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.

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.