April 7th, 2023 is MediaJustice’s 14th birthday as an organization. To celebrate, we’ve gone, well, vogue and asked Executive Director Steven Renderos to answer 25 questions about MJ, this political moment, and what role media justice organizers have to play in creating a future where we are all represented, connected, and free. Most importantly, you will get to know the person behind our gracious and strategic leader — including his secret talent, favorite thing about where he grew up, and more.
Without further ado, here’s 25 questions with Steven:
- Best advice you’d give Steven at MediaJustice 10 years ago?
Get out! Nah just kidding. I’d probably tell the younger version of myself to trust that I belong. My first year at MJ was particularly hard as I made the jump from being a community-based organizer to doing work nationally. As a result, I struggled with imposter syndrome, but what helped me get out of it was the faith people around me had. I’d probably also tell myself to celebrate the victories as long as possible because they are few and far between.
- What is your favorite thing about LA?
The LA I grew up in contributed a lot to my humility. Which might sound strange, considering that when most people think of LA, they think glitz and glamor. I grew up poor and with limited resources, which meant that the only way to thrive was in community. I grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in a 10-unit building. I knew everybody in that building because they were either related to me or migrated from the same region of El Salvador my family is from. When you cooked a special meal, you made enough to share with the neighbors. When you threw a party, everyone pitched in by cooking, setting up tables, DJ’n whatever it took. That sense of community is the thing I love and miss most about LA.
- What are the biggest challenges, what’s standing in the way of the media justice movement?
One of the challenges I’m seeing is aligning around a longer-arc vision of what media justice looks like in a liberated world. It’s a vision that has to extend beyond my lifetime if it’s adequately contending with the forces perpetuating harm. Which will clarify for me what we work on now that contributes towards that vision. That’s why MediaJustice is undergoing a strategy process, and we’ll be spending time over this process living into the future.
- Secret talent?
It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but I know how to string a tennis racquet. I worked at a tennis shop in high school, and that was a skill I picked up. I was pretty good at it and think it’d be like riding a bike if I ever needed to do it again.
- What advice would you give to small media justice organizations fighting to make a significant impact?
Well, if you’re not already, join the MediaJustice Network because there are other groups just like you trying to do what you’re doing. My first entry point into the MJ Network was joining Main Street Project, a Minneapolis-based org that did training around digital storytelling with community-based organizations. One summer, I had a chance to exchange ideas and curriculum with two other organizations in our network, Global Action Project (New York) and Media Mobilizing Project (Philadelphia). It made my work sharper by learning with and from other members, and I know for other groups in our network, it has served a similar role, not to mention the relationships you’re able to build.
- Fondest memory at MediaJustice?
It’s an impossible question to answer because there are too many memories. My favorite staff memory was going to see Sheila E perform at a small nightclub in Downtown Oakland. My friend Karlos got to dance on stage with her. That was pretty epic. And my fondest campaign memory was the day we scored a victory in the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. I watched the Federal Communications Commission vote on their first-ever reforms on this issue alongside a delegation we’d organized of 10 people who had incarcerated loved ones. We went out to lunch together afterward, and the meal was pretty sweet, knowing that the vote would affect millions of people nationwide.
- Describe MediaJustice in a hashtag.
- A new strategy, tactic, or idea that you’re excited about?
I love the Detroit Community Technology Project’s work around building equitable alternatives to Internet access. Their Equitable Internet Initiative has been experimenting with models of community-owned wireless networks in Detroit. Part of what excites me is that the technology behind internet infrastructure is getting better at delivering fast and reliable service to people in a way that should lead to interesting alternatives to the current model where your only option for the Internet is a large corporation like Comcast or Verizon.
- What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your time at MediaJustice?
I have spent the last 14 years connected with MediaJustice (last 11 as staff), and one of the common throughlines over that time has been the quality of the people that have come through our metaphorical doors. They’re often nerds like myself. Funny and creative. Thoughtful. I learned that when you hold people with dignity, you unlock a deeper humanity in yourself. It helps me believe that another world is possible, and as Grace Lee Boggs would add, “another world is happening.”
- Your friend says they want to buy a Ring camera for home security. What would you tell them?
I have a bridge to sell you.
In all seriousness, I think it’s important to acknowledge that most people buying a Ring camera are doing so because they feel unsafe. And people deserve to live in a world where they’re safe. But if we take inventory of the times in our lives when we felt safe, it likely had nothing to do with a camera, a cop, or a corporation. When you consider how much we are socialized to believe that we can buy our way out of problems, you can’t blame someone for wanting a Ring camera. That said, the truth is that surveillance only makes us more unsafe because it drives us further away from each other. Ring does this particularly well by pairing its doorbell with an app called Neighbors, where people can post videos and tag them as “suspicious” or “criminal.” This fuels further division and bias and only contributes to making us believe that we need more police.
I believe there are better solutions for safety. And the good news is that those solutions don’t need to wait for a utopia that is far off in the future. They’re happening right now. Here’s a really cool project coming out of the Interrupting Criminalization & Project NIA called “One Million Experiments,” which captures examples of what people are doing to build safety today away from surveillance and policing. And if you must buy a video doorbell, at least be responsible and read up on what you’re actually buying into.
- Favorite app?
The one I use most these days is Good Notes which I use to capture written notes on my tablet. What I like is that I can search my written notes, and I can access them on my phone or desktop. Highly recommend it if writing helps you capture information better.
- What’s your current TV obsession?
It’s now a few months old, but if you haven’t seen the Star Wars TV show Andor, you absolutely must. There are no lightsabers, Skywalkers, and Sith Lords in this series. No one is saying, “may force be with you.” Instead, it’s an intimate look at the inner workings of both Empires and Rebellions. The people that it actually takes to maintain fascism, from police to politicians and government functionaries. The ideological differences in Rebellion and what it takes to overcome it. You don’t need to be a Star Wars nerd like me to truly enjoy it. It delivers so many great lines that apply to this galaxy right here.
You know what? I’m going to rewatch it for the 3rd time.
- Best Street Fighter character?
I typically played with Chun-Li because I always preferred speed over brute force.
- How do you define “free?”
Free is about being able to enjoy something without any barriers being in the way. Not just financial (though that’s a big one). MediaJustice is actually based on the idea that everyone should have the freedom to communicate. This is rooted in a human rights framework, specifically article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
It’s different from the US’s concept of free speech, which is rooted in a constitutional framework that, over the course of history, has applied to some people and denied to others. But it also merely asserts your freedom to say whatever you want, but it doesn’t guarantee your voice can be heard. Real “free” speech is one where your voice is not encumbered by a corporate media system or throttled by an algorithm. Real “free” speech is about being able to receive information as much as it is about being able to express something.
- MediaJustice is celebrating its 14th birthday. What kind of dessert are you baking to celebrate?
This assumes that I can bake a dessert. If it’s in real life, I’m baking chocolate chip cookies from food writer Claire Saffitz. It incorporates browned butter, giving the cookie a more butterscotch flavor profile. If my skills were no obstacle, we’re making a 14-layer chocolate cake with a chocolate frosting to create the layers and a mirror glaze cause we’re fancy. I think it’s a great homage to MJ because we are a representation of what so many people have contributed to us. I think about my co-workers over the last 11 years, and I can see their fingerprints all over who we are today. We would not be the MJ of today without Malkia Devich Cyril, amalia deloney, Karlos Gauna Schmieder, Brandi Collins-Dexter, Betty Yu, Alison Roh Park, Chinyere Tutashinda, Angella Bellota, Turner Willman, Libeth Morales, Imran Siddiquee, Lisa Jervis, Darshan Khalsa, Danielle Chynoweth, Erin Shields, and so many more people.
- You created, produced, and co-host Bring Receipts, a politics and pop-culture podcast with Brandi Collins-Dexter. What three living people would you like to have on the podcast?
Alright, so I’d love to have Shea Serrano on. I’ve been a huge fan of his books and his podcasts, especially his essays on the TV show The Office. Janelle James would be so much fun. I came across Janelle James on the Scam Goddess podcast a couple of years ago, so I know she can come in throwing heat in an interview. And I’m a huge fan of her character on Abbott Elementary. And lastly, someone I know would say yes if we invited them is Nima Shirazi, the host of Citations Needed. He’s a comms strategist and an uber wrestling fan which my co-host Brandi is too.
- What would the title be if the media justice movement were a film?
“To Plead Our Own Cause.” This is ripped from the inaugural edition of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned newspaper in the United States, which was founded in 1827. I think it speaks to the hope and desires behind “media justice.” A world where we have control over our story and therefore have the power to change our lives.
- Three (not literal) things you can’t live without?
My family (blood, chosen, and of the four-legged kind). I can’t live without a turntable and a mixer of some kind so that I can throw some of the illest dance parties no one will ever hear cause I generally just practice at home. And my cast iron skillet. I’ve had that thing for years, and it’s one of my favorite tools in the kitchen.
- MediaJustice is in the middle of strategic planning. What are your hopes for what MJ emerges with from that process?
Simply put, clarity. So far, I’ve learned that good strategy is a bridge between a clear challenge and a cohesive set of actions. The problem is that so much wrong is happening in the world. And even when you narrow it down to media and technology, there are so many potential answers to the challenge we can work to solve. So I want us to get clear about what specific challenge we think we can solve and trust that others in the field can hold down the other equally important problems. In a way, strategic planning is about knowing what you can loudly say yes to but also what you’re saying no to. So ultimately, my hope is that we make a clear choice, and I feel confident we will.
- On a scale of 1-10, how prepared is the media justice movement for this political moment?
I tend to be an optimist, so I’d say we’re at a 7 or 8. I think what we’re missing is a shared assessment of this political moment, a clear vision of what we’re fighting for, and a delineation of responsibilities. I think the right people are here, though, and that can oftentimes be the toughest challenge because the people are where we build our power from.
- What do you wish the average person knew about media and technology?
They are tools, much like a hammer or a screwdriver. What they are capable of depends on who wields it. This has always been true. The first continuous newspaper in the US that ran slave ads was the Boston News Letter, published by white men. Newspapers founded by Black folks and non-Black abolitionists were instrumental in setting the context for the abolition of slavery. As we think about why media and technology are systems that foster as much harm as they currently do, it’s important to look at who creates it and who owns it. The fight for media justice is tipping the scales away from that current reality into something different where these tools empower us rather than cause harm.
- To what do you owe MediaJustice’s success?
The people, and by that, I mean the staff as well as our members. It always starts there for me. Our victories over the years, whether it was pushing Amazon to stop selling facial recognition tech to cops, lowering the cost of prison phone calls, or winning Net Neutrality rules, are a direct result of big and small things that our members did.
- MediaJustice represents communities of color fighting for an open, affordable, and secure Internet. What’s the best thing about the internet? The worst?
To me, the best thing about the Internet is how it makes borders irrelevant. I had a family member in El Salvador pass away from COVID in the summer of 2020. Given where the world was at the time, traveling to be with family and grieve was not an option. I watched the funeral via Facebook live, as I had a family member who was willing to do that so that our family in the US could collectively grieve. Undoubtedly it was sad, but I didn’t feel as far away from my family in that moment. The Internet helped us be together.
And the worst thing is that it increasingly weakens our connections to each other. I mean that both literally as social media platforms mess with their content feed algorithms, it becomes harder for you to see and keep track of your friends and loved ones. And these algorithms also fuel a rage machine that dehumanizes us to each other to the point we feel disconnected in our society at a time when we are more connected than we’ve ever been.
- See the future or change the past?
I’m scared of the future. So that’s probably the right answer.
- A book that everyone should read?
Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future by Brandi Collins-Dexter. Full disclosure, she’s my friend, and we host a podcast together, AND this book is brilliant. This book is about the realignment of Black political identity that is happening right now and what it might diagnose for not just the future of Black people but the United States. Brandi is a person who will check your assumptions and help you see something in a new light. And there’s so much of that in this book, including understanding the real origins of the moniker “skinhead.”
- What’s one organization doing great work but not getting enough attention?
This is an impossible question to answer. I’ll say Just Futures Law because I love radical lawyers. In my first community organizer job, I had the chance to work with a lawyer who not only understood the value of organizing but had been an organizer herself (shout out Margaret Kaplan). And it made me appreciate so much what is possible when organizers and lawyers can organize together. Just Futures Law works primarily at the intersection of technology and criminalization. They work closely with organizers on the ground to inform their legal strategy and, in fact, really see themselves as lawyers who exist to serve movements. Oh, and they’re members of the MediaJustice Network too.
- What’s one constituency you think is crucial to media justice organizing but isn’t on board yet?
I think there’s room to explore collaborations across environmental justice and media justice groups. The issues we work on are intersectional, but it’s one we haven’t fully teased out. So it’s less about those folks not being on board than about not having fully explored the intersections of our work. In a recent convo I had with someone who mostly works on climate policy, they raised an interesting point about the expansion of broadband and what energy sources it will rely on. I hadn’t thought about how broadband could increase our dependence on harmful energy that contributes poorly towards climate change, but given the existential threat that it poses, the impact on climate should be a core question we consider.
- You’re the executive producer for Revolutionary Spirits, a 4-part history podcast on the life and martyrdom of Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco Madero. Who are your political/movement icons?
Oscar Romero is someone that comes to mind. He was the Archbishop of San Salvador right when El Salvador descended into civil war. In fact, his assassination by a right-wing paramilitary group was a catalyst for the war. I was fascinated by him because he didn’t start out as a human rights activists – he was pretty conservative. But faced with seeing how the state repressed everyday people, he was radicalized. He was also a media justice leader long before that phrase existed. Every Sunday, he broadcast a homily that would also include a breakdown of news from the past week. He did this in a country where the government heavily controlled the media. So stories of massacres, kidnappings, etc., tended not to get covered by local media. He would include these kinds of stories in his weekly address. And it was a radio address where he demanded soldiers disobey inhumane orders that triggered the decision to assassinate him. Radio in the civil war became a really powerful tool of the FMLN (leftist guerrillas), and I’d like to think they realized this partly because of Romero.
- A skill you’re working on mastering?
Audio production. For anyone that does listen to my podcast, you’ll notice the editing and production gets better. Still plenty of room for improvement, but I’ve picked up a few skills that I’m really proud of.
- Can you describe this political moment in three words?
Long. Arc. Strategy. In other words, it took however long to get into the mess we’re in; it will take just as long to get out of it. Which means the change I want to see won’t fully be realized in my lifetime, but I need a multi-generational strategy now to get there.
- How have you seen the media justice movement evolve over your time at MediaJustice?
I’ve seen the leaders of this movement get older. I’ve seen the people coming into it get younger. I’ve seen the grey hairs of my beard indicate I’m more of an elder than a youngin’. The fact that, as a media justice movement, we have generations is a thing that excites me. So when it’s my time to fall back, I know the work will carry forward.
Thank you, Steven, for sharing your heart and wisdom to honor MediaJustice’s 14th birthday!
Join us in the celebration by making a $14 contribution to our spring fundraising campaign today. Your gift will support our efforts to amplify the voices and stories of wonderful organizers, leaders, and just regular folks who the media and tech ecosystem has left behind.