If the thought of reaching your current or prospective community of activists and other collaborators via YouTube or podcasts feels daunting, start simply, openly, and honestly—with something you know—as Phillip “Brail” Watson does. Watson, on his Facebook “Our Story” page, describes himself as “a classically trained vocalist, cellist, songwriter, rapper, clinician, producer and Berklee College of Music graduate” who wants to “change the world through music.” His extensive, well-developed, engaging presence on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms fully integrates his commitment to music, spirituality, and social change in ways that make it seem like the easiest thing in the world to do. And it can be for you, too, if you pursue it as diligently and purposefully as he does.
If you spend time with Watson online by exploring his use of social media, you begin to see and appreciative the possibilities available through the effective use of a platform like YouTube. His stunningly moving TEDxTopeka talk “Giving Back” on YouTube begins with a brief, beautiful, sung prayer—obviously an element of his work that flows from the core of all he is. He then quickly pulls you in by admitting “I’m going to do this all wrong”—an admission that challenges and begs you to stay with him to see where he is going in the 18 minutes he has under the standard TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk format. He asks you—just as he asks the live audience he is addressing in that recorded talk—to walk with him; to see what he sees, from his perspective; and to “feel the places” where he has been—in the hope that you, as he has, will come to understand the value of giving something back to the community you cherish. It’s an invitation to be part of something positive, something greater than you already are or might ever be—and it is an effective call to action because Watson draws upon his highly-developed use of language, poetry, musicianship, and inspirational skills to integrate all of those elements into the wonderfully moving video that documents his TEDxTopeka talk in 2015.
This is about far more than making and placing content on a social media site; it is about using everything you have developed and will continue to develop to effectively reach audiences and inspire positive action. It is about developing a body of work that weaves through everything else you do. It is about integrating that work in unexpectedly creative ways with other work you do and other opportunities you pursue. It is about transforming the (sometimes) simple act of recording and sharing your thoughts on YouTube and through podcasts into an act of inviting engagement with people you may never actually meet—and recognizing that you don’t have to physically meet someone to very much be drawn into their causes and being inspired to action by them, or inspiring them and drawing them into yours.
Describing the unexpected sequence of events that led to me finding and being inspired by Watson provides some lessons worth learning:
- Although you want to have a specific audience in mind as you prepare a YouTube video or podcast, you will have no idea initially of how broad and diverse an audience you will eventually reach and inspire.
- A presentation given in one venue, e.g., the TEDxTopeka talk, that is recorded, posted, and shared online, gains an extended life far beyond anything you could have provided if you had simply given that presentation and then moved on to something else.
- The efforts you make to reach your audience produce only a small part of what is accomplished when others see and share your work; those efforts offer the same expansion you see when others retweet your tweets or share your Facebook posts in ways that produce rhizomatic expansion of what you thought might be little more than a moment lived and then forgotten.
My initial unplanned step toward finding Watson online was taken when my Topeka-based colleague David Lee King and I were doing another in our series of interviews for Change the World Using Social Media, my book-in-progress for Rowman & Littlefield. I had asked David for examples he had seen of how YouTube was part of the process of promoting positive change within a community. He did not mention Watson; instead, he responded with a description of a magnificent activist’s-dream initiative, Go Topeka’s Momentum 2022, which is described on the project’s website as “a comprehensive, actionable, and consensus-based plan…to make Topeka-Shawnee County a better place to live, work, play, and do business.” King pointed me toward a two-minute video that very much impressed me: “Topeka & Shawnee County Have Momentum,” posted on YouTube by the citizen-activists in the Greater Topeka Partnership. It seemed to have everything that a video call-to-action should have: high production values, a clear message (that Topeka has lots to offer and can become even better if community partners work together to build upon its existing strengths to chip away at its weaknesses), and an obvious call to action—until I heard from Jill Hurst-Wahl during separate conversations for part of the book.
There is no gentle way to express what Jill noted after viewing the video I had so enthusiastically shared: it didn’t have many images of people, but the images included in the video did little to hint that nearly 25 percent of Topeka’s population is African-American or Hispanic. That’s when Jill found and offered a different video version of the topic: Watson’s “Topeka Proud” video, posted on Vimeo. Same city, much different viewpoint—and one that aligns with parts of the Momentum 2022 initiative calling for efforts to foster and promote greater diversity and inclusivity in Topeka. And seeing what Watson had produced led me to seek out much more of what he was doing—on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.
This provides another opportunity for a reminder worth repeating: you can certainly choose one specific social media platform that best suits your goals as someone attempting to foster positive change in your community, but creating an integrated presence over multiple platforms tremendously increases the chances that you will reach the largest possible group of community partners to help you reach those goals.
As you move into a more complete exploration of YouTube and podcasts as tools you can use in your efforts, it’s worth noting that there is at least one more encouraging piece to the Go Topeka/Topeka Proud story: a second video, posted on YouTube by the Greater Topeka Partnership eight months after the first one appeared, pushes the story forward with a much broader cast of characters featured: the ethnic diversity that is obvious through the inclusion of Enimini Ekong (Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Site), Leo Espinoza (College and Career Advocate, Topeka USD 501 Schools), Marcus Clark (senior pastor, Love Fellowship Church, East Topeka), Angel Zimmerman (Zimmerman & Zimmerman, PA), and others. This is clearly a community that is effectively and creatively working to promote the most positive results it can imagine.
N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2019. This is the fifteenth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.