This article is by Henna Zamurd-Butt and was originally published on Medium
Content about social change and activities for social change
I’ve been working with various digital media platforms for the past seven years, from For Books’ Sake, championing women writers to Catch 21, engaging young people in politics and Newzulu, empowering citizens to report the news — they’ve all sought to achieve some kind of social impact.
In 2013 I joined Media Diversified, an organisation that works to foreground the voices of journalists of colour in the UK through an online platform, but also through offline activities such as campaigning, consulting and running events. It’s here, working across operations and editorial, that the relationship between content about social change and activities for social change became apparent to me.
Which is why I was so excited to see that Medium is hiring for outreach on social impact. Having watched how the platform has been evolving I think it’s perfectly placed to facilitate the conversations that we need to have for transformative change.
Why? Because we now have the ability to move away from transmission forms of communication and the hierarchies that they invoke, to what James Carey calls a ritual form — communication that emphasises community and communion. Liberal ideas of freedom of the press aren’t radical enough when some voices and communities are being ignored; in fact it’s a waste of talent and expertise. I’m interested in Medium because there are no sacred cows here — everything is up for discussion — and that’s what democratic deliberation over issues needs if we’re going to solve problems.
How do I see it happening on Medium then? Firstly, through creating dialogue which bridges traditional divides across industries and disciplines, and secondly, as a result of this exchange, and the openness with which it takes place, through interrogating and shifting narratives.
Stimulating dialogue across traditional divides
Back in autumn of 2015 I was at Mozfest in London and I went to a session about online communities with Sydette Harry. There were a lot of journalists in the room, and so the collective groan when comments on articles were mentioned was not surprising. I know loads of writers (and readers) that don’t venture ‘below the line’, myself included. At the same time, research on Twitter shows the polarisation of conversation related to politics, even if the people involved are incredibly well informed and engaged with their topics of interest.
This is about leaving the mindset of broadcast media behind, but at the same time the dichotomy of altruism and victim. It’s about changing the way we value certain types of knowledge and not disregarding experience as anecdotal and irrational, but giving each their place in a conversation.
At Media Diversified I’ve seen this first hand, because we live our values not just through editorial, but through how we work — because it’s personal for each of the team members. We’ve taken our lead from feminism and collapsed the personal and the public.
As an editor coming into this space it meant having a more open mind about what was commissioned and how it was written. But it also meant keeping an eye on who was being commissioned and working hard to draw in people from marginalised groups.
This incites dialogue: when people don’t agree with us, when they feel something is inaccessible, when they just aren’t interested.
I want to help Medium continue to draw in disparate voices talking about social change and to facilitate difficult conversations that encourage collaboration, mutual understanding, and perhaps most importantly, an exchange in values.
Transforming staid narratives
Having worked in the social sector I am convinced of how important it is to challenge the assumptions each of us make regarding the issues we’re trying to tackle — be it climate change or racism or health. How we frame and talk about an issue day-to-day has a huge role in shaping how we interact with it.
When I spent a year on the social enterprise leadership programme, On Purpose I was struck by how those around me, although highly-qualified, had very little experience of the problems their organisations were trying to solve. It meant that they had developed narratives that didn’t align with their stated aims. For example, why do some international development NGOs continue to promulgate disempowering and homogenising narratives about societies in the global south? Why does the framing of problems stop short of interrogating funders, or harmful development projects like child sexual abuse in voluntourism?
To take an example, let’s examine the commonly held view that countries in the global south are more homophobic than those in the west. Without denying the very real and some cases deadly consequences of this prejudice around the world, let’s add the context that anti-homosexuality laws in places like Uganda are part of a British colonial legacy.
How does the change in narrative impact how we examine the problem? How we look at the people of Uganda?
We can catalyse the subversion of damaging narratives at Medium because it’s a platform that encourages audiences to interrogate what they’re reading. A great example of how this is already happening is Courtney Martin’s piece on the Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems in January, because others in the field of development also chimed in after the searing critique was posted.
Conversations on Medium can close the loop and bring these communities in so that their views and experiences can inform the narratives that changemakers are ascribing to.
At the same time there’s something important about the way in which the platform itself functions that forces an active engagement with content. This supports media literacy, a skill that I am passionate about and often deliver workshops on for communities that more often than not, feel the sharp end of damaging media narratives, like Muslims, women and lower socio-economic classes.
So what needs to happen?
For me this work involves creating an environment for worthwhile exchange that leads to real outcomes. As an editor at Media Diversified I have worked closely with contributors to support them to tell their stories in their own voice, sometimes for months at a time. I’ll do this where needed to get the most important topics on the agenda.
I’ll draw in individuals from across the board: from social intrapreneurs working in big corporations to people who’ve been at the receiving end of their initiatives, those who deliver frontline services to those who fund them. I’ll chase the voices that are missing but I’ll also invite anyone who’s keen to play too.
I enjoy working in an open, collaborative and networked way and if I join, I’ll share my journey with the Medium community. Just like I’m sharing my application.