Have you heard of the term “slacktivism” yet? Even if you haven’t, I bet you’ve been a participant in some form or another:

“Slacktivism (sometimes slactivism) is a portmanteau formed out of the words slacker and activism. The word is considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.

Examples of activities labeled as “slacktivist” include signing internet petitions, the wearing of wristbands (“awareness bracelets”) with political messages, putting a ribbon magnet on a vehicle, joining a Facebook group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services, or taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day or Earth Hour.” (Wikipedia.com)

Now let’s look at some quotes from critics of slacktivism, who shall remain nameless:

“[Slacktivism is] feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in “slacktivist” campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.”

“Slacktivism allows stupid, apathetic people to con themselves into believing they are helping make the world a better place.”

“Slacktivism is fun, easy, and builds self esteem in a cheap way.”

Now here’s my opinion on the subject, whether you want it or not.

I think it is premature to completely dismiss activities that have been classified as slacktivist. I think slacktivist activities, though different from traditional change-inducing activities, can have value.

In my mind, there is nothing different about gathering to protest in a public square or gathering in a Facebook group to support an opinion. If anything, the online gathering is safer, more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, and has the ability to draw more people. In either case, the objective is getting the attention of the people who have the ability to create the desired change.

Another popular activist activity involves creating and distributing flyers, advertisements, and op-eds. I have to ask: is a written piece any less effective if it is digital? Can a YouTube video not have as much (if not more) impact on a person’s mindset, voting habits, and opinions as a traditional print item? Here again, there are similar benefits to be found in the digital format – greater reach, cost-effectiveness, and environmental friendliness.

A slacktivist is not necessarily a lazy person. I know this because I am one, in large part. Yes, I do participate actively on two nonprofit boards and give to charity occasionally. But in large part, I do not have time or money to spend on getting involved, no matter how supportive I feel about a cause. I work full-time, do web design on the side, am working on my second master’s degree, commute 3 hours per day, and do some board service. I am also married and have a household to keep up with. I eschew most social activities and hobbies because of my schedule. It is unlikely that I will come to a protest or party (though I will wholeheartedly tell other people I know about events). I am environmentally concerned as well, so when someone on the street hands me an informational flyer, I ask if the information is available online and ask for the URL. I do not take a flyer so that I can read it and put it in the trash later.

What I do digitally to perpetuate organizations of my choice is to join and promote Causes on Facebook, tweet and re-tweet interesting information on Twitter, and connect other people to the causes I care about. The main thing I can do for any cause is to draw other people. I have larger social networks than many individuals and, while I may not be your volunteer or donor, someone I know may be. Therefore, I think there’s something to be said for simply standing up for a cause and spreading the word.

To further explore this idea, I created a continuum of activism (below) to compare and contrast levels of participation vs. levels of technology usage in regards to activism:

activismcontinuum

When considering the various aspects of activism in this light, there seems to be less difference between slacktivists and people of low involvement (which I have labeled “passive activists” for lack of a better term) than one might think. If a person is going to get involved, he or she is going to get involved. Those who are not, will not. Our challenge, as nonprofit organizations, remains the same as it always has: how do we increase the level of involvement within our base of supporters? I think what throws us off is that we have answered this question for traditional methods of activism. We know how to gain support and there is historical data to show what works, who participates, etc.

I think we have yet to figure out how to effectively engage people using technology, or at least I think that we are mostly infants in these particular skill and mindsets. I also don’t think there is a simple or fast solution to the issue – I think we will have to experience growing pains and pay for our knowledge with our mistakes as is typical of the human condition.

So my final thought, all things considered, is that we should refrain from bashing people for slacktivism. Figure out what your organization can do to increase their involvement in ways that they are able to handle. Ask me to participate in a one-time online focus group. Ask me to donate $5. Ask me to email my senator (and make sure you give me a way to look up the address easily).

A slacktivist might just be the pebble in your organization’s pond that sets off desired change. Don’t ignore or dismiss him or her because of an inability or lack of desire for high involvement.

My father, my brother and I spent a lot of evenings when I was in high school driving from park to park looking for a pickup basketball game.  Dad kept a map in his head of all of the places where people gathered to play, and we would go from one to the other until we found a critical mass to join and play.  Although many will tell you that the joy is in the journey, the joy really was in finding some competition.

Turns out that when I go out to look for a hoop game to join with my boys, we  may not need to drive so many places.  The wizardsPickupaloozashirtatdeeplocal have created pickupalooza, a site that allows would-be pickup soccer players, ultimate frisbee players and even Carrie Richards and her kickball player friends to find each other and set up games.

The efficiency of this solution appeals to me.  Also, as deeplocal’s CEO Nathan Martin (a speaker at our 2006 TechNow conference) told the Post-Gazette, online pickup game connections are “a fun way to meet people outside of your social network, which is someteimes a challenge here in Pittsburgh”.

soy milkWhen I realized that my daughter was lactose intolerant, I looked into buying a soy milk maker.  But thebeer-mugy’re almost $200…  But, our neighbor has one. We brew our own beer, which is a something she doesn’t make, nor does she want to invest in the equipment.  So we built an exchange. 

 So every monday evening, we exchange a bottle of beer for a quart of soy milk.  Everyone says that she’s getting the better end of this deal, but I need the soy milk!  I’ve always liked the sweet soy milk that you buy at the store, but I wasn’t fond of the unsweetened variety.  But now, my husband and I often look forward to the warm, fresh soy milk to make hot chocolate. (OK, it’s still sweet, but fresh soy milk is good!)

Nonprofits have been good at coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems for a long time. Several nonprofits went in together to share an HR staff member–something none of them could afford by themselves.  POWER, Bethlehem Haven and the Center for Victims of Violent Crime created this joint position to handle the increasingly difficult HR issues that arise.

After I pick up my soy milk, (this time on a Monday morning) I’m headed for my volunteer shift at the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library–a cooperative started over 34 years ago for families to have a safe place to play with developmentally appropriate toys for children ages 6 and under.  It is open six days a week and has no paid staff.  Because of its proximity to Oakland, there is an incredibly internationally diverse group of families who frequent the “Library”.  Long term friendships are developed between parents.  Babysitting leads are shared, playdates are arranged, parenting advice is easily discussed.  It is one of the unsung gems in Pittsburgh.  It is a major parental stress reliever.  But it is an incredibly creative solution to a lack of funding for staff–and a way to make all families invest because it is THEIR center.

Let’s keep thinking creatively.  Now my neighbor and I are considering bees & chickens… honey and eggs.  Yummmm.

There are many ideas coming out of the nonprofit sector in Pittsburgh–I’d love to hear some more stories!

A little over a week ago, Scott Leff and I attended Jessica Jackley’s discussion about how she started Kiva.org and is busy transforming the world we live in. No joke! (As of March 8, 2009, the organization that Jessica co-founded has distributed $63,010,010 in loans from 458,538 online lenders, which has funded 90,201 loans in the developing world. Simply, what Kiva and Jessica has accomplished has been nothing short of amazing!)

However, one of the central messages I took away from Jessica’s discussion is that if you see an area with a need, and you’re capable of filling that need, then “just do it!” Don’t worry if you don’t have a business plan, executive summary, financial projections, etc. Just get started doing the work and fill in those “details” as the need arises.

What’s interesting about Jessica’s message was that when I went through my formal business education at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, her kind of thinking wasn’t exactly encouraged; if you were going to start an organization, or even a small grassroots movement, you had to have a plan. Preferably, this plan would have charts and graphs, a clear and tightly woven mission statement, and at the very least some semblance of an Executive Summary to work from. And so I bought into this kind of thinking…

So, last summer, when a few of my friends brought up the idea of starting a “fun” running group, I was thinking that this might turn into a bit of hassle because we needed some type of organizational structure and, really, who has time for that (see previous paragraph)? Plus, my friends were convinced that I knew something about running and could “coach” them through the process. After all, they reasoned, I’d run in a bunch of races and could help them do so, too. Of course, I thought this might be a little difficult because I had no formal coaching experience.

Nevertheless, I thought we’d just go with it and see what happens. So, the initial group of 5 runners (including me) would convene once or twice per week last fall at Frick Park and run 4 to 5 miles together as we all trained for the Ikea Half Marathon.

The initial results from this experiment/“group love” were very encouraging: we had 9 runners finish their first 13.1 mile half marathon and 4 of these runners were first timers. From there we’ve added more runners and now have a list of approximately 30 runners.

The reason I bring this up is that nearly one week from now 8 runners from our club are going to try and do something they have never done before: 6 are going to run the 26.2 mile marathon distance and 2 are going to run the 13.1 half marathon distance for the first time! Watching friends of old and new dedicate themselves to completing their goal – some overcoming initial weight issues, injuries, frustration, and tears – has served to reinvigorate my passion for this sport and athletics in general.

I guess you could say that this, and a few other life experiences along the way in my 29 odd years, has taught me that Jessica Jackley is right after all: if you see a need and have some passion/expertise in that area, then you owe it to yourself (and the world) to jump in! Forget the formality and rules and all the organizational structure you think you may need and just start working, organizing, and doing.

I come back to our running club and the upcoming marathon and think what a sad thing it would’ve been had we not come together and formed our club. Fortunately, we did! And one week from this Sunday, I’m going to watch some of my friends accomplish something they have never done before, and most thought impossible one year ago. I hope that you’ll come out and support these runners and more at the Pittsburgh Marathon. See ya at the race!

Have a question or something to add to this post? Leave a comment, and you’ll be entered to win a 1 GB USB drive. One winner per week until the end of May.

Spring is officially here! As the weather gets warmer and warmer, those soup nights may start to seem less appealing. There’s always gazpacho, but perhaps it’s time to try something new! How about community gardening?

A community garden is, quite simply, a piece of land gardened by a group of people. This is a wonderful solution for city-dwellers who may not have the yard space to have their own garden, or perhaps don’t have the time to be solely responsible for tending a garden. Some community gardens consist of friends and neighbors working together on a single plot, others offer a pre-determined amount of space within a shared garden for each person to individually grow what they wish. Regardless, community gardens not only provide fresh produce and plants, but also a chance to work together to improve the neighborhood, build community and connect with the environment.

The American Community Gardening Association (which is a GREAT resource to start your own community garden) offers the following benefits of being part of a community garden:

  • Improves the quality of life for people in the garden
  • Provides a catalyst for neighborhood and community development
  • Stimulates Social Interaction
  • Encourages Self-Reliance
  • Beautifies Neighborhoods
  • Produces Nutritious Food
  • Reduces Family Food Budgets
  • Conserves Resources
  • Creates opportunity for recreation, exercise, therapy, and education
  • Reduces Crime
  • Preserves Green Space
  • Creates income opportunities and economic development
  • Reduces city heat from streets and parking lots
  • Provides opportunities for intergenerational and cross-cultural connections

williams1The Pittsburgh Project recently won the Pennsylvania Horticulture Greening Award for their community garden. The garden helps teach urban young people about basic ecological concepts, principles of nutrition and healthy eating, and skills in environmental stewardship by transforming vacant plots of land into garden spaces, with young people as key participants. TPP’s husband and wife duo, Mark (Community Outreach Coordinator) and Courtney Williams (Community Gardening Coordinator) are pictured here in their community garden (more like community “farm”) on Charles Street in the Northside.

allegheny-garden2Also tucked into the Northside in the Mexican War Streets is The Olde Allegheny Garden, where there are 10×20 foot plots in the garden available for $30 a year. Gardeners are free to plant whatever they wish. A recent campaign for new gardeners produced a rather innovative advertising flyer. Taped up on power poles and street lamps around the area was the following: “WANTED: Seasonal relationship with someone who doesn’t mind a history with a little dirt.”

homewood1

The Homewood Community Garden is an urban community garden located on Forbes Avenue between Homewood Cemetery and Frick Park. Their mission: “To provide people with a little bit of land on which to grow food, flowers, and the sense of well-being that comes from nurturing growing things.” They offer 20×20 foot plots for a fee of $30 per year.

If you’re interested in starting your own community garden, Grow Pittsburgh is happy to offer advice and can help you plan, provide plant starts, and link you to resources in the community. In the near future, Grow Pittsburgh will also be starting a garden tool lending program. Western PA Conservancy has numerous community flower gardens throughout the city (probably in your own neighborhood) that are planted and maintained entirely by volunteers, and could use your help!

A little dirt under your nails is a great reminder that spring has finally arrived…and summer’s not too far off. Invite those friends you made during soup night to start a community garden. You’ll have plenty of fresh veggies to start soup night again once fall approaches.

One of my favorite things about Pittsburgh is that it is a city comprised of neighborhoods. Nestled within the North Side, South Side, East End and West End are 90 individual neighborhoods all with their own rich history and distinctive inhabitants. This unique city design makes social capital much easier if we begin with our own 1/90th of the city – in our own neighborhoods.

In addition to taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s neighborhood design, we can also use its depressing winter weather to create social capital. Nothing can create warm fuzzies on a dank February night like a house full of neighbors and bowls of hot soup. Hosting a soup night is an extremely easy and affordable way to get to know your neighbors and for them to get to know each other. Once you embrace the Zen of hosting, it can become an easy monthly tradition.

808223_tomato_soup_1My husband and I normally prepare a hearty vegetable-based soup, as you want to be prepared to have something that both carnivores and vegetarians can enjoy. One of our favorites is carrot ginger,* and because carrots are one of the most inexpensive vegetables at the grocery store, we can make a large batch for around $10. Add some fresh crusty bread and butter (or to make it extra special, whip up some softened butter with a few tablespoons of honey) and voila! Simple, delicious, and CHEAP. Start by inviting your closest neighbors, and branch out as you start to feel more comfortable.

The most important thing to remember is NOT TO PANIC! It’s just soup! People of all races, creeds and classes have been eating soup since 6,000 BC, so we have history on our side. Start small and simple, and relax. Then come back to the Bayer Center blog to share your own soup night tips and stories.

*Please e-mail me at richardsc@rmu.edu if you would like the recipe!