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SeminarAndWorkshop 4

Build your communications toolkit with two upcoming learning opportunities!

Share with your networks and register soon, both have limited seating:

FREE Seminar presented with D.A. Bullock of Bully Creative
Wed, Feb 3 6:30pm at Intermedia Arts
Registration and more details: http://bit.ly/videoWORK

 

Strategies for Social Justice Storytelling
3-part workshop series, sliding scale registration
Tuesday, Feb 23, Mar 1, AND Mar 8, 6:00 – 9:00pm
Attendance at all three dates is mandatory for participation.
LIMITED TO 20 PARTICIPANTS
Registration and more details: http://bit.ly/SJstorystrategyFeb

 

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On October 1, I attended the Minnesota State High School League’s public hearing on the proposed policy that would allow transgender athletes to play on the team that best aligns with their gender identity. Ultimately, this policy would be one step in recognizing and respecting a community that dominant culture seeks to isolate and silence.

Link to the policy draft: (http://cplaction.com/wp-content/uploads/TransgenderPolicySECONDREVISION9-9-14.pdf)

During the hearingworkshop, many people voiced their opinions about the policy. Some of the opinions were valiant, courageous cries for acknowledgement, while others were drenched in fear and prejudice. I was particularly dismayed by one specific testimony. A passionate woman had organized a herd of high schoolers as a visual aid to support her opposition of the policy. At the end of her declaration, she singled out the group of students that had been standing along the wall and asked how many girls were scared/uncomfortable of showering with someone who was a different sex than them. Each high school girl that was lined up against the wall raised her hand.

As my filming partner and I were getting ready to leave, the group of high schoolers that were lined up against the wall walked past us. In the snippet of conversation that I caught, the phrase, “Man, I don’t want to shower with one of those people,” landed in my ears.

At first I was in shock of the amount of comments that were thrown around the room that reflected so many oppresive status-quo ideals. This put me into fury after the public hearing: Why do people have to make others that are different than them feel small? Why do people feel the need to hurt others? Why is it hard to see everyone as valuable, sharing a piece of the same humanity?

Being a racially mixed person who presents female, I face my own oppressions as I walk outside my house everyday and into the world. However, I have the privilege of appearing as well as identifying as female. At birth, I was told that I was a girl, and I, in fact, strongly identify with being female. And, luckily for me, society approves of my presentation. When I meet someone new, I don’t have to wince every time they don’t see who I am. I don’t have to remind them to talk to me using she, her, hers pronouns. I don’t have to question seemingly simple, everyday actions such as which bathroom I should use and what clothes I should wear that will reflect my gender. I don’t have to wonder if they will see me for who I truly am when it comes to my gender. However, not everyone has this privilege. For trans* folks, it is a battle against the raging current of societal norms to be true to themselves as well as the people around them. Although they may be victorious in taking the first step towards personal truth, turmoil can continue as they are confronted by peers, adults, certain religious groups, etc. who treat them as less than human. Shared public spaces that appear to be safe also become minefields; areas that need to be strategically navigated lest a fatal explosion occurs.

As the wise Ricardo Levins Morales says, “Trauma is an indicator that people are forced to believe an untrue narrative about who they are… In order to combat this, a new story about the person experiencing trauma has to be told.” In statistics provided by the National Center of Transgender Equality (2011), 82% of transgender youth feel unsafe at school. Further, only 54% of the transgender students who are bullied actually report the bullying. However, only a third of these reported incidents are actually addressed by the school: it is clear that voices are being silenced. This means the system is failing these students. School is a shared public space where no one deserves to be fearful, yet these students cannot walk the halls of their schools with a sense of security in who they are. This means transgender youth are experiencing a form of trauma whenever they gather the courage to walk through the doors of their school in their reclaimed identity. A part of this fear and trauma comes from the fact that there is a lack of acceptance and acknowledgement in shared gender spaces. In implementing the proposed policy, a bridge for this need of recognition would be created. As a first, though hopefully far from last, step, it would provide a gateway for transgender youth to lead on telling their own narrative of their humanity.

The proposed policy has some gaps in it that hopefully will be worked out over time to make it even better for trangender youth, however it is an important beginning towards justice in our school systems. If passed, the policy would be one step in bringing human dignity, security, and respect to those who are most in need of it by providing a shared space that is acknowledging and affirming of gender for all students. Therefore, I strongly push the MSHSL to pass this policy on December 04.

MPIRG and Sarah photo

My heart was racing. I looked out at the sea of expectant eyes, feeling like they were swallowing me whole. I couldn’t disappoint them. They were all here with high expectations and minds filled with their own unique perceived truths; the two things that can potentially hinder growth and learning. And I, the “expert”, was the reason why they came here.

This weekend I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a training for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) at their annual fall retreat. I was there as a part of Line Break Media as well as an MPIRG board member. I remember my friend, the chair of the board, asking me if I would do a workshop to share with other students a hint of what I was learning in my internship at Line Break. I reluctantly said that I would, knowing that it would be a good opportunity to stretch the thoughts of my peers as well as tackle my fear of public speaking.

I was drawn to Line Break because they use media to connect groups and share stories. Story has always been a source of life and a fortress for me. When I was a little girl growing up underneath the scorching sun of Las Vegas, Nevada, my little sister and I were watched over by our nanny who had immigrated from Mexico. After running around all day and causing havoc, Josefina would settle us down by telling stories from her home. Sometimes she wanted to talk about legends and myths, and other times she merely wanted to tell us about her family, whom she missed dearly. No matter what she decided to share with us at the end of the long day, I was always enraptured by her words as they wrapped around my small frame and carried me to a place outside of the walls of Las Vegas and connected me with the history of my own Latina roots.

As the years passed and Josefina left the lives of my sister and I, story was still something I held dearly. After moving to the wilderness of the Black Hills in Rapid City, South Dakota, story became something that let me escape from the angst of growing up. I would run off into the woods with only my notebook and pen as company. Finding refuge beneath the branches of old pine trees, I would write my own narrative about a world other than mine. I always used to hope that the woods would swallow me up and spit me back out into a whole new realm like how I wrote about them doing in my stories. The forest, my notebook, and my pen became a place where I could escape and create a world apart from my own.

As I grew older, I found that the more stories were shared between people, the more understanding and connection happened. It was like difference could suddenly be appreciated and people who were seconds ago viewed as strangers suddenly became friends. I became intrigued by the unseen power that shared stories had over individuals. It was at this time in my life I decided that I would become a journalist so that I could connect ideas, people, and movements with stories. I was inspired to inform the world and create awareness in it. However, I was not aware of all the complexities that this would entail.

When I started college, I began to realize that there was no such thing as being an unbiased storyteller. Everyone has their own angle of how they choose to tell a story. This knowledge threw me into despair when I began to realize that most news organizations did not stand on a platform of justice, but instead only told stories in a way that they believe will “sell”. I decided during that time that journalism would not be my only outlet for story sharing, but instead I would learn any media I could in order to build connections with storytelling. However, there was still the problem of bias that was potentially ruining my ability to share stories.

That is where Line Break Media comes into play. In my time here, I have learned about how the dominant narrative chooses to shape stories versus how people in the realm of social justice would shape them. The method in shaping stories is referred to as a frame, and the way one chooses to frame stories has different impact on the audience that the story reaches out to. In the dominant culture, most stories are very narrowed in and focused on an individual level and create a high sense of blame and guilt directed at groups that identify as people of color, queer, lower socioeconomic class, etc. These communities tend to be either silenced or pointed at as the villain in this narrow focus, which adds to the stereotyped stories that we often receive today. For example, the story of a black couple searching for food after Hurricane Katrina hits is titled as “looting”, whereas the story of a white couple searching for food after Hurricane Katrina hits is titled as “finding”. We are surrounded by stories and frames in every aspect of our lives, and it is to our detriment if we do not become more aware of them. As activists, it is important for us to become aware of our own frame, and then take a step further and be courageous enough to collaboratively create frames in a way that creates a sense of shared humanity and supports community agency, allowing the people who are directly affected to lead these movements that will shift the dominant narrative.

This was the content of the workshop that I was meant to co-facilitate at the MPIRG retreat, where over a hundred students come to learn about how to be a better activist on their own campuses and in their own communities. Although the classroom I was facilitating in was only around thirty people, I was nervous to be in front of my peers, many of whom I felt had been involved in activism longer than I had.

With eager eyes staring back at me, I took a deep breath, smiled, and introduced myself. I shared about my love of story. I shared about how truth is the heart of story, and the amount of truth we choose to reveal determines the story we tell, and how the amount of truth we choose to withhold affects the story that we tell as well. I shared about how telling my identity of being a mixed Latina that appears white has different implications for story than if I chose not to share that.

We went into the group activity, where people used an image in a magazine and a frame that they did not create to form their own story. After that, the group had lots of feedback about the activity, and I began to fall into my element of inquisitive question-asking. I finally got to relax a little in my skin as I realized that a facilitator’s job isn’t to have all the answers, but to work with a group to spark conversations and ideas towards potential answers and deeper analysis. It is amazing to be able to guide an entire group towards new thoughts and ideas; to be the rudder of a vessel as we all navigate through choppy waters.

After the workshop, many people approached me and said that they learned so many new things from it. Many students wanted to be more aware about how they frame things in the way they communicate campaigns. One student, who was doing a strategic communications plan for her own internship, was looking forward to implementing some of the ideas into the plan she was helping construct. Another student, an aspiring artist,wanted to incorporate more social justice-based framing in her art. I was amazed at the variety of people that it impacted and how framing is used in literally every area of our lives.

Sarah Valli is currently an intern at Line Break Media and a student at the University of Minnesota. She loves meeting new people, exploring the city of Minneapolis, and stretching perspectives. Although sometimes accused of speaking in riddles, she makes good use of her witty banter in poetry and playing devil’s advocate in her spare time.

Allied Media Conference

cross-posted from MAG-Net.org 

This year, the Allied Media Conference started for me before I even set foot on the Wayne State University grounds. My partner, our friend and I pulled up to a charming red brick duplex in Detroit where our friend would be staying just a couple miles from campus down Woodward Avenue. The woman who opened up her home for our friend to stay is a community activist in town, and we all sat with each other for a while, discussing what was up in the city. She filled us in on the latest attack from the forces working to erode the social infrastructure of the longstanding Black and low-income communities: shutting off the water for over 150,000 residents who haven’t been able to keep up with their bills. The situation is still unfolding as I type, and this conversation set the tone for the rest of the trip.

The main topics on my mind throughout the conference were historical context and visionary fiction: “How did we get here?” “Where are we going?”

The day before the conference began I attended the Racial Justice and Surveillance network gathering, which provided a great deal of insight for both of those questions. We heard from a local Black revolutionary about his experience with surveillance in the 1960’s. More broadly, the surveillance of communities of color, Indigenous communities and impoverished communities overall throughout U.S. history was a conversation topic for both small groups and full group discussions. Having lived in the Twin Cities for several years and learning about the surveillance of Native American communities and the American Indian Movement, this wasn’t necessarily new. But as a white man having a much less hostile relationship with surveillance and as a mediamaker, it provided space, time and stories to really think about my role in confronting racially motivated mass criminalization.

One big question to work through in small groups was “Is there a such thing as a sane surveillance program?”. The resounding answer was no, and then the question we dug into was, “What could community-led accountability structures to deal with conflict look like?” And if we had more time, we could have started to list out models that that already exist and work that is already happening.

At the end of the day we participated in a Peoples Movement Assembly and – amidst some tension and uneasiness in the room – we listed “White Supremacy [and a bunch of associated ism’s] is the root cause of surveillance” to the top of the gathering’s Points of Unity. While it was a challenging process for our multiracial group, I’m glad we were able to conclude with some consensus around an issue that so often remains below the surface.

With the conversations and lessons from the gathering grounding the rest of the conference, I also focused on the question of “how do we build the world we want?”

I re/learned the essential role that story plays in answering this question, quite movingly, in the workshop: Storytelling Black Women Writers’ Lives. A panel of Black women who have “dedicated their lives to unearthing the legacies of writers like Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Lorraine Hansberry” invited attendees to ask them questions about anything they’re dealing with in their lives. The panelists, regarded as oracles, responded with insightful and enlightening stories from Black women as guidance. The impact was profound, and the future has been adjusted because of it.

The thread to the future continued as I discussed visionary fiction with some incredibly creative and radical writers, and how to produce short films that convey elements of the world we’d like to live in. It’s more clear every day that we need to operate at more of an imaginative level if we really want to transform our reality. Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of the forthcoming Octavia’s Brood anthology says it beautifully, “All organizing work is science fiction…What does a world without poverty look like? What does a world without prisons look like? What does a world with everyone having enough food and clothing look like? We don’t know. That’s science fiction. We believe that if we’re able to dream it and see it in our minds then we are much better able to move towards creating it.”

Leaving Detroit, these words and experiences have further inspired me to leap into the unknown through radical, time traveling storytelling – and create a world where communities can self-determine their relationship with water, and surveillance is an unbelievable fable from the past.

Missing Class

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of participating a training held by Class Action and sponsored in part by Line Break Media, titled: “Both/And Communications: Tapping Class Cultures for Community Outreach.”

Class Action is an organization dedicated to ending classism, and providing a safe space for people of all classes to connect and identify issues of class and classism. Betsy Leondar-Wright, Class Action’s program director, recently published a book entitled “Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.” Class Action developed several workshop modules based on the lessons of this book, including Both/And Communications.

Being both a communications professional and someone who grew up lower class, I was very excited about this workshop—and I wasn’t let down. Betsy and two co-facilitators focused on unmasking class cultures in communications about events and issues, and shared the fascinating results of the research from the Missing Class book.

One insight that hit me in particular was that, during her course of studying 25 different social change groups across the country, Betsy was able to identify a common vocabulary shared by professional middle class activists, crossing race, gender, and issue area lines. This list of a few dozen words included such social change favorites as “hierarchy,” “autonomy,” and even “activism.” However, Betsy was unable to identify a similar common vocabulary for working class activists, even those within the same organizations as professional middle class activists. Again, this held true across lines of race, gender, and issue area. Why was there no common vocabulary? It turns out that working class activists’ language patterns when speaking about their work is so based on personal story and individualized to particular community situations that no such common catalogue can be generated from their speech.

There is a powerful lesson here, which Class Action made sure to impart: professional middle class activists tended to have strong language around systems and societal patterns, while working class activists tended to have compelling and moving stories that connected with other individuals on the ground. Thus Class Action’s emphasis on “Both/And,” a perspective much shared by Line Break Media: both the systemic view and the personal story need to be harnessed, together, to produce the most persuasive communications for social change.

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If you’d talked to my high school self, the one who was convinced my life would be full of monkeywrenching and chaining myself to trees, she would be surprised, and perhaps even disappointed, that I ended up in the communications game. If you’d talked to my mid-twenties self, the one who was agitating for climate justice and green jobs, the reaction may have been similar. Where is the action in this communication? Where is the change?

My five year old self, though? It would have made perfect sense to her. How does anything change, except through telling stories? I remember that age, feeling most at home in the embrace of a weeping willow at the creek three blocks north of my house. I felt such gratitude to my “tree mom,” safe and cradled in her branches. I remember blank confusion and horror when I first heard the stories of mass deforestation in the Amazon, my young mind making the immediate connection between far away trees and those near and dear, fearing for the kids there that relied on their tree moms, too. I knew what was happening was wrong. My love for my tree mom and the stories of forest destruction politicized me at a young age, setting me on my current trajectory. How does anyone take action, except that there’s a truth too devastating or illuminating to ignore any more? Through Line Break Media I get to return to this childhood wisdom.

Whether it’s a direct lived experience or one that is being related via words, image, movement, or notes, story is how humans make sense of the world. This very phrase may read as faddish or new-fangled. Let’s admit it, “story” and “storytelling” has become somewhat of a trend, particularly in marketing, philanthropy, and the non-profit sector. But don’t be fooled. Stories are a wisdom of childhood because stories are a wisdom of humanity, ancient and innate, blooming in the marrow of our bones and the soles of our feet.

It’s particularly ironic that some of the same institutions previously bent towards flattening language into menus of uniform jargon now embrace this language of “storytelling.” I wonder if that can truly be the case. Stories are meant to transport you; stories for social justice are meant to unsettle and unseat. The mainstream of the current storytelling trend doesn’t acknowledge that not only is storytelling deeply human, but the communities who have most cultivated storytelling and used it most strategically to foment social change are the ones most marginalized by that very mainstream.

Writing this, I sit at a particular confluence myself. As a human, I’m a creature of story; as the daughter and granddaughter of German immigrants I grew up on story; as a child in a physically and emotionally violent family I used the reading of story to escape and the writing of story to process. But then I went to school, and I did really well. I was great at soaking up the verbal cues from books and teachers, decoding what instructors really wanted and writing essays and later reports to suit the demands of academy. My personal writing voice got replaced by a sort of detached, supposedly objective-sounding vocabulary and cadence. Without me really realizing it, my edge was being polished away.

One of the reasons storytelling continues to catch on as a trend in institutions, nevermind the aforementioned well-developed traditions and narrative strategies of people historically marginalized by those same institutions, is the almost-too-late realization that the professionalized social justice movement drank too deeply from the cup of academia. Facts and data compute, but without story, they don’t connect. Analysis can reveal, but without a narrative, it’s not retained. It’s time to balance the kool-aid flavors.

So here I am, back at this confluence: a child of story, a young adult of institutional academia and all the systemic oppressions that carries along with it, and currently a communications professional working to reconcile both within myself, and within a larger movement that I hold very dear. I know that this cannot be done without giving credit where it is due. I would not have personally re-realized the power of story without leaders like LaDonna Redmond, Louis Alemaheyu, and Beth Zemsky pointing the way. I, and Line Break Media, also owe much of our approach to authors such as Malkia Cyril and the Center for Media Justice, Jen Soriano, Makani Themba-Nixon, George Lakoff, the Center for Story-Based Strategy, and Ricardo Levins-Morales. There are many others that we have worked with that will be acknowledged in future writings as we continue our work with them. It is no coincidence that the majority of these practitioners are leaders, thinkers, and activists of color.

Finally, let me return to the title of this opening blog post: story as a starting point. Line Break Media identifies with the notion that stories can shape our idea of what’s possible, can throw restraints off our visions and allow us to articulate our dreams. This articulated imagination is crucial, and it’s just the beginning. There is a whole lot of work to be done, much in telling stories, much in living them, much in building them and making them concrete, and much in fighting for them. Story is the starting point; let’s keep moving from there.