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From The Camera as a Tool of Colonization to the Creation of Liberatory Media
4th page in Rentschler's Dialogue path
"Comrades, this is not just the projection of a film, it is not just a show. The film is the pretext for dialogue…for research, for a meeting of wills. It is an open report…submitted for your consideration and to be debated after the showing. The important thing, above all, is to create this zone of unity, this dialogue for deliberation. Our opinions are worth as much as yours."
--Fernando “Pino” Solanos and Octavio Getino,“The Hour of the Furnaces,” 1970.
"We were seeing the different disciplines of hip hop come up, over and over and over again in our minds, and it was like, why isn’t there an engagement of that same kind of DIY sensibility that centers people of colour voices connected to this idea of what’s happening with film and video and Third Cinema?"
--Thenmozhi Soundararajan, interview February 18, 2015.
Third World Majority's genealogies lie in Third Cinema (through the work of Solanos and Getino), US third world feminism, and hip hop, practices in which the co-founders of Third World Majority were steeped. Soundararajan took a class with feminist cinema scholar Trinh T. Minh Ha, where she learned about the 1970s Third Cinema movement in Latin America. While Third Cinema was no longer a living tradition of cinema making by the late 1990s, Soundararajan and a friend attained access to their manifesto through a contraband photocopy of the Third Cinema manifesto that had been smuggled out of the University of California-Berkeley library. Soundararajan explained in our interview, "there was just something super inspirational to look at this idea that cinema at its heart could be migratory in both process and product" (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015). "On the other side of the conversation for us," she explained, "was this rebellious, totally uncontrollable, uncontainable other political force, which is hip hop, which we were all part of in some capacity" (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015).
Riffing on Karl Marx’s call for a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” Soundararajan further describes Third World Majority’s practice as a “ruthless interrogation of the political limitations of current production practices” and a vision for building new ones. I asked Soundararajan how Third World Majority’s ways of doing digital storytelling differed from models like that of the Center for Digital Storytelling. Third World Majority conducted digital storytelling training in response to the racist, xenophobic, and anti-Islamic violence committed against young people of color in the post-9/11 U.S. context, and mainstream media that participate in this violence. Third World Majority's response is tied to a model of liberation that embraces syncretic forms of media making for reclaiming powers of self-representation.
From Soundararajan's perspective, Third World Majority's media justice work combined media literacy with a radical vision of media reform, refusing a distinction between media content and the media infrastructures through which content is disseminated. As a result, Third World Majority profoundly re-thought what constituted media justice activism in the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s, alongside other youth-led media justice activism at the same time (see Palacios, this volume). Comparing their work to voter literacy campaigns such as that of the Highlander Research and Education Center, Soundararajan's vision of liberation reframes the media reform movement's emphasis on democratizing and making public systems of broadcasting by centering the liberation politics that can emerge from community-based storytelling. "We were seeing over and over and over again that no matter what the issue was, the internal narrative of the community was being colonized by the external corporate narrative as these institutions were starting to consolidate" in the context of major media mergers over the 1990s (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015). "In order to get people to care about the pipes," she suggested, people "had to re-educate themselves to not be consumers, but to see themselves as creators, and that their story gives them power. Power not just over themselves, but over the very destiny of their community, and the very pipes that govern the ability for their voice to be spread" (Soundararajan interview February 18, 2015).
Digital storytelling, as a container, comes from a very Western model of what storytelling is, and a very author-driven model of storytelling, where it’s an individual, it’s a voice, it’s a story. There’s also the beginning-middle-end arc. What’s very valuable about the Center for Digital Storytelling model is its efficiency; they have a very efficient three-day structure. But there’s no training in terms of the cultural competency -- and I hate that phrase, but it’s the fast way to access that, both in terms of the trainers and in terms of the pedagogy -- to really deal with communities that have fundamental trauma from the infrastructure of the media and communications system.
The camera was a tool of colonization. So if you go in with white trainers that aren’t able to understand why people don’t feel safe and secure with you, you are not going to get an authentic representation or collaboration that allows that person on the other end to feel safe. So, that’s not simply being a nurturing presence. I don’t think that we were able to do this simply because we were women. I think that really underestimates the competency that we brought, that comes from a really strong ideological background of understanding what it means to create liberatory media. I think liberatory media is willing to be ruthless in its interrogation of the political limitations of current production practices, generative notions of story, and is willing to shape or model around the needs of the community – to center the voice of the community (interview February 18, 2015).
Third World Majority’s practice, therefore, aimed to create safer spaces in which young people could both address the traumas in their lives in a collective fashion and develop collective strategies for taking back the power to represent themselves. "It was like, we are revolutionaries telling the stories of our revolution....At that opening of digital video ... there was a real possibility for D.I.Y. production to be a strong contender against these conversations" (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015). In addition to accessible, and mobile, digital video tools, TWM's work emerged in the context of increasing visibility, public discourse, first-person memoirs, and academic research about hip hop feminism, its political visions, and the inter-generational politics between women of colour feminisms.
"I think that our goal was, let’s see if we can get a generation of community organizers empowered to be story producers."
Several key books and essays were published over the late 1990s and early 2000s by women engaged with hip hop feminism, including Gwendolyn Pough's well-cited 2003 essay "Do The Ladies Run This...? Some Thoughts on Hip Hop Feminism" and her 2004 book Check It While I Wreck It, Kimberly Springer's 2002 essay "Third Wave Black Feminism" that examined the role of hip hop in black feminisms, specifically the role it can play in education for youth liberation, and books such as Joan Morgan's 1999 When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip Hop Feminist, and, later, Andreana Clay's 2012 book The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism and Post-Civil Rights Politics, among others. Clay's book in particular examines the role hip hop culture played in youth-led, feminist and queer activism in Oakland, CA in the early 2000s, at precisely the time and place in which Third World Majority was doing its initial work.
The look, feel, and philosophy of Third World Majority is intimately linked to hip hop culture and philosophies of hip hop feminism. For Soundararajan, hip hop was "a way that we lived and held ourselves - and a cultural presentation of our work" (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015). As their archive reveals, their radical young women-of-colour feminist media activism reworked a set of hip hop practices of representation that they also taught others to use to, as Clare Hemmings (2011) suggests of contemporary feminist narration, "tell stories differently." Following Aisha Durham, Brittney Cooper and Susana Morris (2013), Third World Majority's hip hop feminism staged different kinds of first-person digital feminist narration and intervention. Their processes of making also drew on hip hop story cyphers -- the on-the-fly, back-and-forth genre of unscripted, live storytelling (see Pough 2004, 41-42) -- and their training workshops often included graffiti making tools, which the video Castelmont School documents around the political expression of graffiti. Additionally, several members of the organization were themselves hip hop artists (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015).
Third World Majority's meta-story videos illustrate some of the hip hop practices embedded in their media making. Kehinde Kojeyo's video "They Lied to My Mother" starts with a montage of clips of racist cartoons, then segues into a hip hop beat-backed verbal litany of the hate-filled, racist things people said to her mother growing up. "They Lied to My Mother" diffuses that hate speech through the poetry of black feminist pride. Voice overs incant a truth-telling mantra about the inter-generational structures of racism and self-hatred, but also the process of coming to self-love, as the shift between these two stanzas performs:
Backed by a soundtrack with Alicia Keys and India Arie, Koyejo's video embodies inter-generational feminist coming-to-consciousness. It carves out a space to be oneself against white supremacist misogynoir media culture. Such hip hop feminist work represents "a melding of the social justice and hip hop worlds" (Clay 2012, 97). As Gwendolyn Pough suggests, hip hop culture provides a common cultural ground on which to base critical feminist analysis of gendered, homophobic and racist power (2003, 242). Media literacy alone is not the end goal of hip hop feminism; it is the first step in making a different reality that other meta-story videos also embody (see Brown and Kwakye 2012, 40).
They told my mother she is ugly, then she told that to me.
And when she looks in the mirror, she hates what she sees.
And when I look at her, all I see is me.
They lied to my mother so I told her the truth.
I told my mother she is beautiful.
And when I look at her I love what I see.
"May All the Walls Fall" and "Drum" reveal different forms of movement and messaging in the hip hop video genre making of Third World Majority and the organizations with whom they worked. DRUM, for instance, is the acronym for Desis Rising Up and Moving, a youth-led immigrant rights and anti-deportation organization active in the early 2000s. Their video presents a political vision of resistance to U.S. criminalization, detainment and hate crimes against Desis in the aftermath of 9/11, people whose families originate in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Guyana, Sri Lanka and Trinidad. With a hip hop backbeat and rhyming couplets, two female emcees present the activist vision of their organization’s work, and the role self-representation and community reporting play in their organizations' media work and training, via Desi Reel Newz. Today their are few online traces left of DRUM's work; TWM's Scalar archive helps preserve the cultural memory of theirs, and other, youth media justice organizations (see Palacios, this volume, for more analysis of "DRUM"). "May All the Walls Fall," another TWM meta-story, draws on the first-person witnessing of women’s testimonials in hip hop culture, offering a poetic first-person account of immigration, survival, and resistance under conditions of surveillance and policing around the U.S./Mexico border. The speaker simultaneously represents herself and a larger collective, drawing on the testimonial tradition of speaking one's truth in community.
I end this section with analysis of a final video, "Who We Be," with a voice over by Kehinde Koyejo, the maker of "They Lied to My Mother." Over just 2 minutes and 30 seconds, following the short form of digital storytelling, "Who We Be" rhymes out a vision of hip hop feminism and the powers of self-representation and community autonomy. Asking the listener, "Do you know me? Do you know who we be?" in the style of a interrogation-from-below, the voice over raps about the dual structures of media invisibility of young people of colour and their hyper-visibility as highly sexualized, overly victimized and criminalized youth.
Taking the tools of self- and community-representation in hand, Koyejo answers her own questions, "I know me. I know who we be." Through the practices of hip hop -- break dancing, dj-ing, mc-ing, and graffiti writing -- the script of "Who We Be" captures, perhaps better than any other video in the archive, the vision, the practice, the collective identity building work, and the capacity for change Third World Majority embodied. Feminists of colour have long recognized hip hop as "a youth movement, a culture, and a way of life" (Pough 2004, 3). Feminists within hip hop "bring wreck," as Pough argues, to "disrupt dominant masculine discourses, break into the public sphere, and...influence the United States imaginary" (2004, 12).
If the Internet and cyberspace are the sum total of human experience,
why is a human experience defined not to include me?
When I search for myself --young black Asian Chicana beautiful and free
I find ten entries of pornography and ten portals of lost dreams.
Who builds it is different from who codes it is different from who uses it.
I am the warrior mother, the sister soldier,
I am dreaming the revolution of self that begins with me and my world.
It is the magic of our people, the Third World Majority,
One nation under hip hop elevating self, beginning one block at a time.
We speak the truth of her story,
As we have always known it and continue to build it.
We struggle within the belly of the beast.
Against police brutality, prisons, the INS.
Against bad schools, no wage jobs and gentrification.
Against violence and genocide in our minds, our bodies and spirits.
As new mystics, new MCs, new prophets, new DJs,
New organizers, new breakers, new parents,
New graf writers, new poets and new dreamers.
Expressing the five elements, we define the world in our own image.
With each lyric, tag, poem, beat and song.
We organize our communities in a culture of resistance.
I know me.
We know who we be.
We are knowledge, seeking knowledge, seeking ourselves.
--from "Who We Be"
While the markers of hip hop certainly identify Third World Majority's media making style, there was more at stake in the work they did, as "Who We Be" so aptly demonstrates--in the capacity building they provided for several other organizations, the collective processes of media making in the context of community pain and structural oppression they brought to life and shared with others, and the possibilities for interventionist media practice they helped others realize.
I conclude with Thenmozhi's own reflection on their process. She reminds us that the legacy of media justice movements is not only found in the traces of media making located in their archives here, but also, and in some ways perhaps more importantly, in the profound capacity of collective agency that lives on among the former members of Third World Majority.
I think there’s lots of people who went through digital storytelling workshops, and I’ve seen a lot of shitty implementation (laughs), to be honest. So I don’t think it’s just about the technique - it really was about a group of very courageous young women who didn’t know that they shouldn’t be doing what they did, who pulled off an incredible set of work. And that’s really a props to everybody who was in the collective who was really brilliant about being brave. And the bravest part of it being the courage to share someone’s pain." (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015).
“Take the Red Pill of Media Justice”: Third World Majority and Media Justice Activism
From Ida B. Wells’s black radical journalism challenging U.S. “lynchocracy” in the turn of the century to the Black- and Chicano-led Civil Rights Movement’s constitutional challenges of segregationist radio and television broadcasting policies from the 1950s-1970s to the recent Media Justice Delegation at the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, the media justice movement has always understood that media access without institutional and discursive power is a losing battle in the long-term war for socioeconomic, environmental and racial justice. Unlike the bipartisan “media democratic reform” movement with its’ overwhelming focus on media policy reform (aimed at corporate-driven deregulation and consolidation), media justice activism has couched the fight for nation-based media democracy within a larger global-based struggle to build social movements capable of challenging the fundamental roots of media power—namely, how the media engage and create culture, representation, meaning, and structural, symbolic violence. According to the Third World Majority (TWM), media justice is “a movement in which community organizers are waking up to the media abuse that assaults our communities everyday”; a movement that “speaks to the need for the creation of just media structures that are liberated from corporate control and consolidation and are accountable to our communities” (“Tell It Like It Is”: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 3). It is no coincidence that TWM started in Oakland, CA not far from the Youth Media Council (now the Center for Media Justice).
In this brief dialogue piece, I conduct a textual analysis of TWM’s strategic communications training guides and communications capacity building curricula aimed at advancing social change in criminalized communities. Strategic communications (historically used by the private sector, by government, and by the political Right) has been reframed and utilized by media justice organizations to ensure a space in wider political debates for youth and communities of color, to restore fairness in media ownership and representation, to empower spokespeople from communities of color to counter wedge issues, and to reverse the prevailingly negative images of youth and people of color in mainstream media. Instead of focusing only on doing direct public relations (for example, press lists, skilled spokespeople, pitch-perfect analysis of communications outlets and their market penetration) TWM worked to underscore the importance of long-term capacity building to strengthen the power of grassroots immigrant-based, youth-focused, and anti-racist organizations and social movements.
In the TWM screenplay entitled, “Chapter 1: Take the Red Pill of Media Justice” readers meet Ayesha who, like the character Morpheus in the popular sci-fi film The Matrix, holds out a red pill in her palm encouraging the audience (like Neo) to swallow it in order to “know the truth”. Ayesha faces the audience, dwarfed by the Godzilla-like, TV-bellied monster representing media monopoly and consolidation and states: “We here are like Neo, taking that pill of Media Justice. There is lots of ways to find your way to the movement. It can start like this by a couple of folks sitting down and talking about what's wrong with the media. And going deeper than what’s on the surface. Do you think that the media all of a sudden became racist, sexist, and homophobic overnight? Concentrated media is part of the larger systems of oppression that are attacking our communities” (4). After demonstrating the various forms that media production and media justice organizing can take, Ayesha declares: “When I talk about media justice, I don’t want to talk about another thing I am against; I want to talk about something I am for!” Ayesha launches into an explanation of how the right to communicate is a fundamental human right that is basically “F****D” when the “media is owned by and representative of the interests of people in power”. She ends by invoking Malcolm X and declares that she is going to “take back” her “right to communicate by any means necessary” (4).
Ayesha’s segment is immediately followed by “Chapter 2: Bust a Frame,” a training segment which instructs youth about media monitoring, messaging, and framing. Connor, a homeless trans youth of color, leads this training and declares: “life in the margins is bigger than the stereotype and defies the soundbyte” (15). Not knowing where to start on his/their journey to “bust a frame” and create a counter-narrative or oppositional political framework, Connor decides to “frame the framer” and “flip the script” on mainstream reporting of gender queer and trans communities of color.
Xochi, the renegade graffiti artist who does not abide by corporate appropriation of public space (“I have always done graffiti. Just because corporations have the money to express themselves doesn’t mean I have to pay…to play in my city”) (26), completes the media justice-training trilogy in “Eyes on the Prize” by discussing the nuts and bolts of digital media pre-production and production. For Xochi and the rest of the TWM, “creation is liberation” especially when the ultimate goal is to activate and mobilize girls and trans youth of color most impacted by multiple, intersecting forms of mass-mediated violence (“Tell It Like It Is”: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 6).
TWM’s popular educational training manuals and curricula stress both the product and process of engaging in media justice activism. As co-founder Thenmozhi Soundarajan explained, “there’s value to movement both in terms of the process and product” (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015). Demonstrating the link between community-driven production and process is Desis Rising Up and Moving or DRUM’s digital story entitled “Drumbeat”. Actively resisting the “Sally Struthers missionary filter” (“Tell It Like It Is”: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 10) in which working-class South Asian (“Desis”), Muslim, and Arab girls and young women of color are solely represented as willing victims of their own “backward” communities and not of U.S.-driven hetero-patriarchal, imperialist state violence, DRUM’s Youth Power narrators perform spoken word and tell stories of community-driven resistance replete with action shots of protests and banner drops against racial profiling, hetero-sexism, and U.S. foreign policy. This film is “team building focused” and is “about going into…a shared place of a kind of imagining and visioning” (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015) in order to unite generations and various racialized immigrant and refugee communities experiencing heightened surveillance, criminalization, and deportation. The film effectively undermines discourses championing state-sanctioned liberal politics of recognition as the only feasible and pragmatic form of resistance offered to those victimized by hetero-patriarchal, white supremacist, and neo-imperialist state violence. It resists the “language fatigue” so common among those media makers and community organizers working with communities already at the point of crisis who target their messages overwhelmingly to liberal and progressive policy makers, government officials, academics, philanthropists, and other opinion-makers. As the writers of TWM’s “Tell It Like It Is” media training manual elaborate:
Sometimes, as organizers we get language fatigue. We get used to creating anitiseptic narratives about our crises in our communities for the people in power: government officials, funders, opinion and decision makers. This language deadens our original memories of these experiences, which is ironic because they are what moved us to action in the first place. (“Tell It Like It Is”: Digital Story Preparation Packet, 2011, 8)TWM and DRUM—from the pedagogy of digital media training manuals to production tutorials—privilege a decolonial politics of self-determination and self-recognition rather than uphold a politics of recognition that is palatable to the “whitestream” or mainstream media and liberal consuming public. As Indigenous activist-scholar Glen Coulthard argues, “the empowerment that is derived from [a] critically self-affirmative and self-transformative process of desubjectification must be cautiously directed away from the assimilative lure of the statist politics of recognition, and instead be fashioned toward our own on-the-ground practices of freedom” (Coulthard 2007, 456; emphasis in original).
In 2008, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence organized SisterFire, a national women of color multimedia arts tour that traveled across the country for approximately six months. TWM co-partnered with SisterFire’s national organizing committee to publish a media training and support manual geared to those local organizations which demonstrated a commitment to “host an event with a larger circle of your community members about the ways we survive the violence in our community with sadness, hope, joy, and renewal in true revolutionary divaship” (SisterFire’s Media Documentation Packet, 2011, 2). The SisterFire INCITE training manual states how the collective aimed to build a new Indigenous and race-radical trans and feminist anti-violence movement that did not rely on—that was directed away from—the carceral or settler state to challenge intimate, interpersonal, and sexual violence:
Violence against women affects us all, with the SisterFire tour, women of color are stepping up and speaking about their survival in the face of this violence and naming the cost to our society we all face when the State is unchecked as the larger perpetrator of violence in our community. (11)By utilizing digital media production, TWM and SisterFire participants not only worked to raise the visibility and profile of grassroots organizations that held a trenchant analysis of systemic violence against girls, trans youth, and women of color, they theorized the kind of incommensurable politics that are needed to build both a new and sustainable media justice movement and feminist and trans of color anti-violence movement that does not rely on the carceral or settler state.
In order to ensure that TWM’s “own on-the-ground practices of freedom” would continue to shape and drive their curriculum and pedagogical processes, media-makers and community organizers underscored the importance of being mindful of the tools of media technology that were chosen to produce and disseminate their work. As the writers of TWM’s SisterFire media training manual elaborate:
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. (SisterFire’s Media Documentation Packet, 2011, 3)And as Thenmozhi Soundarajan shared in an interview Carrie Rentschler and I conducted in February 2015:
You know, I think that one thing that is really important is – people don’t ask themselves a lot - enough about - when they’re working in a digital environment, is: where does my tool come from? What is the political economy of my tool, and how do I relate to that as an artist interested in self-determination and justice? A camera is not just a camera, a computer is not just a computer - it is a set of highly precise technological components that are put together in an ecosystem of injustice and environmental degradation. And to understand that from the hardware up, we’re looking at the legacies of ongoing colonialism really, I think, shifts the process and the urgency of how we use these tools, that are kind of bloody by those relationships, for our own self-determination. Like, in order to make that loss of life count, we really have to make what we say matter, you know. And I think that we assume that everything is of ease and disregard the violence around that. So I think that, one of the things that I really appreciated about the thinking work behind our curriculum and our pedagogical process, was to bring that forward into our training. So our teaching story, “Who We Be”, would be the opening lecture to start putting into the context of how do we understand what our role of story is, and going back from the history of the camera and colonialism, … (Soundarajan interview, February 18, 2015)
TWM, from the “choice of weapon” to the pedagogy of digital media training manuals, was mobilizing against the multiple ways that racialized and gendered Others are made vulnerable to premature death by carceral state violence and white settler colonialism. Ultimately, the media justice movement co-created by the TWM continues to challenge media necropower and the racialized gendered violence that it mobilizes and sustains by privileging a decolonial politics of self-determination and self-recognition.