This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 03, which highlights the unexpected artists moving culture forward today.
There’s a burgeoning sense of urgency and cool around activism right now. Protest marches, call banks, town halls, and postcard-writing parties merely scratch the surface. The political zeitgeist of the moment is giving rise to fresh, new, and “from scratch” forms of activism. And while digital is still a driving force, we’re seeing a shift away from the ease of “clicktivism”: Young people are being galvanized to put boots on the ground to make change in their communities. Here’s an overview of some of the most compelling examples of this new fervor that we’ve seen—from literally getting in the weeds to the collective power of big data to a tech-powered take on community policing—along with statistics that give a “first look” at the next generation’s attitudes toward activism, and how to make positive change in the world.
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Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was facing two big problems: a spike in crime and a shortage of police. So it turned to concerned citizens for help with an app that can best be described as Uber for cops. The French Quarter Task Force mobile app is like Neighborhood Watch on steroids, allowing residents, workers and tourists to call in crimes through the click of a button. Each criminal complaint is immediately sent to off-duty police officers armed with iPads, who race to the scene in souped-up golf carts. In its first three months, the app was downloaded more than 17,000 times, resulting in more than 30,000 calls and almost 800 arrests. Crimes against people plummeted 35 percent, and property crimes went down 10 percent. The app has also improved police response time from 30 minutes for a 911 call to an average of four to eight minutes. Policing isn’t the only area where civilians are getting involved. Another NOLA initiative that taps into everyday people is Enriched Schools, an online platform that turns citizens into adjunct substitute teachers. The premise is that NOLA’s struggling school system needs talented educators, while communities are full of amazing people. Why not connect the two to enrich schools? This online talent hub makes that connection. We could see other industries—from health care to transportation—tapping into the talents of local citizens to better their communities.
Not every social justice organization can get away with putting on its website: “School sucks but so does selling crack on the corner.” But that’s the approach of Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG), an urban-farm-meets-youth- empowerment program, which, frankly, has nothing to lose. Spanning a 1.5-acre vacant lot in NOLA’s blighted Lower Ninth Ward, OSBG educates kids not only about how to grow produce including tomatoes, strawberries, and eggplants, but also about where food actually comes from, and it’s not the bodega. While OSBG is still in its nascent stages, its founder, Nat Turner, has big ideas about its function as a sustainable community platform: Local kids will work the land to grow the food, which will be sold at the on-site grocery store, and can also be cooked in the community teaching kitchen. But first, he’s got to teach kids about the benefits of getting their hands dirty. As he told us of recent students, sisters Lashanay and Lashanique: “They were both allergic to dirt. I’m not joking.”
What if policy could progress at the pace of technology? The Startup Cities Institute (SCI) is a research and development organization affiliated with Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City that aims to apply an entrepreneurial mind-set to the development of entire cities. The idea is that by giving different neighborhoods the autonomy to implement small-scale reforms, they can serve as testing grounds for new approaches. One neighborhood may invent a new way of policing; another may bring a fresh approach to the legal system. Citizens can “vote with their feet” by showing up for the social services they like best. Think of it like the charter school model, with unrestricted choice. Winning ideas can then be rolled out and scaled at the city and national level.
If we want to match the pace of innovation in technology, we have to make it easier for people to try out new ways of governing, building, educating, and providing services to their communities.Zachary Caceres, founder, Startup Cities
Designing one’s own utopia has always been about dropping out and starting from scratch—and that’s the ambition we’ve noticed in many of the young idealists we met who choose to settle in rural bust towns (see Water Valley, Mississippi, in Coded, page 98). One place we visited on our recent road trip was designed specifically to make a big impact on a small town. Epicenter, a nonprofit in Green River, Utah (population 952), was launched by three 20somethings with the aim of bringing design-based thinking to rural environs. Its primary objective is to provide beautiful, affordable housing to locals, 27% of whom live in mobile homes—many of which aren’t even up to code—compared with 6% nationwide. Bryan Brooks says that working in rural America has allowed him to make a real impact: “The work I’m doing here is much more beneficial just because of the fact that it’s so small,” he says. “I can see the progress moving forward, and I can feel the value of the work that’s being done.”
Taking a page from Silicon Valley, urban activists are experimenting with ways to temporarily activate streets, blocks, and neighborhoods in a form of IRL beta testing. MEMFix is a series of “pre-vitalization” actions designed to demonstrate what’s economically and aesthetically possible on the most barren blocks of downtown Memphis. On a recent visit to the intersection of South Second Street and Butler Avenue, desolate blocks gave way to an animated street fair complete with live music, vendors selling upcycled denim, and locals hanging around eating popsicles in the sun. While the revitalization effort wasn’t without its hiccups—the pop-up cookie shop ran out of coffee—it had considerably more heart than high-rises and chain stores. MEMFix’s sister project, MEMShop, creates experimental business installations, which have resulted in 15 new businesses since 2012.
New technology is giving everyday citizens the tools to impact major change in their communities. Citizen science, for example, first arose via crowdsourcing platforms, such as Kaggle, Zooniverse, and SciStarter, which allow amateurs to participate in gathering and analyzing data. While most of these projects are largely theoretical, the Flint Water Study empowered marginalized residents to uncover the truth about their failing public water system. City and state officials repeatedly said that the water coming out of Flint, Michigan, faucets was safe to drink, but it wasn’t until residents were armed with water kits that they were able to analyze the water themselves. The result was startling: High levels of lead had been poisoning Flint’s children for years. This finding led the federal government to finally take action—and gave Flint’s population a voice in protecting itself when no one else would.
Would you like a side of social justice with that? The Pittsburgh area restaurant Conflict Kitchen spotlights countries with which the U.S. is in conflict by serving their native cuisine. The menu focuses on one nation at a time, rotating every three to five months. For instance, if you visit today, you might be able to order falafel, hummus, stuffed cabbage, and pickled eggplant—all foods native to Palestinians. Since opening in 2010, the restaurant has served ethnic meals from Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and North Korea, among others. Each iteration of Conflict Kitchen’s menu is augmented by events, performances, publications, and discussions that engage diners in the culture, politics, and challenges of the focus region. Definitely more tasty than cable news!
A Tulane freshman, Gus, 18, told us that he might have a bigger impact on the world by becoming an investment banker than by working on an organic farm. Come again?! 80,000 Hours—a University of Oxford–affiliated organization turned millennial movement—promotes the notion of making a positive impact on the world through one’s choice of occupation. The venture helps young people strategize how they can have the greatest positive impact on the world over the course of 80,000 hours, the amount of time most of us work during our lifetime. Some career choices have an obvious and direct impact on the world: for instance, scientific research. 80,000 Hours argues that some people will do more good if they play to their strengths, such as becoming a banker and then donating a portion of their high salaries to causes, such as—yes, scientific research. While it may seem counterintuitive, we have to admit that Gus has a point.
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