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Life Arts    H3'ed 2/7/11

Ann Medlock and the Giraffe Heroes Project - Sticking Their Necks Out for the Public Good

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My guest today is Ann Medlock, founder of the Giraffe Heroes Project. Welcome to OpEdNews, Ann. Before we get to that, I was astounded by the many things you did before launching the project in the '80s. Can we talk a bit about your life before Giraffes? 

Beijing, 2000

Really? I did an astounding number of things? Can't remember a life before Giraffe. But seriously, I'm re-running the mental tape and oh yeah, there was tutoring English in Japan, being a file clerk in the Congo, editing Viet Nam Presse in Saigon.  Ran a design studio called Willow's Workshop in DC then was a staff writer at the Democratic National Committee for the LBJ campaign -- I applied when JFK was alive but history intervened and I found myself working for Johnson, until I wasn't. Got replaced by a Texan, and became a flak for the Maritime Administration. Created a small museum for them -- enjoyed that. 
Edited books at Science Research Associates in Chicago and at Macmillan in New York. Ran a design studio again, this time in NYC. Wrote some articles of my own for magazines but often ghost-wrote for people who couldn't write but had to. Did freelance PR for a lot of magazines and for a mental hospital, communications consulting to corporations, ad copy for ad agencies. Most of those jobs were rather dreary but I had rent to pay on Central Park West and my son's tuition bills. One totally fun freelance job: speechwriter to the Aga Khan. Loved that one.

So, you did a lot of very different things over a period of years.  At what point did you leave all that behind and cook up the Giraffe Project? Where did the idea come from?

In a rather different form, it was the invention of a PR guy to promote Quest 80 Magazine. I was called in to work on what he called The Giraffe Society. Then, I was running it. Then Quest 80 died. The Society became the property of another magazine. It died. The great LOOK writer Laura Bergquist and I teamed up to steal all the Society files. Really. We talked a building super into letting us into the locked offices of the second dead magazine and we just walked off with every box that said "Giraffe." I vowed never to tie it to any magazine again. I got legal permission to send one message to Society members, telling them that we were mutating into an independent nonprofit. All these years later, I still get messages from old members of the Society.

Wow. That's a pretty unconventional way to start a nonprofit.

With a jolly theft? And my grocery money. I wrote a check to keep the Society PO box open and then just went for it. Yes, pretty odd. I know other nonprofit founders who waited for major investments in their ideas. I wasn't that sensible.

It seems to have worked out fine. We haven't talked at all about what the Giraffe Project is. Now would be a good time, Ann.

We tell the stories of mostly unknown people who stick their necks out for the common good and we give people tools to use in following those heroes' leads. [Check out our website.] It's a way to enCourage the heroes among us and to get more people involved in the world around them. Without citizen engagement, societies die. Our original focus was on this society, but it's gone global now, as it should. The needed qualities and actions are human, not limited to one nation.

Can you give some examples of what kinds of things people are doing?  We love stories and otherwise, this is very abstract.

Giraffes are working on every problem you can think of, and maybe some you may not have imagined. Giraffe Sarah Herr, for instance, is a high school cheerleader in Bettendorf, Iowa, who risked her exalted position in teen society to insist that kids who were not so popular, who were even ostracized for being "odd," should be on the cheer team too. Everybody around her told her it would never work to put kids with disabilities out front of the crowds at games. She just smiled and kept moving, teaching cheers to kids with physical and mental differences. Her "integrated" team is such a success that she's advising other high schools who now want to replicate her program.
In Sierra Leone, Giraffe John Bangura has risked his life and his livelihood to help heal his country's wounds. Bangura became a refugee after seeing his family and friends wiped out in Sierra Leone's civil war. Driving a bus in Copenhagen, he dreamed of revenge. But he did a 180 and organized teams to go back, not to get even but to heal the country's wounds. His Hope - Sierra Leone is bringing former combatants together to rebuild that devastated nation. 

You asked about stories that inspire me personally--we've been getting a wave of nominations for people working to stop sex trafficking and the abuse, worldwide, of women and children. I do email pieces like this new one and am totally blown away by the courage it takes to do this work --

In Hyderabad, India, Sunitha Krishnan, who is all of four-and-a-half feet tall, is standing tall for women and children trapped in sex trafficking. Krishnan, herself gang-raped when she was 15, refused to accept the silence expected of her, instead channeling the rage she felt into rescuing others. Her Prajwala nonprofit physically rescues children and women from sex traffickers, shelters them, nurses them, and trains them for self-supporting jobs. Krishnan has been beaten up repeatedly on rescue missions but is undeterred. Be warned that watching her describe her work may appall you, but you will come away filled with awe and respect for this giant of a woman.

We don't send material that gritty into schools! I still believe in protecting kids from the worst of what's going on, even if they find it themselves on television and on their computer screens. I'd rather tell them about Sarah Herr.

People inspired by Giraffes' courage and compassion would include kids in every US state and in English-language schools abroad, kids who have done service projects, inspired by Giraffes and informed by the Giraffe curriculum, which shows them how to proceed successfully. Mostly, the kids do charity work, collecting blankets, books or food for the homeless -- "adopting" lonely elders in retirement homes -- doing fundraisers for animal shelters. Great stuff -- they see a larger, real world, get involved in serving the "common good." Sometimes they take on City Hall -- lobbying for safe streets, saving a public dump, getting recycling regs legislated. It's great to see kids standing up at adult meetings, making their case, getting something changed.

It's all good. I'm thrilled when kids get it that they have something to give -- they're not just recipients of adult ministrations. Of course, there are adults who move into action too but they rarely look back and tell us what they've done. They just go.

Tell us more about the curriculum that you've developed. What's in it? Who uses it? Do you send out speakers?

We just made some major shifts in the K-12 materials. The full deal has been semester-long programs for K-2, 3-5, 6-9 and then high school. But we're seeing public schools so pressured to do 3 Rs and so short of time and money that John Dewey's world of educating conscious, involved citizens has lost to churning out kids with heads full of testable facts--facts that are out of date the moment they're learned. There are teachers and counselors trying to bring forth students' eagerness to learn, their compassion and sense of adventure, instead of training them to hold down corporate desks -- those teachers need materials that are quicker to do, that fit tight budgets. So. We're retiring the full-semester materials and sending out student paperbacks and teaching manuals that give kids stories of real heroes; nudge them to look for the real heroes in their studies, their communities and their families; and then coaching them on how to move into service themselves. That's the same three-stage pedagogy we've always used and it works. It just works faster now. Which seems to suit these Twitterish times, I guess. Though I'm never going to be interested in communicating in 140 characters.

I spent my 2010 Mononucleosis Summer working on the new Giraffe Heroes Kit, a box of stuff youth groups and home-schoolers can use to do the whole program in ten hours of games and activities. I'd always wanted to do Giraffe Trading Cards and the Kit includes a deck of them, at last--30 Giraffe heroes and 10 blanks so kids can make cards for the heroes they find. We also put in stickers, campaign buttons, scripts, a CD, a DVD and a facilitator's manual. It is cool . Can't believe I wrote it in spurts, between mono-induced snoozes. Never thought I could work from bed. But laptops, wow, what a blessing to the work-obsessed. I could write half an hour, sleep an hour, write more, send it off for editing, zonk out again, all in my pjs.

Mono? Bummer. At least you used your time productively. Those kits and trading cards sound fabulous. What a great idea! Is mono still called the kissing disease? If so, that's a great segue to talking about John [Ann's husband, John Graham]. Can you tell our readers how he came to the Giraffe Project?

Mono is something you're supposed to get when you're a teenager. It was downright weird to get it as an elder. Since John wasn't sick a minute and tested negative, I can't blame him. So I decided it was airplanes -- all that air circulating among hundreds of people. Who knows what bugs you're inhaling? I thought about my flights to Singapore and back to keynote a conference -- 36 hours of inhaling "neighborly" air...

OK, about John and how he got involved in Giraffe. He just showed up in my living room on Central Park West every Tuesday night for a writers' group. Tall skinny guy, worked at the UN, climbed mountains in his spare time. Found out he had a son the same age as mine so his wife and I did some play dates with the boys. Nice family. But nobody knows what's happening in other households -- they each told me they were splitting up and I'm saying "NO! Being divorced sucks. Don't do it." But they did it anyway. Eventually I started fixing John up with women I knew. Single, straight men were quite a rare commodity in New York ( Sex and the City is a fantasy) but I didn't consider him for myself. I'm almost a decade older than he is and that didn't fit my template for a couple. I was seeing a movie director who was a decade older than I was -- that fit the template.

In the writers' group, I was reading stuff I was writing for the early days of Giraffe and snippets the group called the "Lee and Joe stories" -- they were the basis for a novel I did ever so much later. Here's an excerpt . I was asking lots of people to help on figuring out Giraffe and I asked John to write some nonprofit bylaws. Such a serious guy -- I figured he'd know from by-laws. So that was his first involvement.

One Tuesday, after the meeting I said "Who wants to go see Superman II?" and John said "I do" so loudly that no one else said a word. We went to the movie, and John moved into my apartment the following Friday. Go figure. I didn't take it seriously at first -- my son was away for the summer and I thought John and I wouldn't last longer than that. 

Ann and John 

When we did talk about marriage I said it was too embarrassing to marry a man in his 30s. We got married on his 40th birthday. (We did our "official" engagement and our champagne-after-City-Hall-wedding at Windows on the World, at the top of the Trade Center. Sob.)   

Oh hell, here's something about the towers -- from Arias, Riffs & Whispers , a book of my poems.

Up there, where the seagulls are circling
I once spread my arms, offering you
Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten
Island too, throwing in Jersey and a
bit of Connecticut. You laughed and said--
Sold. After the City Hall ceremony,
we drank champagne to seal the deal,
back at the top of the world, there
where the morning crew and the
breakfasting brokers rode the tower down
becoming dust as they descended,
bypassing in an instant the decades
it must rightly take for flesh and bone
to disappear. We try to comprehend,
looking  into the blank sky, at the gulls
gliding unimpeded where once there
were steel, concrete, marble, glass,
upholding human work and joys,
the clink of crystal heralding
the plans of people who would
leave that height and go on to
the lives unfolding before them,
here on the now grieving ground.

(More of Ann's poems here .)

Professionally, John was giving seminars on how to change the world -- he had quit the Foreign Service in disgust and was looking for a way to do some good instead of the skullduggery he'd often been up to as a diplomat. He thought Giraffe was amusing but not serious enough to have any real effect. It took a long time for him to decide that storytelling about courageous, compassionate people might be useful and that a giraffe wasn't too silly to use as a symbol. But he finally threw in with me professionally as well as personally, making his writing and seminar work part of what the Project does. He also likes managing and is great on details, stuff that I'm not good at all.

I'd like to tell anyone who thinks feminism isn't necessary these days that there are still people who assume that John created the Giraffe Project and I'm the little woman helping him out, probably by taking notes on his every profound thought and typing them up for him. Happened again just last month -- guy literally talked over my head, asking John about "your Giraffe Project." John told him he should be talking to me and the misogynist managed to look down and see I was there. (I am little. Physically.) That kind of thing is why we put "Founder" after my name on everything -- there are still a lot of people who assume women are just the support drones. In 2011. It's disappointing.

I bet you didn't want to know that much, right?

Not true. It was fabulous. I have such a better sense of you, of both of you. What's Giraffe Heroes International? Where are you around the world and what kinds of issues do you cover?

GHI is John's realm but I'll see if I can do it justice. I've always said that the qualities of Giraffes have no national boundaries -- we've honored real heroes in dozens of countries. It's a little more complicated to get Giraffe operations going in other nations, so they can honor their own heroes, and have Giraffe materials in their own languages. John has connections to people all over the world, and a bred-in-the-bone facility for working abroad--it's no wonder he was a diplomat for years. The issues covered are whatever the people there determine -- we just ask that they keep to the criteria -- the Giraffes they honor should be sticking their necks out for the common good. (Otherwise, they should call them something else.) Where? Kyrgystan has chosen their first honorees. Giraffes UK has started calling for nominations. John's been to Nigeria twice, to Sudan once and he's talking to contacts in Nepal. We've had queries from India, Singapore and Italy. No telling which things will take root. The adventure continues. There are lots more details at the GHI page.

You've been a great source for OpEdNews* interviews; thanks!  How do you find these Giraffes? How does a person qualify?

People just hear about us and send nominations . We ask them to gather up some information, rather than leave all the sleuthing to us. There are some guidelines and a nomination form online.

Something I'd like to stress--unlike the many imitators I'm delighted to see follow our lead on knowing heroes are important, Giraffe isn't a competition. People meet the criteria or they don't and since there's no finite pot of money to award to them (there's no money at all) there's no rationing necessary and no better/best nonsense. I think it's particularly cheesy to do all the Who Do You Vote For stuff, that I see as a ploy for attention rather than a valid assessment of fellow humans. Over the years, we've gotten over a million bucks in various large and small packages for Giraffes from other organizations that do have award money but I'm actually grateful that our process has never had to say someone wasn't a Giraffe just because there wasn't enough award money. Everybody who meets the criteria gets an HWCSFF--"handsome wall certificate suitable for framing," a great letter, a lapel pin, and their story told on our website, in our talks, in our materials for schools (if the story is age-suitable) and in our workshops.

I understand that you have a terrific database.  What's in there and how can we take advantage of it?

At, you just click on Find a Hero. That drops you into a hog-heaven database for press, researchers, teachers, students, families, people looking for their own path to a meaningful life, anybody who's looking for stories of people making headway on the problems of the world. The database is searchable by location, field of work, gender, age and the trade or profession each person trained for. If you want say, adult women working on health issues in Asia, you can select those criteria and a screen of names and brief descriptions will appear. Click on the ones you want to know more about and you get a photo, profile and website. We're putting more into the database daily--it's a massive undertaking. There are many hundreds in place right now.

We may be a bit ahead of the curve in going online with this. Just today a researcher for a television show called asking for stories of heroic kids. My expectation that everyone knows how to use an online database was a bit dashed--even though she sounded like a 20-something, she had to be coached on how it worked. Ah well. Given the pace of change we're all living through, I'm betting most people will be proficient users. Any day now.

Cool! You've kind of stepped back from full-time managing the project, correct?  If I know you, you're not sitting around eating bonbons.

I've got a mouthful of dark chocolate right now--nailed! But I'm munching while working. At the creative side, not managing. As I said, that's never been my long suit.

Over the years, I've rarely been in charge of operations here. Management has never been my strong suit--I treasure people who are good at that but I'm not one of them. I'm always the founder, which is history rather than a job; my job is creative director--writing stuff, working with designers, thinking up products, working on the website and my Heads Up emails.

One of the organizational mistakes I think many groups make is putting the founder in charge of daily operations--it's a rare breed of cat indeed who can dream stuff up and make sure the trains run on time. Better to keep the inventors inventing and let competent managers keep the organization's operations humming.

In our current configuration, we're volunteers, contractors and vendors, all of us people who love the work, sitting at computers and linking up from wherever we are. It's a good small-carbon-footprint system and I continue to be its creative director.

Oh. I also deal with our major donors. Wouldn't have imagined myself as a fundraiser but I find the people who are attracted to Giraffe are people I really enjoy and that includes good people of means who write checks so we can pay the bills for those contractors.

But visioning Giraffe in this decade--that's the new challenge. Given that fundraising is the tightest it's ever been, we're changing our carbon footprint, going virtual while, I foresee, enlarging our impact on people's lives. I want to spend every penny that we raise on getting programs done, so we're asking all our volunteers and contractors to work from their own spaces, wherever they may be. It was lovely having a beautiful big office space for everyone, but these times call for thrift so... I'm told the term for this is "becoming a distributed organization." Ahead, there's an enhanced website, a completed database, new Giraffes honored, more countries opened up via GHI, lots of speaking gigs, and materials for families--I'm doing a paperback for parents and a stand-alone guide for the trading cards so families can do Giraffe at home. One of our ace volunteers (found through is a young guy who's figuring out a mobile website for Giraffe and a feed to handheld devices. I'll keep doing the monthly Heads Up emails and will get back to posting at OpEdNews and Huffington.  And I'll be fundraising to keep all the contractors and vendors paid. No, I don't think retirement is anywhere close. Onward and upward.

Sounds good. And busy.  Did creating this project answer the need in you that led to its creation?

Hmmm, it's a social conscience thing. Yes, I've had a need to be of service. You look at what you've got to offer and I had writing. And an attitude that might help. As in, "Stop complaining and do something," like these people I'm telling you about.

Strange to discover, all these decades on, the personal writing I thought didn't matter turns out to be important to people, too. I'd thought my poems and stories were inconsequential but since I let some of them out into the world, I've gotten some astonishing reader feedback.  It turns out there's more than one way a facility with words can serve. I think I'll keep doing this stuff. All of it. Next up -- I'm writing about building with Christopher Alexander and living in the resulting "Pattern Language" house here in the sight of the Salish Sea and the Olympic Mountains.

I just need to live a lot more years so I can get it all done. My dad's about to be 99 and he's still healthy, so who knows? With his genes, lots of exercise, fruits and vegetables, a good partner--and work that's full of meaning--I could make it to being the world's oldest working writer.

That's definitely something to strive for. We're pulling for you! Thanks so much for talking with me, Ann. We've been meaning to do this for quite a long time. Good luck with the Giraffes and the new direction both you and the project are taking.  

The Giraffe Heroes Project website

Ann's website

Arias, Riffs & Whispers: Words Written for Voices - Ann's book of poems

*OpEdNews interviews with some folks featured in the November, 2010 Giraffe Heroes Project Newsletter:

Cynthia Bowers, Full-Time Volunteer, Gives a Piece of Herself December 4, 2010

Donna Quathamer Helps Mexican Moms with Careful Listening and Plenty of Elbow Grease December 6, 2010

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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