Browse Tag: new media

Social Media for Social Change: 10 Tips from a Queer African Media Activist

I recently spoke at a panel at NYU’s “Making It In Media” lunch panel and discussion series, which prompted a personal reflection of my non-conventional, non-linear career trajectory as a writer and a media activist.

Read “Making It In Media, Accidentally: One Queer African Writer’s Journey to Paradise” if you’d like some background.

In that post, I talked about the importance of leading from within, knowing yourself enough to carve a career path for yourself that’s beautifully unconventional. However, in addition to sharing my personal story and philosophy, I wanted to share a few tangible new media tips, tricks, and strategies that have been helpful to me in  my career so far. (Note: Join my mailing list if you’re interested in more of these.)

These tips don’t hold all the answers to “Making It In Media”, not by a stretch. But I do believe they will be helpful to anyone who’s just getting started with social media, would like to learn how to be use it more strategically, or even serve as a good refresher for someone who’s been tweeting and blogging for years.

At the core of my message is, of course, my mantra: “Love Is My Revolution”; my work serves to support and uplift others, and so I write and share from this place, always. But, also intrinsic in my message about using media for change is another simple idea: no matter how much technology we use, people are still people.

Thus, in order to achieve real influence, you’re going to have to apply the normal rules of effective communication, whether or not you’re tweeting from a smartphone, updating Facebook  via iPad, or publishing an op-ed for the HuffingtonPost. Because in order to achieve real influence, truly connect with others online, you’re going to have to dare to be human.

So, here are 10 Tips for Making it In Media, from a passionate, introverted writer who strongly believes in the power of using social media for social change, including being human enough to intermittently tweet about your cats, courageous enough to stand for what you do know, and brave enough to admit when you don’t know nearly enough about a whole lot of things:

1. Take a Position: So, you wanna be a thought leader… Well, the good news is that the digital space is filled with followers, spectators, and consumers, all passively experiencing the web. Consider this: A few studies have shown that in most online communities, 90% of the users are lurkers (i.e. they never contribute/just read and consume), 9% contribute a little, and 1% account for nearly all the action. This is VERY good news for anyone who has something important to say– the odds are already in your favor. Tap into the power of being in the 1%. The 90% are eagerly waiting for you to say something.

2. Engage in (Dis)agreement: I once dated a woman who would make outlandish statements, and then, when I would counter or challenge, would say to me, “I don’t need to defend my ideas to you.” I found that alarming, and then (with my activist hat on) really scary. To think that there are so many people moving through the world carrying the same ideas in their heads they’ve had since they were four! Why? Because they don’t enjoy confrontation. But (respectful) disagreement, though uncomfortable for some, is actually very healthy; it forces us to re-think our initial ideas, and–through debate with othersstrengthen our arguments, or can them altogether. If you’re going to take a position (as in step one), be prepared to see it through. Find people who disagree (and agree) with you, too. You can change the world, one debate at a time.

3. Choose Your Battles: So, I know I just said that debate and dialogue are good, but unfortunately–and just as in real life–they’re all not worthwhile. Use your airtime wisely. Before you engage, especially in disagreement, consider the level of influence or visibility of the person you’re debating, and the number of people watching. Don’t waste your airtime, for instance, on a Twitter troll (no pic, virtually no followers, but lots of venom/animosity) who’s just looking for a fight, someone to bully. Avoid back and forths with hecklers who have little to no influence (this is subjective, so you can assess for yourself). The way I see it, if I’m going to spend time investing in an online conversation, a whole lot of people better be watching, and possibly being swayed… ’cause again I write for influence, for change. That is always worth it.

4. Participate in Pertinent Conversations: Now, the first three tips assume you got on a soapbox one day and people started listening to you, asking you questions, agreeing or disagreeing. This assumes you already have a base network. But what if you’re just getting started? It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are. If you’re not sharing your ideas with others, you’re basically talking to yourself. Ever seen someone standing in the middle of a networking event spouting off every other minute about how much they know? Weird (and obnoxious); you’ll most likely be ignored. If that happens, how will anyone know that you could possibly hold the key to curing cancer? How can you get people to listen to you? Well, for starters, get off the soapbox and find a conversation that’s already happening; introduce yourself, chime in, contribute intelligently, let your brilliance speak for itself. You’ll find that people are more likely to engage in conversation than voluntarily sign up for (your) lecture. Use that to your advantage. And remember to always leave people with a way to get in touch with you if they want!

5. Niche Your Knowledge: Be consistent. I’m not saying you should sound like a robot, just focus. If you can, choose a niche. It’ll make it easier for people to remember why they need to stay connected with you, and when they should recommend you to someone else (e.g. “You’re writing a paper about feminism in Atlanta, I know an amazing blogger who writes about that stuff!”).  Additionally, niche-ing yourself will also help you in determining how, where, and with whom to spend your time. Some experts call this platform-building. Check it out. Dan is awesome. And his newsletter got me to stop intermittently tweeting about my cats amidst political calls to action (well, mostly).

6. Specialize, But Stand Out: So you’ve been smart about engaging in conversations related to your field of expertise, nurturing a larger, yet more focused platform to showcase your brilliance. Bravo! But now, you have a different task to conquer — distinguishing yourself from the hundreds of other self-proclaimed gurus in your field. Now that people know you’re the go-to person, say for cute cat photos feminism in Liberia, now what? What separates you from that other feminist who write about Liberia? Why would an audience choose to stay connected to you? What’s in it for them? This line of questioning may sound cynical, but the truth is that everyone wants something. You want followers, fans, and influence. What do you think your followers want from you? If you can find a way to convey nuance to your audience, you’ll get more attention. Better yet, if you can find a way to offer something of value to them, say *cough* a list of tips for Making It In Media, you’re more likely to earn their loyalty (and prove that you may actually know what you’re talking about). For example, there are hundreds of progressive/feminist blogs on the internet that tend to all say the same exact thing; I’ve managed to create a niche for myself that allows me to write about a range of issues because my brand isn’t tied to what I write about, but how I write about them. Ask, Melissa Hill Perry — she digs my principles of afrofeminism (win!).  So find out what makes you unique, even within your niche. Create value, and earn loyalty.

7. Quality over Quantity: When I first started publishing my writing online, I couldn’t imagine how bloggers could find the time or energy to crank out post after post after post, while I would slave away for days, sometimes weeks over a single piece. So, at first, I tried to “keep up” by publishing more frequently, which only resulted in my publishing more crap; I actually lost readership. See, in an effort to emulate other bloggers,  I’d begun writing about whatever I thought was “the thing” to write about; my pieces lacked focus, passion, depth, and didn’t help build my reputation. In fact, they distorted it. The minute I returned to writing the longer, personal, insightful commentary I was known for, my readership began to grow again. Moreover, publishing less frequently (but more regularly) meant that I could spend more time in between deadlines promoting each piece. I came to deeply appreciate my work as critical, thorough, and creative; eventually, the loyalty of my readers affirmed that my words are worth the wait. The lesson here: People may visit your site once for a blog post, but it’s the quality that will keep the same readers coming back, repeatedly.

8. Collaborate with Others: It’s no secret: self-absorption is quite prevalent in media spaces. So many people are trying so hard to “make it” they’ve forgotten that we’re all part of a larger ecosystem. Now, before you dismiss this as a “feel good” tip, remember tip #4; if you think engaging with other people in your space could be beneficial, consider the power of collaborating with them. Incidentally, Tyler Perry and Oprah — two highly successful and influential black media mavens — just decided to work together. What do they stand to gain? Combined clout, for one.It can’t hurt to pool their resources either; the entertainment industry is still systemically racist after all.

9: Connect and Support Others: But what about this idea of linking people to resources? Highlighting other people’s work just because? According to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, being a “Connector” has its rewards as well; if you’re genuinely helpful to others i.e. connect people to resources they need, people will appreciate you, perhaps come to rely on you, trust you, like you, and as a direct result, stay highly engaged and be eager to give you support when you need it. I saw this first-hand when my online fundraising campaign for Africans for Africa raised ~$15K; so many people donated money, connected me to resources I needed because they were eager to return the favor (some I couldn’t even remember doing!). I make it a point to list other blogs I read in my sidebar, mention other activists and organizations doing work similar to mine whenever I’m interviewed, and actively mentor young people. There’s value in connecting and supporting others. So don’t become just another self-serving loudspeaker. Give and you shall receive.

10. Be Purposeful: I haven’t necessarily put these tips in order, but if I had to think of the top three, this would certainly be one of them. Before I publish anything, speak anywhere, respond to any criticism, I ask myself three questions: “Who am I talking to?” “What is the most effective way I can deliver this message to them?” “What do I want to happen as a result of their listening?” Now, if you wanna write  or speak or be on TV etc just for the sake of being famous, then perhaps this won’t matter. If you run your blog like your personal diary, that too won’t matter. But, if you’re a bit like me, and you want to write for change i.e. you want to engage in transformational conversations with groups of people, then you must always consider these questions before you produce anything. I wouldn’t write about homophobia to a group of US college soccer players the way I would to an audience of religious African women, nor would I begin a conversation with harsh criticisms of views I don’t agree with if I really wanted them to see where I was coming from. Be purposeful in your use of media; know who you are and what you want to get out of it. And it’ll be a lot easier to navigate through the noise from feedback later.

A Word to the Wise: Practice Principled Apathy (aka Don’t Take It Personally)

This is an extra point, I know. But I simply couldn’t end without stressing this. The thing about taking a position is that you submit yourself (plus your ideas, and sometimes, even your character) to feedback and scrutiny by the 90%, spectators whose job it is in this system to validate or invalidate your position (See point #1). Simply put, you must be ready to deal with criticism, both good and bad.

Ghandi said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

I have found that spending time reflecting on point #10 — leaves me better prepared to engage with comments and feedback, whether positive or negative, afterwards. When I know why I’m writing, and who I’m writing to, it’s a lot easier for me to choose who to engage with (and how) in the event of backlash. When I think about all the people I look up to, it’s easy to see that they all stood for something, and paid for it in mass criticism. That’s why it’s important to remember the why behind your use of media. If you keep your purpose — which is to help people — at the back of your mind, there’s no storm you won’t be able to weather.

And so I close with some wisdom from Spiderman, with a twist: With great influence comes a greater need for principled apathy.

You must learn to weed through the rubble for the nuggets that will either help you strengthen your message or nudge you further along the right track towards justice.

Well, there you have it! 10 Tips for Using Social Media for Social Change, after a Making It In Media, Accidentally.

Reminder: I wrote most of these tips from my experience as a writer who blogs, and uses her online social media channels for social justice, so the tips here may not be applicable to other media platforms. Hence, I encourage you to add to or adapt this list for your own purposes. You may also view what others have offered via the #howtomakeitinmedia Twitter chat archive on Storify. (Link coming soon).

Thanks for reading. I hope these get you started off in the right direction.

It would be great to hear from you, especially if you found it helpful, to encourage me to keep on sharing :) Which tips above do you often apply to your work? What other tips would you recommend to others — new and experienced — who are interested in more strategic use of media platforms for social justice? I often write these things and am never quite sure who’s reading them. 

One Love.

To Hell With Mainstream Press Coverage: Women, People of Color, and Trans People Should Create and Control Their Own Media Stories

For those of you who don’t know, my group – QWOC+ Boston – produces a week-long multicultural pride (LGBTQ) festival every year. It’s an impressive (if I do say so myself) array of art, music, discussion, and social justice events for LGBTQ people of color and diversity-conscious allies. We’ve spent the past 3 months creating these events and now they’re ready to go out via official announcements!

Next Steps: Generating so much buzz that people from neighboring states visit Boston to attend the events (and in so doing, validate our weeks of hard work).

As I prepared to send out the official QWOC Week Calendar today, I paused to take a look at my really long ‘Press/PR’ to-do list and noted the slightly underwhelming list of journalist contacts. Some would call that a #fail on press release day, but where there arguably should be an uppity list of noteworthy press contacts, I have, instead, a list of connectors — bloggers, event producers, community organizers, and crucial tweeps to reach out to for grassroots promotional support. This came as no surprise to me since I’ve been pretty successful leveraging social media to do outreach, promotions, and build QWOC+ Boston’s brand. Plus, mainstream media has routinely pissed me off with their half-ass coverage of issues pertaining to people of color, much less about LGBT people of color.

In the past, the media coverage QWOC+ Boston events have received has been light and fluffy at best — who-what-when just about summarizes the general approach, with opinion or speculation — usually from the lucky friend of a friend of an editor — driving the why-and-how portion (vs any sort of ‘investigative’ reporting). At this point, I’ve become accustomed to the two or three paragraphs (usually a composite piece) dedicated to highlighting “people of color” (usually the male, LGBT, african-american community) during pride, and not much else in terms of press coverage (unless of course it’s around the AIDS epidemic); women’s/feminist grassroots movements are almost always an afterthought (or viewed as ‘cute’  and thus, not ‘news-worthy’), so a part of me has given up on hoping for more.

But it’s not that New England papers don’t know how to cover POC issues (or women’s issues for that matter) — they should be treated as every other subject matter — with tact, professionalism, and thoroughness; it’s that they’re too lazy to challenge themselves to do more than just ‘highlight’ and ‘profile’ and deep down, they don’t think that we’re important enough. However, they’re notorious for shadily snapping photos of the 2-3 brown people at every mainstream event and then featuring them in their next media blast when everyone knows there were practically no people of color present. I’ll never forget the year my friend and I (unbeknown to us) made it the front page of Bay Windows as part of a “success!” news story on the popular Fenway Health Women’s Dinner event (see picture on the right). Great job! You scored a QWOC and a trans guy.

Incidentally, a few years ago, QWOC+ Boston received a front page profile piece in Bay Windows, written by Ethan Jacobs, a former staff writer. It was a well-written article I think because my bestie (who works in PR/Communications) prepped me for the interview; she gave me client-strong guidance as to how to manage the ‘reporter’, how to ‘brief my organizers’, how to make sure I got my ‘sound bites’ in, how to ask for the questions ahead of time etc. The result was a well-rounded story on QWOC+ Boston’s contributions to the local scene and our plans for the future. They did introduce us as “new” (I guess if white and mainstream media isn’t writing about you then you don’t exist, right?) even though we’d been around for two years, but at least it was a start; QWOC+ Boston was given visibility, credibility, and that article, which featured an overzealous quote by yours truly about our future, was the inception of QWOC Week.

Since then, we’ve been covered mainly via pretty pictures and short sporadic event blurbs within which they routinely misquote me, misspell my name, and repeatedly refer to us as “QWOC Friends” or worse, “QWOC” (without the plus, without the f**king plus), no matter how many times we insist on including this symbol (which represents our valued ally supporters) or having our name spelled out — Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+ Boston) — so that new people can recognize that we’re an LGBTQ organization that mainly caters to women of color. [Seriously, what does “QWOC” mean to a grad student who just moved here from Tenessee and is seeking community outside her stark and stoic chem lab at MIT?]

I posted an angry Facebook update about this recently, and a friend of mine who’s the director of Villa Victoria Center for (Latino) Arts and Culture sent me some timely words of empathy, along with a sample media kit — a short and simple PDF document that outlines some branding rules which you can make available to press contacts / journalists looking to write about you. It was a godsend — and my intern just recreated one for us. [Please feel free to download and use as a template for your org!].

No doubt, the consistent time and effort I’ve invested in building QWOC+ Boston via partnerships and collaborations has given me a visible position within a strong network of leaders — women, people of color, lgbt, african activists, social entrepreneurs etc. — whom I can not only count on for support, but for professional guidance as well. However, for many people, (practical) tips such as how to work with journalists or even design a press kit aren’t that easy (or cheap) to come by. I feel for non-profit/grassroots leaders who, like me, must often ‘wing’ it, learn by trial and error, or (per the reason of this post), suffer bad press by remaining at the mercy of privileged, mis-informed media professionals.

But as leaders of social change, we aren’t in a position to suffer “bad” press — which in our field, often means mis-informed, mis-quoted, downplayed, and at times, downright inaccurate press coverage on the social justice issues we care about. Our causes — “brands” for the sake of argument —  aren’t celebrities who can afford to say “any press is good press” and wait for the next scandal to hit the stands.

Africa has been receiving a lot of negative press lately around the “atrocities” being committed against queer/LGBT people. But which Africans (I include myself in this) are writing about the spike in homophobia as a manifestation of resistance to bullying from the west? That’s not a narrative you hear or read about everyday, but I assure you it exists beyond the popular argument that Africa is full of barbarians.

Remember the news coverage on the two “gay” men that were facing a harsh prison sentence in Malawi? — they both weren’t “gay”, one of them was a transgender woman. And whereas I do object to the west enforcing their labels on Africa, the fact that many mainstream news outlets blatantly disregarded her gender should be viewed as yet another wakeup call to all of us that taking a passive approach to media will almost always result in the insensitive, inaccurate face-value recounts of events we’re inundated with today (vs. insightful commentary on news stories, which by the way, we really should be telling ourselves).

The great news is, social media is saturated with media consumers, not as many (in fact, in my opinion, too few) media producers; we all have the power to create content in the form of our own stories, and in so doing, make a difference. We shouldn’t have to wait to be ‘given’ press coverage or “be written about”. For what we have at stake, this approach to gaining visibility and expanding influence is too passive to be worth our consideration. This is not to say that mainstream media coverage isn’t worth anything at all; I’m just concerned that if marginalized groups — women, people of color, trans people, immigrants, blue collar, anyone whose voice is always missing/mis-represented — put all their eggs into a basket that’s already filled with a bunch of privileged, cocky, a**holes then our stories are bound to seep through the cracks.

My intern and I worked on a blog post that discusses the concept of “Activism During QWOC Weekin lieu of an official press release. Our words, our vision, our perspective. And it’s been truly liberating to pass the link around to people and receive direct feedback. We’re planning to do several posts about QWOC Week in order to highlight different aspects of the week; inter-generational conversations, music and the arts, etc. See, by creating and controlling your own content, you aren’t subjected to anyone else’s perspective on what’s “important.” Incidentally, we just found out that “Family Week in PTOWN” is happening during QWOC Week and thus Bay Windows Ad prices are for a Special Edition print out that week. I’ve already received several recommendations to pitch a story around our “Family Day in the Park” to see if Bay Windows “decides” to run a story on it. But who cares if Bay Windows wants to cover us or not? We run our own blog!

I encourage you — whoever you are, you’re still reading so you must have something to say — to start contributing your voice to the mass media that’s being consumed by millions of users… every – day. In the short term, we should probably all come together, sit down, and brainstorm  how to proactively gain press coverage for our organizations, movements and causes. But who wants to plan this? Anyone? Not me — I’m too busy changing the world to worry about press releases, and I’m pretty sure you are too. So while we’re waiting for someone else to take this on…

Start a blog. Write an opinion piece — it doesn’t have to be that long. Just make a statement — any statement; celebrities do it all the time. Create a video on your fancy MacBook (so that’s it’s worth the 1000-something-dollars you paid for it) — people love to watch videos. (Did you know they’re the most popularly shared media type on the web?) Write an Op-Ed response to your neighborhood newspaper about an article that pissed you off. Just contribute something. Anywhere.

You are important. Your voice is important. Your content should be shared on Facebook. Damn it.


Update: We win! Bay Windows profiled QWOC Week in this piece here, aaaaand the reporter pretty much copy-pasted the blog piece that my intern and I wrote on our blog. The result? A well-rounded profile on QWOC Week (save a few errors — really, she estimated 2 dozen people showed up because she arrived at the beginning and was POC-shy so awkwardly approached a few people with her notepad, took a few notes, and jetted. Ah, white people… why are POC still so scary to you in 2010?)

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