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June 14, 2021
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Make the World Better With These Eight Ideas

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As the pandemic and lockdowns dragged on and on over the past year, many people longed only for the day when the world would return to the time before COVID-19 entered our vocabulary. For others, though, the months of seclusion led them to search for ways they might be able to make the world just a little better than it was before.

Here are a few ideas to improve your little part of the post-pandemic Earth, or maybe you have some ideas of your own.

Donate Your Flowers

Heather Lawson got her good idea while watching bad TV. She was unwinding after work in front of an elaborate wedding show, and she was struck by a couple who had flown in $100,000 worth of tulips from the Netherlands for their big day.

“I realized that these flowers were going to be enjoyed for one night and thrown out the next morning,” she said. “I thought, ‘There are people who’d love these. What if I could get them to someone else?’”

In 2013, she founded Petal Share, a nonprofit organization that aims to do just that. With a team of volunteers she calls “pollinators,” Lawson picks up leftover floral arrangements from weddings and events in the Washington area, repurposes them into smaller bouquets and delivers them to residents and workers at hospitals, nursing homes and women’s shelters.

“People always ask, ‘Where did these come from?’ and they get a kick out of hearing it was a wedding,” she said. “I like to think that some of the magic and joy from that special event is passed on.”

It’s imperative to Lawson that the flowers look just as stunning in their second act as they did in their first.

“We remove the ones that have seen their glory, recut the stems and give them a nice fresh gulp of water and flower food,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be able to tell these are recycled flowers just by looking at them.”

The pollinators have even worked their magic on funeral arrangements.

“We had one woman who donated flowers from her father-in-law’s service,” Lawson said. “We made them into bouquets and brought them to the senior care facility where he had lived.”

A lawyer by day, Lawson runs Petal Share as a passion project and is always seeking volunteers to pick up flowers, remake bouquets and deliver them. But she wants to spread the flower power even further.

“I’d love to train people to start chapters of Petal Share across the country so we can bring more comfort to those who need it,” she said. “Let’s keep passing the good vibes forward.”

— Holly Burns

Participate in Food Rescue

Every day in the United States, an average of 1 pound of food per person is thrown away, which translates to 30% to 40% of the country’s food supply, according to the Department of Agriculture. And yet more than 40 million people will experience food insecurity and go hungry, many of them children, according to 2021 projections by Feeding America. Food waste also contributes 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Organizations like Food Rescue US help close the loop, taking fresh food that would otherwise go to waste and delivering it to communities that can use it. Food Rescue US uses an app to connect donors — including grocery stores, restaurants, farms, schools, caterers and other food-related businesses — with nearby food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

A wide volunteer network then makes the transfer as efficient as possible. Food donors, recipients and volunteers all register and schedule pickups and deliveries using the app, which also offers reporting and analytics about the number of meals rescued, the pounds of food redirected and the types of food distributed within each community.

Food Rescue US has nearly 40 locations across the country operating under its name or teaming up with local organizations. The app makes it easy to become a food rescuer; you can sign up to do a food rescue near you at foodrescue.us. Once you’ve created an account, you can view available rescues and pick one that fits your schedule. If there is not a site near you, you can volunteer to help bring the service to your community.

— Bonnie Tsui

Create a Firefly Habitat

Fireflies are among the flashiest insects in the world, but they spend most of their lives creeping around in the dark, and, increasingly, they need your assistance. Scientists have limited data on firefly populations, but studies indicate that several of the approximately 2,000 species are struggling.

A 2019 survey of firefly experts in the journal BioScience identified three major global threats: habitat loss, increased artificial light and pesticide use.

If you live among fireflies, there are probably juveniles conducting ground-level business in your yard right now. With auspicious timing and a magnifying glass, you can spot bioluminescent eggs or larvae dimly glowing. The fireflies that are most visible to us are in an adult stage, which lasts days or weeks, yet they’ve been living in various life stages that are largely unseen by humans for up to two years.

You can do several things to help the next generation of fireflies.

The best way to create a firefly-friendly habitat is to have an unruly yard. But to balance local ordinances with the call of the wild, you can mimic the nurture of nature with small changes. Instead of clearing fallen branches, build a small woodpile. Rather than burning leaves, collect them in paper bags for nutrient-rich compost. To enhance soil quality, which supports fireflies, aerate your lawn, avoid pesticides and plant native trees and grasses of varying heights.

“When it comes to fireflies, everyone can do something to help,” said Candace Fallow, a conservation biologist with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

“Even if you don’t have a yard, you can turn your lights off at night. You can spread the word that this is a species of concern. We get awed by fireflies’ shows in summer, but they’re there all year. We need to give them safe places to live so that they can keep sharing their light.”

— Leigh Ann Henion

Watch Your Mouth

Your parents were right when they told you to think before you speak. Words with racist and ableist histories are exceedingly common and needlessly hurtful, even in casual conversation.

Megan Figueroa, a psycholinguist, remembers when a disabled friend asked her not to use “lame” as an adjective for suboptimal.

“My chest constricted,” she said. “I felt that physical symptom of an anxiety attack” from causing pain to a friend.

Since then, she has worked to remove “lame” and other ableist terms like “idiot” and “moron” from her lexicon. She also hosts the Vocal Fries, a podcast that dives into discriminatory language.

“I believe linguistic discrimination is this final frontier where even people who would consider themselves very progressive are still actively discriminating against people linguistically,” she said.

Kelly Wright, who studies experimental sociolinguistics at the University of Michigan, said, “Word choice matters because words have history.” For example, she cited “insane,” which you’ve probably used to describe the price of a sandwich.

“When we look at a word like insane, that word has been used in the world to limit the liberties of many groups of people,” she said. “It is a label which was used directly to oppress women, to justify inhumane experimentation, to incarcerate, to colonize.” Flippantly inserting “insane” into a conversation about sandwiches belittles the traumatic experiences of millions of people, she said.

A current era of cultural change strives to dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy, the gender binary and discrimination against people with disabilities. As culture evolves, Wright said, so too must language.

If you think something might have problematic origins, do an internet search, Figueroa said. As a general rule, if a word is used strictly in a derogatory way, it probably has an oppressive history.

Finally, when it comes to using the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun, don’t try to defend your unwillingness to change as a commitment to good grammar, Figueroa said. If you’re putting grammar ahead of how a person has explicitly asked you to address them, your problem isn’t grammar.

— A.C. Shilton

Make a Lake Less Trashy

One man’s solution to the spread of plastic pollution in Lake Tahoe was to organize an enormous cleanup above and below the surface of the continent’s largest alpine lake. On top of that, he hopes his effort brings awareness to similar problems plaguing waterways around the world.

Ringed by Sierra Nevada peaks on the California-Nevada border, the sapphire-hued Lake Tahoe attracts more than 2.7 million visitors a year. But during a dive expedition last summer, a local resident, Colin West, along with volunteers from his environmental nonprofit, Clean Up the Lake, discovered this outdoor wonderland’s trashy secret: Thousands of pounds of plastic bottles, clothing, aluminum cans, food wrappers and other discarded debris lurk beneath its 191-square-mile surface.

“Trash is accumulating,” West, of South Lake Tahoe, California, said. “I’ve personally seen poly- and plastic-based clothing, tires and other forms of plastic degradation in our environment that could be leaching into the drinking water and contributing to the microplastics issues we have here at the lake. Let’s act now. It’s within our grasp to preserve Tahoe and correct the wrongs.”

To this end, West embarked on his biggest refuse-removal task: a six-month underwater trash haul around Lake Tahoe’s 72-mile perimeter that began May 15. Through individual and corporate donations, Clean Up the Lake has raised more than $200,000 for operational expenses. The all-volunteer team encourages locals and visitors to donate their time, too; and kayakers, experienced divers and boat owners are invited to apply via cleanupthelake.org.

Pulling out trash is the task at hand, but keeping it out of the lake, which provides municipal drinking water for numerous small communities, is critical. From avoiding single-use plastic bottles and bags to picking up litter, even when it’s not your own, people have more power than they realize to keep litter out of Lake Tahoe and any body of water, West said.

“So many people feel that one person’s efforts don’t matter,” he said. “But the small daily decisions we make can be impactful.”

— Kimberley Lovato

Become a Deep Canvasser

Last fall, Shawnna Weighill of Greeley, Colorado, was making calls to North Carolina voters when she reached a woman in her 70s with views she described as racist. The woman believed that immigrants were bringing “problems and diseases” into the country, she said, and that people of Asian descent were “willfully contributing” to the ongoing pandemic.

“I wanted to point out the ways she was wrong,” said Weighill, who is of Filipino and Native American descent. The remarks angered and offended her, she said, “but I was there to make a human connection.”

Weighill was participating in a deep canvass, an increasingly popular community-organizing technique to persuade voters though personal storytelling and relationship-building — not facts and figures.

“The antidote to bias and disinformation isn’t more information,” said Adam Kruggel, director of strategic initiatives at People’s Action, a network of community-based groups that organized Weighill’s deep canvass. “It’s connection.”

With this in mind, Weighill sidestepped a policy debate with the voter and instead asked a more personal question: How had she fared during the pandemic?

“I learned she’d been caring for her 3-year-old granddaughter and was struggling,” she said. “I have a niece and nephew around that age; it’s been hard for my family, too.”

Deep canvasses require volunteers to be vulnerable with strangers, which can be uncomfortable but effective. A 2016 study published in Science found that 10% of voters who were deep-canvassed on transgender rights shifted their views in a positive direction.

“That may not sound like a lot,” said Dave Fleischer, director of the Leadership Lab, a group involved in the research. “But it’s better than zero, which is the result of almost everything else we’ve tried.”

These conversations have value, Kruggel said, even when no one is persuaded.

“People connect across race, sexual identity, gender, class and geography,” he said, which can be an effective experience for volunteers and voters alike.

Weighill said she had been transformed by many of the conversations she had had on issues ranging from public safety to racial equality, particularly those that started out “emotionally charged,” as with the North Carolina voter.

“Once people realize you’re not there to argue, they let their guard down,” she said. “You really end up hearing each other.”

— David Dodge

‘Buy Nothing’ and Give a Lot

On a quiet night in December, Joanne McClain opened the door to her apartment and placed six plastic containers with neighbors’ names on them into the hallway. Each held a slice of almond flour cake with pear, pistachio and rose. McClain had received 9 pounds of pistachios from her dad and had tried a new recipe. It came out amazingly well, but there was no way she could eat a whole cake.

“I just had an abundance of ingredients and wanted to share,” she said.

The cake became a “give” on McClain’s local “Ask, Borrow, Give” group — part of a larger movement, called Buy Nothing, that connects people offering free stuff to their neighbors as a way to lessen waste. For many, it’s better to give clothes, household items and even unwanted food to neighbors than to send them to donation centers, which can only resell a fraction of what they get. The main rule is that everything must be given: no buying, selling, trading or bartering.

The Buy Nothing Project is an international network of local gifting groups that began when two friends living on Bainbridge Island in Washington created an experimental hyperlocal gift economy in 2013. The movement now has more than 4 million members in 44 countries around the world and has grown by one-third over the past year, said Liesl Clark, one of the founders.

“It’s not so much about buying nothing,” she noted, “as it is about throwing nothing away.”

The project will soon introduce an app that will help connect givers and seekers in any place, not just communities with organized Buy Nothing Facebook groups.

“If you’re going to throw it away, why not give it a second life?” Clark said.

The list of gives on one local Santa Monica, California, group varied widely. Mushy bananas for banana bread. A play date with a potbellied pig. Potted succulents. Someone to talk to. Winter gear for a 2-year-old. Feta cheese, mistakenly purchased after a family member asked for “fitted sheets.” Lemons and bay leaves from a neighbor’s backyard.

People often share updates on the items they have been given and pass them back to group members when they’re done. Kids clothes and birthday decorations often circulate for years.

McClain still has 4 pounds of pistachios waiting to turn into some other baked goods.

She said Buy Nothing had changed her perspective on old household goods: “I no longer look at things as just trash. Things are now just waiting to find another home for others to enjoy them.”

— Katharine Gammon

Pedal Toward Positivity

Let’s keep America’s pandemic biking momentum rolling.

Last year, 10% of Americans engaged in cycling in a new way, including 4% who got on a bike for the first time or in a very long time, said Patrick Hogan, research manager at People for Bikes, a cycling advocacy group. That’s a big deal because more bike riders make roads safer for everyone.

If the word “cyclist” conjures up men in tight clothes speeding down the road, rethink that image. While Americans of all income levels cycle at about equivalent rates, according to a 2011 paper published by researchers at Rutgers University, cycling as a means of transportation is inversely related to income. Lower-income Americans are more likely to use bikes to travel to and from work or the store. Making roads safer for vulnerable users is an act of class solidarity.

The easiest way to show that solidarity is also the most fun: Get out and ride.

Tara Goddard, an associate professor in Texas A&M’s school of landscape architecture and urban planning, published a paper in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention last year that measured drivers’ implicit views of cyclists and their behavior in a driving simulator as they passed a bicyclist. Drivers who also identified as cyclists were more careful as they navigated. That effect tends to ripple outward.

“If you have a family member who commutes (by bike), you may look more for cyclists,” she said, because that person on a bike could be your loved one.

There’s also safety in expectation. On the roads that cyclists frequent, drivers tend to maneuver more carefully, “whereas if you’re not even expecting to see anyone, then your brain just kind of isn’t scanning for them,” Goddard said.

Bikes can also connect riders to their communities.

“Bicycling brings us this everyday interactivity that driving just doesn’t,” said Sarah Rebolloso McCullough, a sociologist who studies sustainable transportation at the University of California, Davis. Cars wall us off from the world. On a bike we can interact with strangers at stoplights, smell that hot dog cart and see our neighbors’ faces.

And when people start riding, they often start advocating for safer infrastructure. They might show up at a city council meeting, another great way to build community.

“Bikes don’t automatically build compassion and community,” said Nedra Deadwyler, founder of Civil Bikes, an organization that leads bike tours through Atlanta. In America, increasing safety in cycling often translates to more law enforcement. That makes Black and brown communities less safe, McCullough said.

If we really want to use bikes to improve the world, we need to put equity — and humanity — at the center of all of our efforts, Deadwyler said.

Bikes, after all, are just a tool. And, like any tool, a bike only moves forward if the person using it engages with doing the work of making this world just a little bit better.


— A.C. Shilton

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