There’s a well known YouTube video entitled First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guythat outlines how a movement is born. The video opens with a man dancing alone on a hill at a festival. The narrator states that in order to hatch a movement the leader not only needs to be willing to stand alone and look ridiculous but what he is doing must be so simple that it’s almost instructional. The story goes on to introduce the First Follower who is the key to transforming the leader’s actions into a movement and demonstrates that evolution in under 3 minutes. Autism Speaks: Michigan is Listening and its first follower Autism Speaks: White Castle is Listening were born of this exact philosophy.
It’s simple: All we’re asking is for citizens to pledge to tell 10 people about autism.
As volunteer co-communications chairs for Autism Speaks Michigan Heidi Hedquist and I were approached earlier this year by Tom Riopelle, Midwest Regional Director to help him create something that could unify the numerous autism resource and awareness organizations across the state. Tom saw an opportunity to bring our groups together in a way that could highlight what made each organization special and unique while sending a message that we are all fighting the same fight and raising awareness of autism.
As co-chairs we came to Autism Speaks with more than 30 years of combined experience in marketing, advertising and public relations but we knew that in order for this to have the grassroots effect that we wanted it needed to be something not born out of an agency conference room. It had to come from and speak straight to the heart.
We also knew that in order for this to truly take root it needed to accomplish even more than bringing groups together. This was a chance to make a significant impact on raising awareness and a one of a kind opportunity to empower individuals and families affected by ASD.
I am a parent of a child who is autistic. Brogan, 12, was diagnosed at age 4. To be honest, I was never the person that would champion a cause. In fact when we found out about our son, I never fully accepted the reality of the label although my wife Jenny and I agreed upon doing everything in our power to meet and treat his needs not his diagnosis. I refused to even use the term autism when referencing Brogan. This led me, my wife and unfortunately, my son down a path that led to isolation, alienation and misunderstanding with family, friends and strangers. I had boxed myself in. I started to avoid situations, events and encounters that involved the entire the family. I would think twice about taking the family out to the movies or restaurants.
The White Castle Craver a.k.a. 12-year-old Brogan Kogler and friends make the pledge at S.E. Michigan Walk Now for Autism Speaks
It wasn’t until we were approached by a good friend that was watching from the sidelines that said “You need to empower Brogan by letting him know who he is and why he is different,” that it clicked. We told Brogan at Christmas using the book All Cats Have Aspergers.
The simple fact of telling Brogan not only empowered him, but also my wife and me. Our world changed from one of isolation and alienation to accepting, welcoming and friendly.
Living through this experience showed me what a difference awareness can make. Heidi and I wanted to take that insight and create something that could help others have the courage to stand-up.
We knew we had to create an initiative that would have a very low cost of entry but have a relevant and emotional appeal- meaning something so simple that everyone could participate. It had to be easy to do and share… almost instructional, if you will.
We looked and focused on the name Autism Speaks and the theme line “It’s Time To Listen” and thought if It’s time to Listen then- Michigan Is Listening.
Sticking to our low cost of entry, we decided to ask the citizens of Michigan to pledge to tell 10 people about autism. Then, seal that commitment by striking the Michigan is Listening pose. This is done by holding your right hand to your ear and pointing to where you are from in Michigan. Living in ‘the mitten’ Michiganders are known for demonstrating the location of their home town by pointing to a spot on our palms. Our hope was that the “Michigan is Listening” pose would become iconic for our mission and … it has.
We immediately set out to begin garnering media partners for the initiative and were fortunate enough to earn commitments from WJR-Radio “The Great Voice of the Great Lakes” (could that be more perfect for a “listening initiative”?) and CW50/CBS62 TV. These stations jumped on board with unbelievable support from providing air-time, to photos of their personalities doing the pose to CW50/CBS62 recording specific Michigan is Listening PSAs and obtaining sponsorship for them all before the initiative was fully launched! Additionally we were able to gain support from other strategic partners including social media company Modern Content who implemented its high-frequency social broadcasting free of charge.
The second component was to create “Michigan is Listening Destinations”. These are places across the state that have made a commitment to do their part to be aware and offer welcoming environments to individuals on the spectrum.
We dedicated our first Michigan is Listening location at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in northern Michigan (it’s at the tip of the pinky for those who are wondering). We were honored to have Lt. Governor Brian Calley onsite to do the dedication. The lighthouse has pledged to host an autism awareness weekend yearly where families can visit the lighthouse for free, organizations such as Hope Network, Autism Alliance of Michigan and others can be onsite with materials and more. Additionally, they have committed to providing earplugs for the daily sounding of the foghorn and to help raise awareness.
Members of the DNR, Lighthouse Staff, autism advocates, families and friends celebrate the lighthouse dedication with Lt. Governor Calley
These simple commitments can change the world and every little step counts. This movement is about easy steps that can be taken to help spread the word. And the initiative has quickly grown to include the Palace of Auburn Hills (home of the Detroit Pistons), Arts, Beats and Eats (a huge summer festival which offered special hours just for families on the spectrum) and other Michigan landmarks.
Then came along the opportunity of a lifetime! Tom gave me the opportunity to speak to Marci Ingram, co-owner of White Castle System, Inc. and many members of the White Castle management team in Michigan. I told the story of Brogan and shared the Michigan is Listening idea with the team. As a result Heidi and I were invited to come to White Castle headquarters to work with company management to create the White Castle is Listening initiative. An unprecedented commitment by any restaurant chain- all 45 White Castle stores would become Michigan is Listening destinations and all team members would make the pledge to spread the awareness.
Onsite at each store there are posters and information cards for customers to join the mission as well as a special coupon and sweepstakes for anyone who comes in and snaps a “Michigan is Listening” picture at their local White Castle as part of this ongoing mission.
We kicked off White Castle is Listening last week at the Southfield, MI store with a press conference and dedication of the first store. The overwhelming support and commitment of every person on the White Castle team brought tears to our eyes. Everyone was so excited and asking what more they could do to make this a huge success. They are our ‘first follower’ and we are sure that with them this will become a movement that can span the country… and even the globe.
The White Castle management team show their spirit at the dedication of the first White Castle is Listening location in Southfield, MI
We’ve only just begun on this journey but we hope you’ll join us as we grow this movement… or start one of your own. Not from Michigan? That’s ok… just put your right hand to your ear and take that picture (you don’t need to point) and go tell those 10 people about autism.
And what about Brogan? This is truly what empowerment can do. Brogan has become the proudest kid on the spectrum you’ll ever meet. He wears it with a badge of honor. At the Grand Traverse Lighthouse he was at Heidi’s side on stage making the presentation, working with the news media and escorting the Lt. Governor on a tour of the lighthouse. At the SE Michigan Walk Now for Autism Speaks he had the honor of donning the White Castle craver mascot costume and entertained the more than 2500 people in attendance side by side with Geoffrey from Toys R Us, Hooper from the Detroit Pistons and others. He had the chance to wear the costume again at the White Castle dedication last week and wowed members of the news media. Most importantly, at his middle school last week he had the opportunity to come to school as his favorite super hero. He wore an Autism Speaks cape and was Autistic Man. Superman and Batman have nothing on a super hero like that.