Today’s activists don’t need validation from the mainstream media - they have the tools to take control of their image on their own terms.
Illustration by Rafa Alvarez
Recently, I came across a video of student protests in Bulgaria, where I was born and raised. It wasn’t long until I realized the video was streaming in real time. Yvo Bojkov, a citizen journalist, was broadcasting police intimidation live to thousands of people around the world -- and he was doing it all from his cell phone. This was during one of many student-led demonstrations in front of the Bulgarian Parliament that protested the government’s corruption and ties with the mafia.
My current work at Roadside Theater includes integrating four decades of its culturally specific, place-based community cultural development work into its website, within the context of the theater’s ongoing live practice. Our goal is to enable communities to draw on culture as a resource in solving their own problems in a fair and just manner.
According to Roadside’s Philosophy of Change, “effective grassroots organizing around issues of social justice invariably begins small. The basic unit of such organizing is the individual discovering through experience, reflection, and study of his or her own truth of the issue, then testing and developing that truth in dialog with others who also have knowledge.”
In 2010, two friends and I made a documentary that filmed first-hand accounts of communism in Bulgaria. How could such accounts grow our collective awareness? Preserving and analyzing different perspectives of pivotal times in history is crucial to understanding the current events in Bulgaria, but how do we "test and develop that truth in dialog with others who also have knowledge"? Media plays an important part in answering this question around the world.
In 1983, about 50 corporations owned the vast majority of all news media in the United States. Today, this number has been reduced to six. While we can’t control corporate media consolidations, we can choose to direct our attention away from the 24-hour news cycle and towards a more human-oriented field: citizen journalism. Supporting and participating in citizen journalism in our communities is a way to engage with our immediate surroundings and disengage from what others want us to believe. It can open the door to genuine dialog, rather than talking points followed by commercial breaks.
The power dynamics in Bulgaria are no different. A case in point is how protests are reflected in the country's mainstream media: the videos are edited, the protesters are vilified, and the political “talk shows,” as their name implies, sensationalize the issues while keeping them abstract and shallow. Such paranoid response by the mainstream wing of the Fourth Estate underlines its true purpose – to spread apathy, fear, and division. (In terms of physiological effects of such fear mongering, a recent study from the University of California-Irvine about exposure to media coverage of the Boston marathon bombings concluded that wall-to-wall coverage of the bombings was more stressful than being there.)
Police officers assault Yvo Bojkov // Source: BBC
Meanwhile, the Bulgarian students and their supporters continue to organize, issue declarations, expose corruption, and hold debates –- none of which reach the traditional media channels. The grassroots movement is ignored and the ideas that led to its fruition are completely absent from televised debates. The general public perceives these actions as occurring on the spur of the moment, when in fact they are a sign of deeply rooted “from the ground up” initiatives. Corporate media will never explore why these movements are happening. If they acknowledge them at all, they will exploit the where, when, and how.
It is up to the newer generations to enhance and repurpose successful community building models using the tools that are available today. The student protests in Bulgaria started with a handful of students discovering their own truth of the issues, which resonated with a portion of the population. “Testing and developing that truth in dialogue with others” is what will create a “generative base for devising and enacting solutions.”
Will Big Media continue to have a monopoly on information in communities which now have the capability of examining their collective knowledge? A community that is interested in solving its own problems doesn’t need 15 minutes of fame; it needs a network of people working together, rather than a network working for a corporation.
Mobile technology can make it easier for this to happen, as anyone with access to it can tell their story, or listen to the stories of others, publicly. How can these stories have an impact that generates change? What needs to happen, in addition to crowd protests, for change to occur?
Roadside Theater would say that change develops through live, intentional, meaningful interactions among a cross-section of a community, because “the people with the problem have the most knowledge about the problem, and need to be the generative base for solutions to the problem.” What can community-based artists do?
- Use story circles to gather and study “first voice” narratives that enrich a community’s collective knowledge of itself;
- Work with community members to tell their stories publicly in their own voices through theater, visual art, and media; and
- Work with citizens to create an inclusive, constructive, public discourse about problems in their locality, in order to inspire, explore, and enact creative solutions.