For Goodness’ Sake

Is your New Year's resolution to be a better person? Find inspiration in five meetings and conferences that are making the world a better place — one neighborhood, one energy system, one veteran, one video game, and one young leader at a time.

Games for Change Festival

The ‘active participation’ that video games demand is exactly why Games for Change is convinced they can foster education, awareness, and social good.

We know what you’re thinking: What does a video game have to do with changing the world? How do 10 million teenagers parked in front of their Xbox, killing zombie hordes, make things better for anyone?

In some ways, you’ve answered your own question — and identified the potential impact of the Games for Change Festival. “The mission is pretty simple,” said Asi Burak, co-president of the New York City-based Games for Changes organization. “How do you take the medium of video games, that we strongly believe is becoming one of the most dominant if not the dominant medium of this century — how do you take it and utilize it for social good?”

Launched in 2004, the festival brings together “a mix of different people that are coming from very, very different places,” Burak said. Professionals from government agencies, nonprofits, and corporations — “usually from social-responsibility programs” — join video-game makers for a three-day program that celebrates and explores the power of video games to raise awareness of important social issues, provide sophisticated education, and even change behavior. “Unlike the media that came before or that are competing with video games,” Burak said, video games have “attributes that really, really map very well to social change, to being active in the world, to learning, and it’s very different than traditional media that we know.”

At the 2012 Games for Change Festival, which was held at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on June 18-20, more than 800 attendees had a variety of programs to choose from, including a daylong track for the Federal Games Working Group, which, according to the festival’s website, is “designed to network game developers and researchers interested in working with U.S. Federal Agencies such as National Air and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).” There were also hands-on workshops to show educators how to use game-design programs as part of school activities, an Awards Arcade where attendees could play the games nominated for Games for Change Awards, and keynote presentations by game designer Jane McGonigal, Atari founder Nolan Bush-nell, linguistics and games researcher James Paul Gee, and video-games industry executive Lucy Bradshaw.

“Traditionally it’s been more of a conference, and we’re changing that all the time to make it more of a festival,” Burak said. “We’re trying to bring more activities that are either open to the public or that are more about active participation. If it’s a game conference, let’s playgames.” That includes games such as Inside the Haiti Earthquake, which offers “a really, really serious take on what it means to be in that environment and actually uses real-world videos,” Burak said, “and you make choices and [the plot] branches [out] based on your choices”; and Unmanned, which is “about a guy that wakes every morning and goes to fly drones and bomb people in the Middle East. Through the game you learn that the only point he sees real blood is when he shaves in the morning.…That’s a very political statement, and a very artistic game.”

That’s par for the course with Games for Change, which aims to “reach beyond the converted,” Burak said. “If you do it well, and if you’re not preachy and the game is still fun and entertaining, it would be a great way [for someone] to become aware or interested in an issue that he wouldn’t otherwise be interested in.” Recently Games for Change partnered with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to present a series of interactive digital games at the museum’s Margaret Mead Film Festival — including The Cat and the Coup, which tells the story of the U.S.- and British-backed overthrow of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 from the point of view of Mosaddegh’s cat; Sweatshop, which Burak calls “a sharp and satiric look at the mechanics of sweatshops”; and Guess My Race, an iPad game that shows players dozens of faces and asks them how they think each person answered the question “What race are you?” “It’s very interesting to see how people define themselves and how tough it is to guess [their race],” Burak said, “and those moments of surprise and frustration are very important.”

That also goes for Games for Change itself, which has been almost too successful in attracting people from outside the industry to the festival. Suddenly, game makers have begun to feel marginalized — something that crystallized in 2011 when Al Gore appeared as a keynote speaker. “The game makers in the audience raised questions — almost like, ‘Why is he here?’” Baruk said. “Obviously they understand what it means to the power of games, but it was also for them a big question of where games were going and what does it mean for them and the medium they love so much and how it’s going to change.”

Burak and his team are figuring out how to bring the game professionals back into the fold. “Part of the answer to that,” he said, “is to create a shared common experience, so [it’s] less about dividing the tracks and more about unifying the program, so everyone is together in the same room. There can’t be anything better than bonding people through play. It’s our message. If this is what we’re advocating for, that’s what our festival is for.”


Military Social Work Conference

As thousands of veterans return from overseas, the University of Texas School of Social Work prepares to aid their transition back into civilian life.

Just 69 miles north of Austin sits Fort Hood, one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world. “Many, if not most, of the people deployed to Afghanistan are coming from there,” said Allen Ruben, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work.

In the next year, as the United States pulls more troops out of Afghanistan, Texas will see an influx of veterans — returning from lengthy tours during the longest combat engagement in U.S. history — in need of counseling and guidance while they adjust to civilian life. They’ll arrive on the heels of military personnel who cycled out of Iraq from 2009 to 2011. In a New York Times column last spring, Timothy Egan cited a Pew study finding that more than 800,000 veterans are “re-entering society with some form of psychological trauma.”

That is the impetus behind the 2013 Military Social Work Conference, which the School of Social Work is hosting at Texas’ Thompson Conference Center on April 11-13. Presented under the theme “Civilian Social Work With Veterans Returning From Iraq and Afghanistan: Implications for Practice and Education,” the inaugural event will happen just four months after the release of the Handbook of Military Social Work — co-edited by Ruben, the conference’s organizer; Eugenia Weiss, a social worker and psychologist who teaches at the University of Southern California; and Jose Coll, an associate professor of social work and director of veteran student services at Saint Leo University in Florida.

“We thought it would make sense to have a conference after the book’s publication,” Ruben said, “to meet the needs of veterans that are returning en masse from the wars over in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The idea came to Ruben when he sat in on a local presentation by social workers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), who explained that they would need help once veterans started returning in large numbers. “They said, ‘It won’t work if we keep referring them to mental-health practitioners,’” Ruben said, “’because a lot of them don’t know how to deal with vets.’”

To alleviate some of the burden placed on the VA, Ruben and his colleagues decided to convene a conference that would better prepare area social workers, educators, and other mental-health professionals to work with vets. The three-day meeting is divided into two tracks: one for civilian practitioners who will be treating and providing services for veterans, and another for social-work educators looking to expand their course offerings. The educator track will be “modeled somewhat” after the content and format of the Handbook of Military Social Work, Ruben said.

“We’re going to focus on what [educators] could do to better prepare future practitioners to work with this population,” Ruben said. “What kinds of courses they should teach, what internships would work, and how to work with vets coming back to school.” Ruben expects 75 to 100 practitioners from Texas and approximately 50 social-work professors from around the country to attend the conference, which he says will be the first of its kind in the city of Austin.

On the third and final day of the conference, educators and practitioners will reconvene for a panel presentation by spouses of veterans. “We’ll be addressing [veterans’ families’] needs throughout the conference,” Ruben said, including a six-hour workshop focusing on families and children of military personnel and veterans.

Other sessions will concentrate on traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide prevention, helping veterans transition into civilian life, military culture, and ethical dilemmas in working with military personnel. “It’s real clear to me that the social-work profession is having a very strong response to this need,” Ruben said. “A lot of social workers, their ears are perking up right now.”

In his research for the book, Ruben found that very few university programs offered much in the way of veteran-specific social-work education. He hopes the conference will beef up the extent to which they prepare students for working with veterans. “And we’re hoping that more practitioners here in central Texas who currently don’t feel particularly motivated or capable of working with veterans, will now feel more confident about doing so,” Ruben said. “They might seek out further continuing education, or this might just be a start for some to get moving in that direction.”

Aside from attendees learning the basics when treating veteran trauma at the 2013 Military Social Work Conference, they’ll also be educated on military culture. Co-editor Jose Coll writes in the Handbook of Military Social Work: “A key tenet in the social-work knowledge base today is the need for social workers to be culturally competent with regard to the target population they serve.” That includes recognizing unique stigmas. “Both enlisted persons and officers in the armed forces are indoctrinated to believe that mental-health issues and psychological problems are sources of weakness.… This culturally driven value can serve as a potential obstacle in the therapeutic process.”


One Young World Summit

At One Young World, a better future starts by inspiring and empowering the next generation of leaders.

It was equal parts awe-inspiring, intimidating, and energizing,” said Anne Marie Toccket, director of the Pittsburgh Hostel Project and an attendee at the 2012 One Young World Summit in Pittsburgh on Oct. 18-22 — the first time the annual conference for young leaders was held in the United States. “It was [incredible] being around some of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever encountered from every corner of the world.”

The conference brings together “ambassadors,” ages 18 to 30, who are committed to making an impact in their communities, and who must apply to attend. “They share their vision, views, and ideas,” said Kate Robertson, co-founder of One Young World, the London-based charity that organizes the summit, “to create practical and achievable commitments for positive change.” Approximately 1,300 ambassadors from 183 countries attended the 2012 summit, which kicked off with a Q&A with former President Bill Clinton. “It’s the largest gathering of its kind,” Robertson said, “and the only event that brings together [this] many countries in one place, other than the Olympics.”

The summit’s discussions are divided into seven key subject areas: education, global business, health, human rights, leadership and governance, sustainable development, and transparency and integrity. “Each of the plenary sessions throws up extremely interesting viewpoints,” Robertson said, “and moving stories from the delegates and also the counselors.”

The counselors are inspirational leaders carefully selected by One Young World Summit organizers to mentor attendees. At the 2012 summit, they included former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and Pakistani poet, writer, and journalist Fatima Bhutto. “The key to One Young World,” Robertson said, “is that following the summit, the ambassadors will action real change in their own countries and communities and, using the lasting connections One Young World enables them to maintain, on a global scale.”

Since the summit’s inception in 2010, “four million people have been directly impacted by the work of One Young World Ambassadors,” according to the One Young World website. Gaining inspiration and vital connections from the summit, delegates have gone on to engineer more than 125 projects and initiatives involving more than 100 countries. “Projects range from polar expeditions to raise awareness of climate change,” Robertson said, “to initiatives to bring electricity to remote villages in rural India, to campaigns that aim to tackle unemployment and encourage entrepreneurship.”

One particularly meaningful campaign that emerged from the 2011 summit in Zurich, Switzerland, is “Wake Up Call,” the “brainchild of delegates who announced that Feb. 21, 2012, would be an international day of action,” according to Robertson. Their initiative inspired young people around the world, many of whom did not attend the summit, to “call on their political and business leaders to wake up and take action on specific areas of concern,” Robertson said — including job creation, environmental cleanliness, political accountability, and equal rights. On the big day, young people in more than 80 countries hit the phones, streets, and keyboards to make their case. In Mexico, they called on presidential candidates to address questions from Mexican youth. In Algeria, they asked President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to limit presidential terms to five years, and to integrate young people into the election process. In Nepal, they requested that the minister of local development implement a policy to make the country’s capital city, Kathmandu, more easily accessible for the physically disabled.

The 2012 summit covered important, timely international issues, such as the attempted assassination of 14-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, gay and disabled rights, and environmental sustainability. Antony Jenkins, who was appointed CEO of the global financial-services provider Barclays last August, discussed ethical business and his plans for reforming the scandal-plagued bank. Summit ambassadors also shared the work they’d been doing in their home countries concerning government transparency and accountability.

Delegates had more input than in years past, contributing firsthand to the conference’s content. “In the run-up to [the 2012] summit,” Robertson said, “we dedicated more time to work with the incoming participants than in previous years. We gave them a real sense of ownership by enabling them to choose discussion topics for the summit. This really changed the nature of the event.”

Many delegates left the 2012 summit feeling “invigorated, excited, and empowered to create,” Toccket said. “The impact of the events [at the summit] are really intangible and hard to articulate. The biggest thing is creating these projects and ideas, and reinventing the world in our young image.”

And giving tomorrow’s leaders a voice today. To that end, the summit has seen a surge in international media coverage, welcoming journalists from India, China, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Europe, and Mexico last year. “Ultimately, we want One Young World to be the most important summit in the world other than the World Economic Forum,” Robertson said, “and that the media give the delegates a hearing — that the world listens to young people.”


Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference

The Center for Community Progress is looking for people who believe that change begins with that abandoned building down the block.

A vacant property is a missing tooth, a onetime healthy home or store that now stands empty and dilapidated, sometimes indicating the presence of a rot that could spread to its neighbors. Each one is a threat to neighborhood cohesion. And each one represents hope — the potential to do something small that can fix something big.

“When you’re looking at how to create vibrant communities, when you’re looking at creating communities that people want to be living in and working in, vacant properties are really tough,” said Jennifer Leonard, vice president and director of advocacy and outreach for the Center for Community Progress, which is dedicated to “helping cities, towns, states, and regions across the United States reintegrate vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties into the economic and civic life of their communities.” Vacant properties, Leonard said, “really tend to destroy communities, but they can be great assets. But you need to get your hands on them in order for them to be assets.”

That’s where Community Progress’ Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference comes in. Anywhere from 500 to 1,000 local, state, and federal government officials, policymakers, activists, sponsors, and other people working on the issue attend the annual meeting, which this year is scheduled for Sept. 9-11 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia — a city that’s no stranger to vacant properties. Ditto the conference’s previous hosts, including New Orleans, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. “It has to be a city that does have a challenge,” Leonard said. “But more important than that, we think it’s important to know that they’re actively doing something about it.…We want to be able to say, ‘This city is doing really cutting-edge work.’”

Community Progress also wants to be able to help attendees — by offering a program that shares “lessons that people around the country have learned [about reclaiming vacant properties],” Leonard said, “so they’re not figuring it out for themselves.” At the 2012 conference in New Orleans, there were seven “mobile workshops” that took participants on tours of revitalization projects throughout the Crescent City; three-hour training sessions on topics such as “Building an Effective Code Enforcement Management System” and “Understanding Neighborhood Dynamics and Using Market-Based Data”; and breakouts that included “Local Efforts to Combat Blight: Foreclosure and Vacancy Ordinances,” “Combatting Crime in Vacant Properties: Engaging Unusual Allies to Battle Vacancy,” and “Alchemy for Resurgent Regions: Using Vacant Land to Kick Start Local Economies.”

About 600 people attended the first Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, held in Pittsburgh in 2007 — many of them coming from the older industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. “They were so excited to recognize they weren’t alone,” Leonard said. “They were in a room of people who had this problem.”

It’s a problem that, since the subprime-mortgage crisis and the economic meltdown, has only become more acute. And understanding the systems that create vacant properties is more important than ever, as is creating “a national network of people that are connected to each other,” Leonard said. She added: “It’s fun. You have people in the room who are really, really excited about changing how their community is dealing with vacant properties. And everyone is so enthusiastic.”

An important component of the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference is success stories – sharing them as a way of showing attendees that a seemingly intractable problem is actually reversible. At last year’s conference, for example, a session called “Redeveloping Neighborhoods and Revitalizing Housing Markets: A Tale of Two Cities” presented a joint case study on innovative programs in New Bedford, Mass., and Baltimore.

The Baltimore portion is particularly eye-opening. Baltimore Housing‘s Julia Day and Michael Braverman took attendees through the agency’s Vacants to Value (V2V) initiative, launched two years ago to target 16,000 vacant buildings throughout the city. By streamlining and strengthening the process through which properties are declared abandoned and providing incentives for the private market to reclaim them, V2V has resulted in a 175-percent increase in the sale of city-owned property, helped secure nearly $35 million in private investment, and seen some 760 rehab projects completed or under way.

“Where developers have the means to rehabilitate every vacant house on a strategically selected block, they can effectively restart a housing market,” according to Baltimore Housing’s presentation. “Using their expansive toolkit, Code Enforcement attorneys can require every owner of vacant property on a block to either rehabilitate or sell to someone who can. … As long as there is at least one capitalized developer, the block will be rehabilitated.”


Transition Network UK Conference

From food distribution to energy systems, Transition Network is developing projects that will help people thrive in times of crisis.

The idea of “resiliency” has been one of the core tenets of the U.K.-based nonprofit Transition Network since its inception in 2006. “The way we use resilience is as a term to describe the ability of a system — which could be an economic system, or a human entity, or a society — to withstand shocks from outside and maintain a healthy level of equilibrium,” said Ben Brangwyn, Transition Network’s co-founder and one of the main organizers of its UK Conference.

While that might sound like a group of people preparing for doomsday, members of Transition Network are really concerned with making sure that people have the ability and the resources to withstand crises created by the interruption of cheap and abundant energy sources such as oil. Brangwyn cites an example of a non-resilient food system — the U.K.’s supermarket system, which functions very much like that in the United States. When U.K. truck drivers, protesting a proposed tax increase on diesel fuel, blockaded oil refineries throughout the country in April 2012, supermarkets were found to have only four-and-a-half days’ worth of food in stock throughout the entire system, and only swift action by the government to withdraw the proposed tax increase prevented an imminent food crisis.

How can people be resilient to these types of crises? How will they fare if (or when) there are major events that threaten economic or food systems? Transition Network, made up of movements all over the globe, seeks to help people develop strategies to become more resilient — and to reduce their CO2 emissions in the process. Transition events and projects range from a group in Hainaut, Belgium, teaching people how to heat their homes in the case that the era of cheap oil ends, to a community wellness project in California that, according to Transition Network’s website, combines “outreach/networking to local sustainable health-care practitioners with a forum to provide sustainable health practices to the local community.”

And while there are hundreds of meetings and events involving Transition Network-affiliated groups throughout the year, Transition headquarters also puts on an annual conference in the U.K. Last year’s theme, “Building Resilience in Extraordinary Times,” stemmed from the movement’s belief that there are “potential opportunities that large discontinuities in things like economics and politics can afford us, if we move quickly and adventurously enough together,” Brangwyn said. Held on Sept. 14-16 at the Battersea Arts Center (BAC) in London, the 2012 conference drew approximately 350 attendees, including a large international presence. In fact, 40 to 45 percent of attendees were from outside the U.K., which Brangwyn said was “way more than double” the breakdown in previous years.

The BAC, which typically is used for performance art and theater, offers four rooms for meetings and events — although much of the Transition Network UK Conference took place in the Grand Hall, an approximately 1,600-square-foot space with high arched ceilings, a large stage, and a glass-domed marble foyer. The conference was divided into five distinct events that could be attended either individually or as a series over the course of the weekend. Main conference workshops included presentations on topics such as “How to Make Happy Healthy Human Culture, and Why We Sometimes Don’t” and “Good Lives Don’t Have to Cost the Earth.” A youth symposium, organized around the theme “What Kind of Future Do We Want?,” was designed for high-school-and college-age attendees, and featured Open-Space educational sessions, mini workshops on Transition topics, and what Transition Network’s website calls an “exploration of the whole economic spectrum.” And Transition Thrive workshops, which took place directly before the start of the main conference program, helped attendees learn how they could increase the success of their own transition initiatives — for example, by inspiring more people to get involved, effectively communicating about their initiatives, and learning about funding avenues available in many communities.

One of the most innovative portions of the conference was the REconomy Project Day, which consisted of a number of how-to workshops on topics such as setting up food and energy companies and developing local currencies. In the afternoon, the New Economics Foundation’s Elizabeth Cox led attendees in creating “The High Street,” an imagined, self-sustaining community, where High Street represents the symbolic economic center. Participants gathered in the Grand Hall and set up a mock High Street, where some people developed the community bank, others set up the local bakery, and others created space for community members to swap gifts and skills. Everything on the “street” was actually created out of cardboard, with signs written in chalk, but the point was for attendees to come away with ideas by which they might create this type of alternative economy in their own communities.

Speaker selection was an important aspect of the planning process. Transition Network UK Conference organizers have always felt that it’s important to get away from the traditional paradigm of assembling an audience to have wisdom delivered to them by an expert. Instead, they looked for “presenter/facilitators who were capable of talking about their area of expertise for about a third of the session and then facilitating a group discussion or process that would deepen people’s understanding of that area and inform how they might use that knowledge in the future,” Brangwyn said. Because, the whole point of the conference, he said, was for attendees to “see new possibilities for their own local initiative, to make contact with other like-minded people, and to find renewed vigor for the whole Transition project.”

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.