Dafna Michaelson’s enthusiasm is infectious. Sitting on the sun-dappled patio of a south Denver coffee shop, sharing stories from her journey across America and calling up relevant websites on her laptop, she’s the very picture of a modern-day social entrepreneur — mobile, connected and full of energy. At the end of an hourlong discussion she’s convinced at least one listener that it’s possible to change the world — or at least your corner of it.
It’s a fact she discovered in 2009 while she was on what she calls “the journey”: a 12-month, coast-to-coast odyssey during which she spent three days each week in a different state, documenting more than 500 ordinary citizens who stepped up to solve problems in their communities. A single mother at the time, she traveled on the days her ex had custody of the kids. Her website, www.50in52journey.com, is full of blogs, videos and images from her travels.
“I knew that there were people out there who were seeing a problem and then making a solution happen,” says Michaelson (MBA ’01), who cashed in her 401(k) to finance the trip. “These are the people who are taking control of the situation around them. When you take control of a situation, you know that you’re going to move yourself and your community forward.”
In Florida, for example, Michaelson met Karen Saeks, whose visit to a migrant labor camp inspired her to start Bedtime Bundles, a nonprofit that delivers pajamas, blankets and basic toiletries to the children of migrant workers. In Washington, Michaelson interviewed the founders of Friends of McDonald School, who took it upon themselves to renovate the playground of an abandoned school in their neighborhood so area kids would have a safe place to play. None of the people she interviewed was figuring out how to pay off the national debt or reverse global warming, but each was using the resources at his or her disposal to create real, tangible change in his or her immediate community.
A case in point is Denver’s SAME (So All May Eat) Café, which Michaelson profiled as part of her journey. Founded by husband-and-wife team Brad and Libby Birky in 2006, the restaurant lets patrons pay whatever they want for a meal, or work in the kitchen if they can’t afford to pay anything. The Birkys started the restaurant after years of volunteering in homeless shelters and soup kitchens and serving food that they themselves didn’t want to eat. Their idea was to create a sense of community between the needy and those who wanted to help.
“We definitely saw a need not being met here in Denver, and we didn’t have the time or the patience to go through the red tape of city and county and state government — to make change happen that way always felt frustrating to me,” Libby Birky says.
“[Michaelson] brings to light how easy it is to actually make real change,” she continues. “We don’t have to wait for government to do it; we don’t have to try to pass laws and persuade voters to raise taxes so we can fund this program or that program — people can actually make a difference doing what they love, and it doesn’t have to be that hard. I think that’s a piece of the awesome process, is to see that each one of the people that she visited with really found out they loved something.”
Traveling alone with a video camera and a tripod in her carry-on bag, Michaelson ventured first to Delaware, where she interviewed the founders of the Delaware Sports League and the Kelly Heinz-Grundner Brain Tumor Foundation, among others. She talked to a family mediator in Utah, a Holocaust survivor in Ohio and a filmmaking team in Georgia. Using the power of Facebook and Twitter, she bypassed politicians and traditional media to go straight to the source: the people making things happen.
“The growth and explosion of Facebook and Twitter made the journey possible,” she says. “I could make an actual authentic connection.”
Michaelson’s ability to connect was one of the reasons that Ian Bryan, organizer of a TEDx education conference in Denver in July 2010, selected her as one of the speakers at the event.
“We’re at a time culturally where for the first time ever — through technology and through the way that minds are evolving — we’re beginning to stop constantly reinventing the wheel,” he says. “We’re beginning to look at what others are doing and learn from each other at an unprecedented scale in human history. And what she did was a simple example of that. To me it’s a perfect reflection of a shift that you see ideologues talking about all the time — the shift from a top-down society to a bottom-up society.”
In the months after her journey, Michaelson heard from people around the country who found her website or saw her on “CBS Sunday Morning” and were inspired to start community efforts of their own. The Journey Institute — which she founded to put the lessons of her odyssey into action — held its first summit in November 2010, bringing in young people ages 12–18 to learn how to solve problems in their communities.
She’s at work on a book, an independent movie and a mobile-phone application. The Denver-based Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has asked her to develop a curriculum for teachers based on the videos she took on the journey. And her online Rocky Mountain PBS show “50 in 52” — featuring videos of people in Colorado creating change in their communities — is slated to begin airing by the end of the year at www.rmpbs.org.
“I wanted to show everybody — my classmates, my peers, the country — that it is the people who are seeing a problem, deciding that they’re the person to solve that problem and putting that solution into action that are truly moving our country forward,” she says. “I felt like if I showed people that ‘This problem-solver looks like you, sounds like you, has the same amount of money as you or the same education as you,’ you might say, ‘You know what? I can do that too.’”
The journey didn’t just reap rewards for Michaelson — many of the groups she profiled have seen an increase in visibility and donations thanks to the exposure. In the case of the SAME Café, the connection with Michaelson resulted in a high-profile segment on “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric.”
“They did an initial story and then a follow-up to it, which was a totally incredible, life-changing experience for us and for the size of our community,” Birky says. “The national exposure was incredible. The phone never stopped ringing. I was a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher for the last eight years, and I had to quit last year because after that national exposure my husband couldn’t do it all.”
It seems the journey has become the journeys — every story on Michaelson’s website is an inspiration for those looking to get involved in their community; every video is a jumping-off point for someone, somewhere, who wants to make a change but doesn’t know how.
“I’ve been to every state, and there isn’t a state where I didn’t find somebody — whether it was in some Podunk town with 78 people or in New York City — who said ‘OK, this sucks, I’m going to fix it,’” Michaelson says. “And they do.”