put up your dukes, asshole

put up your dukes, asshole

Over the past couple of days, I’ve heard from a number of friends with questions about what they should do in response to the outcome of the election; how they can have a impact in the face of the administration that will be in The White House in January. I’ve written this post with those folks in mind.

1. He’s going to be President. And even if you magically get rid of him, then you have Mike Pence. 

I don’t say this to suggest that people shouldn’t be in the streets chanting “Not my president!” this week and throughout the four years he (presumably) will be in office. It’s INCREDIBLY important that this is happening. It’s obviously cathartic for those who are involved, but it also sends a message to him and to those who will work with him (like the Republican-led Senate and House) that he does not have a resounding mandate from the American people. (He may have been given the keys to the car, but our hands are firmly on the parking brake.) It also sends a valuable message internationally: we’re not all xenophobic, racist, sexist assholes with messiah complexes and we don’t want to be told what to do by someone who is. Many of us, in fact, know how to and would like to play nicely, with the recognition that the global sandbox is large – and diverse.

I DO say this because I’ve seen people share ideas for how to prevent his ascension and I think it’s a waste of time and energy that is going to be greatly needed over the next four years. And it ignores the reality that Mike Pence may not be a blowhard, but he IS a homophobic prick who wants to take control of our bodies away from women and that, even if we get rid of Pence, the next in line is Speaker Paul Ryan. (Shudder.)

We need to confront reality: this is the card we have been dealt. Play it.

2. Stay and do your part.

For those of you who are talking about leaving? That’s nice for you, but there are a whole bunch of folks who don’t have that luxury and could use your help.

3. Educate yourself. Just because he doesn’t understand how the government works doesn’t mean you shouldn’t either.

In addition to the fact that he is a liar, a pig, and a racist, xenophobic, sexist creep, the thing that has driven me most batty about him is that he doesn’t seem to know how government works. He hasn’t read the Constitution (Could someone get this man a copy of the Constitution for Dummies?), he doesn’t grasp checks and balances and the limitations of the Executive Office and – which is weird for a Republican – he seems to think more power sits in the federal government (versus with the states) than actually does. The asshat doesn’t even know what Obamacare is, except that he doesn’t like it. I supported Hillary, in part, for the same reason I hire someone who knows how to use a camera when we need to film something; she knows how it works.

The thing is, a fair number of us need to pull out our U.S. Civics textbooks too, if we’re going to be able to be effective in response to the shit that is going to be flying our way. In particular, it is important to know what gets decided at the state/local versus federal level. For many of us who are lucky enough to live in “blue” states, we can advocate for and support our state, county, and city-level lawmakers to pass legislation that reflects our values and protects our neighbors and which can counter more hateful decisions that are being made at the federal level. (In most cases, state law overrides federal law.) We can also pay attention to what is happening at the state, county, and city-level in OTHER states and engage our friends who live there to be involved and do the same.

The kinds of issues that are decided locally versus at the federal level include many/most voting rights issues, education policy, LGBTQ discrimination/anti-discrimination policies, reproductive rights, police/criminal justice reform, and more. It is something about which you can be hopeful because you HAVE POWER.

4. We have allies at the federal level. 

While I hope they don’t choose to obstruct for the sake of being obstructionists – like their GOP brethren did in response to Obama – there are quite a few Democrats in the House and Senate who will be grabbing hands and playing the most important game of Red Rover EVER. They may represent you, they may not. But they need to hear from you when the time comes. And those who don’t seem like obvious allies? They need to hear from you too. There are plenty of GOP members of Congress who think he is bat shit crazy. Appeal to their better selves.

5. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Support the folks who were doing work before and will continue to do tomorrow and the day after as well.

I’ve seen some folks talk online about starting new organizations. PLEASE avoid the temptation. Of course, I say this with the SIGNIFICANT caveat that Black Lives Matter is relatively newly created and has had an invaluable impact. But it was done so organically and because there was a gap that needed to be filled and its message resonated with those who became involved and who may not have been involved otherwise. (Read Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright for his take on their origin story and because Jeff is one of the most important voices in this country.) So, sure, if there IS a gap, fill it. But educate yourself first and consider making the groups who are not as strong as they could be STRONG.

I know of LOTS of groups who are getting by with minimal staff and tiny budgets that could use volunteers, people who can help them to get their messages out, and MONEY to help them to change the world. And I would be happy to share them with you if you’re looking to have an impact on a particular issue.

6. Subscribe to a newspaper.

I’m serious. Pay for your content. The next President has been hostile to the press, particularly those who call him out on his lies. WE NEED THEM. They fact check his bullshit. They let us know what is UP. And they NEEDS TO GET PAID to be able to continue to do so or they go away.

7. SCOTUS are people.

I am admittedly terrified about the impact that he will have on the Supreme Court – for generations to come. But while it can be scary that many decisions that affect our lives are decided by NINE people, they are in fact people. And one of the criteria they consider when they make their decisions is whether or not the country is READY for the change that would result from their decisions. So, get your shit together and pay attention to the SCOTUS docket (the SCOTUS blog is your friend) and, when an issue that is important to you is coming up, TALK ABOUT IT. Share news stories about it. In a couple of months, Aggregate is going to be on your case to talk about transgender issues for this very reason. SHOW UP.

8. Rock the Vote EVERY Day.

About twenty years ago I moved to Los Angeles to work at Rock the Vote. I ran a campaign that aimed to help young people understand that policy change happened on a day-to-day basis; that Election Day was not the only chance you had to have your voice heard. We traveled the country looking for stories of real young people who were getting skate parks built, overturning city council decisions to prevent all ages shows, increasing funding for higher education. And we found the little bastards. They recognized their ability to have an impact on issues that mattered to them. Please do the same. And please ask me – and my team – when you need help to do so. Our jobs became more difficult on November 8, but our passion for social justice persists.

Put up your dukes, asshole, we’re coming to get you.

If you have any more ideas, please share in the comments.

streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

I first came across this photograph in May 2015 when I learned the photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, had passed away. I felt entranced by the photograph’s irony: a child living in Seattle dressed up to look like an adult French prostitute. This costume wasn’t far off from reality.

This photo is part of a larger collection of photographs by Mary Ellen Mark for a 1983 LIFE magazine piece “Streets of the Lost,” that documented the lives of street children in Seattle who made their living as prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. Among these children was Erin Blackwell (pictured above), known as Tiny, who spent her time on the streets with her friends as a prostitute and lived with her alcoholic mother who said she thought Blackwell’s prostitution was “just a phase.” A year later, in 1984, Mary Ellen Mark and her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, released STREETWISE, a documentary film about the same children that was nominated for an Academy Award. While at the time Seattle was credited as “America’s most livable city,” this story painted a stark contrast.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Seattle Public Library to see a collection of Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs—“Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey”—that included images from the Life feature, stills from the film STREETWISE, and new photographs that fill in the gaps in Blackwell’s story over the decades.

Thirty-three years later, it’s heartbreaking how Blackwell’s story is still relevant today. Families with children make up a quarter of King County’s (where Seattle is located) homeless population. The number of people without shelter in Seattle increased by 20 percent between this year and last. As the city continues to grow, so has the homeless population, which includes many with mental health issues. Blackwell’s is therefore just one of countless similar stories in Aggregate’s backyard.

I’ve come to learn that one story doesn’t change the world, but many iterations of the same tale told over time does. Hopefully Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell’s retelling of Blackwell’s story will help sway public policy in Seattle and the state of Washington to come up with effective ways to address homelessness, and the trauma, abuse, and addiction with which it is associated.

In fact, I like to think this is why Mark and Bell were relentless in sharing Blackwell’s life with us. The story must continue to be told. We must continue to listen and talk about the issues. We must be empathetic and take action to help those around us.

If you have the chance, go and see “Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey” at the Central Library before it closes on November 3. Mark and her husband were working on a follow-up documentary on Blackwell’s life since STREETWISE. Despite Mark’s passing last year, the film, “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” is complete and will be screened at the Central Library on October 14. Martin Bell will be present for a Q&A session following the screening. I hope you can make it. Bring a friend and keep the conversation alive.

 

Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark

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.

the power of food and potential of people: a visit from robert egger

the power of food and potential of people: a visit from robert egger

Earlier this month Robert Egger—Founder and President of L.A. Kitchen—dropped by our offices in Seattle for a visit. Over a tequila and tonic (his signature drink, for anyone who might be hosting him soon), he talked to our team about a lot of things—from economic sexism and the expanding constructs of what it means to be a refugee, to nutritional imperialism and aging. What struck me most is the number of issues Robert and his organization are addressing through their work, including “lovingly disrupting senior meals.”

Food waste, unemployment, poverty, senior nutrition—these are all treated as “solvable issues” within the L.A. Kitchen ecosystem. Considering the number of organizations focused on addressing any of these single issues, it’s especially impressive to see how L.A. Kitchen is addressing them all as part of one interconnected system.

They reclaim nutritious, local food that would otherwise be discarded (primarily due to cosmetic issues); provide culinary training to men and women (most whom are coming out of foster care or the criminal justice system) who turn those ingredients into healthy, delicious meals; then distribute those meals to social service agencies serving the city’s most vulnerable, particularly low-income seniors, who are so often provided with processed foods. It’s an impressive cycle all aimed at “ensuring that neither food nor people go to waste,” and one that was noticed by the AARP Foundation, who awarded them a founding grant of $1 million, the largest single AARP grant in its history.

Tapping into the power of food and potential of people, I’d say Robert is disrupting more than just senior meals. L.A. Kitchen has also started a for-profit subsidiary—Strong Food—which will compete for food service contracts, employ graduates of the organization’s training program, and ultimately support L.A. Kitchen to be self-sustaining. That’s important to Robert not just from a financial perspective, but from an advocacy perspective as well. Too often the organizations best positioned to advocate for policy changes are prevented from doing so because of their funding models (most grants specifically state that funding cannot be used for advocacy) or their 501(c)3 status.

I’ve seen the power of culinary training programs with my own eyes–someone close to me, who’s faced their share of challenges, is currently enrolled (and thriving) in one—but L.A. Kitchen takes this to a whole new level, in a way that truly inspires my farmer’s-market-shopping-foodie heart. If you ever have a chance to meet Robert Egger or hear him speak, do. And be sure to check out the amazing work that L.A. Kitchen and D.C. Central Kitchen (the organization Robert founded and ran for 25 years before heading to Los Angeles) are doing.

 

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.

part of the argument: lgbtq storytelling and social change

part of the argument: lgbtq storytelling and social change

“You think you can change America through film?” – Charlie Rose

“Oh, I don’t know. That’s not even in my job description. Storytelling. Get the story right. Do what you can with the story. Try not to cheat the story. Whatever happens after that is in the purview of other people. I felt that way as a reporter; I feel that way doing this. But every now and then you get to be a part of an argument, and that feels good.” – David Simon

 

Despite desperate efforts to create the next “viral” video or to fund a social impact film that turns the policy agenda on its head, the contribution of storytelling to social change is cumulative–and it takes time.

A single story can evoke passion, promote empathy, teach, enrage, or empower its audience to take action–but it alone will not change the world. But every now and then you get to be part of an argument, and that feels good.

One TYPE of story can’t change the world either; we cannot live on didactic social issue films alone. Pop culture–even the really bad stuff–contributes, as do the personal stories we tell each other (online and IRL) or that we hear on the news. Art and music inspire us to see the world differently, or to be willing to do so.

Even a simple photograph can make a difference. The image of Michael Brown’s father yelling in pain at his son’s funeral, sweat soaking the front of his shirt, must have led even some of the most callous among us to realize something must be done to stop the war on young black men in this country.

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Over the past few years, the acceleration in the movement to ensure the civil rights of the LGBTQ community has been remarkable–even dizzying at times. While in the past decade there has been a sense that progress—particularly marriage equality—would come simply through the passage of time and a change in generational leadership, many of us still presumed the “inevitable” was years down the road.

Without a doubt, this progress can be attributed to a whole bunch of activists across this country, busting their asses and using their smarts to change the minds of policymakers and judges. But storytelling has been an accelerant to the pace of change, including the personal “coming out” stories so many have had the courage to tell at the risk of rejection, discrimination, and even violence.

In a 2013 Pew survey of LGBT Americans, 70 percent expressed their belief that “knowing someone who is LGBT helps a lot in terms of making society more accepting of the LGBT population.” When President Obama sat down with Robin Roberts on ABC News in 2012, becoming the first sitting U.S. President publicly to voice his support for marriage equality, he shared that dinner table conversations with his daughters Sasha and Malia about their friends’ same sex parents were what contributed to his changing views.

It is more difficult to hate when the object of your hostility is your child, your colleague, your neighbor, your teacher or, it seems, the parents of your children’s friends.

We created a timeline, LGBTQ Storytelling and Social Change, out of our own curiosity. We knew that storytelling – personal and pop culture – had played a role in progress in the LGBTQ rights movement, but we wanted to map the progression and to see the relationship over time of storytelling, social milestones and policy change. From Henry Gerber to Jennicet Gutierrez, from The Ladder to How to Survive a Plague, from President Eisenhower’s policy to ban “homosexuals” from working for the federal government to the U.S. Senate’s repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we’ve done that.

It is a timeline that reveals small steps and giant leaps forward as well as frequent and devastating falls backward. It is, oddly, a testament to both impatience (with injustice) and patience (with the long haul). It reflects that, even as gay characters became more prominent in films and television, gay people of color did not. It reflects the actions of presidents and other policy makers, bigots, activists, writers, actors, filmmakers, designers, magazine editors, murderers, artists, reality show stars, judges, musicians, athletes, and Dear Abby.

The triumphs remind us of how much has been done to get us to where we are and of the people who carried the burden, both the names in bold and those who will never be adequately acknowledged. They also remind us of how much more work still needs to be done.

We can celebrate love, but we can’t allow a wedding veil to block our view of the discriminatory practices that prevent many gay and transgender people–particularly people of color–from getting or keeping jobs or finding a home.

We can smile at a photo of Laverne Cox with the President and First Lady, but we shouldn’t forget to weep in response to the transgender women who have been murdered in the United States since the beginning of 2015: Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Papi Edwards, Bri Golec, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Penny Proud, Kristina Gomez Reinwald, London Chanel, Mercedes Williamson, India Clarke, K.C. Haggard, Amber Monroe, Shade Schuler, Ashton O’Hara, Kandis Capri, Elisha Walker, and Tamara Dominiguez.

The process of putting the timeline together made it clear how much we have (and want) to learn. We’re confident that, despite our efforts, we’ve left things out that should be included. If you think there’s a story we should add to our timeline, let us know. Email me at alison AT whatisaggregate DOT com. Tell us a story.