“Dreaming the Solutions of Freedom for Our People”: Third World Majority Revolutionizes the Digital Story
“Coming from a Media Justice perspective, we will aim to provide documentation and messaging training support that is inline with the development of what our vision for a truly just and self-determined alternative media can be when we build it from the grassroots up by the Sistas in our communities.” –Sisterfire Media Documentation Packet (2011, 2)
Third World Majority provided a powerful alternative to the model of digital storytelling promoted by the Center for Digital Storytelling. For Soundarajan, the digital storytelling method could do a different kind of work tied very directly to collective modes of first-person narration. As she explained in our interview, her participation at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001 transformed her own thinking about digital storytelling, and media making more generally, from her perspective as a politicized, anti-racist woman of colour.
So I think that was like an incredible moment where I felt like wow, there needed to be a departure from this internal, auteur model of digital storytelling, seeing this potent work of what happened at the World Conference Against Racism (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015).
Thenmozhi was the first Community Director of the Community Digital Storytelling program at the Center for Digital Storytelling. She was also the only person of colour, and woman of colour, on staff.
Through my training in Third Cinema, I really started to see that there’s a model around digital storytelling that could go broader than the internal narrative, and really help people think about how do you map structural oppression and be able to have handles within structural oppression by being able to break open your internal experience of it to lead you to a path of self-determination? It’s like the most kind of tangible way of thinking about it - story as the most essential unit of change. Through story you come to know yourself, you come to know each other, and you can build a shared vision of the world (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015, emphasis added).
Soundarajan echoes the digital storytelling principle of the power of story, but she emphasizes the ways in which story seeds social change. Rather than the auteur model based in the singular vision of the individual film-maker, she and the Third World Majority presented digital storytelling as a collective practice of making in the context of social change efforts, specifically those tied to anti-racist liberation movements.
Soundarajan dates the start of Third World Majority in the context of the 2001 Durban conference and the necropolitical U.S. response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
We realised that this was a time to do something different - to really pivot the entire nexus of practice, and narrative, and ideation that happens when you use the imaginary to go boldly into real-world politics. And so I think that’s really where Third World Majority was born. I would say that there was no distinctive start date as much as we were sort of catapulted to deal with this huge crisis. And in a lot of ways, we started to do digital storytelling work with communities right from the beginning that were having difficulties and were in crisis.
We had to map quickly how to create curriculum for people that were grieving, for people that were missing family members, and also adapt the technological training process that could be nimble with that. So, getting a laptop lab that could go into two portable carry-ons, and the scanner and the camera that had to go with that, and then really think about how do you reframe a pedagogical process so that you are supporting people who find technology traumatizing, and a tool of the colonizer? And [who] are seeing that very manifestation in the narratives that are shaping around them, either because they’re immigrant, either because they’re Muslim, either because they’re criminalized, because they’re black. How do you then create a safe space forward? And, as young women from those communities, we were on the front line dreaming the solutions of freedom for our people. (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015).
Thenmozhi’s description of Third World Majority’s practice as “dreaming the solutions of freedom for our people” links their practice to the work of political imagination, and the solidarities young people of colour form in the contexts of their daily lives. We talked with Soundarjan about the survival-based processes they developed around this solidarity work.
Lena: In terms of doing the work where you were dealing with many young people of colour, many people coming from different places - how do those conversations happen? And how did the idea of the Third World Majority - how was that born?
Thenmozhi: I think that would be something that would be similar for many of the women in the collective - that is, we were bridge builders because we were outliers in our own community by virtue of our sexual orientation, our gender presentation, who we were and were representing - so solidarity wasn’t something that was a faraway idea, it was a way of life and a survival strategy. And you don’t build with people unless you meaningfully know their struggle, and their struggle is very powerfully connected to yours.
Their process aimed to put different organizations in conversation, in the context of community-based spaces of survival and digital story making. They built their process around the needs of the communities and groups with whom they worked. That process, as Thenmozhi explained, could be “team building focused, or it can really be about going into the deep wounds of the individual involved, or it can be a shared place of kind of imagining and visioning. At the same time, the products can be really valuable, because the products can be used for advocacy, or be kind of shared artifacts of the community’s history, or for curriculum.” She further explained how “there’s value to movement both in terms of the process and product” (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015). Several of their projects undeniably demonstrate the community focus of their work and process.
As pedagogical artifacts, Third World Majority’s training texts combine expressions of radical feminist women of colour political vision with practical tools in how to make media in the context of media justice struggles. Their national Sisterfire tour to end violence against women produced a training text called the Media Documentation Packet, which describes their mission as “Women of color organizers working to end systemic violence against women through the use and power of our cultural tools” (2011, 4). The archive not only provides access to this training text and others, it documents the labour, and community building work, of Third World Majority.
As organizers working for global social justice, we must be mindful of the tools of technology that we use to disseminate the success of the work we do. We must strive to not perpetuate and replicate the legacies that film, video and photography have established against communities of color within the United States, youth, peoples of the “Third World,” women and LGBT communities (e.g. surveillance, imperial anthropology, misrepresentation, etc.). At Third World Majority, we believe in creating media structures of self-determination where we control and dictate how we represent ourselves and tell our stories whether it is in the Mainstream Media, a local community radio station, or in our own Sisterfire produced media pieces. In sharing your experiences during Sisterfire, it is important to respect the self-determination of all the people and voices that become part of your own media campaign and documentary pieces. (2011, 3)
Texts like Sisterfire’s Media Documentation Packet explain how to create a media campaign step-by-step: how to craft a message, how to identify one’s audience, how to establish a time line, how to craft a press release, how to conduct an interview, how to compose digital photographs, and so on. It differs from other how-to texts in its radical vision of media justice, one that both critiques corporate control of media industries and the mainstream means of representation, while defining what a more just process of media representation could be. The political is inextricable from the practical.
To produce representations that respect one’s own and others' self-determination, Third World Majority advised that digital storytellers avoid mimicking “the haters.”
Old men on the news, cheesy music video directors (it's no coincidence they call him, Hype), and surveillance cameras in schools, communities, and detention centers do not tell our full stories…. WE are the experts. So recognize the sacred space you create when you turn on the camera, resize your image, and record your voiceover. In these few acts, you are reclaiming our past and redefining our future. (“Tell It Like it Is: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 6).
Citing Toni Cade Bambara, Third World Majority encourages storytellers to “make the revolution irresistible” (6). Their story ideas read quite differently than those suggested by the Center for Digital Storytelling, prompting young workshop participants to write about their experiences growing up, their mentors, schooling and education, their struggles with body image and self-esteem, injustice, resistance, gender, sexuality and intimate relationships, and ways of reclaiming creativity and spirituality. These prompts are supported by encouraging words from black and Chicana feminists and writers such as Gloria Anzaldua, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nikki Giovanni, among others, and black male radicals such as Muhammed Ali and James Baldwin, signaling a genealogy to digital storytelling that is tied to the knowledge and cultural creation of women, men and queers of colour., including in their example story “Tell it Like it Is” from a 1988 video “Lesbian ‘Tarzans’ Invade the Lords” (18).
What this work looked like -- its models -- drew from the consciousness-raising practices of hip hop, lesbian and queer of colour modes of film-making and radical media justice work more broadly. The next page of this essay examines the specific role hip hop politics and aesthetics played in shaping Third World Majority's work, its look and its members' understanding of media activism.