Artists, Grassroots Organizing & the Civil Rights Struggle for a Free, Open Internet

Posted on OpEdNews

Flickr Photo by NCMR2007| Malkia Cyril speaks at Free Press’ National Conference for Media Reform in 2007.


On April 8th & 9th, Columbia College in Chicago will host a major arts & media Summit called “Art, Access & Action” to explore the intersection of arts, media and politics and the role of artists and media makers in society. The college will give community arts & media organizations and organizations that promote art and media activism a unique opportunity to connect with students who are interested in creating art and media for social change.

The Summit will also look at shifts in art, media, and technology that threaten the future of democracy in America.

As co-chair and a lead organizer of this Summit, I interviewed one of the Summit’s speakers, Executive Director for the Center for Media Justice Malkia Cyril. She is a communication rights activist, someone dedicated to the struggle to ensure that people of color’s rights are defended as regulations are passed determining how much power and control corporations have over the Internet.

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: How did you get involved with the Center for Media Justice? How did the Center for Media Justice come to be?

MALKIA CYRIL: The Center for Media Justice started in 2002. It was a project that used to be called the Youth Media Council. It was a project of organization called We Interrupt This Message. It was started initially to respond to the incredible media bias against young people of color in California and the way stereotypes were being used to fuel a racist public debate around criminal justice here.

Over time, we realized that those stereotypes were the result of serious structural problems in our media system that excluded people of color, that created inequities, that ensured that certain voices were privileged in public debate while other voices were left out. And so we began to focus more on media policy and ensuring that those same voices — the voices of young people, the voices of people of color in both rural and urban communities — were able to participate in making the rules that structured the media game and not just playing in it once the rules were already made.

How I came to it is I founded it and I founded it because my family, both my mother and father, were Black Panthers in Brooklyn, New York. And, I basically witnessed the aftermath of media bias, what media bias can do to a movement. I wanted to ensure that people of color, the left, young people, and migrant communities were able to create a media system that didn’t do that to them.

GOSZTOLA: On the website, the Center defines its agenda in three parts race, youth and media–how was it determined that was how the agenda would be divided?

CYRIL: [Well, I would really say] the categories are race, policy, and content. Race in an overarching way shapes both how the rules are made at the FCC and Congress that relate to what kind of journalism we have, whether or not we have access to the Internet, whether not we can make phone calls and afford to use our phones, who gets cable and who doesn’t, who gets public access and who doesn’t. Some cities are able to use that technology to improve the lives of the people, some cities aren’t. So in an overarching way our media system is fragmented by racism. And so, we’re working in terms of content campaigns–so working around hate speech, working around media diversity, working around ensuring people of color are not digitally redlined. Across the board, racism is an overarching piece that touches in all of our campaigns.

In terms of policy and regulation, we’re working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make sure that marginalized communities—all the communities I mentioned before (migrant folk, native folk, in general people of color, poor folk particularly in rural communities)–that all of these folks get access, get to step in to conversation about media rules. Right, so that those communities get to participate in the democratic process of deciding what rules are going to move forward and what rules are going to be pushed back.

In our policy campaign, we’re focused right now on protecting an open Internet. We’re focused right now on ensuring the civil rights community steps into that fight around the open Internet so our open Internet campaign is around the open Internet and civil rights.

Another fight in the policy arena is around broadband access–making sure that broadband is defined as a universal service. And then, a third campaign will be around the universal service fund–making sure the Internet (including all the things on it including your phone service, your television that you get digital, all of the digital services) that they are affordable and affordable to all people.

In the third area, it’s more focused on alternative. So, ensuring that we have real journalism and that journalism really tells a good story, a true story about our communities. That we have real public access and funding–that these companies actually break off real change for public access. And then, figuring out ways to use digital technologies to improve and empower our communities.

So, the three arenas I would break our work down in is transforming and eliminating racism and poverty, changing policy to reach that goal, and defending and creating new alternatives to improve our lives.

GOSZTOLA: What is the biggest obstacle that you find your organization is running into as you fight to keep the Internet open, fair and free? I’m noting the recent court decision.

CYRIL: I would say our biggest obstacle is the extraordinary power of corporations to define the debate, to use their profits to secure partners they would not otherwise have. So, let me be more specific.

The media companies have been central in communities of color for a very long time. Like McDonald’s, Verizon gives lots of scholarships. They are a huge provider of jobs. There’s a lot that they do in communities of color and a big part of why they do it is because this where they make a lot of their profit through their phones, through their video franchising, through a bunch of different things.

They also give national beltway civil rights groups a ton of money; we’re talking about millions of dollars—2.5 million dollars to the NAACP last year, millions of dollars to the Urban League, millions of dollarsto a Latino beltway group in D.C., and going down the list the National Council of La Raza—all of these groups receive tons of money from the biggest media companies. As a result, those organizations have taken a stance against an open Internet despite the fact that evidence clearly demonstrates that an open Internet would increase opportunities for the poorest among us, the darkest among us, that they have taken a stance in opposition to it and they are spouting industry studies that are clearly designed to move an industry and they’re done by industry folks. They are not independently researched.

So, the biggest obstacles is this particular unique partnership between the civil rights community and the major media corporations because it gives our communities a false impression, false information about what an open Internet, who will help and who it will hurt. The only entities that open Internet limits are Big Media companies. And, the whole idea is that having an open Internet means you have Internet that does not have corporate gatekeepers. And that forces big corporations to compete and it forces them to
provide services regardless of one’s ability to pay. It provides the only consumer protections that are found on the Internet.

To have major civil rights groups stand in opposition to this particular piece is very, very difficult. It means that all over the country organizations that claim to represent people of color but actually don’t have a face on the ground but have wide social marketing value are all marketing this idea about an open Internet that is proven false but that is believed by the average person. That’s a major problem and trying to change a public story in public communities is very difficult.

GOSZTOLA: In your experience with grassroots organizing, how have artists and media makers proven to be a viable asset in effecting change?

CYRIL: Absolutely. I think there are two ways that cultural artists and media artists participate in grassroots organizing. One is as messengers and as mediums to deliver the message of organized constituencies,as partners in the effort to shape a story or shape the debate around a given issue. They are able to bring complexity to a story. They are able to bring nuance through songs, through poetry, through theater. They are able to bring depth and make one-dimensional stories three-dimensional because of the added
value of emotion. They are able to popularize ideas through ways that organizers cannot do.

On the other hand, they are also a constituency to be organized. So, around issues like the open Internet, artists are an example of a kind of small business that will lose if the Internet has gatekeepers. Same thing for journalists in particularly freelance journalists. Those folks lose if they can’t use the Internet without gatekeepers. They are not able to innovate and expand and reach a larger audience in that context.

So, on both counts both as a medium and as a vehicle for messaging–and adding the emotive value of messaging but then also as a constituency to be organized–artists are a crucial part of this work. You know the quote the job of the artist is to make revolution irresistible. That’s real. That’s not just rhetoric. It’s the most powerful recruiting method known to mankind–to have people tapping their feet to your song because that’s how it really deepens I think in terms of changing the community’s beliefs and vision.

GOSZTOLA: What would you tell a young artist or media maker who had not been turned on to issues of social justice? Why should they be moved to give their art greater depth? What message would you give to them?

CYRIL: All of our entire lives are shaped by the stories that we’re told. If we believe that we don’t ask for anything, we don’t demand anything. If we believe that we deserve the same as everybody else, then we’ll organize for change. Every single thing that makes our lives better including your weekend, including school lunch, including most of our rights to go to college. All of those things were won by community organizers.

As artists, even your own right to speak a language, to write and read–for many communities those were won through organizing campaigns of some kind. So, for the artist, the fact of having language–the fact of having a medium through which to express one’s own work and one’s own passion and one’s own belief–you don’t secure that right by wanting it. You secure that right by fighting for it. And so, given that we have some things that our parents didn’t have, our parents had that their parents didn’t have.

The question for the artist is what do you want for the next seven generations. What do you care about? What do you think is important? What do you think our people need? And what are you willing to give through your art to make that happen?

Malkia Cyril will be speaking on the “Navigating Media Landscape” panel Friday morning, April 9th, in the 1104 S. Wabash Ave Building on Columbia College’s campus in downtown Chicago. For more information on the Summit, please click here. And if you would like to learn more about the great work that the Center for Media Justice is engaged in, click here.

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