Tweeting the Path Toward Social Change

  |  March 8, 2011   |  Comments

Can Twitter chats make a difference? A look at a recent experiment in Latino and African-American cause marketing.

Shortly before the winter holidays, Health Justice CT hosted a Twitter chat - a live conversation on Twitter - to discuss what communities can do to "help end health disparities among men of color." Near the conclusion of the one-hour chat - which was attended by an interesting cross-section of the health advocacy, public health, academic, Latino, and African-American communities - we asked the question, "Would it be helpful to post a blog summarizing what we learned and shared today?" (I want to thank my colleague Andre Blackman, who moderated the discussion with me, and helped with this column.)

The answer, of course, was yes. But if you have ever participated in a Twitter chat, you know that a summary is a lot easier said than done. Close to 50 people joined the chat, producing 210 tweets on a wide range of topics. Twitter chats are often chaotic, unpredictable, and messy; part of the charm of the medium is that they resemble a "real" conversation. But as with many talks on Twitter that have a socially-guided purpose, there was a natural progression in this particular talk that reflected the three questions that any movement must answer: 1) what's the problem? 2) what can we do about it? and 3) who is responsible? (i.e., who will go forth after the party is over, and start working on real solutions?).


One bonus of the Twitter chat format is how quickly one can get to these three fundamental questions. It doesn't take long to surface issues, examine their causes, and sort out who might be able to get things done. What did we learn in 60 minutes about the cause of ending health disparities among men of color? Well, first there was a quick discussion of some basic facts - facts, by the way, that many participants were not quite clear about. We started with a reality check by asking the question, do men of color in fact "experience worse health outcomes and treatment than their socioeconomic counterparts?"

This was a very big question that needed to be "unpacked." While there is a great deal of evidence supporting the claim that men of color experience worse health outcomes, it begs the question, "Which men of color?" We were reminded of a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center which found that Latinos, on average, live longer than people from other ethnic groups; one explanation for these findings is that immigrants, on the whole, might tend to be rougher, tougher, and more ready for the many adversities that await them in the new world. In the Health Justice Twitter chat, the conversation soon turned to the questions of environment and poverty: how health outcomes of people - African-American men and boys, in particular - are affected by where they live, play, and work.


That disparities at the outset might be the cause of health disparities should be no surprise. But the specificity of the evidence of these disparities is what has helped to convert thinking into action in places where poverty and environment clearly limit better outcomes for men of color. The conversation on Twitter got really interesting at this point in the conversation. Participants cited a range of innovative programs driven at the local level:

  • A group of barbershops in Pittsburgh that banded together to offer free health screenings.
  • Urban community groups like The Food Trust that provide better access to fresh food.
  • The JUST.START campaign in Connecticut, aimed at promoting racial and ethnic fairness in the juvenile justice system.
  • A movement to improve food in schools in Santa Paula, California through a community garden project.
  • Morehouse College's campaign to promote healthier lifestyles among African-American men.


The third key question - who is responsible - is perhaps the most politically charged of all. We're of the opinion that health disparity is a shared responsibility, requiring the cooperation of citizens, government, and non-profit groups. The innovation cited above and during the Twitter chat illustrates the efficacy of shared responsibility. And the range of people who participated in the Twitter chat points suggests greater opportunities for shared and collaborative work. But at a time when federal, state, and local deficits threaten to widen disparities even further, personal responsibility has become more urgent.

Marshall Ganz - the celebrated communications strategist who worked with Cesar Chavez, President Obama, and other successful leaders of movements - likes to frame the question of personal responsibility by paraphrasing the Rabbi Hillel's three questions: "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" One of the most alarming studies cited in the Twitter chat finds that more African-American men without a high school diploma or GED are in jail than in jobs. That's a tragic circumstance that affects us all. And yes, it affects us today.

Twitter is not the place where any of this serious work will get done. But it is a good tool to rapidly aggregate some of the best people and some of the best ideas so as to make the path toward social change somewhat more visible.


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Giovanni  Rodriguez

Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.

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