In case you've made it most of the way through the year without knowing this, 2006 is Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday. You may not be celebrating, but the Ben Franklin Tercentenary is. The Philadelphia-based non-profit was formed six years ago to honor Franklin's legacy of civic activism, entrepreneurship and innovative thinking by facilitating community programs and public education that encourage these pursuits.
This year, the Ben Franklin Tercentenary partnered with Starbucks -- whose own work towards improved corporate social responsibility through community engagement has been gaining momentum -- to present the Ben Franklin Coffeehouse Challenge. The idea behind the challenge, which launched earlier this year, was to encourage local conversations about ways to improve community environments and programs, and then to catalyze action on those ideas.
Although Franklin is often given sole credit for his many civic initiatives, it was his firmly held belief that people who banded together for a common purpose could achieve greater goals than individuals could do separately [...] This grassroots program was designed to encourage lively and informal discussions during which a diverse range of civic-minded individualstwenty-first century Ben Franklinscould share their thoughts on particular local issues and, most importantly, generate potential solutions.
These conversations took place (naturally) at Starbucks, which will of course draw mixed opinions. But extra frappucino sales aside, the coffee shops served as comfortable venues -- "third places" -- where neighbors could meet, brainstorm, and organize. After six months of regular meetings, twenty-eight proposals rolled in for evaluation by central Pennsylvanian community and civic leaders.
Last night, the five winning entries were announced and awarded with $3000 each to achieve their idea. Proposals included a conflict resolution coaching program for parents and children living in a housing alliance in Pennlyn, PA; a community zine for distribution in inner-city Fishtown; a tree planting initiative around a West Philly public school; a community cultural center in Bella Vista; and a program to provide outreach and assistance to children with incarcerated parents.
This is a nice model for making significant impacts by starting small. All that was required in the beginning was a little imagination and an interest in talking to one's neighbors. From that seed emerged more than two dozen well-considered plans for making life a little better. Hopefully even those groups who were not chosen as finalists found enough inspiration and energy in their local communities to pursue the ideas they conceived during the challenge.
I really like the idea of organizing meetings to talk about social issues. However, the fact that Starbucks is involved makes me nervous that soon they will take over the world.
Mister Franklin's Folks
Mister Franklin's Folks began when a small group of people decided to bring a solar fountain to the local farmers markets, swap meets, and all the other outdoor community events and began to generate public power. Each week, they'd float the solar electric panel and pump on the water in a tub and the little fountain would splash and spray. The brighter the sunshine the higher the water would go. Children loved to turn it on and off with their shadows, jumping into and and out of the sunlight, making the water dance and themselves laugh. Older kids asked questions and so did some of the adults. "What's it for? How does it work? Why are you doing this? So what?"....