Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Standing Outside the Golden Gate: Thoughts on Social Media & Alternative Pathways w/ Esther Armah

Are we trying to get inside or are we creating new spaces?
              Years ago living in Madrid, my husband and I were on one of our long walks, circling back from el casco antiguo nearing La Plaza del Sol, now the central meeting place for Spain’s  Indignados. We were talking passionately about politics, which was (and still is) very common for us.  This was way before there was an Occupy movement and discussions about class warfare or how schools should be run was on everybody’s tongue.  This was before (and I’m talking just twenty years ago) social media took center stage spreading information across borders like forest fires.  It was that day in Madrid when I regrettably attacked my husband because he defended the elite.
            “¡Élite, élite, élite!” I chanted while I pointed my finger at his chest. 
            A guttural sound escaped his lips, it was a chuckle I thought, but then he snapped, “The only reason you’re so angry is because you’re still standing outside the golden gate, little lady.”   
            “What?” I spun, really listening.        
            His head tilted back with the full force and grit of a hard, working-class Andalucian man. “And believe you me,” he added, “As soon you finish your degree, get a good job, become a professor in the mainstream— you’ll be very happy to reap the benefits that come with the so called upper class...because that’s how it works.” 
            That was—what did I say—twenty years ago? Funny.  Life is very, very funny.  Look at me now, still standing outside the golden gate.  But at the age of 41, I’m not kicking or screaming but rather shifting my weight from left to right hoping to keep the circulation going.   
            Why does this conversation ring in my ears like a recurring dream?  It’s because I’m toiling with the role of voice and agency in life, the purpose behind all things—like why I write, why I profess to be an educator even when I’m not teaching.  And I’m not unlike many others who have walked under the banner of OWS—those of us who have not reaped the promised benefits of hard work and a degree.  Millions are still locked outside the golden gates of the American dream.[1]
            But, I’m sort of in a new place right now.  I’m talking to you not from Tahrir Square, Plaza del Sol or Zucotti Park but from Cyber Space!—and I find myself thinking a whole lot about the power of social media and what has it changed really.  Why, Obama’s win into office was touted as a social media campaign and the Arab Spring was ignited in a similar vain—so, I want to know this:  Is social media really an alternative pathway into the golden gates or is it our way of creating a whole new space? 
            As a critical educator and writer, I am acutely aware of how we are “positioned” by the dominant discourses and practices surrounding race, class, gender, religion, language and sexual orientation.  The goal of critical pedagogy has always been about resistance, emancipation or reclaiming power by creating new spaces for dialogue.[2]  And clearly social media has shown us how participation and voice can be expanded beyond our dreams, yet I wonder if social media is just a false sense of agency, that mainstream media still monopolizes the distribution of voice, choosing some over others and that information circulating via blogs, Facebook or Twitter are still subject to the filter of celebrity and popularity.  On the one hand, social media is the cornerstone for social change.  On the other, it is a tool to reflect (and even perpetuate) current power-relations in society.  What are the critical, creative and cultural functions of social media in society?[3]  How can we develop the liberatory nature of social media as a unifying voice?
            Fortunately, I got a chance to connect with Esther Armah last week.  Many of you know, Esther is an upcoming voice in the media and she’s a writer.  Directly or indirectly, Esther’s voice is being heard, broadcast live and tweeted, impacting people internationally.  When doing a little reading about Esther, I discovered her early book called Can I Be Me? The book’s online blurb describes Esther as “addicted to the need for approval, the desire for applause, bright lights and struggle. She’s on a quest, it says, hungry for a place of belonging, a place of comfort and acceptance of her identity; black, British, Ghanaian and Afrocentric.”  Then it ends with the question, “Who would you be if there was no applause, disappointment, injustice, discrimination or rejection?”
            When I read this, I love Esther’s spirit.   I don’t have to read the book to know that this woman is willing to share human vulnerability, that she demonstrates courage and resolve when she writes about her personal journey.  I can breathe life into these few words, Esther’s life filled with intention and purpose, to connect with the universal, to find compassion for her own identity, to search for meaning  and belonging.  All of these things are the ultimate expression of agency and voice.
            So, I reach out to Esther Armah asking myself this question— Where is Esther standing?   Is she standing outside the golden gate or is she planted firmly on the inside?  I’m curious and want to explore my questions about social media from where she’s standing, through her light.  I want to know more about how we can use social media as an alternative pathway to transcend our differences and create a new space. 
            I first ask Esther to comment about her experience from the point of view of a radio personality.  I ask her, which voices do we value in society and how do we validate them?  She says, “We are in a moment where what passes as celebrity are the voices we most value.  Look at the Occupy movement, for example,” she says, “they were mostly ignored - certainly by mainstream media—until the arrival of 'celebrity' voices like Michael Moore, actress Susan Sarandon, public intellectual Dr. Cornel West.  It is a fact that mainstream media is a voice we value certainly over independent media.  The celebrity voice has become this aspirational space because it means having presence, being seen, being heard. It means attention. The reality TV celebrity, for example, that group of mostly women who act crazy, are violent, hurtful and hateful towards other women, yet they are rewarded with small screen action, a check, 15 minutes of fame and access to more opportunity. That lens, the celebrity lens, creates aspirations for some of our youth that are problematic. It means intimate partner violence is not a national issue unless pop star Rihanna faces what teen girls deal with every day. We privilege the voices and opinions of celebrity over everyday people. It now takes a national outrage to get due process in the naked cancerous reality of racism.” 
            When I reflect upon her words, I wonder if Esther is yet a celebrity.  When does one officially become a celebrity?  If she is, then where does that place her?  Can someone like Esther reside in more than one dimension— outside the gate, inside the gate, transcending the gates by actively creating a new space?  In a world where we’re often forced to choose sides— right wing, left wing, black, white, public or private— is it possible for us to define a new universal belonging that exceeds these boundaries?  Is it possible to see the world (and behave within it) organically, holistically and all-encompassing rather than fragmented, polarized, in constant opposition, agitation and indignant-cy? 
            I ask Esther explicitly about youth and creating new space.  That’s when she introduces me to the term emotional justice.  “Emotional justice means dealing with, addressing, challenging the legacy of untreated trauma that is the direct result of our shared global histories,” she says.  “Emotional justice is the difference between acting crazy for a reality TV bit versus the articulation of righteous rage in pursuit of justice. In our activist circles we can be hypocritical about how much we value celebrity.  There are activist stars as with all other types of celebrity.  Our youth sees this hypocrisy and since nobody aspires to failure, the definition of success has been understood as being in the light, standing on a stage, having the mic and so we hear them articulate that aspiration for themselves too.  I'm not mad at young people but I think the call is for us to be more willing to be honest.”
            Honesty?  Esther is bringing up a critical point about social media as a tool to create new space.  Can social media be used to engender honesty?  Some of the common obstacles educators (and parents) face when teaching responsible conscientious use of social media is sensitivity, honesty, establishing ethical codes of behavior and respect for personal and individual rights…like privacy.  In a study of media literacy education in Turkey, participants stated that they did not trust media completely because the media generally presents distorted and exaggerated “truth,” and mixes real and constructed messages together.[4] But does social media, this new discourse in which diverse participants come together in order to collectively “reconstruct” our understanding of the world around us—give us a better sense of truth?  Or does social media create a false sense of honesty, as Facebook might be seen as creating a false sense of community? 
             “If we want to prepare our youth,” Esther says, “we need to face how unprepared we are ourselves. We need to be more willing to own our disappointment, anger, frustration with the world—including with the world of activism and the toll it takes on us and our place within it. The truth is, voices that matter don't always get heard—- therefore the work is to make those voices get heard.”
            But how do we prepare young people to engage in social media with a conscious?  How can we help them negotiate this terrain?  Will these voices have a real impact on society?
            Esther throws a few questions back at me.  She asks, “I would ask you to define what is important, ask yourself what you consider the important issues of today.  We validate voices by using our personal power to highlight other people’s words—with the explosion of social media - we can tweet them, re-tweet them, include them on our Facebook status updates, blog about them, text about them.  With the millions in that space we can create a lens for those voices.   Social media is a great and powerful avenue and we just need to decide how we want to use it.  We need to be merciless in our pursuit of what we choose as our agenda. I've been in sister circles using social media to direct conversation, to shine a lens, to make a change, to advocate and it’s personally powerful. The question is always this— what is the change we want to see and what are we willing to do about making that our reality?”
            Bingo.  This brings me back to that moment with Michael Moore at the Beginning is Near event this month, remember?  When we asked him what people can do to make a difference, he told us the very unglamorous story of his humble beginnings as a comic and semi-trouble maker in Flint Michigan.  I remember his humility and simplicity telling his story, sprawled back on the chair in jeans and a pair of sneakers.  I thought then, Michael Moore is just like me— a nobody and a somebody at the same time.  I was able for an instant to look at Michael not through linear time or as a celebrity but as a multi-dimensional human being.  Rich and poor, a comic and a politician, young and old, smart and learning, receiving and giving —a nobody and a somebody simultaneously.  
             As I think critically about our use of social media as a society, I think about whether we’re all trying to get inside the golden gates.  Or are we bonding with others like ourselves on the outside?  Or if neither exists in cyber space, that we’re really creating a new space that transcends our earthly domains?  Social media has something to teach us all, perhaps.  This alternative pathway, this wonderful “free” and often revolutionary community.  How can we use it to raise consciousness, validate each other and prepare the road for even greater transcendence? 
            Implicit in what I call a transcensory approach to education is that humans are at a critical point in evolution.  We do have the power to exist above and independent of our bodies and the material plane.   As our personal and communal development expands into new territory (like that which we are experiencing through social media), we learn to become critical agents in our lives.  We learn to honor the call— to be honest, to transcend our individual differences, promote healing and most importantly build community.     
            How are we to teach voice and agency in the age of social media?   Start with you. Each individual must find their personal inspiration—there feel the pull of empowerment.  Your voice emanates, spread light into others, especially for the sake of our children whose lights are shining so brightly.  Like Dr. Cornel West says, education ought to be about creating a space for young people to attend to things that matter.  What matters is what is taking place outside of school, the life that transcends the walls of the school—it is our universal human experience.     Understanding the transcensory nature of social media repositions all of us inside the golden gates…or better yet—it pulls all of us up…up…up and over.

[1] Nearly one in two Americans are now living in or near poverty, including millions of middle class Americans who find themselves caught up in the economic “tragedy” they never imagined could happen to them. (Smiley & West, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto, 2012)
[2] Burnett & Merchant (2011) Is there space for critical literacy in the context of social media? English Teaching: Practice & Critique, 10(1)
[3] Burn & Durran (2007) Media literacy in schools: practice, production, and progression. London: Paul Chapman
[4] Elma, Kesten, Dicle & Uzun (2010) Media literacy education in Turkey: An evaluation of media processes and ethical codes. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice 10 (3).

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