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Melbourne WebFest 2015: What You Can Do (USA)

What You Can Do is a non-fiction web series inspiring collective action one-minute at a time.

Ahead of the third edition of Melbourne WebFest, we are profiling all the official selections that will be screening 10-12 July at Deakin Edge. 

Created by Jessica Arinella, the series takes a unique approach to traditional documentary making by highlighting not only the problem but also the resolution.

Spanning over five years and 400 episodes, the one minute movement has actively made an impact by raising close to 60,000 dollars for shelter pets, just 5 dollars at a time, provided 100 hot meals to hungry New Yorkers and spread over 10,000 acts of kindness in our anti-bullying campaign.

The series takes the 21st centuries most powerful tool, the web, and creates an online community that shares easy solutions to help our world’s most pressing social and environmental issues. The message is clear, you can make a difference, there is no problem to big for us to handle and by uniting our actions we can make a measurable impact.

Your web series not only documents global issues but attempts to positively impact the outcomes of them. Are you surprised at how well the ‘What you can do’ campaign has worked and what would you say was the key ingredient to its real life success?
I have certainly been humbled and inspired by the response to What You Can Do. I always hoped that the series’ message would resonate with people and it has been a truly incredible experience to see the one-minute movement come alive. I think the turning point for us came when we took the leap from creating our one-minute how-to videos to daring to put the idea of collective change into action.  We can tend to think of ourselves in a vacuum and it can be hard to trust that a one-minute action could add up to real and lasting change. But when we rallied our online community to join our one minute actions, together amazing things started to happen.

Do you have a favorite episode? Which cause do you hold close to your heart?
It’s so hard to pick just one favorite episode. But I think the episode that really stands out in my heart was our first collaboration with The Breast Cancer Site that helped to provide 500 free mammograms to women in need. We had completed close to 300 one minute “how to” videos and wanted to show the power of joining together to fight breast cancer. We wanted to prove that uniting our one minute actions could add up to measureable change. So we set out to create a special video and our shoot dates just happened to coincide with the hottest week of the hottest summer in New York City history. By all rights this should have been a disaster as we had people in costumes dancing and shaking it in Central Park. But no! It was amazing. All sorts of people showed up to help give their support to people fighting this disease. People were sweating and laughing and dancing and singing- and not one person complained or collapsed of heatstroke – thank God! And the video shows all that love.

I will never forget one of the comments we received when we launched the video. A woman wrote us to say, “thank you, I’m dancing in my hospital bed”. We went on to complete other successful videos and campaigns, but this one will always stand out to me as the one where I knew we had done something special. It helped push our mission from inspiring people to help change the word, one minute at a time, to uniting our actions to make a measurable impact.

What (and/or who) inspired your series?
The inspiration for What You Can Do came out of a twofold catalyst in my life – the first and most important event was the death of my mother to cancer. Losing my mother was a profoundly shattering experience, and I found myself recalibrating my relationship to just about everything in life. Around this time I was watching a lot of documentaries. Documentaries are so good at illuminating a social issue, but they don’t always go on to explain what a person can do to help make a difference.

During one particularly compelling film, I got so upset that I left the room and buried myself in a tabloid magazine. My reasoning at the time was something like, “well if we’re all going to die – I don’t want to know about it.” And I started thinking – you know someone should do something about this. Someone should create a show that inspires people with ideas to help fight these pressing social and environmental causes.

It dawned on me over the next few weeks – maybe I could do this! I’m an actor with limited production skills, but my sister runs an actual production company. Maybe we could do this together. After a chance encounter with NYC PBS affiliate WLIW at a film festival – we premiered What You Can Do on television. Five years later, What You Can Do is an award-winning TV and webseries that has spotlighted hundreds of issues and created over 400 videos.

What do you want audiences to take away from your series?
More than anything I wish to give our audience a sense of hope. If we imagine ourselves alone against the perils facing the world – the sheer enormity of the struggle can make us want to surrender. Watching the news, talking with friends about current events, and observing problems like homelessness in our cities can reaffirm a sense of powerlessness. But we are infinitely powerful and our individual actions can have great consequence.

The world is in deep trouble and needs us to step up. But for every problem facing us – there is something we can do to make a difference. Let’s consider the rainforests. We are losing this precious natural resource at terrifying rates, and this loss is of massive importance as it contributes to between 12-15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions each year. That’s roughly the same percentage of all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles combined. But there are many things we can do to protect the rainforests.

By looking for the little green frog symbol at the grocery store, you can use your buying power to help preserve our forests when you pick up coffee, chocolate, tea or fruit. Products sporting this seal come from Rainforest Alliance certified farms which are designed to conserve wildlife, aid local communities and achieve long term sustainability. Or you can make it a daily habit to visit The Rainforest Site. Every time you visit this site and click on the green button, you help to preserve our forests (the site’s sponsors pay for each click). If 100 people read this piece and clicked today, we would help to protect an area bigger than my NYC apartment. Now imagine if 1,000 of us clicked? Or 10,000? Imagine if 10,000 of us clicked everyday?

I’ve discovered many reasons to replace my “impending sense of doom” with hope for our world. The truth is we are more powerful than we believe and together we can be unstoppable.

What was the most difficult challenge you had to overcome in production, and how did you go about it?
A lot of our greatest challenges have come from the small scale of our production and budget. At times the team has been as small as three women working out of our EP’s apartment. This posed some significant challenges in the beginning as we were cold calling some of the nation’s most respected not for profit organizations, and asking them to take a chance on us.

When I first conceived of What You Can Do, I envisioned it for a traditional television platform. Our original round of pitches to television networks ended with a large round of “no’s” and quite a few “who do you think you are little girls”. But this initial rejection ended up being the best thing that could have happened to the project, as it forced us to revise our concept and illuminate the power of the web.

The biggest difference we found between traditional TV platforms and online media is that watching the project online allows you to take immediate action. We can post an action link and our fans can go right from learning about the problem to doing something about it. We were able to take risks for example by starting our action campaigns to measure the change that our fans were making for important causes. We have also been able to respond to real life catastrophes in real time, for example when we were able to create a series of videos in about a week to support the Gulf Oil Spill relief.

In what ways do you utilise social media to further your brand?
Social media has been an invaluable tool for us as it has enabled us to reach and engage a fan base eager to make a difference. Without Facebook and Twitter, it would be very hard to gather our fans in one area to achieve success in our campaigns. The other wonderful thing about social media is that allows people to take immediate action. If you watch one of our videos and you are moved to make a difference – you can immediately spread the word and the mission online with your friends and family.

Social media has also proven an invaluable tool that allows us to keep our fans informed when a crisis occurs. For example we were able to alert our fans to trusted organizations that are doing important work to help the people of Nepal after the earthquake.

Have you achieved the goals you set for this series?
We have achieved many of the goals we set for the series, such as making a measurable impact for critical issues and screening at festivals around the country and world, but of course there are always more goals and more dreams. I would still love to see WYCD reach a larger audience and increase its impact. And I would still love to see it become a television show.

What You Can Do on the web:

What You Can Do official website
What You Can Do on Facebook
What You Can Do on Twitter


Keep up to date with Melbourne Web Fest on twitter: @MelbWebFest.

La Trobe University is Melbourne WebFest’s exclusive learning partner. 

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