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Forwarding the Interest of Awesomeness in the Universe with DSI Faculty Lee-Sean Huang

Originally posted on The NY Times

Chatter about New York these days is all about how the city has changed. It is full of banks, franchises and billionaires’ condo towers blocking the sun from Central Park. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. compared one of its airports to something in “a third world country.” Its official ambassador is Taylor Swift. It is not a very awesome place to be.

Enter Jesse Chan-Norris, 37, a technology consultant who has lived in the city since 1999. In 2010, Mr. Chan-Norris was a founder of a New York chapter of an organization called the Awesome Foundation, and he is the chapter’s current dean. The foundation’s 10 New York trustees pool $100 each month and give the $1,000 pot — no strings attached — to the New Yorker who best answers their three questions: Who are you? What’s your awesome idea? How will you use this money?

At its July meeting, held on Monday in the TriBeCa offices of one of the trustees, they gathered in a conference room called Thunderdome (awesome!) to eat bacon-and-brussels-sprout pizza (awesome?) and debate the month’s applicants over two hours. One trustee telecommuted through Google Hangout from Harvard Business School. Another, an avowed “non-ironic” Taylor Swift fan, drank Diet Coke from a Slurpee-size Britney Spears cup. The average age of the trustees was 30, including a guest trustee, Ben Sisto, 34, the marketing manager and cultural engineer at the Ace hotel’s Flatiron location.

One application read that it was “inspired by the Renaissance times.” Another was frowned upon for using PowerPoint. The trustees’ conversation was kept off the record so that they could speak freely, though one participant described the session as “a ‘12 Angry Men’ sort of thing” (the trustees are five men and five women). By night’s end, they had winnowed the pool to three finalists, who will be contacted directly by individual trustees for follow-up explanation. The winner is chosen by a simple majority.

To date, the New York chapter has funded 44 projects, including renegade tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; new tires for a 1911 Baker Electric car at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, an upstate museum; an issue of The Coalition Zine, an art zine self-described as “dedicated to girls, non-binary and trans youth of color”; and the Illicit Couples Retreat, which billed itself as “a guided adventure through an abandoned honeymoon resort” for 12 couples “on a Lynchian tour of a sexy, swinging getaway” (Awesome’s $1,000 helped pay, in part, for candles, champagne and extra bedsheets).

The New York chapter started soon after the foundation was created in Boston in 2009, the brainchild of Tim Hwang, a polymath Forbes described as “the busiest man on the Internet.” According to its website, there are now 78 Awesome Foundation chapters across 18 countries, and they have funded $1,599,000 worth of projects. Each chapter — whether in Dubai or Nairobi — offers roughly $1,000 pooled from 10 or so local trustees. Its parent organization, the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies, has seven trustees, including Alexis Ohanian, a founder of Reddit from Brooklyn; S. I. Newhouse IV, a scion of the publishing family; and Christina Xu, a researcher at PL Data, a consultancy. Ms. Xu is also a trustee of the New York chapter. Local trustees come and go with the whimsy and collegiality of an office softball team’s roster.

Mr. Chan-Norris was recently pining for “life before cellphones, before the only reason you went somewhere was to Instagram it, or because a blog told you to go.”

“That’s the New York I remember,” he added, “the New York I love, the New York I want to invest in.”

Lee-Sean Huang, 34, a creative director who lives in the East Village and who founded the New York chapter with Mr. Chan-Norris, said it was a different kind of philanthropy. “It shouldn’t be an either-or class divide between funders and people needing funds,” he said. “Awesome grants let me contribute without dealing with that old world of big galas and charity dinners that I don’t really relate to. We’re rogues giving to rogues. It’s misfit money for the weird and wonderful.”

Most of the projects they subsidize can be divided, in trustee parlance, between splashy “flamethrowers” that might lack any real utility and more earnest, do-gooding “orphans.” Among the flamethrowers: an underwater hangout for divers in Long Island Sound, a campaign to give 10,000 New Yorkers nametags for a day and a payment to cover the cost of insurance for a bring-your-own-boat interactive theatrical production along the Gowanus Canal. Among the orphans: Giving Brooklyn Brainery, a community educational entity, money to build a backyard fence, providing a space heater for the community tent of a Hurricane Sandy-stricken neighborhood and expanding an after-school program in East Harlem.

Sometimes an applicant wins purely by stirring the most debate, as with a recently funded sandwich conference in Wassaic, N.Y. “Is a burrito a sandwich?” Mr. Chan-Norris asked gingerly. “Maaaaaybe.”

After five under-the-radar years, the city’s Awesome chapter is having a coming-out moment. In April it hosted its first public Awesome Talks (TED-style evangelism, but with free beer and dumplings), which drew about 50 people, and it is gathering many of its 44 grant winners soon for a mixer at Orbital, the Lower East Side co-working space that used to house Kickstarter.

Grant applicants — both winners and losers — applaud the Awesome chapter for being a corrective to the silicon-heavy, app-happy notion that awesome ideas need to be about monetized scalability. In a world where a person can score $55,492 on Kickstarter just for making potato salad, a $1,000 prize draws a specific New Yorker out of the woodwork. “We don’t expect hockey-stick growth or impact assessment reports for these ideas,” Mr. Huang said.

“There’s value in modesty, in pursuing something specific rather than the silly money, the play money, the Monopoly money of startup culture,” said Isabella Scott, 27, a fashion designer who lives in the Rockaways and who scored an Awesome grant in January to grow a dye garden, flowers grown specifically to have their petals and roots pulverized into colorings. Her blooms — blue bachelor’s buttons and pink wild bergamots among them — were harvested in recent days. “It’s nice to deal with humans instead of bureaucracy,” she added. “They understand that there have to be ways to access coolness without being a nonprofit or a startup.”

One trustee, David Adams, 43, a freelance ad copy writer who lives in Greenwich Village, is himself a converted grant recipient (for the Acoustic Guitar Project, which passes guitars from one musician to another until a concert links all their songs). “It’s not enough to fund a big thing, but it’s enough to fund an odd thing,” he said. “We can make something great happen once a month. Even a flash in a pan adds up to twelve flashes a year. ”

Ms. Scott, the fashion designer, laid out an unspoken fourth requirement for getting a grant: “This is for real New Yorkers. New York’s awesomeness comes and goes, but it will always have awesome New Yorkers.”

For his part, Mr. Sisto, the guest trustee, seemed impressed. “I was expecting Bill & Ted awesome but I was surprised,” he said. “It’s actually really authentic because I don’t really know anyone who says ‘awesome’ the way people say, you know, ‘amazing.’ You have to balance coolness with real engagement, and that’s what they do. Regardless of which idea wins, it’ll be meaningful because it’s about conviction. They talk about being awesome, but really they’re just plain nice. They could’ve been the Nice Crew.”

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