The Equality Equation

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Changemaker Allie Hoffman reveals how she moved past privilege to become a key initiator of some of the most powerful social justice campaigns in the world.

It’s challenging to describe exactly what Allie Hoffman does—strange given the incredible impact she has made—but we’ll give it a try. She’s a behind-the-scenes force with a hand in many trades. She’s the girl behind the girl, a Mafioso of Social Change… Ok on second thought, it’s probably best to let her describe it herself. Allie Hoffman is an “Architect of Seismic Social Change.”

Hoffman rejected what could have been a life of easy privilege and threw herself face first into darkness and danger. After college she spent seven years fighting poverty in Cambodia which, as she puts so eloquently below, “raised” her to a socially conscious human. After that, she knew she would spend the rest of her life giving back, working to orchestrate social justice and change. She found her footing in New York City, making high impact videos with extremely small budgets. Her first several videos garnered tens of millions of views for the causes she supports.

Today, she is the founder of a social impact lab called the Equality Equation, which acts as an umbrella organization for the campaigns she works on. Allie is a key figure in transgender rights through her work with Gender Proud and battles homelessness via a campaign she sparked called Start from Here. She has also worked on criminal justice reform with CUT50, for whom she successfully brought in Alicia Keys as a spokesperson, and she single-handedly brought the issue of right-to-die to the national stage via her work with Brittany Maynard.

Her whirlwind story from the Chicago suburbs through Cambodia to the front lines of social change is a nail biter, as we discovered in our interview with her here:

You’ve spoken a lot about escaping from privilege to find social consciousness, when did that process start happening?

In the early 90’s, one of my dad's stock broker perks was court side seats to Bulls games. This was when the Bulls were phenomenally good and I remember coming from the suburbs and going into the city – this was back when they used to play at the old Chicago Stadium - and to get there we had to go through the Robert Taylor Homes, which were these vast housing projects. The signal that we were in the “bad neighborhood”, was the sound of the door locks clicking. I remember looking out the window and there being this abandoned playground space where there had been slides and swings, but now were just hanging chains. I flashed to my perfectly intact wooden swing set in the suburbs - my whole own playground just for me and my sister. I realized that there was nothing that separated me from the child that played on that playground except sheer chance, sheer fate, sheer fortune, and I knew then that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to help make that equal.

And from then on you rejected your privilege?

Haha no not at all. It was a long road.

Allie (purple hair) with Caitlyn Jenner and Gender Proud

Allie (purple hair) with Caitlyn Jenner and Gender Proud

What were the other bumps on the way?

I’ve got a funny one from college. I wanted to move off campus, so I researched all of these ways I could get out of my dorm housing contract with the school. I ultimately decided to light candles, because our dorm had a no flame policy. So, I set about lighting candles and of course, they came around and they were like, “Why are you doing this?” and I was very open and honest about it. They responded, in essence: “Great. Thank you for helping us understand—now you’re suspended for trying to manipulate and fuck with the system.” My parents talked to me, and were like, “Why did you do this? How did you let this happen?” At first I tried to lie and say I was lighting Hanukkah candles, and then my dad got me a lawyer who specializes in civil rights law (laughs) and I had to come clean.  It was the first time in my life that an entitlement had been taken away from me. It crystallized very clearly that my education wasn’t a guarantee. That really refocused me. Taking away my opportunity made me want it 10,000 times more.

What did the word ‘privilege’ mean to you growing up, and what does it mean to you now?

That’s a really good question. Today it means the resource pool from which I do good. When I was younger, I had no perspective on how lucky we were, compared to most. I don’t think I knew my privilege until I moved to Cambodia.

Why did you move to Cambodia?

So, at the end of my second semester senior year, I knew what kind of job I wanted—I wanted to go live in a place unlike any I had ever known. One day in March, I was studying in a coffee shop in L.A. and this complete stranger turned to me with two different mock-ups for a brochure, and he opened them up and asked which one I liked more. It turned out he was a former Hollywood film executive who’d given it all up to help street children in Cambodia. I asked for his card and walked out, immediately called my mom and said, “I don’t want you to be nervous or worried, but I’m moving to Cambodia.”

So what did you do there?

The coffee shop guy's name was Scott Neeson, and he ran a non-profit called Cambodian Children’s Fund. At the time he had only worked with kids who worked as garbage pickers—these were the kids who had it worst of the worst. It was a pretty heady time, I was 21, living overseas in Cambodia—there would be power outages for hours at a time, every day —it was an absolute motley crew of aid workers, expats, and millions of Cambodians living on less than a dollar a day. The seven years I lived there really did raise me. It was the highest highs and the lowest lows.

A photo from Allie's time with the Cambodian Children's Fund

A photo from Allie's time with the Cambodian Children's Fund

When you came back to the States, what did you do?

I knew I wanted to work at the intersection of art, activism and media, so I set about finding a job in the impact space. It didn't take long before I had something full-time at an agency called Picture Motion.

And were you focused primarily on video and media campaigns?

Yeah. Picture Motion produces social impact campaigns for documentary films. I liked it, but I found it frustrating to watch so much time, money and resources go into these projects, and still see them struggle to find mainstream audiences. The reality is that until the American public starts to care about the income inequality as much they do The Kardashians, then they’re not going to have a vibrant industry. I left and pretty quickly Geena Rocero hit me up on Facebook and said, “I want to know your hopes and dreams. I’m about to come out as Transgender,” and asked if I could help with that.

"I realized that there was nothing that separated me from the child that played on that playground except sheer chance, sheer fate, sheer fortune..."

How did you launch her coming out?

We had TED as a platform; that helped enormously, because TED is a tremendously powerful vehicle [watch Geena's TED Talk]. After that, it was being on the grind, asking for meetings, taking calls. The first year was really tough, and it was difficult getting a foundation to support us, but then we ultimately we found our groove in media production.

After your working with Geena, how did you find your way to your other campaigns?

After Geena, I started working with Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old brain cancer patient. She knew that her end-of-life options were few; she had a very health body, and she knew that her body was going to struggle to keep her alive while her brain cancer struggled to kill her, and that her last days were going to be particularly glum. She had done all the research and decided to move to Portland to access Oregon’s Death With Dignity laws, and we got together and crafted a campaign, and made a video. Then we got a non-profit partner, Compassion & Choices, and put her story out into the world about a month before she was going to die, and it went hyper-viral. It’s serious good luck that the first video I directed or produced got 11 million views [watch it here].

What about criminal justice reform?

In 2014, I heard Shaka Senghor speak for the first time; he spoke about shooting and killing a man in cold blood. I’d never heard someone communicate about something like that before, and I thought: ‘these are the stories about criminal justice we need to be telling’. So I started talking with Shaka, and then Shaka joined forces with this guy named Van Jones and an organization called CUT50, and I approached them about letting me bring their message to the mainstream. After 6 months of work, we finally landed Alicia Keys as our spokesperson, and through her, we’ve been able to bring an ‘end mass incarceration’ message to the mainstream.

You've had your hand in a lot of causes that have gone viral. Which project of yours will we be tweeting about next?

We’ve got two web-series' in production for Gender Proud. I’m in the early stages of working on a concert event in Detroit for Start from Here. I’ve been doing some work on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I’m also hoping to do some work on immigration reform in anticipation of June’s Supreme Court ruling on DAPA. Also, we just launched the website for Equality Equation, which you can check out at www.equalityequation.co.

In a word, what would you say you “do”?

Nowadays, I say that I run a social impact media lab, and on a daily basis I’m mixing different ingredients in an effort to create seismic social and cultural change. Its not as quick as ‘lawyer’ or ‘banker’ -  but hey -  not everything needs to come easy, right?

By Isaac Simpson

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