Civic News
Philanthropy / Technology / Urban development

Brooklyn rapper Heems is behind a new platform for helping nonprofits in the age of Trump

The goal: To get Brooklyn's gentrifying masses to participate in the communities they're joining.

"I don't really smile a lot," Heems explained. (Photo by Tyler Woods)
On a recent Friday night, Heems was on stage at Brooklyn Steel, the brand-new music venue located in the heart of East Williamsburg’s industrial zone, rapping about themes familiar to his music: the Indian diaspora, the TSA, drones (or girls, depending on your interpretation).

Cultural critique — from his time in Brooklyn indie rap group Das Racist, through his solo career, till now, with his new group Swet Shop Boyz — has been Heems’ calling card.

But now the 31-year-old is trying to do something about it outside of just music.

Enter Give One, a new platform intended to streamline the nonprofit donating and volunteering experience.

As the rapper takes on a new job (he joined Williamsburg agency AGW Group as a creative strategist) he’s partnered with other high-profile members of the agency world to put their brains, networks and resources together in the hope that Give One can really make a difference.


Back on stage, Heems is going in.

To get to Brooklyn Steel, you have to walk through dusty streets occupied by tractor trailers moving freight in and out of the warehouses and factories that occupy this part of Brooklyn. But the yuppies are coming. Just blocks away rise new condos with new New Yorkers in them.

Many of these new New Yorkers share Heems’ agitation at the Trump administration, and Heems (government name: Himanshu Suri) — together with Samantha Orley, and Emmett Shine of Gin Lane — want to make something good come of it.

“At first I was just speaking to [Shine] about a need for us as people in New York and in the agency world, with vast networks of friends who have influence, to come together and pool people we know and do something,” explained Suri in a recent interview at the AGW Group’s Williamsburg headquarters. “After the election happened, we realized there was really something to this.”

Heems in concert at Brooklyn Steel. (Photo by Tyler Woods)

Heems in concert at Brooklyn Steel. (Photo by Tyler Woods)

With Give One, users can pick the area of focus they’re most interested in, such as education and the arts or homelessness and poverty, or the environment, and sign up to donate a small amount each day or volunteer at upcoming events.

The platform is designed with the feel of a modern site, with little text, simple buttons and a one-page design. There are only a few nonprofits you can donate to on the platform right now, like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Environmental Defense Fund. The offerings become more local on the volunteering front, where users are able to sign up for events like the upcoming Work Day at Big Reuse Brooklyn, reducing landfill waste down in Gowanus. The site makes it easy for users to sign up for events and reduces the homework and logistics that go into helping civic organizations.

See the site

Give One is built with open-source code by one of its founders, Dmitri Vassilev. Speaking by phone, Vassilev said that making all or parts of the platform replicable was a big priority for him, in addition to the basic mission of the effort.

“Open source was a way we thought we could do that,” he explained. “With this, it’s both an open source platform and at the same time the platform itself is also giving back.”

Suri (Heems) made the point that they’re not trying to disrupt philanthropy or volunteering, but rather to build on the work that neighborhood groups and organizations have been doing for a long time. He seemed to not want to gentrify volunteering.

“It’s an idea of like, I’m in a neighborhood I didn’t grow up in. I would say maybe there’s some guilt about gentrification and it speaks to that we’re not just putting up our wine shops but also communicating with the community and seeing how we can help improve it without stepping on toes,” he explained.

If Give One makes can get some of those young concert-goers trodding over broken concrete in East Williamsburg to volunteer to fix it, then we’re really getting somewhere.

Series: Brooklyn

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