With the election of President Obama almost a year ago, Jayan Kalathil and Melissa Bolton-Klinger were convinced that creating real change is possible. Whether on a national scale, like those that put Mr. Obama in office, or a far more personal, non-political scale, their new book offers scores of suggestions on how people can affect change in their own lives. Generation Change: 150 Ways We Can Change Ourselves, Our Country, and Our World will be available in November.
We interviewed the co-authors of the book on their inspiration, the power of online social networking, and why “change,” despite being the engine that elected a Democratic president, can be a decidedly bipartisan concept and tool.
Osmosis Online: What was the genesis of the idea? Did “Obama the candidate” capture your imagination and inspire this, or was it when he won the election that the idea solidified?
Jayan Kalathil: Both really. “Obama the candidate” showed how using innovation to tap into the youth vote, as well as the power of the Internet to connect with people, could really bring someone who many considered didnit have the political clout that his rivals did, into the forefront of the Presidential race. Winning the Democratic nomination really shook up those traditional ways of thinking, and his election as president seemed to drive the point home even more that there is a huge shift underway in the way that things can be done, from running a political campaign to getting involved with different causes.
Melissa Bolton-Klinger: For me it was also both, plus the fact that the word “change” had pretty much become ingrained in our psyches during the election. I didn’t want it to become just another marketing tool to fall to the wayside. People have a tendency to become very pessimistic with politicians once they get into office, regardless of how much they liked them during the campaign trail, and I felt like it was our responsibility to keep the message of change alive by making it tangible, rather than just another word you were tired of hearing.
OO: Can you share some of your respective histories of activism and/or volunteering? What do you find rewarding or inspirational about it?
MB-K: I come from a fairly conservative family and I somehow came out of the womb a liberal. At a young age I honed my debate skills to try to bring them to the left side. Let’s just say I’m still working on that one. I’ve been a bit of a volunteer junkie ever since. I found myself drawn to activities that helped others, ranging from visiting seniors as a young child, working in a soup kitchen as a teen, to walking shelter dogs as an adult.
As for activism I consider myself a peaceful protester who often uses my voice to challenge anything I think is wrong. I think the pinnacle of that, oh no, I’m about to show my (age) hand, was when the Gulf War started. I was a freshman in college and I joined a massive rally that brought together the entire campus to discuss what was going on and why it was happening. It was magical. There were about 8,000 people all gathered together because of one event. It was then that I realized two things 1) people come together when they feel passionate about something; and 2) our voices are the most powerful tool we have. As a writer/director I have the ability to share my voice with a lot of people, so I try to use that power for good whenever I can. For me that means working on Public Service Announcements with non-profits I believe in, to help them get their message out to mobilize the masses.
JK: I don’t really consider myself an activist. I just try my best to be a responsible citizen. I try to stay up to date with what’s going on in the world as best I can, and I’ve tried to structure my career so that I can do work that I find meaningful, or that somehow makes a difference in my opinion. I’ve been lucky enough in my career to be able to work with and for some incredible nonprofit organizations, and alongside people who are doing amazing things. I’ve found working on different causes very rewarding, as it’s always inspirational to see what can be done by people who are dedicated to making a difference in the world.
OO: Social Networking seems to play a large part in your discussion, but the underside of it (spam, bullying, or even petty flame wars, etc) casts a shadow on the more positive aspects. Do you have some best practices on using Facebook, Twitter, or even social bookmarking sites like Reddit and Digg you care to share? Any tips on avoiding the negative stuff?
MB-K: I think because technology allows us to communicate so quickly, it often comes across as disposable. So I always try to think of it in this way. Would you publish, on paper, your Status Update? Let’s pretend The New York Times calls. Prints not dead yet people! They’re going to publish whatever you Twitter that day on the front page of tomorrow’s paper. Are you going to tell them you had “the most awesome eggs for breakfast!!”? Or would it be better to say something that has a bit more substance? To me, thinking in that way usually helps me weed out some of the more superfluous things I might be tempted to throw out to the world at large.
JK: Like any new technology, there are good sides and bad sides. But the ability to connect with each other through social networking has really transformed society, and has opened doors to all sorts of opportunities for us all in a way that just five years ago was not possible. My only thoughts in terms of trying to avoid the bad aspects of this new connectivity is to be careful and think twice about what you put out there for the world to see, and who you invite into your online world. We speak a little bit about this in our book, but it seems like a lot of people use sites like Facebook or MySpace without completely realizing that everything you put out into cyberspace can leave a trail which can come back to haunt you down the line if you’re not careful. If you feel the need to broadcast your life online, then at least think a bit about what you’re putting out there, and consider using your privacy settings too.
OO: I’m intrigued by the cover design — the sort of ‘iPod’ motif. Was that something that you guys had a hand in? Does it speak perhaps to the “Obama Chic” factor, where, especially during his historic campaign, being a fan and supporter of the president was as much a statement of culture and hipness as politics?
JK: The iPhone/Blackberry/smartphone seems to be a good icon for this day and age, and it represents a lot of things. Sure, there’s the “cool” factor that goes along with it, but it also is a great representation of the power we now have to always be in touch, to literally have information at our fingertips, at anytime and any place. It’s amazing that we are living in a time now where things from science fiction movies of the not too distant past are now common every day devices.
MB-K: I think Jayan got this one. I second that!
OO: In the spirit of not wanting a good message to perhaps get lost in partisan politics, how might you sell the book to a Republican, other conservatives, or registered independents? Does the message transcend the specificity of political platforms?
JK: The goal for the book is to get people thinking about different issues and to take the next step to learn and do more on their own. We tried to bring up ideas that are as universal as possible and would appeal to people regardless of their personal political beliefs. Granted, we talk about the President and use his quotes throughout the book, so it wouldn’t hurt if the reader was a fan, but we tried to bring up issues that every young American might find interesting.
MB-K: I’d say give the self section a try on for size. To me, flossing (no. 51) is definitely bipartisan! And if you like what you read, keep going, you might like what you see. I think there are some things in this world that we can all can agree we need to change: world hunger, the proliferation of junk mail, and animal extinction, just to name a few, regardless of our political leanings.
OO: What’s the simplest way you’d advise someone to enact change?
JK: Read our book, Generation Change of course! Kidding. Seriously though, my advice would be to find something that you believe in or that speaks to you, and just get started by learning more about it. Change doesn’t necessarily have to be hard or take a lot of time or effort or money. The beauty of today’s technology is that information is now available whenever and wherever you want it. And from here, things are only going to get better.
MB-K: 1) Read our book. I’m not kidding. Seriously. Try it. You’ll like it! 2) Start small. 3) If you believe in something stick with it. Change is a lifelong process. Things often take longer than we’d like them to, so don’t get frustrated if you don’t see results right away. I found this quote from Albert Einstein that I think sums it up best, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” ‘Nuff said.
Thanks for the time, Jayan and Melissa! We’re looking forward to seeing the book when it’s published in November. In fact, Osmosis Online will be having its very first contest, and the prize will be a copy of Generation Change — so keep your eyes peeled to these pages for details!