Pyjamas optional: microvolunteering

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Wanna work in a warehouse? Check out Fareshare (Photo: Rachel Stanley)

Yesterday, perhaps a little lost among the egg-based puns and the stockpiling of sweet things, was Microvolunteering Day. The occasion itself is fairly new (first celebrated in 2014), but the concept of citizens helping out with bite-sized, commitment-free tasks has been around for some time. Trying to flog Oxfam chocolates to commuters at a Brussels train station back in 2009 is still one of my few experiences of cold-selling (I’ve forgotten how many packs I managed to shift, though I do still remember how to say ‘have a nice evening’ in Flemish). And people have been baking for cake sales or rattling collection tins for decades.

Nowadays, though, new technology and new networks have made helping out more accessible, and more varied, than ever.

Continue reading “Pyjamas optional: microvolunteering”

Write better #3: Build muscle

Sound advice from Chinese T-shirts

“Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time…. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

That reassurance is from the late journalist and teacher William Zinsser, whose book ‘On Writing Well’ I just read. It’s an excellent guide, mixing the micro (such as why you should rarely use an exclamation mark; or why most adverbs are unnecessary), the techniques (how to construct a strong opening; how to adapt quotes yet stay true to your interviewee), and the principles (putting your own voice into your writing; homing in on ‘one corner’ of your subject). First published in 1976, it’s bang-on relevant today.

Non-writers often assume that good writers find their work easy, as Zinsser reminds us. They don’t. Continue reading “Write better #3: Build muscle”

Screen-agers

A portable pastime

At a panel discussion last month about young people and technology, the most telling moment came towards the end, when someone in the audience raised her hand. She worked for an organisation that recruits numerous young volunteers, she told us, and one of the questions they always ask at interviews is: “What are your hobbies?”. For the first time not long ago, a 16-year-old girl had responded: “Going on my phone”.

There was a collective, sharp intake of breath among the audience, most of us of generations who remember life before the Internet. We may be just as attached to endless scrolling, and just as afflicted by powernoia as adolescents; but unlike them, we automatically think that’s a bad thing.

Maybe we’re judging too quickly. Continue reading “Screen-agers”

Reading room

London’s libraries have long been my escape — from too many flatmates in Bermondsey, from cabin fever in Islington, from an envelope-stuffing job in Dulwich. Not for their books, though (a good book, I want for my own shelves), but for something much less noble: free WiFi, decent desk space, plug sockets, a printer. And a sort-of quiet, most of the time. London’s reading rooms are my office.

They saw me through nearly a year of nomadism, when the longest sublet I took was for a month, each time in a new borough of the city, and as I was finding my feet as a freelancer while wanting maximum flexibility. I tried a coworking hub in London Bridge for a while: it was overpriced and underfriendly, full of 20-year-old entrepreneurs loudly practising their pitch. I joined a shared workspace in Brixton for social businesses, but kept feeling I wasn’t being quite sociable enough. In the end, it’s the public libraries that have been the constant alternative to whichever kitchen table I’ve squatted at, or from too many trips to Costa.

As offices go, they’re not always ideal. Continue reading “Reading room”

Write better #2: Shipbuilding

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Lost in the detail

Here’s a lovely illustration of why all writers – even the best ones – need an editor:

“In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior.

What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.”

Michael Crichton, quoted in the Paris Review

Continue reading “Write better #2: Shipbuilding”

Monsters & mindapples

We’ve just finalised our podcast on exam stress, produced by youth media charity Exposure and featuring five teenagers from Barnet, north London.

I’ve been working with Exposure since early this year, but it’s the first podcast I’ve been involved in, and actually quite a new area for them too – to date they’ve focused largely on short films and the magazine.

I know people are talking more openly nowadays about mental health – for young people, it’s increasingly relevant, with Childline reporting a rise in calls to do with exam stress, cyberbullying or anxiety – but I was still impressed by how maturely and honestly these kids (aged 15 to 17) shared what goes on in their heads. Continue reading “Monsters & mindapples”

Young news

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-11-13-36The stories of exiled Congolese entrepreneurs Patrick, Alex, Mimy and Chantale finally made it into Vice, also appearing in the UK print edition of the magazine (with my trip supported by One World Media’s production fund). It’s perhaps an unusual destination for an article about refugee lives in Africa; sitting next to headlines like ‘People’s stories on the last time they faked an orgasm’ and ‘We went on a tour of London’s worst-rated nightclubs’. But the Canadian-American outlet, which is squarely aimed at younger audiences and embraces the provocative and politically incorrect, isn’t only about sex, crime and entertainment. News is now their fastest growing division, according to Creative Review, in which Vice’s CEO was quoted earlier this year saying they tapped into a “big white space…. there was a perception that Gen Y didn’t really care about news which is obviously not true, so that will continue to grow.” Here’s hoping.

Teaming up

10763766076_6d8881b2ec_zSport, in its best moments, has the power to unite. Can it do the same for a world bitterly divided by today’s record number of refugees?

It’s one antidote, at least, to the frustration and lethargy that hang over most refugee camps. The UN refugee agency — which counts among its partners Nike and FC Barcelona among others — says sport helps counteract psychosocial problems, stress and loneliness, and benefits social integration, not to mention physical fitness and health. Earlier this year the UN and the International Olympic Committee pledged $400,000 to support sports programmes in Rwanda’s camps; smaller-scale efforts have brought football and other games to the Calais jungle; sport is used in Jordan and elsewhere to promote better relations between newcomers and host communities.

But what about everywhere else: could sport shift how refugees are seen from living rooms in England, from town halls in the US? Continue reading “Teaming up”

Blind spots and business models

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Marjorie, age 23, has created a project for women in her village to make and sell pads

Mention reusable sanitary pads, and most people in this country react with confusion, if not outright disgust.

Not in other parts of the world. A year ago while in Uganda I kept coming across community organisations or women’s groups who were making their own, both as a solution to the lack of affordable sanitary products and as a source of income to the women and girls making and selling them.

It turns out Uganda’s the home of one of Africa’s largest manufacturers of washable pads, AfriPads, which might be one of the things inspiring others to make their own versions. (Interestingly, the AfriPads product itself was actually inspired by a North American brand that found a market among health- and environment-conscious Canadians). Continue reading “Blind spots and business models”