- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

What’s a “Tweet-a-thon?” Will women sitting in theaters across America next week “texting” feverishly from their BlackBerrys and iPhones really have an impact on the lives of impoverished women halfway around the world?

Sheila C. Johnson, philanthropist and owner of the Washington Mystics and of Salamander Hospitality, not only thinks so, she’s pledged to demonstrate the use of new media tools to “buzz up” social causes.

Just look “how one film has created dialogue across the globe,” she said. “Hollywood’s focus on ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has brought awareness to the slums of India … and created a call to action against prostitution and a lot of other things women have to do every day just to survive. We hope to do the same thing with ‘A Powerful Noise.’ ”

“A Powerful Noise” is a documentary Ms. Johnson produced in conjunction with her two-year, $5 million women’s empowerment campaign “I Am Powerful” for CARE, the humanitarian organization fighting poverty around the globe.

The film highlights the “unbending efforts” of three women from Bosnia, Mali and Vietnam who overcame their stark personal circumstances to find innovative ways to help women and girls in their communities fight hunger, illiteracy and AIDS.

Ms. Johnson has teamed up with CARE, National CineMedia Fathom, ONE and the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women to sponsor a unique one-night social awareness and fundraising event, “A Powerful Noise, Live!” to be held Thursday in 450 U.S. theaters.

The evening program includes screening of the documentary, an electronic town hall meeting simulcast live from Hunter College in New York City, and the first ever “Tweet-a-thon,” all designed as a build-up to honor International Women’s Day on March 8. Price? $15.

“I wanted my film to focus where the plight of what’s happening to women globally is so bad,” Ms. Johnson said. “If women can see champions in really severe situations,” then they may look around and see what changes they can make in their own lives and communities. That’s what Barack Obama is talking about.”

A good portion of the film is subtitled, Ms. Johnson said, “because we wanted the women to speak in their own voices so the audience could experience what it’s like to live in their environment.”

One of the women, Jacqueline Dembele Goita, “Madame Urbain,” started a school for girls and young women who flock to the capital city of Bamako, Mali, to escape exploitation, abuse and lack of formal education.

Immediately after the film, Ms. Johnson, CARE’s global ambassador, will introduce the panel of experts and advocates discussing issues and solutions facing women in poorer countries during a live town hall meeting in which theater-goers can send text messages to ask questions or make comments.

The panel will consist of former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright; Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE; Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times; Christy Turlington Burns, CARE advocate for maternal health and contributing editor for Marie Claire magazine; and actress Natalie Portman.

The most innovative technique, however, may be the use of the first online Twitter community campaign, or “Tweet-a-thon,” slated to raise funds for four days before the theater event, from Monday to Thursday. NCM Fathom will donate 10 cents for each Tweet - up to 50,000 Tweets - to CARE, which helps 65 million people in 70 countries become self-sufficient but focuses on women and children, who disproportionately suffer from poverty.

Dan Diamond, vice president of NCM Fathom also said “we are excited to bring Twitter users the opportunity to raise funds for CARE simply by Tweeting specific phrases with no personal donation required.”

According to instructions, each Tweet must include the “hash tag” “#apowerfulnoise” to generate the donation. The Web site suggests messages or users can create their own. Other options include uploading images of women you admire to an online visual petition-widget that will form a mosaic. As more images and stories are uploaded, “the louder the movement becomes.”

Ms. Johnson said the film’s title, “A Powerful Voice,” is derived from the sense that “women are powerful and don’t want to remain silent any more.”

“They are ready to scream - scream for help, scream for rights, and scream at the world that it’s neglected them way too long. And it’s time they started hearing us,” she added.

In many countries, women are still the property of their husbands and fathers. CARE flyers cite statistics provided by the International Women’s Day Web site about the plight of women worldwide. For example, women do two-thirds of the world’s work but receive only 10 percent of the world’s pay. Nevertheless, women control $14 trillion in assets and this should grow to $22 trillion over the next 10 years.

Ms. Johnson, the co-founder and former co-owner of Black Entertainment Television, knows of what she speaks when it comes to finding innovative marketing tools not only to sell products but also to “buzz up” causes.

“People are tired of being talked to. They are very visual now. So, it’s all about marketing,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s amazing what we are able to do through marketing to get the word out.”

By showing one $500,000 movie, she noted, organizations are able to save millions of dollars on awareness campaigns or congressional hearings and “we don’t have to have ongoing, long dialogues or long-term research.

“If people become engaged through movies, they become captive and immersed, so when they come out of the theater, hopefully they’ll be engaged,” she said. “I want all viewers to feel a part of this mission.”

Some might liken this type of documentary and fundraising event to the trend toward “filmanthrophy.”

According to one Web definition, filmanthrophy is the use of film - typically but not exclusively documentaries, “to raise awareness and money for a charity or cause. It can be thought of as a new tool for social change, philanthropy with a movie camera. Unlike other socially conscious documentaries, the projects in this genre are typically initiated and funded by people outside the film industry or who made their money outside the industry. Movies that are examples of filmanthropy include “Nanking” by Ted Leonsis; and “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Fast Food Nation” by Participant Productions (founded by Jeffrey Skoll, formerly of eBay).”

Ms. Johnson insists that providing equality for all will eradicate poverty. She is results-oriented and always finds avenues to link one of her social causes with another. For examples, through the Jackie Robinson Foundation she provides funds for a half-dozen students to volunteer for CARE. Through her board membership for the Parsons School of Design, she takes staff and students to Guatemala to work with women there to produce fashion accessories.

If it’s one thing the Obama administration could do that would please her, it would be to “take a look at USAID and revamp it and bring (NGOs) together” to cut down on duplication of services.

“There is too much money going out the door. Donors are tired of throwing money without results. I know. I’m hands-on. I’ve been out there and seen what is happening.”

For Ms. Johnson, her philanthropy “goes beyond writing a check,” saying “I enjoy making money so I can give it away to help people.”

Ms. Johnson could kick back and “just chill” with her cool millions earned. Sometimes she even asks herself, “Am I crazy? I could be sitting on the porch watching my horses and sipping a glass of wine.” That scene would dissolve from her Middleburg, Va., estate with her second husband, Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge William T. Newman.

“If my foundation hadn’t lost so much money in the stock market, there’s a lot more I’d want to do,” she said. “There must be something in my DNA that drives me to help people.”

And, make a powerful “tweetering” noise in the worthy process. For more information about Thursday’s in-theatre CARE event and “Tweet-a-thon” go to www.apowerfulnoise.org or www.fathomevents.com.