On November 6, 2019, I had the opportunity to speak at Bookmarking Birmingham, an event hosted by the United Way of Central Alabama that was all about how Birmingham-based digital content creators can use their influence to do good in the city.
The United Way of Central Alabama is kind of a big deal. My local United Way has been ranked #1 on Charity Navigator’s national Top 10 list of charities with the most 4-star ratings. Charity Navigator is the nation’s largest independent charity evaluator.
So, when PR pro Maree Jones, who serves on United Way’s public relations board, asked me to speak at this event, I jumped at the chance. Maree wanted me to give a TED Talk-style presentation answering the question “Why Birmingham?” while also discussing how content creators can use their digital influence to bring about change.
Many members of the See Jane Write Network Facebook group and the See Jane Write Collective came out to here my talk and it was so great to see their friendly faces in the room. For all my Janes who couldn’t make it, here’s what I had to say…
In her book Writing Down the Bones, author Natalie Goldberg declares that if you want your work to be whole you have to go home.
Now, she goes on to say that she doesn’t mean this literally, that you don’t have to move back in with your parents and collect a weekly allowance. But you do have to claim where you come from and look deep into it. You must come to honor it and embrace it, she says, or at the very least accept it.
But for me as a writer for my work to be whole I did have to go home — literally. After living in Berkeley, California; Seattle, Washington; and Louisville, Kentucky, ten years ago I came home. I came back to Birmingham.
If you had told 18-year-old Javacia that 38-year-old Javacia would today be happily and willingly living in Birmingham she would have laughed in your face. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to get out of this city and out of this state. My plan was to leave and only come back to visit my parents at Christmas.
You see, even at the age of 18 I was writing vision statements for my life and I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.
I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write for a magazine. Maybe even have my column just like Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. Or perhaps my own magazine like Kadijah on Living Single.
I knew I wanted to be a teacher at some point in my life. Like a lot of kids, I would line up my stuffed animals and launch into lectures about something, but I never grew out of this and eventually, I was lining up my human friends and lecturing to them.
I knew I wanted to be a business owner. I never had a lemonade stand but when I was about 9 or 10 I did earn extra cash selling gently used clothes and cassette tapes to family and friends.
And I knew I wanted to make a difference. I wasn’t sure if that meant being a politician or an activist, but I knew I wanted to change the world, especially for women and girls.
And years ago I was convinced that to be any of these things, to do any of these things I had to leave Birmingham. And so, I did. I left Birmingham to get a couple of degrees and to work a few journalism jobs.
But then I came back. I came back and I realized that I could do all of the things I had dreamt of doing right here in Birmingham and I could do it in ways I couldn’t have imagined as a kid because I would do it through platforms that didn’t exist when I was a kid.
I would do all the things I wanted to do and be all the things I wanted to be through blogging and social media.
America’s Next Top Role Model
I started blogging in 2008 back when I was a reporter for a newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky but I kept it up when I moved to Birmingham in 2009.
I moved to Birmingham to teach and when you’re a teacher you have to be VERY careful about what you put on your blog and on social media. When you’re a teacher you’re also a role model whether you want to be one or not.
But here’s the thing – when you’re a digital content creator you’re a role model, whether you want to be one or not. Whether you blog, have a YouTube channel, or a podcast or if you’re an influencer on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter – you are a role model.
So you must create content with intention.
When I was a teacher, I set a rule for myself that I would only share content if it did one of four things: educate, elevate, encourage, and empower.
I believe that all of us have the ability and the responsibility to do these four things through the content we create.
I came back to Birmingham to teach early American literature at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, but when my bosses learned about my blog and learned that I knew how to work “the Facebook” they wanted me to help build ASFA’s social media presence and even give presentations to students on blogging and social media best practices.
You have the power to educate youth, too.
No, you don’t need to quit your job to become a teacher, but you can educate simply by setting a good example for those younger than you with everything you post. As I said, you are a role model whether you like it or not.
And you can take this a step further. You can step away from the computer. You can put down the phone and you can volunteer with organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters or GirlSpring so you can have an even greater impact on the lives of young people. Then you can share your experiences on social media to motivate other people to do the same.
I moved back to Birmingham to teach but I missed writing, so I soon started freelancing for local publications like Birmingham magazine, B-Metro and StyleBlueprint. I even got my own column like Carrie Bradshaw. Many of these freelancing opportunities came my way because of my blog and my social media presence. And I used these platforms as well as these publications to highlight hometown heroes and share stories of what’s right with Birmingham. I was able to elevate my home, my home that I was finally learning to love, to honor, to embrace, to accept just as Natalie Goldberg said we should.
I still remember when an old high school friend of mine who now lives in the Northeast messaged me on Facebook to say that my stories, my blog and my social media posts made Birmingham seem so cool and completely different from the city we grew up in.
Consider how you, too, can use your digital media presence to elevate local voices and prove that the Magic City can and will live up to its name.
Encouragement comes in many forms. I think videos of cute cats or adorable babies can totally be a form of encouragement when you’re having a rough day. Authenticity is encouraging, too. So when you are having a rough day, so be afraid to say so online. You can be a good role model and still show that neither you nor your life is perfect.
And for me juggling teaching and freelance writing and blogging was really, really hard. That’s one of the reasons I left the classroom. And I knew that to do it I was going to need a group of fellow women writers cheering me on along the way and so I started See Jane Write, a website and community for women who write and blog. See Jane Write started out as just a networking group but today is an award-winning business. So, I get to be an entrepreneur as I had dreamed of being as a kid.
I started See Jane Write because I needed encouragement for myself, but I’ve continued it to be a source of encouragement for other women writers. I continue See Jane Write because the women of this community are self-publishing books and getting book deals. They’re seeing their bylines in newspapers and magazines for the first time, something some of them never thought could happen because they don’t have a journalism degree.
See Jane Write members have landed national speaking engagements and full-time jobs because of their blogs and turned their blogs into profitable businesses.
See Jane Write members have found the courage to write about difficult topics like coping with the suicide of a loved one, healing from sexual assault, or surviving domestic abuse. The women of See Jane Write have found the strength to write themselves back together again and they are becoming the authors of their own lives.
You, too, can use your digital influence to encourage others to develop platforms of their own, platforms that they can use to build themselves up. Don’t see other content creators as your competition; see them as your community. We need a spirit of collaboration because by working together we can have a much greater impact than we can alone.
I believe writing can be a form of activism. I believe content creation of all kinds can be a form of activism. But a few years ago I just kept feeling like I should do more.
So I started volunteering with a local organization called The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, which works to grow economic opportunities for women in Alabama through philanthropy, research, and advocacy. I started using my digital influence to raise money for this organization and raise awareness about the issues it addresses.
I love my home, but it is not perfect. I love my home, which means I hate anything that hurts it. Over 31% of women-headed households in this region are living in poverty. I needed to do something about that.
Consider how you can use your platform to support organizations like United Way. Join the United Way’s Young Philanthropists Society or their Women United program.
We can use our digital influence to empower others by using that influence to support local organizations that are empowering our communities.
There’s a quote that floats around Instagram quite a bit that says, “You owe it to yourself to become everything you’ve ever dreamt of being.”
I have done this and I am doing this right here in Birmingham thanks to the power of digital media. And through the power of digital media, I am trying my best to help others do the same, to help others be and do all they’ve dreamt of doing and being. And we can all do this if we are all creating content that educates, elevates, encourages, and empowers.
Visit uwca.org/spreadtheword to learn more about how you can support the work of the United Way of Central Alabama.