We celebrated the close of the 2022 MediaJustice Network Fellowship (MJNF) with a graduation celebration of our Fellows, their innovative work together, and the communities where they’ll apply all we learned together along the way. If you know our Network, you’ve hopefully experienced the commitment to collective growth that shapes our political education. What our fellows have learned in their time with their MJNF Mentors, they’ve already begun sharing with the rest of us, and we can’t wait for all that is sure to come in the future.
We’re particularly excited to share a very special conversation that was the keynote of the MJNF Class of ‘22’s graduation celebration. We were joined by MediaJustice Senior Fellow and Founding Director Malkia Devich-Cyril who joined graduating Fellow Rian for an exploration of the leadership, political analysis, and values that have shaped the media justice movement, and that our Fellows are advancing past the cutting edge of what’s possible for our movement as it continues to evolve.
Note: Transcript has been edited for clarity.
STEVEN: I’m Steven Renderos, the current Executive Director of MediaJustice and I have the honor of leading us into our keynote conversation today. We’ve hooked up something really unique this year: we’re going to set up a conversation between one of our graduating fellows and the founder (and my predecessor) of this organization, MediaJustice.
Before I introduce them, I just want to briefly say how excited I am about this graduation event. The video that we all watched a few minutes ago referenced the MediaJustice Leadership Institute (MJLI), a MediaJustice program from several years ago that’s kind of a precursor to this current program, the MediaJustice Network Fellowship. I was one of the people who went through the MJLI many, many years ago.
Thanks to Facebook’s photo reminders, I was recently looking through pictures from my MJLI class of 2009, I believe it was, and I was just looking at all the fellows in that class and remembering how incredible it was, all of the work that they went on to do. Back then, I don’t think any of us could have really thought about the impact that we would make in the wider sector. There were just so many incredible, talented, beautiful people. One of the things that excited me about this particular program was getting to build that bridge between our history and the something new we’ve been working on that can build us towards the future of this sector. So with that in mind, I want to introduce the folks that will be having this conversation here:
Rian Crane, one of our 2022 MediaJustice Network Fellowship graduating fellows that will be moderating a conversation with the founder of our organization. Rian is a Black trans gender-nonconforming, artistic critical thinking, arts organizer and curator.
That is a lot and you’re doing it! Rian uses archival exploration, Black/queer/feminist practice, collaboration and other critical media to explore Blackness. He is interested in how Black fugitivity and Black bodies under colonialism move through borders fictitiously and in the irl globally.
Rian is hosting this conversation with MediaJustice’s Senior Fellow and Founding Director, Malkia Devich-Cyril. For those who are unfamiliar with the longtime executive director of MediaJustice, they are an activist, a writer, a public speaker. You’ll hear them out there in the world expressing their thought leadership on anything from digital rights to narrative power to Black liberation to collective grief. They also run a project that is incredible called Pandemic Joy that is bringing this grief into practice, and doing so with a wider community that they’ve established.
As both of the founder of MediaJustice and now in their current work, they’re still affiliated with us as our Senior Fellow. Mac has been so influential and I want to say from the bottom of my heart, that there would be a lot of people in this movement for media justice today who wouldn’t be here without Malkia’s leadership and I throw myself into that equation. Thank you so much, Mac, for all that you’ve done.
I’ll leave it to you both to have a wonderful conversation.
[ applause ][ cowbell ringing ]
RIAN: Thank you, Steven, for that really lovely intro. Mac, I’m really excited to be here with you today, to meet someone who made this space a possibility. We have a few questions for you, but feel free to go off script.
I know this is your forte, that media justice is your thing, so I’m really excited for your insight to come in this conversation. So my question as we begin here is: What does it mean to be a media justice movement? And do you have advice for the class of ‘22 Fellows who are new to this movement, who are seeding projects in the community? We would really love your brilliance and insight on that.
MALKIA: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. Also, I want to just be real–I did not build this by myself, you know. I had a lot of help, a lot of collaboration. The staff who were here back when we changed our name from the Youth Media Council to MediaJustice: Amy Sonnie, and Jen (Soriano) each played a huge role. Steven also played a huge role, along with even more people, so I think the most important thing I’ll share first is we don’t do this by ourselves. There’s not a single founder that can say that they founded MediaJustice alone. That’s just not the case. I’m really grateful to be part of an incredible community.
To me, being in the media justice movement means that we’re a vanguard of a very special intersection – at the forefront of the intersection between those building ideological power and those building political and economic power. Being in this movement means, number one, that we are building this working class intellectual capital, this grassroots power in order to confront some of the largest companies in the world, you know? In order to transform an ideological and information system that doesn’t just impact how we see ourselves and how people see us here in the United States, but across the globe. American ideological power is responsible for death, for the destruction of nations, all around the globe, so what we do here has an incredible impact on how the world sees itself. Not just how we see ourselves, you know.
When we transform the way that ideas are created, not just in tech, nor just in mainstream media, but in education, and even institutions of faith–we operate at a unique intersection, and any organization, any leader, you know, who has chosen this terrain – anybody who’s chosen to be at that intersection, to fight and directly confront the institutions of ideological power, that’s the media justice movement. That’s the media justice movement. We Black, we brown, you know, we young, you know. We multi-generational, but a lot of times, we young. We’re across the spectrum of gender, across the different spectrums of possibility, and we are changing how people understand what it means to be alive in this world today. That’s who I think we are.
RIAN: Wow, thank you for that, Mac . I feel like I’m going to go off script for my questions now because you mentioned something that I really value in my own work, which is collaboration–especially the global. I think of myself as part of the global and that I do my work in collaboration, like a lot of us Fellows who have started collectives, working with different people. Any advice for us, not only on the power of collaboration, but also just on ways of navigating it?
MALKIA: Well, I think that we’re in a period of deep psychological and emotional warfare. The Right has rolled out a cultural program with the goal of changing the way we think about leadership, with the goal of changing the way we think about organizations. Now in this day and time, many people don’t trust leadership, they don’t trust organizations, but at the heart of it all is an effort to change how we think about governance and democracy. It raises the question of whether collaborative democracy is even possible. So if everything in our environment is pushing us to think of democracy as a failed system, then I think it becomes easy to think that collaboration and representation and governance are just impossible. I think that one of the things that we can do in this movement is to prove them wrong. To prove that wrong. For our movements to be a fight of resistance is to be a fight where we celebrate leadership, where we celebrate partnership, where we celebrate various forms of representation. But let’s not be mistaken. That’s hard to do. It’s hard to collaborate across lines of difference. Audre Lorde talked about it all the time, and it’s our mandate.
We are hurt people. Hurt people hurt people, and the fact is in this moment, in this period of movement, many of us, if I can be honest, have not gone through the kind of training and the kind of rigor that teaches us who you struggle with — teaches us how to struggle with one another in a principled way. Very often we are reacting. I’ve been that person. I think the goal here is clarity about how we struggle with each other in principled ways to build new ways of economy.
I’m talking about in our movement, new ways of economy, right? We’re trying to rebuild the base. That’s what we’re trying to do, right? We’re trying to rebuild the cultural superstructure and economic base and modes of production and the only way we can do that is if we re-envision and reimagine our relationship to one another. I think that’s our mandate and if I had any advice, I would say: operate at the points of pain for you and for the world and don’t be afraid to struggle with principle across the lines of difference– I think that’s really the only way forward. Conflict is actually a beautiful thing. Contradiction is how we grow, is how we learn. So don’t be afraid of it, and be able to do it with principle. That would be my advice.
RIAN: Yeah, principled struggle, that’s a big one when you’re in collaboration with people.
I really appreciate you naming that, as well as naming that conflict is already active enough, is an ongoing part of our existence. I love hearing you say that and name that. [That’s a concept I’ve learned that] came from N’Tanya Lee; it’s something I often look to in my organizing. You spoke just now about representational democracy and the efforts undermining the very idea of it. That made me wonder about this next question: How do you think that media has played a role in both the hypervisibility and the invisibility of Black, brown, and racialized people? Because right now, we have a Vice President who is a Black woman, but not necessarily representing our values. So I would love to hear some of your nuanced thoughts on hypervisibility, representational politics, and some of the ways that mainstream media is maybe undermining those things at this moment. It all seems to require a different kind of principled struggle with each other.
MALKIA: I’d say that over the last 100 years or so, television has served as the primary vehicle for America’s racial education, if you will. [Sorry, my cat wants to be involved in this.] Now, that’s changing, and people get a lot of their news and information –or misinformation, if you will–from the internet, right? Which has much fewer guardrails. You know, throughout the history of segregation and obvious, ongoing discrimination, we’ve seen the editorial boards and executive positions in both news outlets and tech companies remain majority white and male, despite anything we’ve tried to do to change that. This, plus the placing of our media outlets in the hands of corporations, throwing them on the stock market, has focused these companies on productivity and profit, right? So as a result, they move where the money is and they move where the drama is.
None of this serves our interest or our goals. You feel me? The result actually ends up being de-contextualized images of Black pain, Black suffering, the hypervisibility of Black criminality and violence, hypervisibility or frames of criminal and undeserving immigrants, of people of color, immigrants of color and this ideological racializing.
Which altogether suggests that Black and white aren’t just groups of people, that they’re political positions in which everyone can be moved around like pawns. You feel me? And that serves to break the capacity for alliance, you know. This is where hegemony destroys movements.
This role that media has played over the last, you know, 1 – to 300 years might be why public trust in journalism has fallen to an all-time low. People just don’t trust the media; at this point we’re dealing with all kinds of disinformation, deep fakes, and the like. It’s hard to even know what’s real anymore, you know. So folks have retreated into their information bubbles, people want to only hear information from people they trust. I have a friend whose parents very frequently contact me and send me information about, you know, all kinds of stuff, mostly about COVID, but all kinds of stuff and they send me videos on YouTube of a man in a white coat spewing disinformation, and I say to them, well, should I put on a white coat and make a YouTube video? Because I feel like I have medical information to share as well, if all I need is a white coat…but that’s where it’s at right now. Then, when you couple that with the dangerous expansion of right-wing media, where conservatives spent the better parts of the 1950s onwards establishing these huge media outlets of their own that are in direct backlash to the civil rights movement of that time, then of course when you look now, they’re currently in direct backlash to the movement of this period.
So one, when you have a whole established disinformation system, and, [second], we have a lack of diversity both in opinion and in identity, but then three, we also have this growing right-wing media system that has been pushing, not just through the media, but through our educational system[…] With all of that, that’s where we in the media justice movement get these ideas that to change how we think about race, we must first change how we think about power. That’s what critical race theory is all about. That’s what the fight against critical race theory is all about, so I think the bottom line here is these structural factors in the media, these ecosystem factors have made it so that structural racism in the media seems invisible, individual, interpersonal, and insurmountable. That is their goal, right? That is their goal. And so as we — when we — transform the media system, we’re able to transform how people think about race. We make it visible. We make it structural. We make it possible, right? We make change possible. I hope I answered your question. it’s a big question. I tried to give a big answer.
RIAN: That was amazing. Now that you’ve addressed some of the attacks & oppressive conditions we’re experiencing from sources like Big Tech and corporate media, can you go into more detail around our particular political movement in this moment and this concept of principled struggle that you’ve also spoken about?
As we wrap up this conversation, I’d love for you to share more with us about it. And, are there any other modes of liberation or analysis that we can use, more that you’d want to share with the Fellows and everyone gathered here today before we go?
MALKIA: I think a few things are important right now. I think number one, I mentioned earlier that we are in a moment of psychological and emotional warfare. I think we need to really understand that, to tell the truth. The January 6th attacks, the ‘Wall,’ the arming of young men — all this violence that we’re experiencing now and how it is being responded to by the government is part of, I believe, a long-term effort on the right to wear us down. A crucial part of the pandemic was an organized effort to have us as a movement devolve into conflict, devolve into navel-gazing, devolve into a way of working that does not work. So I think that part of our goal right now as a movement has to be about rebuilding relationships. When we say the safest community is an organized community, we’re talking about the fact that when we’re trying to make cultural change, the smallest unit of change is the relationship.
We can fight the companies–and we should. And we can fight the government– and we should. We can regulate and we should, but also– we have to actually organize. And that is something that I think is being lost, and in large measure. This part of the work where we are door-to-door, where we are person-to-person, where we are actually in our communities talking to people we do not know and being forced to organize and negotiate and persuade. This is not where we are as a movement today.
Today, we are asserting what we think is true on the internet. That’s kind of how we do, you know. And I think that that is insufficient and we’ll not win. We’ll not be a mode for victory. What is a mode for victory is actual community organizing. It’s always been true. We say that organizing has changed because now it’s all digital, but that’s not true either. Just because it’s digital doesn’t change the organizing required. I believe that that is a power of MediaJustice and the work that media justice groups are doing.
I believe that one of the things that we do is bring person-to-person organizing into a space that has largely moved the Jeffersonian approach to change, that grass top groups argue with regulatory agencies and the rest of us are just lost, but that’s not how we operate. We bring people who are most affected face-to-face with those that can make decisions about their lives. That’s the beauty of our work. That’s the power of our work.
So there’s no point in me giving you advice. You the one that knows! You already know everything about what needs to happen. You live in it right now, you know. The only thing I can really offer to you from there is this: tell me and everybody else what we can do to assist. How can we support you in bringing about the change that you need to see from your life? I think that’s it. We are integral to the reckoning, but we’re also integral to the repair. We’re integral to the reconstruction. It’s our time now and the only reason that we’re being faced with so much pain is because we were winning. That’s the point. I don’t want you to walk away from this moment thinking that we’re losing. That’s not the case. In fact, the only reason that so much attention and so much pushback is happening is because victory was afoot. Just keep that in your heart, keep that in your mind. Remember that you are filled with victory.
If victory is the only possible outcome, then they going to push back, they are going to push their impact and they have a lot of power. But we have a lot of power too. I think that’s the most important thing. We got people power and we have to remember that. We have to give that the fuel that it deserves. That’s it.
RIAN: Thank you for that, Mac. I see folk in the chat hyping it up because, yes victory! That was the ending note we needed. Thank you so much.
MALKIA: Wonderful. Thank you.