The John Hughes Effect

The John Hughes Effect

When I was 15, I wrote a fan letter to John Hughes and became his pen pal.

This isn’t that blog post. If you want to know that story, you can read it here.

But this blog post is about reaching out to people to ask them for something—even when you think they might be too busy or too important or some other such nonsense—because, in my experience, it’s pretty likely that they are going to come through for you. (I call it “the John Hughes effect,” because it was Hughes that taught me this lesson.) In fact, if they are indeed “busy” or “important,” it’s likely because they have asked other people for help, and those people have come through for them. They’re ready to do the same.

Last week I did an exercise to demonstrate this idea to my staff, whom I am encouraging to be more willing to reach out to people who can help them to understand issues we’re working on, to connect them with people we don’t know, to solve problems for our clients, or to uncover opportunities for us to take on new projects.

My “exercise” involved sending an email to 179 people I know, combing through my 1,200+ LinkedIn connections (who are all these people?) to identify folks from a range of fields and parts of the world. They were friends, former classmates and colleagues, and people with whom I may have had a cup of coffee. Once.

In the email, I asked each recipient to send me 1-2 conferences they had attended that they thought were inspiring so that I could share their recommendations with our clients. Within a week, I had a thirty percent response rate. (For those of you who are bad at math that means about 60 people got back to me.) Some of the people even asked others they knew to share their ideas and they did. Random acts of stranger kindness. Crazy.

It was heartening—it’s nice to hear from people with whom you haven’t spoken in a while. It was interesting—I learned about people’s new jobs and newly developed areas of interest. I got a dinner invitation last week; a drink invitation this week; a new client; a bunch of phone calls; a new Facebook friend; plans to have drinks when I am next in DC, Los Angeles, and New York; plans to have drinks when they are next in Seattle; an invite to Detroit and an invite to Belgium; a baby picture; a report that would be useful to one of our clients; and a couple of exchanges about just how useless conferences can be.

One of my favorite responses was from Farai Chideya, who reports for FiveThirtyEight:

Hey — I’m running around on election duty but look up Spark Camp.”

People who are reporting on this crazy ass presidential election have time to respond to random requests for help. The people in your network do too. People you don’t even know do as well.

The secret? Just ask. To listen to your idea. To introduce you to someone. To teach you about something that is their passion or area of expertise. If they can’t do it, they won’t.

And life goes on.

A couple of the people to whom we reached out asked to see the list when we had pulled it together, which I did last night. It was, after all, the least I could do. I’m sharing it with you as well, because you’ve read this far. If you have ideas for additional conferences to add to the list, share them in the comments.

Now go ask someone for help. 

(By the way, one of the things we do for some of our clients is to support them to attend conferences. We identify conferences that might not be on their radar, pitch them as speakers, help them prepare their talks and presentations, identify people who will be speaking or attending with whom they may want to meet, and provide them with background information and suggestions for topics to discuss. We also support them to use social media to make the most out of their attendance—primarily to connect with those who are also in attendance, but also to promote their talk if they are giving one. And we support them once they have returned as well, helping them to think through how to follow up with connections they made and to share or act on ideas that were inspired by a conversation they had or a presentation they saw. If this is something that might be of value to you or your organization, let us know. We might be able to help.)

worthy in your eyes

worthy in your eyes

Aggregate celebrated four years of being in business this October and today we celebrate four years of showing our gratitude by giving back. We donate approximately 10 percent of our profits each year.

Selecting the organizations to which we make donations is a collaborative process, with staff proposing their ideas for organizations that reflect Aggregate’s values as a company: committed to social justice and equity, unapologetic about their passion, and believers in storytelling – in its many forms – as a tool for social change.

Every day in our work, we must pitch ideas to clients and make effective arguments as to why they should be embraced. And we must develop and execute upon communications strategies that impel people to take actions that will help our clients achieve their missions. So these pitches are also an opportunity for staff to hone their skills. In this case, they need to convince ME to write a check.

Wait…WHAT? Subjective decision-making?

Yep.

Just as many of our “worthy” ideas never see the light of day because we have failed to convince a client to embrace them, only a few among the many that are worthy of our support ultimately make the list.

Once again I am proud of the team for their ideas. We share these organizations with you in the hopes that you will consider joining us in supporting them. But if we don’t convince you, we hope you’ll still share your good fortune with other organizations that are worthy in your eyes.

We remained loyal.
We made our fourth annual donation to the Southern Center for Human Rights. The Center provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, improves legal representation for people who are low-income, and challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails. This year was also the fourth year we made a donation to the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which provides services to homeless LGBTQ youth. And for the fourth year in a row, we made the donation in honor of Spencer Cox, who gave so much to all of us in his efforts to end the AIDS pandemic.

We did something we never did before.
We maintain a strict line between our charitable donations and our business development efforts (i.e., we’re sincere), so we’ve never made a donation to a client organization. But then we had the honor of working with the Abortion Care Network. At the end of a year during which women’s access to their constitutional right to plan their families was attacked repeatedly, we think it’s an imperative to support providers who literally risk their lives every day to provide exceptional care to their patients. The Abortion Care Network is small in size, but enormous in ambition and their value to the abortion care community. We want them to succeed.

We believe in justice – in all its manifestations.
We’re heading into an election year and we need to be prepared to ensure that those who want to go to the polls are not impeded and their votes are counted, so we made the decision to support Common Cause. We appreciate how the Campaign for Youth Justice uses storytelling in their effort to end the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system, so we made a donation to them to help them to continue to do so. We made a donation to Girls Who Code to help bridge the gender gap and inspire, educate, and equip more girls to have the computing skills they need to succeed. We donated to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit media organization focused on reporting on the American criminal justice system, because they help to make us smarter every day. We donated to Seattle’s Splash to support their efforts to provide clean water to kids around the world and, specifically, in response to the earthquake in Nepal this past April. And we made a donation to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project to better enable the organization to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence. And because we love Sylvia.

We’re good friends.
We made a donation to The Lowline in New York to support our friend Dan Barasch to build an underground park in an historic trolley terminal on the Lower East Side. We supported Kat Galasso’s Kickstarter campaign to relaunch The Floatones at La Mama. And we supported another friend to show support to HIS friend by riding in DC’s Ride to Conquer Cancer.

We (still) love filmmakers.
For the third year in a row we are supporting the True/False Pay the Artists Program to enable the festival to financially support the filmmakers who screen their films at the fest (beyond travel costs) and to encourage others to invest in independent documentary filmmaking.

We attended Good Pitch this October and made donations to two of the films presented that day: Whose Streets and Canary in a Coal Mine. Whose Streets is the Ferguson MO story as told by the activists who took to the streets when Michael Brown is murdered by the police. It is “a first-hand look at how the murder of one teenage boy became the last straw for a community under siege.” Canary in a Coal Mine brings attention to Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), which disproportionately impacts women. (And is being executive produced by our hero Debby Hoffman.)

We love Seattle.
Last year we gave money to KEXP (for the second year in a row) to help them to move into their new studio at the Seattle Center. They made that move this month. This year we’re making our third annual donation to make sure they know how grateful we are to them for helping to make Seattle a great place to call home.

Unfortunately, calling Seattle home continues to become a greater and greater challenge to too many people. For the second year in a row we have made a donation to the Tenants Union of Washington State to support their ability to advocate on behalf of tenants.

We made a donation to the International Rescue Committee in Seattle to welcome refugees who have come to our fair city and allow them to rebuild their lives by providing housing, health care, food, education, and legal and social services.

Finally, we made a donation to our local YWCA, supporting their efforts to empower women who are facing poverty, violence and discrimination in our backyard.

Thank you to everyone who makes our giving possible. Best wishes for the new year.

inspiring action through data-driven storytelling

inspiring action through data-driven storytelling

As a person who has dedicated my adult life to helping move the needle on social justice issues, I understand deeply why so many people feel disenfranchised, unable to take action on issues they care about in ways that actually make a difference. The landscape is daunting: social challenges are articulated in huge, overwhelming ways; physical protest feels meaningful mostly only when a significant number decide to do it simultaneously; and the organizations dedicated to change don’t usually do an adequate job of ensuring that our highest contributions—those of knowledge and specific skills—are effectively engaged. It is hard to know where to start.

Data—when used to tell a good story—can help break through these obstacles and begin to frame an achievable path to action. Take, for example, this Prison Population Forecaster developed recently by The Urban Institute. Using data gathered from 15 states, they have tracked the rise (or, less frequently, the fall) of prison populations in recent years (time frames vary). They then offer the opportunity for the user to test different policy scenarios: If we made XX policy change, it would result in XX impact on the prison population over the next seven years.

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After exploring the Forecaster for a while, it helped me understand how different the challenges are for each state. It helped me see that the level of action we need to take in order to significantly change the trends of mass incarceration are far beyond what I originally understood. Perhaps most importantly, it provided me with a framework for making my own choices about what policy changes to support for the kind of change I want to see.

This tool also brought me to a bigger question: Are we as social justice activists using data-driven storytelling to help people engage in the issues they care about in a truly impactful way? There is plenty of data in our world, used mostly to evaluate the impact of past social change efforts and guide our future strategies. That is different than the ability to tell a data-driven story that moves people from awareness to action and not just action, but meaningful, sustainable action. It is the story that makes the difference.

I find this to be a powerful opportunity for those of us who develop, test, and lead new approaches to engagement and movement building in the effort to attain social justice. It is one of the reasons I am so grateful to be here at Aggregate. (Pardon the shameless—but authentic!—plug.) Long before I arrived (just this past June), the team here was exploring these ideas and developing tools like this one focused on Visualizing Health Data. They help us understand there is no single best way to share data. The story you tell with data depends on what your goals are, whom you are trying to reach, and what action you want them to take.

In an environment where engagement, community organizing, and policy change efforts are happening more and more frequently online—and in a world where people are constantly informing their lives and choices via mobile devices—the right data-driven digital story has the power to inspire an unprecedented number of people to meaningful action.

I haven’t seen a spreadsheet yet that helps get people out of prison, that’s for sure.

scorpions and brain tumors

scorpions and brain tumors

A “tumor paint” derived from the DNA of the Israeli death stalker scorpion that chemically adheres to cancer cells and lights them up like a flashlight and is thousands of times more sensitive than MRI imagery? 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.

Everyone you meet impacts your life in some way. Some of us are lucky enough to meet people who change our lives in a radical way. For Dr. Jim Olson, Violet O’Dell was one of those people. One of a few hundred children per year diagnosed with brainstem glioma—a rare, deadly, and inoperable tumor—11-year-old Violet understood she would die and requested that her brain be donated to science after her death. Violet wanted to leave a legacy of helping researchers and doctors develop effective treatments for other kids in her situation.

Violet’s generous and fearless donation inspired Dr. Olson to start Project Violet. Part of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Project Violet is on a mission to create anti-cancer compounds that will allow for more effective treatment of cancer. These compounds will attack cancer cells and leave healthy cells unharmed, allowing for more precise treatment of tumors, particularly those in more complicated areas of the body.

Tumor paint, an ongoing success for Project Violet, uses DNA from the Israeli death stalker scorpion to light up tumors like a flashlight. This “molecular flashlight” can adhere to a cluster made up of as few as 200 cells and is 100,000 times more sensitive than traditional MRI imagery. After nearly 10 years of research, tumor paint will start human trials in early 2014. Originally created for the purpose of treating pediatric brain cancer, the team has since discovered that tumor paint may have applications for breast, colon, lung, prostate, and skin cancer.

Speaking at Town Hall Seattle earlier this month, Dr. Olson said he believes nature is an incredible resource for medical research, with many plants and animals having millions of years to evolve their DNA. Dr. Olson also believes citizen science, or crowdfunding for research in the case of Project Violet, is an untapped resource for drug development. Whether you donate $100 or $10,000, you have the opportunity to “adopt” a drug candidate for research. You can follow the drug’s progress as it goes through creation and testing as it is added to the library of drug candidates. This library will allow the Project Violet team to discover drugs that might be used to alleviate symptoms of rare diseases or minimize or destroy inoperable tumors. With the help of donations and tireless work from the Project Violet team, that drug candidate may eventually become a cure for a once-incurable disease.

To make a donation, please visit Project Violet’s website. To find out more, view the project’s videos, like it on Facebook, and follow it on Twitter.

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.

getting along is not social change

getting along is not social change

Alison Byrne Fields shares her thoughts on the tough work behind effective collaboration at “Collaboration Central” on PBS’ MediaShift.

Hint: It has nothing to do with “getting along.”

“Too often, we enter into a partnership or collaboration like we’re on a first date. We mask our faults with a coat of makeup or a new outfit, pretend to have interests and capabilities we don’t have, and assign super-human qualities to the person sitting across the table in the hopes that they might just be “the one.”