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March 11, 2007

Backwards Designing Meg

My friend Meg is the most community-minded person I know. Without ever seeming boorish or superior, Meg moves mountains. It started back in the late 80s, after college graduation. While I was sussing out the best happy hour in Baltimore, she was in Niger speaking Hausa, digging ditches and midwifing birth and death, both of which happened in a field outside her village. Nowadays, she runs Yahoo’s community service arm and, in the last couple years, she has helped make a single national database for Katrina survivors to find relatives and organized a voter registration drive that brought one million new people to the polls.

Meg is the exact opposite of a bystander, defined as “a person who present at an event or incident but does not take part.”

The question of why some people respond to the call (of global warming, or natural disasters, of poverty) and some don’t is worth considering. The first bystander experience most of us have is watching a sister or brother bump their head or struggle to tie a shoe or look in vain for a prized toy. From there, we go to school, where we watch as a friend rips a page in a library book, or cheats on a quiz, or bullies a classmate. As parents, these incidents are our chance to intervene and maybe just create a generation of Megs. Like everything else, it starts with modeling, as I learned last week when I took my girls down to Jack London Square for their first Ferry ride into San Francisco. Unfortunately, the ferry wasn’t running on President’s Day. As we were leaving the pier, several people were headed down to the waiting area and my daughter said, “Mommy, aren’t you going to tell them there’s no ferry today?”

I wasn’t going to. It crossed my mind but a moment later, I started thinking about where to take my girls to make up for my poor planning. For my five-year-old, I jogged up behind the people on the pier and told them the news. “Oh thanks! We would have waited here for an hour!” they said.

Beyond modeling, we can talk to our kids. My brother is a high school lacrosse coach, a job he takes seriously (The McDonogh School has been and will be again ranked number one in the nation). His refrain throughout the season is Be The Guy, as in “Be the guy who dives for the ball. Be the guy who gets open. Be the guy who wins the face off.” He puts even more time into guiding his team’s behavior off the field. So graduates of his program also know to “be the guy” who stops the fight, tutors a classmate, and takes the car keys from someone who’s been drinking.

By role modeling, by message, by repetition, we have to convince our children to “be the guy.” And it all starts with little things – running to get a friend a Band Aid, helping mommy find her cell phone, picking up a candy wrapper.

Knowing Meg’s mother, I can imagine that’s how it began for her. I bet her family pulled over for broken down cars and stayed after to clean up after the school play and cooked an extra Thanksgiving dinner for the local church. Whatever it was, it has lead to her latest act: 18seconds.org, which is a site to encourage everyone in the US to change their light bulbs to CFLs. CFLs are sold in any hardware store and last ten times as long as the bulbs you’ve probably got now. But the real reason Meg cares is because if everyone in the US swapped out just ONE bulb for a CFL, which takes about 18 seconds, it would be like taking 2 million cars off the road. And that’s just changing ONE bulb.

So here’s our chance to practice. Go get some CFL bulbs. Take your kids along. It’s small, but if you explain to your kids what you’re doing and why, it could be big. It could be the beginning of a lifetime habit.