Trees, recess and people who cause change

As a teenager choking on smog in Los Angeles, Andy Lipkis started planting trees in 1970. What started small has turned into a $5 million organization, TreePeople, with 56 employees and 9,000 volunteers dedicated to improving the urban forests of L.A., trying to protect the city's air and water.

In 1996, Jill Vialet heard a tirade from an Oakland, Calif., school principal about the battle zone her school playground had become. Vialet figured out a way to manage recess for low-income urban schools. As a result, students play better and pay more attention in class, and her now-national organization, Playworks, has attracted millions in grants, serves 250 elementary schools and this year started working with schools in St. Paul.

Lipkis and Vialet were in town Wednesday talking about their successes and failures in hopes that others take heart. Both are fellows of the global organization Ashoka and were on stage at the Walker Art Center in the evening, urging an audience of about 150 that they, too, can foster change in their communities.

In an informal hour-long conversation led by Rick Kupchella, former broadcast reporter who now operates the online news site Bring Me the News, the two emphasized their contention that waiting for government or others to take the lead on important issues of the day is futile.

"You have everything you need right here," Vialet told an audience filled with people representing non-profit organizations. "And nobody else is coming."

Lipkis recalled an early venture in which he planned to obtain 20,000 unused trees from state nurseries to plant in dying forests near his city. When he couldn't come up with the $600 to pay for them, the nurseries started plowing them under as part of their normal seasonal growing process. A story about his frustration in the Los Angeles Times brought donations flooding in to his parents's house, many of them 50 cents a piece from children to buy the remainder.

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Vialet talked about roadblocks as well, describing the organizational difficulty in taking a concept national. "Who knew? Management is a real thing."

The two are among 2,500 people around the world designated by Ashoka as "changemakers," people who engage successfully in what has come to be called social entrepreneurship -- using the tools of traditional entrepreneurs to attack problems of poverty, the environment, education, child care and more.

Ashoka was founded in 1980, starting by addressing Third World needs, but in 2000 it started operations in the United States. It has named a handful of fellows in Minnesota:

--Steve Rothschild, former General Mills executive who founded Twin Cities Rise!

--Steven Clift, former Minnesota state employee who organized

--Terrie Rose, creator of Baby's Space.

--Jim McCorkell, founder of Admission Possible.

--Kevin Long, who organized Global Deaf Connection.

All are examples of individuals taking action to make their world a better place, demonstrating what for Ashoka is a key principle: the recognition that changes are taking place so fast in today's world, everybody needs to learn how to deal with them, to become "changemakers."

Ashoka is, as is Minnesota Public Radio, a partner with the Bush Foundation in creating the InCommons real-world and virtual forum for encouraging residents to get engaged with the world around them. InCommons, which will be formally launched next week, also was a sponsor of the session Wednesday evening.