One of the graduate students working with our Center for Future Civic Media at MIT was offended by the New York City “See Something, Say Something” Mass Transit Authority’s anti-terrorism campaign. Alyssa Wright felt it had an unhealthy impact on her city, encouraging people to look at each other with heightened suspicion. She read in a New York Times article that the campaign generated 1,944 reports to the police, but apparently none of them had led to any arrests of actual terrorists. There were reports of seeing someone who was wearing Muslim dress, or engaging in Muslim prayers, or some other activity that seemed alien and therefore, suspicious to the witness.

Alyssa decided to try something to counter what she felt was the toxic cultural impact of the “See Something, Say Something” campaign. She recognized that she couldn’t eliminate that campaign entirely, because people do want to be vigilant against possible acts of terrorism. But they could also understand strength and security in their communities a different way—as a matter of people taking care of each other, even as strangers. She decided to invite people to start looking for acts of heroism, generosity and civic engagement, however small or fleeting they might seem.

Her “Hero Reports” project (http://heroreports.org) has since won the attention of John Hockenberry’s “The Takeaway” morning public radio program, and may be replicated in other cities. Here is how it works: anyone can go to her website or text message her in order to fill out a very brief form citing an act of courage, selflessness or special courtesy they have witnessed or experienced. It can be “challenging a racist stereotype, providing a stranger’s bus fare, helping a disabled person across the street, assisting someone in difficulty,” Alyssa says. She counts even small “acts of community” as heroic. The forms collect information about the date, time, place and description of the hero report. She is gleaning some of them from first-person accounts, and some from news media accounts. She hopes to collect at least 1,944 reports to match the number of suspicion reports under the See Something, Say Something MTA campaign.

At the end of the summer, Alyssa will present a collection of her Hero Reports to the New York MTA. She also is mapping the reports on her website, so that New Yorkers can see their security in a new way, as a series of places where acts of civic heroism—rather than crimes, which are so often plotted on these news maps—have taken place.

Alyssa’s challenge was to design, build and operate the interfaces, website and database. She wanted it to look like the MTA’s advertisements. Anyone who wants to contribute a report should do so soon—and if anyone wants to give feedback to Alyssa about the project, she is at apw217@mit.edu

Related