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Sustaining Collaboration. Lessons from the Media Research and Action Project
Charlotte Ryan and William Gamson
In this chapter, we reflect on an academic-activist collaboration that we founded at Boston College in 1985, the Media Research and Action Project (MRAP).1 During its 25-year history, MRAP has worked to forge a shared “safe space” where scholars, advocates, and social movement groups exchange strategies, theories, and experiences.2 At the beginning, we focused on issue framing (the way that journalists or organizations package messages), with the assumption that media sociology and advocacy campaigns could mutually inform one another. In practice, MRAP has been many things—a proving ground for graduate student projects, a site for strategy workshops and formal media training, a meeting place to brainstorm about how social justice voices navigate a for-profit media system. Along the way we have been trying to do what Michael Burawoy described, nearly a decade after MRAP’s founding, as “public sociology.”3
When we introduce MRAP and its range of activities, we describe two overlapping wings with interrelated projects. The more formal academic wing has helped participants “bake” doctoral dissertations, papers, books, and lectures. The translational research and action wing has offered a strategizing and training space for activists; in workshops and capacity building programs, we have worked with nonprofits, advocacy, community, labor, and other social movement groups to deepen their ability to strategically frame and disseminate messages that enhance their organizing efforts.
This chapter is a combined and expanded version of a pair of previously published articles: William Gamson, “Life on the Interface,” Social Problems 51, no. 1 (2004): 106—10; and Charlotte Ryan, “Can We be Companeros?” Social Problems 51, no. 1 (2004): 110—13.
The relation between the two wings is critical; the action wing does apply theories developed in the academic wing, but it also explores theoretical gaps that arise in practice. In turn, the value of the academic wing rests not only in its theoretical offerings but in its capacity to reflect with activists on their practice. The seminar offers organizers needed distance and also provides comparative experiences and ideas from other times and places.
The metaphor of “wings” could overstate the division; many MRAP members have played both roles, each project demanding a different blend of theory- informed practice and practically informed theorizing. Our individual histories and strengths determine where we most often fall in recurring cycles that link action and reflection through dialogue. The wings’ interdependence is more important than their differences. Here the metaphor is fitting: by working syn- ergistically, the wings achieve their shared purpose.
The dialogue between academics and activists has been mutually rewarding, even as tensions arise from time to time around priorities, pacing, language, and other issues. In all this work, we have applied Freirian, constructionist, and feminist theories stressing dialogue. And we’ve learned volumes. While our learning is largely stored for now in personal files and journals, we present some key lessons in the sections that follow.
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