Arts | NW Life | Oregon

The Spirit of 'Awesome' Is Alive In Portland

OPB | Feb. 13, 2014 midnight | Updated: Feb. 14, 2014 12:07 p.m.

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Portland is one of a growing number of cities around the world to host its own Awesome chapter. The Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, that is.

“Quirky, creative, innovative and makes people smile.”

That is how Leslie Rodgers, board chair of the Portland chapter, defines the term “awesome.”

The Portland branch of this now-international grassroots organization seeks to promote positivity and civic engagement by supporting people who have innovative ideas for their communities. Encouragement comes in the form of $1,000 unrestricted grants to those who have compelling proposals and the motivation to put them in motion.

A few years ago, Rodgers was inspired to open an Awesome chapter in Portland, along with co-founder Deidre DeMerritt, after hearing a story on OPB Radio in late 2011. By 2012 Awesome Portland was a reality.

“I was actually listening to the radio, to NPR, and I was headed across the country. They were talking about alternative philanthropy. Awesome Foundation is one of the things that they talked about,” says Rodgers.

It was then that she became inspired.

“I was at this point in my life where I had a little bit of extra money. I wanted it to go to someplace good — wanted to make a more direct impact. I thought it was the coolest thing that I ever heard of,” Rodgers recalls.

Leslie Rodgers is the Awesome Portland board chair.

Leslie Rodgers is the Awesome Portland board chair.

Ifanyi Bell / OPB

The Awesome Foundation was founded by a group of MIT and Harvard students who wanted to make an impact in Boston. They decided that a small project was the best way to begin, so each of them contributed $100 to support an idea they could all get behind.

Little did they know that this concept would catch on in 89 cities around the world. Portland was the 36th city to become “Awesome.”

“They didn’t think it was going anywhere, they thought it was a one-time deal, but the first project was this giant hammock that could hold something like 20 people — like 20 people could lay on this hammock at the same time,” says Rodgers.

After hearing about them on the radio, Rodgers called the Awesome Foundation to inquire about the possibility of a Portland chapter. That call eventually led to its formation.

Awesome Portland awards $1,000 micro-grants to people who want to do great things in the area of technology, social good and the arts. Awesome funds these grants by enlisting the support of about 10 to 13 local “ordinary people,” who become the chapter’s trustees, each month. Combined, the trustees’ individual $100 donations make up the $1,000 prize. For every grant cycle the prize is awarded at a party. Last month, the party was held at Dig-A-Pony in southeast Portland.

So far, Awesome Portland has awarded 11 grants to civic-minded Portland artists and innovators.

Rodgers says that Awesome Portland receives about 50 applications per bimonthly cycle. The trustees, who come from various sectors of the community, vote on their favorites.

How does this group of trustees arrive at a common acceptance of what is “awesome”?

“We argue about it,” Rodgers says with a smile.

“We debate, we vote — the range of applications is extreme, super varied, everybody picks five, we show up at a meeting, and we debate. And everyone has their own spin. And ‘awesome’ means something different for each person on our board.”

XRAY.FM was the recipient of a $1,000 grant last year.

XRAY.FM was the recipient of a $1,000 grant last year.

Courtesy Awesome Portland

Awesome Portland has granted awards to a variety of recipients. Some projects have been as kitschy and ephemeral as “Dreamland,” which involved a series of randomly placed beds arranged in public places alongside rocking chairs. People were encouraged to read to random strangers who lay down in the beds.

Another recipient is XRAY.FM, a new, up-and-coming progressive radio station which has just completed a successful Kickstarter campaign.

And then there is a project that falls somewhere in between. Piano! Push. Play! is an organization that places pianos at random locations in the city and encourages passersby to play them.

“The money helped me to get all of the pianos tuned and also helped cover the cost of moving the pianos that sat out there for two weeks,” says Megan McGeorge, the woman behind Piano! Push. Play!

Even though $1,000 isn’t the kind of money that can make a significant long-term impact, McGeorge says that it’s not necessarily about the money.

“It was an acknowledgment that this was worthwhile and that someone felt like the idea was strong enough for them to help me see things through,” she says.

Rodgers says that McGeorge’s project is one of her favorites because it is simple and there is a clear impact on people’s happiness.

“Our whole goal, if we had a mission statement, would be to promote awesomeness throughout the universe. We want people to smile; we want people to feel joy. It could be something like a ‘flash of happy’ or it could be something like a kid learning to sew and carrying that craft or a trade into their future,” Rodgers says, referring to a project Awesome funded to help the LGBT youth community learn valuable trade skills.

“We want to make things better. We want Portland to be a better place than it already is,” she says.

Rodgers considers Awesome Portland as an organization that falls somewhere between The Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Genius Grant Program, which offers a $625,000 prize, but on a significantly smaller scale. Awesome Portland hopes to grow, but not in a direction that detracts from the simplicity of its premise.

“We don’t want it to be hard, we don’t people to feel like, ‘Oh, I have to fill out this application, this is such a burden, I have to do all this …’ We want it to be really easy. Some chapters, they would give winners the $1,000 in a brown paper bag, and that’s how they did it, and in a sense, that’s how simple we want to this to be,” Rogers explains.

Like the Genius Grant, there are no strings attached to Awesome Portland’s $1,000 grant and no real requirement that the recipients follow through with their projects.

“It’s really about faith, right? We’re trusting people; there’s no strings! They don’t sign a contract, so a lot of it is just giving people money on faith and trust, which in itself feels good,” adds Rodgers.

Last year, after Awesome Portland’s activities caught the attention of city officials, former Mayor Sam Adams declared April 26 to be “Awesome Day” in Portland.

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