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Third World Majority

Thenmozhi Soundarajan

Sidebar: What is the Community Digital Storytelling Movement?

Third World Majority. Think about it.

Isn’t it funny how a name can reframe the entire way the non-profit industrial complex defines the majority of people locked out from most of the world’s resources? Are we your under-resourced and marginalized minority constituents, welfare mothers, juvenile delinquents, terrorists, maids, sex workers, drug addicts, illegal aliens, and sweatshop workers? Or are we our own visionaries, singers, poets, architects, filmmakers, organizers, scholars, and historians?

As the women of Third World Majority (TWM), we struggle with our vision and the definitions that can limit or free us. Within TWM, we are a collective of young women of color building a new media center. We partner with communities of color and indigenous communities to provide multimedia trainings and to develop strategies for how we can reclaim technology resources for our self-determination. We focus on the digital storytelling movement, in which communities create their own stories from the found material in their lives (art, oral history, creative writing, photographs, music, written script, letters, news clippings) and combine it with new media production (digital video, the Web, graphic design, sound engineering, animation) to tell their own truths in their own voices. In a lot of ways the work we do isn’t just about telling stories, it’s about reclaiming our histories.

From Museums to Ray Guns, Good Old Boys to Sweatshops: Where do we Fit in?

When we started TWM we had very few answers and many questions: Why do we feel uncomfortable around technology? Why is the culture of training and learning technology so inaccessible? Why are media labs, tech centers, and public access stations so often empty and not used by communities of color? Why are all the techies we know white alpha males with no social skills? And why is the damn media democracy movement so white? While these were some heavy questions, the first big step for our work with technology began by understanding its military and colonial legacy, the boy culture that supports this legacy, and the physical workforce who creates these technologies.

Whether it is the internet or the camera, all of the technologies that we work with have particular legacies of colonialism and military and police intervention. For example, the Internet, the original ARPANET, was a direct result of a scientific and military collaboration to develop a communications system for times of military crisis when it debuted in the 1970s. While part of this was related to Cold War concerns, it was also occurring in the backdrop of counter-intelligence and repression within many of the communities of color in the U.S. Film and video are good examples of the role mainstream media and news play in dividing our communities. We are criminals, crack whores, strippers, comic relief, terrorists, and other negative stereotypes that promote a deep powerlessness. Cultural critic Coco Fusco places these media representations — part of our ongoing betrayal by the camera in ethnography and anthropology — as the first line of colonial engagement with our peoples. This trauma is remembered by our peoples, even as it is reinforced today by the fact that almost every part of our lives is now under surveillance with video cameras.

We need to think about computers not as an inevitable product of progress, but as a specific technology embedded with the philosophy of the West’s rugged individualism and colonialism. It is part of the legacy of consumerism where there is an expectation that people will use their technical devices in the privacy of their homes, alienating and separating themselves from other people. If you look at communities in the Global South, technology applications have been approached with a different perspective and the emphasis is on communal use, on ways that people share resources and maximize the productivity for the community’s benefit.

This extends even to the color palettes and design motifs of the computer world. Last time I checked, Photoshop wasn’t offering ghetto brick, mud walls, or third world stucco filters that I could use to represent the worlds my people live in now. And this reflects the lack of sensitivity the creators of software have in seeing different ways of seeing between cultures. But once again computers are a reflection of who can currently afford the machines and their particularly color- and culture-blind attitude that is particularly profound with the computer industry

This brings us to the problem of boys. When we are teaching technology, we in TWM are quite aware of the white boy cult that surrounds technology. Or more specifically, the white boy cult of technology. Our culture privileges the technical skills of boys at an early age, with so many “ins” to technology that girls are only beginning to have (think video games and Erector sets). And because of that boys, and later the alpha males of the dot com era, defined the culture and the language of technology that we have to work in. That is why so much of the language around computers is about domination and latently sexual (like plug-and-play, slave drives, master control, etc). It’s also why so many of the representations in video games are beef-cakey heroes, big-busted women, and outdated stereotypes of people of color as athletes, terrorists, pimps, and dancers. In this boy culture, so much about how learning is transferred isn’t collaborative. It is about one-upmanship and competition, never about true collaboration. It is a reflection of the arrogance of male privilege, of who has the time and money to keep up with all of the cool new gadgets, latest web sites, and hot software.

It is also important to remember how toxic computer manufacturing is, and to keep in mind who builds these computers. Whether it is in the Third World or in the U.S., it is mainly women and communities of color who are vulnerable to both the repressive labor practices and the unregulated toxic exposure in the high tech sweatshops of Hewlett Packard, Intel, Apple, and Microsoft. The computer designers and engineers, who design these fancy machines, are thinking more about the bottom line than about the ongoing human cost of the industry. While computers are promoted as a wave of new green industry, they are in fact quite stained with blood.

All of that said, the reason why TWM still does the work we do relates to our attitude about literacy and its relationship to liberation. Clearly, the way technology is set up now is fucked-up for our people and communities. However, the current evolution of the culture of personal computing will be with us for the next 50 to 60 years. This makes it a critical time for all of us to hack the hardware and the culture of this system and move the trajectory of our communities from compliant consumers to cultural and technical activists in every form of the media.

But what would this look like?

Rebuilding the Matriarchy: A TWM Methodology

We recognized first and foremost that since media spaces were places associated with past and current drama that we could not build a physical lab for people to enter. Creating a technology space and then expecting that to become a “community center” is a ridiculous concept. There is nothing inherently built into a computer that engenders community building (in fact it is exactly the opposite). So with our first seed grant we bought a seven-station portable laptop lab. With the laptops we could train in the spaces where communities already feel at home. We taught around the country in barns, churches, community centers, schools, and people’s homes. With the technology portable and actually rather small, folks were able to focus on the cultural products they were translating and reshaping into a digital medium rather stress about the technology itself. It also prioritized for us the primacy of the community and the use of technology as tool and just a tool.

The other aspect of our teaching process that we needed to tackle was how to unpack the assumptions around the white boy’s club of technology. As young women of color who had been early adopters of web and video technologies for our community movements, we had all faced being shut out of labs, being condescended to by other techies, and learning the tools on curriculum that were at best irrelevant and, at worst horribly offensive. We also realized that as working class young women of color in a racist, sexist, classist society, our leadership and vision for our communities is continually silenced (inside and outside of lab spaces).

So we began to rebuild the matriarchy. We prioritized the leadership of young women of color as our trainers, as our organizers, and as tech support. When folks come to one of our trainings, one of the standard lines we hear is “Wow, I never have seen so many young women, let alone young women of color, know what they are doing around so many computers!” Yeah I say, and we even know how to program our own VCRs! It’s funny how so simple a shift of who is teaching is not a simple thing at all. Because while it literally changes the face of who is training, the relationships built within this context are also different. And while this is not to repeat stereotypes, as an organization we are working towards modeling collective, intentional, nurturing models of leadership that move beyond gender binaries.

Finally I think as young women, we assert and recognize the leadership women have had for a long time in our communities that, from mother to daughter, nurtures the passing on of our stories, culture, and traditions. This is an extremely important role young women continue to play, and we believe it is vital to recontextualize our work as not only technology training but also spaces of our cultural resistance.

Another value we practice at TWM is co-teaching with a community teacher curriculum that comes from the community we are working with. There are two parts to why we follow this concept. First, technology curriculum at schools and educational institutions has caused an incredible trauma within our communities because the textbooks, the software, and the hardware are not built with the history and cultural context of our communities in mind. When you are setting up a training environment, you have to be really deliberate about what images, sounds, and effects are presented, because people are already expecting to be shut down. So, it is really important to have curriculum that comes from our communities’ perspectives, that speaks to our own ideas, and the value systems that are embedded in the way we tell stories. Secondly because technical skill is privileged over other kinds of knowledge, we want to challenge folks and their understanding of what an expert could be. No matter what kind of training we offer, we always try to have a community teacher present, whose community wisdom is given equal weight to the “technical” knowledge of the other trainers present.

Media Justice: A Media for the People

Once we had our lab and our teaching methodology straight, our focus was to then figure out how to build meaningful participation from communities of color and indigenous communities within the realm of the media democracy movement. Lots of different folks define the work of the media democracy movement as so many different things, but at TWM we define the media democracy movement to include folks who are working on media accountability and policy, cultural workers and trainers of media production (film, video, radio, etc), media literacy, alternative journalism and virtual/real world technology organizing.

Every organization working on social justice issues realizes that the media is a huge part of the problem in our communities and recently there have been several disappointing “media convergence” events. Many of the traditional media organizing institutions have convened these strategy sessions and, surprise surprise, they have consistently not been strategic about what it would take to involve just a few people of color in panels and leadership circles. They have neglected to think about how to fundamentally change up the structure and language of discourse within each of these gatherings, so that our communities, who are directly affected, can own the movement and the vision behind this work.

Short of a revolution and a massive re-distribution of wealth, one of the events we are organizing with a collective of other media organizations and organizers of color is a Media Justice gathering and teaching session in Selma, Alabama late next year. Similar to Environmental Justice Movement, we felt that communities of color and indigenous communities needed to stake out a different space within and apart from the larger media democracy movement. We wanted to really be able to address the difference of focus and approach to our media organizing based on applying a rigorous race, class, and gender analysis to these issues. A gathering in Selma would frame our meeting in the context of one of the more visible movements for self-determination within this country and give a historicity and the needed political weight to draw community organizations into a dialogue around media issues. In this historic gathering we will educate each other on our issues, develop a core set of accessible principles around the Media Justice work, and invite both networks and base building community organizations to participate and widen the circle of those familiar and connected to media organizing.

It’s ambitious, I know, but as group of headstrong young women, we were never ones to limit the vision of the world our communities wanted by the pesky reality of systemic oppression. In some ways, our gift has been the stubbornness to build institutions that don’t reflect the system we are trying to break down but create the world and relationship we want now. I say that in a way that is harsh but sincere because I believe that if we can keep our values close, our imaginations open, and our stories fierce, We can and will win.

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