How do you combine a creative calling, a passion for politics and a determination to drive social change?
Just ask Vivien Toumey. The Arts and Sciences alumna has turned her background in dance and political science into an impactful career in non-profit work, where she has crafted social media campaigns that have led to real policy changes.
Toumey is the social media manager at the Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC), which aims to improve the lives of youth in California who have experienced homelessness, foster care or the juvenile legal system.
“Working in non-profit it’s all about shifting public opinion,” Toumey says. “My focus right now is about changing the narrative on incarceration in America.”
One notable way she has advanced her goal for social change was by using social media to ensure that the California governor signed a piece of legislation that otherwise would have expired on his desk.
The bill, known as the Youth Bill of Rights, requires that juvenile detention facilities must provide an explanation of the rights and remediations that incarcerated youth are entitled to while at those facilities.
“They already have the right to clean water, a working bathroom, visitation and to not be harassed for their identity,” Toumey says, “but those rights are violated all the time because the youth don’t know they are entitled to protection.”
Through a heavy social media push which included help from celebrity influencers, Toumey and others brought attention to the threatened legislation, and the governor signed it into law in November 2022.
It was a big win for young folks impacted by the legal system, Toumey says.
“Now the youth can address violations of their rights and organizations like mine can then step in to fight for them.”
Learning to engage
This wasn’t the first time Toumey advocated for her community. During her time at USC, she looked beyond the classroom for opportunities to lead the change she wanted to see.
Toumey was invited to be part of the Obama Foundation’s inaugural Community Leadership Corps in Columbia. Through the program, she designed a youth leadership summit to invest in local middle and high school student activists.
The Collective for Youth by Youth, as it was called, attended community meetings, held focus groups at schools and invited young people to serve as panelists and speakers. Toumey says being part of a collective empowered the participants to be changemakers in their communities.
Toumey also empowered herself through a service role on the Student Advisory Board for Dance, which acts as a liaison between the student body and the dance program faculty to facilitate student concerns.
A graduate of the South Carolina Honors College, Toumey’s final thesis combined her two majors in an unexpected way.
Through a Magellan scholarship, she traveled to New York City in 2016 to interview international choreographers to learn about their approaches to putting together dance routines. Toumey was surprised to learn that the political climate surrounding the presidential election that year had a lot to do with their creative process.
She found that the choreographers had, in their own ways, created performances that were emotional responses to the election results.
“Some of the works were emotionally deep and reenacted scenes from their own lives,” Toumey says, “but some of the works were a departure away from the heavy emotions of the election. Art and politics are so connected, and so much of art is responding to what is happening today.”
Her experiences combining performance and policy has proved useful to her career in communications.
“Creativity is an essential part of political communications,” she says. “Just like in dance, I'm thinking outside of the box, which sometimes means trying something that feels a little silly but then it works really well.”
One such new approach helped Toumey secure a $1 million Google.org grant for the Young Women’s Freedom Center, won through a vote on social media. That amount of money goes a long way in non-profit work, and Toumey knew they needed strong online support to garner enough votes to win.
She combined traditional social media platforms, organic posting and paid ads, and took the campaign a step further by direct-messaging people who had supported the Freedom Center in the past.
“It's harder than people think to get people to engage with posts, it’s not an easy ask,” she says. “We launched a large-scale campaign to mobilize people who already knew about us and to reach new people.”
Her risk paid off, and YWFC won the vote and the grant money. The funding has helped support a new LGBTQ+ mentorship program and the production of literature expounding on the Freedom Center’s use of inclusive language.
“The work that I’m doing now is really important, and it’s such an honor to be a part of it,” Toumey says.“I get to use what I learned at USC about communicating and writing to help push the movement forward.”