To effect change, make connections first

They had had enough of real-life drudgery. Paying the bills would no longer hold priority over their dreams.

That's the attitude that Pedro Morales, Juan Carlos Kaiten, and Jeff Barnum shared when they were introduced at a 1999 meeting of Pioneers of Change, a network of 25- to 35-year-old activists. The entrepreneurial trio decided that opening a cafe would be the best way to test their vision of a business grounded in social responsibility.

Two years later, they welcomed their first customers at Mama Gaia's Cafe in Cambridge, Mass., which offers organic food and fair-trade coffee, lets customers tap into a wireless computing network, and serves as a meeting place for community groups.

The global Pioneers network doesn't sponsor projects directly, but it promotes a creative learning process to help people put their values into action.

"It's one thing to go to a leadership workshop and get all inspired, but then when you go back home it wears off," says Pioneers of Change cofounder Mille Bojer, a native of Denmark who lives in South Africa. "But if you are part of a network that is there for you day to day, that is when a change of practice actually happens."

Membership is open to those who have some life experience beyond their college years and an interest in grass-roots change. The network relies on volunteer work and is funded by foundations and corporate and individual donors. Its 1,000-plus participants in 70 countries have launched a range of projects – from building a youth leadership program in Croatia to providing rural African farmers with bikes for transportation.

Other efforts are as simple as sharing a potluck dinner while discussing community issues. Pioneers member Katie Bell hosted such a gathering last spring. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of her Boston apartment with a bowl of bean soup at her side, Ms. Bell explained to a small group how she found herself casting about for a way to stay involved after a two-year stint in the Peace Corps. Others offered their stories, too.

As they tackled such broad questions as "What makes a healthy community?" the conversation began to waffle. Each person admitted they didn't know how to translate their desire to be involved into something tangible.

Bell had jumped into these conversations after hearing about Pioneers at a young-leaders' conference. She says the network has proven to be a comforting resource whenever she moves to a new city.

At the first annual Pioneers meeting, held in 1999 near San Francisco, participants asked for a better structure to help translate dialogue into action. As a result, now features an online guide centered around five principles:

• Be yourself; what are your values, talents, purpose?

• Find what really matters to you; bring meaning to your work.

• Start now.

• Engage with others; don't go it alone.

• Never stop asking questions.

Still, it's not easy to hold conversations based on these concepts, and Bell says people can be too accommodating: "I don't think we challenge ourselves to be engaged in differences as much as we could. People do seem to speak their mind, but ... there's a lot of agreement."

Sitting in Mama Gaia's Cafe one evening, Mr. Morales has different worries. Tthe cafe's first annivesary is approaching, and Morales and his partners are struggling to make ends meet.

But he's encouraged when he thinks back to problems they've overcome. Two months before the grand opening last year, for instance, the uncertainty of the times after Sept. 11 prompted some investors to pull out.

Even before they opened the doors, the owners' desire to foster connections began to play out. An outside wall of the cafe became a spontaneous mural depicting peace and hope in response to the terrorist attacks. Neighbors stopped by to offer to help paint walls or wash dishes.

"It was a key moment when the people in the community embraced us," Morales says of the final days before the grand opening. "We're just trying to create a space where people can breathe."

Ms. Bojer says these kinds of connections will thrive, even when current members turn over their leadership roles to the next generation of Pioneers.

"These are relationships that will be lifelong," she says. "The network will continue, whether we are 28 or 46."

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