Last weekend I attended the Women, Action & the Media conference at MIT in Cambridge, MA. It was generally empowering and exciting to be at an activist event with a probably 90%+ female population--to learn about all the inspiring work being done, especially by young and youngish women of color.
Although I produce zines and blog and write stuff sometimes for publications other than those I publish myself, I don't really consider myself a media maker. I went to the conference more to proselytize fact checking than because I expected the workshops to appeal directly to my personal and professional interests. I also went because Lisa Jervis, on whom I developed a friend crush when I met her at the Allied Media Conference a few years ago and who knew freakin' everyone at WAM, offered to be my roommate.
I missed the keynote address by Helen Thomas on the first night because I was having a scrumptious Tibetan dinner with my co-presenter, Lana Thelen. But I heard from friends that the best part of her speech was the standing ovation she got before she even spoke, that to be in a room full of women journalists acknowledging the incredible success of such a pioneer. Her theme I believe was generally to try hard and stick with it. (I really don't mean that as a slam. It does sound, though, like what she represented was more powerful than what she could possibly have to say. Also, I'd guess that most of the women in the room were kind of anti-mainstream media, so there's that difference in focus, as well.)
I dragged myself out of bed on Saturday morning to make it to Haifa Zangana's keynote about life in Iraq, especially for women. She basically said that with the lack of jobs, utilities, and government infrastructure, things are way worse now than they were under Saddam Hussein. I loved that even in an oral presentation, she cited every statistic she reeled off, and mentioned that later during our fact checking workshop. I mean, I learned a lot from the substance of her speech, too, but since I took lousy notes during the entire conference, the journalistic responsibility is what sticks with me.
Over the next two days there were five sessions, lettered A-E. Here is a list of programs and short presenter bios. Unfortunately they're not separated out, so I can't link to the talks or talkers individually.
For Session A, I attended Making High Impact Progressive Media presented by Tracy Van Slyke and Erin Polgreen. It was an analysis of the differences between right and left wing media strategies. They discussed research originally published in In These Times in 2005 and updated in 2006. From that workshop I learned of the Veracifier website. I love the name and concept, "We’re the CSI of news, painstakingly piecing together strand upon strand until we get to the bottom of a story—which sometimes turns out to be way up there at the top." And "The “See Change” brought on by the Internet has enabled us to see everything differently. Where News is concerned, it has empowered private citizens to step up and take on the watchdog role abdicated by the big news outlets we used to trust." I'm not crazy about the aesthetics of the site, but I do like that it's Creative Commons licensed (Attribution-Noncommercial).
Session B was Beating the Old Boys' Club, with EJ Graff, Kara Jesella, and Veronica Miller and Ann Friedman as moderator. I hadn't realized from the description, which I probably didn't read carefully enough (I was really frazzled in the week leading up to the event and also focused on fighting my Critical Mass ticket in NYC traffic court the same day the conference started, so I didn't prepare very well!), that this was a panel about fighting sexism and racism from within mainstream media outlets. Participants have written for publications ranging from the AP, major newspapers including The NY Times and most of the other biggies, and The American Prospect to Good Housekeeping, Teen Vogue, and others. Librarians will remember Kara Jesella as the author of the NYT Styles article on hipster librarians. If I'd been thinking about it, I might not have gone to this panel, since working from within isn't my personal favorite tactic, but I'm glad I did. It's really important to think about the impact of having a young black woman at the AP desk in a room full of "Bobs from Yale," and how much worse the stories would be without her there to insist that women and people of color serve as sources once in a while. She (Veronica Miller) gave great examples, but I'm sorry, I forget what it was. Bad note taker! Ann Friedman horrified the assembled by holding up the current issue of The American Prospect, where she is deputy editor. In case the link doesn't last forever, the cover pictures Obama balancing a basketball sized earth on his finger, Harlem Globetrotter style. So sometimes you can't make the changes you want, even from within. To its further shame, that same issue has one only female byline. Grrr.
Then came our workshop--FACT-UP: Fact Check, Research, and Thinking Critically like a Radical Librarian, which had good attendance (35 people?) and I think went pretty well. I mean, of course I have tons of issues and recriminations about my own presentation style and content, but some of that I hope is just me being a dumbass. Lana was awesome, regardless, and she's never done fact checking or taught it before. She doesn't even have that much public service/reference experience, so her jumping in and adapting the material and teaching it so well is all the more a feat. What always amazes me, though you'd think I'd be used to it by now, is how many people actually are interested in how librarians do research and what sources we use. And this despite the seemingly common belief that people think of themselves as perfectly good researchers and that librarians are no longer needed and that anyone can do what we do. You also have to know that we drew those 35 people in probably the time slot with the most compelling slate of workshops. I do think/hope that everyone there learned at least one thing they hadn't known before. I did.
Our session monitor was another Rad Reffie, Alycia Sellie, who came up with a great idea for a future Radical Reference workshop: Library Hacks. We would teach people how to get into private university libraries, public library electronic resource collections, and stuff that they give away free but that people might appreciate better if they thought they were stealing.
Saturday night was a party, or, rather two parties, as is mentioned in Jessica Hoffman's post about attending WAM from the perspective of a woman of color. I thought the main party and the POC party being scheduled at the same time was a little weird, too, but in my blithe blanca way, I didn't give it a ton of thought, other than to note that the Alternet sponsored party was on campus and that the POC party was a ten-minute walk, if you're a New Yorker or one T-stop if you're from anywhere else, away. Anyhow, the official party was fine--not great, not sucky. It was followed by an intimate (read: crammed and loud) after-party in a hotel room.
Sunday am brought Session D, which was for me Here We Go Again: Bad Stories about Women that Never Die." It was given by Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, two academics. It was about debunking cliché stories about women and girls, like "girls aren't as good at math." They tackled three of these myths, I believe, with some interesting tidbits here and there on which I want to follow up.
- The Charlotte Allen piece in the Washington Post about women being dumb.
- Sexism in Sweden, of all places, and in the peer review process
- Michael Gurian's sexist new book
And finally, for the last session of the conference I attended "Collaborative Approaches to Strategic Communications for Social Justice Advocacy," presented by Debra Cole, Deepa Fernandes, and Makani-Themba-Nixon, and moderated by Ellen Braune. It was about turning activists into media makers by giving them training and equipment, because they can tell their own stories the best. Ms. Cole, a childcare worker who organizes with Domestic Workers United served as a living example of this philosophy. We listened to a clip from an audio piece she'd created, working with the People's Production House. Aside from being both impressed and touched with the segments, along with others described by Fernandes, including one that involved gulf coast region kids, I got to thinking more about radio than I have in the past. Someone asked if they'd thought about turning the pieces into video, so they could post them on YouTube. I found myself annoyed and defensive the same way I am when people ask me about digitizing zines and comparing print zines to blogs. Isn't radio something special on its own? Didn't they choose to make radio pieces, perhaps because the equipment is less expensive and requires less training, or maybe because more members of DWU and folks in regions destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have better access to the radio than the Internet, or for artistic reasons or whatever? I know I'm probably not their demographic, but I gotta say, I love the radio, and I rarely watch YouTube.
By the way, I loved that the workshops were 90 minutes long, rather than the 75 that I think is more common at conferences. It makes all the difference in terms of giving adequate time for discussion, especially with panels with more than three presenters. Then again sometimes I hate the audience discussion part because people can be such self-indulgent blowhards. I honestly think this is less the case with women than with men and with younger people vs. older. And I'm not one of those people with a youth fetish; in fact it irritates me that younger folks seem to be working on more interesting projects, which is weird since generally and perhaps bigotedly speaking I find people themselves to be a lot more interesting to talk to once they're older and have done some stuff. Sorry for that digression.
Okay, I've got to stop now. This is about 1500 words too long for a blog post as it is. Expect changes, though, as I'm too tired to read this through once before publishing it.