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Common lessons for the common good

This was my first assignment with The Frontier Project, a Richmond-based organization dedicated to changing workplace culture. I've been fascinated by their mission, and was excited to get an assignment that breaks my own mold. So often, I'm writing profiles or interviewing experts about complex subjects. This time, I got to do some of my own research into inspiring nonprofits for an activism themed issue of their publication, Dispatches.

Nonprofits aren't known for having endless money and resources. They have to do a lot with a little, and prove the value of every investment, big or small.
Some of the most powerful forces for good are masters at marrying shoestring budgets with grit, determination, and creativity--and any company can borrow from that playbook.
Here, we share a few lessons from nonprofits at the top of their game.
Keep your mission simple.
It's easy for mission statements to turn into lengthy lists that read like a thesaurus, obscuring inspiring and admirable goals in long-winded jargon.
In just one sentence, charity: water communicates their focus to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. From there, any number of benefits can follow, like education, income, and health--but water frames them all.
That simplicity can breed creativity. When you have a mission that's open-ended, yet specific, you build a framework with space for innovative ideas. It becomes a rallying cry that helps everyone involved understand their role in the bigger picture.
Connect smart people.
Direct Relief spans the globe to bring medical supplies and healthcare providers to underserved communities. Only they're not necessarily the boots on the ground. Instead, they build a collaborative network of medical companies and professionals, and leverage those relationships to strengthen local health systems Take their partnership with Pfizer, which brought medicine to HIV-positive patients in more than 60 countries.
Shift your focus to bringing the right people to the table and enabling them to do what they do best.
See the problem; own the solution.
For nearly 25 years after the first successful organ donation in 1954, doctors had no way to connect a donor at one hospital with a patient at another. That is, until a group of people seized on budding technology to create a computerized matching database called United Network for Organ Sharing. When the federal government caught up in 1984 and called for a national network to allocate organs, guess who won the contract?
Today, an average of 92 organ transplants take place every day in the U.S.--and UNOS coordinates every one of them.
When you spot a challenge in your industry, don't be afraid to take the lead. You might just become the place that everyone else turns to for answers.
Never stop evolving.
For decades, The Stop was a basic Toronto food bank. Volunteers in cramped quarters distributed whatever food they could find to needy neighbors.
When Nick Saul took over, he saw the problems ran deeper and the solutions more complicated. He set out to rethink what a food bank should be. He started by bringing in higher quality, fresh foods. The Stop now has gardens and a greenhouse, kitchens and cooking lessons, farmers' markets and community action programs.
Saul left The Stop after 15 years--but for good reason. He now brings his social justice and community empowerment approach to a network of food banks throughout Canada.
Never stop looking for innovative ways to expand and evolve your core mission.

Cole's race

I came across this story by chance. I was assigned a quick, 250-word write-up for an annual report about two students' summer internship. It's the kind of thing I've written countless times. I showed up at Sheltering Arms to interview the internship supervisors, thinking I'd be in and out in 10 minutes. But 10 minutes in, they said, "Hold on, do you know Cole's story?" I didn't. An hour later, we were still talking, and that afternoon, I was setting up time to talk to Cole and his internship partner, Ethan.

Cole's story is one of unbelievable resilience. It took a while to get it published, and in that time, it came full circle.

On a warm summer afternoon in August 2011, Cole Sydnor, ’17, was out on the James River with three friends. He was 16 years old, enjoying the newfound freedom that came with the driver’s license he got the day before.
The friends crossed the river at one of their favorite spots, the pipeline near 14th Street.
“It’s kind of isolated,” Sydnor said, “and there are a couple of rock features that are a lot of fun.”
“Don’t people get hurt out on the rocks?” Sydnor’s mom, Kelly, had asked that morning. “Haven’t people died down there?”
Sydnor, full of teenage swagger, reassured her. “Mom, I’m a great swimmer. I’m gonna be fine,” he told her before he left.
After lounging in the sun, the group started to make its way back toward downtown. Sydnor dove into the water, hoping to get enough momentum to push through the swirling rapids. Instead, he struck his head on a submerged rock.
He knew a set of rapids were swirling just a few yards downriver. He started kicking his legs to swim out of its path. Only his body didn’t respond.
Sydnor was a lifelong swimmer, completely at ease in the water. Confusion set in. He opened his eyes — something he never did in the murky waters of the James. He saw his arms floating in front of him and the water surrounding him quickly turning a cloudy red.
His only friend who hadn’t yet crossed the river saw Sydnor drifting downstream toward the rapids and snapped into action. A Boy Scout with water safety training, he jumped in and pulled Sydnor from the water. Another friend grabbed his cell phone — something the boys almost never brought to the river — and called 911. The third, a high school track star, raced to meet the paramedics at the road, feet bare and bloodied from running on the pipeline grates.
All Sydnor could think was, “Damn it. Mom was right.”

This feature originally appeared in the autumn 2017 issue of University of Richmond Magazine.

No water required

It's awesome when you have crazy talented friends -- and even better when you get to write about them! I met Carrie Walters when I wrote about her and the first 804ork cookbook. I wrote her after the story published and asked if she might need some editorial help on the next edition. Lucky for me, she said yes. I learned so much from Carrie, about freelancing, and branding, and doing what you love.

This super savvy entrepreneur is now the brains (and hands) behind Paper Rose, a line of stunningly realistic paper flowers, and I got to write about Carrie again. And bonus, her amazing photos landed her on the cover of the autumn 2017 issue of University of Richmond Magazine.

April showers bring May flowers — unless you’re Carrie Fleck Walters, ’00. Then you just need some crepe paper, a little creativity, and a bushel of talent.
Walters first started making paper flowers when she was looking for a way to use her hands and unwind after a day working in graphic design.

She was a painter in college but doesn’t have the space for a studio at home. She tried knitting, but that wasn’t right, either. Then, she stumbled on a paper flower kit in Martha Stewart Living magazine.

“Working with paper was just a natural thing,” she says. “It’s malleable. There are a lot of different weights and textures to crepe paper, and they each have their own ability to be molded. I can sculpt the petals and position them so they’re more real.”

The case for clemency

This feature was part of my first issue as editor of Richmond Law magazine. Talking to Mary Tate about her and her students' work on this clemency case helped me better understand the nuances of writing about the law, and the complex nature of these cases.

In 2014, Dujuan Farrow, an inmate in a Pennsylvania prison, received a letter from Mary Kelly Tate, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
President Barack Obama’s administration had just announced its Clemency Initiative, inviting qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted. Pro bono organizations around the country were banding together to help submit petitions — including the Institute for Actual Innocence at the University of Richmond School of Law.
In the letter, Farrow read that this law professor he didn’t know had reviewed his case and believed he stood a chance. She asked to take on his case and submit a petition on his behalf.
She offered no promises, but this was Farrow’s last hope, his last shot at a life outside the prison walls that had surrounded him for 12 years.
He decided to take it.

A practice for new parents

I've been practicing yoga for more than 15 years. But last year, during the most monumental shift of my life, I had trouble finding the time and space for this much-needed steadying influence.

I had a chance to write for Project Yoga Richmond's blog about the experience of re-envisioning my yoga practice after having a baby. I'm also an ambassador for the nonprofit studio, which is dedicated to making yoga accessible to all in the Richmond community. Bonus: the post is chock full of adorable photos of yogis practicing with their littles.

There’s a Zen proverb that tells us to let go or be dragged.
Parenthood is one of the great lessons in proving that statement. At a time when your life changes overnight, it’s hard to let go of the comfort and routine you found in your practice.

What is acro yoga anyway?

Once a month, I teach an acro yoga workshop for Project Yoga Richmond. The partner acrobatics and yoga hybrid can be hard to explain and, sometimes, even harder to convince people to give it a try. In this blog post for PYR, I tried to break down some of the barriers and encourage people to get off their feet and onto someone else's.

Maybe you’ve seen photos of people doing some acrobatic yoga and you’re wondering, what’s this class all about? Or maybe you’ve seen it on the schedule, and have wanted to try it, but you’re nervous to make the leap. We get it! That’s why we’re tackling some common questions and misconceptions.

Breaking the binary

It was August, but the air was chilly. Jah Akande, ’13, bundled up in his coat as he prepared to exit the plane. He had just arrived in London with that nervous excitement so many students feel as they begin a semester abroad.
Jah grew up in Richmond, just a few miles down the street from the University. These three months in London would be his first time not surrounded by the friends and family and places he had always known.
As he approached the airplane door, the pilot greeted him, “Welcome to London, sir.”
Jah paused briefly, thinking to himself, “That was nice.”
It wasn’t the pilot’s friendliness that caught him off guard. Rather, it was the first time in Jah’s life that anyone had ever referred to him using “sir,” or “he,” or any other masculine pronoun — and the first time he realized the terms fit.

About a year ago, I pitched an idea for a story about the experiences of transgender students at the University of Richmond. While we’re a co-ed university, we have a coordinate college system that still assigns students to a college based on their gender. I thought we might have a perspective that not many other colleges and universities would have.

The University doesn’t have all of the answers, and I know many of the people I talked to would like to see more progress. But I’m happy it’s also a place that’s willing to acknowledge, on the front page of its website, that there's still work to do.

I spent hours and hours talking to students, alumni, and staff and I wish I had endless room to share their full stories because this story barely scratches the surface.

Serious props to Katie McBride for the gorgeous artwork and Joedy Felts for the animation and Internet magic.