Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Secret Agent L: Covering the Globe with Random Acts of Kindess

Photo by Rob de la Cretaz
"We're so busy. We walk down the street. We're listening to our iPods.  We're plugged into our phones. We're looking down at our BlackBerries. We're not actually acknowledging the people around us.  I think that people really, actually want that.  I wanted to be a part of that effort to connect with people, and to help people not feel alone, because loneliness is a horrible feeling, a horrible feeling." -- Secret Agent L

Laura Miller, aka Secret Agent L, and her affiliated agents perform anonymous acts of kindness missions across the globe and share them on Laura's blog, secretagentl.com.

Laura was anonymous with her project for a year until she held a reveal party and fundraiser in July of 2010. Since then, her project has been featured on CNN, Glamour.com, Fox News, and The Huffington Post. In addition, the city of Pittsburgh, where she lives, proclaimed September 14th "Secret Agent L Day."

Our conversation began with Laura explaining how the Secret Agent L project works. You can listen to our chat on the Big Vision Podcast website, or via iTunes, and I've posted the edited transcript below.

A big thanks to the Big Vision podcast listener/Have Fun, Do Good reader, Terez Williamson, who suggested that I interview Laura for this show.  Please share more of your interviewee suggestions in the comments of my post, Your Nominations: 13 People with Big Visions for a Better World.


Laura Miller: The Secret Agent L project basically works as a collaborative effort of people all over the world who really want to make a difference through kindness.  I started this project back in July of 2009 at the prompting of a friend who was out of state and was having a birthday. She said, "You know, Laura, I think that birthdays aren't any fun, and I don't like them. I just don't want to have a birthday."

I tend to disagree with that because I think birthdays are fantastic.  I told her that I was going to send her a little gift for her birthday, and she said, "No, no, no, no. Don't send me anything. Go and do a random act of kindness in my name. You can call yourself 'Secret Agent L, All-Around Swell Chick and Girl Spy.'"

I was like, "Oh, well, I love this. This is fun."  I just ran with it.  I decided to do a little anonymous act of kindness, take photos, call it a secret mission, put it up on a blog, and then I told her about it.  She submitted it to Kirtsy, which is... I don't know if you're familiar with Kirtsy.

Britt Bravo: Yes, but you can explain it because some folks might not be familiar.

Kirtsy is one of those websites that tells you what's hot on the web that day, or that week, or that month: websites that are cool, stories that are either inspiring, or hilarious, or creepy, or whatever. My friend submitted my newly formed Secret Agent L Mission blog to Kirtsy, and it started getting a lot of traffic. People started emailing me and saying, "Oh my gosh! This is so fun. I want to be a Secret Agent, too. How can I help?"

I started emailing people a PDF of this business card that I was attaching to my little acts of kindness, my little missions.  I would email the PDF to people, and give them a brief description of how the project works and how they can do their missions.  I named these people my "Affiliated Agents."

Now I have affiliated agents all over the world who go out, do their little secret missions of kindness, or day brightening, and then they email everything to me.   I put it up on the website.  It's this amazing community of people who take a few minutes out of their day to leave something behind for someone to find just to let that person know that they're not alone, and that someone is thinking about them. It's very fun.

Do they have to fill out an application, go through training?

Right. [laughs]

How do you become an affiliated agent? [laughs]

Their blood type, their first-born child . . . No, all they have to do is email me. It could literally say in the subject heading, "I want in." Once I get their email address, I respond with my template response that says, "Here's how you can be an affiliated agent. Here's the protocol."  I attach the PDF with the business card, and they're on their way.

I don't actually assign missions to anybody. I get a lot of people who write me and say, "OK. I want to be an affiliated agent, but give me my mission. Give me my assignment."  I don't want to get into the habit of telling people to go out and be kind [laughs], so I don't actually give them a specific assignment.

I tell the affiliated agents, "Look. This is a really good opportunity for you to start thinking about how you personally can enact kindness, make a difference, and reach out to someone in a way that's personal and meaningful to you, because more than likely it's going to be personal and meaningful to somebody else."  It's very easy. They just have to email me, tell me that they're interested in being an affiliated agent, and then I will respond with their instructions.

About how many agents do you have? 

I have over 1500 all over the world.

Oh, my gosh!

I have them in Japan, and I have them in Germany. I have one in Mongolia. I have them in England. I have lots of Canadians, and I love the Canadians. They're so enthusiastic about this project.

I follow your blog, and you don't put up every photo that everyone sends you, do you? Do you just pick and choose?

I try to post most of the photos that the agent sends to me. If there's a photo that's blurry, or doesn't really show enough detail, or it's hard to decipher what that photo is, I might not put it up. But I really try to post most of the photos because the agent took the time to document their mission, and I want to share that with the world.

I saw someone left a care package in a waiting room. Are they all things that you could actually photograph, or are some of them intangible?

I think most of them you can photograph.  What I tell the agents when I email them is, "Think of something that if you stumbled upon it, it would make your day, or it would just make you smile, or it would make you feel less alone."

A lot of people, a lot of my agents who are women, will get things that have some sort of emotional value to them, or a monetary value. I tell them, "Try to keep it to $5 or less." I really want to stress the concept that kindness doesn't have to cost a lot of money, or really any money, and that you don't have to be rich and powerful to do these things, and leave these things behind.

Most people leave behind something tangible, even if it's just like a quote.  They write out a quote on a card, and leave it for someone.  If you have a card sitting around, and a quote, it's pretty much free.

They take photos of the prep, and they take photos of the actual tangible item that they left behind.  It's really nice, because whoever finds it can actually... it's a tangible item for them to hold, which was then previously held by the kind person who left it there.  There's a real physical connection for that kindness.

What's one of your favorite random acts of kindness? I was going to ask about one that you've done, but then it wouldn't be anonymous.  What is one that one of your agents sent in?  I know you can't pick and choose, but, something that stood out, and you were like, "Wow."

Well, I'm actually no longer anonymous. I was anonymous for about a year, and then I had a coming out party. So, I would love to tell you one of my favorite missions.

Oh, great!

This mission occurred when I was anonymous, but with the help of my very good friend, Vivian, who's my Number 2. I refer to her as Number 2 in the project. The two of us went to a local hospital during a cancer expo, and we basically, for lack of a better word, we hijacked the place.

We came armed with like 30 or 40 little gifts and goodies. All had the Secret Agent L business card attached to them. All had little ribbons, or whatever on them, and we just left stuff all over this cancer expo.  We knew there would be a lot of people there, who were either struggling with cancer directly, or indirectly, or who wanted to become more knowledgeable about it, and were probably carrying a little bit of heaviness in their heart while they were there.  We knew that would be the perfect place. It was such an emotional day to know that we had left all of these little goodies for people who were literally staring cancer in the face for the whole day.

So, that was really, really fun. It was one of my personal favorites.

I really enjoy the creativity of my agents. I mean, some of them, they have children, and they'll do missions that are geared towards the needs of families and mothers.  Some of my agents will leave coupons for diapers in changing areas in restrooms at like Target or Wal-Mart.  They'll leave the coupons for the diapers, and then they'll leave a gift card for that particular store, so that they could basically get diapers for free, or save a lot of money on diapers, or something like that.

The creativity of my agents... every one of their missions I really love.  I mean that sincerely, because they're so personal, and they're all laden with kindness. It's wonderful.

What's the path that led you to become Secret Agent L?  I mean, there are other people whose friend might have made that request and either they wouldn't do it, or they would do it once, and then be like, "That was nice. Moving on."  There has to be more to what led you to all of sudden have 1500 people all over the country leaving packages.


I know. It's crazy. It's crazy. Security guards are probably not liking us very much right now. I think the path that I found myself on when I started this was, I really believe deep in my heart that everyone is carrying some sort of burden, and everyone has a story.  I think that everybody has some hurt inside of them, and we live in this world that's so "me" centered. We're always focusing on what I have to do at this moment: I have to go to this. I have to get this done. I have to achieve this. We're so looking inward all the time.

That really bothered me, because I found myself doing that.  I thought, I've really had amazing experiences when I've turned outward, left myself behind a little bit, and tried to connect with the people around me. I thought if I could go out and leave these little gifts for people, and let that person who finds it know that there's someone out there -- and that would be me. I'll raise my hand -- who just doesn't want that person to feel alone, doesn't want that person to feel burdened too much, then I felt like I was adding goodness to the world, and I think our world really needs that.

I was also getting emails from people who were finding some of the goodies and little gifts that I was leaving, and there was this one theme that I was constantly seeing.  People were saying, "I was having a really bad day, " or "I was feeling really alone, " or "I was feeling really depressed lately, " or "I've been struggling with this."

For whatever reason, they just open up to me in such candid ways that I thought, "There's a real need for this," because I was seeing that people are hungry for connections. They're hungry for kindness. They're hungry for acknowledgment. People just want to be acknowledged, you know?

We're so busy. We walk down the street. We're listening to our iPods.  We're plugged into our phones. We're looking down at our BlackBerries. We're not actually acknowledging the people around us.  I think that people really, actually want that.  I wanted to be a part of that effort to connect with people, and to help people not feel alone, because loneliness is a horrible feeling, a horrible feeling.

But how did you get to talk to them afterwards? How did you know?

Well, I didn't. I'd get emails from them, because on my business card I leave the email...


Oh, yes, I didn't make that clear. I apologize. On my business card I leave the web address.  I also leave my email address, and then my Twitter handle, @SecretAgentL, because I'm on Twitter all the time. And people, they find this gift, they email me, and they say, "You know I was walking out of my office building, and I glanced down to the left and there was this thing that's laying on the newspaper rack.  I picked it up and it was this lovely little gift. Thank you so much.  I'm so glad that I found it. It made me feel less alone."  People were just constantly telling me that they felt acknowledged, and less alone when they would find things, so it was very powerful.

You have a regular day job. This is just a side thing that you do.

I do. Yes, I do [laughs] .

How do you find the time to run this project and do your job?

Oh my gosh! [laughs] .

I ask that for you, but also because I would imagine there are other folks listening who have something they're trying to do, and are saying, "I don't have time" How do you find the time?

Well, it is very, very difficult. I'm lucky I have the day job I have.  I work at a university, and it's a private university, so we're not very for-profit, bottom line, go, go, go all the time.  My colleagues are very supportive, and excited to know that I'm a part of it, and they're excited about the attention that the project has gotten.  They're very cool with it, but it really does take up a lot of time.

I remember, after I was interviewed on CNN, and the day after the CNN interview, I had almost 1,000 emails in my inbox.  I literally had to leave work. I was so overwhelmed.  I feel like I need an administrative staff to deal with the Secret Agent L project, and I do have my friend, Vivian, like I said, she helps me out. But I stay late after work (I'm totally embarrassed to admit that I don't have the internet in my apartment, because I can't really afford it), so I use the internet at work.

After work I just stay late, do the blog posts and prep things.  It makes for a long day, but I feel it's so important to be kind, and to try to connect to people.  As difficult as it is to keep up with it, I think I would feel really empty if I wasn't doing it. It's worth it.  It's one of those kind of sacrifices that's really worth it.

I'm imagining that there are some listeners who have ideas for projects that they think would make the world a better place, but maybe they're not sure and are wondering, "Is it a good idea? Should I try it? Do I have the time?" How did you know to trust your idea and try it?

Well, I think first of all, I'm definitely a person of faith, so I pray about it, The other thing is that for most of my adult life I always had this voice in my heart that was telling me, "You really need to enact goodness. OK, how are you going to do that?" That was the one thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning and when I went to bed at night.  I just prayed all the time that God would use me for good, that was the only thing that I wanted in my life, and if I could pay the bills, that would be great.

It was something that I believed in, and I really like hungered for. When you really, really want something, and you really believe in something, you will do whatever it takes to accomplish it. It is daunting, and there are times when I'm like, "Uh, is this a good idea? Should I do this particular mission? What are people going to say about this? Should I go bigger?  What do I do next?"

For me it comes down to, if it's something you really believe in strongly, then you have to do it, you have to do it or your heart won't shut up. [laughs]  For anybody who's out there listening, who has an idea, and even if they're feeling overwhelmed or kind of lost, just start, do something.  Really listen to your heart, and don't be afraid to ask for help. I've had to ask for a lot of help with this project, particularly once it was nationally recognized in the media.  But like I said, if you really love something enough, you will do whatever you need to do to make it happen.

And what's next for the project?  You've only been doing it for a year, so you're really still in the start-up phase, but what is your dream?  Do you have a larger dream for it?

Oh, I absolutely have a dream. The stock Miss America answer is that I really do wish for world peace, and it's really true.  I would love for the world to ultimately be a truly kind and loving place, but I'm one person, so I can only do so much.  I've been toying around with the idea of making it a nonprofit, and maybe putting some kind of curriculum in place for schools. I think that the earlier we can teach people about kindness, the better opportunities we have for positive results.

I would really love to take that to the next level and maybe make it truly my life's work, if there's some way I can do that.  I've been in conversation with some people who I know and trust here in Pittsburgh, and also in some other cities, but it's a slow process, and I'm OK with that, because I have this wonderful project and it's feeding my soul.  I hope it's feeding the souls of other people.  It's going to take some time and I'm OK with that though. I hope to make it bigger.

I have a feeling you will.

Oh, thank you.

Look how much you've done in a year doing nothing.

Oh my gosh.

I mean, just doing what you're doing.

It's unbelievable. I still sit back some days and I think, "Was I really on CNN and Fox News and the Huffington Post?" I really can't, I can't get over that, but what that says to me, again, is that people are really hungry for good news, they're hungry for things that are positive, they're hungry for some sort of connection because it's showing up in the media more and more.

Are there any books or blogs or magazines or quotes or anything like that that you go to for inspiration? 

I have two friends who are part of the social media "do good world." One is Melissa Morris Ivone.  She runs Operation Nice.  She's out of Philly, a dear friend of mine and it's really inspirational because she too walks the talk. She's a really nice, nice woman and she celebrates kindness and niceness.  I go to her website and get my warm fuzzies for the day.  I also talk to her about things that are important.  Definitely Melissa from Operation Nice.

My other go-to is my dear friend Nate St. Pierre who runs It Starts with Us.  He's out of Milwaukee.  I really believe he's going to change the world. He has thousands of people who are part of this larger group who are committed to changing the world for the better in fifteen minutes a day or less.

He actually sends out assignments via email and discussion forums and says, "OK guys, for fifteen minutes or less today, here's what you can do to make a positive impact on the world." It could be something as simple as apologizing for hurting someone, or introducing someone to someone else. Anything that's going to connect and heal.  He's all about that. Those are my two big go-to's in the social media world.

I also have a master's degree in English, so I really enjoy reading.  I really do enjoy reading character driven fiction where you get a sense of what it means to be truly human.  I think that feeds me and reminds me that what I'm doing, ultimately, is for the fellow human beings that I share this earth with, and I want to make it better for them.  I get that from stories sometimes.

Is there anything else that you'd like to share before we close?

Thank you so much for having me on. This is so exciting and wonderful, I'm really, really touched. If anybody listening wants to be an agent, you can email me.  My website is secretagentl.com, and when you go onto the website you'll be able to click on the contact section and drop me an email, or leave me a comment, and I will definitely get back in touch with you and tell you how to become an agent.  I would love to have more agents of kindness in the world, so definitely contact me.

Cross-posted on BlogHer.com.

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  1. I am thoroughly inspired! Thanks so much for doing this interview and spreading the word about Secret Agent L. I want to become a secret agent!

  2. Yay! I'm so glad you liked it, Wendy. I just added a few photos from her missions too.

  3. I'm so glad that you interviewed her! I'm am extremely touched & have already contacted her. Thanks!

  4. Hi Cher ~ Have you gone on any missions yet?


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