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Catalysts

04/02/2009 18:22
When in Britain last week at the Skoll World Forum, I was referred to a recent article in The Observer written by Joss Garman, the 24-year-old co-founder of the British environmental group, Plane Stupid. In the excerpt below, read to Skoll Forum delegates by Lord David Puttnam, Garman says many people [chiefly Baby Boomers] tend to write off as "fad" the deeply held climate-change worries shared by many in Garman's Millennial generation. Garman writes:

"This isn't the next fad. The naive popular narrative that "every generation has its thing" and that climate is ours—that we're the "Facebook generation"—simply does not hold. This isn't about being disaffected and rebellious without a cause. This isn't about dropping out, rejecting the norm, culture-jamming and hacking the system. This isn't even about altruism. It's not just about defending the rights and lives of those who are less fortunate than us and it certainly isn't about polar bears. This is about us. For the Millennial generation, the patronising cliches fall apart, because this isn't about ideals so much as hard science and the terrifying reality that what the scientists have been warning us all about for years—sea-level rises, catastrophic droughts, and melting ice caps—will now happen in our lifetimes. So we become angry when we witness the same generation which let the economic system collapse—and that is leaving my generation with an unfathomable burden of debt—now knowingly setting us on another disastrous course. We know how this story ends, but not because we've read obscure economic treatises or dense theories. We know because scientists are providing measurable, objective evidence that the high-carbon economic model has an in-built, self-destruct mechanism."
 
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Catalysts

03/02/2009 22:35

As the recent copyright woes of Obama poster artist Shepard Fairey show, there's a war raging over what some now are calling a new art form in the emerging Web 2.0 culture—remix. Broadly defined, remix is collage, a recombination of existing, reference images or music and video clips from popular digital culture, elements of which are mashed up into something new. As thousands of people share and produce their own mashups and remixes online, an urgent question is emerging across today's cultural landscape: Should remix be outlawed as a violation of an artist's or photographer's copyright or—as long as the remix is significantly altered from the original—should remix be permitted by law to be shared freely, via social media, across the Web and in popular culture at large?

At a recent panel talk at the New York Public Library, remixer/street artist Fairey, copyright scholar Larry Lessig, and author Steven Johnson all argued for free expression, saying remix is a form of self-expression and free speech that should be allowed to flow mostly unrestricted across today's burgeoning digital world. "Remix is literacy in the 21st century," Lessig said. The chief of Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society , Lessig is the author of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. He said that failing to legally protect remixes as original forms of art and expression "will make pirates of our children...We cannot kill this form of expression; we can only criminalize it, drive it underground. We can't make [remixers] passive, we can only make them pirates."

For his part, Johnson, author of The Invention of Air, a new book about the history of information flows in American and British society, said remix has "deep roots in the Age of Enlightenment and among America's Founding Fathers." He said that Thomas Jefferson, no less, remixed the Bible to produce his own underground version of it; Johnson refers to that effort as "the original American remix." Said Johnson: "Where do we think innovation and creativity come from—protecting ideas or setting them free, allowing them to circulate freely?"

Fairey rounded out the talk, citing remix as one of the early 21st century's most popular forms of free political expression. Fairey said his most "potent" remix is not his iconic, 2008 Obama Hope poster [over which he is being sued by the Associated Press and is countersuing for the right to have made it]—but his 2005 remix, Greetings from Iraq, a reference to a 1930s-era, WPA-produced Yellowstone Park tourism poster. "This referenced something that advertised a geyser to go see; I've made that geyser into an explosion, figuring it as something to go run from," Fairey said. "...Remix is all about making references; references are how you establish a point of view in popular culture, and they are crucial to my work as an artist."

What do you think? [Fairey's 2005 remix, left; the original Yellowstone poster, right]


Here are some of Lessig's examples of popular remix, which he included as part of his talk:

* Johan Soderberg's Read My Lips remix, a 2006 mashup of George Bush and Tony Blair news clips on YouTube, created to make a statement about their mutual support for the Iraq War;
* Will.i.am's February 2008 Yes We Can video, a remix of an Obama speech set to music, was widely distributed on YouTube prior to the presidential election last November.
* Beyonce's October 2008 performance video of Single Ladies got 1.7 million views on YouTube in original form, but a Saturday Night Live parody-remix produced a month later [see it here] got even more attention, Lessig said—some 3.2 million views. And those remixes led to dozens of others, including this one.
* The Grey Album, a mashup album by Danger Mouse, released in 2004, that uses an a cappella version of rapper Jay-Z's The Black Album and couples it with instrumentals created from a multitude of unauthorized samples from The Beatles' The White Album. [The Grey Album made headlines after record producer EMI attempted to halt its distribution.]
* Anime music video remixes, which began as a trend around 2007 by remixing images from Japanese cartoons with a music track from a movie trailer. See this March 2007 example, Disney in D Minor. Each AMV, Lessig says, can take between 50 and 400 hours to create.
* Social commentary remixes, including this March 2008 remix by experimental filmmaker Andrew Filippone, Charlie Rose by Samuel Beckett. It shows Rose engaging in an interview with himself about the future of the Web. ["It took about eight hours of editing to produce," Filippone said. Added Lessig: "What is striking to me about remix is how hard it is to do well."]
 
What do you think? Protect remixes or crack down on them?
 
(Illustration by Shepard Fairey)
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Catalysts

02/16/2009 07:24

I just finished reading an advance copy of "The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World," Jacqueline Novogratz' book on social enterprise that's due out in March—and it's terrific, an unusually candid and highly personal memoir about the deep and often painful complexities of trying to make lasting change in the world.

Novogratz, the CEO and founder of The Acumen Fund, which invests money in companies run by and for the developing world, is also generous with her storytelling: Early in the book, she shares the memory of first landing in Africa some 22 years ago, at the Abidjan airport on a sweaty, Ivory Coast morning. She had just left Wall Street, had cut her hair (“to the point of resembling Margaret Mead,” she told Cause Global) and gave away most everything she’d owned, arriving with “all the essentials, from poetry to new clothes to, of course, a guitar. I was 25 and I was going to save the world—and I thought I would just start with the African continent.” Yet within days of arriving, she was told—and in no uncertain terms by a group of West African women—that “‘Africans didn’t want saving, thank you very much’—and least of all, not by me.” Recalls Novogratz: “I was too young, unmarried, had no children, didn’t really know Africa and my French was pitiful. It was an incredibly painful time of my life and yet it gave me enough humility to start listening.”

And learning: To this day, Novogratz—cited last fall by Portfolio magazine as one of the "73-Biggest Brains in Business"—has let her experiences as a pioneer in the still-evolving field of social enterprise continuously shape and check her unique blend of idealism and flat-out pragmatism; her Acumen Fund, founded in 2001, remains passionately focused on “changing the way the world sees the poor” by alleviating poverty in ways that make the poor the customers of—and workers at—self-sustaining businesses seeded by donors but run locally, over time, without hand-outs. From her experiences running a bakery in Kigali, Rwanda in 1986 with 20 unwed mothers to starting the first microfinance institution in Kenya, Novogratz has seen first-hand “the power of markets to end poverty, the discipline that running a business provides, and the pride that results from ownership”—in other words, an end to charity. She has also seen what doesn't work, and retells the story of revisiting Kigali a few months after the 1994 Rwandan genocide there.

Of all the inspiring stories in her memoir—[the blue sweater in the title comes from Novogratz' experience of spotting her favorite childhood sweater, given 11 years earlier to Goodwill, being worn by a child in Kigali, with Novogratz' name still visible inside the collar]—one of my favorites is her hard-won lesson in the importance of listening, closely, to those in need. "...I could have listened better," she says about the women she met in and around the markets of Kigali while helping them to create a "blue bakery" to sell samosas and doughnuts as a local enterprise, even painting the walls blue until one of the women dared to speak the truth to their enthusiastic benefactor. ["Our color," one of them finally told Novogratz, "really is green."] "...Listening is not just having the patience to wait," Novogratz writes, "but is also about learning how to better ask the questions." Her efforts eventually transformed the bakery, which had been run as a charity when she got there, into an enterprise that earned $2 a day for each of the women. "When you've lived on charity and been dependent your whole life long, it's really hard to say what you mean," Novogratz says. "The poor often think no one really wants to hear the truth."

But perhaps the biggest lesson, both from the book and the life it profiles, is that investing in businesses run by and for the people they're intended to serve can actually work, grow, and create change across a neighborhood or a region or a country. For those looking for the "ROI" of social enterprise, it doesn't get much better than that.

What do you think?

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Catalysts

01/28/2009 13:49

Bill Gate's call to arms this week—his push to fellow philanthropists to give more during this downturn, not less, to the needy--is well-intended. But will others bite?

 

Gates, in his first public letter in his new role leading the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Monday the foundation's assets dropped by one-fifth last year. Yet despite that, he said the group plans to increase 2009 spending to $3.8 billion—up a full 7 % of the foundation's assets and an increase from the $3.3 billion it spent in 2008. "...Although it will be difficult to keep aid-related issues on the front page during this crisis, we need to meet the challenge by making sure the success stories are told and making sure that inequity that is out of sight is not out of mind," Gates said. "I am impressed by individuals who continue to give generously even in these difficult times."

 

I may be a cynical journalist and, as New York Times colleague Nicholas Kristof wrote a few days ago, I agree the Gates Foundation missed the boat on leveraging the social enterpreneurship revolution. In a piece about Bill Gates that I wrote earlier this year for this site and MSNBC.COM, called Rockefeller 2.0, I quoted a variety of philanthropic leaders who were hoping Gates, after leaving Microsoft, would exert aggressive leadership over the changing philanthropy sector. "Bill Gates is now the face of philanthropy for the country, if not the world," Steve Gunderson, president of the 2,000-member Council on Foundations said. Like it or not, he said, "the Gateses will have an obligation to lead and deliver for decades to come." Added Rick Cohen, the former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy: "One of every 10 foundation dollars spent is going to have the Gates name on it, and that gives [Gates and his foundation] an influence that is impossible to calculate."

 

It may be too early to tell whether any of the other top leaders in philanthropy will heed Gates' call. But for those Bill-watchers looking for signs that Gates is willing to step up to the plate, this one couldn't be missed.

 

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Good Eggs

11/17/2008 15:26
If somebody tried to burn your house down—not once, but twice in the last eight years—you might think that the neighborhood was not a good match for you, right?

Rob Castañeda and his wife, Amy, don’t feel that way. They have faced gang violence, literally at their front door, and after 10 years, remain ensconced in their two-story home in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, home to the largest Mexican-American population in the Midwest and the East-West dividing line between two gangs, the Latin Kings and the Two-Six.

So why is this 34-year-old couple still living in Little Village? Mostly, says Rob, it was time to take a stand. “Most of the people who live in these [types of] communities are honest, hard-working people who live in fear—so they just turn their heads,” says Rob. “My head doesn’t turn very easily.”

No kidding. Castañeda, a third-generation Mexican-American, discovered early on that he could be a force for change in his gang-riven community—simply by staying put and using his coaching skills (and a school basketball court) to teach the neighborhood’s youth a new way to interact. Today, some seven years later, that determination has evolved into Beyond the Ball, a local nonprofit he started in 2006 with his wife to prepare urban youth to be community leaders through athletic programs, tutoring, mentoring, and youth leadership training.

But getting to that point has been a difficult—and often dangerous—journey. It all began in December 1998, when Rob and Amy moved into the neighborhood so Amy could start teaching at one of the local schools. Both had grown up locally, Rob in marginalized South Chicago and Amy in working-class McKinley Park, about a half-mile from Little Village. They were high school sweethearts and went to college together in South Carolina. In 1996, they were wed.

“The first year that we lived [in Little Village], almost every day, sometimes twice a day, there could be between three and 20 guys hanging out in front of our house,” Rob recalls. “These guys could be shooting, or throwing bottles at cars. They were trying to draw out rival gang members driving down the street.”

Then, one January night in 2000, Rob was awakened by the sound of gunfire and called the police. Just before they arrived, Castañeda saw one of the gang members hide a gun behind the license plate of a nearby car and run off. Watching from the house, Castañeda became frustrated waiting for the officers to find the weapon and so opened his door, went out to the street, and showed them where to look.

Gang retribution came swiftly. Several nights later, the Castañeda’s porch was set ablaze, and Rob had to put it out, himself, with a towel. Later that night, Rob recalls, the couple discussed moving to the suburbs. But they changed their minds the next day when members of the girl’s basketball team visited the house and begged them to stay. One girl told Amy: “You’ can’t leave, because if you do, who’s going to help us?”

Two weeks later, though, it happened again. Gang members threw a Molotov cocktail through the Castañeda’s front window, setting their porch and front door ablaze once more. But this time, Rob and Amy decided to fight back. The fire department came to extinguish the fire; the Castañedas alerted the media, the local police set up a security detail and, ultimately, neighbors organized a march through the neighborhood.

The day of the march, the principal of a neighborhood middle school (located near the geographical dividing line separating one gang territory from the other) met the couple, and later that summer offered Amy a job teaching art at his school. Rob inquired about coaching in the fall, and was accepted. For the next few months, Rob worked to quell the gang activity against heavy odds. Sometimes, he recalls, students would ask to stay late—just so they could avoid being confronted by gang “recruiters” on their way home from school. Making matters worse? There was no indoor basketball court, no safe place where players could simply be themselves and focus on the game.

Then Rob got an idea. He persuaded the school principal to open the school gym on Saturdays and began hosting pick-up games there. Soon, players began asking Rob if they could add their brother or cousin or friends to the teams, and before long, Castañeda’s Saturday games were attracting up to 70 players of all ages, races, and gang allegiances. Eventually, he formed a neighborhood basketball league. As of this past summer, the league had four divisions and 196 players—male and female.

But managing it all wasn’t easy. “Sometimes,” Castañeda said, “we’d have guys who would come into the gym and try to get up in people’s faces to talk about gang stuff, but just as often, somebody would say to them, ‘You can’t do that stuff in here, you have to leave it outside.’” Recalls Rob: “[The players] had started forming these amazing relationships. [We had] black players and Latino players and in five years, there was not one fight.”

Little Village still has gang problems but not like the ones it had when the Castañedas moved in. “[Some of] these guys are coming to my house now. We’re watching basketball games on my TV, we’re eating dinner together. [Beyond the Ball] isn’t just a program anymore. It’s our way of life,” he says.

Just ask Amy Castañeda’s mother, Connie Puga. “Without Rob and Amy,” she says, “these [neighborhood] kids would have nothing”—proof, again, that it takes a village. Literally.
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