Unusual Suspects

On the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, the opening plenary session at the Council’s Annual Conference, “Realization, Rethinking, and Reinvention in the Wake of Crisis,” looked at how crisis has become a catalyst for change in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Detroit. While these communities have improved in some ways, each is faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges as poverty grows and government funding diminishes. More effective grassroots organizing, along with help from the philanthropic and business sectors, have greatly improved these communities; however, social services, education, and block grant funding have all been slashed. The institutions we have historically looked to for a salve, philanthropy and government, are hitting the limits of their ability to help us course correct if they continue to operate as before.

While the circumstances differ in these communities the problems are, at their core, rooted in social inequality and despair. Moderator Manuel Pastor used the term “unusual suspects” to describe the creative methods and individuals that engaged in rebuilding these communities. The term struck a chord. How do we move the needle on the issues we care about, in the communities we have dedicated ourselves to? It is time to look to “unusual suspects.”

<!--[if !supportLists]-->1. <!--[endif]-->Unusual Suspect # 1: DJs

Josh Kun challenged us during the closing plenary to be “cross-faders,” to mix two tracks, the old and the new, to create a more powerful message. Referencing the mobile DJs on each side of the Mexican border that mix traditional Mexican dance music with both modern tunes and the recorded messages of their audience members, he urged us to mix the best of what philanthropy has done in the past with the most promising innovations of the 21st century.

2. Unusual Suspect #2: Mobile Tech

There are six billion mobile phone subscriptions worldwide. By 2014 more people will probably be accessing the Internet on their smartphones than on their computers. What’s more, communities of color are adopting mobile technology faster than others. Voto Latino built on this opportunity by building a smartphone campaign to make voter registration and information easily accessible to young Latinos.  Safecast leveraged the power of mobile technology to put radiation measuring into the hands of Japanese citizens following the disaster at the Fukushami Daiichi nuclear plant.

3. Unusual Suspect #3: Behavioral Economics

The session on “Using Behavioral Economics to Accelerate Program Impact” was particularly refreshing in laying out why interventions and programs are not as effective, powerful, or sustained as we may hope. By virtue of our flawed human nature, we are plagued by two fundamental problems: inattention and the ability to translate intention into action. No matter how attentive one may be, there are just too many stimuli in our environment to attend to everything. This may explain why so many patients forget to take medications. When patients with HIV receive reminder texts at the precise time of day required, however, the rate of compliance shoots up.

Similarly, students that receive scholarship payments at the beginning of the semester often run out of money during the last half of the semester. However, the Gates Foundation discovered that by tying scholarship dollars to performance and releasing the funds throughout the semester, students both performed better academically and were able to maintain a steady number of working hours.

4. Unusual Suspect #4: Games

There were a couple of sessions on game theory and how games are being used to increase civic engagement, help women and girls globally, and even prepare students from low income households for college. Collegeology, for example, is a suite of games produced by the USC Innovation Lab that allows students to navigate the college experience in a digital game environment thus demystifying the college system, giving them a safe place to “fail,” and the opportunity to problem solve before they ever set foot on campus.

Half the Sky is a Facebook game that raises awareness and gives players the opportunity to buy virtual goods that translate into real donations to global NGOs focused on women and girls. A mobile game is also in development for users in developing countries where 65 percent of mobile users reside.

In 2009 Justice Sandra Day O’Connor launched iCivics, a series of online games to reverse the trend of declining civic knowledge and engagement in the United States. The games have now reached 1.2 million youth in 12,000 classrooms in all 50 states. It is one of the great examples of how gaming can make an impact as 78 percent of participants demonstrate a better understanding of how our democracy functions.

These four unusual suspects provide us with compelling strategies to look to as we redouble our commitments to the issues and communities we fund. Engaging any one of them brings important challenges and opportunities. I encourage you to listen to recordings of these sessions to learn about the hard lessons learned and the best use of each.

Who/what are the unusual suspects you have come across?

Lisa Parker is the President and Executive Director of The Lawrence Welk Family Foundation and the Founder and Principal of Family Circle Advisors

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