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.

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.

Grace:
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.

Dominique:
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.

Grace:
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.

Dominique:
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.

Grace:
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.

Barbara:
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.

Qui:
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?

Barbara:
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. 


Qui:

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.

Barbara:
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?