This is a live blog from a talk given last Thursday by Sasha Costanza-Chock, Assistant Professor of Civic Media in the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Department at MIT. It was collaboratively written by Gordon Mangum, Yu Wang and Chelsea Barabas. For another great record of this talk check out EthanZ’s blog post.
To open his talk, Sasha shares some of his prior experiences working as both an activist and a researcher of social movements. Previously he worked extensively with an organization called VozMob, which enables people to use cheap phones to enable people to post media. When he arrived at MIT, he took the base software developed with the VozMob project and created Vojo, a platform for sharing stories via phone or SMS.
There are over 1200 groups using Vojo, examples include the Cambridge Campaign Against Domestic Violence and Sandy Storyline. Also, he recently contributed to the development of Contratados, a yelp for migrant workers, which seeks to serve day laborers recruited from Mexico to work in the US and help them sift honest from dishonest employers and brokers.
These projects provide context for his research methods, which encompass his work as both a scholar and a participant in the migrant workers movement doing participatory action research, co-design, interviews, workshops, textual analysis, and media archives.
Immigrant Rights: Context
Sasha then provided the audience with some context for the immigrant rights movement.
The Obama administration has seen increased raids, detentions, deportations of immigrant workers over the last decade. Right now the Obama administration is deporting over 400,000 people per year, the highest rate in history and earning Obama the nickname among some as “Deporter in Chief.” Sasha depicts the steady militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border zone, where the US Border Patrol budgets have increased massively since 1993.
SComm: “Secure Communities” – under this law the fingerprints of everyone arrested by police and booked are run through immigration databases. If an immigration database indicates that the person arrested has outstanding immigration violations, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issues a “detainer request” until the person can be picked up and taken to an immigration detention center to await removal proceedings.
Among other serious human rights violations, this procedure interferes with doing police work in communities with undocumented people, because it erodes community trust in the police.
Arizona’s SB1070 (the “driving while brown” act) enabled law enforcement to stop anyone officials believed to be undocumented.
Why is this happening?
1. Capitalist profitability
There are growth industries like private prisons, detention facilities and biometric systems that have grown to be massive industries in the U.S. Today half of federal detention facilities are run by private companies and they view themselves as a growth sector, which has its own lobbying groups and powerful resources going into perpetuating the incarceration state.
2. Expansion of the security state
Secondly, Sasha points to an internal logic of expansion in security systems. There are powerful actors, contracts, and interoperability that drive the growth of the security state.
Congress’ audit of the e-verify system says that it’s 54% ineffective.
3. Heteronormativity & patriarchy
Sasha links these policies to the broader US racial project. He points out that the first US immigration policy was the Chinese Exclusion Act. He also points out that we have a particular conception of the “good immigrant”–heterosexual, cisgendered, highly educated, and able-bodied. “Of good moral character” is a phrase in DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the policy that enables people brought to the US as kids to potentially receive citizenship.
4. Settler Colonialism
Ongoing consolidation and control of borders, both external and internal. For more on this subject, Sasha recommends Harsha Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism.
Media Ecology Analysis
In this system how do people mobilize to navigate these power structures?
Sasha looked into mass media narratives in both English and Spanish. In English language mass media, interests in border security and paths to citizenship are weighed against each other to make claims about who should stay and who should be deported. Even the sometimes-sympathetic center-left media tends to paint a picture of good immigrants versus bad immigrants.
Examples in mass media include the Fox News headline “Perfect Chance to Arrest Illegal Immigrants?” regarding protests of immigration policy in the US and the (a href=”http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20120625,00.html”>“We Are Americans” cover by TIME magazine.
The last decade has seen a rapid growth in Spanish language mass media (print, television, radio); this provides a more nuanced take on the movement. And in certain moments, national Spanish media encourage people to come out and participate in the movement. More local Spanish media also plays a role, as there are community websites, radio stations, etc. that are important to people working in the immigrant rights movement. Social media also plays a role, as people who are active in the movement use social media tools as part of a larger effort. For example, tweets can call attention to events faster than press releases.
Sasha provides an example of a student organizer who talked about theimportance of people in his community putting real faces and names to an issues that’s been largely abstracted from the issues of real people.
Sasha shares insights about how people from within the movement view social media as a tool to become visible. In the case of sending a tweet versus sending a press release, he explains that the media outlets are ten times more likely to respond to a tweet, and it’s ten times less work.
“Transmedia organizing” as a term builds on the concept of transmedia storytelling put forth by Marsha Kinder. Henry Jenkins built on this with his ideas of convergent media environments, intellectual properties and storytelling.
Sasha sees transmedia organizing as cross-platform, participatory, rooted in community action, accountable to the community, and transformative.
Within the immigrant rights movement, participants produce posters, films, apps, etc. The point is not to list or categorize this work, but rather to point out that these forms are coordinated to amplify the movement’s message. Some of this is designed to reach across generations: organizers cover traditional media for the older generations and social media for younger contingents.
Sasha shares a poster from an Undocuqueer event at Georgetown (Undoing Borders & Queering the Undocumented Narrative). Because of the heteronormativity of US immigration policy discussed earlier, Sasha explains that there’s a particular resonance between queer organizing and undocumented organizing. Lots of leaders in the immigrant rights community identify as part of the LGBTQ community as well.
Sasha explains the ways that this media is ideally deployed within a context of community action, in which people are directly mobilizing their media resources to amplify their voice during moments when a critical decision is being made.
He discusses the importance of accountability to community, and that the narratives reproduced must fit with how community members represent themselves and conceive of their issues.
Sasha explains that there is concerted effort to not reproduce the narrative that “I was brought here through no fault of my own” — this implicitly criminalizes a set of parents that bring their children across borders illegally. A competing narrative is that such parents are courageous, brave and were trying to give their children a better life. As a generation of immigrant children grows up here in the States and develops their own voice in the movement, it has been interesting to see how their craft their narrative in ways that are in tension or support the work of their parents.
People are engaging in media workshops and skillshares. Sasha gives examples from the UCLA labor center and of an ‘undocumentation workshop’ in Charlotte, North Carolina.
These workshops are building and sharing the capacity of members of the movement to make media and tell stories.
Sasha argues that these practices occur across movements. He has a paper (Mic Check) on how this applies to #Occupy. He cites a scholarly work from one of his prior graduate students, Rogelio Lopez, who studied media practices in the farm worker movement from 1962-1972, to illustrate that media practice is pervasive across time.
Professionalization & Accountability in Transmedia Organizing
Sasha shares some of the rich literature available on the professionalization of social movements in history, such as McCarthy and Zald, who wrote about the professionalization of civil rights movements.
Social movements have increasingly been transformed into 501c3 non-profit organizations, which precludes certain political advocacy. As a 501c3 an organization is not allowed to advocate for a particular political candidate. Organizations that begin with structural critiques are structurally prevented from carrying forward those critiques, and tend to move toward service-oriented work.
In parallel, there is professionalization of transmedia production. There is now a “Transmedia Producer Credit” from Producers’ Guild of America and any firms specializing in transmedia production. Now we can also see various levels of professionalized transmedia producers. He outlines the work of three different producers to illustrate how their message evolves as the production quality and costs become higher.
Jose Antonio Vargas started the transmedia movement called Defining American. Vargas took materials people submitted through the Define American site and created a film called ‘Documented.’
Davis Guggenheim produced the film which was funded by Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, and invited people to contribute to the production process. It’s a really high production-value film, but there are some challenges with its framing. They ask you to sign a petition for immigrant rights, advocating the passage of a standalone DREAM Act. However: the previous summer undocumented youth had gotten together and decided they no longer wanted to advocate for a standalone DREAM Act, because it would put their parents in jeopardy. They wanted to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. Participants calls to change their petition text because it hides their visibility. It took several months, during which they were most visible, for The Dream Is Now to change their “ask” to be more inclusive of immigrants not covered in the DREAM Act.
FWD.us is Silicon Valley’s effort to push for immigration reform, supported by Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates, among many others.
Sasha shows us a video that frames the economic benefits of immigration reform, which focuses primarily on high-skilled workers (e.g. the video cites the fact that only 85,000 high-skilled visas are currently available–usually run out in 5 days). They frame the issues in a way that is relevant to tech companies in particular. Sasha’s not averse to this particular framing, but other aspects of their platform raise questions.
For example, in their proposed legislation they emphasize a “secure the border” position. Sasha says that this is problematic because it increases the likelihood of death as people try to migrate. They also support e-verify, a technology system many of the tech companies behind the movement could well be involved in setting up.
Overall the framing of the issues by FWD.us is problematic. It erases much of the movement’s historical roots and promotes political positions that would harmful for the base of immigrant rights activists.
However, this picture has gotten more complicated with time. In the period since Sasha’s book was written, the field has shifted slightly. A clearer coalition of organizations that bridge more grassroots efforts with more professionalized movement efforts is developing. For example, Jose Vargas teaming up with FWD.us.
Sasha left us with a final question: how do we build a world of “Nothing about us without us”.
Sasha invited Sofia Campos of the United We Dream network of undocumented workers to share the stage with him for questions.
Sofia talks about how helpful Sasha’s work is for her as a leader within the immigrant rights movement. It can be challenging to create space to critically reflect on the things that they are busy working on. She says she particularly found Sahsa’ descriptions of media making as an integral part of building the movement to be useful. Before social media she wasn’t aware of other student groups around the country who were thinking about similar issues. Sofia observed that it had a “wildfire effect” that spilled over from the digital world to the activities they were doing on their campuses.
Sofia is looking forward to developing mechanisms to build accountability as the movement grows.
Q&A with Audience
A member of the audience asked the two speakers to talk about why media production invites people to get involved.
Sasha explained that when you sit down to try to tell a story with others, you need to compare and share your experiences. By building a narrative of storytelling, you build your identity on the way.
Sofia added that making media allows people to tell different stories while connecting with others and joining a larger movement.
Someone else asked if the different framings of the issues that we see in the movement reflects a need for messages that resonate in different contexts. Do we need different frames in different conversations? Or we should have a unified frame?
Sasha emphasizes a transformative approach, rather than an instrumental concept of media in the movement context. This means the media strategy is driven by the ethics and policies you want, not by restricting the narrative to appeal to a narrow group.
An audience member asked if there are alliances between movements across racial and ethnic lines. Also, does the framework laid out in Sasha’s book work for other ethnic or racial groups?
Sofia responded, acknowledging that there are definitely coalitions between different groups. It has different cultural dynamics, both between youth and their parents.
Someone asked about how activists can communicate their needs with scholars in the future.
Sasha acknowledges that there are many ways for scholars to extract value from communities, but it gets much fuzzier on how to reverse that extraction process. He teaches a class on how to be a good partner with community organizations. In that class they write agreements laying out goals and ownership of final product so that everyone can contribute and also the end result is useful to the community organization.