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Two Tasks of Grassroots Media

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There are two distinct though very much interrelated tasks that those of us involved in grassroots media should be aiming to accomplish. It’s a bit simplistic, but you can think of these tasks as being about us and about them, respectively.

The first task – us – is the publication, circulation, and amplification of marginalized voices, stories, ideas, and perspectives. It is about what differently situated ordinary people are doing and thinking, what matters to them, what they are saying about the world. It might be first-person accounts. It might be third-person descriptive stories that focus on what people have said is important in their lives. Moreover, it is doing all of this not as a gesture of charity to individuals, as the language of “marginalized voices” is sometimes interpreted in liberal circles, but in a way that recognizes (perhaps implicitly, perhaps explicitly) how each such voice, story, idea, and perspective can be both revealing of an individual life, and also tells us about the broader world. It is about seeing these voices and stories not just as isolated individual experience but rather in the context of collective, socially organized experience, and also as expressive of struggles in various modes and at various levels to create change. (It is also, by the way, not seeing this us, this we, as something given and already accomplished, but as a field of discussion and negotiation and struggle, a variegated landscape of differing experience and power, that must be navigated using hard political work – part of which requires the very circulation of voices involved in this first task – in order to build the movements that might have a chance of winning the greater justice and freedom that so many lives need in so many different ways.)

The second task – them – is about developing knowledge that explores what’s going on out there to make our lives the way they are. It is about investigating in a very concrete, practical way how institutions are doing the things that they’re doing, how social relations are organizing our experiences. Moreover, it is producing this knowledge in ways that are useful to efforts to create change, from everyday resistance to more collective efforts. This involves, to use a phrase I reflected on in a recent post, figuring out how things work in relation to people’s struggles to survive, thrive, and create change in the world. It is reporting on the herbicides being sprayed on our forests, yes, but also on how that decision gets made and implemented. It is not only relating that a given institution isn’t hiring many people of colour, it is tying that to an exploration of how that is happening and to other struggles in other times and places to challenge such things. It is refusing to erase that people on social assistance are being given the boot arbitrarily, but also making public the mechanisms through which the system is doing it. It is, in short, producing knowledge that individuals and collectives can take up and use in practical ways in their efforts to create change.

Any individual piece of grassroots media work might do one, the other, or both of these things. Any one person’s practice might emphasize one or the other, or it might encompass both. I’ve done both, in different forms, but my recent activities have been a lot more focused on the former than the latter – an imbalance I’m not entirely comfortable with but that won’t be changing in the short-term.

What I think is important, though, is that our collective grassroots media practices – the cultures of work we create, our organizations, our networks – recognize that both of these matter and that they are connected but distinct.

Attempts to do the latter in ways not rooted in the former risk losing our political grounding. We don’t just want to say things about what’s going on in the world and we don’t just want to describe how things work, but we want to do those things grounded in the experiences and struggles of people living within-and-against oppression and exploitation – and not just whatever variants we ourselves experience, but across a wide range. It is that grounding which makes such knowledge production and the media that result from it useful. But doing the former on its own, as valuable as the resulting content remains in important respects, risks losing sight of the fact that our lives have been socially produced to be as they are, and that struggle can change that – not to mention abandoning a potentially valuable source of practical knowledge for the people and movements trying to enact such change.

Along with recognizing the importance of both, there are some practical consequences to all of this. The two tasks are distinct enough that the skill sets required to do them, while overlapping, are not the same. Both are certainly skilled endeavours, and both can benefit from our grassroots media groups deliberately cultivating capacity in individuals and communities to make the doing of them more widespread and more effective. But I think the range of skill sets compatible with the latter is narrower and harder to acquire. We have to factor that into our work to build skills. As well, we need to simultaneously resist the opposing temptations to dismiss the latter as politically suspect because it is a less accessible domain of activity, or to dismiss the former as trivial because more people are able and likely to do it effectively.

We need to value both. We need to support both. We need to do both.

Scott Neigh is an writer, activist, and media producer based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the author of two books of Canadian history told through the stories of activists (learn here, buy here), and the producer/host of Talking Radical Radio (learn here, listen here).

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