July/August News Compilation

Communities United for Immigrant Rights,” (8/19/2013 // GrassrootsDC.org)

Unity March Event OrganizersOn August 17, a coalition of organizations held a unity rally for immigrant rights in front of the White House, calling for Congress to act on immigration reform and put an end to deportations. Organizers of the rally included WORD (Women Organized to Resist and Defend), DMV LOLA (Latinas Organized for Leadership and Advocacy), and NAPAWF-DC (National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum), joined by the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). Speakers at the event discussed the misrepresentation of immigrant rights as an exclusively “Latino issue,” instead demonstrating that the movement for immigrant rights is part of the movements for women’s rights, workers’ rights, and human rights. A running theme of the rally was that whether we like it or not, the hijacking of immigration reform at the national level has devastating consequences for all our families, economies, and communities

“Mayor Gray Must Understand, Our Language is Our Right,” (7/27/2013 // GrassrootsDC.org)

Washington, DC – On July 22, 2013 Mayor Vincent Gray, along with a handful of aides and scores of reporters, paid a visit to Petworth with the intention of cracking down on synthetic marijuana and drug paraphernalia being sold at small businesses in the neighborhood. “That’s illegal, man. Can’t do that. That’s drug paraphernalia,” warned the Mayor. This isn’t the first time that Mayor Gray has posed as a law enforcement official in order to bust local shops, in his effort with the group Advocates for Drug-free Youth.

DC Government-Issued The visit took an unexpected turn, however, when Gray encountered an Ethiopian clerk who had trouble understanding English. “You don’t understand? How do you sell anything if you don’t understand? If somebody asks you for something, do you know what they’re asking you for?” Mayor Gray chided. At one point, visibly frustrated by the language barrier, the Mayor told the clerk “I don’t even, I really don’t know how you are working here if you can’t communicate with the people who come in here.” Despite criticism from NBC4 reporter Mark Segrave, the Mayor denied that his remarks could be considered insensitive and said that the language barrier was “irrelevant.”

“A Lesson in Systemic Racism, Part II: ALEC, School Closures, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” (7/23/2013 // GrassrootsDC.org)

The previous post, entitled “A Lesson in Systematic Racism: Stand Your Ground, the NRA, and the American Legislative Council (ALEC),” examined the connection between the untimely death of Trayvon Martin and the powerful lobbying groups that made laws like “Stand Your Ground” possible. This post expands on the previous one by highlighting ALEC’s connection to school closures and the privatization of education.

That’s How You Win Campaigns: What DC’s Progressive Community Did Right in the Final Legislative Session of 2013,” (7/15/2013 // GrassrootsDC.org)

walmart-400x281Last week, the District’s most vulnerable residents organized to win two major victories in the City Council: the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), which would require big box stores to pay their employees a living wage, and which effectively prevented the expansion of six Walmart stores within the District; and the Driver Safety Amendment Act (DSAA), which grants the City’s 25,000 undocumented residents the ability to obtain a driver’s license without a mark indicating their undocumented status.

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.]

The sociolinguist’s toolkit: Some definitions

Here are some of the must-know definitions in my sociolinguistic “toolkit.”

[Note: This list is incomplete and will undoubtedly expand over time, but for now]:

1. sociolinguistics

2. culture
Culture is a loaded word with many definitions depending on the context in which it is used (in popular reference, depending on the discipline, and so on).  I like Riley’s (2007) definition of culture as “social knowledge.”  For example, even two people born on the same day on the same street will have different cultural compositions because of the diversity of their experiences in comparison with one another, the layers of their socialization and their differential access to knowledge.  In other words, Riley says that each person lunches from a “vast smorgasbord” and the product of their individual trays is analogous to their “culture.”  This idea is in opposition to common ideologies about culture as one’s nationality, ethnicity, or something we “have” or “don’t have.”  However, the insidious use of culture to promote a divisive or discriminatory agenda is still very much at play in public discourse.

3. community of practice (CoP)
In the same way the definition of culture above complicates the notion that culture is something we “have,” the idea of community of practice focuses on how common practices hold social groups together, not social constructs like gender, ethnicity, or nationality.  The latter are what Anderson refers to as “imagined communities” – social constructs that are ideologically motivated, especially for nationalistic purposes.  Looking at groups from the CoP approach illuminates that social groups are held together, so to speak, by shared knowledge and practices.  Language is an important dimension of any community of practice.   Think for example of attending a gathering of people practicing a religion other than your own.  Being a participant observer in that situation, you will see that people will all seem to know a particular prayer by memory, when to sit or stand, and how to behave more generally.  As you engage in the practice(s) of that community, over time it will become so familiar almost as if it’s second nature to you… this is what Bordieu meant by habitus, Scollon&Scollon by historical body or embodiment of practice.

4. narrative
Revived by social psychologists in the 70s and 80s, linguistics began to look at narrative as a specialized speech event with a lot of discursive power, a genre of its own and a force to be reckoned with.  Whether it’s looking at narrative as sites of identity construction on the individual (Schiffrin, de Fina) or institutional level (Linde), fodder for a nexus analysis / “activist sociolinguistic” approach to understanding human behavior (Scollon and Scollon, Rodney), socialization in literacy practices (Shirley Brice Heath), or narrative in multimodal or computer-mediated settings, narrative is an endless field of study as you can find them any number of places in daily life.

5. pragmatics (speech acts / speech act theory)

6. role theory –> positioning –> stance / (identity construction)
Who we are (or consider ourselves to be) has implications for how we present ourselves, how others orient to us, and is constantly changing and shaping talk-in-interaction.  Positioning, derived from the work of Harre and Davies (1991) in social/discursive psychology,  is a theoretical and analytic framework sociolinguists use to better understand identity construction in emergent interaction. As it was originally intended more for narrative, positioning theory is comprised of a “mutually-determining triad” of positions, storylines and speech acts.  [See here for my latest application of positioning theory to conflict talk in political discourse].  So for example, as an immigration advocacy organization (position) faced with unexpected racist/xenophobic commentary from an elected official, you might take a particular storyline (i.e. “immigrants want the same thing as anyone else, the American Dream”) and demand an apology (speech act).  This actually happened recently in DC, see here.

Stance, as outlined by du Bois (2007) is a more recent adaptation of positioning theory which has the advantage of bringing together various types of “positions” one can take in an interaction, including affective, propositional, and interactional.  It also relies on a 3-part process, which says that “I evaluate something, and thereby position myself, and thereby align (with respect to) you” (ibid).  Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, but are both ripe for understanding how identity is emergent in interaction and not a static thing.

In the working world, having this knowledge facilitates an approach to identity that is fluid and considerate of people’s self identification, not a priori assumptions about membership in macro social categories.  As a mixed race person myself, I know all too well the frustration that goes with being forced to check one box only!

7. discourse analysis

8.  framing / footing
Framing refers to our structures of expectations in interaction.  In other words, it’s what guides us to the appropriate interpretation of “what’s going on” in everyday conversation.  These expectations are culturally-guided, in the sense that they are based on our own experiences and social knowledge.  Even monkeys at play, for example, need to be able to tell the difference between a play bite or a serious attack.  We as humans identify frames using linguistic and paralinguistic cues.  A more recent example in political discourse is Rush Limbaugh’s radio commentary on Sandra Fluke’s testimony advocating for insurance companies and employers to cover contraception.  Progressives interpret his commentary in the frame of hate speech, whereas Limbaugh himself says it should be interpreted in the frame of comedy or sarcasm.

9. geosemiotics –> visual semiotics

10. intercultural (or interdiscourse) communication
The history of cross-cultural communication as an object of scholarly attention began around WWII when the US government realized that it would behoove them to know how to communicate in other languages, if only to gather intelligence on the “enemy.”  It was revived again in the 80s in a business-driven approach to address communication “problems” in a globalizing corporate world.  Scollon would say that these two aforementioned approaches were problematic, in the basic sense that they got the “problem” wrong.  Earlier work approached “cultural” or “language” differences as the end all be all to improving communication across “difference,” often focusing on conflict and miscommunication.  Misunderstanding between people was often described as “cultural” or “linguistic.”  [Note: the Peace Corps continues this approach as it heralds early CCC scholar Edward T. Hall, see my short blog post on this topic here].

To this end, Scollon says “Cultures do not communicate, people do.”  His approach, intercultural or interdiscourse communication departs radically from a priori assumptions about what “culture” is and focuses instead on discourse systems, actions, and practices.  These 3 things vary from individual to individual.  Scollon’s critical approach to language, communication, and social action in the intercultural context shows us that 1) most approaches to CCC are misinformed because 2) “miscommunication” doesn’t actually stem from culture or language, and that 3) looking at actions and practices of social actors is the only way to understand what’s really going on.  Furthermore, his push for an activist sociolinguistics couldn’t jive better with what I envision for the field.

11. nexus and mediated discourse analysis

12. ethnography of speaking/communication/action

13. critical discourse analysis
While discourse analysis is interested in “small d” discourse, CDA is all about the “big D” discourses: how language (re)produces and maintains larger discourses of racism, ideology, and power.