Interview with Thenmozhi Soundararajan
by Chad Jones
Clamor Politics Co-Editor Chad Jones spoke with Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a producer at Hard Knocks Radio and member of the Third World Majority collective, prior to the TWM delegation to the World Summit on Information Systems.
When was Third World Majority founded and how did you get there?
It was founded in 2001. I had gone to the Center for Digital Storytelling after I had graduated. I developed as a filmmaker and organizer but really to think about how to use film in an organizing fashion and to organize with film. It was in '97-'98 when I started thinking about these things it was before digital media had really come to age. The first time you have digital video cameras. And part of my intention was that you have the tools of production finally accessible to a whole bunch of communities but the political framing and the political context isn't present. As opposed to like in the '70's when there's a really strong political Third Cinema movement. You have a political vision of what a politicized media system could look like and what political media makers should look like. But the tools were still inaccessible. So I think we had a flip of that in the '90's.
Out of that kind of absence Third World Majority (TWM) was born. In my time at the Center for Digital Storytelling I ran the first national community digital storytelling program, and developed relationships with communities around the country. Our program got defunded and so my boss at the time was like you can take it independent or you can close it and start up other projects. And so when I talked to different women in the program we said let's take it independent. And so we made it explicitly political, run by women of color, run as a collective and having a very specific focus of working with communities that people talk about as underserved communities but places we really felt a lot of power and there was a lot of resonance of having young women of color training and really taking back technology as a tool for self determination.
What is like to be a woman in such a male dominated computer tech industry?
Well, I mean it's hard and it's liberating at the same time. And in the beginning, we really wanted to use that invisibility as a way to kinda scout out the field cause a lot of time we would go to industry conferences and industry sessions and totally get ignored. When you go to a game design conference and it's completely male and they're talking about the fact that, 'our consumer is 14 year old males and the main thing that they want is women with big boobs and guns'…. We use it as a lot of reconnaissance.
And through the last four years we've really tried to pull a strategy together around where we are not just asking for superficial concessions of us being at the table but really having a staff lay a really concise and specific strategy about how we could re-create the whole bounds of interaction altogether. We were kind of scoping out both [the] industry and also the non profit sector. A lot of time even non profit tech service providers really don't take the race, class or gender perspective in the way that they are offering technical assistance and also around some of the language and some of the ways that they talk about things.
In terms of the non profit tech providers with the lack of political analysis what's an example of where that's happened and is there a way that you all have been able to redress it?
Um, it could be anything, on a minor level that while we are working with an organization and they're talking about when they work with this technical service provider he doesn't address any of the women in the room he only addresses the men in the room. And he uses a lot of jargon when he's talking to people, and then you know he's really arrogant in that interaction. It could be said that it's just an interpersonal thing that it's just his personality but there's something within that kind of computer technological field which really serves this kind of arrogant, you know that the way that you win is through competition not collaboration. Structurally, even the terms people use like "master", "slave drive", you know a lot of tech people will name their computers after women or their lap tops after women. And it'll be like, "that's my bitch-you know."
Originally were you drawn to the technical assistance through film? Was your first passion film and then that drove you to the computer side of it?
Um yeah. That's what's so interesting. If you look at Third Cinema as a movement in the 70's you had all those filmmakers from the global south talking about the fact that film is a medium of the people. The thing is there's a lot of gender issues with the Third Cinema movement but that said... the struggle of the peoples filmmaker is to tell the struggle of the people. And so their struggles at the time was getting the stories out. The intersection of digital media [means that] you're looking at the tools of the masters and the stories of the masters.
When you think about hip-hop, people learned from jazz that people must own their [recording] masters, that people create their own production houses, that people run their own record companies. So you're not just an artist – it's not enough to be an artist, you have to be a businessperson. You have to be able to create your own production enterprise. But, then the problem is that you could do all that and still be fucked over because you don't own the distribution mechanisms…. In our era now the production tools are really accessible and my job as a political filmmaker is how we can create political media. But when you look at the [media] convergence, what you're seeing is media monopoly then you see companies being able to horizontally and vertically own an artist from the beginning to the end of distribution.
How do you reconcile that this technology is coming from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) or the Defense Department and reclaiming it for the people?
At every level we need to be transparent, these tools we are trying to use for self-determination have this embedded legacy of militarism and colonialism. Whether it's the camera -- when you think about the people who colonized our communities they came with the camera, they came with the cross, and they came with commerce. It was no accident that anthropologists that went to go survey our land would take pictures of the people not just because of cultural interests, but that people were as much as a resource as the land and the natural resources from that land. The camera is not technologically neutral, and Native Americans can speak to that on U.S. soil. It's not just that the internet in terms of its background in terms of militarism and its connection to the U.S. [When] the internet was being created the U.S. was engaging in COINTELPRO as part of the hysteria and madness of the Cold War. We have to be transparent about all of the levels of violence embedded into the infrastructure of the technology.
Look at the fact that it is not green, that it's extremely toxic. The labor systems are these portable, temporary kind of labor centers that are being put up to create these systems. And overall look at the fact that at any point we're talking about our entry into the conversation around technology we're always brought in as consumers as opposed to [being] high-end developers looking at an interface or program that make sense for our communities.
Which of your peers are recreating technology based on the
needs of our communities?
Well, I don't know of any other women of color technology collectives…. That said some of our tech allies in the field are the RiseUp collective and the Red Cursor Collective. We're collaborating on a curriculum that would be a political developers curriculum, called Crack the Hack…. There [are] a lot of really exciting models outside of the United States that aren't quite directly our allies yet.
What's one or two examples of groups outside the United States who you are connected to?
There's a lot of groups doing ICT technology. They are wiring villages or bringing communal computer labs to places where there is no electricity, run by solar parts and you can navigate everything without being literate…. The other huge barrier with that is that everything about the computer interface is about literacy [when 65% of the world is illiterate]. You need to be literate in a Roman language in order to understand how to navigate. Content may not be literacy based but a lot of it is.
We were on this panel at the World Social Forum, with folks from One World Asia and One World Africa, they have two different models that they talked about that were really exciting. The only problem is that they are really looking at creating things within a service model as opposed to an organizing radical model. For us we really want to be able to do both.
And why be able to do both?
I think it's important to have an organizing agenda with it because people need to recognize the media system as a political target, if you only look at it as services being offered then you are just re-creating the whole consumer relationship to the media technology system. To really jam the system you need to not only look outside the box and look at open source solutions, being able to create their own hardware and feel like they can liberate themselves from that consumption structure. Also be able to poke holes at the entire system itself. That's why you need to have an organizing, radical agenda.
At an international level, the groups that are privileged to interface at an intermediary level, as an NGO, are reformist in nature and that is what allows them to interface at an international level. But the grassroots groups that are our peers in other countries are like 'fuck the government', I mean they aren't just saying fuck the government they are saying fuck Microsoft, fuck the fact that they want to corporatize what should essentially be a people's development.
How many World Social Forums have you been to?
I've been to two. We were part of the first North American delegation [in 2002], with Grassroots Global Justice. And then we were in Mumbai [in 2004].
Why has it been important for you to go to the Social Forums?
It's really important for all organizers to go at some point to an international gathering, whether the Social Forum or something specific to [their focus]. It helps ground us, with an internationalist vision. To see our struggles as larger than the United States and to see what it means to be in global solidarity…. For example with labor, if all you do is focus on labor conditions in the U.S., you are going to have the rug pulled out from under you because those jobs are being outsourced. So, if you've never had solidarity with workers in other places, why will they have solidarity with you now? [And] around media justice, it is very important to be in touch with our peers in other countries -- like MediaAct in Korea, ISIS in the Phillipines, and there is WINS-the Womens International radio network, and FIRE based in Costa Rica. All of these parallel media movements are critical, grassroots [groups] that were started by organizers to challenge the media system in their country…. And how we can be an ally in the U.S., because the media system [here] is one of the big predators in the global market.
What do you read in order to keep up with political developments throughout the world?
Ironically, I don't go to the blogosphere because I think the blogosphere for news is actually a lot of the elite and a lot of the mainstream publications anyway. Conde Naste people thinkin' they are super cool because they have a blog. And the expertise that's available there is not necessarily the same expertise coming from our communitites. Although some of our communities are starting to blog more often…. I get a lot of my news from a lot of the mailing lists that I'm on from social justice groups. I read a lot of the progressive web portals like I read the Black Commentator, I'll read Alternet, I'll read Common Dreams and then I'll read a lot of international newspapers -- The [UK] Guardian, I will read The Financial Times and Wall Street [Journal] just to know what the enemy is doing.
Why is it important to know what the enemy is doing?
[To know] how they are covering certain frames and what they're talking about because that helps us to know what we need to subvert.
Who do you look up to?
Dr. [Babasheb] Ambedkar. He is like the Malcolm X of the Dalits. He is an inspiration for a lot of Dalits. All that he experienced in his life, and how he incorporated his belief in self-determination of the Dalit people into all levels of his work. To look at where spirituality can be a point of engagement for that.
You alluded a lot about the 60's and 70's and the Third Cinema. I'm curious, how did you develop your political analysis, was it through your family?
Part of it was. I mean my family is untouchable; we're Dalit and come from a long history of resistance. I think Dalits are one of the oldest oppressed people in the world and have had the longest chain of resistance. The caste system has been around for 5,000 years and I think that we are a very strong people, and a very strong community because of that. When I was in college I was really experiencing [this]. Being Dalit is very silencing in the United States cause not very many Dalits are out. Most of the South Asians that are here are upper caste. There is this denial about the caste privilege and how it's embedded within the community. There are maybe two professors in the whole country who are Dalit and so I definitely didn't get that support or mentorship. I didn't like the level of privilege I saw with other South Asians, both in terms of class (I wasn't from a middle class background) and in terms of caste. So I was like this is some ill shit. But I think the more I thought about it the main reason why most people don't know about untouchables even though there is more Dalits, like 300 million, more than the entire population of the United States. People don't know about it because Brahmins – the upper caste people--control all the media and they control all the actual community structures. So I was politicized to the fact that it was really important for us to get our stories out and how critical a media system can be to silencing the entire voice, image and vision and stories of the people.
How have dynamics between Dalits and Brahmins in the United States impacted things in South Asia?
I think there are two ways to look at it. A lot of people who are from the diaspora of India they call non-resident Indians (NRI). I think it's very important that people look at what's happening in the diaspora because [of the] huge impact back in the sub continent. So, for example when you look at the rise of the religious right in India the reason why the religious right is in power in India comes directly from non-resident Indians living in the UK and the United States.
What are you anticipating, looking forward to, hoping for or dreading in 2006?
It will be [TWM’s] fifth year. In 2006, we're going to publish a book called Media Justice Now, looking at the history of media justice organizing within underserved communities. It's been inspiring to know the history of all the people who have gone on before. It is an inter-generational movement, and when you look at Sharon Maeda is 60 years old. To have that collaboration to shows the strength of MJ. We're gonna do a series of media justice sessions -- training around production, messaging, journalism…. We see the scope of our work expanding, just as we see the scope of the battles expanding.
In 2006, a big target [will be] the 2006 Telecommunications Act. For people to be informed of what's at stake, and to know that we critically have to be at the table because it will shift and change the way we understand media just as the 1996 Telecommunications Act that gave us so much of the monopoly system that we are dealing with right now.
What was once called the 'worst piece of legislation ever written.'
And we're gonna have round two of that battle in 2006, and a lot of our folks don't know what its about.
Another big project is called COINTEL-NOW, a security curriculum that came out of the fact that a lot of our community partners would be like ... we don't know what to do because our offices have been getting broken into, we don't know what's a safe way to store our files. There's a lot of fear because a lot of surveillance is happening now because of the War on Terror and with groups working with vulnerable populations. Groups don't want to break the silence about it because they don't know what context is safe. Because they have lived through the violence of COINTELPRO, people assume there is nothing they can do about it, 'Ashcroft will always be listening and that there is nothing we can do.' The reality is that there are lots of intermediate steps to be safer. But I don't think we've had a holistic conversation about security. It is now a political imperative that we do, and that we break the silence.