Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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What Motivates a Change Artist?

What motivates a change artist? I’m sure part of it is a sense of positive power and a belief that the actions of one person can create change. Perhaps it’s an ability to see things differently than everyone else and a desire to realize that difference. Or maybe it’s just a deeply felt sense of fairness – and outrage when innocent people are hurt. Perhaps for all of these reasons this man, Hong Kong native Deng Fei, is a change artist extraordinaire.

Spanish People Daily

Investigative Journalist Deng Fei – from the Spanish People Daily site

His story starts a few years ago, in rural China.

Tricia Wang3

photo by Tricia Wang

Here’s some background to the problem he tried to solve, by NPR’s Louisa Lim.

For 10-year-old student Xie Xiaoyuan, just getting to school is an ordeal. On a recent day, her frostbitten ears are testament to just how difficult the trip is.

“I get up at five o’clock,” she says, “then I comb my hair and start walking.”

w680a npr site

Xie Xiaoyuan walks to school – from the NPR site

Xie navigates a mountain path in China’s remote Shaanxi province in the dark, trudging through snowstorms and mudslides. Then she has to get a bus for about 10 miles. She hasn’t time to eat breakfast.

“For lunch, I spend 15 cents on two pieces of bread and a drink,” she says.


Xie arrives at school – from the NPR site

For Xie, those two pieces of bread used to be all she ate until dinner at home at 5 p.m. That’s all her family can afford, with their combined income of about $120 a month providing for five people.

w680 npr site2

Xie’s classroom – from the NPR site

Many of her fellow students at Hujiaying primary school in Shaanxi province’s Nanzheng county go hungry every day.

A local group tried to get news organizations to report on the children’s plight.  One of the journalists they contacted was Deng Fei.

from the site

In his mid-thirties, Deng Fei worked for Phoenix Weekly Magazine, written in Hong Kong and distributed on the Mainland. For ten years he investigated and delivered over a hundred articles exploring some of the dark recesses of Chinese society.

He wrote ground-breaking articles about China’s social issues, especially hardships faced by the nation’s women and children. He also published his pieces via his microblog on  – people trusted him and he’d gained a following.

Becoming a Change Artist

Everything ramped up in 2010 – when he became a change artist. Deng had learned that two young women, fighting to keep their home from being expropriated, were on their way to petition the government when they were waylaid by a local official in an airport bathroom and prevented from leaving.


Deng called the young women and started live blogging about their situation. Here’s what happened next, reported by the Christian Science Monitor:

Learning that three of the women’s relatives had set fire to themselves to protest the destruction of their home and that two of them required hospital treatment, he asked people who had followed his live blogging to send him money to pay for the women’s medical care. They did.

Shanghai Daily

Deng Fei – from the Shanghai Daily

“That was when I saw the power of new media to organize and encourage people to do things in line with the public interest and human nature,” he says. “This may change the definition of a journalist.”

“In China you can write articles, but they don’t often change things. We need action, and the government reacts very slowly to social problems.”

Serving Hungry Children

The next year he learned about Xie Xiaoyuan and the many poor rural children who went without lunch at school – drinking cold water to fight off their hunger.

After visiting some schools he realized it was a national problem.

Through his microblog he reached out to his followers, encouraged other reporters to write about the problem and posted pictures of hungry children. Then he did something extraordinary – he left his position with Phoenix Weekly, opened a bank account and asked his Weibo followers to contribute to help feed the kids. The money poured in.

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photo by Tricia Wang on location with Deng Fei

He also set up an elaborate system to guarantee transparency and ensure that all of the money he raised went to feed the school children.

Tricia Wang

photo by Tricia Wang on location with Deng Fei

Within six months he’d raised $3.7 million. Each of the 110 schools his charity helps must have their own blog and post details showing how much money they receive and how it’s spent.

China today website

from China Today

The publicity surrounding his efforts spurred the government to get involved, announcing it will spend $2.5 billion to provide a basic lunch to 26 million rural schoolchildren. All because one man took it upon himself to act.


from Focus/Forward Films

Deng Fei’s Story Captured in Video

Deng Fei’s story was captured in a video from GE’s Focus/Forward films. The video images of children baking potatoes illustrate what served for a meal for many of China’s rural schoolchildren before the free school lunch program was set up. As you’ll see, the video is well constructed and celebrates Deng Fei as a change artist.

Operation Free Lunch | Lixin Fan from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

I found Lixin Fan‘s video very powerful –  fast moving, well shot and edited, the images very compelling and the portrayal of Deng very heroic. But it makes me a little uneasy, as if the filmmaker edited the story to put forward his own political point of view – touting the journalist as the lone figure standing up to government ineptitude. In emotional tone, the visual portrayal of Deng Fei reminds me of a political candidate’s biopic.


filmmaker Lixin Fan from the Eyesteelfilm site

Visually and emotionally, I was moved by the piece and found the images of Deng Fei in the city, standing alone as the great man, very heroic. I’m sure it took some effort by filmmaker Lixin Fan to find a spot where he could portray Deng as the lone hero standing out from the crowd. It’s powerful filmmaking and a theme familiar to Western ears and eyes. But is there a little too much emphasis on Deng as heroic figure and too little on his motivation to make a better world?  I’m not sure – perhaps there’s something important here that’s lost in translation or misinterpreted on my side of the cultural divide.

What Motivates a Change Artist?

But either way, I certainly don’t want to diminish what Deng Fei was able to accomplish. I salute him for his courage to make a difference. Perhaps in the end, that’s what makes a change artist, the need to act and make the world a better place.

byLouisa Lim

from the NPR site

Deng Fei, from China Today:

“It brings me a warm glow of accomplishment. Having previously had limited influence on readers and society as a journalist, I find microblogs are an effective tool for mobilizing people and accumulating resources to solve problems. China has no lack of writers, but what it needs is people who take action.”

So what do you think? Share your thoughts and leave a comment.

Capitalizing on Capitalism


Otto Engineering, photo from their site

What comes to mind when you think about capitalism? Innovation, creativity, entrepreneurism? Or something concerned more with profit than people? Like most things in life, it depends on how you look at it. While Hollywood makes lots of money railing against evil businessmen, there is definitely another side to the story.

Christopher Hankins Daily Herald

Otto Engineering factory site by Christopher Hankins Daily Herald

Personally, I get interested when entrepreneurs show a driving vision to make something out of nothing. At its best, their brand of capitalism gives us hope that tomorrow might be better than today. Not just because they provide services or make things. But because some entrepreneurs think that what they’re doing should not just benefit themselves, but also help their community, their customers and the people they employ. In the old days, you might say they were out to serve the greater good.

If this sounds too blue sky, meet one hard-nosed manufacturer who is definitely making a difference – Tom Roeser.

CNN Money site

Otto Engineering President Tom Roeser, from the CNN Money site

Do you believe in altruism? On the face of it, what Tom Roeser is doing flows from a sense of self-interest. He has a company – he wants his company to thrive – and what he’s doing for the town is also helping his company grow.

What is he doing? Because more than 10% of his town’s homes have been foreclosed and abandoned, he’s buying the most dilapidated houses, fixing them up and selling or renting them – at below market rate.

Michael Smart Sun-Times Media

photo by Michael Smart Sun-Times Media

Pretty unusual for a businessman, you might say. But his factory is profitable – and those profits give him the capital to invest. His goal is to break even, recoup his expenses and reinvest to renovate more distressed homes. That way, his town’s housing problems won’t be a blight on his factory’s future. That’s why he decided to take action.

Here’s a news piece from CNN Money, published April 2, 2013.

Often, innovation comes from need. When Roeser first tried to get help for the problem, he was rebuffed:

“I went to the town, the county; I went to Habitat for Humanity; I told them that we needed to do something about this neighborhood. I couldn’t get help from anybody.”

So he went forward on his own. His initial thought was to rent and sell the homes at a reduced rate to his employees. Which he did.

“The plumbers make money, the electricians make money, everybody makes money and the people get a new home at cost. I come out of it whole.”

His efforts have become a catalyst for revitalizing the town’s neighborhoods. When he renovates a home it inspires other owners to fix up their homes, too. Crime has gone down, he’s planning to renovate some commercial buildings in town and last year the county received a $1.5 million grant to fund other neighborhood stabilization projects.

Paul D'Amato NYT

photo by Paul D’Amato, NYT

What’s he like as a factory owner? A few years ago Alex Kotlowitz, a NYT reporter, spent some time with him:

Nearly half of Otto’s 502 employees are Hispanic, and Roeser insists that they learn English. Prospective hires must first pass a language test. He requires supervisors to give instructions in English.

Still, he has a full-time instructor to teach English to his employees; they won’t receive a pay raise until they become more fluent. Add to that this observation by Kotlowitz:

 Roeser takes great pride in his relationship with his employees. Most call him by his first name. Each year, he gives them a picnic, and at the one I attended earlier this summer, Roeser knew the name of just about all the employees there, as well as their spouses.

Whether you see him as patronizing or patriotic, selfish or sympathetic, Tom Roeser has gone to a great deal of effort to make a difference in his community.

I like knowing that he’s multi-dimensional. Regardless how the media likes to portray it, we don’t really live in an either/or world. Rather, many contradictory things are true at the same time. So whether Tom Roeser is motivated by altruistic or selfish reasons, in the final analysis I think what he’s accomplished is quite remarkable.


photo from the Homes by Otto site

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Curiosity+Determination=Sara Volz

DNA structure from NIH

DNA structure from NIH

Children are naturally curious about the world around them. They’re always asking how does this work and why does that happen? I once heard Buckminister Fuller comment that curiosity makes all children natural scientists. Science and curiosity are entwined like a DNA double helix, but you also need vision – to see what’s possible – and a deep determination to keep going, especially when so many obstacles pop up along the way. And then, add to the equation the three Ps – patience, persistence and passion.


Sara Volz from the Davidson Institute site

Sara Volz has all of those qualities:

I found my passion in seventh grade—alternative energy—and it simply hasn’t left me alone. I’ve spent a good portion of my high school career begging, borrowing, and stealing saving for the materials to convert my room into a homespun laboratory. I’m fairly proud of the result: it comes complete with an appallingly clattery old centrifuge, glassware I got for my birthday, a microscope I got for Christmas, a rather handsome set of micropipettes, and, of course, the requisite bubbling flasks of green goo!


photo via Sara Volz

If Sara Volz sounds young, she is. But at age 17, she’s spent the past four years running experiments to create a better biofuel using biochemistry and algae – aka pond scum.  She grows the algae in her room in a mini-lab below her loft bed. To manage her experiments, she put her algae on a schedule – 16 hours of light and eight of darkness – and did the same for herself, “I sleep on my algae’s light cycle.”


from the Davidson Institute site

Why algae?  It could lead us down the road to energy independence.  Algae thrives in areas that can’t support other crops and grows on wastewater. I’m sure you’ve seen ponds by the side of the road turned bright green by the organisms. As a fuel, algae is environmentally friendly, as much as 60% of the organism is oil (think vegetable oil), and algae can yield 10 to 100 times more than other biofuels.  What’s left can be used to feed animals or to fertilize plants.


photo via Sara Volz

Sara isn’t the first to see the potential of algae as a biofuel. Exxon, partnering with genetic scientist Craig Venter, has put up $600 million towards that pursuit. Just this month Venter said they’ll need to force their algae to produce more oil, noting that the solution is still 25 years away. Working on her own, high school student Sara Volz has pointed the way to making it commercially viable.

How did she do it? Starting with Charles Darwin’s concept of natural selection, Sara used a process called “artificial selection” with an herbicide that forces algae cells to adapt, by producing more oil, or die.

It’s like a weed acquiring resistance to herbicide. But in this case, I designed the selection pressure so the resulting population will produce something we want — oil.

Like any scientific effort, there were obstacles:

I always felt like my work wasn’t coming together—I wasn’t getting the answers, or the experiment didn’t work out right, or the analysis still had one or three or ten kinks to be worked out—but I kept plugging away…  This doggedness, more than anything else, has paid off.


from the Intel site

It paid off by growing algae that produces seven times more oil than untreated organisms. Her work won first place and $100,000 in the Intel Science Talent Search.  Next year she’ll be a freshman at MIT.

Too often our high school girls do not feel welcome in the halls of science, which makes Sara a great role model. More impressively, she worked alone when most of the other finalists worked with a school or lab. Her passion to find answers led her to ask other scientists for help and support. And while some turned her down, others were impressed by her maturity, knowledge and commitment.

When I needed the resources or equipment of an actual laboratory setting, I would contact researchers about working in their labs to analyze some of my samples… Some of it was begging and e-mailing lots of people, saying that I’m doing a research project and I’d love you to give me some advice, or let me use some of your neat equipment. You get some closed doors and some wonderful people willing to help.

If you want more, there’s an excellent interview with her here. I like Sara’s story because it’s so inspirational. Armed with curiosity and enthusiasm, she found success because she dedicated herself to her work, understood what she needed to do to make it happen and wasn’t intimidated to ask for help when she needed it. She’s a great example of  what can happen when you transform “why?” into “why not?”


Chris Ayers Photography/Society for Science & the Public

Essentially, I am trying to hijack natural evolutionary processes in order to produce a cell line with… high rates of oil synthesis. So far, it is all going fairly well…

Getting a Jolt from Kickstarter

Bloomberg Businessweek Oct. 2011

I wanted to write a little more about Kickstarter and what it has to offer.  For starters, the Oct. 24th issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has a neat little graphic about “The New Venture Capital” aka Kickstarter.  And its headline states that the site helped entrepreneurs raise $8.8 million in September.  That’s a lot of people interacting with a lot of projects.  And many of those projects raised more than their goals.  

Here’s one of their innovative concepts: you take your idea and use Kickstarter to help you find an audience.  If enough people like what you’re proposing, they’ll give you the money. And by contributing, they’ll also hold a stake in your creative concept.  So when it’s completed, you already have a supportive audience to build on.  Which makes the whole process more democratic and offers more opportunity to anyone with a great idea and a plan for making it happen.

Nora and one of the kids
An abandoned lot in Brownsville

Which brings me to Nora Painten’s Brownsville Student Farm Project.  She wants to turn this empty lot into a working farm to teach city kids about food, nutrition, teamwork, farming, the discipline and benefit of work, and the joy of growing your own food.  

This is Nora’s Garden Plot

She lays it all out in her video on her Kickstarter page.  Of course her concept is very appealing. Who wouldn’t enjoy an urban garden, especially one run by an experienced farmer with a mission to bring her love of the land and farming to city kids.  And many years ago I taught third grade in Brownsville.  Back then, it was mostly ruin and rubble.  So her effort to reclaim the land caught my eye.  And after I saw her video, I was curious about who might support her project.  So I picked one at random on her list of backers.   

And I found that one of her backers is Katherine Ferrier, who had her own Kickstarter project, Cultivate, to bring dancers, designers and musicians together as a creative community to perform in a small New Hampshire town.  And she has her own blog about dance-making, collaboration and the creative process.  

I love how exploring this site sends you on a journey.  Starting with an innovative idea to fund the creative process, moving to introducing kids and the local community to growing their own food and moving to a dance-maker with a vision of growing her own creative enterprise.  Each reaching out, sharing their experiences and creating community via the web.  It’s all about connections, and I love how one leads to the next and the next.  And before you know it, you’re discovering people and ways of seeing the world and living in it that you would never encounter, save through this amazing catalyst for innovation and vision, the Internet.

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