How One Survivor Harnesses Social Media For Advocacy

IMG_4294As many of you know who have read my previous posts, my sister committed suicide a few years ago. It was by far the most traumatic, tragic moment of my life to date. One in which I was truly tested as a person and learned that when your world caves in, you MUST draw even closer to God. As a recent college grad who was two weeks in to her new fancy job in NYC, it completely rocked my world. There are two things you can do when tragedy as big as suicide hits you --> you can harness the negative energy it leaves in its wake and destroy yourself and those around you OR you can convert the negative energy into positive energy and commit your life to making everyone else's life around you so amazing that they never even consider suicide as an option.

I quickly made the decision to turn the negativity into a positive, and I began looking for ways that I could help those hurting around me. One of the most effective ways I used that energy was to write more about what happened to my sister, what happened to our family as result and how we all survived it.

I was fortunate enough to meet a lovely lady, Jackie Shelley, via Twitter who also chose to challenge the dark topic of suicide and talk about suicide prevention in a way that others can relate. Through social media, I quickly was introduced to her project by word of mouth from someone else who knew of her. She runs 100 Unicycles, a suicide prevention initiative where she is selling 100 paintings of unicycles. I instantly fell in love with her passion, and her paintings. So much so that I immediately purchased one! Half of the proceeds of all of her paintings for this project go to the SF Suicide Prevention.

So how did Jaks get the attention of so many people on social media with a simple image of a unicycle? Of course, I had to ask! Read my interview with her below to learn more about her incredible project, as well as how she uses social media to advocate for something much larger than herself.

1. Why is suicide prevention important to you?

I have had multiple winter-onset depressions spanning multiple years, and have been actively suicidal several times. Without the help and support (medication and professional psychiatric treatment!) I received, I wouldn't be here. I want to make sure there are resources for others who find themselves stuck in a dark hole with no idea how to get out.

2. How did you create the concept around #100unicycles?

In December, while still recovering from my most recent bout of depression, I wrote an essay on Medium.com called "One Reason To Keep Going," in which I talked about choosing a reason to live that didn't involve guilt, fear, or shame. The unicycle represents something fun I have always wanted to learn but haven't done yet. The idea is to choose something on your lifetime "bucket list" and choose to hang on just to give yourself time to do that one thing. But then, of course, there's going to be another item on that list that you haven't done yet, so you hang on for THAT thing, and so on. I had recently read Amanda Palmer's book, "The Art of Asking," and I thought about doing a project where I might ask my friends and family to buy art from me to help me get back on my feet. I got the idea of doing sets of 100 from another artist friend named Jason McHenry, who is doing a project called the One Thousand Thousand, where he and a bunch of other artists create one MILLION original pieces of art. It's taken him about 20 years, and he's only partway through! I thought, well, if Jason can do a million, maybe I can do one hundred original pieces. The idea of adding in the charity support came from my friend Nelson De Witt, who has a lot of experience running kickstarter campaigns. He reminded me about our mutual friend Briefne Early, who circumnavigated the globe on a bicycle to raise money for suicide prevention. The idea of using the art to bring attention to the cause really clicked with me. My friend Mike Dahn had been volunteering at the SF Suicide Prevention hotline, and had introduced me to the President of the board, Brian Byrne. So because I knew them, I knew that this charity was doing good work and would be the best place to donate the funds. All of this was personal connections! Finally, the idea for the graduated pricing (the price goes up by $10 each round of 10- which encourages people to get the early numbers sooner rather than later!) came from Jason Zook, who used a similar price model for one of his recent product launches. So, basically I copied a lot of things really smart people were doing, and put them all together.

3. Why do you feel that social media is the right medium to promote your suicide prevention campaign?

The use of social media evolved naturally, because I already share most of my regular artistic work via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Ello in order to find clients. I usually work on commission painting portraits. But in this case, my use of social media really expanded because the charity, SF Suicide Prevention, also had its own pre-existing presence in social media, and I knew that would help boost the signal. But also, I have a long history of using social media to promote projects and ideas, so it felt like the best place to go. I already had a following and a network online just from being gregarious and social.

4. How can those interested support your campaign on social media?

By sharing the link to the project (http://www.100unicycles.com), using the hashtag #100unicycles, retweeting posts, or sharing the videos, blog posts and artwork found on the website. The original Medium essay is linked there, and there's also a short video and a longer one explaining the project.

5. What is the ONE most important thing you want people to take away from your campaign?

That suicide prevention doesn't have to be such a dark topic! The unicycles are playful and bright and a reminder about all the joyful reasons to hang on when it seems like there's no hope. I hope to show people that they CAN make a difference, that they are not alone, and that it's more than ok to speak out about suffering.

6. What is the coolest/most inspirational story that has come out of this campaign so far?

The most inspirational thing for me has been having people tell me about the times in their lives that they, too, confronted suicidal thoughts. It's not usually something we go around asking each other! It turns out some of the best, brightest, coolest people I know have had this struggle, too. Talking to the other survivors gives me so much hope that this project might save more lives, that they too might go on to do great things, share their stories, and continue to expand the circle and bring hope to more people.

7. What comes after selling the 100 unicycle paintings? What's next for you?

I'm already launching and working on my next 100 project, #100cupcakes! (http://www.100cupcakes.com) I teamed up with two other artists and with the young lady who was fired from Yelp for writing an open letter to the CEO about her personal struggles to survive on her wages in the bay area. We now are selling 100 cupcake paintings, and donating money to the charity No Kid Hungry.

I will for sure continue my regular artistic portrait work, but I believe I will continue to form and run social good campaigns involving art and nonprofits for the foreseeable future. I've never had so much positive feedback for a project, nor felt so satisfied with the work. It's been truly amazing.

It's incredible to see how Jackie has grown #100Unicycles from scratch. Her initiative is a true example of the power of social media, and the importance of harnessing it for the greater good. To learn more about Jackie's project, please visit www.100unicycles.com and be sure to share her hashtag (#100unicycles)! - Marji J. Sherman

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