Blog

making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

In early September, we were excited to welcome our friend and newest collaborator Jesse Hardman when he visited our offices in Seattle. Jesse is a reporter and media developer currently working in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he manages and curates a community media engagement project called the Listening Post. Using text messages, public signs and roving recording stations equipped with microphones, the Listening Post provides the opportunity for people to capture and share information, opinions and news about the local issues they feel are most important.

Before starting the Listening Post, Jesse and his voice recorder travelled around the globe experimenting with different ways of gathering and delivering information in local communities. He shared stories about teaching radio classes at an all-girls Catholic school in South Chicago, building an information exchange in war-torn Sri Lanka, working with tribal radio stations in the Southwest United States, and establishing a two-way conversation about important issues with community members in New Orleans. He understands how to listen, how to get important information to people who need it the most and how that information is a lifeline for communities to thrive.

He sat down with us to share stories about his travels and his work, and to talk about the transformative experiences that changed the way he looked at media, information and social change—and how it led him to where he is today. I decided to take a page from Jesse’s playbook and experiment with audio recordings from his visit. Be sure to click through and listen! Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • Media can be a powerful tool in catalyzing community development. While teaching radio classes in South Chicago, Jesse saw that his young students responded intuitively to their assignments and used the power of narrative to create change messages that reflected their personal experiences and environment. “What they did was intuitive.”
  • Having a clear understanding of what people want to know drastically influences the process of gathering news. Jesse traveled to Sri Lanka in 2007 to join a humanitarian information initiative funded by Internews. While there, he trained and worked with a team of local reporters to create a newspaper and radio show that shared information with the country’s war-displaced population. “We asked people, ‘What do you need to know?'”
  • To adapt the way we communicate in different situations, we need to first consider the factors that influence the effectiveness of our messaging. For example, to adapt your communication style effectively, you need to understand who you are talking to, how they listen, where they are located, and what their point of view may be. Messaging needs to be impactful, clear and relatable to your audience. Whether it’s engaging a classroom of young students or appealing to a group of people who have survived a war, the way you communicate information can drastically influence an audience’s response and the overall outcome. In Sri Lanka, Jesse discovered quickly that the framework he was used to, having worked in public radio in the U.S., did not work well and he had to adapt. “Couldn’t play more than three minutes of informational radio without a Bollywood song in between.”

Lifeline

  • Media not only offers new opportunities to engage directly with people and communities, but it also transforms the ways in which people can take part in the process of information sharing. People should feel empowered to assess the information needs of their communities and think creatively about solutions for their own environment. Jesse visited with about 40 tribal radio stations across Arizona, New Mexico and California to learn more about how they share their information and the support role they play in Native American communities. Here and elsewhere in the U.S., media, storytelling and the sharing of information are tools for transformation and progress—an everyone should have a voice. “These community radio stations [. . .] are the lifeline.”
  • Public radio needs more diverse voices and perspectives if they are to facilitate important conversations in cities and communities. For example, 78 percent of the audience for public radio is white and upper middle class while New Orleans is more than 60 percent black and middle to working class. “78% of audience for public radio is white, upper middle class.”
  • Don’t be afraid to get creative and experiment with information, especially when there is a lack of funding and manpower. Jesse applied the concept of citizen journalism to focus on the capacity of community members in New Orleans to create narratives, share perspectives, and start a discussion about public concerns, visions and plans. “I was down in New Orleans [. . .] and seeing things that you see in developing countries.”
  • To engage an audience, you have to think about what would get their attention and why they would want to participate. Understanding your audience has profound implications for any strategy. It is an important step in the process to discover what will reach an audience most effectively and what will appeal to them. The Listening Post uses text messages and funky microphones designed by a local artist to attract the attention of passersby who are likely to be interested in what it is and how they can participate. “In New Orleans, [. . .] people are used to being weird and creative.”

listening post fish

  • The challenge in having a meaningful conversation lies in crafting the right question. That is, thinking about the words you use, how you phrase it, the sentiment behind it, and the way it is delivered. Sometimes changing a single word can alter the way people view your approach and their decision to engage with it. For example, the Listening Post endeavored to have a conversation with New Orleans residents about their feelings towards gentrification. To do so, they decided to present questions as real life situations or scenarios—such as what they would do with a blighted property if they had an opportunity to buy it—rather than use the word “gentrification.” “How do you ask a question that gets you stories and experiences?”

To learn more about Jesse, visit his website at jessehardman.com or find him on Twitter @jesseahardman. To hear what people are talking about on the Listening Post in NOLA, visit listeningpostnola.com and follow them on Twitter @lp_nola.

inspiring action through data-driven storytelling

inspiring action through data-driven storytelling

As a person who has dedicated my adult life to helping move the needle on social justice issues, I understand deeply why so many people feel disenfranchised, unable to take action on issues they care about in ways that actually make a difference. The landscape is daunting: social challenges are articulated in huge, overwhelming ways; physical protest feels meaningful mostly only when a significant number decide to do it simultaneously; and the organizations dedicated to change don’t usually do an adequate job of ensuring that our highest contributions—those of knowledge and specific skills—are effectively engaged. It is hard to know where to start.

Data—when used to tell a good story—can help break through these obstacles and begin to frame an achievable path to action. Take, for example, this Prison Population Forecaster developed recently by The Urban Institute. Using data gathered from 15 states, they have tracked the rise (or, less frequently, the fall) of prison populations in recent years (time frames vary). They then offer the opportunity for the user to test different policy scenarios: If we made XX policy change, it would result in XX impact on the prison population over the next seven years.

   EMBED :: VIEW THE FULL FEATURE

After exploring the Forecaster for a while, it helped me understand how different the challenges are for each state. It helped me see that the level of action we need to take in order to significantly change the trends of mass incarceration are far beyond what I originally understood. Perhaps most importantly, it provided me with a framework for making my own choices about what policy changes to support for the kind of change I want to see.

This tool also brought me to a bigger question: Are we as social justice activists using data-driven storytelling to help people engage in the issues they care about in a truly impactful way? There is plenty of data in our world, used mostly to evaluate the impact of past social change efforts and guide our future strategies. That is different than the ability to tell a data-driven story that moves people from awareness to action and not just action, but meaningful, sustainable action. It is the story that makes the difference.

I find this to be a powerful opportunity for those of us who develop, test, and lead new approaches to engagement and movement building in the effort to attain social justice. It is one of the reasons I am so grateful to be here at Aggregate. (Pardon the shameless—but authentic!—plug.) Long before I arrived (just this past June), the team here was exploring these ideas and developing tools like this one focused on Visualizing Health Data. They help us understand there is no single best way to share data. The story you tell with data depends on what your goals are, whom you are trying to reach, and what action you want them to take.

In an environment where engagement, community organizing, and policy change efforts are happening more and more frequently online—and in a world where people are constantly informing their lives and choices via mobile devices—the right data-driven digital story has the power to inspire an unprecedented number of people to meaningful action.

I haven’t seen a spreadsheet yet that helps get people out of prison, that’s for sure.

part of the argument: lgbtq storytelling and social change

part of the argument: lgbtq storytelling and social change

“You think you can change America through film?” – Charlie Rose

“Oh, I don’t know. That’s not even in my job description. Storytelling. Get the story right. Do what you can with the story. Try not to cheat the story. Whatever happens after that is in the purview of other people. I felt that way as a reporter; I feel that way doing this. But every now and then you get to be a part of an argument, and that feels good.” – David Simon

 

Despite desperate efforts to create the next “viral” video or to fund a social impact film that turns the policy agenda on its head, the contribution of storytelling to social change is cumulative–and it takes time.

A single story can evoke passion, promote empathy, teach, enrage, or empower its audience to take action–but it alone will not change the world. But every now and then you get to be part of an argument, and that feels good.

One TYPE of story can’t change the world either; we cannot live on didactic social issue films alone. Pop culture–even the really bad stuff–contributes, as do the personal stories we tell each other (online and IRL) or that we hear on the news. Art and music inspire us to see the world differently, or to be willing to do so.

Even a simple photograph can make a difference. The image of Michael Brown’s father yelling in pain at his son’s funeral, sweat soaking the front of his shirt, must have led even some of the most callous among us to realize something must be done to stop the war on young black men in this country.

article-2733579-20CAE11500000578-315_634x424

Over the past few years, the acceleration in the movement to ensure the civil rights of the LGBTQ community has been remarkable–even dizzying at times. While in the past decade there has been a sense that progress—particularly marriage equality—would come simply through the passage of time and a change in generational leadership, many of us still presumed the “inevitable” was years down the road.

Without a doubt, this progress can be attributed to a whole bunch of activists across this country, busting their asses and using their smarts to change the minds of policymakers and judges. But storytelling has been an accelerant to the pace of change, including the personal “coming out” stories so many have had the courage to tell at the risk of rejection, discrimination, and even violence.

In a 2013 Pew survey of LGBT Americans, 70 percent expressed their belief that “knowing someone who is LGBT helps a lot in terms of making society more accepting of the LGBT population.” When President Obama sat down with Robin Roberts on ABC News in 2012, becoming the first sitting U.S. President publicly to voice his support for marriage equality, he shared that dinner table conversations with his daughters Sasha and Malia about their friends’ same sex parents were what contributed to his changing views.

It is more difficult to hate when the object of your hostility is your child, your colleague, your neighbor, your teacher or, it seems, the parents of your children’s friends.

We created a timeline, LGBTQ Storytelling and Social Change, out of our own curiosity. We knew that storytelling – personal and pop culture – had played a role in progress in the LGBTQ rights movement, but we wanted to map the progression and to see the relationship over time of storytelling, social milestones and policy change. From Henry Gerber to Jennicet Gutierrez, from The Ladder to How to Survive a Plague, from President Eisenhower’s policy to ban “homosexuals” from working for the federal government to the U.S. Senate’s repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, we’ve done that.

It is a timeline that reveals small steps and giant leaps forward as well as frequent and devastating falls backward. It is, oddly, a testament to both impatience (with injustice) and patience (with the long haul). It reflects that, even as gay characters became more prominent in films and television, gay people of color did not. It reflects the actions of presidents and other policy makers, bigots, activists, writers, actors, filmmakers, designers, magazine editors, murderers, artists, reality show stars, judges, musicians, athletes, and Dear Abby.

The triumphs remind us of how much has been done to get us to where we are and of the people who carried the burden, both the names in bold and those who will never be adequately acknowledged. They also remind us of how much more work still needs to be done.

We can celebrate love, but we can’t allow a wedding veil to block our view of the discriminatory practices that prevent many gay and transgender people–particularly people of color–from getting or keeping jobs or finding a home.

We can smile at a photo of Laverne Cox with the President and First Lady, but we shouldn’t forget to weep in response to the transgender women who have been murdered in the United States since the beginning of 2015: Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Papi Edwards, Bri Golec, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Penny Proud, Kristina Gomez Reinwald, London Chanel, Mercedes Williamson, India Clarke, K.C. Haggard, Amber Monroe, Shade Schuler, Ashton O’Hara, Kandis Capri, Elisha Walker, and Tamara Dominiguez.

The process of putting the timeline together made it clear how much we have (and want) to learn. We’re confident that, despite our efforts, we’ve left things out that should be included. If you think there’s a story we should add to our timeline, let us know. Email me at alison AT whatisaggregate DOT com. Tell us a story.

storytelling, time and grit

storytelling, time and grit

How long does it take to tell a story that makes an impact?

Susan B. Anthony’s speaking tour in 1873 in support of women’s voting rights brought her to 50 towns and villages in upstate New York, where she repeatedly delivered a 533-word speech calling for women’s rights to the suffrage.

In the 90-minute documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” director David Gelb was able to display the sushi master’s life, passion, and perfection in such a powerful way that we connected with someone we otherwise may have never known or noticed.

With a 110-character tweet and popular Facebook page, online activist and former Google executive Wael Ghonim (@Ghonim) was launched to the forefront of Egypt’s anti-government movement.

And in one instant, photographer Marc Riboud captured the 1960s struggles of war and peace in the iconic photograph “La Jeune Fille a la Fleur.”

We all have a story to tell and now there are stages that encourage every person to bring their own story to life…in five minutes.

In May, I attended the 27th session of Ignite Seattle. Ignite is an event that brings together local storytellers and gives them each five minutes to share 20 slides that flip through automatically every 15 seconds. I heard stories about harvesting bugs for people to eat, drawing comics and saving the world, mastering balance on a unicycle, connecting with kids through video games, the human experience of live-translated calls, the power of lone travel, and an experiment in saying “Yes” for 30 days.

As I listened, I thought about how storytelling takes true grit. It takes passion and powerful motivation, and it requires a continued sense of exploration. Storytelling is about being curious and sometimes getting into trouble. Particularly in the social issue space, it’s important to be disruptive and provocative without being irresponsible. Storytelling is about creating an emotional connection. It’s about moving people to laugh, cry, smile or to remind them how to savor life. Good stories impart some sort of wisdom that empowers people to think—to think differently, think deeper, or think at all. Stories are kept in words, images, digital manifestations, film reels, and 140-character tweets. They are spoken, sung, written, filmed, recorded, photographed, painted, and designed. Stories can be told in five minutes, they can be told in two hours, and some stories never end. This is, ultimately, the magic of storytelling.

measure of all things at true/false

measure of all things at true/false

Earlier this month, Aggregate was honored to sponsor two performances of Sam Green’s live documentary, The Measure of All Things, at the True/False Film Fest.

Thank you to True/False and photographer, Whitney Buckner, for the photos from the Friday night performance.

Sam was joined onstage for both performances by musicians Brendan Canty, Todd Griffin and Catherine McRae, who perform the live film score.

Check out the dates for future performances of The Measure of All Things. You might just see one of us there.

Copy of TF15-The Measure of All Things-WB-4

Copy of TF15-The Measure of All Things-WB-5
Copy of TF15-The Measure of All Things-WB-7

Copy of TF15-The Measure of All Things-WB-6

the achievement gap

the achievement gap

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the third and final in a series inspired by the book. Read the first and second posts.

Grace:
When I was six years old, I was the lowest achieving kid in class. I knew it because our scores were clearly written on the board for all to see. And the one at the bottom, usually me, was given several hits with a bamboo switch.

This was the Chinese education system, and I was an American kid whose only other education experience at the time was half-day kindergarten, complete with nap and recess. After moving to my new school, the injustice I felt a age six was insufferable.

But here’s a twist: I wasn’t the only one who got the switch. The kids who sat near me also got it. To eliminate this achievement gap, the teacher made it the other students’ business to make sure I caught up. We were in it together.

As an adult, I now understand what’s truly unjust is that many children don’t have access to a good education. American elementary school students are also punished for underachievement. If an elementary school returns low standardized test scores, children often have school funding taken away, and some of their teachers fired.

In America—where a child’s ZIP code and skin color are significant factors that determine academic opportunity—it’s a grossly unfair way to be held accountable. It’s also grossly unfair that children are held accountable when CEOs are not, but that’s another story. With these pejorative tactics, there is little hope for lifting achievement, equitably or otherwise.

Dominique:
The achievement limited by those factors—ZIP code, skin color and the layered and complex challenges tangled up in them—isn’t just limited to academics.

My first job after college was managing programs for at-risk girls—from middle schoolers in gang-impacted neighborhoods to teens with incarcerated mothers and those who were incarcerated themselves. It was an up-close and personal look at the way cycles of poverty, abuse, and incarceration play out in real lives.

What really resonated with me from reading this chapter, was the idea that solving problems—teen pregnancy, job preparedness, academic achievement—requires looking far beyond the problem itself. Acknowledging and addressing head-on the complex challenges faced by vulnerable populations, and providing not only the technical skills they might need—like access to contraception and the knowledge of how to use it, for example—but the hope and determination to envision a future where there are other possibilities.

Grace:
Agreed! This book is about spreading opportunity. Kristoff and WuDunn offer innovative thinking and models that came with statistical evidence. They lay out a clear case that early investments offer the highest returns.

Dominique:
And it’s important to note that there are many individuals and organizations that are working to make meaningful change, particularly when it comes to children and disparities in education and elsewhere. We’re lucky to work with some, like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We count others as our neighbors here in Seattle, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—particularly their work on education pathways in Washington state.

Grace:
Reading A Path Appears together connected us through stories—the stories in the book and our own. I hope as more people read this book and have substantive conversations, more people realize it’s in everyone’s interest to lift others up. If we don’t, we all hurt.

 

Photo credit: Don Harder, via Flickr.