The wild ride from from beauty blogger to activist

By Nicole Salmon (December 20, 2019)

Well, that Escalated Quickly Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist, Franchesca Ramsey, Grand Central Publishing, May 22, 2018, 256pp., $18.19

Franchesca Ramsey

How does one go from being a beauty blogger to a YouTuber—when being a YouTuber wasn’t really the thing we know today—to being a social justice advocate?  

Apparently, quite accidentally, according Franchesca Ramsey in her book Well, that Escalated Quickly Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist

For this first time author, her rise from having a modest online following to being internet famous must have felt like hitting the lottery jackpot after years of lottery tickets in the hope one day your ticket numbers are called. And that’s what happened for Franchesca Ramsey.  

On a seemingly uneventful day in late 2011, six years after creating and uploading her first videos on YouTube, Franchesca’s number was called.  

In 2006, a year after YouTube was launched as a video sharing platform, Franchesca Ramsey started sharing hair styling tutorials on the platform. From her own description, she was a prolific content creator who regularly posted videos, amassing several thousand followers along the way. 

With an urge, talent and dreams of working in the entertainment field, having one of her videos go viral, would be the ticket to her dreams. Six years in, one of her videos did. Within four hours of uploading her Sh*t White Girls say to Black Girls (SWGSTBG) video, Ms. Ramsey became internet famous, receiving over 1 million views.  Today SWGSTBG video has been viewed over 12 million times.  

Well, that Escalated Quickly isn’t a ‘be careful what you wish for’ tale.  Perhaps it is a cautionary tale.  But more so it is a coming of age tale in the internet era. It depicts a journey of discovery, maturity, acceptance and reflection. The book is ultimately a personal account of how she leveraged internet fame to move into acting, social justice activism and culture commentary.

 “This book is an attempt to show you that mistakes ae inevitable, and that what’s actually important is how we use them to make a better world. For all the hate and abuse I get from all points on the political spectrum, I’ve been fortunate that may people have been compassionate about showing me where I messed up and helping me get back on track. I wanted to pay that generosity forward somehow, and I’m doing it the best way I can: by pulling my own receipts and dragging my former self.”

The book takes you on a rollercoaster ride of discovery.  It feels very rooted in truth despite the online arena where the stories only showcase ‘sunny and happy ways.’ 

That’s not the case with Ms. Ramsey’s depiction of her journey.  She ‘keeps it real’ when it comes to sharing the high, the lows, her imperfections, questionable judgements, reflections and lessons learned.  When you think she has learned a lesson about claiming her voice without going down the rabbit hole dug by social media internet trolls, she is baited into going down the rabbit hole. 

Yet, isn’t this how our lives often play out? Lessons aren’t learned once and done; it takes time for those lessons to become ingrained behaviours.

“The thing about a ladder is you don’t stop climbing and if you think you have you have a lot more work to do.”

In the online world, having your content, most often video, go viral is intoxicating.  Ms. Ramsey rode the wave of fame her SWGSTBG provided.  And, although, there were highs and lows associated with going viral, there is no denying that it catapulted her career in the direction she always dreamed it would go – the world of entertainment. Her journey came at a cost, but it also resulted in amazing opportunities.

Engaging on social media platforms mean we are living our lives online where people are often quick to pounce on things said, things not said, things done, and things not done. It’s an unforgiving space.  With online fame come supporters, detractors, trolls and attackers.  One can expect to be called out for any real or perceived misstep. 

With her popularity soaring, Ms. Ramsey received lots of media attention and invitations to appear on television.  Her appearance on Andersen Live was a pivot point for her. A white audience member accused her of reverse racism because her video was “racist to white people.”  She didn’t respond as well as she could have because she wasn’t equipped with the right tools and vocabulary to make her point very well. 

She received serious back lash and ‘black-lash’ as a result of that appearance. She was being accused of reverse-racism on one hand and being called an Uncle Tom, not being black in the right way, how dare you have a white boyfriend on the other hand.

“I’d gone from confident viral-video-star Franchesca to the high school version of myself-insecure, uncertain, and trying to balance my true self with the woman the world, and especially other black people, wanted me to be.”…..” I’d fallen into “callout culture” – as quickly as I’d become internet famous, I was in danger of losing the trust of the audience I’d built with those two minutes and thirty seconds of  satire.  I was ripped to shreds because I didn’t know what I didn’t know during the Anderson appearance, and now I was being ripped to shreds because I didn’t know how to respond to being ripped to shreds.”

The experience was an ‘A-ha’ moment for the author.  She needed to spend time learning and equipping herself with the right tools and vocabulary if she was going to wade into the social justice arena.  She had to put in the time and do the work if she was being turned to for advice and answers she didn’t have.

Along the journey to activism, Ms. Ramsey devotes a chapter to her “Reign as YouTube’s Callout Queen.” Here is how she defines calling out:

“Call Out (verb): to bring attention publicly to another person’s bigoted speech, behaviour, sound bite, joke, lyric, article, Facebook post, Tweet, Instagram story, snapchat story, role in a television show or film, or performance, especially on Saturday night Live or at the MTV Video Music Awards.  Goal: To make the bigoted person aware of their mistake and /or to raise awareness of a given issue.”

On reflecting on being called upon to be the internet racism referee, she learned that the call out approach and public humiliation was not necessarily the best way to go about encouraging someone to change their behaviour.  She learned that using a call in approach may provide a better incentive to behaviour change.

In the chapter, Between a Loc and a Hard Place – The Chescalocs Story, the author delves right into the politics of black hair and the policing of black hair. To illustrate this point, Ramsey tells the story of third grader Tiana Parker who in 2013 was sent home from her Oklahoma charter school because she wore her hair in locs.  Apparently here hair was ‘distracting and not presentable.’

There are increasing numbers of black women choosing to wear their hair in its natural state, rejecting a life-long narrative that black hair in its “as is” state is not acceptable.

“My hair is just as much an expression of blackness as my social justice work.”

Chapter twelve, Eulogies for Cringeworthy Comments, provides the reader with 12 comments often used that should be best put to rest.  Three worth highlighting are ‘sorry if you are offended,’ ‘why are you so angry’ and ‘well, I don’t see color.’ The concluding chapter, Activism is like long division, you have to show your work, speaks to grit, persistence and doing more than simply showing up.  Activism requires deeper engagement on the issues.

This book is a journey of discovery and acceptance, it’s about missteps, living with imperfections and being prepared to learn, grow and change. Oftentimes the path one’s life takes seems quite accidental, but is it? Sometimes what one seemingly falls into is a talent one possesses but have not recognized it as such. For Francesca Ramsey her journey to be an accidental activist was less about the online content she produced but more about her creative ability to deconstruct the content to make a better world.

(Nicole Salmon is the founder of Boundless Philanthropy, a fundraising consultancy specializing in providing support to charitable organizations.)

Disproving the most entrenched beliefs of the far right by this year’s Nobel Laureates in economics

By Christopher Barry (December 20,2019)

Good Economics for Hard Times, Dr. Abhijit Banerjee and Dr. Esther Duflo, PublicAffairs, November 12, 2019, 432 pp., $33.36

Dr. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Dr. Esther Duflo

This is a wonderful book to read if you would like more clarity around the issues that dominate public debate in our time. 

The authors are Dr. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Dr. Esther Duflo, and their book shows how the best recent research in economics is disproving the most entrenched beliefs of the far right and far left political parties around the world. Their work received this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics on the causes and alleviation of poverty. They know what they are talking about, and this is a volume that is well written and accessible for the general reader.

We live in an age of growing polarization. From Hungary to India, from the Philippines to the United States, from the United Kingdom to Brazil, from Indonesia to Italy, the public conversation between the left and the right has turned more and more into a high decibel slanging match.

The modest goal claimed by the authors is to share some of their expertise and to reopen a dialogue based on facts — in the hope that they can help each side understand what the other is saying, and thereby arrive at some reasoned disagreement, if not a consensus. What is especially alarming is that the space for such conversations seems to be shrinking. Democracy can live with dissent as long as there is respect on both sides. But respect demands some understanding and a shared basis of knowledge.

It is an ambitious project, involving a discussion of the problems of our time, about how our world can be put back together, as long as we are honest about the diagnosis; a book about where economic policy has failed, where ideology has blinded us, but also a book about where and why good economics is useful, especially in today’s world.

Today, the public conversation about core economic issues—immigration, trade, growth, inequality and taxes, the environment and the role of government—is increasingly reminiscent of the 1930s. Old prejudices are disguising themselves in new clothes. But the effect is the same. 

The go-go years of economic growth, fed by trade expansion and China’s amazing economic success may be over, what with China’s slowing growth and trade wars igniting everywhere. Companies that prospered from that rising tide in Asia, Africa and Latin America, are beginning to wonder what is next for them. 

The book argues that slow growth is nothing new, but what makes it particularly worrying is the fraying of the social contract that we see across all affected countries. We seem to be back in the Dickensian world of Hard Times with the haves facing off against the increasingly alienated have-nots, with no resolution in sight.

Questions of economics and social policy are central to the present crisis. 

Is there something that can be done to boost growth? Should that even be a priority for the affluent West? 

What about the exploding inequality everywhere? Is international trade the problem or the solution? What is its effect on inequality? 

What is the future on trade — can countries with cheaper labor costs lure global manufacturing away from China? And what about migration? Is there really too much low-skilled migration? 

What about new technologies? Should we, for example, worry about the rise of artificial intelligence, or celebrate it? 

And perhaps most urgently how can society help all those people the markets have left behind? 

The answers to these problems take more than a tweet. So, there is an urge to just avoid them. 

And partly as a result, nations are doing very little to solve the most pressing challenges of our time; they continue to feed the anger and the distrust that polarize us, which makes us even more incapable of talking, thinking together, doing something about them. It often feels like a vicious cycle.

Economists like Drs. Banerjee and Duflo have a lot to say about these big issues. They study immigration to see what it does to wages, taxes to determine if they discourage enterprise, redistribution to figure out whether it encourages sloth. They think about what happens when nations trade, and have useful predictions about who the losers and winners are likely to be. They have worked hard to understand why some countries grow, others don’t, and what, if anything, governments can do to help. They gather data on what makes people generous or wary, what makes a person leave their home for a strange place, how social media plays on our prejudices. 

The authors devote a chapter to each to the social issues mentioned above, and they do an excellent job of separating fear-mongering from sober reality.

Take, for instance, immigration. A good example is the following:

“Why the panic? The fraction of international migrants in the world population in 2017 was roughly what it was in 1960 or in 1990: 3 percent. The European Union (EU) on average gets between 1.5 million and 2.5 million non-EU migrants every year from the rest of the world. Two and a half million is less than one half of one percent of the EU population. Most of these are legal migrants, people with job offers or those who arrive to join their families. There was an unusual influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016, but by 2018 the number of asylum seekers to the EU was back to 638,000 and only 38 percent of the requests were granted. This represents about one for every twenty-five hundred EU residents. That’s it. Hardly a deluge…Racist alarmism, driven by a fear of the intermingling of races and the myth of purity, doesn’t heed facts.”

There are gems like this on every page. It’s worth the read.

(A former combat paratrooper and Logistics officer in the Canadian Army, Christopher Barry has worked as interim CEO or COO for a wide range of charities.)

Classical philosophy reasserts itself as a tool for a better human experience

By Mo Waja (December 20, 2019)

When you Kant figure it out, ask a philosopher, Marie Robert, Little, Brown Spark November 12, 2019, 176 pp., $17.35

Marie Robert

A pithy and delightfully modern take on philosophical theory, Marie Robert’s When you Kant figure it out, ask a philosopher is where abstract philosophy meets real world scenarios, and from it builds an approach to overcoming adversity that is applicable across career, industry, and lifestyle — all in less than 200 pages. 

While Aristotle, Plato, Nietzsche, and Spinoza are certainly recognizable names from history, formal education, and for their contributions to understanding the human experience, they are less frequently associated with a practical approach to living a better life that is today more often (and perhaps concerningly) found in wellness blogs, magazines, and on social media. This is ironic, because in many ways building a practical model for how to live a better life is what these (and many other) philosophers set out to do. 

As time, language, dialect, and technology has evolved, classical philosophy, its ancestors and its descendants have largely lost their place in the toolbelt we use to build a better human experience. 

In Marie Robert’s work, she seeks to change that — and, perhaps, even succeeds. 

The key to Robert’s success is in accessibility and applicability. As society has changed, so too has language, and the dialect of the modern millennial, Gen X-er, or even boomer has degrees enough of separation that in the exploration of philosophy many may struggle to find practical application to their day-to-day. In her work, Robert combats this with a brilliant juxtaposition of philosophical ideal against real life experiences which allows us to take the ideas of Aristotle or Spinoza — which may seem abstract on their face — and couch them in the practical realities of a trip to IKEA or even a hangover, guiding the reader to immediately see philosophy through the lens of their own lived experience. 

Contributing significantly to the success of this work is a format and style designed, quite intentionally, to optimize the digestibility of the piece. In every chapter Robert delivers context, laying out a common scenario through narrative. Then, the scenario is analyzed through the lens of a philosopher introduced with the familiarity of an old friend. After that, we learn a little more about the philosopher’s life before receiving a point-by-point breakdown of their most relevant philosophical ideas. Through this formula, Robert makes philosophy matter — not in the abstract, or as a piece of academia, but as a real and active influence on the way we approach experiences. 

Marie Robert’s work is a piece that certainly has something in it for virtually everyone but is perfect for the individual looking to gain professional value at a leisurely pace. The work is an anthology of stories told in the voice of your favourite TED Talk.  

(Mo Waja is a nonprofit storytelling expert, a professional speaker, marketer, author, podcaster, an Account Manager at Blakely and Co-Host and Producer of Fifteen-Minute-Fundraising. @iammowaja)

Hell bent on covering up the truth

By Gail Picco (December 20, 2019)

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow, Little, Brown and Company, October 15, 2019, 464 pp., $29.70

Ronan Farrow
Photo: Miller Mobley

Ronan Farrow has written one of the most important books of 2019. With Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, he reports on the credible allegations of sexual misconduct reported to him by several high profile women, how he was thwarted from bringing those charges to light and how he was surveilled by shadowy operatives—one of whom comes clean with Farrow and is a source for the book—and former Mossad spies hired by the powerful man he was investigating. 

The story Farrow is trying to report is about the sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a man who apparently had a finger in every entertainment pie. He was rich and powerful. He could make other people rich and powerful (or not). Other great books have been reviewed in this space recently about the #metoo movement and women disclosing misconduct by power men but, ultimately, Catch and Kill is about what powerful men will do to protect themselves and their ability to continue to make money in the face of the powerful accusations of criminal misconduct.

Part of the sexual misconduct landscape is women speaking out, yes. But it is equally important to investigate how news organizations—with other motives at play—can shut their voices down. That was Farrow’s assignment and he had been working on the story with his producer Rich McHugh, and they felt they had amassed enough evidence to do a piece for NBC’s Today show.

“The script we developed during July [2017] was spare and economical. It included the tape, naming [Ambra Battilana] Gutierrez with her cooperation, as well as [Rose] McGowan’s on-camera, on-the-record interview, and [Emily] Nestor’s interview with her face in shadow, accompanied her images of her messages from Irwin Reitter, documenting how Weinstein’s behaviour was a serial problem within the company. The evidence we’d uncovered of the two settlements in London was included, based on multiple firsthand accounts of the negotiations and the check from Bab Weinstein’s account. And there were sound bites from the four former employees who had gone on camera.” 

But the news division of NBC were balking. They wanted Farrow to pause the story, Farrow reports. 

In a conversation Farrow with Noah Oppenhiem, the executive in charge of the Today show, to discuss the future of the story, Farrow recalls, 

“I tried to think how to underline the stakes while conveying that I was a team player. ‘My sense is this is going to come out,’ I said, ‘and the question is whether is comes out with or without us sitting on the evidence we have.’ 

A long silence.  ‘You better be careful,’ [Noah Oppenhiem] said at last. ‘Cause I know you’re not threatening, but people could think you’re threatening to go public.’ I knew what he meant, but the choice of words struck me as odd. Weren’t we in the business of going public?”

Catch and Kill reads like a who-done-it. Men in cars sit outside Farrow’s apartment building. He feels like he’s feeling followed.  His phones are tapped. Malicious stories about him and his sister, Dylan Farrow (who accused their father Woody Allen of sexual abuse when she was seven years old), are planted in tabloids. His long-term relationship with Jon Lovett is strained under Farrow’s increasing workload, stress and paranoia. The women he’s interviewing come to understand NBC’s reluctance and begin pulling back. At one point in his reporting, a friend offers him a safe house to stay, an offer he accepts.

Catch and Kill is a thriller I couldn’t put down. If you are familiar with how the story ends, you’ll be hungry for the details in Catch and Kill.  If you don’t know how it all turns out, you will be on the edge of your seat throughout.

But it’s also a stellar work of investigative journalism.  It’s a true story about truth and lies and power versus justice. And, frankly, it remains entirely unclear about which side is winning.

(Gail Picco is a charity impact strategist, author and editor of the CSP Book Blog. @gailpicco)

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