Last Thursday I had the distinct honor of attending the Plywood Presents: Social Innovation conference at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The conference was made up of Social Innovators, Branding Experts, Social Technology gurus and Entrepreneurs looking to change the world. They are the dreamers of our society, the people who are refusing to view this time of economic crisis as a ‘be all, end all’ of prosperous living and charitable giving. Sharing that same outlook, I couldn’t type notes fast enough during Simon Mainwaring’s lecture for the morning session. He is the author of We First, a branding expert and propellant for building better communities, encouraging profit and positive impact, and promoting social media. He spoke mainly about his vision to encourage big brands to make socially intended efforts to give back to their communities. He travels all over the world encouraging brands to build prosperity within their community through their profits, and for consumers to practice mindful consumership (paying close attention to where they are putting their money). He was charming and thought-provoking on stage, and had some incredible insight on the American economy and how to strategically promote charitable efforts among the secular industry. I would highly recommend reading his book and looking into his works.

Humanitarian photographer Ester Havens also spoke at the conference about her travels around the world shooting for organizations such as TOMS Shoes and Charity Water. Dressed in casual-trendy attire, Ester is the type of person who carries a lot of influence in the social innovators and dreamers’ realm, but you would never know it if you just met her on the street, due to her humble attitude. With every photo she showcased throughout her presentation, she told a story of the person photographed; his or her names, jobs and even funny quarks about each person. She told us about her journey as a photographer and how one photo changed her whole perspective on what she did for a living. It was a photo of a young boy in Africa, with the typical oversized, malnourished belly and vacant, sad eyes. She said that when she snapped the shot, she felt a jolt of excitement rush through her because she had finally gotten a good shot of a starving child in Africa. And then it hit her. I’m celebrating someone else’s misery. And from that point forward she vowed to never take another photo without knowing the person in front of the lens. She has remained true to that promise, and is planning to take a group of photographers to Ethiopia to share her insight and experience on a workshop with photographer Austin Mann. The project is called Light the World, and they will set out for the African prairie land in late September. Ester lives by the phrase, “who we are is not determined by our circumstances,” and avidly promotes that idea through her photography.

There were so many more innovators and ideas represented at the conference that I would love to write about, but frankly that would make this blog unbearably long. If you are intrigued by the people I mentioned and want to hear more testimonies, send me a comment and I will fill you in. As for now I will end by telling you about the visionaries behind this whole project, the Plywood People. Jeff Shinabarger, founder and creative director of the Plywood People, and his team share a vision. They believe that humanity deserves respect, and that partnership with all people will only happen by bringing equality back to all. Their values clearly state, “We hope to celebrate humanity through uniqueness and character of individuals. Communication about people groups must be done in an uplifting and positive positioning.” Not only do they challenge us to look beyond ourselves and see the needs of others, they challenge us to do it hand-in-hand with the collaboration and cooperation of the innovators, entrepreneurs, businesses, communities, organizations and ‘average Joes’ of our society. And that’s exciting. It’s exciting to be a part of a local and global effort to one day change the world. It can be done, and with people like this at the forefront, I’m convinced that it will be done.

What do you think?