Exploring Innovation: Catalyzing Social Media into Community-Building

Exploring Innovation: Catalyzing Social Media into Community-Building


My journey began in October 2015. Interested in improving myself mentally, I was studying Essentialism, by Greg McKeown, a book suggested to me by mentors and apparently an important read for any person suffering from over-ambition. Essentialism suggests a perspective of focus routed in being intentful in your actions and deciding which tasks are most important, most difficult, and least compromisable. The least compromisable tasks are the most essential. These include sleeping, eating, exercise, and taking breaks. I was challenged to improve and commit to my morning and pre-bed routines, and to create a schedule that would take the guessing game out of when I should work, play, exercise, sleep, or eat. Eliminating the guessing game is the moral of Essentialism. When you don’t have to think about the essentials, or when they become routine, you can spend more time and energy asking other questions and focusing on completing tasks well and with clear thought. As an artist, it was important for me to both optimize my work and rest schedule, and to routinize my engagement on social media to build a stronger online presence. Incorporating activity on social media into my morning routine would make it impossible to start my day without posting at least once on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter (I mostly just used the Instagram option to share on other platforms to kill three birds with one stone.) Not all people need to routinize social media, but it did help me break through the ego-blocks that kept me from expressing myself: the more you post, the less pressure there is to have a perfect post.

I immediately incorporated these lessons into my life through a 21-day campaign on Instagram: the Deepak of Hip Hop campaign, where I incorporated statements on the power of belief and intent (credited to Deepak and Oprah) [1] into my morning posts. This catapulted me into my next phase, focusing on community engagement and the impact of my own outreach. For twenty-one days, I would be committed to posting on Instagram in the morning, immediately after a twenty-minute meditation session with the day’s message in mind. In some ways, Essentialism brought me back to thinking about people. And while people are at the basis of my longstanding passions and values, I learned the importance of never compromising well-being. If you are not well, you simply cannot produce or progress to the best of your ability.

It starts with intent. Essentialism revealed to me that active people benefit from the occasional change of setting or work style. Another book, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferazzi describes people, or communities, as the greatest source of information and support. It also stressed the reciprocal value of working with others. I was looking for an adventure that would inspire me, as well as help me to continue to develop my identity and an understanding of how my identity and how I see myself can support those around me. I followed one of Ferazzi’s suggestions[2] and was reminded of a conference I stumbled across on the Internet years before. With a tagline of “Business Innovation meets Social Transformation,” the West Coast Social Innovation Summit interested me because I was curious to understand how communities in the realm of business innovation interact and support each other. I was also very excited to learn about what innovation looked like in the eyes of people across industries: technology, education, energy, mental health, athletics, food, entertainment, and media, among others. Learning from these new perspectives influenced the way I engaged with my communities, my students, and with my own work. Understanding the business of innovation would later hopefully be built into my creative routines and goals. The spirit of the Deepak of Hip Hop lessons inspired me to put some network flexing [3] into action, and I decided to use crowdfunding to support this adventure, which helped me simultaneously invest time into my friends, family and most immediate supporters.

The Crowd Fund

Three weeks away from the Social Innovation Summit, I was not sure if I would be successful in raising the funds I needed: but wishing for the best, grounded in belief, I charged all upfront expenses associated with the trip to my credit card.

After some research on successful crowdfunding [4], I knew immediately that this adventure would last longer than the six days of traveling: two at airports, two exploring, and two at the Social Innovation Summit. Interaction with and appreciation of your support network, are two key elements to any crowdfund campaign, and generally a good life habit to develop to maintain powerful connections.

I adapted the gift-trading model so that my interaction with supporters was balanced and not finished once the donation was complete. Deciding to commit to trading creative gifts for every pledge created a sense of urgency—not only would I have to effectively reach out to my most trusted friends and supporters throughout the campaign phase, but I’d have to keep them on my mind as I learned and explored while on the trip.

Eight days into my Deepak of Hip Hop campaign, I launched my crowdfund, “Exploring Innovation, A Journey West” through the GoFundMe platform. The energetic response from friends and family brought a greater sense of purpose to this adventure. It transformed from me using an online platform to go on a trip, to using an online platform to empower people act and to recognize the power of our collective social circles. It became even more crucial to stick to my mission of building this outreach into my routine and keeping people involved along the way.

Departure day came, and though I had not fully reached my goal, with over 800 visits to my campaign page and over 130 shares, I was happy with the results of my outreach routine up to this point. I knew that if I continued to push—regardless of whether I reached my financial goal—my campaign would lay the groundwork for those around me to feel empowered to connect and incorporate others into their purposeful missions.

The Trip

With over forty pledges received, the values of Essentialism, routine, commitment, and intent were an ever more necessity. Gathering enough content to create a new series, inspired by six days of travel, would take tremendous focus. Luckily new places and new people are always exciting, and I viewed the challenge as yet another test of training and mastery. My visual goal was to fill a 60-sheet sketchbook (ten sheets a day) and to shoot four rolls of film. These sketches and pictures would be an effective memory log and would be the primary source of inspiration and memory joggling while producing the artwork. I also took the opportunity to voice-record any distinct sounds or conversations so that I could refer back to them.

My first day of travel, from John F. Kennedy airport in New York City, to Minneapolis St-Paul for a transfer to San Francisco was my least active in my sketchbook. I was not fearless in my drawing, as it had been about a year since I’ve challenged myself to draw so intensely. I did however have some critical thoughts on this first leg of my journey. While at Minneapolis I was reminded of that awkward yet proud feeling of looking like a city boy in a foreign place. My travel-outfit of choice stood out, whereas in NYC would be looked over as typical comfort-wear. More importantly, I was reminded of what it felt like to be stared at as an outsider. I was reminded of the many suburban malls I’ve walked through and even of looking for a place to read while at college. I realized that I had not left my own communities of comfort in quite some time: and experiencing a new space as a person of color comes with its nuance.

My first interaction with San Francisco was pleasant. I was relieved to find people of all backgrounds working at the airport at San Francisco. The bus driver let me slide when I didn’t have exact change and guided me in the right direction. As I rode the bus from the airport—actually located some miles south of San Francisco—to San Carlos, I peered out of the window like a typical tourist. I smiled at the people getting on and off the bus and was intrigued at the tan-yellow hills and West Coast foliage that reminded me of Cyprus, the island of my father’s origin, where I spent most of my summers growing up. I got off a stop too early and walked through the town of San Carlos, rolling bag by my side. I made sure to do some background research on San Carlos while I was there. Not surprisingly, the settlement was built on former Native American land, which seemed not to have changed much since the 1950s. San Carlos was a community made up of mostly single-story bungalows, grassy lawns and boats in driveways. The main street, El Camino Real, was easy to find, relatively busy, and great for orienting myself: host of the streets in San Carlos were windy and led to even more intricate side-streets, yet here led me at once to where I would be staying.

I stayed at an amazing Airbnb, hosted by a semi-retired middle aged man. He proved to be very helpful in giving me suggestions for where to visit and how to get there. He even graciously offered me a bicycle and helmet he had in the garage. For the next two days, this bike would become my best friend and would travel with me across the city.

My first evening was spent with my old friend Rick and his fiancé. He drove me through hotspot areas of San Francisco while sharing stories of his upbringing and some rites of passage of growing up in SF. Tony’s Joint in the Tenderloin, old stories of the Mission District, performance venues, and the strip clubs in the North Beach region were all touched upon.

Jet lag and excitement helped me wake up bright and early after my first night. On this day I would be more intentional and committed to documenting my journey in my sketchbook and shooting pictures. I rode my bike to the San Carlos Train Depot and the Caltrain for forty minutes, exploring San Francisco on a bright Sunday morning. After a hearty breakfast at a cafe across the Caltrain station, I jumped on my bike and began my first bike ride. I moved mostly East to West, sights set on reaching Golden Gate Park where I would connect with my friend Jessica to visit the De Young Museum, The California Academy of Sciences, and the Japanese Tea Garden. Golden Gate Park was a sight in itself, reminding me of the Jurassic Park movies I loved growing up. After our walk through the park and a coffee break, Jessica and I split. I biked further west along the park to find the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I then moved north along the Pacific to meet Jessica again at Land’s End Labyrinth, literally at the edge of the San Francisco mainland staring at Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. On my way back to the train station, I rode through what were clearly higher-end neighborhoods at the top of hills that looked over most of the city. I rode through Chinatown and eventually found myself standing outside of the Boom Boom Room on the corner of Fillmore and Geary. I noticed a sign: HIP HOP CYPHER / OPEN MIC SUNDAYS. I sacrificed catching the last Caltrain out of San Francisco for crossing off one of my trip goals. I got to participate in a live cypher where I was one of about twenty MC’s taking turns freestyling to a live band! After the show I rode back to the Caltrain station but was forced to take a taxi back to San Carlos.

The next day, Monday, the day before the Social Innovation Summit began, I took it a little lighter on my glutes. I traveled by Caltrain and BART to Oakland and leisurely biked the neighborhoods surrounding Lake Merit. Though I rode through a significant portion of Chinatown, the Oakland I found was clearly gentrified and filled mostly with young professionals and commissioned art work. Though my day there was beautiful and led to a lot of thinking, drawing, and shooting, I look forward to exploring the region on a deeper, more culturally-in-tune level in the future.

My night ended with an unexpected hike from The Mission District, where I had dinner, up Portreo Hill. Literally, one of the most dramatic hills I’ve ever experienced. I was headed towards the Caltrain station just east of the hill’s peak.

The Social Innovation Summit began on Tuesday November 24th, on what should have been Day 17 of Deepak of Hip Hop except that it was the only day I could not stick to my routine. My excitement for the conference and preparing myself properly before the morning session, cluttered my mind and distracted my social media engagement / routine. This is typical for people with many things on their mind, but is exactly why we try to build social media engagement into our daily process.

The conference shed light on the distinction between social justice as ideal and social innovation in practice. Technology in production as well as in communication were obviously key tools in all industries. The greatest tool, however, was clear and evident: its people. Every single speaker spoke about their goals and attempts to make the world a better place (mostly through business practice), but every person made it clear that none of these advancements were possible without other people, precisely why people even volunteer to be in rooms filled with professionals across industries. Dean Kamen could not get his water-filtration technology to South Africa without his friend at Coca-Cola accepting to produce it in exchange for a newly designed soda-fountain machine[5]. I could not be there if it were not for my own faith in people and my own community volunteering to participate. The marketing and communications team at the conference tweeted, shot video and shared vigorously before, during, and after the conference and promoted interaction over mobile-apps[6]. We were all there to meet people and build our communities and were held together through a digital glue. Personally, I was able to practice pitching myself to new people. I started the conference as an educator, cultural organizer, and artist, but closed the conference off understanding that my role in my community resembles the role of design strategists, marketing experts, and consulting firms represented at the conference. Meeting people who worked within industries that resembled my daily passions allowed me to develop my own perspective and identify established role-models. Again, all of this would not have been possible if it were not for my deep trust in my community and their trust in me to commit to my promise and follow through accordingly.

 I did not leave the conference without any criticisms. A space filled with people from highly-corporate and privileged backgrounds talking to each other about changing the world was inherently limited in creativity and in their ability to speak on behalf of marginalized populations. In ways I was proud to be there, representing small non-profit organizations and grassroots cultural movements, knowing that my perspective was just what could be the difference maker in navigating the human side of social change.

The Fulfillment

The final phase of this journey would require the most discipline. It was time to translate a sketchbook, three rolls of film and countless lessons and interactions into a series of twenty-one paintings and forty unique postcards. I also committed to creating original music for some pledges, but I decided to fold that part of the commitment into a later project.

I began the very first painting of the series on Thanksgiving Day. I would have to build a routine that incorporated “review” time, where I’d look through my content, do additional research and brainstorm, as well as production time. Production time would include updates on social media, which at this point began to incorporate Snapchat.

My intent was to express a level of gratitude to my supporters that reflected the energy I put into this journey. As part of the campaign process it was important to follow up with supporters as well as my online followers to ensure that the process did not end with my return home. Being transparent and maintaining the Never-Eat-Alone principles of engaging with people was essential. My commitment to social media had attracted interested teammates which I would continue to build with even after this campaign was complete. Attracting teammates and core active support and collaborators as a result of social-media engagement was a pivotal example of how contemporary communities are built.

At this point I had grown in my confidence in leadership and of managing innovative communities. This would be helpful as we moved forward with the final push. The creation process continued but it was time to devise the culminating moment of this entire process. In late December 2015 New Work—the production team that serendipitously formed around me—set a goal of having a culminating event on February 13th 2016. This would show the benefits of being able to first identify role model organizations that we could quickly mimic,  give us enough time to complete the art pieces as well as to book, promote, and execute a successful event that honored the supporters of my GoFundMe Campaign.

The Gratitude Gallery

The culminating event was an opportunity to transform this process from an exercise in building my own habits and engagement online, into an experiment in using social media to keep people engaged in a way that would lead to mutual community support.

The Gratitude Gallery, was designed to be less of an art showroom and more of an intentional moment and space dedicated to filling guests with a sense of gratitude and collective purpose. In an age where creative communities struggle to find space for gathering. Events such as the Gratitude Gallery affect the dynamic of the community the way Sunday church service or special holidays might. Though the art, live music, and people were very much real and in-the-moment (so much so that I finished the night with no pictures of the night on my phone). It was our team’s ability to engage on social media in a way that made this story live, transparent, and easy to follow that brought people out. When it was time to actually promote for the event, it was a matter of focusing on those who have shown support along the way: hence the gallery designed for anyone who has ever shown love.

Though most of the art exhibited was my own, it was important for me to also highlight work, and create exposure opportunities for some of my most supportive friends. This brought several creative and highly ambitious people into the same room, to build their own connections and further this feeling of strength in numbers. The night was an opportunity to rekindle friendships that are over twenty-years-old, and to meet new people who are ready to come together to work and continue to do work. Moments like these have the opportunity to even strengthen teams and friends that see each other frequently. It is all about the intent in the situation, as expressing gratitude will always bring people closer.

The evening closed with over eighty guests on the coldest night of the year, on the Saturday of Valentine's Day weekend. The majority of our guests had never been to an art show in Queens. Yet, we brought in a crowd that represented four of the five boroughs, and it mostly engaged and inspired opportunity to a young and bubbling creative community.

Though the trip came and went, now I get to relive the intricate moments of the entire process as I deliver the gifts to supporters and I finally get to see and feel the reaction and connection between the piece, the adventure, and the people that made it possible. While personal connection and space for interaction were essential to this process, it was my growing understanding of engaging digitally that proved to be both the contemporary difference-maker in building resilient communities as well as an essential tool for storytelling.


[1] https://chopracentermeditation.com/experience

[2] Ferrazzi, Keith, and Tahl Raz. "Do Your Homework." Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 67-72. Print.

[3] Ferrazzi, Keith, and Tahl Raz. "Don't Keep Score." Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 19-20. Print.

[4] "Kickstarter." Creator Handbook —. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

[5] Foster, Tom. "PURE GENIUS: HOW DEAN KAMEN'S INVENTION COULD BRING CLEAN WATER TO MILLIONS." Www.popsci.com. Bonnier Corporation, 16 June 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

[6] https://www.we-worldwide.com/

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