Enterprise Stories

Planning to do good? Get ready for haters.

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This article originally appeared on Tonic.com on February 25th, 2011.

Imagine that after a life-long struggle with obesity, you decided to take measures to shed 100 pounds. But when you told your friends and family, they weren’t on board.

“We’d rather you kept the weight on,” they said. “Sure, you’re at a higher risk for diabetes and cancer, but aren’t you more comfortable that way?”

Crazy, right?

Now imagine that your weight loss wasn’t physical, but material. Imagine selling your house and moving into one half the size so you could give the money away. What would your family and friends say?

That’s what Kevin Salwen and his family found out when they did just that — sold their palatial Atlanta home for one half as large to give the money to help villagers in remote Ghana. But when they broke the news to the people they knew best, the reaction wasn’t what they expected.

“I think we felt that this is something that everybody should know about. We were very proud of it,” Salwen told Tonic. “We thought everybody would understand and embrace that. That was a poor judgment on our part.”

Salwen, who wrote a book about the experience with his teenager daughter, Hannah, called The Power of Half, says those initial conversations about his family’s monumental life change were often painful and awkward.

“Our friends couldn’t quite figure out just what the heck it was about,” said Salwen.
“How did we go from people they thought they knew to people who would make this kind of decision?”

If you start living on less, giving away more of your income to charity, or making any sort of switch away from the typical American consumer lifestyle, you’re going to face confused and even skeptical reactions, said Salwen.

“A lot of people were uncomfortable because it was challenging them. It made them question their own process and their own way of life,” he explained.

Salwen remembers one day when his wife, Joan, came home from lunch with a friend. When Joan described her family’s new adventure, the friend burst into tears and said, “This is not my reality.”

“Joan was so upset. She told us, ‘I’m sick and tired of being a weirdo. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I just want to shut up,’” said Salwen.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.24.12 PMBut although his family has lost some friends, they’ve also gained some new ones.

Despite the criticism they encountered, they’ve never regretted making the choice to downsize.

“Our small act of philanthropy has brought us into contact with so many of the most loving and kind people,” said Salwen. “For everybody who says, ‘This is not a relationship I want to have anymore,’ we’ve had 50 people who’ve come into our lives who put our own generosity to shame.”

So if you’re thinking of “getting off the hedonistic treadmill,” as Salwen says, what should you expect? And how can you learn from his family’s experience to make the transition easier? Here are a few tips:

— ”Recognize that you are going to be running headlong into what people have been lead to believe all their lives.”
The idea that “bigger is better” and “the new beats the old” are part of American culture. ”That concept is so deeply ingrained in who we are and what we do that almost no matter what you say, it’s going to come across as difficult for some people,” says Salwen.

— Make it about you.
Instead of talking about how you want to change the world, talk about your personal motivations for making a change. ”Let them know, I’m doing this because I think I can be happier,” Salwen suggests. “I’m doing this because I feel like I’ve gotten away from my core values.”

— Practice your message.
Figure out what you want people to know and how best to say it beforehand, so you don’t get swept up in excitement. Also, decide how much you want your choices to be a challenge to others. ”Some would say that we were overly challenging,” said Salwen. “But we really do believe that people can be better, healthier and happier. Happier in a deeper, more authentic sense.”

— Embrace change and focus on the bigger picture.

“I don’t have the same friends as I had from high school or college or when our kids were young,” said Salwen. “You go through groups of friends. If there are people who liked us better before than they do now, that’s okay. I can deal with that.”

Salwen says he doesn’t regret for a moment that he listened to his teenage daughter’s prompting to consume less and give more. ”We’re so much happier.We’re so much closer. We’re surrounded by generous, wonderful people. Our life is less about having and more about meaning.”

Enterprise Stories

The geeks shall inherit the earth

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.33.44 PMThis story originally appeared on Tonic.com on Dec. 24, 2010.

It’s not uncommon for friends to call up Janet Mitts with computer problems. Last week, she even fixed her hairstylist’s laptop. She regularly brings people down to the basement computer workshop where she volunteers to give their machines a diagnosis and a cure.

But Mitts isn’t your typical computer whiz. She’s a 66-year-old retired African-American woman who lives on the south side of Chicago. She learned to fix computers and even built her own with the help of a scrappy nonprofit called FreeGeek Chicago.

“I always loved taking things apart, and I got fascinated by computers,” she says. “I love learning how the parts work, what makes them tick, what goes where.”

Mitts is not the only one. FreeGeek Chicago has taught hundreds of people how to take computers apart and put them back together, allowing them to volunteer weekly to eventually earn their own refurbished computer. FreeGeek has two objectives: to cut down on the amount of computer waste thrown into landfills and to give people low-cost access to technology.

Founder David Eads says he’s amazed at how FreeGeek has grown, without any support from grants or foundations, to create a vibrant community.

Six years ago, Eads and a few young, idealistic friends were passionate about narrowing the digital divide and frustrated with the computer-lab model often employed in poor communities.

“You learn computers by having them in your home,” says Eads. “You learn computers by learning to break them and then fix them.”

Soon after, Eads and his friends learned about a new nonprofit in Oregon, FreeGeek Portland, that was providing free computer parts and training to residents there.

Soon after, FreeGeek Chicago was born.

Although it started off slow, FreeGeek Chicago has taken off. In the first three years it was open, about 100 volunteers completed their build-a-computer program. In 2010, Eads estimates that up to 750 people will have gone through it.

Part of that rise in volunteers is their open door policy. Eads says FreeGeek doesn’t put limits on who can come through its doors — there are no income restrictions or background checks.

“I always say, ‘We don’t care if you just got out of the joint or you just got out or church, as long as you are willing to treat people with respect,’” he says.

Although they use funds from computer sales and scrap metals to keep it running, Eads says FreeGeek can always use a little more of two things: money and computer donations. In particular, he says, they need donations of old laptops.

Screen shot 2013-03-28 at 4.33.34 PM“People want to buy laptops and volunteers want to work on laptops, so they’re a win-win for us,” says Eads.
FreeGeek Chicago runs almost entirely on volunteers, with only one paid staff person, Aaron Howze, running the day-to-day operations. Howze is a former electrical engineer who came to FreeGeek to help out and got hooked.

“I found that I could learn what I didn’t know and I could teach what I did,” he said. “I found that extremely satisfying.”

Twenty-year-old Sarah Fletcher recently came to FreeGeek to build her own computer. She’s studying business at Kennedy King College on Chicago’s south side and needs a computer for her school work. Even though it was her first day in the workshop, she said she planned on coming back — a lot.

“I don’t just want to get my computer,” says Fletcher. “I want to become a staff member. I want to be one of the people who knows everything.”

So, does Janet Mitts, admitted computer devotee, now think of herself as a geek?

“No,” she says. “But if I was, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.”