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Communicating about Justice

The centrality of controlling and producing content as a component of MJF grantees’ definitions and understandings of media justice was noted by Catherine Borgman-Arboleda and Al Reynolds of ActKnowledge, who conducted an evaluation of the MJF for the Ford Foundation. “The MJF was the only funder of new, innovative, emerging work, a pipeline for new leadership and new ideas,” observed Borgman-Arboleda. “They were able to see media justice in a broader way—not just policy.”44 And relevant policy opportunities do not exist in every community. Where there was no media policy activist group, grantees promoted social justice through training in production, media literacy, media education, and critiques of media policy. Among outcomes noted by Borgman-Arboleda were the strengthening of social justice groups’ knowledge of media issues and leadership in their communities and media groups’ ability to move from an exclusive focus on media issues to connecting media issues with social justice issues. One source told her, “Getting folks interested in production gets them interested in access and digital and communication rights . . . People progress from ‘now I have this skill . . . and I want to share the stories’ to understanding that it’s really important to think about the communication infrastructure.”45

ACF declined to participate in the third year of the MJF’s distributed funding, which focused on media policy, accountability, and infrastructure.46 Evans concluded that one-year grants were insufficient for recipients to initiate new projects (although some MJF grantees were able to use their grants to leverage additional support from other sources).47 ACF’s 2007 and 2008 media justice grantees understood the impact of policy and had been able to accommodate the grant requirements within their goals and communities but few were prepared to shift their attention and resources from using media for social justice to media policy, accountability, and infrastructure.48 The national media reform movement, with its focus on federal policy, is removed from many grassroots activists’ experiences and realities. Linking media policy reform to social justice is both reasonable and necessary, but for activists facing daily challenges for survival, media policy reform seems remote.

For these social justice activists toiling in rural communities and small cities on issues like police brutality, environmental devastation, and access to health care, the media reform movement does not match the urgency of getting their stories and perspectives in circulation and representing themselves instead of having to challenge and overcome the distortions of others. These activists and organizers acknowledge the systemic relationship between their struggles over representation and the inequities of federal media policy and ownership, but they have also been successful with strategic and creative use of existing media. For example, the movement to stop mountaintop removal mining now has national recognition, and this was accomplished without significant changes to federal media policy. The continuing importance of creating content (along with media policy reform) was affirmed by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, director of Third World Majority in Oakland, California, in a report evaluating the first few years of the MJF: “Media Justice is different [from media democracy]. We can’t separate the fight for a just media from the fight for a just society. It’s possible to have a local, highly regulated media and still have content that’s racist or homophobic. We need to focus on structural change as well as content, and content is a key way for communities to engage with media issues.”49

Training of spokespeople and new content producers and the development of alternative media communities serve immediate organizing needs and at the same time support the meaning of media justice expressed by Malkia Cyril in a March 2007 blog post about the Southeast Media Justice Conference titled “Deep in My Heart: The South Speaks the Language of Media Justice”: “Media justice is more than sexy rhetoric; a powerful re-framing of a centuries-old relationship: the relationship of disenfranchised communities to political power. Media justice houses an analysis of that relationship, a participatory strategy for local to national change, an agenda for relevant policy and structural change, and a broad vision for racial, economic, and gender justice—all of which combine to create a framework for fundamental media and social change that includes the radical redistribution of communication rights and power.”50 Although the vision of media justice articulated at the 2007 Southeast Media Justice Conference51 remains unfulfilled and the FEX Media Justice Fund ceased accepting applications in 2009, the movement conceived at Highlander in 2002, bringing together media reform advocates and social justice activists, is likely to continue to rise to the challenge voiced by Cyril: “Media is not the issue. Justice is the issue. Media is the infrastructure for how we communicate about the issue of justice.”52

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