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June 29, 2009

Blogging While Brown 2009: An Interview with Gina McCauley of What About Our Daughters

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IMG_3414 Have you heard of Gina McCauley?  If you haven't, listen up--this is a woman who's on the cutting edge of the internet and social media and you need to get to know her right now.  If you do know who she is, read the following interview anyway, because I defy you not to be inspired by her story, her passion and her good old fashioned smarts.  Just the kind of black woman the MSM almost never talks about.

Gina's the outspoken publisher of the blogs What About Our Daughters and Michelle Obama Watch, and she's also the organizer of the blogging conference for people of color, Blogging While Brown.  After attending last weekend's successful 2nd annual conference, I had some questions for Gina and she was kind enough to make time to answer them for me.

What did you hope to achieve with this year's conference and do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?

My goal was to bring people together so that they could meet other people, learn something new and have a good time. My hope before the conference that people would develop relationships with others they could partner with and collaborate. I think we definitely accomplished that. I was afraid that we couldn't replicated the amazing "vibe" from last year, and we didn't. The "vibe" this year was even better than the vibe int he room from last year. People genuinely liked each other, were excited for each other, encouraged each other and enjoyed each other's company to the point that they would leave :)

On the way out the door, three women who live in Chicago who didn't know each other before they came to the conference and attended the bootcamp and conference said they were going to collaborate together and start a group blog. That's so important because blogging can be a very solitary experience. Blogging While Brown makes blogging a family experience. You know you're part of this loud lovely group that loves to get together and chat.

How was this year's conference different than last year's?

First, we added the beginning blogger bootcamp and I think its fair to say that was an overwhelming success. We got raves about that, and we'll be expanding our "nuts & bolts" training next year. We had a really small class that met before the conference began. They got each other. I think it was less intimidating when the entire conference convened because they already had their bootcamp friends. My goal was to take civilians and turn them into lean mean blogging and podcasting machines and we did that.

We clearly had more people this year. We eliminated Sunday morning events, which I think is wise :) We had all conference events in the same location. I actually did very little organizing this year because I delegated logistics to our conference coordinator, Shalon and programming to Shawn P Williams from the Dallas South Blog and literally the conference was able to take without me. I arrived to both the kick reception and the Saturday workshops after they had started and they in full swing without me. So that means from a delegation standpoint, it was successful because I had a good team who made sure the conference could take place without me... AND we had power outlets EVERY WHERE this year! That was something we learned from last year when we blew the convention center power grid during the conference.

Your blog What About Our Daughters is very focused on speaking up about issues relating to women of color in a blunt and unapologetic way. I love that. But at the same time there are people in the black community who would say, you shouldn't be putting our "dirty laundry" out there for all the world to see. What do you say to that?

I don't what those people think! The cost of silence is too high. You're not going to march the community over the side of a cliff while I quietly watch. Another blogger once said, I forget who, that when you hear someone fret over "dirty laundry" being "aired" that you have to wonder how many loads they've washed. I started blogging because I think the very survival of young Black women is at stake. Live free or die. Folks are worried about bad PR with blood running in the streets.

We're seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted, being devastated by HIV-AIDS, young Black women under the age of 18 are the most likely to be killed when pregnant or within a year after their deaths. I'll shut up about it when all the dirty laundry police start protecting Black women and girls. Until that time, Black women and girls have a natural born right to engage in self defense. Our only defense at this point is to open up our mouths and scream. I've often found that merely shining a tiny light under the darkest rocks in the Black community sends the foolishness scattering

What are you trying to accomplish with Michelle Obama Watch?

You know I don't know anymore :) I was one of those Black folks who wondered if the country REALLY REALLY was going to elect a Black president so when I started the site, I really couldn't conceive of her ACTUALLY being first lady and I think that's a good thing. The possibility was just so outlandish :) But what I was trying to do was to point out that a lot of the criticism that was being directed her way was rooted in stereotypes we have about Black women. Those stereotypes are driven by the media and pop culture. I didn't think she was being adequately defended.

In fact, I was outraged by the silence of social justice and women's groups about her treatment at the time. She was being characterized as angry and unpatriotic. Michelle Obama is just like me. She's like my friends, we're Black women who are professionals and almost all of us have anecdotes about just walking to get coffee and being asked if we're "okay" because its 7:30 Am in the morning and we're not smiling like the UPN frog. Or being accuse of being "angry" when we're merely passionate about something.

So I wanted to respond to what I felt was typical media stereotyping. By doing that and starting the site, I've become this like Michelle Obama subject matter expert to some people, mainly the media, but its great because Black women, not all of our original contributors were Black BTW, but Black women have been able to inject their voices into the national dialog about Michelle Obama. And guess what? even though she's the first lady, those organizations and groups who were silent during the campaign still are silent :) Although the NAACP came out of hissing to demand a "proper" apology, whatever that is, from Rusty DePass. Big Whoop, now if only they could tackle gender pay equity issues and a history of the appearance of sexual harassment in their national headquarters.

Back to BWB, several people I spoke with suggested the conference was almost ready to be a two day conference. Are you thinking of that, and what will it take to get the conference to that next level?

ARGH! You know I almost think that its a good thing that people leave wanting more :) We'll definitely be adding more programming on Friday during the day. I think we're going to add some more "nuts & bolts" small classes where "learning by doing" is the focus. We'll get some really good instructors to teach in a small group setting and they will cover some of the more intermediate topics that we discussed. For example, we'll have someone teach a course on Buddy Press, or Migrating your Blog to your own hosting service, or how to configure and understand adsense and SEO, people will be sitting there with their laptops actually DOING this stuff instead of taking notes about how to do it. I think the only way to learn about blogging is to do it in some cases. But don't hold me to that.

We're also going to have a "spin off" conference that will likely be in in the Fall or winter that will likely be west coast based and focus on access to capital and the "business" of blogging. We'll likely be bringing "boot camps" to under served communities, in places like the Mississippi Delta and others because now we know from this year that we can set up a mobile computer lab :) we even know how to set up our own wifi network :) So we're definitely going to grow and expand, but I don't want the conference to become so big and unwieldy that we lose the energy. the Size of the conference isn't nearly as important as the depth of the relationships people develop at the conference. People can watch tutorials online to learn a lot of the stuff you learn at the conference, but its only by coming to the conference that you can walk in a stranger and leave with 10 new friends.

What is the hardest thing about writing your blogs? The easiest?

The hardest part about writing my blogs is dealing with the success :) I'm a "celebrity" or sorts and I have all of the issues that any other celebrity would have, just not the money :) The loss of anonymity, the expectations from others, the responsibility of managing this thing I stated on a lark and has grown into so much more. In some ways, as I've become more successful at blogging, I have less time to blog :) So just continuing to get new posts up while juggling the additional obligations like speaking at conferences is a challenge also As any small business person will tell you, in order for the business to grow, you have to make time for that.

So I really want to expand the number of people who hear my message and that means trying to write a book and produce content that can be viewed offline. That takes more time than sitting at my keyboard and letting it rip. So that's my biggest challenge right now, making room for growth and expansion and I think all the lessons I learned this year with BWB about delegating and making myself clear and being firm and giving people guidelines will be really helpful. Because the conference planning team really executed my vision well.

The easiest part is actually writing the blog posts. I have a lot to say and I've never been afraid of sharing my opinion with whoever will listen so for me, expressing myself is easy :) I think the challenge is sometimes hitting the "save" button instead of the "publish" button. I don't need to share EVERYTHING I think with the world. '

Where did you grow up? What was your family life like growing up?

I grew up in southeast Texas in a Black Baptist family. I was the youngest until my little brother came along when I was 13. I have an extraordinary family. Both of my parents were present in my life. I know realize how blessed I am to have been raised the way I was because I read horror stories about what's happening to children whose parents don't their obligations as seriously. I have big family with 4 siblings. I was always outspoken and that was something I struggled with as a child because children are to be seen and not heard, especially girl children and I struggled to just shut up :) My life would have been so much easier if I could have compelled myself to conform, but even from the earliest age, I've hated injustice. I hate seeing the powerful mistreat the weak. I hate bullies :)

I think you see that in my blogging. I'm not afraid to tell powerful institutions that their wrong. It wasn't until I started blogging that I realized that my outspoken nature was not a curse, it was a blessing. But I couldn't blog the way I blog without my family. I remember when the NY times wanted me to reveal my identity because I was blogging pseudo anonymously at the time and I was very reluctant to do that and I remember asking my mom that if all this blows up in my face and I end up on the streets, can come home and sleep on the floor. She said of course. My parents were my first readers and they read the blog every day and get downright indignant if I go a couple of days without posting :) they also are unofficial editors because when I am in the zone and I can hear music in my head as I'm writing a post blasting someone, my only limitation on my "passionate" prose is that I know my parents are going to read what I write. So I do edit myself unconsciously at times. For example ESSENCE magazine had a ridiculous sex issue in June that I just blasted, but I would have blasted it in far greater detail if my parents weren't reading my blog.

In the end family is ALL that matters. Once you become high profile, you don't know why people are approaching. You don't know their motivations, but you always have the security of the love of those who knew you and loved you when you were just an carbaholic couch potato sitting on the couch watching life roll by.

Tell me something about how you grew up that you think might have influenced you to be where you are today, on the cutting edge of social media.

Well, first of all, I grew in a house with computers. My Daddy is an electronics geek. We might not have had the most fashionable clothes, but we had a VIC-20, A commodore 64. I was publishing a newspaper in the 5th grade because we had a desktop publishing program at home. My daddy had the internet back in the day when you had to pay the minute. IRC all that stuff. I remember making this little device from Radio Shack and making this little red light come on. I've been
programming since I learned how to write a code on the Vic-20 that would make my name scroll up the computer screen.

My mother is VERY active in the church so we were conscripted into service. We were always "on program." Giving speeches and performing community service. My mother was the matron of the girls group at church and before we could go to an amusement park, the group had to do a "good deed."

Education was important.

So I think my comfort with technology and my comfort with speaking to the world is rooted in the fact that that's just who I am. that's who I've always been. I'm not afraid of technology. It never occurred to me that I couldn't learn anything I didn't know. So its always interesting when I teach people how to blog how amazed they are that something so simple to me as posting a YouTube video is possible for them.

We've always been a cutting edge family from a technological sense and my parents have always marched to the beat of their own drum.

There was a lot of talk about branding at this year's conference. What is
the next step for the "Gina McCauley brand?"

Oh lord, there is NO Gina McCauley brand. I don't see myself that way. Its interesting to see people's reaction to me because I don't feel any different from them :) I don't view myself as "the product" or the "the brand." I view myself more as the messenger. But I'm definitely writing a book. I've started and stopped a few times, but I'm going to get grustle on. I haven't decided if that's going to be self published, I will likely be sending out query letters sometime this summer to see if I can get a book deal. I definitely am moving into video content production. I complain about the images of Black women in popular culture, but its time to not just complain, but to compete with those images. I think there is a HUGE audience for content that is being under served and ignored. I also think that Black people who know better tend to be risk averse and the creative process is inherently risky. You risk rejection at every turn, but I think people like me have to begin to create a vision of what they want to see in the world because if we don't' do it, no one will.

Most people don't know this, but I've taught myself how to do 3D animation so there is a cartoon on the way featuring your Black girls. There is also a live action movie on the way and i hope to move into some barter syndication deals to broadcast television programming featuring Black women. Public Affairs, Lifestyle, and some fiction. But again, all that takes time an I have to reorder my life so I can do that. I VOWED that once Blogging While Brown 2009 was done, I was
going to shut down for a few weeks to just reorder my life. I've gotten at least one volunteer to agree to hold down my blog and guest post while I walk away for a while.

So I'm trying to set up my "summer" retreat so I can create a structure in my life to do this stuff. If I had a "brand" it would be a brand about Black women living EXCELLENT lives. We don't have to struggle, we don't have to be long suffering, we don't have to me marginalized. My life is fabulous, the lives of my friends are fabulous, why aren't we seeing that? Why is there this narrow spectrum of our human existence in the media? The reason why, is that we aren't sharing our vision of who we are in a compelling and creative way. That's what I want to do.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about the conference or the future of blogging, especially as it relates to people of color?

I just want to say that we should never take any progress we achieve for granted. Right now there are large forces at work aimed at attempting to limit some of the freedoms we take for granted as
bloggers Whether that's imposing costs that make our content unattainable for certain segments of our community or if we continue to lag behind when it comes to access to capital. There are Black bloggers making six figures who should be making 8. There are black bloggers making 2 figures that should be making 5. There are black bloggers who are speaking passionately and forcefully about issues, but they haven't figure out a way to develop and agenda and push for
change legislatively by becoming lobbyists.

We're still very much on the outside and Black bloggers, as you saw from this weekend are the largest gathering of interdisciplinary genius in the Black community. I mean If took a poll, just from my interactions, at least half that room had advanced degrees. The other half had insane amounts of experience. There was easily 30 billion dollars of potential sitting in that room. There was easily two or three congressional districts worth or political strategy and organizing skills sitting in that room. SO how do we go from this awesomely talented fringe and more towards the center of power. How to we make sure our communities keep up with the rapid change in technology. There are probably millions of smart phone aps, how many are aimed at making the lives of poor and working class people easier? Is there an ap for paying your utility bills. Is there and ap that show you the GPS location of the closest bus so you don't have to wait out int he cold.

Are we going to make the same mistakes as were made by earlier generations of media, print, TV, radio and end up being merely consumers. There's a lot of emphasis on producing content, but not as much on the infrastructure that makes that content possible. If you don't know how to build the infrastructure, its very easy to make you disappear online. So, as exciting as BWB is, we really are in a type of technological arms race. Obsolescence online can be a matter of months, not years.

We have to continue to evolve and grow. Stagnation is not an option

Let me just repeat Gina's last line, "Stagnation is not an option!"

Have I mentioned I love this woman?  You go, girl!


*A small formatting note.  This interview was conducted by email, so I've corrected any obvious typos.


Other fabulous bloggers I met at BWB:

Brandon Q. White of The SuperSpade.

Senam Amegashie of TweetMeBlack.

Afrobella of the blog Afrobella.

Shawn Williams of Dallas South.  You can read his BWB recap here.  He also included great pictures from the conference.

All the ladies who ran the very successful Red Pump Project AIDS fundraiser/cocktail party. 


Related Links:

Blogging While Brown 2009:  A Conference for People of Color with Lessons for All Bloggers

Blogging While Brown 2009:  Making Money, Making Friends and Making Movies


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