Building Civic Engagement and Reframing Movements: For Youth, By Youth

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change” – Don’t Think of an Elephant!, George Lakoff 

Referencing George Lakoff’s work on conceptual metaphors, East LA Nancy recently put out a call on the blogosphere for  immigrants to start reframing their own movements, messages, and struggles.  She expresses her skepticism of the seemingly pro-immigrant language heard at the DNC in Charlotte — foreign terms like “Aspiring” or “New Americans” — and points out the hypocrisy in how the cries (and arrests) of peacefully protesting DREAMERs outside were ignored.

Nancy describes 2 prominent frames in the messaging of the DREAMER movement:

  • polarities, like the “good/bad immigrant” frame (DREAMERs = good / parents, criminals = bad); commonly used in the earlier years of the movement; whose effect is divisive rather than unifying
  • values-based or humanistic frames (key works: rights, dignity, respect, equality); used more recently by DREAMERs; inclusive, unifying rather than dividing

So she asks, “Do we continue with the current framing and messaging around immigration or do we challenge ourselves as a movement to truly reflect and redefine our values and ourselves?”

I know both aims can be achieved: communities/members acting as their own spokespersons AND exercising the right to frame their own message.  The best example I can find is the work of an organization called Many Languages, One Voice (MLOV) based here in the District of Columbia.  Part of their hard-earned successes are the result of community organizing.  [If you aren’t entirely sure what I mean by organizing, think about this quote: “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”]

Getting back to the point, how does ELL organizing in DC relate to the DREAMERs? MLOV’s student-led youth organizing body— S.M.A.R.T. (Student Multi-Ethnic Action Research Team)— is comprised of high school students who have one thing in common: English is not their primary language. Nevertheless, they have worked collectively to bring their voices to the deciding table when it comes to school reform, creating student groups and dialoging with key government agencies and officials. In the end, MLOV believes the students themselves are experts in the issues they face, yet disproportionately represented in the decision-making process.  Their visions for ELL-friendly schools in the future are grounded in student-led (thus, participatory action) research and methodology. 

Furthermore, MLOV and S.M.A.R.T.’s messaging includes many examples of the humanistic frame now being used by the DREAMERs. Their “ELL Student Bill of Rights,” for example, promotes the message that ” “language is a right” and that students deserve “equal opportunities” (echoing the words of the DC Language Access Act).   Click here for the PDF doc on their website.

Like the DREAMERs, these ELL organizers are learning a lesson that can’t be taught in the classroom: civic engagement and building community power.  

Plus, these youth are quite savvy media users and producers — definitely worth following. For a preview, check out a fun clay-mation video made by  S.M.A.R.T. talking about a common issue ELL students face in school and how adults can effectively act as allies.

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Broader Movement Part Deux

You probably didn’t hear this story about “Hizzoner” Mayor Vincent Gray.  Heads are rolling at the Wilson Building, making for a continuous media frenzy around the investigations at the expense of most else. [No, ribbon cuttings don’t count, Mr. Gray]. But regardless of being yesterday’s news by now, this “story” is worth re-examining for a few reasons. What am I talking about? See for yourself:

There’s an old maxim in politics: When the going gets rough, it’s time to get tough on immigrant convenience store clerks. Especially those who speak limited English and sell rolling papers and individually wrapped cigars to pot smokers in a poor part of the city. (Alan Suderman, Washington City Paper)

One reader commented, “Is this even legal?”

Good question. I’ll be honest: I’m not a lawyer, and despite having read the DC Language Access Act more times than I can even recount, it’s a question I’m not qualified to answer. What I can say though, is that it’s extremely, extremely shady.

Let’s examine the evidence:

It did not seem like many of the foreign-born clerks would be able to read the letters without some assistance, as they often appeared to have no idea what the mayor was saying. Majett said it’s a common ploy for immigrant clerks to claim poor English skills whenever dealing with the DCRA. “We always get that,” he said. And Gray said they were still getting the message. “They don’t speak English well, but they understand this is an enforcement visit,” he said.

We have a few problems here:

1) DC government was interacting in an official capacity (i.e. “enforcement visit”) with constituents who are protected under the DCLAA, 2) knowing full well that “they don’t speak English well.” But here’s the clincher: 3) In saying “we always get [immigrants “pretending” not to speak English],” DCRA and other government agencies have found an excuse to unilaterally violate the Act.

I bring this issue up not to draw any more attention to Gray’s administration, but to think about the implications of this and other anti-immigrant discourse in the public sphere. How can Gray, or any Mayor for that matter, achieve “One City” with this kind of behavior and rhetoric? How can people like me hope for a “broader language access movement” (as the title suggests) when we can’t get basic things right?

Building a Broader Language Access Movement

Last Friday at “La Casa” in Mt. Pleasant, Many Languages / One Voice (MLOV) advocates gathered for a powerful (and long overdue) teach-in, co-hosted with the organization BeHEARDDC — a true testament to the power of grassroots coalition building.  The event was meant to highlight some of the overlapping challenges faced by deaf and LEP communities,
especially the barriers in equal access to government services.   Here’s a quick rundown of what I took away from the event:

1) Language access doesn’t have to be an immigrant rights or differently-abled issue, but a social justice issue for all.  When I think of “language access” beneficiaries, I’m picturing limited- or non-English proficient individuals in the immigrant community.   But Talila Lewis, the founder of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf) said it doesn’t have to be that way.  Why?  Because…

2) Wrongful incarceration is an issue that impacts the immigrant AND deaf community alike, oftentimes as a result of poor language access implementation and compliance.  MLOV board member Nadia Firozvi shared a story about her and DC’s first language access complainant, a Korean man who spent 4 days in jail without interpretation… only to find out he was the wrong Mr. Lee.  As a consequence, DC was found in noncompliance with the Act and the city took major steps in retraining all of their personnel.  They now have “Liaison Units” for the Latino, API and LGBT communities.  Nevertheless, LA implementation has a long way to go, according to a recent report released by the DC Language Access Coalition and the AU-Washington College of Law.

3) Toward a broader language access movement?  Technically, the DCLAA only covers LEP/NEP individuals, not the deaf.  They are backed by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).  However, the advocates on both sides agreed that ADA and the DCLAA are not enough on their own.  Talila suggested we think about both groups as linguistic minorities, which would include spoken and visual communication.  If these groups continue mobilizing under the broader umbrella of government accessibility, I can only see a stronger movement in the future and the legislative reform that is so sorely needed.  A most inspiring event!

Where visual semiotics and advocacy intersect: The infographic

In much of his work, linguist and social semiotician van Leewen (2004) speaks to the importance of visual literacy as the new literacy society (and individuals) will need to address in the professional context.  He says “visual communication is coming to be less and less the domain of specialists, and more and more crucial in the domains of public communication.”  Unfortunately, he argues the current education system does little to improve this.  [Compare the amount of drawing you did in 1st grade vs. 12th… get it?] He goes so far as to say that “not being ‘visually literate’ will begin to attract social sanctions… will begin to be a matter of survival, especially in the workplace” (3).

Luckily, some advocacy and social justice organizations are ahead of the curve by keeping their graphics as stimulating as the text in their research publications.

One of the benefits of using visual representations is that the message is received in such an instantaneous way.  [For the sociolinguists reading right now, van Leeuwen calls them image acts: speech acts + images that are realized as a single syntagmatic unit].  For many social justice organizations (and non-profits in general) resources are low.  Investing in good graphics can mean the difference between reaching 0 and 1000 people.  Or more!
A local DC group called Save Our Safety Net is great when it comes to using visuals and props in their organizing, with some clear influence of the practices behind radical puppet theater.  Anyway, you can click here for a taste, around minute 1:25, if you wonder what that looks like inside the chambers of DC City Council during budget season.
They also happen to have made huge gains this year in advocating for the restoration of the social service budget that was about to be hacked away.   Coincidence?  I think a lot of the success they’ve had in building grassroots support stems from (at least partially) their ability to make speaking truth to power a fun, creative, and ultimately engaging endeavor as well.
[UPDATE: After a little more research I’ve learned that they have a name: Infographics.  Check out this article here by the New Organizing Institute to find out more about how to make infographics work for your cause.  In it they recommend Visual.ly, a community platform for making data visualizations and infographics based on data from Twitter and Facebook.  Free and new, user-friendly way to represent data?  I like it.]

On the whole Barry thing

By now if you live in the District you’ve surely heard of the latest Marion Barry scandal.  No, I don’t mean the unfortunate police sting which elicited those (in)famous last words “b**** set me up,” I’m talking about the straight-up race-baiting, anti-immigrant antics and commentary about Asian-owned businesses and Filipino nurses.  And now that I’m not writing about this topic for class, dear readers, I’m excited to share my thoughts more casually with you.

The first point is pretty obvious, but worth mentioning:  Hill (1995) found that public figures are treated differently when it comes to being publicly racist/homophobic/bigoted in general.  They are given a certain level of responsibility above ordinary individuals to maintain a certain demeanor which typically precludes them from being openly racist.  [Why? Voters are one easy reason.]  Unless that’s your shtick of course, in which case an entirely different set of rules apply.

Racists can’t/don’t often admit to being racist.  It’s the equivalent of linguistic suicide, an example of what sociolinguists might call a face-threatening act. Combine this with point #1 and increasingly aggressive journalistic practices, linguists are finding that politicians are developing and using an array of linguistic strategies for getting themselves out of messes their mouths have created. Clayman (2001) calls this “managing interactional resistance” and the subfield of CA (conversation analysis) has made significant contributions as a whole.  Check out more of his work here, many articles are available for free download.

But who has a say in determining if someone said something racist anyway?  

Not the courts, at least here: Chiang (2010) points out that the US stands apart from industrialized nations in not protecting individuals (and groups, as the case may be) from hate speech.  In those countries that do, it’s called group defamation, encompassing libel and slander.   Furthermore, Chiang finds that because free speech so commonly trumps hate speech legislatively, public discussions of whether X was racist or not get distracted by ideological debates on Constitutional provisions.

Erickson once referred to conversations as “trees that climb back.”  If that’s true, perhaps this is a large, public conversation then.   The 24 hour news cycle and sensationalizing angle of media plays a role in this, editorializing till the end.  But while the media may surely be the loudest, the level of public outcry/outrage is important as well.  Dedicated advocates do their best to push back, but the current is unbelievably strong.

In Barry’s (and most cases it seems) the white flag comes as an apology.   Then what????  Another incident, with the media drive stories, advocates adding fuel to the fire, and the saga continues.

In Barry’s case, the story continues to develop.  Who would have guessed that an unexpected hospitalization during a taxpayer-funded conference in Vegas would prompt such a change of heart?  Tune in this morning (5/24) for live Twitter coverage of the press conference where Barry addresses the public on his anti-Asian remarks.

And the fojol brothers.?  Don’t even get me started….

[UPDATE (5/25): Barry has semi-public meeting, won’t allow media in for the “apology” itself.  Also, uses the disparaging term Polack to describe Polish, prompting yet another apology request from the Polish American Association.]

Talking through music

As Facebook is as good a research site as any other, I wanted to share some insights about a video that’s been going around, “Man in Nursing Home Reacts to Hearing Music from his Era,” seen here.

The short documentary piece profiles Henry, a man in the later stages of Alzheimer’s who is usually “inert, maybe depressed, unresponsive,  and almost unalive” according to Dr. Oliver Sachs, a neuroscientist specializing in music and cognition, author of the book Musicophelia.  Using a music therapy approach, aided by an Iphone donation campaign, Dr. Sachs and his team yielded fascinating results about the influence of language on the mind.

After being played some of Henry’s favorite music from his youth, he became alive: tapping his feet, moving his arms, singing along “with a face that exudes expression,” Sachs says.  After that, Henry gives back the headphones and the workers proceed to ask him a couple questions.  Here again, the effects are salient.  A usually mute Henry begins to talk:

Q: Do you like music?

Henry: Of course I like music! I’m crazy about music- and you play beautiful music.  Good sounds.  Beautiful.

Q: Did you play music- did you like music when you were young?

Henry: Yes- yes! I went to the big dances and things..

Q: What was your favorite music when you were young?

Henry: ..w-w-well I guess, I guess you could say.. Cab Calloway was the number one guy that I liked.

Q: Well, what was your favorite Cab Calloway song?

Henry:  Well, I::ll be ho:me for Chri:stma:s… (goes on to sing a few verses with the most endearing vibratto)

You’re probably expecting some sort of micro-level discourse analysis at this point.  My only intention was to riff on a hunch inspired by this video:  the idea of music as interlocutor/discourse system/modality.  Was Henry’s mind tired of human interlocutors?  Did he need to “talk” to (and through) music to liven up his mind?

For more information on Dr. Sachs’ research on music and memory, to volunteer or donate iPods, visit: http://www.MusicandMemory.org.

On (Re)Constructed Discourse, KONY2012 and DC as Activist Playground

A week or so ago, my 13 year old cousin posted a bizarre looking link on my Facebook wall.  At the time I had no idea what “KONY2012” referred to and I shrugged it off as spam or a pesky virus.  A day or so later, I realized my ignorance: This Kony business was everywhere.  But in no time at all, commentary on my wall went from guilt-inducing command (“you must watch this!”) to more critical extrospection (“should we watch this?”).

From a sociolinguistic POV, much of the debate centers around issues of voice, authorship, and representation, showing that it’s not about what is being communicated, but who is doing the communicating in the first place.  Invisible Children, the organization behind the 30-minute documentary, gave instructions for viewers to support the cause by spreading the video and donating to the organization.  This strategy is by no means groundbreaking:  advocacy organizations and campaigns have quickly tapped into the affordances of a web3.0 world with virtual engagement strategies (like us, retweet this, sign on if you support… the list goes on. But the explosiveness of the Kony2012 campaign raised concerns about the limitations of mere awareness, and more importantly, the fallacious thinking behind slogans like “speaking for the voiceless.”

Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist and longtime activist uploaded Youtube video with a powerful message, saying: “If you’re showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story.”

In one of her many best-selling books, Professor Deborah Tannen argued that what linguists had long termed reported speech was a misnomer, replacing it with the idea of constructed dialogue.  Why constructed dialogue?  She argued (quite successfully, I might add) that when we repeat someone else’s speech, it can never be quite as it was and will be shaped by the lens of our own experience.  Something like Geertz’s issues with the practice of using manuscripts to report the happenings of another place, the copy of a copy of a copy erodes the original.

Onion Parody of the White Savior Complex

Ms. Kagumire goes on to say that the video campaign simplifies the narrative of Africa and waters down the complex socio-political situation in Uganda for Western consumption.  Journalist Teju Cole doubles down, saying that tactics like those of KONY2012 and other activism are fueled by the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”  Because it is motivated by white guilt (as a consequence of privilege), he says that activism (especially on the African continent) tends to serve activists’ emotional needs  themselves more than the cause(s) they support.

I haven’t been to Uganda, or anywhere in Africa for that matter, and this post isn’t meant to be a history lesson.  My interest lies in the discourse surrounding KONY2012 and its implications.  Even here in DC.  Much in the way that “Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism” where any person can become a “savior,” DC is treated as a loca-national activist playground, according to the Washington Peace Center.  In their “Principles of Organizing in DC” they make the case that transient national groups use the symbol of DC as a soapbox for issues that are oftentimes already being advocated on a local DC level.  Thus the Principles document is meant to serve a guide for out-of-town activist groups, a blueprint for how to “support important and inspirational national protests while also empowering DC communities in order to strengthen and unify our movement as a whole.”

So what does this have to do with constructed dialogue?  In my mind, Tannen’s concept could be expanded to more than reported speech, perhaps to (re)constructed discourse.  The KONY2012 video is as much a (re)constructed discourse about the plight of Uganda, watering down it’s complexity for the consumption of White Western eyes.  The appropriation of DC as a sociopolitical playground serves as an analogous example. In these cases, local struggles are reformed into national or international issues, thereby downplaying local efforts to organize around issues resulting from colonization and globalization. This happens through the reconstruction of narrative discourse, either through online media campaigns (such as the KONY2012 video), or the spectacle of protest in the Nation’s Capital.  The language used to tell these stories reconstructs the discourses of others for a new audience, to the benefit of (inter)national organizers.  Thus, we might speak of (re)constructed narrative or (re)constructed discourse as necessary vocabulary for linguists in the postcolonial milieu.