Communication as a Human Right: Creating a New Media Infrastructure for Detroit

 Until very recently, the solutions to the digitial divide (or, how difficult it is for certain marginalized communities to access the internet) have centered on how to make computers more affordable for poor people or how to chip a few dollars off the overall price of an internet service subscription. A great example of this would be the recent “Internet Essentials” deal offered by Comcast as a part of the merger deal between Comcast and NBC. The deal offered low cost internet, computers and free training to low income people who qualified.

Services like Internet Essentials are important deals for many families who would otherwise simply not have the ability to access communication tools that so many of us take for granted, but they also don’t deal with core reasons around access either. For example, why don’t people have the money to access the internet? And is money the only thing that is needed to address access? Are there other important access issues like language barriers (i.e. if the classes are all taught in English, how many in the community can access them?) or communication styles?

I've been a longtime organizer for digital justice, a movement working to more holistically address inequalities around communication needs of underserved communities. Within the past few years, I began organizing with the Allied Media Conference, a week long gathering in Detroit of media makers from across the world. This work led me to two organizations, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC) and the Detroit Future Program (DF), that are doing digital justice work throughout the year in Detroit. The DDJC is a coalition of organizations in Detroit that agree to work together based on the common principles of digital justice. The DF program grew out of the work that the DDJC did and right now is working to help educators, community organizers, artists and entrepreneurs to use media and technology to transform education and economic development in Detroit. I work most closely with the DF program.

Both organizations hold to the principles of digital justice, which first and foremost ground communication as a human right. While marking communication as a human right rather than a question of access seems to be a subtle shift in strategies, and the immediate implications of this shift aren't extremely obvious, they’re important to bring to the forefront.

Focusing on the human right to communicate is less about bandaid fixes for structural problems and more about creating long term solutions that will fix the problem at the core. What that means is that as organizers, we are less invested in finding cheap computers or setting up computer labs in marginalized communities (although this is definitely important!) and more about recognizing that the fundamental right to communicate requires a healthy media infrastructure where entire communities gain more control in the production and distribution of media.

The digital justice principles, flesh out of what we mean when we say “fundamental human right to communicate.” Centering around Access, Participation, Common Ownership and Healthy Communities, these principles start to think through and address what a media infrastructure that centers the needs of community could and should look like. For example, not only do people have the right to access communication technology, but they also have the right to do so in their own language and as producers of media, not just as consumers. Or, digital technology should benefit the economic health of the community, not just internet service providers.

What this dedication to digital justice principles does is most obvious in the work being created by people in the program. Over the course of the past year, students in the Detroit Future Media program (one of the three DF programs) who are gardeners used the training they received to start blogs about their gardens or create documentaries about their work. Other students have used the workshops as a space to create an extended documentary about the consequences of environmental pollution in the 48217 community (48217 being the zip code of the community.)

I recently sat in on the graphic design class as it wrapped up student’s final projects. I got to watch as several students made their very first t-shirts featuring graphics that they themselves designed. Lydia Gambrell, a student in the class, showed me her t-shirt design and shared with me that she intended to use the conversations her shirt will start in her community to eventually create a space where elders could make their own shirts.

A series of community conversations were created to highlight students as they thought through their media projects and what classes they wanted to take. These conversations, in turn, demonstrate how important community building is to the way media was being learned. LaDonna Walker Little is taking video editing classes to help her with her community documentation process. She lives in the Northend of Detroit, a community she describes as being infused a with deep musical history that is on the verge of being lost. But the work she wants to do is not just about her. She also wants to share the skills she learns with the youth at her ministry so that they can help her document the Northend’s history as well.

Students in the program already have an idea of how they want to use the skills the classes will teach them. They already understand the importance of digital skills and access in today’s world. They don’t need classes to teach them that. What they do need is what every media producer needs, a community of fellow artists, thinkers, and workers who want to use media tools to accomplish personal and community goals. They need a media infrastructure.

Students in Detroit Future are creating a media infrastructure. And they’re making sure that the infrastructure they’re creating is a holistic one.

Take, for example, how the influence of Twitter has shaped the face of our community. While we started off using Twitter as a way to document classes for reporting purposes, it eventually shifted into an amazing way for a community to stay connected to and supportive of each other. At a recent community dinner, folks at the dinner tweeted pictures of the food being served and the music being played, and eventually other community members showed up to enjoy the meal as well. Those who weren’t able to make it participated through Twitter, commenting on the food and art that was created at the event, and retweeting video and photos of youth performing.

In a city where one or two families living on a block of empty houses is not uncommon and it can often take two hours or longer by bus to travel distances that take minutes by car (if the bus even is running that day), this level of community building bridges the digital divide in a more meaningful and important way than a free computer would. Or as Jenny Lee described in this recent article about Detroit Future, "We’re not training people in the one-way communication streams that traditional media provide. We don’t really think that if everyone could tell their own story, everything would suddenly be better. It’s the process that’s important, the face to face conversations and relationships that emerge through it.”

In short, communication as a human right has meant entering into a community relationship through media. It’s meant us to learn how to be together, not just organize together.

Communication as a human right helps to more easily negotiate the basic reality of Detroit. In each neighborhood, on each block, there are often problems so big, it can be easier to just leave. Creating space where communication is respected as a human right makes it possible for hundreds, for thousands, of people to work on a local and even individual level together to fix the multitudes of problems--rather than those thousands of people waiting for one major entity like the government or a corporation to come in and save them.

We can save ourselves. And while communication as a human right all by itself won't solve everything--it's the linked arms and warm breath that holds us together. And that makes it everything.


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