DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alum visits all 50 states to spotlight ordinary heroes

Dafna Michaelson

Alumna Dafna Michaelson visted all 50 states looking for everyday heroes.

The stats are right there on the Web site: 50 states and the District of Columbia; 40,000 miles in rental cars; 189,000 page views; 770 Facebook friends; and 500-plus “video interviews of ordinary people doing the extraordinary.”

It’s the tally of a journey that took Dafna Michaelson (MBA ’01) a year to complete, from January through December of 2009. She spent three days each week in a different state, documenting ordinary citizens who are stepping up to solve problems in their communities. Her Web site, www.50in52journey.com, is full of blogs, videos and images from her travels.

Among her many interviewees are Troy Gathers, founder of an organization that helps disadvantaged youth in South Carolina; Judy Wright and Mary Lou Wright, who started Kansas’ Fairy Godmother Fund for women in need of a helping hand; Sharon London, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless in Maryland; and Norman Smith, a New Jersey man with cystic fibrosis who co-founded a housing development company for people with disabilities.

“I knew that there were people out there who were seeing a problem and then making a solution happen,” says Michaelson, who lives in Denver with her fiancé and her two children. “These are the people who are taking control of the situation around them. When you take control of a situation, you know that you’re going to move yourself and your community forward.”

Traveling alone with a video camera and a tripod in her carry-on bag, Michaelson ventured first to Delaware, where she interviewed the founders of the Delaware Sports League and the Kelly Heinz-Grundner Brain Tumor Foundation, among others. She talked to a family mediator in Utah, a Holocaust survivor in Ohio and a filmmaking team in Georgia. Using the power of Facebook and Twitter, she bypassed politicians and traditional media to go straight to the source: the people making things happen.

“I wanted to show everybody — my classmates, my peers, the country — that it is the people who are seeing a problem, deciding that they’re the person to solve that problem and putting that solution into action that are truly moving our country forward,” she says. “And that there are more people like that than meet the eye.

“I felt like if I showed people that ‘this problem-solver looks like you, sounds like you, has the same amount of money as you or the same education as you,’ you might watch it and say, ‘You know what? I can do that, too.’”

Already Michaelson has heard from people around the country who found her Web site or saw her on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” and were inspired to start community efforts of their own. She’s at work on a book, an independent movie and a mobile-phone application based on her journey.

The next step for Michaelson — who served as director of DU’s Holocaust Awareness Institute in the late 1990s — is the Journey Institute, which will help people find solutions to problems in their own communities via social media and in-person conferences.

“I’ve been to every state, and there isn’t a state where I didn’t find somebody — whether it was in some small town with 78 people or in New York City — who said ‘OK, this sucks, I’m going to fix it,’” she says. “And they do.”

Comments are closed.