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"Get Out and Do It"

James Gang Builds Community With Passion, Collaboration


Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 1, 2006

"The Press-Citizen editorial board has chosen The James Gang as its 2005 Persons of the Year . . .."
The James Gang: The Basics

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

The James Gang was born out of a simple realization among friends.

"We all knew a number of people doing cool things and thought it would be really neat to get them all together," said Andy Stoll, one of the founding members who is still active on the group's board of directors.

From a humble beginning in 2002, the nonprofit group has grown into a major force.

The Press-Citizen editorial board has chosen The James Gang as its 2005 Persons of the Year for the group's spirit of innovation and collaboration and focus on community-building through a range of projects, including the 10,000 Hours Show, the Saturday Night Free Movie Series and the Exodus Music Festival.

Stoll, 26, of Iowa City, said the idea is to help people pursue their creative interests while building community.

"When people do what they're passionate about, there's this energy that's output," Stoll said. "And when that energy is directed at the community, everybody wins."

The James Gang is named after 19th century philosopher William James.

"For our purposes, we define (William James) theory of pragmatism to mean that instead of just talking about something, you should get out and do it," Stoll said. "An idea doesn't have a worth until it is acted upon."

The James Gang started as informal gatherings of 20 to 40 people in each other's living rooms. The first activities as a group included potluck dinners.

By 2005, the group consisted of an eight-member board of directors and more than 150 volunteer staff members.

The James Gang has spearheaded or contributed to a number of what Stoll describes as "innovative and sustainable" community projects in its young life.

The first endeavor was the Composing Charities Series, a series of benefit shows for local charities showcasing local performing artists.

Other projects have included the Exodus Music Festival, which featured about 50 local musicians on a farm near Solon, and the Earth Expo in September, which showcased local environmental and alternative energy innovations.

The group partnered with The Environmental Project, UI Student Government as well as Engineers for a Sustainable World to pull off the Expo.

Their Saturday Night Free Movie Series drew about 200 people each week to the Pentacrest to watch movies during four weekends last summer. It's since been adopted as part of Iowa City's Summer of the Arts -- starting in 2006, the series will bring a free, outdoor movie to downtown Iowa City every Saturday from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

That project was a collaborative effort with MC Ginsberg and the Bijou Theater.

Rob Cline, president of the Iowa Cultural Corridor Alliance, said he's impressed with the group's emphasis on collaboration.

"Not only do they have great ideas and great energy and the drive it takes to make their ideas happen, they are excellent at working with other, established organizations," Cline said. "It's really admirable in a group of young people to be inclusive, to know how to combine these ideas with the people who can partner to make it happen."

Like the James Gang itself, the concept for the 10,000 Hours Show, perhaps the group's most well known endeavor, was born during an ordinary conversation among friends.

Mike Brooks and Jacek Pruski, both University of Iowa graduates, were eating lunch and talking about their two passions: volunteering and live music. Brooks says the idea came to them at the same time: They could encourage more young people to volunteer by rewarding them with a free concert.

After two years of planning and organizing, the first 10,000 Hours Show took place in 2004. Musician Ben Folds performed for about 876 volunteers who had given 13,572 hours of service to 56 organizations in eastern Iowa.

Brooks said it was "beautiful and motivating" to see that many young people gathered and to know they'd all made a difference in their communities.

Deb Dunkhase, executive director of the Iowa Children's Museum, said she's seen a significant increase in young people volunteering at the museum since the inception of the 10,000 Hours Show.

In 2005, the project, which bears the slogan, "Because together we rock," expanded to the entire state. It involved 1,684 volunteers who gave 20,009 hours of service to 138 organizations.

And it looks like it will keep on growing. Stoll said the James Gang has fielded inquiries from people all over the country interested in starting a 10,000 Hours Show in their communities.

Stoll said the group would announce in early 2006 which band will play at the next 10,000 Hours Show in April.

The James Gang also has two new endeavors in the works: The Coaster Project and the cFree Wireless Network.

Stoll said the Coaster Project, which is still in the fundraising phase, attempts to use two community problems to solve each other.

"Nonprofits don't have the money or time to market themselves and artists need help getting their work out," Stoll said.

So the James Gang will commission local artists to create 4-inch drink coasters promoting local nonprofits and displaying the artists' work. The coasters will be used at local restaurants.

This spring, the James Gang, together with the Cedar Rapids Downtown District, will launch the cFree Wireless Network, the largest free outdoor public network of its kind in the state, in downtown Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids.

Jonathan Sabin, owner of Vortex, a gift store in downtown Iowa City, said he thinks the wireless network will put eastern Iowa on the map.

"I think it's a brilliant, innovative project," he said. "It will redefine connectivity for downtown Iowa City."

In addition to working on its new projects and continuing to expand its existing projects, the James Gang is working to define itself and its future with strategic planning.

"I think as long as there is a need for the community to continue to improve, there will also be a place for the ideals of the James Gang," Stoll said.

Laura Savage, a UI junior, is the latest to join the group's board of directors. She said she sees a long, fruitful future for the James Gang as long as the Iowa City community continues to support it.

She noted that the thousands of volunteers who participate in the 10,000 Hours Show are technically part of the James Gang.

"They're all excited about it," she said, noting that's how she first got involved with the group.

"I saw (10,000 Hours) was a really neat thing and realized they'd done a bunch of other neat things," she said. "That made me realize, wow, I've already benefited from this."

The group also enjoys wide community support to help sustain its efforts.

Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he's one of the James Gang's biggest fans.

"I think the group includes some of the most passionate and creative leaders in our area," he said. "They are providing significant impact to the quality of life to not just this community, but really the state. They embody what we're trying to sell Iowa as: creative, cool, high-tech."

The James Gang

What: An Iowa City-based nonprofit "community building group" that has spearheaded or collaborated on several projects including the 10,000 Hours Show, Saturday Night Movie Series and Exodus Music Festival.

Who: The James Gang was formed in 2002 by a group of friends at the University of Iowa. It has grown to include more than 150 volunteer members under the direction of an eight-member board. Some 75 people volunteer year-round as staff for the 10,000 Hours Show; 95 percent of the 10,000 Hours Show staff is 25 years old or younger.

10,000 Hours Show by the numbers

876: Volunteers registered in 2004, the program's inaugural year.

1,684: Volunteers registered in 2005, the program's second year.

20,009: Hours 10,000 Hours Show volunteers served in 2005.

31: Iowa counties represented by volunteers in 2005.

155: Number of 2004 10,000 Hours Show participants who were first-time volunteers in 2005.

95: Percent of 10,000 Hours Show volunteers between the ages of 17 and 30 in 2005.

Source: 10,000 Hours Show 2005 Annual Report

On the Net

The James Gang: