Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Civic Media Lunch: Telling stories about Occupy Wall Street

Media activists Marisa Jahn and Julian Rubenstein joined us for today’s lunch talk at the Center for Civic Media. Marisa is the new director of the People’s Production House, a New York based project that works with low income workers and youth, building capacity around media creation. Julian is am author and journalist who now works on Newsmotion.org.

Marisa walks us through some of her history as an activist and artist, showcasing some of her work as a graphic designer. For the 2008 Wall Street protests, she designed a “Bailout = Bullshit” logo and signage. An art project proposed cooking Thanksgiving dinners in five seconds using a model rocket shot into clouds under certain atmospheric conditions to generate lighting strikes.

Other projects have been more focused on community service (and perhaps more practical). A project in El Pital, Honduras has created a character, “Biblio Bandito”, who torments children until they write stories. Older kids in the village got into the act and helped put up wanted posters and threats, encouraging children to write stories and enter their names in a mustacio’d book to avoid being terrorized.

Other work has focused on curation, supporting a project by Amy Balkin to create audiotours of the Interstate 5 corridor through California. The highway features some high-pollution sites, like tire fires and chemical spills. The tour is built through community-produced audio pieces, and was presented to audiences through hosted listening sessions as well as distributed at truck stops. Another curation project produced the edited volume, “Byproduct”, a collection of cases of “artists embedded in non-art sectors”, including the case of mimes used as traffic cops in Bogota, Colombia.

During a residency in Tajikistan, she became fascinated by a two-line poem form called the biyat (think “Rubiyat”, which comes from the same poetic tradition.) She saw a parallel between this and the ways in which people used mobile phones in Tajikstan, making calls that lasted only the ten seconds of free time allowed by cellphone operators. This led to a contest to find the best 10 second poems, “juried by ‘the Oprah of northern Tajikistan’”, and shared with the country on national radio and television.

Her work in political media is connected to work with i-witness, a grassroots advocacy group documenting the policing of protests. This work, which she did with my colleague Sasha Constanza-Chock – was able to help in the dismissal of 1/3rd of protester arrests by comparing citizen and police footage to display police media manipulation.

Her current work as director of People’s Production House has worked on training teens in the New York City schools in media production, and has sent trainers into the field in places like Liberia, working on media monitoring and training civil war survivors in storytelling. People’s Production House also features a media policy channel which produces toolkits to educate people on how telecommunications policy affects lower income people and people of color.

A recent project with Domestic Workers United focuses on a law recently passed in New York State that gives nannies minimum wage, overtime and some other basic benefits. How do you communicate the essence of these laws to nannies via the phone? People’s Production House is now producing an interactive voice response system that offers audio readings of the laws, as well as detailed explanations of rights.

Julian comes from a different background: he’s a former sports journalist who cut his teeth as a sport writer at the Washington Post, dropping box scores into sports pages. He tells us about watching the transition from disinterested to deeply non-objective sports reporting, a transition that sharpened his interest in underdogs and outcasts. He spent weeks following El Duque around the minor leagues, telling the story of a celebrated Cuban pitcher trying to make it in unfamiliar America.

This interest in deep and complex storytelling led him to write a book about a truly peculiar Hungarian sports story, the tale of a minor league hockey player and Zamboni driver who ended up robbing post offices in Hungary. The book, “The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber“, is both a portrait of this figure and a rich picture of Hungary in its transition from communism to market-based systems.

His current project, Newsmotion, emerged from trying to offer narratives of the Arab spring through the view of eyewitnesses. Offering an overview of this complex story involves personal narratives, analysis of data and visualization.

Newsmotion and People’s Production House are now working together to build a platform, tentatively titled Basta! It’s designed specifically to help cover Occupy Wall Street and related movements, and Marisa tells us, the people building it have been working on these issues since 1999 in Seattle. The platform seeks to combine original content and curated aggregation, to identify the best, most relevant and accurate sources, whether they’re official, unofficial or citizen sources.

One of the key challenges of the system is finding a way to both tell the broad story – seeing the various points on a map where people are participating in the movement – and the deep story. The group is commissioning and serializing portraits of individuals to show off the complexities of these issues, with the goal of being able to tell subtle, multifaceted stories related to the issues. She offers the example of Christine Lewis, a nanny she’s worked with on the DWU project, who’s talked about the sense of guilt a nanny can feel about caring for a child for money, and the need to give twice as much love to your own child… and the tension of feeling like if you lose your job, you’ll be cut off from the child you’re caring for and have come to love. This sort of subtle, complex story may need to be told over a long time, in serial, not in a single dose.

The discussion opens up to talk about Basta!’s larger goals, as well as specific implementation. The Civic crew is skeptical that maps are the right way to present this data – Charlie deTar argues that community organizations are starting to move away from maps as a way of representing a diverse set of data points. I wonder whether maps send a message that counters the message of deep and complex stories – maps offer a narrative that a movement is broad and global, while deep storytelling offers more nuance. Leo Burd wonders whether we could connect the sorts of work Basta! is documenting with ways people could take action in their communities.

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