USSF: Communication for Liberation workshop

July 2, 2010 |  By Design Action Collective |  Categories: Messaging and Strategy

Design Action workers, Sabiha, Josh, Sarah and myself, just returned from an exhilarating week at the US Social Forum in Detroit, MI where we all participated in numerous capacities. One of our main missions was to engage in the Social Forum by sponsoring a workshop called “Communication for Liberation: Communications for Social Justice.”

Our initial thoughts around this was to focus on having a conversation with other graphic and web designers, radical artists and other visual communicators so we could be very specific and hone in on the issues that really pertain to us as visual communicators.

However, as we pulled the panel together, it was clear we needed to expand the discussion to a larger perspective on communication strategies in general, and learn from a panel of “experts” (people who have honed their skills to do this work) who have applied some successful strategies to their work, and who would also have some perspectives on the challenges.

We at Design Action continue to ask ourselves “how can we better serve the movement” and continue to learn better approaches in our strategies for visual communications. In 2004 we co-sponsored the Designs on Democracy conference in order to address this question, and we had over 350 registrants representing communications, graphic and web design, illustration and photography, printmaking, programming and organizing.

We are engaged in a battle for hearts and minds with a multi-billion dollar ad industry, the right and the corporate-run news monopolies. The Right-Wing invests billions of dollars into the infrastructure of communications plans, and have laid out careful plans to analyze and focus group and strategize over their messages. George Lakoff outlined this plan in his book Moral Politics . And for more information on this, the Frontline special “The Persuaders ” is an important documentary to watch.

We see the ad industry and the spinmakers co-opt our phrases and ideas in order to sell their products and their right-wing messages. Our work has been greenwashed, bluewashed, brownwashed, and our cultures and histories have been adapted to sell Apple products and the like.

The propaganda machines of the Right have been successful at managing public participation in civil society, co-opting and controlling diverse cultural forms, and defining the political landscape.

Low-income communities of color and other marginalized communities are often disproportionately affected by this scenario. They not only lack access to fair and balanced media messages, but also to trainings/services/venues that allow them to break through the corporate media barriers and speak to larger public about injustices suffered within their communities and those of their peers.

So, our communications work is about justice – Communications Justice, Media Justice. Who has internet access? Whose stories get media attention and who is represented to tell those stories? What issues are being framed wrongly and negatively by right-wing opinion-swayers (don’t get me started).  How are we going to combat – or better yet, pre-empt – these attacks and misleading representations from the right-wing? How do we take control of the debate?

We need to better challenge the belief systems that are out there and intercept those assumptions to change the story and shift the general consciousness.

How do we influence the overall narrative by using more strategic memes, viral messages, songs and images? How do we take advantage of new medias and historic medias to better distribute these stories?

How do we better frame our messages to inspire people to action?

Thus, for the US Social Forum, we convened a panel that represents a spectrum of communications workers who use different cultural, strategic and traditional organizing techniques and methods, people who are still using the legacy of silkscreening as a means of owning our own production, to movement-supporting offset printing, as well as earning media, and using new digital media to tell the story and influence policy.

We asked each presenter to talk about a communications campaign:

  • What where the successes and challenges
  • What were the goals of the campaign,
  • What was the process and tools and methods used for the final outcome
  • What were the lessons learned
  • How did they measure the results and outcomes.
  • How were these results used to affect change?

On the panel was:

Melanie Cervantes, Radical Artist and Printmaker, Dignidad Rebelde

Steven Renderos, Media Justice Organizer, Mainstreet Project and Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-net)

Joseph Phelan, Communications Strategist, Miami Workers Center

Jen Soriano, Communications Consultant, Grassroots Global Justice and co-founder of the Center for Media Justice

Sabiha Basrai, Graphic Designer, Design Action Collective

The presentations:

Melanie Cervantes, Dignidad Rebelde

Melanie and her partner Jesus Barraza are radical Chican@ artists who believe in being accountable to the people and communities they are representing in their art. They develop the messaging in collaboration with the community.

For Arizona SB1070: Alto AZ had put a call out on the internet to mobilize artists to create a viral art campaign.

Melanie mentioned that the use of humor, and putting beauty in the streets and fun are important to the visuals of the march and campaign. They vetted the messages of their artwork with the campaign to make sure they were accurately and appropriately delivering consistent messaging.

For May 1, they collaborated with the coalition sponsoring the march to produce 500 posters. The communities and kids came to Eastside Arts Alliance to silkscreen their placards for the march.

They also recruited artists to contribute art and posters to the marches in AZ in solidarity. Inkworks donated the paper. They sent the posters to AZ and sold the leftovers online to finance the poster making. They used their relationships to put art back into the hands of the people in AZ.

Stickers of the posters were put on the tubes for the direct action blockades!

Steven Renderos, Main Street Project and MAG-Net

Main Street Project does community and media justice organizing in rural and immigrant communities in MN. They are using new media as a tool to change policies, especially around universal broadband and net neutrality.

The debate in Washington DC about the future of the internet is mostly amongst the suits. Communities of color have not been able to participate in this debate. More and more things are online such as school enrollment and applications, however many people – especially communities of color –  do not have access to the internet.

MAG-Net is active in the policy debate and using culture to cut through the wonky language of the FCC. They created a song culture-jamming a popular Lady Gaga song to generate interest in the larger debate over universal broadband. It was distributed and popularized via listservs  and was used as a tool to generate interest and to sign on to a pledge for digital inclusion. They also shared this song with the policy makers.

Hear the song here .

Joseph Phelan, Miami Workers Center

The Miami Workers Center is a strategy and action center that builds the collective strength of working class and poor Black and Latino communities in Miami. MWC has an integrated communications strategy as part of their organizing.

Who is the audience, the targets? Allies? Base?

They strategize whether they should attack the target or applaud the target for making the coming around to the right decision.

In Miami, 1200 people (mostly the black voting base) were displaced in order to make room for condo “mixed-use” development. MWC leading a campaign against this. They needed to shift consciousness to say that development is inherently not good and gentrification is bad. However the word gentrification is not translatable and the description of it is a mouthful. So MWC decided that they needed to get people saying the word “gentrification” over and over and get people talking about is a bad thing.

In a 3-month campaign, MWC worked with interns to do a traditional door-knocking campaign in order to get the the implications of gentrification into the collective consciousness.

In the end, the Miami Herald’s editorial came out against the development, and it was a measurable victory for MWC. Shortly after, Hurricane Wilma hit Miami, displacing more people, and the Herald went back to MWC to ask them what stories to cover.

MWC now has inserted the voices of the people into the debate and shifted the framework around development, displacement and gentrification.

1 year later, the city met all the demands of the campaign and promised the 1 to 1 return of homes to the displaced.

Jen Soriano, Grassroots Global Justice

Jen talked about that having the right frames validate our stories. And how cultural work is integral in making the stories be heard.

In her slideshow, Jen showed an example of negative portrayal of the WTO protests in the media (protestors fighting with police in riot gear) and also showed a photo of an integrated march of protestors showing solidarity and movement building. Why does the media portray the negative imagery and not the intense strength of our movement?

We need to tell deeper stories  – build meaning in 3 dimensions – and be disciplined.

To paraphrase Ricardo Levins-Morales, we need to make the invisible, visible.

For more on Jen:

Sabiha Basrai, Design Action

Sabiha wrote a blog post on the Case Study she presented on the People’s Poster Project Causa Justa::Just Cause poster.

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