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HeathCliff Rothman

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How to Engage Youth in a Post-Obama Presidential Campaign World

Posted: 03/25/10 04:29 PM ET

It's easy to get involved in a horse race. It's a competition: there's a winner and a loser, there are high stakes and a race to the finish. And as we all know, the Obama-McCain race mobilized millions of young people in a way that had been predicted for years, thanks to the power of the internet to organize, connect and aggregate.

And what now? What about all that youth passion, energy and idealism?

The race was over. And as the truism goes, it's harder to govern than to campaign. In the same way, it's easier for young people to be inspired by a race than by trying to tackle the issues themselves -- that are overwhelming, complicated, both micro and macro and appear insurmountable to an individual citizen, let alone a politician.

When we started Film Your Issue five years ago, in a pre-YouTube world, we reached out to youth to engage in issues and exercise the power of every voice in a democracy, by inviting a 30 second video (now three minutes) on any issue that "burned" for them. In those long-ago days, the concept of "User Generated Content" uploaded to the internet was almost unheard of.

Cut to five years later. How to make a difference in web universe where video uploads, contests and competitions are overflowing? How to create a video call to action that can actually move the needle and inspire socially-conscious youth to participate in this crowded universe? And how to channel that mercurial force of youthful passion and energy, of both Obama and GOP supporters, in a post-election America?

Our approach, after months of germination, is: to ask youth for solutions -- implementable and innovative solutions to major issues. A bit of a tough ask, admittedly. Harder to figure out what to do than merely articulate (read: complain). But it has the potential to move the needle, in terms of who will see the results, who votes on them and the potential of the projects themselves.

So the current What's Your Issue Film Competition, which begun in January and ends on April 19, is asking for a three minute video (with accompanying one-sheet) articulating both the issue and proposed project to address the problem.

The concept has been compelling enough to attract a major roster of partners and supporters for the current initiative, including Apple, whose education division is heavily involved in "Challenge-based" learning -- and which actually heavily inspired the new iteration of the initiative; Best Buy, whose engagement with youth through its charitable foundation and @15 youth group (with more than 100,000 members), is not well-known outside philanthropic circles; the federal government's Corporation for National & Community Service, whose public service campaign also has a strong "challenge" component; YouTube Video For Change, the division of the mega-phenomenon that supports most nonprofits in one way or another, and partnered officially on ours; and even the White House, whose Social Innovation division is smartly engaged in the critical cultural nexus of social activism, the internet, digital media, innovation and civic engagement.

Understanding human nature, we have also structured a roster of prizing platforms to incentivize (as my marketing director would say) participation. Winners will be presented in a presentation package to senior Obama officials, at a VIP reception in Washington, at an awards ceremony co-hosted by longtime partner Sony in Los Angeles, on our iTunes tile and the carrot of their ideas being seen and judged by our a powerhouse jury, including Jack Black, Tom Brokaw, Yoko Ono, Deepak Chopra, Chad Hurley (co-founded of YouTube), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist) and others.

And Jack Black is heading our new Issue Song competition. (We haven't yet convinced him to accept our offer to record a cover version of a winner of his choice.) Music is arguably the most accessible artform, especially for youth -- and a powerful medium to illuminate issues.

We broke the previous record for online video polls at MSNBC.com a few years back, besting their Super Bowl ad poll, with 90,000 votes. But the media landscape reinvents itself in warp speed, and this is a more challenging "ask" for youth, underscored by a bruised constituency who has experienced first-hand a candidate morphing from white knight to inevitable clay feet, not to mention an Internet and smartphone world beckoning like carnival barkers with their shiny ware, for precious attention.

So we are hoping for impact, reassured at least that our shiny wares will encourage new youth leaders and social entrepreneurs, and hopefully uncover an unexpected, uncanny project that only someone 14 to 24 could come up with, that will benefit all of us.

You can find us at www.whatsyourissue.tv, as well as on our YouTube platforms -- www.youtube.com/filmyourissue and www.youtube.com/whatsyourissuemusic.