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Reviving the Journal of Civic Media: An Interview with Vassiliki Rapti

March 29, 2021

From the earliest days of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab, we have focused on the cross-pollination of ideas and the cultivation of partnerships between higher education institutions and organizations on the ground. The Civic Media: Art and Practice graduate program, which has now become the Media Design program, brought these partnerships into the classroom and opened up new avenues for the exploration of civic media. Among them is the Journal of Civic Media, an academic journal conceived by the 2019 CMAP cohort and continued by its network of partners. Check out our interview with the journal’s editor Vassiliki Rapti to learn more about the new issue and the history of the journal.

Can you talk me through the history of the Journal of Civic Media, its connection to Emerson College’s Engagement Lab, and the Citizen Tales Commons?

It all started when I joined the Civic Media: Art and Practice program, currently the Media Design program. I was already a professor at Emerson and the program caught my attention since I wanted to try something more innovative. I entered the program with a wonderful cohort of nine people. We were given several opportunities to help the Engagement Lab and to put into practice what we had learned, and among them was to direct the Journal of Civic Media. The Journal was an idea from the leadership at the Lab not only to promote the work that we were doing but also to form bonds among the cohort and allow us to learn from the experience of solving real-world problems. I come from the publishing sector and Emerson’s Writing Program, so I was very interested in this. My colleague Leandra Nielsen and I were co-editors and put together the first issue, a very small issue with four articles on smart cities.

The Citizen Tales Commons was my thesis project for CMAP. Everything started at the Engagement Lab and ended at the Engagement Lab, so I really want to give back because it was such an amazing and eye-opening experience. We started with 7 people in the pilot program and now we have 85 people, most scholars with PhDs in various disciplines. We formed a collective where we can inspire each other, support each other, and give each other opportunities to thrive while still giving ownership to each member. We work like a Greek chorus, a collective voice that is also led by each expert.

The central component of the Citizen Tales Commons is the workshops, which would take place weekly at the Engagement Lab and were open to all. I considered the cohort a critical part of the Citizen Tales Commons since they gave constant feedback and support. Three colleagues from my cohort gave workshops — Isaiah Frisbie gave a workshop on empowerment and spoken word poetry, Emily Baeza led a workshop on empowering through the collective and Elisa Hamilton gave a wonderful workshop on participatory methods. We also had people coming in from other universities and really benefited from our partnership with the Ludwig Center. It was a wonderful umbrella of activities that gave us the opportunity to think together about possible alternatives for our current social, cultural and political situations.

How did you go about re-conceiving the Journal two years after the initial issue was published in 2019? Is the new issue centered on a theme or a specific initiative?

After we had established some basic guidelines we wanted to do something bigger that would involve everyone in the cohort and would be enhanced with more media and more sections. I was really interested in the idea of civic imagination and was drawn to the program because I wanted to make my life more meaningful and imagine better futures for the world, especially in higher education. Civic imagination then became the theme of the next issue, which is the current issue. There was a big gap between the first issue and the second, due to some Covid and design-related delays, but I am very happy with the new issue. It has 24 articles and we’ve really expanded the fields from which we drew ideas.

The next issue’s theme is influenced by the pandemic. Because everyone is now doing things via Zoom, Google Meet, or other online mediums and there has been such a huge leap into a new digital era, we want to focus on media in transition. We’re calling the next issue, which will hopefully be ready in the fall, Civic Media in Flux in the Post-Covid19 Era.

What are your hopes for the future of the Journal of Civic Media and the Citizen Tales Commons, particularly in a post-Covid world? What are new avenues that remote work has opened up and what are activities that still necessitate in-person interactions?

We really craved the person-to-person interactions. What happened every other week at the Engagement Lab was almost like a ritual and that aspect was really soul-enriching, which has been missing during Covid. My first hope is that we can host in-person meetings at the Engagement Lab again or at a space hosted by one of our other partners. Doing these meetings promotes cross-pollination and keeps the civic imagination alive, which then promotes mobilization and social change. My next hope is to be able to turn the Citizen Tales Commons into a formal organization, which would allow us more financial independence and help us to make the dreams of every participant possible. Currently, we are utilizing and redistributing the resources that each individual member brings to the collective, but non-profit status would allow us to apply for grants and make more impactful changes.

Zoom meetings allowed us to bring in a lot more members who were not locally based and gave them the opportunity to be more active. It’s not accidental that we increased our membership so much because of the possibilities that Zoom opened up. We had a major collaboration this year at the Emerson Blanquerna Global summit with 8 participants from various countries, including Mexico and Greece. In short, we welcome the challenge. Despite the difficulties of virtual collaboration, it helped us open up more possibilities.

Can you talk about the expansion of the group from 8 members to 75? How did this affect cross-pollination and the connections between higher ed and other types of partners?

It’s happening very naturally because every member is so committed to the collective and to the platform that we have that they bring people in. On our website, we have a form that people can fill out, since our collective is open to everyone. They usually come up with a specific project for which they need help, and after we meet with them on Zoom, they are inducted by one of our current members. It’s very tailored and customizable, so we try really hard to find ways to empower them and make possible what they need, whether it be publication, an online presentation or participation in an international conference.

Our membership is made up mostly of academics, with some artists too, but we have 7 organizations that we’re partnering with currently. Three of them are publishing houses — one in Berlin, one in Somerville, and the other in Greece — as well as a non-profit in the Swiss Alps and the Culture House in Boston.

In terms of my academic background, I come from the school of Surrealism, so the element of chance and play is very prominent. Through the Citizen Tales Commons, I practice play and ludic spirit by facilitating this cross-pollination and allowing everyone to tap into their true mission.

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