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Posts Tagged ‘Vibewire’

When K and I got back to Sydney after four years living overseas in April 2012, we weren’t aware of Vivid Festival beyond a few facebook updates noticed and then forgotten over the previous two years. I accepted a speaking invitation even, without really realising what I was getting involved with. And then May rolled around and the city lit up.

Literally.

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Vivid wasn’t just a bunch of talks, it was a showcase of the most amazing digital projection technology I’d ever seen, complimented by Burning Man-style installations around the Harbour foreshore. It was extraordinary. And that was just the “Light” part of it; there’s also a brilliant Music program and, yes, a bunch of talks which comprise the Ideas stream. Each would be an awesome festival in its own right; together than seem to energise the whole city.

Despite my rockstar fantasies it’s the Ideas section I find myself involved with again. This year I’m thrilled to be part of four events, two of them organised by my friends at Vibewire, one put on by StartSomeGood ourselves and the last a panel on the funding of creative projects organised by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Here’s my personal program if you want to come along to any of them:

  • #fastBREAK: Save the World: A special edition of Vibewire’s monthly #fastBREAK sessions made up of rapid-fire ideas from interesting people. Instead of the usual 7.30am Friday start this is at the very civilised time of 10.30am on Sunday May 25 at the Powerhouse Museum. It also features an incredible line up of speakers, from activists to politicians to hip hop legends to and entrepreneurs. It’ll be my please to introduce them all as MC (yo yo!). Get your tickets now!
  • Funding Creative Work Now: a panel on the new ways creative work is being funded, featuring a bunch of awesome creative entrepreneurs and me! 1.30pm Thursday May 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
  • Be Awesome at Crowdfunding Masterclass: I’ll be teaching a 3-hour crowdfunding masterclass sharing everything we’ve learned while helping people raise millions of dollars through crowdfunding. Find out everything you need to know to be awesome at crowdfunding and how you can use it to launch or grow your initiative. For creative or social entrepreneurs, community organisers or non-profit fundraisers. 1-4pm Thursday June 5. Some tickets still available, book now!
  • Pitch the Future: A pitch event for ideas which could change the future, hosted by Vibewire in partnership with StartSomeGood. I’ll be hosting. This should be really fun and is free so come along! Sunday June 8.

And I’ll be in there with the family tonight when they turn the lights on at 6pm.

If you’re in Sydney have a great Vivid Festival! If there’s particular events you recommend please share them in the comments below.

Photo of the Sydney Opera House lit up during Vivid Festival by Jason Meaden shared on flickr with a creative commons license.

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In November 2011 Ilya Zhitomirskiy, only 26 and one of the co-founders of Diaspora, the “open-source Facebook” which received notoriety after raising over $200,000 on Kickstarter (at that stage the most successful project on the crowdfunding platform) killed himself. His mother still believes that if he didn’t start the project he would be alive today.

On January 11 this year Aaron Schwartz, a celebrated and much-loved hacker and activist took his own life. He was also 26. I never met Aaron but several friends were very close to him. One was his partner. Reading the tributes that poured in it was impossible not to be deeply saddened that someone so young, so talented and with so much to contribute had given up like this. The loss not only to his friends and family but to all of us is immense.

And just two weeks ago I read about the passing of Jody Sherman, co-founder and CEO of Ecomom. I didn’t know Jody either but he was also admired by people I admire. The initial reports avoided specifying a cause of death but he too had committed suicide.

As Jason Calicanus asked  over the weekend, should we talk about this?

Yes, we should.

Entrepreneurship is a really hard road, filled with rejection, misunderstanding and self-doubt. You pour yourself into a project only to see the world disparage or, worst, ignore it. You must deal with people telling you to get a real job, with the stresses of poverty and uncertainty, with the constant possibility, indeed the likelihood, of total failure. But your job is to project constant positivity, to always be selling your vision and product, to inspire people to join you on this mad mission.

You probably work long and unhealthy hours. You might struggle to find time for exercise, or to socialise, or to take time out to be alone and reflection.

In other words it can be a very unhealthy pursuit, not only physically but emotionally.

During the eight years I led Vibewire I had many dark days, days when I was so exhausted I was reduced to tears, days when I couldn’t see how we would continue. But then I’d go to a meeting with the Vibewire team or a potential funder or a media interview and I’d have to summon all my positivity and energy and pitch our programs and vision of the future, convince them all that there was a pathway to the future we sought.

After I left Vibewire in March 2008 my successor as CEO had an emotional breakdown just a few months later, crushed by the complexity of our projects and the constant workload and stresses involved in bringing in the funds required to keep them alive.

So how did I survive for the eight years before that? First of all, I didn’t entirely. By the time I departed I was utterly burnt out, and for the year prior to that I was just barely nursing myself through, on many days just focusing on the day before me and what I needed to do to get to the next one, like a prisoner in jail, desperately pushing myself to get what needed to be done, done to get the organisation to the point where I could walk away. Once I did it took me months to feel like I could be productive again.

I pushed myself through thanks to incredibly supportive parents, sibling and partner and a group of friends outside the world of social entrepreneurship, who cared about me rather than Vibewire, who valued me as a person, not just an entrepreneur. I would go out with them to parties in the forests which wrap around Sydney at least monthly and stomp my frustrations and stresses into the dirt dance floor until there was just the freedom and joy of movement and dancing and friendship, and my heart filled up with love, community and connection to nature. Being part of this creative, DIY community kept me balanced, with dancing allowing me to be in my body, not my head, and the friendships I formed giving me an identity outside of Vibewire, outside of entrepreneurship.

I don’t know what drove each of these innovators to take their own life. For Aaron an over-zealous prosecution and the threat of jail was clearly a unique and significant factor. All of them struggled with mental health issues at different times. But I do know that as entrepreneurs we are all prone to driving ourselves to breaking point and that one of the hardest but most important things we must learn is how to be personally sustainable, how to take care of ourselves, in the midst of stress and uncertainty and repeated failure.

One of the hardest things about entrepreneurship is that you can become your venture in the eyes of many people. People would often say in introducing me “Tom is Vibewire” and I would cringe, knowing that wasn’t what we were going for at all, that it was in many ways a sign of failure to build the broad base of leadership we needed to be successful but also that it was such a narrowing of me as a person. And it’s also true that in entrepreneurship, unless you are truly gifted or lucky or more likely both, you’ll have as many bad days as good ones, as many set-backs as successes.

As Jess Lee, founder and CEO of Polyvore pointed out in a great recent blog post titled “Why are startup founders always unhappy?” even a successful growth pattern is wiggly, and as entrepreneurs tend to live mostly in the moment and also be very ambitious it’s easy to get depressed during a down phase even if you’ve experienced extraordinary success over the preceding period of time. And if you are your organisation, when the organisation is struggling you feel a failure personally.

Jess puts it this way:

Humans are terrible at understanding absolute values. We are best at understanding acceleration and deceleration, or rate of change. You are happiest when your growth is accelerating. When growth slows down, you start to become less happy. When you’re not growing, you are in unhappy territory.

This is why it’s so important to have a life outside your startup, to have an emotional floor that doesn’t undulate with your company’s fortunes.
I am not trying to generalise the experiences of Ilya, Aaron and Jody. Each was unique. But I have been finding myself thinking about these issues repeatedly over the past few weeks as tragedy followed tragedy, about my own struggles and what it takes to survive as entrepreneurs and changemakers. Ultimately it comes down to balance, however you find that, to relationships, and community and love.

So please be good to yourself everyone, and give yourself what you need to be sustainable and happy and whole.

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Academy for Young Entrepreneurs poster (get a hard copy here)

Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka and social entrepreneurship visionary, is fond of asking parents, firstly, “what would you do if your child was failing maths?” Parents instinctively have an answer for this. They would spend more time with them doing their home, get them a tutor, buy a math training program. Then he asked, “what would you do if your child was failing to develop as a changemaker?” and the answers come much less readily.

How do we create a culture of changemaking in young people? By giving them opportunities to share their ideas and participate in creating change of course!

You get better at maths by doing more maths. You get better at sport by joining a team,  practicing and playing. We have clear pathways for gaining expertise in academics and sports but it’s only more recently that we’ve begun to see a focus on providing changemaking experiences for people at a younger age and preparing them for active citizenship.

This is something Ashoka has understood for some time, having launched Ashoka Youth Venture over ten years ago to support 16-20 year-olds to develop their own initiatives, and more recently establishing AshokaU to foster a culture of entrepreneurship on college campuses.  In Australia we’ve seen the establishment of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, who run year-long courses supporting emerging social entrepreneurs of all ages to launch and scale social impact ventures and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, of Social Startup 48, a startup weekend-style event for aspiring changemakers. I’m proud to say all the above organisations are partners of StartSomeGood.

I’m also thrilled to see more and more organisations using StartSomeGood to fill gaps in this ecosystem of opportunity, inspiring, mentoring and training young people to create the future they wish to see.

One Can Grow finished a successful fundraiser on our site just a couple of weeks ago and is piloting a social entrepreneurship training program for students at three high school in Sydney. Hope Empowered is currently raising funds to engage an even younger cohort in entrepreneurial activity with their Academy for Young Entrepreneurs Initiative which will focus at the primary school level. (If you like the sound of this please chip in here). And the organisation I founded 12 years ago, Vibewire, has just, as of this writing, hit the tipping point of their StartSomeGood fundraising campaign to support three younger social entrepreneurs (under 35) to work on issues of critical importance including mental health and sustainable design.

At StartSomeGood we believe that social entrepreneurs need three types of capital to succeed: financial, intellectual and relational. Our mission is to reduce the barriers to raising early-stage financial capital for nonprofits and changemakers through peerfunding (also called crowdfunding). As these barriers come down more social entrepreneurs are stepping up to launch programs which general these other forms of capital, teaching skills and providing community for aspiring social entrepreneurs.

So these initiatives and those like them expand the answer to how to encourage your child to learn changemaking skills will become more apparent and a new generation of changemakers and entrepreneurs will, from an early age, know they can create the future we all need.

How do you think we could better support young changemakers?

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The social entrepreneurship world is all atwitter about the latest New York Times column by David Brooks which questions the effectiveness and strategic usefulness of social entrepreneurship. On some level it feels hardly worth responding to, just check out the opening paragraph:

If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good….

So, this is clearly going to be another one of those columns typical of David Brooks-types, to take their limited personal experiences and exposures to what’s happening in the world beyond their local coffee shops and think tanks and spin that out into a grandiose theory to describe some supposed trend in the world. So you can guess what’s coming next:

It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.

That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.

World, meet Brooks’ latest straw man, a caricature of social entrepreneurs based, it seems, on a few people he has met at “a certain sort” of coffee shop and conference, although he doesn’t tell us what sort that is (presumably the sort that draws someone like David Brooks).

This is almost too-silly on its face to waste effort on, as the google search Brooks clearly couldn’t be bothered doing will instantly turn up numerous social entrepreneurs working on exactly these issues: increasing the rule of law and reducing corruption, both in the United States and all around the world.

Brooks is right that a country where law and order have broken down is not fertile ground for social entrepreneurship. You won’t find a lot of NGOs in Somalia. But surely no-one would argue that business and government should be left simply to monitor themselves? Once democratic rights are won they must constantly be maintained and re-imagined to serve the needs of each generation. It feels particularly odd for a conservative like Brooks to dismiss the role of citizens to hold the political system to account from the outside.

Hence the need for third sector players like Transparency International, founded by social entrepreneur Peter Eigen, which works to expose and reduce the culture of corruption worldwide, exactly the sort of initiative Brooks seems to be calling for. Change.org, founded by Ben Rattray, just listed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year, is expanding political participation and involvement, the Cost of Freedom Project is working to help people register to vote, the starting point for political participation in the US, and  organizations like Teach for America, Global Citizen Year and The Association of Young Americans amongst many many others are inspiring the next generation of involved citizens.

In Australia organizations like Vibewire, Our Say and Left/Right play a similar role. Third sector advocacy organizations like GetUp in Australia, MoveOn in the United States and Avaaz globally, and those like them focused on every issue you could imagine, very directly engage in lobbying government and mobilizing public sentiment around specific policy debates. You could literally go on listing social entrepreneur-founded and led organizations which engage directly with the political process all day, hundreds of counter-examples to what Brooks claims is the “prevailing ethos” of social entrepreneurship which seeks to “evade politics”.

Naturally you could also list (and meet in coffee shops) social entrepreneurs working to affect change outside the political process, on issues like hunger and landmine removal, educational reform and peace-building, leadership development and mentoring, inventing more sustainable technologies and distributing life-saving medicines and everything else you could imagine. Do all these social entrepreneurs successfully change the world? Of course not. But market failures and government negligence abound and working to support each other locally, regionally and internationally is both a form of community self-preservation and a fundamental human instinct which has saved and changed millions of lives.

In the diversity of efforts arrayed against a variety of challenges we find things that work and, often in partnership with government and increasingly with business, push those solutions forward to reach greater levels of impact, to save more lives, empower more communities, facilitate greater participation in our democracies and support those still fighting for that same opportunity in their countries.

We need all these changemakers, and more, to bring about change on all scales and create better futures for our communities. We need to support programs that inspire new people to get involved in creating change, not deride their desire to serve as naive and ineffective as Brooks does. Social entrepreneurs are the innovators and risk-takers of civic society, often pioneering new approaches which are adopted and scaled by governments, and holding governments responsible for the impacts of their decisions. Their optimism is based not on naivety but pragmatism, on being resolutely focused on getting things done.

I only hope that Brooks chooses his coffee shops and conferences a little better in future as I’m sure he’d learn a great deal from greater contact with a wider spectrum of social entrepreneurs and come to appreciate the many ways their passion and commitment manifests in an open society.

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This is a blog post I was, to my delight, asked to contribute to the “What’s Your Calling?” blog tour:

What’s Your Calling?” explores notions of “calling” from both religious and secular perspectives. “What’s Your Calling?” pushes the notion of “calling” to explore all of the stuff that makes us human: our values, our passions, our doubts and hopes. Profiling individuals from diverse backgrounds – “What’s Your Calling?” shares what people have been called to do with their lives and how they hope to change the world.

If there’s one thing I knew from pretty early on, it’s that I wasn’t draw to any particular conventional career. Once I’d gotten past the “I want to be a fireman” stage nothing really grabbed me. I admired what my parents did (town planning and public broadcasting) but didn’t feel destined to follow in the family footsteps in these specific regards.

But I wasn’t particularly worried, I somehow knew the world would find a use for me and my skills and that I would find, well, a calling that inspired me to use these skills to the best of my ability. In High School I was fond of telling people “I’m not looking for a career, I’m looking for a cause”, more so, I suspect, to sound cool and differentiate myself from the more studious types around me than from any deeper understanding of what that might mean. But, funnily enough, this is indeed what happened.

However, in the absence of something to aim for or aspire to, I drifted. My grades dropped towards the bottom of my class. I was inattentive and disrespectful in class. During a typical class in year 10 I was sent from the room for talking and being disruptive. While hanging around in the corridor, reflecting on how unjust life can be, I picked up a discarded brochure, desperate for something to read to pass the time.

It turned out to be for a student exchange program to America. I hadn’t known such things existed, that high school students were allowed to go and live with another family in another country for up to a year. I immediately knew it was something I needed to do. I loved my family very much but felt constrained by my school and relationship groups. I felt defined by my peer group before I even knew how to define myself, trapped in a box I felt I had no part in making.

My parents, to my eternal gratitude, were supportive, and a year later, midway through year 11, I departed for 11 months in Spokane, Washington State. The chance to step outside my context, outside that box, was transformational. I suddenly found myself in a place where opinions “everyone” held at home were unusual and controversial. I landed at a new school, had to make new friends, and in the process had a chance to preset myself to the world anew. I had space, in a way, to reflect, and feel, to consider what I wanted from my life. As best I could as a 16 year-old anyway. I became more confident in my opinions, in myself, in my place in the world. My Mum would say afterwards that I “found myself in America.”

But it was in San Francisco, not Spokane, that I found my calling. I was invited to attend the State of the World Forum, held in San Francisco in 1995. It was a post-Cold War pow-wow designed to build consensus on the challenges and opportunities facing the world. Participants included Mikael Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ted Turner, Thich Nhat Hanh, Richard Leakey, Jane Goodall, Rigoberta Menchu Tum and numerous other Nobel Laureattes, business people, environmentalists, authors, thinkers and politicians.

As the conference was about the future the organizers, late in the piece I’m guessing, decided it would be apropos to have young people present. Unwilling or unable to do a global search for worthy young leaders they partnered with AFS, the world’s biggest exchange student organization to select out of young people already in the country on their program. I was selected to attend, one of 32 youths from 28 countries.

It was a heady, extraordinary experience. The first day we arrived we were told that we represented “2 billion young people”. We participated in dialogue’s with Nobel Peace Prize winners, world leaders (including Gorbachev and then Vice-President later President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki), representatives from the UN and other global organizations and, of course, with each other. During the week I was there I slept for only a few hours a night and barely ate. I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t tired. I was infatuated with a new found sensation of being included in conversation that, it seemed, really mattered. Being listened to and told my opinions mattered. I felt, in a word, empowered.

But as l left the Forum this feeling of empowerment was balanced with another sensation: dissatisfaction. This can’t be good enough I thought to myself. If we are serious about including the perspectives of young people in conversation that matter, and we must be, then it can’t be based on pretending that a group of upper-middle class kids who already have the opportunity to be in America (just happening to be in the right time at the right place) “represent” the young people of the world. I felt intensely, immediately, that we needed to build better, more genuinely representative platforms and opportunities for young people from diverse perspectives to share their stories, and that this could never truly happen inside the closed rooms of conferences.

In dissatisfaction we can sometimes find our calling: something that needs changing about the world, and the determination that it must be us to change it. This is not the only type of calling of course, but for me it was the cause I had been looking for, the focus I needed, the work that needed doing.

Since then I have been working to allow more people’s voices to be heard, to build a more democratic society and world. First my focus was on young people and event-based, founding organizations at high school and university which hosted a variety of conferences, debates and arts gatherings. In 2000 I realized that the internet was the platform I had been looking for, and media the marketplace of ideas in our society, and founded Vibewire, and organization that continues to create opportunities for political and creative expression for young Australians. Then two years at Ashoka exploring how social media could help create an Everyone a Changemaker world, one where all voices and perspectives can be heard, and more recently co-founding StartSomeGood.com, a platform for changemakers to access the resources and support they need to turn their ideas into action and impact.

For me this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, to help communities and individuals rise to the challenges that confront us and in so doing create a more equitable, sustainable and just world, one based on democratic participation and individual empowerment.

I know from my journey that a calling, or a cause, can arise at any moment, as a result of the stories you see, hear, experience and share. They can be grandiose (like mine), or humble, community-focused or individualistic, a life-long pursuit or a chapter amongst many. All are equally valid; all share an essential spark of human creativity, idealism and imagination. If you are still looking for a calling I would simply advise: stay open. Open minded, open hearted and, simply, open-eyed.  Possibility, opportunity, challenges and tragedy are all around us. The world is both an amazing and a difficult place and is made better by each person who brings their whole self into it and finds a way to do work which inspires and fulfils them.

If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. – Thomas Merton

Pic by Christopher Lehault, available on a creative commons license.

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Somehow my trip home for a couple of weddings has turned into a mini national speaking tour thanks to the support of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. It’s a lot of running around but a fantastic opportunity to spread the word about crowdfunding and StartSomeGood, catch up with old friends and meet many new changemakers. I’m excited and grateful for the interest and enthusiasm.

I hope I might get to see many of you at one of these happenings:

Sydney: Monday, April 11 –  6PM, at the Vibewire Enterprise Hub.  Hosted by The School for Social Entrepreneurs and Vibewire in celebration of Vibewire’s 10th birthday. This one’s really special for me, hard to believe it was over a decade ago that a few friends and I naively incorporated Vibewire and embarked on a great adventure.  RSVP here.

Melbourne: Wednesday, April 13 –  6:30PM at The Hub Melbourne.  Hosted by The School for Social Entrepreneurs and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation: “Crowdfunding for Good: A panel discussion with StartSomeGood, Pozible and the Awesome Foundation.”  RSVP here although the event has sold out. It’s free tickets though and you know how those things go: some people won’t show up. So if you’re keen I would still rock up and try to get in. I’m also meeting friends for drinks and pizza afterwards at a pub nearby, message me if you want the details.

Adelaide: Thursday, April 14 – Adelaide, 5:15PM at.  Hosted by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation: “Adelaide Social Entrepreneurship Meetup with StartSomeGood.”  RSVP here.

All events have a social change/entrepreneurship/crowdfunding focus but the Vibewire birthday event will be the most wide-ranging, a chance for me to reflect on what we did and didn’t accomplish during my time at Vibewire, to share some of what I’ve learned in fifteen years of organizing and outline what I see as the big challenges in need of champions now.

In Melbourne I’m very excited to appear alongside founders of two organizations I greatly admire: Pozible (Australian creative crowdfunding innovator) and the Awesome Foundation Melbourne (a member of the wonderful and growing Awesome Foundation movement). Looking really forward to hearing their stories and perspectives and to together exploring the opportunities and challenges of creating new funding mechanisms for innovators.

My only regret is I didn’t manage to fit Brisbane into the schedule. Next time Brisvegans!

Monday, April 11 – Sydney, 6PM.  Hosted by School for Social Entreprneurs.  ”SSE Fellows and Vibewire 10th Birthday Celebration.”  More details here. 

Wednesday, April 13 – Melbourne, 6:30PM.  Hosted by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation: “Crowdfunding for Good: A panel discussion with StartSomeGood, Pozible and the Awesome Foundation.”  More details here.

Thursday, April 14 – Adelaide, 5:15PM.  Hosted by The Australian Centre for SOcial Innovation: “Adelaide Social Entrepreneurship Meetup with StartSomeGood.”  More details here.

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On Wednesday night I attended the YouthActionNet Awards nights at the gorgeous Finnish embassy. YouthActionNet is an awards program run by the International Youth Foundation which recognizes young social change leaders from across the world. To enter you must be the founder of an organization or initiative aged between 18-29.

Meeting and hearing the stories of these emerging social entrepreneurs was uplifting and inspiring. They are tackling some of the hardest problems in the world; creating a culture of non-violence, moving a community towards sustainability, providing quality education to slum communities. It’s impossible not to feel more hopeful when hearing of their commitment to addressing these issues and feeling the heart that goes into their efforts.

Despite this I had mixed emotions as I watched the ceremony and the preceding panel discussion. Two years ago that had been me up on the panel, speaking with passion about the work of Vibewire, the organization I founded. Even though at that stage, in November 2007, I already had a departure date set and a succession plan in motion, I remember the intensity of my feeling of commitment to both the organization and our cause, the sense of deep personal connection born of seven years hard work to get to that point.

A year later I was back at the ceremony having just moved to Washington and started work at Ashoka. Life was a wonderful blur. I had been through the desperately-difficult process of leaving Vibewire, had travelled for several months, landed in America, got a job, got married, attended Burning Man and finally settled in DC. So: exciting.

Now a year later I’m just another mid-career mid-level staffer at a big NGO. Don’t get me wrong, I love my work and find it challenging and fulfilling, and I’m inspired by our mission. But it’s obviously different. It’s what I need and where I want to be right now, but I do sometimes miss the unique sense of destiny you get when you’re running your own show, convinced of your own power to change the world, and the community you feel when you spend time with other people on a similiar journey.

Thinking about this reminded me that my friend and fellow YouthActionNet alumni Anna Rose filmed me speaking at the 2007 Awards night so at the risk of self-indulgence I’m going to post it here:

Look how young I was!

Read more about this year’s YouthActionNet Fellows here. It’s also very cool to see the first group selected as “Young Social Pioneers” by the Foundation for Young Australians, a national version of the YouthActionNet program.

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