Jen Humke, Senior Program Officer, writes about the emerging generation of storytellers taking advantage of new technology to engage civically and politically.
Over the past 10 years, there has been an explosion of diverse stories, storytellers, and characters coming out of Hollywood.
Shows like Issa Rae’s Insecure (about the friendship of two modern day Black women), Sterlin Harjo’s Reservation Dogs (about teenage life on Native American reservations), and Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat (about the Asian American immigrant experience) present the (often hilarious) everyday lives of people and communities that, until recently, had been considered too “niche” by entertainment gatekeepers to be greenlighted. Not surprisingly, these new shows have attracted massive, multi-racial audiences and have been nominated for and received numerous important industry awards.
This progress did not happen by chance or because of a moral awakening in Hollywood. Rather, it is the result of a disruption in media and entertainment brought about by new technologies that, among other things, unleashed a wave of new subscription-based streaming services hungry for content for their global audiences. And although the full story about these streaming services has not yet been written, they undoubtedly helped create more opportunities for creatives from historically marginalized communities to get their stories made and distributed to mass audiences. And, perhaps more importantly, they are helping to diversify whose stories are centered in popular culture, and—although there is no conclusive evidence yet—the hope is they are also influencing Americans’ values and expectations about race and belonging.
New technologies and the social web also make it easier for anyone with a cell phone to create, edit, and remix media; develop a global distribution channel; and organically build an audience. Issa Rae, Hasan Minhaj, Lilly Singh, and Bo Burnham are just a few Hollywood stars who launched their careers (with a cellphone and tripod) on the Internet before they broke into the mainstream. Although the large technology companies that own platforms, such as YouTube and Instagram, are powerful gatekeepers, these channels for creating and viewing content are dramatically changing how we—especially youth—consume and engage with popular culture.
But it is not just aspiring writers, directors, and comedians who benefit from these tools. A new generation of civic actors focused on using narrative and cultural practices to challenge long-standing inequities and injustices in society are leveraging the disruption to media and entertainment. The Movement for Black Lives, for example, was launched online in 2013 through a global exchange of tweets, posts, memes, and videos by young people demanding accountability for the killings of Black and Brown men and women at the hands of law enforcement. On digital platforms, such as Twitter and YouTube, these young civic actors created, remixed, and distributed content to their followers, using popular culture as a way to make their point and build their audience.
In other words, as technology was upending the media and entertainment industries, it also was changing the way a new generation of American young people were engaging civically and politically. Dissatisfied with the traditional route to civic and political activity, which they view as too narrow and exclusive (especially for non-dominant groups), this enterprising and tech-savvy generation is seeking out new, more accessible, and expansive modes of civic and political participation that recognize and take advantage of the power of culture to shape our societal norms, policies, and institutions. In addition to the Movement for Black Lives, other technology-enabled social movements, such as #MeToo, the DREAMERs, and March for our Lives also used participatory media and the social web to critique policies and institutions, build awareness of injustices and inequities, and demand change.
Alongside these practices and opportunities, a new generation of digital-first social justice organizations emerged to provide structure for this new form of media making and civic engagement, such as Color Of Change, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Define American, IllumiNative, and the Pillars Fund. Overwhelmingly, these groups are run and staffed by Millennials and GenZers from communities of color who are taking advantage of our new media environment to challenge inequities and injustices through cultural and narrative change efforts.
They are using the web and participatory media to build community; organize across geography; educate, inspire, and pressure policymakers and corporations for structural change. And, not surprisingly, over the past decade they have begun to partner more and more with Hollywood to influence the creation of cultural content at scale. For example, Define American, an organization focused on humanizing the immigrant experience through storytelling, consults with filmmakers, writers, and industry executives to develop more realistic immigrant characters and navigate complex immigration-related storylines. Color Of Change, the largest online racial justice organization, has an entire department focused on holding Hollywood accountable for the inaccurate and damaging stereotypes it perpetuates about Black Americans. And IllumiNative, an ambitious and innovative group focused on addressing the invisibility of Native peoples and culture, creates its own content for mass consumption and provides wrap-around supports for emerging Native storytellers in Hollywood.
In partnership with The Second City and Pillars Fund, we hosted a conversation about the innovative ways comedy and pop culture are being used to engage a range of audiences in difficult discussions about race, gender, equity, and belonging. The panel featured people and organizations supported through our Journalism and Media Program.
MacArthur has had a front row seat to the emergence of this new civic infrastructure. In 2015, the Journalism and Media program launched a new thread of grantmaking in something that we call Participatory Civic Media. This new priority recognized and is designed to support emerging digital-first social justice organizations that are using media, technology, and popular culture as their primary tools for social change.
In addition to the groups already mentioned, we fund many others that are similarly committed to nurturing this new generation of civic actors, such as New Media Ventures that is seeding new organizations and supporting social entrepreneurs working at the intersection of media, technology, and civic engagement; Allied Media Projects that is providing culturally relevant fiscal sponsorship opportunities to emergent organizations; academic centers such as the Center for Media and Social Impact at American University and the Civic Imagination Project at the University of Southern California whose research on participatory culture has been foundational to our investments in the space; and many others that also subscribe to the notion that culture precedes policy.
Although narrative and culture change are becoming more and more familiar in social change circles, it is still a nascent field. We are discovering the full shape of it as we go and seeing its potential from different angles and lenses. For some of us, the new cultural practices emerging from the disruption of media and entertainment sectors feels like civic engagement, for others it can push toward racial justice, and for others it is simply manifests as new forms of creative content. But taking a big step back, we can begin to see the outline of the entire realm of practice, and it looks like an approach and set of practices for engaging in our democracy that is creative, inclusive, interdisciplinary, embedded in authentic lived experiences, and in the early stages of realizing its full potential.