storytelling, time and grit

storytelling, time and grit

How long does it take to tell a story that makes an impact?

Susan B. Anthony’s speaking tour in 1873 in support of women’s voting rights brought her to 50 towns and villages in upstate New York, where she repeatedly delivered a 533-word speech calling for women’s rights to the suffrage.

In the 90-minute documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” director David Gelb was able to display the sushi master’s life, passion, and perfection in such a powerful way that we connected with someone we otherwise may have never known or noticed.

With a 110-character tweet and popular Facebook page, online activist and former Google executive Wael Ghonim (@Ghonim) was launched to the forefront of Egypt’s anti-government movement.

And in one instant, photographer Marc Riboud captured the 1960s struggles of war and peace in the iconic photograph “La Jeune Fille a la Fleur.”

We all have a story to tell and now there are stages that encourage every person to bring their own story to life…in five minutes.

In May, I attended the 27th session of Ignite Seattle. Ignite is an event that brings together local storytellers and gives them each five minutes to share 20 slides that flip through automatically every 15 seconds. I heard stories about harvesting bugs for people to eat, drawing comics and saving the world, mastering balance on a unicycle, connecting with kids through video games, the human experience of live-translated calls, the power of lone travel, and an experiment in saying “Yes” for 30 days.

As I listened, I thought about how storytelling takes true grit. It takes passion and powerful motivation, and it requires a continued sense of exploration. Storytelling is about being curious and sometimes getting into trouble. Particularly in the social issue space, it’s important to be disruptive and provocative without being irresponsible. Storytelling is about creating an emotional connection. It’s about moving people to laugh, cry, smile or to remind them how to savor life. Good stories impart some sort of wisdom that empowers people to think—to think differently, think deeper, or think at all. Stories are kept in words, images, digital manifestations, film reels, and 140-character tweets. They are spoken, sung, written, filmed, recorded, photographed, painted, and designed. Stories can be told in five minutes, they can be told in two hours, and some stories never end. This is, ultimately, the magic of storytelling.

the achievement gap

the achievement gap

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the third and final in a series inspired by the book. Read the first and second posts.

When I was six years old, I was the lowest achieving kid in class. I knew it because our scores were clearly written on the board for all to see. And the one at the bottom, usually me, was given several hits with a bamboo switch.

This was the Chinese education system, and I was an American kid whose only other education experience at the time was half-day kindergarten, complete with nap and recess. After moving to my new school, the injustice I felt a age six was insufferable.

But here’s a twist: I wasn’t the only one who got the switch. The kids who sat near me also got it. To eliminate this achievement gap, the teacher made it the other students’ business to make sure I caught up. We were in it together.

As an adult, I now understand what’s truly unjust is that many children don’t have access to a good education. American elementary school students are also punished for underachievement. If an elementary school returns low standardized test scores, children often have school funding taken away, and some of their teachers fired.

In America—where a child’s ZIP code and skin color are significant factors that determine academic opportunity—it’s a grossly unfair way to be held accountable. It’s also grossly unfair that children are held accountable when CEOs are not, but that’s another story. With these pejorative tactics, there is little hope for lifting achievement, equitably or otherwise.

The achievement limited by those factors—ZIP code, skin color and the layered and complex challenges tangled up in them—isn’t just limited to academics.

My first job after college was managing programs for at-risk girls—from middle schoolers in gang-impacted neighborhoods to teens with incarcerated mothers and those who were incarcerated themselves. It was an up-close and personal look at the way cycles of poverty, abuse, and incarceration play out in real lives.

What really resonated with me from reading this chapter, was the idea that solving problems—teen pregnancy, job preparedness, academic achievement—requires looking far beyond the problem itself. Acknowledging and addressing head-on the complex challenges faced by vulnerable populations, and providing not only the technical skills they might need—like access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use it, for example—but the hope and determination to envision a future where there are other possibilities.

Agreed! This book is about spreading opportunity. Kristoff and WuDunn offer innovative thinking and models that came with statistical evidence. They lay out a clear case that early investments offer the highest returns.

And it’s important to note that there are many individuals and organizations that are working to make meaningful change, particularly when it comes to children and disparities in education and elsewhere. We’re lucky to work with some, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We count others as our neighbors here in Seattle, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—particularly their work on education pathways in Washington state.

Reading A Path Appears together connected us through stories—the stories in the book and our own. I hope as more people read this book and have substantive conversations, more people realize it’s in everyone’s interest to lift others up. If we don’t, we all hurt.


Photo credit: Don Harder, via Flickr.

the empathy cycle

the empathy cycle

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the first in a series inspired by the book. Stay tuned for two more posts, coming soon.

I’ve written before about why I and my colleagues choose to do mission-driven work, and Alison recently shared why Aggregate makes donations throughout the year. But what are our underlying motivations for these donations and deeds? Do people give because it’s the right thing to do, or because it makes them look good, or because they enjoy helping others?

I make a yearly personal donation to the Michael J. Fox Foundation because my grandfather, his brother, and my great grandfather all died of complications related to Parkinson’s disease. It is something I wish no family to ever go through again and I know it’s a long battle to get to a cure. And so, I do what I can to ensure a cure is eventually found. Similarly, I dedicate time and money to environmental conservation groups because I care about the health of our world and living creatures, and personally value being in nature.

Personal experiences often determine how I spend time and money, too. Last year I became a mom, which is challenging under even the best circumstances; you can imagine why I started zeroing in on ways to help other mothers and single parents. Now I can relate to and help carry the load for a subset of humanity that I didn’t previously empathize with.

More research is pointing to the fact that channeling money toward others—not ourselves—means the giver walks away happier, and healthier. Kristof and WuDunn peel back some of these layers in their chapter on the neuroscience of giving, citing multiple studies which reveal lower stress and longer lives of people who volunteer and donate. I wonder if our proximity to a cause also affects how we feel after giving time, money, or resources.

A weaker connection might reduce motivation to participate, in my case, prioritizing causes based on where I live, and what I’ve lived. So, then, what about causes that aren’t close to home, or the heart?

Some people balk at the idea of “outsiders” becoming involved in communities that aren’t their own. We’ve all heard, “If it’s not happening in your backyard, it’s none of your business.” I am a straight, white, cisgender female from a middle class family. I don’t fall within any minority or at-risk population. I did not experience racism directed at me growing up, or harassment and abuse based on my sexual preference, though many of my friends did. I will never experience many of the hardships so many people face worldwide, such as not having access to health care, well-funded schools, and healthy food. I recognize my privilege.

Why do I care about ensuring equal rights and opportunities for at-risk and minority populations if I am not a part of that population? I contribute to organizations working to eradicate these disparities because I have empathy for the people living with these issues each day. It is important for the health and stability of our communities for everyone to have equal opportunities and representation. Everyone should have access to these things I consider basic human rights, and as an ally, I have the power to follow the charge of those living these experiences to see where and how I can help. 


You’re a living example of caring beyond yourself to look after essential issues, even if you’re not in the epicenter or on the periphery of those issues. So many organizations hustle every day to reframe stories and statistics to make them more relatable to potential donors who feel removed. In the midst of feeling overwhelmed, lending words and resources can provide us with a sense of productivity, as opposed to doing nothing and feeling guilty as a result.

This is why I genuinely struggle with those who take carving knives to altruistic intentions, which can never be purely selfless. Let’s be clear—I’m very in favor of of the “warm glow” theory of giving. It sounds like you are, too. It builds empathy, a basic building block of humanity.

Here’s the rub: empathy and happiness that results from giving is too often a luxury. While we bask in the afterglow of our good deeds, those trapped in the labyrinth of meeting basic needs can’t always afford to be empathetic. And according to the research I mentioned above, that exasperating cycle means shorter and less healthy lives for those who aren’t in a position to give.

Violence and disparities in health and education can chip away at empathy, or jeopardize it all together. One of the biggest and most heart wrenching recent examples of the importance of empathy, particularly as it relates to violence in America, can be found in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases. Perhaps if there was more empathy for and within these communities in general, resulting in more action and policy change across the board, these events never would have occurred. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but a compelling thought nonetheless.

While empathy is difficult to measure, organizations like Ashoka are working to study the long-term effects of encouraging empathy and trauma-informed care. In schools where outcomes are being studied, there have been reports of reduced bullying and ethnic and racial tensions, increased capacity for conflict resolution and openness to others, and increased attendance (source). It is critical to social and economic security to ensure we are teaching the younger generations empathy and setting them up for success—particularly at-risk youth who may not be able to afford empathy and generosity toward others when their own basic needs aren’t being met.

More and more, it seems empathy is a privilege. If empathy and the ability for action are a privilege, what better way to use that privilege than to help others?

getting your undriving license

getting your undriving license

Instead of pledging money, what if you pledged to change your behavior and challenge your daily routine? That’s radical.

As a newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life.

Minimizing your car use can reduce carbon emissions, ease parking and traffic congestion, and enhance community connections. Undriving is an organization that challenges residents of Seattle and the surrounding neighborhoods to “get creative about getting around” and to pledge to reduce their car use or stop using a car altogether. As part of their campaign, you can sign up to receive your Undriver’s license for a donation of $20. You can include your own photo and your pledge is printed on the card as a reminder of your commitment. Undriving envisions this movement going national, so non-Seattle residents can sign up, too.

Named No. 1 on a list of walkable U.S. cities by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, Seattle is the perfect place to make an Undriving pledge. Seattle was recently ranked as one of the top cities with the fewest number of cars per household, so we’re on the right track. If you pledge to reduce your car use, or stop using your car completely, you’ll be in good company.

Minimizing the use of your car might be more of a radical change of your lifestyle and schedule than you think. Think about how often you truly use your car. Is it one hour a day? Two hours a day? For those who sit on congested highways getting to and from work, five hours a day? A quick trip to the store might not be as convenient when you factor in waiting for a bus, catching the right one, and timing your trip properly. Add in bags of groceries or a baby and a stroller and complications arise.

I live a short 6.5 miles from the office, a quick 15-minute drive without traffic. That trip turns into 45 minutes during rush hour, regardless of my means of transportation. In an effort to reduce my footprint, I forgo my car and use the local bus system to commute. Taking the bus has resulted in other benefits in my life. I have increased my activity level during the day walking to and from my stops, I’m saving money on parking and gas, I am able to make a small dent in my current book on the way home (Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow, in case you are wondering), and I have noticed new things around downtown Seattle, like the street art on the electrical boxes or an interesting architectural detail on the building across the street.

I’ve started minimizing my car use in other ways, too. Instead of driving a mile to the dog park near my house, my dogs and I walk there together. If I have errands to run that require my car, I’ll plan them all on the same day so I’m not going across the neighborhood more than once during a week. These are small changes, but I like to think they make a difference.

For more information on Undriving, peruse the website, like it on Facebook, and follow it on Twitter.

Did you miss our other Radical Locals features? Read more about Project Violet, Seattle’s Rain City Rock Camp for Girls, and the Seal Sitters.

Image credit: Press Office, City of Münster, Germany

takeaways from tedxrainier 2013

takeaways from tedxrainier 2013

Amy, Melissa and I attended the fourth-annual TEDxRainier event, held in the historic and stunning 5th Avenue Theater in downtown Seattle. Focused on a theme of “Rethink,” the day was filled with unique, thought-provoking talks covering topics like the intelligence of crows, using human bodies as a canvas, and technology that can connect two brains.

After the event, we discussed our favorite talks and the presentations that led us to rethink our own perspectives.

What was your favorite part of the event?

Amy: Dani Cone’s presentation—which focused on her Grandma Molly’s mantra, “Be good. Do well”—struck a chord. It was 2008, and Dani had opened three Fuel Coffee shops and was responsible for 21 employees. As the recession hit, she searched for ideas that would keep people coming in the door. She wanted to create comfort in not-so-comfortable times. She thought about how “people come together over pie” and decided to open High 5 Pie. She said realized that “be good” wasn’t necessarily about doing what you’re good at—it was about creating good.

I was a beneficiary of the comforting food and setting that Dani created. When I first moved to Seattle in 2009, I spent many days in Wallingford’s Fuel Coffee doing homework for grad school and freelancing. The baristas were friendly and warm, dispelling notions of the dreaded “Seattle Freeze.” It provided me comfort in not-so-comfortable times, as Dani set out to do. I appreciated Dani’s ability to tell a great story—she captivated the audience with her honest, compelling and succinct talk.

Barbara: I felt really connected to the message of Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author and naturalist. Lyanda spoke of the importance of embracing the wildlife that exists in our cities and throwing away the notion that humans and wildlife should be separated and only encounter each other in the wild. I take every opportunity to get to the mountains and forests to hike, camp, and enjoy nature and wildlife away from the crowded city streets. However, I can also be found admiring the squirrel lounging on the park bench, the crow perched on the roof of my house happily harassing my dogs, or the random raccoon seen ambling slowly back to his home after a night of raiding the neighbor’s vegetable garden. Urban wildlife might sometimes be seen as a burden, but I truly enjoy sharing the city with them.

Melissa: My favorite part of the event was also my favorite presentation. I loved hearing from Art Wolfe about his inspirations and the evolution of his work as an artist. His newest project, Human Canvas, is breathtaking. Learning about the progression of his work with tribal communities, landscapes and animals, and how this helped mold Human Canvas, helped me appreciate his work even more.

Which presentation forced you to see something from a new perspective? 

Amy: Wildlife scientist John Marzluff gave an intriguing talk about crows’ brain power and said he was determined to convince us to use “birdbrain” as a compliment. Several crows seem to call my deck home. Much to my dismay, they bring their dinner up there and gorge themselves. After learning about their intuitive abilities and calculated risk-taking, I see my crow neighbors in a new light. They are smart and determined—and it’s probably time to befriend them.

Barbara: I enjoyed hearing from Teri Hein, executive director of 826 Seattle and former teacher with The Hutch School. Teri spoke about refusing to “hope for the best” in people, and instead assuming the best in people. By assuming the best in people, and especially children, we give them the opportunity and confidence to be open and curious. This can lead to better understanding of people and cultures that are different from your own, and hopefully, lead to a more accepting community. I love that Teri encourages not only teaching the curriculum but also using her position as a teacher to reach out to children, help them stay open-minded, and mold them into better human beings.

Melissa: Ramez Naam‘s presentation showcasing the reality of technology that is considered “sci-fi” was great. The innovations he shared were mind blowing, especially the glasses that can potentially help the blind restore partial sight. Since I don’t normally focus on this community I hadn’t realized this seemingly futuristic research is currently happening.

What did you enjoy most about attending TEDxRainier? 

Amy: Events like TEDxRainier help me learn about new organizations and projects. From Peter Speyer of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, I learned more about its Global Burden of Disease (GBD) report and online visualization tools, as well as the Roux Prize, a new $100,000 award for using GBD data to take action that makes people healthier. From physician and filmmaker Delaney Ruston, I learned about her work to use documentaries to inspire compassion around mental illness and the film she made about her relationship with her father and his battle with schizophrenia. 

Barbara: I appreciated the variety found in the talks. Although I enjoyed the talks focusing on topics with which I connect, I also valued the opportunity to hear from people outside of my focus areas, expanding my awareness of research and projects happening right in my backyard. 

Melissa: I appreciated the effort put into the event, and am grateful for my increased awareness of local entrepreneurs and organizations.

To find out more about TEDxRainier and view the video of the event, check out their website.  You can also find them on Facebook and Twitter.

radical rock camp for girls

radical rock camp for girls

Using rock music to engender education, self-empowerment, self-advocacy, teamwork, and leadership? Radical.

As a newcomer to Seattle, I’m enjoying learning about the diverse organizations and causes with roots in the Pacific Northwest. Each month, I will highlight a local group whose radical work inspires me to be more radical in my own work and daily life.

I love the idea of using music and community to build confidence in girls and spark social change. Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls started in Portland, Oregon, in 2000 and similar programs have opened across the country, and the world, ever since. Seattle’s Rain City Rock Camp for Girls is dedicated to building self-esteem and encouraging creative expression through music. Any girl can participate, even if she has never sung a note or picked up a musical instrument.

Rock Camp runs throughout the year at various venues across Seattle. They provide summer programs, yearlong programs, advanced programs, and even weekend programs for those of us 19 and over. The weeklong camp for girls and the weekend camp for adults both culminate with a public concert performance at a local venue. If you don’t want to be part of a band, you can donate or volunteer to help staff their summer camps. They need music instructors, camp counselors, mental health supporters, receptionists, and even a camp photographer.

The nonprofit program provides grants for tuition and educates campers on body image, song writing and the history of women in rock and hip-hop, focusing on putting an end to oppression, gender bias, and bullying. Rain City Rock Camp for Girls practices non-discrimination, and individuals who self-identify as female, trans, or gender non-conforming are welcome to participate. Everyone who completes an application, and is able to cover costs or receive financial aid, is invited to attend and are accepted on a first come, first served basis.

There’s something special about the inclusivity of the music community. I joined choir in elementary school, was involved in music programs through high school, taught myself to play the guitar, and was a founding member of a women’s a cappella group in college. Throughout my involvement – from elementary school to college – I learned invaluable lessons, made great friends, and gained confidence. Attending Rock Camp when I was a kid would have been an incredible chance to step outside the choir box and truly express myself and strengthen my skills in a welcoming, creative place. Rock Camp provides a fun, safe place for girls to learn, build relationships, and, most importantly, be themselves.

To learn more, peruse their videos and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.