as are educational programs, and recidivism is high. Those who enter prison on minor drug offenses walk out as hardened criminals without skills, resources or hope for the future, with criminal connections, without an education, and literacy helps stop that from happening. Showing basic human decency helps stop that from happening.

“Maybe in a way it’s a form of hope, which is nice considering all this negativity,” a prisoner from California recently wrote, expressing his wonder “to actually know that there are people out there who can do what they want, anytime they want, and still donate and volunteer their time, raise money… now that has an effect on a person to make him stop and think.”

The (mostly) men who write us don’t extoll their innocence. We don’t ask them to. We read their letters, try to find books that match their requests and include a brief note wishing them happy reading.

Even such brief notes reach their readers. Sometimes, I feel more than vaguely uncomfortable with the letters I get in response, the ones calling me an angel, a savior, a princess, the ones asking how many bedrooms I have, the ones offering information about impending parole dates. We don’t sign our full names or give personal addresses but we would not be hard to find, any of us, and I do get a lot of letters.

A lot of letters.

For some reason, though, I keep going on Wednesdays. Wrecked. Uncomfortable. Unsure of my own motivation but for the fact that someone needs to care. Then, something happens to remind me why I volunteer.

The day before Christmas, with a broken water heater at home and plans for one final giftwrapping shift, I found myself engaged in a conversation with the plumber’s assistant. In the July just past, he was exonerated of a crime he did not commit and released after serving 23 years of someone else’s sentence, someone identified through DNA evidence, someone who would never be tried because the statute of limitations had passed.

What do you do after 23 years behind bars? How do you move from 1989 to 2012 without climbing the steps in between? Cameras, music, and communication in pocket-sized computing devices with far too much information about everyone ever met with people checking in, checking out and checking their email all at the same time.

How do you explain a 23-year gap in a resume? How do you develop a relationship after 23 years on the inside? How could you ever go back inside any building ever again with the sun shining and a breeze blowing? I gave the man my attention, some cookies and a book on exoneration from my own shelves at home; then, I went to raise money for the project.

Since 1999, DC Books to Prisons has been answering individual inmates’ requests for reading material –fiction and nonfiction – with requests from all 50 states. Volunteers work with a donated library in borrowed space (from a local church) to pick and pack books. Requests range from dictionaries, drawing books, and westerns (all incredibly popular) to history, psychology, woodworking and electronics. Some of the prisoners are lifers, on death row or “in the hole” (solitary confinement) looking for a mental escape while others hope to learn a marketable trade for after their release.

Most of the prisoners who write us weren’t wrongfully convicted. They very well might deserve the sentences received but the ones who write us have nothing, no family or friends for support, no money, no options. We are their last resort, and whatever they did, they are serving their time. We can afford them basic human kindness and maybe a chance to learn, and so every Wednesday, cold, tired and hungry (except when I am hot), I send books to prisoners.

20130609_NYC0165Kristin Stadum lives and works in Washington DC, volunteering regularly with DC Books to Prisons as well as The Reading Connection where she reads books to (and encourages a love of reading in) children at a domestic violence shelter. In her free time, she travels, writes, walks, and raises money and awareness for breast cancer research.

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