The citizen journalism and new media movements have made it increasingly possible for anyone to be heard in the media, first as sources and then as writers. But what if these interested and informed citizens became builders and innovators as well? The Awesome News Taskforce wants to empower anybody to create and test out community information and journalism projects of their own — $1,000 at a time.

i-6202914ae8f553d0bbfd0d17714901e9-awesomefoundation.png

The Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences was started in the summer of 2009 by Tim Hwang. During his undergrad years at Harvard, Tim was notorious for his long history of bizarre endeavors, from leading a cardboard penguin invasion to running for student government under an anarchist platform.

After graduation, Tim stayed in Boston and became interested in supporting crazy projects on a larger scale. He got 10 of his friends to agree to each set aside $100 per month to give to a project they collectively deemed “awesome,” whatever that meant. Anyone could apply for the microgrant by answering seven basic questions, and whoever won would take home the cash upfront with no strings attached. Marketing was done through word of mouth, grant decisions were made by consensus, and a sense of humor was mandatory.

The idea took off like wildfire, spreading to other East Coast cities within a matter of months. Within the last two years, the Awesome Foundation has spread to more than 20 cities in three continents with zero marketing or outreach budget. It soon became time to put all this energy to good use.

Doing Good While Doing Awesome

I was a frequent sidekick for Tim’s extracurricular endeavors in college, most notably co-founding an Internet culture convention called ROFLCon with him, but it took me until the 2010 Haiti earthquake to realize the incredible potential of what he had built this time.

Watching the news trickle in, I wanted more than anything to help, but I was deeply dissatisfied with my options. Prior to the earthquake, thousands of seemingly well-meaning organizations had already been working practically on top of each other with millions of dollars in funding, and the results had been less than spectacular. Of course, there were fantastic organizations like Partners in Health and DirectRelief that I was happy to donate to, but these were exceptions mired in a larger system that reeked of inefficient bureaucracy, unproductive in-fighting, neocolonialist arrogance, and shuffled priorities.

Though Haiti was finally getting some well-deserved international attention, I feared that the copious resources pouring in would ultimately do little for long-term capacity building, and I was right: It’s been revealed that less than 2 percent of recovery dollars in Port-au-Prince have gone to local Haitian contractors. Furthermore, it felt arrogant to make a decision about where to donate based on paltry Internet searches without real connections to people on the ground or any sense of context.

Supporting Local Heroes

What I really wanted to do was to find passionate, experienced, creative and innovative Haitians so that I could ask them to invest my money in whatever project or organization they thought would have the biggest impact. If they decided it was most prudent to give the money to a large NGO (non-governmental organization), so be it. But my hunch was that they would instead support local heroes and small, bootstrapped operations that could turn my small donations into a whole lot of good.

This was starting to sound familiar, so in a moment of excitement I wrote Tim an email with the following, profanity-ridden reasoning:

FACT: Awesome Foundation’s goal is to increase the amount of awesomeness in the world.
FACT: Haiti is pretty f***ing not awesome right now.
FACT: There are tons of humanitarian groups down there doing things like distributing food and providing short-term relief, but the truth of the matter is that none of this work is particularly inspiring for the future.
FACT: As we speak, Haiti slips further and further out of the news cycle. This is correlated to the last fact: People are tired of hearing about the same blah-blah millions of people are homeless and hungry and dying/dead stuff.
FACT: Haiti must have lots of native awesomeness. Taking an awesome approach to reconstruction is likely to put a smile on more people’s faces, help get past this disaster mentality, and play better on the news.

Increasing awesomeness in the world

A year later, we decided to incorporate a non-profit — the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies — to help organize the now-sprawling movement and direct its resources toward doing good as well as fostering awesome.

This meant, in part, helping to start chapters in places currently targeted by traditional development and aid and subsidizing their grants to lower the barrier to entry for trustees. We wanted to help these communities organize a long-standing, nimble institution that makes informed granting decisions locally, $1,000 at a time.

A grant from the Knight Foundation will help us fund innovative news and civic information projects starting in Detroit. The heart of this project is in collecting the best minds in Detroit’s news, entrepreneurship, social justice, and technology communities and providing them with the support to experiment with funding lots of local projects with a rapid turnaround. These trustees will meet monthly to read through and vote on applications sent in by Detroiters, ranging from professional journalists to working-class folks with an idea on the back burner.

The winning project, be it a useful gov 2.0 app for citizen reporting or a timely and underexposed story, will receive $1,000 to make the idea happen. Local news partners and the trustees themselves help spread the word and connect the winners with the resources they need to succeed. If done right, the funded projects will set off ripples of inspiration and engagement throughout the city.

We call it the Awesome News Taskforce: Detroit.

Into the Motor City

i-2b8962e6bdccb14b34572be777fba2de-christina.jpg

I’m writing this post from the kitchen of a hostel in Detroit in the middle of a week-long trip to meet with local change-makers. In the month and a half since our grant was announced, we’ve scoped out the city’s extensive innovative frontier and started to recruit for trustees and deans, the people who will form the backbone of the project over the coming months. We’ve also been asked to present on the idea at TEDxBoston and the Asian American Journalists Association convention, which was held here last week.

Opportunities surrounding the project have been climbing steadily, and I feel the dizzying and slightly sickening excitement of a kid seconds away from the first drop of an immense roller coaster.

My goal for this trip is to deepen my understanding of the landscape of Detroit’s major players, organizations and coalitions. I’ve scheduled meetings with makers, journalism veterans, entrepreneurs, bloggers and activists to tell them about the Awesome News Taskforce and ask for their advice and participation. The enthusiasm and passion for rebuilding and innovating here is palpable, and luckily, Awesome News Taskforce seems to be hitting all the right cylinders.