On Transmedia and Transformative Media Organizing: An Interview with MIT's Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part Three)

What parallels do you see between the immigrant rights movement activities you discuss here and the way that transmedia organizing is being deployed right now in the growing struggle against racialized police violence in the United States? Are there lessons which these movements might draw from each other? Absolutely. In fact, these movements are deeply intertwined, even as it remains important to recognize the specificity of anti-Black police violence. #BlackLivesMatter calls on all of us to do the work of centering anti-Black violence.

And yet the immigrant rights movement, especially as it has developed during the last decade, is no longer (if it ever was) primarily a movement about assimilation to the American Dream. We’re talking in the context of a ballooning detention and deportation system that, under Obama alone, has rounded up and deported over two million people. TWO MILLION PEOPLE. The deportation system includes detention facilities (prisons) that are built and managed by the same private, for-profit corporations that build and manage prisons and jails across the country (see Detention Watch Network for the latest research on this system). In California, Ruthie Gilmore has written about the rise of the “Golden Gulag” and a carceral state that uses prisons as a mechanism of racial control. Michelle Alexander has written about the “New Jim Crow,” and the post- civil rights movement drug war policies that have been used to systematically disenfranchise millions of African-Americans through deeply racist policies, policing, unequal sentencing, and so on.

So the policing, detention, deportation, and disproportionate murder of primarily but by no means exclusively Brown people, enacted through immigration policy, DHS, ICE, and the detention/deportation system, is deeply linked to the policing, detention, warehousing, and murder of disproportionately, but by no means exclusively, Black people through the so-called drug war. Some activists call this the “Crimmigration” system. Harsha Walia puts it in transnational context and calls it “Border Imperialism,” and notes that it’s the continuation of centuries of settler colonialism.

The increased militancy of the immigrant rights movement combined with the uprisings of #BlackLivesMatter have brought us to an important critical moment of rupture in the glossy facade of multicultural, neoliberal, info capitalism.

This rupture is filled with the brilliant symbols, bodies, ideas, stories, demands, and dreams of people who have been long excluded, invisibilized, and oppressed. People of Color, Black people specifically, Queer and Trans* women of color, UndocuQueer people, are using media both new and old to create community, gain visibility, speak truth to power, and to articulate new identities and new intersectional social movements.

It’s a moment of incredible pain and rage, but also a moment of great hope and possibility.

To be realistic, it’s still possible that the primary outcome of the energy generated by #BlackLivesMatter will be more money for police forces to purchase new equipment (body cameras), which is not going to do much to truly advance racial justice and the structural dismantling of white supremacy in the United States. There’s a question here: are we going to be able to use this moment to come to terms with just how deep anti-Blackness runs as a foundational force in our society?

The immigrant rights movement has been internally split between those who advocate for an assimilationist narrative that involves primarily articulating demands for inclusion in (white, straight, capitalist, patriarchal, militarist) United States society, and those who are bringing an intersectional analysis to their organizing processes, strategies, goals, narratives, and demands. The second approach has been gaining ground, as the first failed to win anything.

Education Not Deportation (END) campaigns, for example, directly link the immigrant rights movement to the broader movement against the growing prison system, and do so in ways that are fueled by direct action, have concrete impacts on real people’s lives, and are also highly mediated events that bridge social media, live streaming, and often receive print and broadcast coverage in both Spanish and English language mass media.

It would be interesting to see something similar to END emerge from the prison abolition movement - highly publicized direct actions, made visible through both social and mass media, focused on liberating specific incarcerated individuals. But the thing is that certain voices  within the immigrant rights movement are always saying ‘we’re not criminals. We just want to assimilate. Stop treating us like terrorists and criminals.’ While it’s possible to deeply disagree with the framing but still admit that it has the potential to win gains for large segments of non-Black immigrant communities, this is pretty much a losing strategy for Black people, since for hundreds of years the mass media system has been training us all to see all Black people as criminals.

But respectability politics will probably always continue.

You note that half of the royalties from the book’s sales go to the Mobile Voices Project. Can you tell us more about this project and the ways that it helps to address some of the issues your book has identified?

VozMob is an incredible experience in popular education, participatory research and design, and community organizing, centered around amplifying the voices of immigrant workers in Los Angeles by appropriating mobile phones for popular communication. It began around 2007, and the project is still going strong in 2015. I urge readers to visit the project site, where there are now thousands of posts from day laborers, household workers, students, and other folks from the community around the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA). You can also read more about the participatory research and design process that produced the project in the book chapter that was coauthored by the project participants, including community members, organizers, university based researchers, and designers. The chapter is titled "Mobile Voices,” (coauthored with 12 members of the VozMob project), it can be found in Minna Aslama and Phil Napoli (eds.), Communications Research in Action: Scholar-Activist Collaborations for a Democratic Public Sphere. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2010. (A preprint version is here).

The VozMob Drupal Distribution is the free/libre open source software that powers VozMob.net, and its features have been developed through participatory design. This same code now powers the hosted mobile platform called Vojo.co . So far, it has been localized, including all interactive voice menu elements, in English, Brazilian Portuguese, and Spanish. It’s been used by migrant workers in Mexico to report recruitment fraud , by Afro-Brazilian teens from a fishing village in Salvador, Brazil to report environmental damage from a chemical spill, in Hong Kong by participants in the Umbrella Movement to record songs and poems from the streets, among many other projects. It has been used in Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, Detroit, and locations across the United States. It powers the Tribeca award-winning participatory documentary project Sandy Storyline, which documents people’s experiences surviving Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent recovery efforts.

The VozMob code has been useful to such a wide range of groups because it was developed hand in hand with a user community whose experience of communication technology is similar to that of the majority of human beings (cheap cell phones, poor, sporadic internet access), but whose needs, ideas, and stories are rarely considered by a system of technology design that is centered on what’s profitable. That system is run by mostly white (and Asian) middle class cishet men in the 1/3rd world who have been socialized into a startup culture that sadly reproduces some of the worst of heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy. I’m not saying developers are bad guys, I’m saying the structure of technology development militates towards making potentially profitable apps for a small, relatively homogenous sliver of the global population. VozMob is an important counterexample. VozMob is looking for a new round of financial support and volunteers, get in touch with them on twitter at @vozmob!

My next book, which I’m in the process of writing now, is going to be focused on exactly these questions of design and social justice. Who gets to design technologies? Who are they designed for? Who benefits the most from the design process as it’s currently structured? What do already existing alternative models of technology design look like, and how can we scale them, how can we make radically inclusive design the norm? We’ve been exploring these questions in courses like the Civic Media Co-Design Studio at MIT, event spaces like the Future Design Lab at the Allied Media Conference , and in community-led projects at Research Action Design. This work feels incredibly urgent to me right now, and I hope that folks who are interested in these questions will get in touch! hmu: @schock.

Thank you so much Henry!

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He's a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media , creator of the MIT Codesign Studio and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.