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Awesome Foundation Grows Globally, Spreads Micro-Grants for Genius

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The Internet has become a platform for many extraordinary purposes over the past two decades. While there's no question that connection technologies can and will be used to both positive and negative effects in the digital disruption, this increasingly global "network of networks" has enabled global e-commerce, instantaneous communication and much more. In 2011, it's also become a distributed platform for the spread of awesomeness through the fellowships awarded by the Awesome Foundation.

The idea is simple, as outlined on the organization's FAQs page: $1000 fellowships, granted with no strings attached to the "micro-trustees" of a project in a given chapter. Winners are chosen by consensus. The funds come from the micro-trustees themselves, with no claims on future ownership nor expectation of repayment, other than that a grantee will apply the grant to the purpose proposed. Proposals are simple: 350 words submitted using a simple online application that explain why the project meets the foundation's standard for awesomeness.

To date, Awesome Foundation chapters have given out a wide spectrum of grants, including towards the creation of public artwork, mobile applications or scientific experiments. As of January 2011, the Awesome Foundation has grown to nearly a dozen chapters, from Boston to London, to Ottawa and Melbourne, with new micro-trustees coming soon in Switzerland and Baltimore. There's even a new "food" chapter starting up that will introduce a topical focus to awesome fellowships. These grants aren't focused on cool technology either, though that's part of the "micro-portfolio." The first ever Awesome Foundation grant was low tech, going to the creation of a giant hammock in Boston. Providence's Awesome chapter has given grants for taxi cab trivia and a giant guitar.

Before digging deeper into the history and future of micro-grants, here's a crucial disclaimer: I joined the board of a new chapter of the Awesome Foundation in the District of Columbia last year.

That said, the growth of the Awesome Foundation has been a net positive for many recipients of "micro-grants" that lead to some improvement in a given community. This January, WAMU's 88.5 covered the Awesome Foundation on Metro Connection, featuring D.C.'s own "Dean of Awesome," Bonnie Shaw. Jessica Gould told the story of the "Arbiters of Awesome," as she put it, and some of the projects the D.C. chapter is funding in the nation's capital. (Listen to the show here)

Following is more context for how the Awesome Foundation was founded, how the distributed organization has grown and the story of the first micro-grant from the D.C. chapter. Keep an eye on the Awesome Foundation's blog for announcement of new grants and chapters.

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The history of the Awesome Foundation

Given that Tim Hwang founded the organization in 2009, the history of the Awesome Foundation doesn't exactly rival Gibbon's magisterial "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." That said, the Awesome Foundation has quickly spread globally, far beyond its relatively humble beginnings in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hwang shared more of his thoughts over email about what's happened since he published that first awesome blog post.

Did you expect it to expand worldwide this fast?

Not at all. The Awesome Foundation got started as mostly a local project in Boston, struggling with the lack of support for turning random flashes of half-baked greatness that pop up all the time into a reality. One of the nice things about the Internet is that it's basically an infrastructure for doing exactly that -- word got around about what we were doing. Suddenly there was a wave of like-minded folks that wanted to be a part of it all. I think the Awesome Foundation has really benefited from being so decentralized. Being a loose confederation of chapters, all sharing the same goal and working on a relatively small economic scale, makes it easy for anyone to join in and boot up their own group.

Which grant are you the most proud to see awarded?

I've always been proud of the very first Awesome Foundation grant that was ever given out. We funded Hansy Better, an architect that works out of Boston, whose idea was to fabricate an enormous hammock in a park for 10-20 people to hang out in all at once. We originally planned for the whole thing to be done and up in a month. It actually ended taking a year of planning, negotiating with the city and getting the word out. Thanks to Hansy's relentless pursuit of the awesome, it actually went up over the summer. The general reaction of passers-by were to hang out, socialize and ask "why don't people do more of this stuff?"

We even got a nice front page shout-out in the Boston Globe.

What are the best examples of something exemplifying "awesomeness" that you've seen?

Here's a few recently seen things that are definitely in the category:

Jamie Wilkinson/Casey Pugh - "Star Wars Uncut"

The Guy Who Built a Working Computer in Minecraft.

WATCH:

The fact that toothpicks have a little holder built into them.

The Sustainable Economies Law Center. They're working on creating and lobbying for legal changes that make it possible and easier to do urban farming, shared housing, etc.

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The State of Awesome: For insight into where the Awesome Foundation stands as 2011 begins, read through the following report. As its authors note, 2011 will see the creation of "The Institute on Higher Awesome Studies," an independent, official nonprofit that will provide a legal infrastructure for partnerships and other projects for potential sponsors and other foundations.

State of Awesome 2010

Awesome Foundation D.C. chooses Fab Lab for its first grant: As Shaw put it, the "first D.C. awesome grant was fabulous," given that it went to Fab Lab D.C.. If you're not familiar with the idea, the Fab Lab program is part of the MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), which "broadly explores how the content of information relates to its physical representation." Fab Labs are part of the maker movement, which celebrates the creative tinkering that has been part of the American character for centuries. Below, professor Neil Gershenfeld, CBA director, gives a TED Talk about Fab Labs.

WATCH:

Phyllis Klein, who submitted the application for the winning grant, is currently operating a mobile Fab Lab on 14th Street. The Awesome Foundation grant will go to help activate a new bricks and mortar space on North Capitol Street, NW. Following is her successful application:

In the spirit of MIT's Fab Lab community outreach project, Fab Lab D.C. will create a high-tech, fabrication laboratory/community workshop in the heart of the nation's capital to advance creativity, innovation and collaborative projects. Fab Lab D.C. will serve and foster the creative community by providing access to digital fabrication technology, rapid prototyping, and the global Fab Lab network.

Fab Labs enable people to use technology to create, experiment and produce, shifting the paradigm away from people merely "consuming" technology towards using technology to create solutions.

With a focus on life-long learning and emphasis on investigative teamwork, Fab Lab D.C. plans to provide a range of educational programs for people of all ages, including access to the international Fab Lab network and Fab Academy, which extend opportunities for information sharing, research and broader social impact.

Fab Lab is for local community members, life-long learners, inventors, entrepreneurs, creatives and professionals.

With its location within walking distance and in view of the U. S. Capitol Building, Fab Lab D.C. will also serve as a model for the nation's leaders in policy, government and industry to experience first hand Fab Lab's proven grassroots approach in developing technical education and literacy, promoting innovation, launching inventions and incubating new businesses.

The runner-up for the first grant from the D.C. chapter of the Awesome Foundation was a proposal for an urban farm kitchen rehabilitation at Walker-Jones Education Campus
Frances Evangelista. The community outreach and development director there shared her thoughts about that support over email. Following is a Q&A that offers more perspective on her, the project and her take on "awesomeness."

1. What does winning the support of the Awesome Foundation D.C. mean to you?

It means that our great kids will have the equipment they need to begin to have a real change effect in their food choices and overall wellness. It is also great fun to be included among the first recipients from Awesome Foundation D.C. Hopefully we will set a good example of how to best use this new resource to effect positive change.

2. What is your project all about, what do you do and who is it for?

The Farm at Walker Jones is an emerging urban farm just a few short blocks from the nation's capitol. It is a part of the Walker Jones Education Campus, a D.C. public school. We serve a preschool-through-eighth-grade community of fantastic kids. This farm is our outdoor classroom, a place where the students can make a real connection to the sources of what they eat, and then let those connections run out into all areas of the school curriculum. We sit on a high-traffic corner of the city at K and New Jersey so, when weather permits, just look out for the kids on a half acre farm near downtown eating raw veggies. Can't miss us! When weather does not permit, you will find our kids inside cooking high quality ingredients and expanding their young palettes. With only an occasional "Yuck!" heard.

3. What sort of impact do you hope your project have in D.C.? And how does the support from the Awesome Foundation D.C. help?

We hope to provide an example, a working model to other schools in the city that good eating habits can and will transcend economic barriers. We have plans to share not just our best farming and cooking practices but a full-scale plan for curriculum integration. The help of Awesome Foundation D.C. will close some need gaps we have that are not provided for through current budgeting.

4. How did you find out about the Awesome Foundation D.C.?

Well... I know that it was somewhere in my Google Reader and I clicked through from there. DCist? Greater Greater Washington?

5. How are you going to celebrate?

Hopefully, we will be celebrating with you! And maybe by having our kids cook a little something for you? Too cute and tastes pretty good too.

6. What other support do you need? How can people get in touch to support you?

We can always use gift cards for food! And we love people to come out on Saturdays and help on the farm. That part of our program will re-start in March. They can reach me at the contact info provided on this email.

7. What advice can you give to other people thinking about applying for an Awesome Foundation grant?

Just do it! Tell a story about what makes your project awesome and tell it from the heart. We were gratified to hear that our honest share on our application was appreciated for the heartfelt petition it was.