Media Changes Lives

Clayton Dewey

I listened to a mother choke back tears as she explained how Science Fiction literature validated her constant feeling of otherness. She was estranged from her family because of her sexual orientation, but now her parents wanted to be in her daughter's life. She was stuck in a place similar to many others in the Parenting in/and/as Science Fiction session. How does a person handle the rejection of one's own family while seeing the value in having their children be part of those members' lives? People spoke of the power certain writers such as Octavia Butler, Marge Piercy, and others had in helping them navigate these challenges. The same thought crossed my mind as it had over and over throughout the weekend at the Allied Media Conference (AMC) in Detroit- media changes lives.

It’s easy as a web developer to become detached from the real impact that my work does. I love what I do. It is creative, thought-provoking, and fulfilling. Yet, sitting in front of a computer for hours on end can lead to a sort of alienation. We hear so much about the incredible amount of cruft generated by the world, thanks to the ease in which one can create content. The AMC is a powerful showcase of the very concrete and real effects that media has on our world and a powerful reminder that it’s not all cruft. From the woman I met who produces a podcast of stories by queer people of color in Pittsburgh, to the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that was passed thanks in large part to grassroots research conducted by domestic workers themselves, to the way neighborhoods are coming together to provide wireless internet for themselves through MESH networks, it was clear that people were using media for some serious work around justice, healing, and transformation.

Blogging from Prison, Media as a Lifeline

I had the honor of contributing to the conversation around ways media can impact the world by co-presenting the session Blogging from Prison with the incredible group Between the Bars. In our session we explored the ways in which the digital revolution has shifted the ways in which we communicate from writing letters (something people imprisoned heavily rely on) to conversing almost exclusively in the digital realm. In some ways this has lead to a further disconnect between those without access to these digital tools and those immersed in it. However, it has also proven to open up new pathways in which to communicate. Understanding the quickly shifting nature of media, we can take measures to avoid that disconnect and instead strengthen and improve the flows of communication through prison walls.

Between the Bars, a blogging platform for prisoners, is a great example of a tool created to increase that flow of communication. With a custom-tailored backend, the process of scanning an imprisoned person’s letter, categorizing, and tagging the mail is a straightforward process. Once the letter has been published as a blog post, anyone is allowed to visit the site and leave comments on that post. These comments are then mailed back to the blogger in prison, who can then continue to respond to those comments, which are then scanned and posted to the comment thread. This has allowed people to reconnect with friends and families, broadcast their voice to a larger audience, and participate in awareness raising campaigns around various prison conditions.

I spoke of other ways in which myself and others have been using podcasts, tweets, Quora posts, and other digital forms of media to help strengthen communities separated by prison walls. This has been particularly important for my work with Marie Mason. She is a mother, environmentalist, and labor organizer who is serving a 22 year sentence in Carswell, a highly restrictive prison unit typically reserved for prisoners designated as dangerous to others. It was her political beliefs that lead to a terrorism enhancement designation of her sentence for the acts of property destruction she carried out. This “enhancement” lead to her disproportionately long sentence in an unnecessarily high security unit.

Not surprisingly, she struggles to stay connected to those movements she was involved in before being imprisoned, as well as maintaining her mental health in such isolating conditions. Being innovative about how we can use the internet has helped us coordinate solidarity actions to keep her spirits up, highlight to the larger world the artwork she creates, and bring her story forward to the broader public. In the next few weeks she’ll even have an account on betweenthebars.org

The session went great, with people sharing examples of how they are using media, asking critical questions around representation and autonomy, and bringing up the many challenges this work entails. Afterwards I talked to several people that found our session thought-provoking and inspiring and made some great connections with others working on similar issues.

OpenAid

My time at the AMC also reinforced the feeling I have that it is important to provide products for small to mid-size groups and non-profits to create their own websites. Wordpress has been an amazing resource for people and will continue to be so, but over and over I met people whose needs had outgrown a platform designed primarily for blogging. Some had heard of Drupal or had minimal interaction with it, but few had really taken advantage of it. There are many reasons for that, but suffice it to say that OpenAid, the distribution we here at Aten have developed, can be an answer to the many people looking to move their site to a more complex level.

We are working on a new release, which will use Leaflet for its mapping feature and include some important bug fixes that improves its usability. There are also plans to provide comprehensive documentation to make installation easier, even for those with few technical skills. We’re also working on some one-click install options to add to the ease for people to get up and running with OpenAid. From there we plan on refactoring OpenAid so that specific features of OpenAid can be used independent of the distribution and used on any Drupal site. It’s exciting that our company has figured out ways to return to actively develop OpenAid and we’d love to collaborate with other users, site builders, and developers to continue to improve it. Join the OpenAid group if you’d like to be involved.

Sitting back down to my desk, I notice myself working with a bit more urgency to my movements, knowing that the work I’m doing for our clients, the features being developed for OpenAid, and the volunteer time I dedicate to Marie, are changing lives.