Friday, September 25, 2009



Not surprisingly, perhaps, this year's Clinton Global Initiative—held this past week amid the worst economic climate for philanthropy in decades—was not so much about big check-writing. It was more about seeing how well the large sums already fueling dozens of new projects are getting spent, and whether social-change advocates are creating, as Ashoka's Bill Drayton put it, "the revolutions we've been looking for." [Case in point: Brad Pitt's Making it Right Foundation, catalyzed at a CGI two years ago, played into this new sensibility, offering attendees a progress report that featured New Orleans' 9th Ward resident Dierdra Taylor—not Pitt—as its star. "You should see my dual-flush commode," the 43-year-old hospice worker gushed about the house that MIR built to replace the one she'd lost.]

Another difference? In past years, CGI showcased individual millionaires and billionaires, the Richard Bransons of the world, who would, in turn, use the CGI press room [with Bill Clinton in tow] to announce the big checks they'd just written to their favorite charities.

Not so this year. Despite a humorous turn by actor Ben Stiller as MC for CGI's Global Citizen Awards Thursday night, the CGI that ended Friday was decidedly low-wattage, if not at times somber. Even Ricky Martin, Nation blogger Ari Melber wrote, "did not sing, and did not dance, or flash his trademark grin" when he got up to talk briefly about the need to help children escape human trafficking. Even the attending CEOs, many from Wall Street, appeared to be more reserved. ["First #cgi09 that I've attended where corporate titans seemed (almost!) chastened on stage—perhaps even listening a bit," blogger Tom Watson tweeted from the press room.] Indeed, it was as if everyone had gotten the same memo about how, in this post-boom world, reinvention and collaboration would be the only sure ways to save their own organizations—if not philanthropy, itself—never mind the planet. [Said GE's CEO Jeff Immelt during a Thursday panel on public investment, underscoring this New World theme: "I just don't think we're going to wake up in a luxury world anymore, folks—not even in the U.S."]

To be sure, all the talk last year about the merits of single-donor, schmooze-heavy, write-a-check-on-the-spot philanthropy seemed hopelessly passe here this week, if not on life support—about as scarce in this crowd as Republicans and unescorted press. [Attendance this year topped 1,200 global heads of state, CEOs, celebrities, intellectuals and policymakers from 64 countries, a record.] "We don't have economies of scale in philanthropy around the world, and we need it," JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told a Friday panel on financing. Agreed Judith Rodin, the CEO of Rockefeller Foundation, who spoke earlier in the week: "The philanthropy field hasn't been organized in a way that has made it easy for funders to find the right social investments."

But it was Bill Clinton who summed it up the best, parroting the campaign slogan that helped to put him into the White House more than a decade ago. "It still is, 'It's the economy, stupid,'" he said in an interview, "but it's now much more about the platform we create across sectors to make the economy work for change and humanity. The CGI model is five years old now, and it's evolving. I don't want to make any grandiose claims, but it seems to be working. We learn from each other. We need to leverage capital from across sectors and have a shared mechanism to achieve common goals—and some kind of accountability mechanism built in from one year to the next to make sure it keeps working. Philanthropy can't do that and it can't do it alone." Amen.

Among highlights from CGI's closing sessions:

* This year's participants made 284 commitments to change-making projects, with an estimated total value of more than $8 billion, about as much as the sums pledged last year.

* A panel moderated by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, a co-author with his wife of the just-released Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, gave a shout-out to Carlson, a travel company whose founder and chairman, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, is the only travel executive so far to sign the EPCAT Code of Conduct . The code pledges the company to avoid doing business with suppliers or related companies known to be enabling the trafficking of children. [Click here to see a video of that panel, "Building Human Capital."] One of the best soundbites of the day came from Queen Rania of Jordan, who told Kristof:

"We now have 75 million children not in school in the developing world, and this carries a price tag we cannot afford. It would cost $11 billion a year to get all children from developing countries into primary school. That's the amount of money that Americans spend on their pets every three months, it's what the war in Iraq costs in one month and what Europeans spend on ice cream in one year."

Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris, meanwhile, urged conferees to start considering corporate partnerships as a way to crack down on illiteracy worldwide:

"There's absolutely a business case for improving education for children in the developing world. For example, if we can supply water through a combination of microfinance, philanthropy, and corporate partnerships and provide clean water to a village, then the children in that village now have time to be educated versus carrying water from rivers. Those kids now have a chance to be healthy and go to school. It's a business imperative. I think corporations in the modern world are at a tectonic shift in human history. It is time to spend time on the 3 billion to 4 billion people in the world who are impoverished and encourage them to be consumers in the modern world, and to do that, we as businesses have to be participants in the bottom of the pyramid."

* Kailash Satyarthi, chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labor, told conferees attending a special panel on human trafficking that he was beaten and that two of his colleagues were shot to death in recent raids staged by his group to rescue children from garment supply factories in Nepal and Bangladesh. His remarks were followed by testimony from a woman who, along with her two children, was kidnapped and held for four years of forced labor. Louis CdeBaca, President Obama's chief diplomat to combat human trafficking, estimated that between 12 million and 27 million people are enslaved around the world and that some 90 percent of countries don't investigate trafficking. Many governments, he said, simply "look the other way." A fellow panelist, actress Julia Ormond—whose nonprofit, ASSET, was forged at CGI last year to pressure garment company supply chains to stop using children—called forced labor "one of the scourges of the century...I don't want to wear any piece of clothing that some kid had to die for." Later, Clinton gave activist Ruchira Gupta a Global Citizen Award. She had spent 18 months observing Bombay brothels to make her Emmy-winning 1997 documentary, Selling of Innocents before founding Apne Aap, an organization that combats sex trafficking with education and preventive programs in India.

* A session on social investment finance, moderated by CNBC Anchor Maria Bartiromo, explored the state of the global economy and what financial services firms can do to help lift the world's poor. "I think the finance industry is going through a very rapid rethink on sustainability," said JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. "Particularly now, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, people are thinking about the social purpose of banking." But Dimon acknowledged some hesitation, saying: "We don't have economies of scale in philanthropy around the world and we need it. Maybe NGOs should get together and think best practices" to attract more and larger investments. But Fazle Abed, founder and chairman of BRAC, urged Dimon and fellow panelist Peter Sands, the CEO of Standard Chartered, to do more. "We have not been ambitious enough to get people out of poverty fast enough," Abed said. "We're all thinking about small projects covering 30,000 to 40,000 people. We need larger programs. We need to scale up our efforts" and do more lending to small and midsized enterprises. Currently, said Abed, "there's a missing middle."

* CNN Founder Ted Turner, education and arts philanthropist Eli Broad, and Bob Wright, the former CEO of NBC all talked about their philanthropy work and how it differs from their former lives in the executive suite. Running a foundation, Broad said, means "you have to be nicer, more consensus-oriented, and you have to suffer more fools." Wright, founder and chairman of Autism Speaks, quipped that the "pay is a lot less" and it's harder to raise money in tough times. Only the outspoken Turner dodged the question entirely. "In 10 years, I've never had an argument with the United Nations," he said, referring to his current work as chief of the United Nations Foundation. "I wish I could say the same about my ex-wives."

* Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a closing speech outlining her initiative to promote food security around the world. "Since 2007, there have been riots over food in over 60 countries," she said. "...Instability rises as food becomes more scarce...The global food supply must increase by 50% in the next 20 years to meet demand...What affects some of us now could affect all of us tomorrow." A video, narrated by actor Matt Damon, explains Clinton's new program. Click here to see the video of the closing plenary session on Friday, which includes Secretary Clinton's speech (which starts at 13 minutes into the session).

* Brad Pitt [Make It Right Foundation] gave CGI attendees an update on his efforts to build new homes for the former residents of New Orleans' Katrina-ravaged lower 9th Ward. So far, Pitt said, the average electricity bill for one of the energy-efficient MIR homes is $35 a month—about one-fourth of what residents had been paying previously. The cost of building the homes also is dropping, Pitt said. By the time the project's 150 homes are completed some time next year, he said, the cost will be comparable to standard buildings. What's key, says Pitt, is that the 9th Ward project is becoming a template for what's possible all over the country. Said Pitt:

"We demanded that these new homes be aesthetically appealing, storm resilient, affordable and ecologically sound...and I don't think I have to tell you that these four things are not compatible in today's construction space. But we've stuck to it. We found inefficiency and archaic practices in this industry that had not been questioned before we came along. Our work here not only reinvents what is possible, we're just scratching the surface on what can be done for people in need everywhere."

But the best part? Ninth Ward resident and MIR homeowner Dierdra Taylor, a CGI panelist with Pitt Thursday, said: "People are starting to return to the neighborhood now. Community is coming back." For more on MIR's work, see this video interview by The Economist with Tom Darden, MIR's executive director and its first volunteer:

—By Marcia Stepanek

(Photo, top, of bus passengers in Bagan, Myanmar by Dejan Suc for

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Thursday, September 24, 2009



Innovation is now a field of practice—not just the result of random brainstorming, says Judith Rodin, the President of the Rockefeller Foundation. Speaking at this year's Clinton Global Initiative, Rodin cited new ways the collaborative Web is making it possible for social advocacy groups to replicate and harvest new ideas in their fight against hunger and other civic ills.

Rodin referred to three emerging social-sector approaches to innovation—what she called "user-driven" innovation, Net-powered "collaborative competition" and crowdsourcing. User-driven innovation, she said, is all about identifying practices that work and then replicating them throughout a community. Rodin shared the story of how this was used recently to help tackle malnourishment in a Vietnamese village:

“We found three or four incredibly well-nourished kids in a completely impoverished village over the course of several days. In those few families, we found that the mothers didn’t wash out the few small shrimp and crabs that were in the rice paddies. Their children were the only kids in an otherwise carbohydrate-based diet that were getting some protein. Once we observed that user-driven innovation, we taught people throughout the village to follow this process, and that practice spread in Southeast Asia.”

Crowdsourcing also can help, Rodin said, citing a recent effort by InnoCentive, a company with a database of more than 175,000 of the brightest minds in science, engineering, technology and business, to develop a solar-based mosquito repellent. Rodin said the repellent ended up being less expensive than bed nets and more economical to produce. She said a company in Houston posted the challenge and a company in New Zealand solved the problem. It is being taken to scale in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Explained Rodin:

“The solution is a small, cone-shaped little instrument that had parafin wax and human sweat, that at the end of the day melted and absorbed heat. People who were using it wore sweatbands around their arms during the day and took them off at night and put them on a panel close to their beds. The combination of wristband and a water-based repellent (on that panel) gave the scent and moisture and heat level that felt like the human body.”

Third, Rodin cited Ashoka, an organization that invests in social entrepreneurs worldwide, as a leader in "collaboration innovation." She said Ashoka's 2008 global water challenge asked people to compete for the best solution; competitors openly posted their suggestions so that others could build on their ideas and offer collaboration. The winning solution, she said, did not come from one individual but through the collaboration of 54 different companies. It is now being taken to scale with a $1 million grant from Coca-Cola.

Rodin said the social sector must embrace a "willingness to take risks, to experiment and to fail." But if advocates don't also measure their impact, she said, "[they] won't find the resources or the political will to take [their ideas] to scale."

Among other CGI highlights Wednesday:

* An early morning panel on social innovation agreed that the world's antiquated education system is broken: schools, panelists agreed, are celebrating old values and teaching mostly Industrial-Age skills rather than training tomorrow's citizens how to be entrepreneurs, innovators and global problem-solvers. Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, told attendees: "The skills people need now are very different from what people are getting in our schools and education system. We have a diverging society where a small elite has mastered the competencies of empathy, teamwork, and entrepreneurialism, but what happens to the 98 percent of the population who has not?" In 10-15 years, he said, "everyone will need to be a change-maker and an innovator." Companies, he said, won't be able to compete unless young people have been "trained for the revolutions we've been looking for."

* Jack Ma, the 45-year-old CEO and founder of China's leading Internet firm, Alibaba, said investment in small and mid-sized firms—now his nation's business "grassroots"—would be the source of economic growth and innovation in China's future, not state-run enterprises. "I think 70 percent of jobs and innovation will come from these smaller firms," he said, urging new state and global policies that would put small business in China and around the world on the same regulatory footing. Traditional, larger firms, he said, tend not to "contribute as much to the dynamism of the marketplace."

* Former Vice President Al Gore urged CGI attendees to phone or visit their friends and contacts in the U.S. Senate to pass climate change legislation, "even if it's not 100 percent perfect." Gore added: "The United States must play a crucial role and in order to do so, the president has to be able to go [to the December United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen] with a credible bargaining position ... The crucial step in solving the climate crisis is actually now to get the United States Senate to pass legislation."

CGI continues through Friday. Watch this space for more highlights. To catch the live Webstream of some of the conference sessions, click HERE.

—By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration: © Urbanhearts -

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009



Early last year, philanthropist/film producer Abigail Disney told me—for a special issue I was preparing at Contribute Magazine on new trends in women's philanthropy—that there is a new kind of women's movement under way, one that combines philanthropy and global issues-activism to make change in the world. Unlike the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s, Disney insisted, this one is a "quieter revolution." It is not, she said, "about waving signs around demanding personal rights so much as it is now about funding social change for women on issues of global significance."

What a difference a year makes. Despite the global economic slowdown—and perhaps partly because of it—this new "women's movement" appears to be packing some serious heat at this week's Clinton Global Initiative: there are seven agenda sessions focusing on the plight of disadvantaged women, including one on human trafficking. In the CGI spirit of cross-sector partnerships, Bill Clinton has assembled celebrities, CEOs, and new-wave "philanthrocapitalists" to talk about the "girl effect" and to call on each other to invest in women's empowerment, on stage and off. [According to CGI, each year that a girl attends school, her future income will increase by 10 to 20 percent; women invest 90 percent of their income in their households, versus men's 30 to 40 percent. Further, says the UN Foundation, women who control their income have fewer children, so pump more money into local economies.]

Today's opening plenary, on the topic of "investing in women and girls," zeroed in on some of the challenges still facing the movement. Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs—whose 10,000 Women project is working to give that many women in developing countries business degrees so they can join the world of commerce—agreed that much more needs to be done; Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, defended the push for more progress. "I don't think people should see this as giving a special advantage to girls and women," Zoellick said. "It's frankly just trying to help them catch up." But when pressed by moderator Diane Sawyer to discuss which efforts to empower women need the most work, Zainab Salbi, the chief executive of Women for Women International, said cultural barriers have been among the toughest to break. To be sure, she said, it has been hard to convince fathers in Africa and other parts of the world to abandon the tradition of dowries and planned marriages; Edna Adan, founder of a hospital in her native Somalia that bears her name, said the practice of genital cutting persists in many areas of her country. But the two said it is also time for corporate cultures—business and political cultures and traditions in the United States and throughout the developed world—to become more empowering for women.

And that's when the discussion got really interesting. Sawyer asked Salbi—whose organization works closely with survivors of rape, civil war, and economic devastation—how CGI attendees might best help women "who are afraid to stand up for themselves." Salbi said most women whose lives have been upset by war and famine are already standing up for themselves; more important, she said, is getting others in the world to stand up for them, too. CGI attendees doing work in Africa and elsewhere, she said, need to start including local women in their decision-making. Salbi shared the story of a woman from the Congo, who had been raped and lost a leg to rebels, but who, with the help of Salbi's organization, now runs a business that is making a profit. "I find it amazing that the only group of people who are not fighting and are not burning and not raping, and the only group of people who are actually keeping life going in the midst of wars, are not being heard and not being included at the decision-making table," Salbi said.

She then challenged CGI attendees and fellow panelist Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to help increase resources for women and girls. Tillerson responded by insisting that "funding is not the issue"—but Salbi disagreed, saying money is still critical for thousands of women's organizations such as hers who are struggling just to help women rebuild their lives from war and survive childbirth. Tillerson then sought to clarify his remarks, saying that big businesses will give more dollars when they can be more confident they will have a measurable impact and actually find their way to those most in need. Salbi persisted, responding that until local women are part of the process that decides how those dollars are spent and distributed, many aid programs won't be as successful as they could be. "Are women part of your decision-making?" she challenged Tillerson. "Are we accountable as women for measuring the impact of these programs? Has business been making us so? We have been giving good speeches here [about the need to empower women] but are you actually doing this when it comes to investing in these programs?"

The question led Goldman's Blankfein to reframe the question, asking, "Are we making all the investments that we can make in women in girls? Are we at capacity?"

The panel succeeded as a reminder of the perception gap that remains between women's advocacy organizations and corporate philanthropy arms over the issue of gender development. Melanne Verveer, who runs the new Office for Global Women's Issues in Hillary Clinton's State Department, gave business at least some points for trying. "What has really changed in the last, recent years, is the way that the business community has come and joined this fight," she told the panel. "It's not in the greatest numbers yet but I think that is changing because the business community realizes it's in their interest...No country [or company] can prosper if it leaves half of its people behind."

To see a video of the panel, Investing in Girls and Women, click here. To hear more from Salbi, see this video interview by The Economist:

CGI continues through Friday. Watch this space for updates.

—By Marcia Stepanek

(Photo: Woman and Child by Lucien PocoBW for

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Bill Clinton's fifth annual, star-studded thinkfest on philanthropy, technology, social issues and cause advocacy—the Clinton Global Initiative—kicked off today in Manhattan with a call for renewed urgency amid the global financial slowdown to create ever-more innovative, cross-sector solutions to climate change, poverty, and other global social ills. Clinton urged the record 1,200 attendees from the worlds of business, government, social advocacy, celebrity, and academia to forge more cost-effective and collaborative problem-solving initiatives, and to view emerging economies around the world as critical proving grounds for new ideas that can scale globally.

This is the fourth consecutive CGI I've attended; Bill Clinton, bowing to last year's collapse of the financial markets, has put special emphasis this year on society's overlooked populations—namely, the so-called "bottom billion"—and has scheduled panels to explore how business CEOs might do a better job working alongside social sector leaders to help local communities. To that end, ABC's Diane Sawyer will moderate a panel Wednesday that looks at how various countries treat women, followed by several sessions on human trafficking. Organizers also are promising some conversations about how the emerging mobile Internet—cellphones—can be a force for grassroots change, economic empowerment and collaboration from Kigali to Queens.

This year also will be different in another way: a record number of bloggers will be included in the press room, and there will be quite a few "citizen journalists" among the conferees; the ubiquitous Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, philanthrocapitalist Jaqueline Novogratz, actors Matt Damon and Ben Stiller, and philanthropist Steve Case (@SteveCase) are among those already tweeting their takes on the proceedings. CGI, meanwhile, is livestreaming much of the event, and is providing an easy interface for members of the public to ask questions of Clinton and other participants.

Watch this space for highlights from the week; much of the program will be unfolding during simultaneous break-out sessions and town hall-style seminars taking place on Wednesday and Thursday. Some of the sessions will be live-streamed over the Web. Cause Global will be tweeting from the floor and during some of the breakout sessions. You can follow our CGI tweets @CauseGlobal through mid-day Friday.

For the opening plenary, which includes President Obama's speech to conferees, click HERE. In that speech, Obama referenced the social advocacy work of his late mother, Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro:

[My mother] was an anthropologist who dedicated her life to understanding and improving the lives of the rural poor, from Indonesia to Pakistan. Whether working with USAID or the Asian Development Bank, the Ford Foundation, Bank Rakyat in Jakarta or Women’s World Banking here in New York, she championed the cause of women’s welfare and helped pioneer the micro loans that have helped lift millions from poverty. My mother understood that whether you live in the foothills of Java or the skyscrapers of Manhattan, we all share common principles: justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings. And we all share common aspirations, for ourselves and our children: to get an education, to work with dignity, and to live in peace and security.

(Photo: Mills/New York Times)

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Being Undigital

When cartoonist/illustrator/comedienne Lynda Barry is not drawing her loopy characters or teaching her celebrated "Writing the Unthinkable" classes to unblock expression-challenged children or adults somewhere, she is talking about the creative process—how it changes us and how new digital tools are challenging it. Creative self-expression, she says, is as critical and natural to humans as breathing. "Everybody does it—it's like salivating," she told Cause Global during this past week's CUSP conference in Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:

CG: In your latest book, What It Is, you write:
"... I loved to copy comics at night in front of the TV; I liked ballpoint pens on notebook paper and having a show on I didn't care about; sometimes, I drew with the radio on. It was a form of transportation. I did it because it helped me to stay by giving me somewhere else to go. And maybe this is why we draw shapes in the margins during meetings or on the backs of envelopes while we're waiting on the phone. Drawing can help us stand to be there. That, alone, is something. Give a kid a crayon and some paper when they're stuck waiting somewhere and somehow, it changes things ..."

If creativity is transportation, how is the digital world changing the ride?
Things like folk dancing and making crafts or playing music survived from one generation to the next because it used to be something that everybody did; these things were sustained by the fact that as a society we did them together. And that’s what’s going away. I trust kids and I trust adolescents and when they get obsessed with something digital, I know it’s giving them something creatively—even if I can’t see what it is, so I know something’s going on with computers but I think involving our bodies, movement, a physical experience in the creation of something is also important. Handwriting is drawing the alphabet. And I think there’s all the difference in the world in drawing a letter and hitting a key to type it. I would guess that if we able to chart the brain, that we’d see that drawing with our hands and bodies is completely different than just pushing a key. It’s like the intonation of a voice. It’s not something you are consciously aware of much of the time but spatial relationships and fine motor skills transfer to everything. There’s this guy who has a huge brush that looks like a mop and every day, as part of his practice, he draws with water on concrete and his calligraphy is just beautiful and he does it with his whole body. And then it evaporates and you realize it’s not so much about leaving something behind as it is about practicing the movement.

Is movement in jeopardy? I feel movement is being lost as we trend to a digital orientation. Another thing that’s lost is the happy accident. There’s no delete button on a piece of paper and pen. Even in scratching something out, what’s beautiful is when you look back over it, you still know what the words were. It It creates evidence. But once you hit delete on a computer, it’s gone. And the thing looks finished before it’s finished. The thing also just exists in a little window. I have lots of friends who are writers and I’m interested in people who just write on their computer, because to me it would be like drawing through a diver’s mask. You can only see a certain part of it. I also like books, physical books, the knowledge that when you think, Oh, where’s the part where he shoots his wife? With a physical book, you can see it, and almost remember that it’s on the left side of the page maybe a quarter of an inch earlier. Maybe people who grew up with computers can do this on a computer but my feeling is that it’s harder. And the other thing about a computer is you can start editing before the thing is done.

Isn't email and Twitter encouraging spontaneity, for better or worse? Maybe so, but for adults—regardless—the main problem is that most won’t do anything until they know what it is for or unless they think they’re good at it, when mostly the best reason to draw or to write or to dance is for no reason. I mean, sit down with a kid and say, 'Let’s make a drawing.' Is that kid going to ask, 'What’s our budget?' or want to discuss the narrative arc? That kind of stuff stops people dead in their tracks. I’m sitting next to this kid on an airplane recently, and I start drawing and he looks over and I establish I’m a cartoonist and then I ask him to scribble something on a piece of paper. Scribble with a kid and soon, they’ll want to tell you a story. So this kid, Jack, had a story and he already knew the title, 'Chicken Attack by Jack.' And this is the story, verbatim:

"One morning, a chicken was eaten by a man. The man went to work. His stomach felt funny. He went to the Portalet and then he went. The chicken came out. The man was surprised. The chicken was also surprised. The chicken ran from the Portalet to the construction site. They put the chicken in charge and from then on, the chicken was boss.”

Is there any part of you that wants to say, 'You know, we could tighten the narrative?' No. You’re satisfied, right? And it was completely spontaneous.

What is your next project? 'The Near-Sighted Monkey,' another book. It’s a book about drawing–not about teaching people to draw, but about encouraging people to be in a state of play. I got really curious about why is it that people are so terrified of drawing; if we had a four-year-old here and paper and crayons and saw that this girl was too terrified to draw, we’d be worried for her a bit, right? It wouldn’t be normal, right? But if she’s 40 and scared to draw, we go, okay—but there’s something not right about that.

You're also working on a graphic novel, about the problems with windfarms? Yeah, it’s probably going to be in the form of a strip, a graphic novel, and non-fiction. It sounds crazy, but if you live downwind from one of these windfarms, it can sound sometimes like a train coming through your house. Other times, it can be quiet. These wind turbines—they call them 'turbans' in Wisconsin—are huge. Frequently, when that blade passes the tower, you can get a low-frequency thump that you can feel in your body—exactly what happens when a car goes by that is playing loud music but all you hear is the bass because the walls of the car stops the high frequency sounds. Another problem is shadow flicker. These things are 40 stories tall, and the blades are 13 stories each, so when the sun is behind it, it throws a shadow a half-mile long and it can cover your entire home in every window of your house if you’re living next to one of these turbines. The flashing shadows can be so violent, it’s like a strobe light, and for some people it makes them very sick. There’s one woman I interviewed who is a cardiac nurse and she says when shadow flicker starts, she either has to leave her house or she goes into the bathroom, the only room in her house to escape without windows. I’ve interviewed people from 20 households now, and I’m following what scientists studying the problem are finding out about the affects of sleep deprivation. It’s becoming a problem all over the country and there is incredible pressure being put on people not to talk about it. I’ve been called everything from a wind-hater to a 'wind jihadist.' Wind power definitely has a place if it is sited correctly but people need to understand it’s kind of the SUV of renewable energy. It’s big industrial, and it impacts wildlife and alters mountaintop terrains and requires back-up energy, such as coal power, to operate. All sorts of progress is being made in solar and biomass and I think we should have a mix.

—by Marcia Stepanek

(Illustrations, top and self-portrait, by Lynda Barry)

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Monday, September 14, 2009

DidYouKnow? 4.0

Here's the latest installment in the popular Did You Know? series of short videos on YouTube about new media proliferation.

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Friday, September 11, 2009


Three years ago today, on September 11, 2006, the historian and documentary filmmaker Ric Burns told me, in an interview, the following about 9/11:

“People will say it’s incredible, how this seismic event on the threshold of the 21st century marked the difference between one epoch and another.We were strangely, blissfully unaware of how we occurred to others in the world. I can’t think of another moment in history that has that quality of literally ripping open the surface of things.”

Early this morning, a friend sent me a copy of the email I'd sent to him nearly eight years ago today, on the morning after 9/11. I was working as the Executive Editor of CIO Insight magazine at the time, a publication I co-founded and which was headquartered in the Madison Square Park neighborhood of Manhattan. Here's an excerpt of that email, in memoriam:

Marcia Stepanek
09/12/2001 07:59 AM

To: "Keith"
Subject: Re: glad

Thanks, Keith. Really appreciate your concern and thanks for getting to Larry. Phones were totally knocked out; I finally convinced an emergency operator to connect me, and I finally got through to Larry last night at around 10:30 or so...

This morning, the city around the World Trade Center looks like Beirut; thick, muddy, sickly white dust covers the streets as far north as my office, on 28th Street. I'm about a half-mile north of the towers—far enough to have always seen the towers poking up through the clouds, a landmark—and yet close enough now, still, to feel very strange and angered by their absence and yet thankful, too, to be separate. The city has closed itself off south of 14th Street. It has, mostly, stopped: there are few cabs or cars out on the streets this morning and even fewer pedestrians.

No newspapers yet. I just got here. The building is closed, mostly. I'm here for anyone who straggles in but the city has no movement this morning, save for the tiny delis and coffee shops that are open across the street. I'm always amazed at the resourcefulness of New Yorkers but especially so this morning: the towers are gone, people are dead. My arts editor has a nephew who was a firefighter who was buried in the rubble—and oatmeal is still being served by the Mexican who owns the "Jewish deli" across the street, free of charge today.

...Yesterday, people in my building watched as the second plane hit; they were up on the 13th floor roof deck having their coffee and a smoke, as usual, when someone saw black smoke against the deep blue, perfect sky. You can see a lot from up there—the WTC through the buildings to the South, the Empire State to the North and the Flatiron Building a few blocks to the West. Some people started crying; others on the terrace raced inside, afraid suddenly of the Empire State.

After the planes hit, people started going outside, all over the city. Masses of people, quiet, were simply standing in the streets in some places, looking up, waiting for subways to start up again, waiting for a few sparse cabs to get off the island—waiting, as if expecting some sort of announcement that would make it all right to go back to work, or to go home, or to move forward. There was no sense of panic, just eerily peaceful throngs; one cab driver simply pulled over, curbside on Lexington, parked (!), and got out for a smoke; I saw a guy dressed for the office sitting on his briefcase near the Citibank subway station around 52nd and Lex, just looking around at everyone else in the act of stopping...

...The city shut down Central Park. I tried to cut across it for home but there were people in uniforms, asking me to go around. Along Central Park West, the churches and synagogues had card tables set up outside, serving water and offering to make calls. I saw a pin-striped businessman, his shirt torn, tie askew, his wingtips covered with white, thick mud and dust, walking north along Central Park West, his eyes locked forward, walking home the long way from the financial district as if coming home from war..."

—By Marcia Stepanek

PHOTO: 9/11 WTC evacuee/Liberty icon from diner near Ground Zero:
Courtesy PRI's The World's Flickr photostream; 9/11 Museum in Caen

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Facebook Economy

What a difference a year makes. This week's second annual SoCap09 conference in San Francisco is serving again this year as Ground Zero for hundreds of social entrepreneurs bent on using social media and Web 2.0 technologies to invent a new economy—one that's focused more directly on global problem-solving. But unlike last year, when the collapse of the financial markets made the notion of Net-powered corporate altruism sound like a pipe dream, this year's gathering is striking an entirely different chord.

The talk among the 800-plus delegates gathering now at Fort Mason is all about finding proof—devising ways to use new Web tools to measure the social value and profitability of the hundreds of new socially-conscious businesses being invented in the wake of last summer's meltdown. In her opening keynote, Sonal Shah, the chief of the new White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, pledged growth capital to the most impactful of these new startups.

"A coherent industry seems to finally be coming together around the idea of social enterprise," said Economist writer Matthew Bishop, citing the half-dozen or so new Web platforms being launched in recent weeks and months purporting to be able to measure impact. [Kevin Jones, a co-founder of the SoCap conference, was using the conference to unveil his own version, called The Global Impact Investing Rating System (GIIRS), which includes a set of "impact reporting and investment standards"—an effort to define the main terms used in the social enterprise space. Says Jones: "People argue all the time about what constitutes a social impact. GIIRS is all about trying to settle those arguments."]

To be sure, many SoCap attendees believe they are building no less than a new "economy of integrity" fueled by social media, says Jonathan Greenblatt, a SoCap presenter and president of All for Good. "This new economy is like shoots growing out of the ground," he says, "and social media will allow this economy to take off. It will both cohere this moment of opportunity and catalyze it." Social networking is evolving into mobilization, he added, and brands are becoming increasingly focused on doing right by their customers' social networks. ["In a networked world where everyone is adjacent and everything can be known, we are seeing increasing evidence of the inequities around us," he told a group of Internet activists attending Mashable's social good conference on Friday. "When you are actually adjacent to ... the have-nots—when they know what we have—it puts a burden on the 'haves' [in society]." Social enterprises, he says, are "giving us different answers than the ones we've heard before to the questions we are facing."

Indeed, say Greenblatt and others, we are compelled to invent new alternatives. Steve Newcomb of Virgance, a SoCap09 presenter, told conferees earlier today that the buzz around social enterprise is now "more on par with the industrial revolution than the dot-com boom."[Dennis Whittle, CEO of globalgiving, says "we're in a period moving from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, combining (in the social action space) online discussions with offline engagement."] Given the rapid pace of Web-powered innovation, said Sonal Shah, the director of the new White House Office of Social Innovation, "government should be supporting grassroots innovators, not replacing them."

The conference continues through Thursday. Watch this space for highlights and follow the conference on Twitter, #SOCAP09.

--By Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration: Miroslaw Pieprzyk)

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