Culture is a Weapon: Women of Colour Media Activism
This Dialogue piece situates Third World Majority (TWM) women of colour media justice practice as an alternative articulation of digital storytelling, and the digital storytelling movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. Third World Majority offered a potent alternative to the dominant practice, and discourse, of digital storytelling as a mode of personal narration. While all digital storytelling is identified with the individual storyteller, community digital storytelling situates the storyteller as someone who speaks, and makes media, in community. In the place of digital storytelling’s dominant recipe for telling personal stories, TWM offered a collective, politicized vision of digital storytelling as a way of linking individual’s complex personhood to their location within struggles for justice. While Third World Majority utilized a collective organizational structure made up of a diverse group of young women of colour, this essay’s analysis relies on co-founder Thenmozhi Soundarajan’s descriptions and recollections of their work as someone who has readily spoken about the organization in public venues and as an interview participant in this project. It also draws on the rich documentation that is now available through this digital archive.
To better understand Third World Majority’s vision of media justice, its links to community, and its collective structure, Lena Palacios and I conducted an interview with Thenmozhi in February 2015. Drawing from our interview and analysis of Third World Majority’s documentation, I explore the political and cultural imagination driving Third World Majority’s work, and their unique methodology for fomenting media justice. Soundarajan has written and spoken extensively about Third World Majority, and I am indebted to her and her knowledge sharing about Third World Majority’s project.
In this Dialogue, I analyze the ways Third World Majority transformed its vision of media justice for young people into training regimens and advice-based documentation for how to do social justice work with digital video technology. Their curriculum, which is now archived on Scalar, gathers this material into one place, illustrating the ways in which media justice archives are not simply records of past practice but also digital pedagogies for the present. Today, human rights watch groups like WITNESS laud the technical capacities of individuals armed with mobile recording technologies as digital witnesses to human rights abuse and activist struggle. While they do not use the language of witness, Third World Majority’s anti-violence project aimed to use digital storytelling to change public discourse around and advance radical community-based responses to interpersonal and state violence, responses based in radical women of colour frameworks of social justice and contemporary genres of media making around hip hop, graffiti and other street art, and revolutionary cinema.
Their tag line, “Culture is a Weapon,” signaled a radical orientation to digital storytelling whose purpose was to mobilize storytelling using the tools of digital video recording and editing toward racial and gender justice. Third World Majority made teachable the digital story format within the context of the lives, and community activism, of young women and men of colour. It developed, in other words, a pedagogy of digital storytelling that enabled people to translate the collective political visions of community groups into models of media justice digital storytelling. The essay first examines how Third World Majority framed its media justice practice as an explicitly young women’s critical race feminist media making practice, whose politics of representation were based in the needs, and capacities for response, to media and other violence against communities of colour.
Third World Majority started in Oakland, CA not far from the Center for Digital Storytelling and Silence Speaks in Berkeley, CA, two other organizations that focus on defining and making teachable the digital story format in the context of storytelling for personal and social transformation. I locate Third World Majority’s practice as an alternative to digital storytelling’s dominant U.S. framework around the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, CA, with its training texts and workshop facilitation guides, to understand a key piece of the context in which Third World Majority’s practice developed, and diverged, from the Center’s model. I then analyze the digital storytelling model Third World Majority produced, and the activist pedagogies they created in order to do the capacity building, media making work they supported. My analysis of digital storytelling’s development in the Bay Area draws on Elisabeth Springate’s Ph.D. research on digital storytelling, when she was working as a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal and facilitating community-based digital storytelling workshops in Toronto for food justice and anti-violence organizations.