100 influential urbanists you probably don’t know about, but might-should

I don’t think I’ve heard the hyphenate “might-should” since I last hung out with my high school boyfriend’s Florida-born, Lynyrd Skynyrd-listening parents in their motor home—which was definitely a while ago! But sometimes it just fits the bill.

Case in point: last week, my beloved client-friends at ioby asked if I could help them with a project. They had recently come across Planetizen’s “100 Most Influential Urbanists” article and wanted to put together their own list of 100 more influential urbanists who also happen to be ioby Leaders (their honorific for residents who step up to make their neighborhood better in some way, and raise awareness and money on ioby to do it).

Naturally, I didn’t even need to think, “Might-should I do this?” I totally leapt at the chance to mine five-plus years’ worth of inspiriting ioby blog posts, videos, and giving reports for 100 awesome people who demonstrate the range of just who ioby Leaders are and just what they can do. Summarizing their stories into bite-sized pieces was also fun, though a taller order.

It’s so hard to have favorites when everyone is a knockout, but here are a few who stick with me:

  • Lucille White of Cleveland, crossing guard and grandmother of 19 (!), who lost two nieces to hit-and-runs. “Miss Lucille” convened a dozen middle and high school students in her neighborhood to help design and implement desperately needed traffic calming interventions where they live.

  • When the city of Highland Park, Michigan repossessed over 1,000 street lights from Jackson Koeppel‘s already underserved neighborhood, he co-founded Soulardarity: a membership-based, community-owned solar power nonprofit that’s installing its own new solar street lamps to light the way for his neighbors.

  • A poet and musician from Black Hills, South Dakota, Lyla June Johnston leads a team of 50-plus volunteers to organize the annual Black Hills Unity Concert, an event that joins native and non-native people alike in prayers for reconciliation, celebrations of unity, protests against injustice, and songs of hope.

Jeez, if I keep going, I’ll start tearing up again! Just too much greatness here for one blog post. Good thing you can check out 97 more excellent people and stories on ioby’s blog any time you want. They might-should help you remember that—despite Donald Trump’s best efforts—there’s still a lot of good going on out there these days.

This weekend in Brooklyn: Sound summer camp for badass young ladies!

Teen girls with headphones and microphones

When I took the Bushwick Daily assignment to write about SoundGirls.org’s Live Sound Camps for Girls, I thought it would be cool. Music, Brooklyn, empowering teenage girls—what’s not to like?

Well, I was right! There was nothing not to like about writing this story.

The end!

SoundGirls.org logo

No, no—of course there is more. But it’s the good kind of more!

It turned out that in addition to getting acquainted with an awesome nonprofit that connects female sound engineers the world over, hearing wonderful stories about girls learning to rock intimidating audio gear, and bookmarking the knowledge of this traveling summer camp program for the next time I meet a cool teenage girl, I also got to spend half an hour talking with the woman who’s been Pearl Jam’s sound engineer for the last 25 years: SoundGirls.org’s executive director and co-founder, Karrie Keyes!

I will pause to mention that, while I do enjoy me some classic Pearl Jam, I was even more stoked and awed to learn that Karrie has also worked with Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and Neil Young, and did a 10-year stint as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ monitor engineer.

Waynes World not worthy

ANYWAY, what Karrie’s doing with SoundGirls.org is just as cool as all that, of course. Check it out, and if you know an NYC-area teenage girl who’d appreciate the chance to get her audio on this weekend, do spread the word!

Hey Brooklyn: Divest from filth, get help with your taxes, & eat free pizza*

Brooklyn is home to so many great institutions: BAM, the Wonder WheelChamps Diner.

I recently added a new favorite to my list: the Brooklyn Cooperative Federal Credit Union!

At the behest of Bushwick Daily, I attended a free workshop at Brooklyn Cooperative last month called Tax Tips for Freelancers. Not only did I soak up some sound tax advice, I also…

  • Met a bunch of cool fellow freelancers—among them a party planner, a bike messenger, and a soap maker (so fun)
  • Spoke at length with two of the credit union’s knowledgeable and righteous employees—one of whom also teaches self-defense and leads tours in Cuba!
  • Was offered some great-looking free pizza, which I only turned down because I had just eaten (but I’ll come prepared next time; oh yes I will)
Pizza and money gif

While I cannot argue with this sentiment, our event went a lot better than this

Just as importantly, I was also turned on to some crucial information about credit unions that I had sort of failed to internalize before, such as the fact that they’re nonprofit organizations. Credit unions are owned by members (not shareholders), so they don’t have a business’s usual mandate to make money—just a mission to offer fair and affordable financial services to their community. They also don’t invest members’ money in the stock market, earning their income instead by making fair rate loans and charging small fees for some types of accounts.

Sounds fresh, right?

A Brooklyn Cooperative employee (the self-defense person, actually) offered this nice call to action: “If you’re interested in divesting from banks that fund pipelines and contribute to the housing crisis, switching your checking and savings accounts to a credit union is a great choice.”

I’m on it, Brooklyn Cooperative! Thanks for the timely inspiration.

Read the whole fun-filled, fact-filled article on Bushwick Daily.

*While Brooklyn usually feels like the center of -slash only place in the universe to me, I understand there are credit unions all over the country. Woo hoo! Can’t say they all offer free pizza at their free workshops, though. If you find out, let me know.

Celebrating the first-ever National Day of Racial Healing

Seems like an apt annual holiday to instate, doesn’t it?

I collaboratively penned this article about one facet of the puzzle—the role of structural racism in our neighborhoods, and how resident-leaders are turning back its tide—with the wise and wonderful people at ioby.

ioby neighborh vacant lot project

You can get more info about the National Day of Racial Healing, an initiative of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation with support from over 130 other organizations, on its website or with the hashtag .

A reluctant blogger finally gets into blogger-hood

If you know much at all about me, you know that I’ve never had a Facebook account or an Instagram account. I signed up for Twitter in 2009 so I could join Medium, but I’ve so far tweeted exactly once (to my local NPR morning show host so I could recommend he do a story about the awesome combination washing machine repair and rock collecting shop in my old neighborhood). I have been on Flickr for the past decade, and have somehow posted over 18,000 photos there in that time, but I have also accrued only 18 followers, which says something about how much I care to advertise it. The list goes on thusly.

Galah bird in Onkaparinga, Australia

One from the Flickr archives: 27-year-old me about to receive a finger bite from a gas station owner’s pet Galah bird in Onkaparinga, Australia. That’ll learn me to poke!

All of it to say that as long as blogs have been around (probably 20 years), people close and not so close to me alike have suggested that I start one. Of course I understood the idea (I’m a writer! we have the Internet! therefore, I should write on the internet!), but my reluctances ran several:

1) I’m not particularly techie, and wasn’t particularly interested in learning how to blog from the software standpoint.

2) While I have come to love writing in many genres and spend a lot of my days doing it, my most favorite writing pastimes involve composing personal work for specific audiences (journal entries that only I see, letters and emails for friends…). I didn’t want to feel like this supposedly-fun pursuit was actually work.

3) Conventional wisdom holds that the best blogs are somehow focused—on food, travel, relationships, the world’s largest collection of taxidermied frogs depicted in various everyday life situations*, etc. Since I like to write about all of those things, and many more!, how would I ever imbue my blog with a sense of focus, purpose, and cohesion?

Most of those reasons finally stopped stopping me in January of last year. At that time, I was a half-year in to my new full-time freelance writing life, for which I’d already gone through the learning pains of setting up an entire website (with a lot of help from friends like Claire here!), so the tech thing was no longer so intimidating. I found I was actually enjoying challenging myself to write in different genres, and slowly became more and more curious about how blog writing would compare to the other types I’d recently gotten practice with (including ghostwriting, post-translation polishing, and drafting static pages for websites). Plus I now had a natural focus for my blog: my life as a freelance writer! And since that in itself encompasses a lot of topics, I felt I could justify squishing them all into one blog with “freelancing” as the overarching umbrella.

Blog tags

A screenshot of my blog post tags. Too eclectic? Nah.

Since the start of 2015, I have come to enjoy these weekly diversions from writing blog posts for inspiring nonprofits and newsletters for unique conferences to reflect on the work I’ve recently done and life I’ve recently led.

As a (somehow unexpected) side benefit, I’ve also found myself crossing paths with some awesome fellow bloggers. Here are two I believe are worthy of sharing with you now: they also got roped into the Liebster Award madness recently, and both (to my amazement) took the time to post responses to the 11 funky questions I posed when I nominated them!

Have a look?

  • Nicholas Peart, aka The Slider, a British-born painter, musician, songwriter, poet, filmmaker, photographer, and traveler who wrote some stuff about his time in South Africa that I very much enjoyed.
  • Neil Scheinin, who goes by the handle Yeah, Another Blogger, a fellow self-described dabbler who writes thoughtfully about a range of fun topics, including pizza, beer, and rock music (mmm!).

In response to their responses, I will just say:

  1. Nicholas, one of my favorite popcorn toppings is a solution of garlic, olive oil, and crushed red pepper. Heat that up in a pan while the kernels are popping, then drizzle it over the bowl, sprinkle a bit of salt, and you’re golden!
  2. Neil, regarding the number of seconds by which you’ve been known to extend the three-second rule (“thousands and thousands”), I can only say: NICE WORK.

Thank you both for your camaraderie, and your good writing, in this big old Internet world. Knowing I’m in the company of such excellent dudes makes me a less reluctant blogger every day.

*Okay, Froggyland is a website, not a blog. But I’ve been dying to mention it, so I just shoehorned it in here. Apologies to the purists. (But aren’t you also speechless??)

New Groundswell mural vivifies East Williamsburg; really makes ya think

Early last week, I took a short walk down Manhattan Ave to its terminus at Broadway. It was a nice walk—in part because, on a morning this hot, I found myself actually enjoying being in the shadow of those 2,700-unit Lindsay Park cooperative housing buildings. But mostly it was because I knew what awaited me at the end: not one, but two!, beautiful and moving public murals by NYC’s own Groundswell, a nonprofit that’s been bedecking the city with gorgeous, socially-conscious public art, painted by teams of professionals and city kids, for 20 years.

I’ve been admiring the first mural I passed, “I Just Want To Come Home,” since it went up in 2015. A “contemporary blues piece,” according to the organization, the painting’s moody color scheme and kaleidoscopic arrangement of faces  within the letters of its title make it at once an arresting, calming, and haunting visual experience. With the knowledge that its purpose is to illustrate the complex relationships between police, young men of color, gentrification, incarceration, and a sense of safety and belonging, that experience is enriched many-fold.

Then I turned the corner onto Broadway and joined the dedication ceremony for Groundswell’s newest art project in our ‘hood: “The Fall of Oppression” (so new, it looks like Groundswell’s yet to put it on their website!). It’s a pretty fascinating work.

You can read my write-up of the whole dedication experience—complete with tear-jerking quotes from the lead artist, Groundswell’s program director, and our city council district rep—on Bushwick Daily.

My renewed thanks to all of you for keeping Williamsburg an enjoyable and educational place to live, paint, and walk. And for continuing to fight that good fight.

Readers: Tell me about your favorite public art!

Behind burqas, more than bodies

I first became acquainted with the righteous, personable, accomplished (and stylish!) Grace Aneiza Ali when she wrote a guest post for the blog Idealists in Action, which I was co-editing at the time with one of the great platonic loves of my life, Celeste Hamilton Dennis.

To put my introduction to Grace in context, I should begin by saying, perhaps quizzically, that I don’t read too awfully much on the internet. I mean read-read. For sure, I look at the news, I peruse my neighborhood listserv, and I click over when I see an acquaintance has a new job. But—though it’s not a point of pride—after staring at the screen all day in the service of most of my work and life tasks, I don’t usually feel I have the energy to sit down with it for even longer when I actually want to read. (For this, I turn to paper books and magazines.) The loss is all mine, I know!

But occasionally, something does first catch my eye, then keep my attention, then resonate with me enough afterward that I keep a link to it in my “favorites” doc, look for ways to share it, and sometimes even read it again. Grace’s story for Idealist, “Do we miscast rural communities as places to leave behind?” was one such piece.

Grace Aneiza Ali and Celeste Hamilton Dennis

Grace + Celeste (photo by Terrence Jennings)

Grace caught my eye again a while later when I saw her in the New York TimesSunday Routine, and then a third time (the charm?) just last week in NYC. The occasion was the event The Art of the Burqa, produced by the art-meets-activism magazine Grace founded, OF NOTE, and hosted by Pen + Brush (“the only international nonprofit organization offering an outlet for women in both the literary and visual arts in the city of New York”) with help from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

Through the fortitude of their mutual awesomeness, Grace and Celeste have stayed in touch since the Idealist days, and Celeste recently became Editor of OF NOTE, which was pretty thrilling news for me. (And here I’d been thinking that ’90s Hillary and Bill were the world’s most iconic two-for-the-price-of-one!) Naturally, I high-tailed it to Gramercy/Flatiron for the event, and spent the afternoon feeling more enlightened by the minute.

Highlights for me included the conversation between Suzanne Russell—an extremely badass lawyer, writer, and visual artist—and Afghan artist Hangama Amiri about the latter’s portrait series that features her burqa-clad mother inhabiting a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces; and the multimedia artist, educator, and writer Gia Harewood on the artist Behnaz Babazadeh’s Burkaphilia project—especially this wild video. But all the afternoon’s segments went a good distance toward illuminating the meanings and impacts of this iconic garment that extend far beyond the cloth itself and the body it covers.

It’s hard to picture a better event than one that combines a visit with beloved friends and mentors and a timely and affecting program—all in a beautiful space with a rapt audience. So my hat’s off to all of you! I look forward to only more greatness.

Getting around, mentally and physically

Like Tupac and The Beach Boys, I get around—with my writing work, that is!

One of the things I love most about freelancing is the unexpected places it takes me, topically and geographically. Last year, I trundled to the Bronx to cover a conference all about wood; wrote about a Taiwanese modern dance company‘s rebound from a devastating loss; and spoke with grassroots leaders in L.A. who are making their streets happier places to walk, bike, and even play—and that was just the beginning!

Pete, Justin, Bikash

Justin (center) with post-earthquake rebuilding partners Pete (left) and Bikash, plus a friendly clothesline

This year, I’m happy to be starting off with a similarly far-flung (to me) gig: an interview with Justin Den Herder, a senior structural engineer at NYC’s Silman Associates, about his experience volunteering for the Pilot Projects initiative Co-Build Kathmandu. Our story ran in the latest volume of cross sections, the magazine of the Structural Engineers Association of New York.

Justin is a smart, fun guy with miles of great stories to tell about his trip. Here’s a sample nugget:

“We wound up purchasing and donating 75, 70-pound bags of rice to people in a small village in Nagarkot,” he said. “One of the most impressive illustrations of Nepalese resiliency I saw during my trip—among many—was the image of old women coming to claim their bag of rice. I’d ask who was there to carry it home for them, and they’d just smile, take the bag from me, throw it over their shoulders, and walk straight up the mountain! I can’t imagine my grandmother doing that. I was struggling trying to lift these bags myself.”

Peep the whole interview here, and let’s give it up for getting around!

Teach a 20-something punk to write a good memo, and she’ll write good memos for life

For a couple of fun, lucky years in my 20s, I worked as assistant to the director at the Asian Cultural Council (ACC), a grantmaking nonprofit that awards cultural exchange fellowships to artists and scholars from the U.S. and Asia.

Looking for a tear-jerker with great music? Look no further!

As well as being fun, the ACC is an extremely classy place, so not only did I get to attend the super-cool performances and openings of loads of top-shelf international artists, I also honed a grip of executive-level writing skills (first forged at ACC’s sister foundation, the venerable Trust for Mutual Understanding) that I find myself coming back to quite often as a full-time freelance provider of editorial services to nonprofits. Skills like:

  • ghostwriting correspondence and statements for a VIP
  • culling meeting notes down from chaos to the essentials
  • drafting invitations to donors that made giving us loads of money sound like a treat
  • and more!

This past spring, I was extremely stoked to see an email from ACC’s current director in my inbox. She said they had some writing and editing needs on the horizon, and wondered if I might be available to help. I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

Almost six months later, I’m still having a blast popping in on my old workmates in the office, reacquainting myself with all the great things they work on, and helping them craft communications—like this—that speak to the gravity and longevity (and yes, the fun) of what they do. (If you peruse that newsletter, check out the story about Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Definitely my favorite to write.)

You never know when an old skill—or old friends—will show up in your life again. But unless that skill is effectively squandering time or that friend is a psychotic clown, chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

It’s a great time to be a grassroots fundraiser

So says I! (And I didn’t even know about The Shins song until I wrote that and Googled it to see if it’s a thing.)

I recently wrote a blog post for my client and badass crowd-resourcing platform ioby that starts on this positive note. Call me a Pollyanna, but I just reread it on their website and was cheered to find I still believe it’s true.

Operation Tea Party Hard 80

I found this on Flickr when I searched for “grassroots” (Posted by Anonymous9000: “Brilliant handmade Rorschach mask with the scientology Cult’s Oak Cove building in the background”)

When our parents were our age, how did they raise money to build a new community garden, get a mural painted on an underpass wall, or start an after-school reading program? I’m sure, heroically, they organized bake sales, passed the hat at church, and put up fliers on lampposts.

All of that stuff is great (especially the bake sales), but today’s neighborhood leaders also have The Mighty Internet at their disposal, and the difference is night and day. Case in point: since its founding in 2009, ioby has helped 450 local improvement projects get off the ground with almost $1.5 million in crowdfunded cash.

This ain’t your mama’s Rice Krispies Treat (though, again, I love those, too)! Let’s hear it for the Internet and awesome orgs like ioby. Being a grassroots guy may never have been sweeter.