Can social media solve one of our nation's most intractable social problems? Jason Pollock thinks so. The 30-year-old documentary filmmaker is gathering video testimonials from students like Jaureese Gaines, who--despite having witnessed three shootings in his Chicago neighborhood, including the murder of his best friend--stayed in school and became valedictorian. The social-media-savvy Pollock, who has helped Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Oliver and other celebrities develop online campaigns--and has 100,000 followers of his own on Twitter--is trying to harness the power of social networks to keep an estimated 1.2 million students from dropping out of school each year. "We want this to be the It Gets Better for education," Pollock says, referring to the video campaign columnist Dan Savage launched in 2010 to prevent gay teens from committing suicide. Pollock's plan: to make Gaines' inspiring story and others go viral, along with the tagline "I am undroppable."
In June, Pollock uploaded to YouTube his first batch of Undroppable videos, featuring short clips of 70 or so students, including Cynthia Gallardo of Des Moines, Iowa, who saw her father get arrested and her mother get battered by another man. After Gallardo had a baby at 17, she says in her testimonial, "I wanted better for my daughter, so I pushed myself." Her video has been viewed more than 4,000 times, which isn't exactly viral. But Pollock expects traffic to pick up over the next year as he speaks at school assemblies and keeps tweeting and writing Tumblr entries to get kids interested in being part of his project, which will be turned into a documentary.
He's working with the MTV-affiliated Get Schooled Foundation to find more students to film, but so far he has no plans to team up with Colin Powell or any other leaders devoted to solving the U.S. dropout epidemic. Instead he's tapping into a different group of stalwarts. Among the film's producers are Anchorman director Adam McKay (117,000 Twitter followers), who co-created viral hitmaker Funny or Die (4.2 million followers), and Scooter Braun (1.7 million followers), who manages the most viral star of all time, Justin Bieber (25 million followers). "I have a platform that will allow me to not only spread the word about the film but on the social-media side too," Braun says. The latter is crucial, says Pollock, who plans to take a page from the Bieber playbook to build support for the documentary. "I want people to feel like they are part of the making of this," he says of Undroppable. "The reason Bieber got so big is because all those girls were with him long before he was the biggest thing in the world."
Rooting for a cute pop singer and getting people fired up about social issues are two very different things. But the It Gets Better videos have been viewed more than 50 million times on YouTube. Even the Kony 2012 phenomenon (92 million views, plus lots of controversy about the video's accuracy) led House and Senate committees in June to pass resolutions to increase efforts to arrest Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Pollock wants Undroppable to give hope to at-risk youth and get enough people tweeting about education policy or funding to change the minds of elected officials. "It got bashed a lot. It had a lot of haters," Pollock says of the Kony 2012 video. "But it did do what it wanted to do."