Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 28, 1996 Form

A Call To Action

Activist: For Don Mains,
the history of ideas
is in present tense.

Steve Libowitz

Don Mains had a pretty good gig as Barbara Bush's advance man during her husband's administration. He traveled all around the world setting up events the first lady would attend.

But something was nagging at the man who seems as though he must sleep in fifth gear.

"There was such a big question in my mind that there had to be more, there had to be more," says the now 41-year-old communications and community activist. Long held ideas about the future of communications technology and about community action were coalescing in his mind. When he saw an advertisement in The Washington Post for the School of Continuing Studies' History of Ideas master's program, he enrolled on the hunch that the coursework might just bring his life's work into focus.

"At the time, the Berlin Wall had come down, and the world was changing in ways no one could predict," he says. "To me the History of Ideas program was not like pursuing a boutique degree, it was like metal shop," he says. "I wanted to get under the hood and tinker with the engine. When you're studying ideas, you should get into the nitty gritty of it all."

And so he did. Mains took two classes in the graduate program while still working in the White House, but suspended his courses when his public responsibilities became too demanding.

"I had to fax one of my finals during a break in a G7 [economic] summit, so I didn't want to pursue my degree like that," he says. So Mains worked in Washington until the end of the Bush administration, and then did community-based projects for a short period of time, including raising awareness of and funds for a Ukrainian Tall Ship broken down and stranded in the United States just three months prior to its scheduled participation in the Whitbread Around The World Race.

"We did get a $25,000 check from someone in New York who read about the story I was able to get in Sports Illustrated, and some kids in Florida held a bake sale and raised money after seeing the story on CNN," he says.

"The ship did get fixed and did sail around the world, but I realized it was real easy to issue a call to action. But the question in my mind was, 'How can we make it easy for a community to step in and take ownership of a project?' That was the burning question I had when I returned to Hopkins in 1994 to complete my degree.

"I have always believed that the best place to realize your dreams is in the community," says the son of a teacher and a community activist. "That's why I think my projects come about."

Among his projects have been establishing a now nationally acclaimed Jazz Festival in Florida and making the Hall of Fame Bowl Game in Tampa, Fla., a major television event.

Devoting almost full time to his master's degree since 1994, Mains worked toward his senior thesis on the evolution of communications technology. He was developing a theory that a new paradigm in communications could merge media and community to engage and empower. He called it "communicasting." It posits that because new technologies, like the Internet, can link diverse groups of peoples located anywhere in the world to form communities, why can't communities begin the process of communication by taking cameras, audio equipment, digital technologies and the Internet and create their own messages rather than rely on messages produced by mainstream media for them?

Not one to simply hypothesize, Mains wanted to put his theory of communicasting into practice. He moved from Washington D.C., to Harpers Ferry, W. Va. He chose it because the small town Thomas Jefferson called the most beautiful place between heaven and earth was also the place where militant abolitionist John Brown raided the Federal government's rifle factory, helping to fuel the regional tensions that would fan the flames of civil war. Mains notes that the advent of the telegraph a few years before the raid helped spread Brown's actions across a nation. So, Mains figured, "if Brown could enlist a then-new technology to send out a call to action, so could I."

The call to action he chose to broadcast from Harpers Ferry connected his theory of communicasting to the 1996 political campaign season. With the help of a foundation, communications businesses and Hollywood celebrities, he created and directed the ACTION:VOTE Coalition to give 14 youth groups from around the country a chance to make their own television public service announcements encouraging their peers to vote this and every year.

Mains found the participating youth groups "any way I could," he says. One group he saw giving a news conference on C-Span. Some groups he had worked with previously, and others he either knew about or was told about. For funding he turned to the Teresa and H. John Heinz III Foundation whose interest has been to reinvigorate young Americans' appreciation for democratic values and the democratic process. To help the youth groups write and produce their commercials, Mains contacted some of the country's top creative people working in corporations ranging from J. Walter Thompson Advertising in San Francisco to Gray Advertising in New York to media production companies in proximity to the youth groups, all of whom donated their time and talents.

The task before Mains was formidable: produce 14 high-quality PSAs in seven weeks from the time the Heinz Foundation gave him the go-ahead the third week of April of this year. The spots had to be completed by June 12 because he wanted to premiere them before the PROMAX television convention in late June. The youth groups and mentors--spread out across the country--met for the first time on May 8, by teleconference, which, Mains says helped establish a sense of community.

"We could have done it by phone or e-mail, but seeing each other helped them listen harder to each other."

In subsequent weeks, each group met by phone conference to brainstorm ideas, fine-tune the scripts, select images and edit the spots. They relied totally on Sprint Multimedia's DRUMS service for phone and video lines--run in real time through America Online and Advanced Voice Communications. Not only did DRUMS allow the participants to work together from distant locations, it also provided a way for the groups to select for their spots high-quality digitized stock footage, supplied by coalition chairman Louis Schwartzberg's Energy Film Library.

On June 12, a second videoconference was held to show off the spots to all the participants, and on June 20, celebrities Rhea Perlman, Tim Reid, Norman Lear and Mary Steenburgen introduced Mains and the groups at a press conference at the PROMAX convention.

"The audience went wild," Mains said.

Since then, 130 television stations have been broadcasting spots produced by the ACTION: VOTE Coalition. Mains is not certain that Baltimore stations will run the PSAs, although at least two of them have plans to report on the coalition's work. After the election, Mains hopes to digitize the 14 spots and make them available online so that anyone can download them and use specific images in support of their grass roots efforts.

The sense of empowerment expressed by the participating grass roots youth groups has made all Mains' efforts worthwhile. "In all my projects, my goal is to empower the community, to call it to action," Mains says.

"Our mission is to train and organize a diverse network of young voters to protect the environment," says Therese Heliczer, director of Campus Green Vote. "ACTION: VOTE provided us with a megaphone to get our message out to a broad audience."

As the 1996 campaign winds down, Don Mains has time to consider the work he and the Coalition have done and to turn his attention to completing his senior thesis. For all his hard work organizing the maze of logistical complexities, Mains seems rather at ease.

"I think people make being an activist out to be tougher than it needs to be," he says. "If you have the dream, the nuts and bolts will come."

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