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Posts Tagged ‘Washington DC’

Sydney Harbour, the day after we got home.

1,449 days since heading out there I am back again, just ten days short of an even four years away.

It was 1,399 days, or just a day less than 200 weeks, from my arrival in the US to my departure from San Francisco last Sunday. I landed in New York in June 2008 after a near-36 hour day traveling from Bangkok before catching the train to Washington DC, the first of many times I would travel that corridor past the broken factories and over the inlets of the East Coast.

I arrived knowing only a handful of people, unsure of what I would do next or where exactly I would end up. I had only a few weeks to figure things out and secure a job offer which would lead to a visa before K caught up with me, just a few weeks to justify the decision to leave so much behind in Australia and strike out to live my dream of working in the US.

We spent two years in Washington DC, meeting incredible people and having many side adventures and wonderful experiences. I went through significant adaptation pains at Ashoka, learning to work inside a large established non-profit after ten years as an entrepreneur while teaching an old organization new tricks, but relished the opportunity I had as the first social media director of such an influential and groundbreaking organization, pushing myself, constantly learning new things, working with amazing colleagues and experimenting with emerging forms of media and communications. I am really proud of all that was accomplished during that time, including launching and growing Ashoka’s Twitter account to over 600,000 followers, publishing three ebooks, crowdsourcing a promotional video and generally introducing Ashoka’s many departments and country offices to the power and potential social media and how it could help achieve the mission of creating an everyone a changemaker world.

After two years in DC it felt like time to keep moving. We considered New York but decided San Francisco was more our kinda town, a decision we never doubted once we got there. Over two years in the Bay I worked with a number of non-profits to connect their missions with social technologies before launching social good crowdfunding start-up StartSomeGood with my friend Alex Budak who I met at Ashoka, which I’ll be continuing to work on from Australia.

We loved San Francisco: the people, the culture, the environment. San Francisco combines the most ambitious people on earth with the most relaxed in a unique, harmonious ying/yang. We got out into the countryside at every opportunity, exploring the hills of Marin and the wineries of the Russian River, staying in Paso Robles, Yosemite and Big Basin Redwoods Forest, driving Highway 1 and hiking Mt Tam. We made and deepened some great friendships, meeting some incredible entrepreneurs, creatives, visionaries and festivalists. We adored our part of the city, the Mission District, which reminded us so much of Newtown, where we had lived in Sydney.

And now, somewhat astonishingly, this chapter is over and I’m left trying to make sense of it all.

Over the past four years I got married and got my scuba diving license, jumped out of a plane and learned to drive a car, founded a Burning Man theme camp and visited 11 countries, worked for someone else for the first time in eight years and founded a new company, drove across America and bought my first road bike, was granted four different visas and denied re-entry once. I visited 20 American states and wish I’d made it to more (namely: Utah, South Dakota and Louisiana). K made it to 30 over the course of selling her families wine.

We had, to sum it up, a really good time. But not without its challenges and set-backs, its moments of frustration, fear and doubt. Such is the rich tapestry of life.

Homecoming is always an emotionally-complicated experience. I’m excited to explore Sydney and can’t wait to spend time with my old friends, while at the same time being sad to leave San Francisco and missing my friends back there. Everything is so familiar but at the same time different. I’m obviously older and I hope I’m a little wiser as a result of all these experiences. The relationships I formed will stay with me and I’m so grateful for them. The ideas I’ve been exposed to and inspiration I have gained will inform whatever happens next. Now I want to contribute to the burgeoning social innovation scene in Sydney and while continuing to grow a global community of social entrepreneurs on StartSomeGood.

K and I brought something else back with us as well, our first child-to-be, due in August. We never contemplated for a moment taking this next step in our relationships and our lives anywhere other than Sydney, with universal healthcare and our families and friends here to support us.

And so on to the next stage. While this particular chapter is over the adventure continues always. Onwards and upwards!

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Capital Bikeshare station in Columbia Heights

I left Washington DC in June and was amazed on a visit back this weekend how much seemed to have changed in the urban environment in this short time. The biggest change I’m thrilled about is the launch of a new shared bike scheme – Capital Bikeshare – already now the biggest in the USA.

A previous scheme, Smartbike DC, has been operating since 2008 but never caught on. It’s network of a mere 10 locations was woefully insufficient to constitute a new form of transport and they required you to join online first, for a flat fee of $40, before you could use a bike. Compare this to Capital Bikeshare’s 1100 bikes at 110 stations stretching from Columbia Heights down to the Mall, East as far as Eastern Market and West into Northern Virgina. It’s a dense-enough network to use the bikes as genuine public transport – you can feel secure that there will be a parking station sufficiently close to where you are going.

One person I spoke to over the weekend wasn’t confident the new scheme would catch on any more than the last one did, opining that those who liked riding already had bikes in most cases. But I think this is no different to the co-existence of private car usage and taxi cabs. As a bike owner and daily commuter I can imagine many scenarios where I might not want the hassle of keeping track of my bike, or only need to go one way, or am transferring to a car, where a shared bike scheme provides the perfect compliment to my private bike ownership.

I rode bikes three times last Thursday getting from one meeting to another and it was wonderful. Cheap ($5 for a day membership, $25/month, $75/year, with use of the bikes free for journey’s under 30 minutes), easy (30 seconds and I was joined and away) and fun. And useful! Much more efficient for piecing together my destinations than trains or buses would have been. For a visitor it’s a wonderful way to get around.

Combined with this DC has expanded their bikes lanes, already the best I’ve seen anywhere in the US. There are dedicated bike lanes every few streets, making it easy to get within a block or two of anywhere you want to go without dodging traffic. Some of these lanes are sectioned off from traffic by bollards, or have a lane of parked cars between bikes and traffic, making them extremely safe for cyclists.

Very impressive, DC. Combined with new light rail lines and the expansion of the Metro out to Dulles airport the District is evolving into one of the most walkable and least car-dependent cities in the country.

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A man died on a DC train on his way to work on Monday. His body remained undiscovered for 5 hours, as the train completed two end-to-end runs of the red line. Since then the coverage has focused on why he wasn’t found for so long, with the train operators being suspended and then allowed to return to work as it’s not actually Metro policy to check trains for dead bodies. That policy is now being changed.

As I read this sad story Metro policy wasn’t what I was thinking about. I couldn’t help but remember seeing Deepak Chopra speak at the State of the World Forum in 1995, when I was an impressionable and awed 16 year-old, and him asking us if we could guess the day of the week most people die of heart attacks. Can you guess what it is? That’s right: Monday. And what time would you imagine most people drop dead? Yep, 9am. On their way to work. It seems some people dread their job so much they are literally dying to avoid it. And that’s a very sad thing. We spend too high a proportion of our time at work to loath it as so many seem to do. Since then I have instinctively, devotedly, pursued work that inspires me, that I feel makes a difference.

In thinking about this I discovered more corroborating evidence: more people die in the first week of the year than any other (statistics from the Centers for Disease Control). In other words, immediately after Christmas and New Years, which are usually spent with family and friends and on a break from work, only to be hit with the reality of going back to their 9-5.

I met someone today interviewing for my job at Ashoka. She currently works for the World Bank, where salaries are generous (and untaxed). She knows that in coming to Ashoka she would be taking a very significant pay cut. And she’s okay with that, because she’s not happy in her current role and needs something different; the chance to be more entrepreneurial and adventurous, less micro-managed and confined. I completely agree with her, your personal growth and happyness are worth so much more than money. Life is too short, too precious, too amazing to spend 40+ hours a week doing something you hate.

Finding and following your passions often involves risk,  failures and set-backs. But the greater risk is that you will never take a chance on finding and following your passion, never find work that fulfills and inspires you, that you will instead end up trapped in a job you hate, waking up on Monday morning wishing you could be anywhere other than on your way to work, and one day being taken to another place entirely.

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Recently our esteemed Regional Contact for the DC Burner Community, B, decided to organize a monthly get together called the Burner Salon. Each month a member of the community would be interviewed, talk-show style, in order to give us an insight into their life and work. There’s an amazing variety of people of all walks of life in the burner community and I love the effort so many people put into showcasing the talents and stories of our community.

I was honoured to be the featured guest at the third Burner Salon, after being nominated by the ever-supportive K. It was actually a lot of fun; I thought we had a great conversation, and those there seemed to enjoy it. I met some great people and got a chance to reflect on some aspects of my own journey.

The whole thing was filmed and is now online. So, to anyone who has ever wanted to hear me talk about myself for an hour, this is for you:

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Two weeks ago, relatively quietly, the world changed in DC. On Wednesday March 3 the government of the District of Columbia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The video below is of the first same-sex wedding in DC, a week later.

DC has joined five states in allowing same-sex couples to wed: New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut.

This is the civil rights issue of our time, but the change it brings is barely noticeable. It’s almost amazing how completely non-disruptive it is, even to those most opposed to it. As despicable as it was segregation was a way of life, and giving up a way of life and the set of traditions and beliefs around it is very difficult for many people.

Those opposed to gay marriage however are defending a way of life only in their minds. As the five existing states in America have shown, nothing happens when you allow same-sex marriage other than people of the same sex getting married. Heterosexual marriage continues as normal. Even for those most opposed daily life continues exactly as it did before. They are required to give up no traditions at all and it can only be a matter of time before most realize that the only belief they are giving up was a mistaken one: that gay marriage in some way threatened heterosexual marriage.

I feel fairly confident that most of those casually opposed to gay marriage will get over it pretty quickly. It will be hard to continue to make claims about the destruction of the institution of marriage when the institution continues as before, if not stronger. It’s harder to be scared of something that happens routinely around you without any negative repercussions. And as the states and jurisdictions which allow gay marriage slowly increase in America, it will become harder and harder to make a credible argument against it anywhere.

6 countries currently allow gay marriage: Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. I suspect the institution of marriage is getting along just fine there as well.

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This most recent weekend was one filled with learning and community, leaving me feeling both smarter and more connected to Washington DC than I was before. It made me realize, or remember, that learning from one-another is one of the most vital components of community; where we are connected by our common ideas, ideals and aspirations; where we realize that all of us know so much more than any of us.

On Friday night I attended the opening night of the Social Justice Camp, an unconference bringing together the grassroots social justice community in DC and emphasizing the importance of arts in bringing about social change. Friday was an Ignite-style event, with a dozen speakers giving short presentations on their work. It was great to hear more about the work of homeless advocates, food security organizers and social change muralists. It had a nice feel to the event, as unconferences always do, of everyone being on the same level, there to share and learn, without a divide between presenters and audience.

This feeling continued on Saturday night at the first Columbia Heights Arts Salon. This was an event for local artists in the Columbia Heights area of DC, hosted in four local homes. A series of house parties combined with showcases for local talents – with houses dedicated to performance, visual art, photography and digital installations. K performed to open the evening, the first time she’s performed solo in two years. The fact that she felt encouraged and inspired to create and present a work in five days is testiment to the platform this sort of event creates. The event was put on my the newly-formed Columbia Heights Arts Foundation (CHARTS), which you can find out more about here. K and I are going to try and get involved and see how we can help them as we’re really inspired by their vision of building community through the arts.

Then on Sunday it was K’s birthday which we celebrated at a tea party for about 16 at which everyone presented/taught something. The variety of things I learnt that afternoon was amazing: drama games, canvas stretching, the scale of the universe, productivity techinques, how to draw a superhero, speak Russian and wear a corset. Everyone had something to share, a passion or a skill, a professional competance or a hobby. We all have things to share, but rarely are we invited to share them. Everyone came away from the experience inspired and uplifted – having maintained our attention for almost six hours and enjoyed every moment of it. This is a really different way of learning from what we get in our institutions – peer-to-peer, relaxed, and human.

This is what community looks like. It is open, vulnerable and participatory, based on common values and able to support its members to share and grow. Experiencing community like this, inside a room, with our shared energy strong and perceptible, is like a jolt of electricity – it animates and inspires. But elements of this community are also found online, and social media has given us a platform to replicate many of these features.

The people I feel most connected to online are those I actively share with and learn from. Twitter, in particular, has given me access to a set of peers who share my values and are looking to collaboratively learn how best to use these tools to affect social change. It is only through trial and error that this learning will take place, and the more we share the faster we can learn. This is why I was part of launching the monthly #4Change twitter chats. This is what inspired the estalishment of sQuareOne (now called the Vibewire Enterprise Hub) in Sydney. The creation of spaces where peer-learning happens.

As my friend Morgan puts it, We Operate Best Together. And we learn, build and grow best together too.

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Gay marriage is the civil rights issue of our times, the clearest and most blatant example we still have of institutionalised discrimination against a group of peope in our society. In America the battle is primarily being fought state-by-state as progressive chafe at the lack of progress at a Federal level, where the noxious ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ waits to be repealed.

This has been a one-step-forward, two-steps-back week for same-sex marriage, following in a year of mostly set-backs, starting with the passage on November 4 last year of Proposition 8 which rolled back gay marriage in California and then seeing the same happen in Maine last month. Against the strong hopes of many the New York State Senate on Tuesday rejected a bill already passed in the lower house which would have legalized gay marriage. This is a particular blow given the progressive tilt of New York and the $1 million spent by pro same-sex marriage organizations over the past year. Despite the confidence of many it wasn’t even close, going down 38-24.

There was some good news this week though and I’m thrilled to say it was out of Washington DC. Also on Tuesday the DC Council voted 11-2 to legalize same-sex marriage in the District. This is the first of three steps towards full legalization. A second vote is needed in two weeks, likely to pass by the same margin, and then there will be 30 days of Congressional review (because DC doesn’t have true democracy) but with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress it would be very unlikely to be blocked.

This vote has come after months of heated debate. Anti-gay marriage groups (led by the Catholic church) are still advertising on buses in the District but have lost their push to subject same-sex marriage to a public referendum. On November 17 the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics ruled that the issue could not go for a public vote as it does ‘not present a proper subject of initiative because it would authorize discrimination prohibited under the Human Rights Act (“HRA”).’

Quite right too, fundamental human rights should not be up for a vote. Discrimination is unconstitutional (not to mention immoral), whatever the majority might feel at this moment in time. This, by the way, is why Australia needs a Human Rights Act.

The next battleground seems to be New Jersey where there is a push for the Democrat-controlled legislature to vote on same-sex marriage within the next few weeks, before the Republican Governor-elect takes office in January.

One step at a time, this issue will go the right way, the arc of history bends towards equality. The bigots are standing against this tide, but they will lose. To see the truth of this you only need to look at this graph:

Moreso even than the normal left-right or red state/blue state divides support for same-sex marriage is determined by age. Even in the most progressive state, Massachusetts, the 65+ age group is less supportive of same-sex marriage than the 18-25 year-olds in the most conservative state, Alabama. It really is only a matter of time. But that’s no cause for complacency. Every day that some people are denied rights afforded to the rest of us due to their sexual orientation is a tragedy and a crime.

If you’re in the US you can get a free I love love sticker (seen at the top of this post) from Credo Action here.

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LeDroit Park Mural

LeDroit Park Mural on Elm St

My apologies for the blog silence this past week. We moved house on the weekend, didn’t get internet until early this week and I have been preoccupied with unpacking boxes and building furniture to get on my computer in the evening. But things are settling down and I’m back into it.

It’s exciting to be in a new place in a part of DC I haven’t explored much: LeDroit Park, near the NW/NE border. LeDroit Park was originally a whites-only neighbourhood in the late 19th Century but is now a primarily black neighbourhood, although it is, as they say, “up-and-coming”, by which they mean more white professionals are moving in. Like us.

It’s fun discovering this new (for us) part of town, it has a different vibe from Mt Pleasant, the suburb we lived in (and loved) for the past year. We’re within walking distance of the 9:30 Club, DC’s premier live music venue, and not too far from U St, a strip of cafe’s, restaurants, bars and shops.

Our living situation has changed also, K and I have moved in with a couple of friends. I will miss living just the two of us but it’s also cool to be back in a share house, which was always our set-up back in Sydney. This has allowed us to drop our rent while upgrading our facilities. The new house has a huuuge kitchen, massive common room with two fireplaces and our room has a fireplace and ensuite jacuzzi. Pretty nice.

We do have to deal with a pretty relentless amount of traffic noise and very bright street lights outside our big bay windows, which for the first couple of nights, before we got curtains set up, kept us awake and then woke us up early, but we’ll inevitably get used to it.

Whereas before we used to like to say we were neighbours of Barack Obama, as we lived just off 16th st, which runs down to the White House, now we live just off North Capital St, which runs directly to the Capital Building, so we still have that visual reminder that we live in the heart of the empire.

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Sign near Rock Creek Park, location of the National Zoo (by keever04 on flickr)

Have you ever looked at the predators in the zoo and wondered if, given the chance, they could still do their thing? Well I have, and for the lions at Washington DC’s National Zoo consider the question answered!

The National Zoo is the rare zoo that has actual wild animals running through it, thanks to it being free, which allows gates to sit wide open all day, where there are gates at all. On my first visit to the zoo a couple of years ago I got an enormous shock as a door deer dashed across my path, used as I was to only seeing animals on the other side of the fence.

Yesterday a deer, perhaps that same deer I saw, made the catastrophic error of leaping into the lions enclosure, where it was fatally injured. The Washington Post really summed it up with a headline that wrote itself:

At zoo, no escape for deer in the lions’ den

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My first-ever pumpkin!

My first-ever pumpkin!

This weekend I experienced my second Halloween, or my third if you count accompanying my host-sisters as they went trick-or-treating when I was on exchange in Spokane, Washington, when I was 16. And,  indeed, until moving here last year that was what I thought Halloween was: kids systematically hitting strangers up for candy, in violation of the rule we’re all taught when we’re young.

But it turns out it’s much, much more than that. In fact, it’s possibly the biggest party night of the year, up there with New Years Eve. And it’s certainly not just kids – big kids of all ages get dressed up and boogie down. You see superheros and fairies and Spartans and ninja’s and computers walking down the street, or rocking out on the dance floor at every bar in town. An entire country attending one big costume party.

Now admitedly my perspective might be skewered here by the fact that the two Halloweens I’ve been here have fallen on Friday and Saturday. If I’m here in a year or two I’ll be able to see how much of the manic energy carried into Sunday and Monday nights, or transfers to the nearest weekend night. But there’s something adorable and exciting about so many adults dressing up; it creates a sense of fun and play which is very immersive.

The Burning Man community figured this out a long time ago of course, so I find myself dressing thematically on an unusually-common basis currently. The weekend was a kaleidoscopic blur of people, colour, music and movement, filled with smiling faces and, of course, a spectacular variety of outfits. It was, as they say, a good time, with an energy in the air way beyond an average weekend, a sense of performative abandon which is perhaps only possible when you are wearing a costume.

You can see photos from TechArts: A Spooky Union, the party we attended on Saturday night, here.

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