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Liveblog of Research in the Mo(ve)ment: Civic Media, Political Unrest, and the Role of the University

December 04, 2015

By Engagement Lab


Moderator: Susan Owusu, Director of Wheelock College’s Communications and Media Literacy program


Jabari Asim, Associate Professor of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, Editor-in-Chief of The Crisis magazine, the oldest publication in the United States pertaining to African-American issues. Author of children books that detail race and power in society. Writer on the cultural beat at the Washington Post for eleven years.

Terry Marshall, Founder/Strategy Architect of Intelligent Mischief

Laura Amico, Founder of Homicide Watch, Editor at the Boston Globe. Her work and thinking comes out of a project called HomicideWatch which was created to make contextual data-driven coverage of homicide data in DC. It is now in operation in Chicago, Seattle and Boston.

Ted Landsmark, Former President of Boston Architectural College. He has worked for 3 mayors addressing issues of infant mortality among others. His role here today is to provide historical perspective.

This is a liveblog account of the event contributed by Catherine D’Ignazio, Paul Mihailidis, Miranda Banks, and Christina Wilson.

Question 1

Susan starts out by saying that this has been a difficult year in relation to race and the media. Notably, the BlackLivesMatter movement, the Ebola outbreak, and the increasing racialization of politics. Her first question is “What are you doing in your work to respond and reflect on these issues?”

Jabari says that one of the things they have realized at the Crisis Magazine is that they’ve been doing cover story after cover story about the shooting deaths of unarmed black men. Their goal is to offer historical contextualization for race and power in society. For example, they trace police violence back to slave patrols in Barbados which were then adopted into Southern plantations. This work also draws connections between systematic police brutality and the for-profit incarcertaion system. He clarifies that the journalism done at The Crisis is advocacy journalism for people of color who are systematically disenfranchised. In other words, they speak truth to power. The overriding metaphor is that they are interested in controlling and shaping the narrative. Toni Morrison calls it “the master narrative”. More than resistance, they are interested in aggresivley shaping the media. In his work, he tries to do the same. After the recent incident in McKinney, TX he immediately wrote up a mini-syllabus on swimming pools as a metaphor for [racist violence against black bodies?] as a way to provide context.

Terry Marshall, feels positive that #BlackLivesMatter is about state violence towards black bodies. He mentions that he is himself a survivor of police brutality. At age 15, he was almost shot by a police officer. He was stopped when he started to run, the officer pulled a gun on him and he froze. Since that point, he’s been an activist for black rights and civil rights. Since before Ferguson, he was part of the Black Lives Survival Guide, which came from the Trayvon Martin not guitly verdict. Hearing the non-guilty verdict, the focus on the “dangerous black body” of Trayon, and the media narrative that was perpetuated about this, was absurd to him. He started thinking about how to shape these narratives, because the narrative is absurd. “When reality becomes absurd, it’s time to get surreal,” so they started focusing on zombies as a fantastical correlative, because they are so absurd that you just have to kill them, so we took that perspective on black bodies. That they are so scary and dangerous that you just have kill. And we developed The Black Body Survival Guide, a book of tips for black people, that is absurd and teaches them how to talk and walk so they don’t get shot or abused.

Ted Landsmark references being an African American who grew up in the projects in East Harlem who met the right people and ended up in law school and eventually running a college. For him, the challenge that faces us in rooms like this nice Microsoft room and our cushy universities — we are privileged — is that you will end up on boards and in places with people of power. Because of this, we have a responsibility to challenge the status quo from within in ways that others cannot. In the decades that he worked on issues of equity in Boston, the number of people of color at places that taught (Harvard, MIT, Mass Art, Northeastern) on staff, faculties, or other positions have not increased significantly in 30–40 years and remains at less than 5% of students and faculty of color. Despite the efforts that we have made, there are others who could provide leadership roles. Part of the job we have is to challenge the status quo. Boston is the only major city in America that has never had a woman or a person of color as mayor. Our boards continue to be dominated by white men. Now it’s not Gillette or GE, it’s tech companies, but the make-up of these places is the same. Can we take a longer-term view of change? Movements imply small steps being taken all the time. The movements tell a story in an authoritative way. How can we go about establishing a clear sense of a counter narrative to authority that provides a clear sense of black men and women in society?

Laura Amico: Race is a question that she thinks about a lot. She is a white woman covering violent crime in our neighborhoods, which she says is sometimes a difficult position to be in, vis-a-vis the creation and proliferation of narratives. Who do we invite to be at that table? She was aware of that going into HomicideWatch. Her solution was one that journalists don’t do often enough. When you go to report a story and report some stories — you might feel like you have context but you don’t have the whole narrative.

And so my question has always been and remains how do we create stories that people have the opportunity to see themselves in, and creating a different sort of journalism than just reporting and publishing. This means acknowledging what we don’t know and the holes in our stories. Laura wants to know what she doesn’t know, and what we (journalists) need to know. Homicide watch rules are simple: record every death, report every death, and tell every story of death. This means that we can document these stories and find ways to report on these stories that give accountability to and for the community.

Question 2

Susan says these issues of race are not just those that belong to marginalized groups but belong to everyone here. We have educators, activists and institutions here in the audience.What are the roles of educators and activists in disrupting narratives and in producing change?

Jabari says that you start where you are. What is the particular struggle you can deal with where you are? Since he has been at Emerson, he has never had an African-American male student in his class. It’s appalling. We can’t even begin to have this conversation if we don’t have different kinds of people in the room. He has opened his office to all students of color on campus and the word has spread. He wants to expand teacher-student relationship beyond the classroom. His office is a safe zone, a free zone. He comes from a personal perspective where he as a father of five, has experienced some of the oppression that is common to African American men and women all around the country. “I always start from where I come from, I remember my isolation as a black student that distracted me from the basic mission I had at college, which was to learn.” He was disappointed and angered at the coverage in which Michael Brown was described as “It looked like a demon”. He pasted that on his office door because it was so offensive.

Terry says that everyone needs to do something. There can’t be a type of thinking that this problem is just a black issue. We’re all interdependent, and related to everyone. Another tool for the black life survival guide is the “race card.” The card is meant to be for someone who owns a black body. This is satire that we use to help grieve, and to be a product of a system that promotes a system of suppression, and this card promotes a dialog of real connections to privilege, We need to understand what we can do to promote solidarity as human beings, to show that we are interdependent and interconnected. For any issue, we are connected.

Ted says that Boston is a small and safe city. If you count Boston and Cambridge they amount to about a quarter of the population of Brooklyn. It’s an easy city to get around in. The reality is that most students and faculty never get into Boston to experience it for what it is. Many students have never been to Fenway or the Garden let alone Dorchester or Mission Hill. The initial challenge is for us to get students to get out into the city. To feel comfortable being in the city. The demographic of most students is not a working class demographic. The students in prestigious schools have no hint of what it means to be in an urban community interacting with people. One of the first things that should happen is that activists should adopt people from campuses and take students into communities. We should develop understandings of race and class that enable us to be more empathetic. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that we have more smart people in Boston than any other city and yet we use very little of that intellect and data to serve and support communities.

We also need to teach people how to use media and data for effective and useful purposes. A lot of the data around us is not useful. We need to develop standards and tools for discerning what’s real about life and what isn’t (Media Literacy). We need to learn what’s important to us about race and class and what’s not.

Laura thinks about how to pay attention to what She’s listening to. She does a listening audit of where she’s getting her information. Audio, Video, and Twitter are important. The problem is that maybe we have too much to listen to, not too little. Homicide Watch was started because families of homicide victims were paying to keep obituaries online because they needed to keep dialog about what was happening to their families alive and online. They were able to share conversations and listen to each other and think about how the conversations fit together. We need to make sure these tools are being used not only to listen to each other, but to help understand and develop the context of the story.

Question 3

Susan’s area of study is media literacy. A lot of the conversations that are happening are mediated through corporations. While many people are versed in using social media, they are not taught how to deconstruct social media. Media literacy is an important tool for everybody to think about the content and the political economy in which it is created. And who is benefitting? The news anchor will say “It’s a horrible video…” but then go on to show Walter Scott getting shot 10–15 times. She does an exercise with students where she assigns them to go be in a room with people where they are the minority. It’s very difficult for them to figure out how to do this. Susan says there are a lot of different channels for us to be media producers and not just consumers. Where do we go and where do we begin?

Jabari says that one of the problems with Ferguson is that the lived experience conflicted with TV accounts. But also there is a drastic decline in diversity in the newsroom. Washington Post and NYT cultural coverage is abysmal. He gives the example of an article on Shonda Rhimes, which came out right after they laid off the only African American critic, Felicia Lee. We are up against very few allies on the inside. Some are still countering the narrative but they are in the minority. There is a lot of wacky stuff on social media but there is also wacky stuff in traditional media. Fox News is a comedy channel. Counter the narrative. Frederick Douglass had a three-word motto: “Agitate, Agitate, Agitate”.

Terry thinks that the 15-year-old bikini clad black body is perceived as a “scary black body.” There is opportunity with social media (i.e. black twitter), that has become a force on the ground for indivduals to develop their own narratives and deploy their own news. I remember when Ferguson happened I saw this information from my friend sending me a photo, and I was still grieiving from Eric Garner, and by a few days later, my friends were telling me to look at Twitter, and who to follow, who were now thought leaders and citizen journalists, because they were documenting the protests live. After the mainstream media said the protests were over the police were still agitating and we kept documenting. We need to take another step. We need to discuss this in a philosophical way. How twitter and youtube are changing the way that humans see things. In addtion to projects like The Black Body Survival Guide, we need citizen journalism classes in underserved communities, to help build storytellers to reshape and counter the dominant narratives, and to build a networked system that’s not a power narrative, to better shape the narratives that are out there.

Ted Landsmark says we need to look at our networks and see how diverse they are. We need to notice our limitations, and fix them. We need to utilize the networks we have to expand and diversify them and to make them matter. Next thing to do is to make sure that your media expression tools are ready to go. You need to be ready to document. “don’t let your battery die” We’ve got access to tools that can enable us to do extraordinary things, as long as the batteries are charged. The tools are transformative, they just need to be ready to be used, and when we need them. There was a famous photo of me that was taken on the last role of film that that photographer had…

Laura appreciates the point about diversity. One of her fears is that people like Wes Lowery at the Washington Post are getting let go. What happens then? Building our networks now goes a long way but there’s a lot to do among traditional producers to do the best we can. Not just in the moment but for the long run.

Q from audience: Most recent crisis in Boston regarding the person being — apparently the knife was confiscated by the FBI . I’d like to hear your perspective about this.

Jabari thinks police statements should be taken with real suspicion. I think we have this disadvantage where the police statement is regarded as truth and we need to dismantle it. Always regard the official narrative with suspicion. Jabari grew up in the neighborhood where Mike Brown was shot down. This narrative repeats itself generation to generation, and it’s always an attitude where the victim is perpetuating a behavior that needs to be corrected. We can’t wait for the facts to shake out, we need to be suspicious, as a default.

Susan says that video won’t save us alone. There was a big push after this summer about cameras on cops. Images create trauma but they don’t necessarily create justice. Just because we see it doesn’t mean we address it. If we see it and we still let it happen, then that illuminates a much more difficult issue to pull apart. We’ve been talking about BlackLivesMatter and the reason we talk about black versus white so much is because that is the fundamental unhealed wound in this country. But there is another thing about terrorism — who are the terrorists? There are other questions that make it harder to have those conversations because we are tip-toeing around our way of thinking about terrorists and terrorism. That buzzword chills people’s ability to have the conversation.

Ted picks up on Susan’s point to say that life on the street is not the same as a CSI episode. One thing Ted learned working on gang violence in the mayor’s office is that there normally is an initial image that needs to be contextualized. There is always a more complex and deep story that what is going on in the street. Journalists need to know how to contextualize these stories and see the deeper and more complicated picture. We need to ask ourselves, what else is going on that shaped this context.

Terry identifies as Muslim and black. Most people here would disagree that muslim=terrorist. The critique he has of the current blacklives matter movement is is that it is focused on police killings. But we have to go into the question of policing itself. The police were stalking him and harassing that man. This is their practice. This is a practice that is leading to unnecessary deaths. At best, this man was killed for something he was thinking. Terry wonders why the officers needed to jump him in public space and put the public in danger. It’s about deconstructing what people see as helpful regarding policing. We need to develop a new way to keep our communities safe.

Steve Walter: How might academics and researchers help create the story and counternarratives that will have impact in the moment?

Ted says that there is a way of monetizing how we use big data. A lot of people monetize big data, and then leave. We need to think about contributing to social capital in the community, and how we can use “big” data to protect people and help make communities feel stronger. Example: When we wanted to reduce the murder rate in Boston. We actually took an epidemiological position: the difference between treating someone in 7 minutes or 15 minutes was the difference between assault reporting and death reporting. Our solution was more efficient placing of EMTs around the city. That was our version of using big data to save lives. The question is what are we doing to address the key issues around safety? And keeping neighborhoods safe? The data analysis available even in this room (civic media researchers) could make a big difference to addressing safety in neighborhoods, and addressing the big problems we have with young men of color and how they are treated.

Terry adds that academic researchers have to make their knowledge relevant to people. This happens through telling stories and translating research in ways that makes it relatable. Relevance is about telling stories. how do you help people understand the research as a narrative. For example, they created a pop-up store where people could come and tell their problems regarding black bodies. This was satire but it was also real. This was a research practice, a participatory action research practice. People should involve the people they are researching in a reciprocal relationship. Academics writing to each other doesn’t make any sense to him. The purpose is to make the world better.

Jabari wants to see a Nate Silver style blog (538) that does a statistical social media analysis on issues of race and power. The Washington Postand Guardian have released smart data stories that are kind of incomplete, and in academia these statistical analyses take five years to publish under peer review, and they become irrelevant, and not timely, and less relevant.

Chris Peterson: Data are manufactured, with various definitions of metrics and methods. there are some problems that are more amenable to data analysis. What problems are amenable to data analysis? And what problems are further away from being understood by data, and need real social action.

Susan wonders if a part of it is that where we are already collecting data (public health, policing) might support it. The thing that always gets lost are the intangibles that cannot get quantified. Where is the room for the lived experience and anecdotal evicence? How can researchers start to use that data in a way that equivalent to how big data is used?

A person in the audience says that there is no state or federal regulation that requires police to report killings.

Ted says we know a lot about the victims of police violence. We don’t know as much about the police perpetrators. Who they are and what the gaps are in their education and training? He has seen lots of data and sees lots of stereotypes. That would be an area where big data would be useful to know what we can do to change those attitudes.

Jabari says that the Southern law Poverty Center claimed that white supremacist groups were infiltrating the police 25 years ago.

An audience member says that the police force is supported by the judicial system which is racist and classist.

Laura says that one of the things that fascinated her is that detectives came to her and said they liked the work because they knew what the prosecutors are doing and vice versa. These people are ostensibly in the same department, yet it takes someone from the outside to show them what the other one is doing. What data are we looking for and what are we asking of these departments? How we get this data and get people talking to one another might go a long way.

An audience member says she is an urban planner and designer and part of a participatory action research think tank at UMass Boston. There is a resistance on the part of researchers to engaging with communities. You have to put yourself out there and build relationships and value that feedback. A lot of the qualitative data is more important than the quantitative data. The other area that needs to be explored is how that data gets watered down over time. They have found startling information that gets shelved. Researchers are in a unique and flexible position of autonomy to tell the whole truth about racism and systemic oppresssion, but sometimes put it upon ourselves not to do so out of fear.

Conclusion to the panel, 140 characters from each panelist.

Jabari Asim: Question Authority

Terry Marshall: When reality becomes absurd, it’s time to get surreal. Think of more expansive and fantastical ways to deal with reality.

Ted Landsmark: Get into the Community

Laura Amico: Audit your listening

(Cross posted at the MIT Center for Civic Media)

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