photo © amy sly

John Hockenberry. Imagine There’s No Country, It’s Easy If You Try (In 2012). 

John Lennon’s catchy 1971 lyrics notwithstanding, America’s dream state began and ended with a single memorable phrase almost exactly ten years earlier. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” This communal notion of a government and its people in collaboration inaugurated John F. Kennedy’s foreshortened presidency and was almost immediately set aside. The government would do a lot for people in the ensuing years. The imperatives of the Johnson Great Society programs, Nixon’s government expansion, and the huge Reagan-era enlargement of the Pentagon would deliver help to the poor and elderly, deregulation and prosperity to politically savvy interests, and a sense of military supremacy and security for all.

In 2012 this is all breaking down. In an unsustainable spiral of inflated commitments and deflated political will, that eloquent bit of JFK oratory has become a strident and uninspiring argument over entitlements versus taxes. We are a binary nation divided according to rich and poor. Our civic engagement is either as donors or recipients of tax revenues. For more than a generation we have been voting on the basis of impulses that come from the familiar question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” or statements like: “Government doesn’t solve problems; government is the problem.” The quality of national life relates to little more than individual prosperity and individual security with government at the specific service of groups who can mobilize to get it to enhance their individual interests. All questions of civic engagement relate to quantity rather than quality in our time. The magnitude of political contributions, rates of taxation, and voter turnout tell us nothing about the quality of life in America or how we might define a mission to seek a brighter future.

Did JFK understand back in 1961 that we would eventually get to this?
“Ask not if you are better off than you were four years ago, ask if you are more engaged in creating the conditions for you and those around you to survive and thrive.”

This is no political sound bite. It is at best a lyric resisting a melody. It is a thoughtful upgrade of the JFK sentiments that is also a lament born out of the anxious gray uncertainties of the twenty-first century. As political systems and traditional institutions lose their language and bearings and find themselves unable to reassure or mobilize their constituents we need fundamentally new ways of calling people to action. Changing circumstances and a suddenly unwelcome national narcissism has hopelessly outdated the American Dream. We must dream beyond this malaise with something tangible. The great irony is that we have mechanisms to dream of a more meaningful future with many pathways to get there and we have learned to overlook them all in our degraded politics.

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

Next Story — Nirvan Mullick: Caine’s Arcade and the Power of Cardboard.
Currently Reading - Nirvan Mullick: Caine’s Arcade and the Power of Cardboard.

Photo © Nirvan Mullick

Nirvan Mullick: Caine’s Arcade and the Power of Cardboard.

It all started with going to buy a door handle for my ‘96 Corolla. It was the last day of summer and I was in an industrial area of Los Angeles, where they sell used auto parts. I came across a random store, pulled in, and ended up meeting a nine-year-old boy named Caine who built a cardboard arcade using boxes from his dad’s store. He asked me if I wanted to play and if I’d be interested in buying a fun pass to his arcade. It was a two dollar pass that he had made which offered five hundred turns.I bought the fun pass, and the rest grew from there.

It really started with Caine. Playing his games and seeing what he had made was very inspiring to me. It reminded me of my own childhood and the things that I used to make. I kept thinking about his arcade and I went back and asked his father if I could make a short film about his son’s arcade. That’s when his dad told me that I had been Caine’s only customer, and I got to know more about how long Caine had been working on this. He spent the entire summer building his arcade and making it more functional and elaborate in preparation for customers, but he had yet to have any. The shop is in a very industrial area and they don’t get a lot of foot traffic, and his dad started doing most of his business on Ebay selling auto parts, so Caine didn’t really have a chance to have any customers for his arcade. The few people that did come by just bought their auto parts and left.

We crafted a plan to surprise Caine with customers. We organized a flash mob just to make his day. We put together a flash mob online, and invited anybody in Los Angeles to come out and make Caine’s day and surprise him. Hundreds of people came out. So this little idea—this little Facebook invite—went kind of mini-viral. It made the front page of Reddit, and was featured on Hidden LA, which had about 230,000 Facebook fans at the time. Hundreds of people came out and we surprised Caine. That was the heart of the short film that I made. When I posted the film I invited people to chip in and try to raise a scholarship fund for Caine. The initial goal was a twenty-five thousand dollar scholarship fund. The first first day the film was posted, it got over a million views, raised over sixty thousand dollars for his scholarship, and just took off.

On October 6th, 2012, the one year anniversary of the flash mob to make Caine’s day, we had a global day of play where people could find cardboard challenge events around the world and go out to support the kids in their community. That was super fun and will be an annual event that we do through the Imagination Foundation. Every first weekend ofOctober, people will be able to go and play at these events. People can sign up to do these events on the Imagination Foundation website. Other goals are for kids in underserved communities: giving kids the space to create, and to develop a more robust web platform that connects maker-kids with adults, teachers, parents. We want to create more community around making and also celebrate and share more stories of creative kids around the world who are doing awesome things like Caine.

Another thing we are moving towards, and are really excited about, is promoting and fostering social entrepreneurship at a young age. There are so many kids who have been using these cardboard creations to make little businesses, and raise money for different causes.

You always hear statistics about kids when they’re young. They want to grow up to be artists, they want to grow up to be all these big things, but once they’re in high school they’ve become way more practical just because those engaging and inspirational ideas get beaten out of them by the reality of life. I think we need to take a close look at the education system that we have in place, and think about the kinds of adults we’re making in that system, and what makes sense in the new reality of our world.

Nirvan Mullick is an LA based filmmaker, digital strategist, and creative consultant. In 2011, Nirvan cofounded Interconnected, an LA based creative agency, through which he directed Caine’s Arcade, an 11-minute short film that has been viewed over six million times. They raised over $200,000 for a scholarship fund for a creative young boy, and launched a nonprofit called the Imagination Foundation to find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in kids.

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

Next Story — Natalie Bailey: McDonald’s 2.0.
Currently Reading - Natalie Bailey: McDonald’s 2.0.

photo © amy sly

Natalie Bailey: McDonald’s 2.0.

I am not proud that I called McDonald’s at four o’clock in the morning. And much to everyone’s befuddlement, it wasn’t for my usual hot fudge sundae.

Please, first understand that though I have an acute aversion to television, country music, and fast food when in the United States, I am drawn to these beacons of American familiarity when I find myself far from home. Though I love sticky rice and bamboo salad with an undeniable passion, during my time in Bangkok, I occasionally delighted in forking over three dollars for a Happy Meal to appear at my doorstep. My pleasure derided from more than the soggy fries and plastic toy, it was the promise of avoiding the madness of the hot streets clogged with motorcycles and strange goods. For once I could “press 1 for English” and have limited miscommunication. To boot, it was like America improved—McDonalds 2.0—I had never experienced the distinct luxury of fast food delivery. Quite simply: I was lovin’ it.

The choice I made to move to Bangkok straight out of graduate school, following the great recession of 2008, was unthinkable to many, especially for those in my parents’ generation. But I represented a new American Dream that traded the stability of a house, car, and even couch, for one thing: adventure. Ironically, it was outside of the land of liberty that I felt free. From Bangkok I traveled far and wide; I built my savings; I became part of the global community.

Of course, living abroad is no longer what it was when the American Dream consisted of picket fences and 2.3 children. I had a cell phone that worked in the middle of nowhere, email at my constant disposal, Facebook, and video chat—the list goes on, and yet, acute culture shock and homesickness sideswiped me upon my arrival. I realized how brave travelers before me had been—going off into the great unknown, with no comforts to speak of, not even hamburgers. Nevertheless, being tens of thousands of miles away, I came to identify with my appreciation for the special, and simultaneously for the usual.

I knew I didn’t want to be an expatriate forever. I wanted to return to the U.S. an improved version of myself, enriching the fabric of the culture through my own reversed immigrant experience. My dream was to come back somebody new. After swinging between countries with rich histories, untrustworthy governments, and a relatively low regard for safety in the midst of several natural disasters, the sweetest words were those of a border control official at JFK who said, after flipping through the eighty pages of visas in my passport, “Welcome home.” But what I overheard in passing, a few days later, was similarly comforting thanks to that harrowing night on the other side of the world: “Would you like fries with that?” Why yes I would.

As a foreign correspondent based in Bangkok, Natalie traveled to some of the most remote parts of South and Southeast Asia with her notebook and camera as her only companions. Her creative non-fiction and journalism have appeared in GOOD Magazine, Reader’s Digest Asia, Forbes Travel Guide, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Real Simple, Military Times, and IRIN News.

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

Next Story — Michael Brennan: Socially Conscious Geeks.
Currently Reading - Michael Brennan: Socially Conscious Geeks.

photo © amy sly

Michael Brennan: Socially Conscious Geeks.

How can a computer scientist make direct, tangible impact on the lives of individuals around the world? I don’t mean through a fancier phone or a prettier video game. I mean for basic needs and emergencies: food, drought, shelter, jobs, health, hurricanes.

This question emerged for me as a young college student. I was earning a degree in computer science and running the college chapter of Amnesty International on the side. On one hand, I was programming late at night. On the other, I was writing letters in support of releasing political prisoners around the world. I loved both but, at the time, I saw no link between the two. This raised some concern, but I shrugged it off. I would figure it out later.

Hackers. Technologists. Programmers. Geeks. Whatever you want to call us. We are your ally, and you are ours. We understand the technology and you understand the problem. We must work together and co-create twenty-first century solutions to the problems humanity faces. And we can do it.

Michael Brennan is a technologist living in Philadelphia. He currently works for SecondMuse, where he is a global organizer for socially conscious tech initiatives such as Random Hacks of Kindness, the International Space Apps Challenge, and the Central America Domestic Violence

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

Next Story — Ross Borden: Get Out There.
Currently Reading - Ross Borden: Get Out There.

photo © amy sly

Ross Borden: Get Out There.

Americans don’t travel much. Only 33 percent of us even own a passport, a figure that’s been inflated since immigration began requiring more than a driver’s license to visit Cancun. With this being the number one destination Americans make it to abroad, we can safely assume the percentage of us who visit countries in addition to Mexico is much lower.

I was lucky enough to travel when I was younger and caught the bug at an early age. After going on to study abroad in Spain, work in Kenya, and spend time “in between jobs” in Argentina, I can look back and point to travel as the most significant source of education in my life. Along the way, I’ve observed the numerous benefits that travel offers people who make it a priority. And I’ve witnessed firsthand how friendly, open-minded American travelers, simply by making the effort to travel to faraway places, can tear down stereotypes and spread a message of peace.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the Earth all one’s lifetime.

When you travel, you often find yourself in need of assistance from strangers. You might be lost and needing directions; you may even be looking for a meal and place to stay the night. Throughout my travels, I’ve been continually shocked by the warmth and generosity of the complete strangers I’ve encountered.

It is so healthy for humanity as a whole to know that most people are good, and that in 99 percent of situations, we can count on and trust one another. The only things holding us back from unlocking this optimism and a better world are fear and excuses. Put them aside and we will all have a more enlightened America.

Ross Borden is the founder and CEO of Matador Network. He has traveled to over 60 countries and lived in Spain, Kenya, and Argentina. He currently splits time between New York City and his native San Francisco.

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, available now at Sharp Stuff.

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