The Torch Flash Mob
If you are not familiar with the concept, a “Flash Mob” is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and predetermined act for a brief time, and then quickly disperse. The phenomenon of Flash Mobs has inspired hundreds of people to turn up for good ole fashioned pillow fights on city streets, zombie parades, rush hour subway parties and synchronized dance parties (you can check out the post I wrote here to watch an awesome video of this occurring at a Black Eyed Peas show).
I have no doubt that these events have created mayhem at times, but what I love is that they also bring much stress-releasing laughter and joy to otherwise routine moments in people’s lives. Flash mobs are all about turning an ordinary moment into an extraordinary experience.
This past Friday night on the Food Revolution, Jamie Oliver did exactly that! He staged a culinary-inspired Flash Mob with students from Marshall University, whipping up healthy stir-fries with a synchronized dance party in the center of campus. Jamie’s passion and energy had a very specific focus, that being to raise awareness for healthy eating in Huntington, West Virginia.
Jamie had been challenged by Rod, the skeptic radio show host for the town, to teach 1000 people in town to cook a healthy meal in 5 days. Rod was definitely doing his part to bring Jamie’s Revolution to a screeching halt. Without launching too much in to a recap of the show, suffice to say, whether it was the Flash Mob or not, Jamie succeeded in his task and hopefully really is on his way to creating lasting change for Huntington. He’s even got the governor on board, so I’d venture to say he’s headed in the right direction!
Today’s post is about a very personal and extraordinary experience with a Flash Mob, memories of which came flooding back while watching the show. Back in 2001, I was on staff for a teen leadership training called Torch, in Minneapolis, MN. Having already been through the adult trainings, it was an honor to participate in leading this group of amazing teenagers through a journey that I can only express as life-changing, beautiful and beyond inspiring.
At this point, I’d like to introduce you to my guest blogger for today’s story ~ one of my best friends in the world, my brother Matt Nelson. Not only was Matt instrumental in bringing the Torch movement to the twin cities, but he served as Staff Leader, and did so with energy, fun and a whole lot of love! So here is Matt, to share the inspiring story of our Torch Flash Mob.
The kids returned from lunch, and we had no idea what to expect. We had been working together for several weeks in a very challenging leadership training, and now they returned to our little make-shift training room in the Hennepin County Library, to present their very own community service project.
We had only two requirements for their project. The first was that they had to reach at least 1000 people. To be honest, we figured it would be nearly impossible for 15 teenagers to accomplish this in just a couple of hours, but we all knew from experience that lofty challenges more often than not create profound results. The second requirement was that they had to engage in truly meaningful conversation with those they were reaching out to. If you know any high school students, you probably realize this second requirement was actually the harder of the two.
Roughly four hours earlier, before our morning session began, I must admit I was feeling quite proud of myself. I had come up with a community service project that I thought was a very unique opportunity for the teens, and I knew they would both be challenged and rewarded in taking the project on. As I described the project to the adult small group leaders, I could sense the excitement in the air. This project was big. It was going to require these kids to tap into parts of themselves they likely never had before.
Having already printed 200 contracts, we described the assignment to the teens. They were going to head out into the community, which in this case was the business and shopping district of downtown Minneapolis on Nicollet Mall. The goal was for the teens to engage random adults in conversation, and get to them to sign a contract promising to help a teenager in their life with something of substance that they would not have otherwise done. We told them to use their imaginations, anything from taking a kid to lunch and having a real conversation with them about life, helping them apply for college, or encouraging a dream.
The contract was basic, but read something like this: I, ______, commit to helping ______ by doing the following things ______________. Signed, ________.
For two hours that morning, the teens performed just brilliantly, approaching everyone from businessmen in tailored suits, to random mail workers in Birkenstocks, to causal window shoppers roaming the mall. Granted, a few of the teens needed a bit of prodding, and most of them waited for ‘just the right person’, but by the end of the session, each had stretched way beyond their own perceived limitations and fears.
When they were finished with the morning session, they had over 120 signed contracts. We were floored by their success, and couldn’t have possibly been more proud and inspired by what these teens had accomplished.
That is, until they returned from lunch and proceeded to describe the community service project they had come up with, all by themselves!
At this part of the story, I should point out that we (the adult small group leaders) had been working very hard with these teens for several weeks. They were used to being challenged by us, and we were just getting the hang of what it takes to get a teenager to do something they were uncomfortable with doing. We had already spent a lot of time laughing together, and a fair amount crying together as well. We had shared our best stories, along with our most painful ones. We had gotten to know each other as people and friends, along with the great range of emotions that comes with being a human being on this planet. We had become a team, we had become a family.
So when these young adults returned from their lunch break, we were more than eager to find out how they thought they could serve 1000 people over the course of an afternoon. I was prepared for a breakdown, as my worst fear was that they couldn’t agree to anything.
Much to my surprise, they were 100% ready to take it on, and in a really big and meaningful way.
They had made it a working lunch, sending a team to a local drug store to spend the remains of their lunch money on colored tissue paper, construction paper, and an assortment of pipe cleaners. Over the next hour after lunch, using time we had set aside, they proceeded to make a couple hundred tissue flowers. Attached to each flower, was an empowering message.
Be Free. You are beautiful. Kindness. Happiness. Believe. Dream big. Connect. Love. It is Possible. Share. Peace. Do good. You are loved.
Passing out a couple hundred flowers with empowering messages sure seemed to be a quick way to reach a 1000 people. Even under the pay it forward theory, one would expect that anyone receiving such a gift from a stranger would be so uplifted that they would pass that positive infectious vibe to everyone they encountered throughout the day. But they knew they also had to engage these strangers in a meaningful conversation, so they decided this would be a great opportunity to persuade them to give the flower to another stranger as they went about their day. Brilliant.
So their plan was to hand out the flowers to random strangers, introduce themselves, engage in conversation, and to be sure the person receiving the messages understood that is was sincere. In these conversations, they planned to ask the people to pass it on to another person, bringing the pay it forward concept to life. If they were able to authentically communicate and connect with these strangers, they could turn the 200 into 400, into 600, then 800, and on to 1000 people being affected, and even beyond.
With the morning session serving as the perfect warm up, they put everything they had as caring, committed leaders into their project. Watching them in action was truly a thing of beauty, bordering on miraculous. There were hugs, tears, laughter and love exchanged downtown Minneapolis that day. There were even people who were so floored and inspired they even tried to make donations. It was simply amazing.
Hearing the stories from the teens during our wrap-up showed me that they truly loved this community service project they had created. They had risen to a challenge that we assumed was virtually impossible, and had outperformed the expectations of every adult in the room. In many ways the students became the teachers as they shared their experiences from throughout the day. Everyone in the room was deeply affected and forever changed, and there was hardly a dry eye in the room.
The moral of this story is to never sell kids short. If you give them a chance, and a bit of a push, they just may surprise you.
Now it’s your turn, so go out and do something wonderful for a kid in your life. It just might end up changing yours.