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Dreaming the Solutions of Freedom for our People: Third World Majority Revolutionizes the Digital Story
3rd page on Rentschler's Dialogue essay path
Third World Majority provided a powerful alternative to the model of digital storytelling promoted by the Center for Digital Storytelling. For Soundararajan, digital storytelling methods could do a different kind of work tied 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.
“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)
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.
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 (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015).
Soundararajan echoes the digital storytelling principle of the power of story, but she emphasizes the ways in which story seeds social change in the context of collective making. Rather than the auteur model based in the singular vision of the individual film-maker/storyteller, Soundararajan and Third World Majority present digital storytelling as a collective practice of making in the context of social change efforts, specifically those tied to anti-racist liberation movements.
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 (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015, emphasis added).
Soundararajan 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 soon thereafter.
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 build in the contexts of their daily lives. Lena Palacios and I talked with Soundararajan about the survival-based processes Third World Majority developed around this solidarity work.
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, because they’re Muslim, 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. (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015, emphasis added).
Third World Majority's 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.” As she explained, “there’s value to movement both in terms of the process and product” (Soundararajan interview, February 18, 2015). Their projects and documentation demonstrate the community focus of their work and process.
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 was the idea of the Third World Majority 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.
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. The national Sisterfire tour to end violence against women, co-organized with Incite! Women of Colour Against Violence, 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 provides access to this training text and others, documenting the labour and community building work of Third World Majority.
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 draft a press release, how to conduct an interview, how to compose digital photographs, and so on. It differs from other how-to texts, such as that of the Center for Digital Storytelling's, in its radical vision of media justice, one that both critiques corporate control of media industries and mainstream means of representation while defining what a more just process of media representation could be. The political is inextricable from the practical in their work.
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)
To produce representations that respect one’s own and others' self-determination, Third World Majority advised digital storytellers to avoid mimicking “the haters” and focus instead on their own experiences and others in their communities.
Citing Toni Cade Bambara, Third World Majority encourages storytellers to “make the revolution irresistible” in their "Tell it Like It Is" Digital Story Preparation Packet (6). Their story ideas also 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, their gender identity, 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 Third World Majority's digital storytelling that is tied to the knowledge and cultural creation of women, men and queers of colour.
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).
What this work looked like -- its models -- draws 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 section of this essay examines the specific role hip hop politics and aesthetics played alongside Third Cinema conceptions of liberation-based film making. Both shaped Third World Majority's work, its look and its members' understanding of media activism that refused a separation between media content and the "pipes" of media distribution.
“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.
LEARNING FROM THE ONLINE FEMINISTS: media access and freedom of expression
Referring to http://www.feministonlinespaces.com/2012/01/learning-from-the-online-feminists/
Media access and freedom of expression are a baseline for feminist interaction,
but contribute best to social justice when linked to analyses, actions, communities, and politics.