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Maya Angelou and what she teaches us about building a movement

and written by Kate Hays, Social@DC


Photo from Social@Ogilvy Twitter

 If you work in the digital marketing industry, at some point you’ve probably been asked to create a social movement akin to the “Obama effect” of 2008. “How can my mission/cause/brand follow in the path of the underdog who becomes president?”

At Social@Ogilvy, we hear that question about as often as we get asked to create a viral video hit.

But with the passing of Maya Angelou last month, it occurred to me that her inspiring life story — and her own words — have much to teach us about turning ideas into social movements — and that maybe there are some concrete steps we can all take to conjure up some lightning of our own.

“The caged bird sings / with a fearful trill /
 of things unknown 
/ but longed for still / and his tune is heard
 / on the distant hill
/  for the caged bird
 / sings of freedom.”

Dr. Angelou’s most famous words tell the story of a bird who’s been trapped for a while — long enough to ponder what else might exist. He knows there is something more than the cage, but that change hasn’t arrived quite yet.

Movement building requires lasting vision and endurance. You’ve got to have the power to keep singing that song when it seems like that cage will never open.

 What powers are already moving toward the change you want to create? Do you have opportunities for partnership? Do you have the long view?

“Ive learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.”

Lots of people surround movements with catcher’s mitts — taking in information and ideas, but rarely throwing back energy, solutions and sweat.

I recently had a conversation with a nonprofit board member who was complaining about the director of her organization. I asked this board member what she was doing about the situation: Was she rolling up her sleeves and taking on tasks, coming up with solutions? Or was she treating board meetings like a progress report for a badly performing and ignored student?

For a movement to be effective, it requires more than catcher’s mitts. It requires leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr, Bono, Maya Angelou, and an army backing them up, doing the daily, unglamorous work that creates true, lasting movements.

Who is doing more than catching for your cause or your brand? Who is fielding and pitching? Do they have the power to inspire others to join?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Authenticity has become a bit of a cliché in some of our social media circles. With our clients, we try to get beneath the skin of a request and find the core of the brand. What makes it unique, fascinating, true?

Angelou’s point — that how people are made to feel is what they remember — applies to brands. True movements, even commercial ones, aren’t driven by slacktivism or armchair hashtagging. They are driven by shared pain, the desire to alleviate that pain and the ability to see the long view.

“The need for change bulldozed a road down the center of my mind.”

Something was broken in the world of Maya Angelou. There were (and still are) people without civil rights, without full personhood. The stories our culture tells about people, their value and their freedoms needed to change — it was a notion that bore into Angelou’s brain and couldn’t be shaken.

What change do you see that insistently, stubbornly, commands your attention? You must feel that change bulldoze through your core. Can you communicate that insistence to others?

If you can, then maybe you can build a movement.

[Featured Image via Face2Face Africa]