June 28, 2007

Making a Difference: a Glance at Purpose Prize Finalists

A Call to All Congregations

Growing up in an Episcopal household in rural Northern California, Sally Bingham absorbed two lifelong

values from her family: an abiding Christian faith and a deep appreciation of the natural world.

Today the 66-year-old Episcopal priest unites her interests as she works to engage religious groups in the war on global warming and environmental destruction.

"Religious people who sit in the pews and profess a love for God are called on to be the stewards of creation," Ms. Bingham says. "God told Noah to put animals on the ark for protection. That, to me, indicates that God loves everything that exists, not just humans."

In 1993 she founded the Regeneration Project, an interfaith charity striving to "deepen the interconnection" between ecology and faith. In 2001 the group started the California Interfaith Power and Light campaign, designed, Ms. Bingham says, to put "faith into action."

Campaign participants of all faiths pledge to make their churches, temples, or mosques as environmentally friendly as possible. That can include small things, such as replacing light bulbs with the latest in energy-efficient versions, to larger efforts, such as installing solar panels or wind turbines.

More than 450 California congregations have joined the effort, and related campaigns have sprung up in 19 other states. With donations from a mix of foundations, congregations, and individuals, Regeneration's annual budget tops $700,000.

Ms. Bingham has recently started stressing the social-justice aspects of going green, especially when she engages congregations in affluent neighborhoods.

"Coal-burning power plants are in poor neighborhoods," Ms. Bingham says. "When we turn on a light in our neighborhood, it's not our air that's getting polluted."

Her goal is to create an Interfaith Power and Light program that will be active in every state. Retirement is far from her mind.

"I'd like to see the campaign become as well known as the Red Cross," she says. "Retire? Heck, I'm just getting started."


'Do No Harm': a Doctor's Crusade

While the words "first, do no harm" might be a fundamental principle that guides doctors and nurses in their work, the truth is that thousands of patients are needlessly injured or die unnecessarily while in the hospital.

Donald Berwick, 60, heads the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a charity in Cambridge, Mass., that seeks to improve medical practices and reduce the mistakes and oversights that harm, not heal.

In 2004 his organization identified six medical practices proven to reduce needless patient deaths, including new ways to set priorities for emergency care and simple steps to prevent the spread of infections. His group started the "100,000 Lives Campaign" to encourage hospitals around the country to adopt those practices.

"We were not promoting anything that wasn't already published in the scientific literature," Dr. Berwick says. "But it is one thing to publish and another thing to implement. There are a lot of things hospital leaders have to work on and we were clarifying the signal, saying, 'Hey, everybody, let's do this.'"

The effort borrowed techniques from modern political campaigns, making extensive use of the latest Internet tools while enlisting charity and professional groups across the country to serve as local campaign headquarters. The effort even had a slogan: "Some is not a number, soon is not a time."

By the end of the 18-month campaign, 3,100 hospitals had agreed to participate in the effort. Analysis of those hospitals' mortality records shows that more than 120,000 fewer patients died after the campaign's practices were adopted.

While Dr. Berwick is quick to say that the campaign itself cannot take credit for saving all those lives, he is "energized" by the "phenomenal" outcome. Last year his charity launched the "5 Million Lives From Harm" campaign promoting steps that hospitals can take to reduce needless patient injuries. More than 3,400 hospitals have already agreed to participate.

"A corner is turning," Dr. Berwick says. "I feel younger every day."


Hispanic Businesses Get a Lift

When Cuban-born Sara J. Gonzales, 71, opened a cafe in Atlanta in 1978, her Cuban sandwiches, black bean soup, and other native delicacies earned accolades and favorable reviews. But the business struggled and closed after a few years.

"I thought just having the best food would be enough," she says. "I was very naïve and didn't know what was involved in running a business."

As head of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Ms. Gonzales now sees to it that Hispanic entrepreneurs don't face the same hardships. In 2001 she helped found the Hispanic American Center for Economic Development, a business "incubator" and education service providing a wealth of information on founding and maintaining a business, including suggestions on topics such as writing a business plan, acquiring permits, and paying taxes.

The program started small. Ms. Gonzales simply brought together bilingual lawyers, tax accountants, bankers, and successful Hispanic business owners for monthly seminars at which would-be immigrant entrepreneurs could ask questions and seek advice. Today, the center has a staff of four and Hispanic entrepreneurs can start their own businesses right under its roof.

"We have our own office space now, with 12 cubicles," she says. "We can provide computer and phone lines, cabinets for filing, and receptionist services — all for a minimal fee. Plus we now teach 52 different business courses."

Last year alone, the center helped start more than 160 businesses that have contributed an estimated $40-million to Georgia's economy.

"I don't think there is another chamber in the country that has an educational arm like we do," Ms. Gonzales says. "I had a tremendous awakening during a later time in my life. I realized I was a resourceful person who loves challenges."


Fighting for the Poor in Detroit

Marian Kramer, 62, has been fighting for social justice all her life, dating back to her college days in the 1960s when she took part in civil-rights marches. The bulk of her efforts since, she says, has been "in the trenches," working to "organize low-income people to fight for their own interests."

In 1987 she helped to found the National Welfare Rights Union, a Detroit charity that seeks to give welfare recipients a voice whenever legislation affecting their lives is debated.

Four years ago, with an ill husband at home, she thought about retiring — volunteering for her charity when time allowed instead of working full time.

But then a new issue came trickling into her life: Poor Detroiters — many of whom had lost their jobs in the slumping auto industry — were increasingly unable to pay their water bills. As a result, many of them were coping with a water shut-off.

"Many people were afraid to say anything at first because if you are on public assistance and you lose your water, the welfare department can take your children," Ms. Kramer says. "It was double jeopardy."

The more her charity looked into the issue, the deeper it became. The inconvenience, indiginity, and health hazards associated with a lack of running water were more widespread than many had guessed.

"We found out two years ago that some 40,700 people in Detroit had their water shut off," she says.

Ms. Kramer's own neighborhood of Highland Park was particularly hard hit by manufacturing-job losses and nearly half the residents there were without water. The city soon began threatening to take houses away from people in arrears.

Ms. Kramer didn't just get mad, she got busy. She organized community protests against the shut-offs, while working with lawmakers and the Detroit Water Commission on a plan that would charge households for water on a sliding scale based on income and would end abrupt shut-offs.

"After two years, we got it past the City Council last year," Ms. Kramer says. "I was down there every day."

The plan still faces some bureaucractic hurdles before it can be put completely in place, so Ms. Kramer is still on the job. Meanwhile, civic groups in other cities are seeking her advice with their own water issues.

She adds: "Yeah, I retired all right — right back to my chair in the office. Poverty is not eliminated, so I guess my job is not eliminated."