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YouTube activist Shawn Ahmed talks about how YouTube and online video have been used to promote social good and his own projects helping to bring clean water and schools to people in rural Bangladesh.
Shira: Hey, Shira Lazar, coming to you from VidCon with Shawn Ahmed, who really spoke about bringing social good to the YouTube community, a bit of a different thing than what we've been talking about today.

Shawn: Yeah, well, I was, as I was saying on the--in my speech, the YouTube community has been an unprecedented force for good, even though it doesn't get the kind of promotion that a viral video gets, we've been helping focus on whether the situation in Iran, homelessness right here in LA, you know, cancer research, or global poverty, we've really been on the forefront in this in raising awareness on the internet.

Shira: How did you start in all of this?

Shawn: I used to be a grad student at the University of Notre Dame, and I've always been interested in global poverty.  My parents were from Bangladesh, I heard this professor, his name is Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, he wrote this book saying the end of poverty, that we, in our generation, can end poverty in our lifetime, and it doesn't require radical change, we don't have to become like Mother Teresa, and I wanted to share this message, and in sharing this message, it became a story about how the YouTube community can make a difference in the fight against global poverty.

Shira: And so how did you do that?  Like, I mean, you went to Bangladesh with your camera in hands--

Shawn: I had--my equipment was one camera, one cell phone for internet, and one laptop.  I filmed, initially, I only spent my own money saying, hey, here's how $40 helped this part-time school for children, or here's how $12 helped get this kid back into school, then people wrote me saying, "We want to be part of this," and I didn't set up a charity, but as an individual, I raised funds, and I gave 100% of it away to help the projects related to poverty, and so we've done water projects in this video you saw, we built a school, and so it's a whole bunch of amazing things.

Shira: All through your YouTube account, you basically do a call to action, you say donate through here.

Shawn: Actually, the funny thing is, I don't even ask people to donate.  Anytime a video goes up, there's people just find the donation button themselves and donate.  There has never been an actual request for money.  That's one of the things I've done on purpose.

Shira: How long ago did you start this?

Shawn: I started this around 2007, this is when I left my graduate program at Notre Dame and I just packed up and went to Bangladesh.

Shira: And how have you seen it grow now that we're in 2010?

Shawn: It is now actually one of the most subscribed channels on the issue of global poverty, and one of the most viewed.  It is actually 2nd to only things like the United Nations and Bono's One Campaign, and in fact, Bono, I have double the subscribers as Bono, so it's actually--shows that you don't need to be a celebrity to raise awareness about global poverty. 

Shira: What do you think it was about your channel that allowed you to get there?

Shawn: Community support.  Actually not being a celebrity talking down to the community, being part of the community, engaging the community, being above the community, it's less about me and more about one community helping another.

Shira: So what's next for you?  What are you working on?

Shawn: I'm looking to either go back to Bangladesh this year or do a shorter trip somewhere else outside North America.  I'm also--I came to VidCon not to ask people for money but to try and get subscribers and views.  A pitch I'm making is that you can help just as much, if not more, by helping me build a YouTube audience than you can by donating, so this is what's so amazing about the project, just watching, sharing, subscribing helps just as much as donating, so that's cool.

Shira: What an inspiring story.  Thank you.  Keep on rocking.  Thanks.

Shawn: Thanks.  Thanks for your time.