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Liveblogging #WAMNYC: keynote by Colorlines’ Rinku Sen

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

March 31st, 2012

Rinku Sen, the visionary leader of Applied Research Center and ColorLines (which I consider the most important racial justice media outlet in the country) is giving the #WAMNYC keynote. I am paraphrasing this — the notes below are not verbatim, and not at all her comments in their entirety. Please attribute any errors to me, not to Rinku.

Understanding power: I don’t think you can be a woman in the media without understanding power…and the ability to tell the stories that help people understand that as well.

I’m an immigrant, parents came to U.S. in 1972…grew up in white factory towns, several of them. Grew up in “Levittowns,” post-war towns set up in egregated

Grew up watching 3 to 6 hours a day. Television was the way I learned English, and the way I learned to be an American. Grew up in Levittowns, planned communities with de facto racial segregation.

Television was what made me beg my mom to let us eat hot dogs for dinner every night because that is what TV taught me Americans did… I like to think of myself as proof that parents can park their kids in front of a TV and walk away and it’ll be OK…

In college I didn’t initially think activism or race politics were for or about me. My friends did an intervention with me — they said, “Listen Rinku, you’re not a girl anymore, you’re a woman now. You’re not a minority, you ae a person of color.” This was in the early 80s. “It’s time to grow up.” They took me to a rally, where I had the first experience in 12 years of feeling like I belonged. All I felt was relief that there was somewhere I belonged. There was no intellectual base; I hadn’t taken a women’s studies class or history class, it was pure physicality and emotional reaction. We got a 3rd World Center. We won some new curriculum, campaign to deal with sexual violence on campus, got two of the worst fraternities’ charters revoked, etc. So, early on I had this experience of people coming together, figuring out what was wrong, and challenging the institution that made that happen and changing the rules. Once I figured out what the source of my feeling of belonging, and that we could have wins for justice, there was no going back for me.

When I left college I became an organizer. Welfare rights, housing, childrens’ health care, stopping police violence. We won a new lead prevention and treatment program in the city of Oakland. We won changes in the way police departments examined violence, police-involved killings. After many years of local wins, I found we could win locally, but what we were not winning the larger war of ideas that was going on in the country. In 1996 we were losing that war of ideas. Welfare reform, lost. Attacks on people of color.

I went to Columbia journalism school. I really loved the work. I loved it as much as I loved the organizing, and in some cases I was better at it than the organizing. I came out of j-school realizing that we needed to bring political strategies into journalism — to compete for the brainspace of people worldwide. So, at Applied Research Center, we build a community to share ideas and bolster the wor.

Knowing what power is, is really key. As I speak on campuses and to groups like all of you, I hear often the phrase “information is power.” But actually, information is not power — power is power. Power has no proxies. Information dos not magically build power. There are three things, three pieces of advice that I have, that can move us forward in understanding the role that power plays.
1. Tell stories that connect power and systems to individual.
2. Do some organizing. You can’t learn how power works unless you’re in the process for contesting for it.
3. Get ahold of yourself, because you have power to, and have real clarity of who you are, your own emotional triggers…

Here’s a bit of a primer on how racism, sexism, homophobia and economic injustice works:

1. Internal/personal: They work re the ideas we’ve developed on who we are, who is inforior/superior/etc., where we fall in the hierarchies of gender, race, sexualities, etc. When they’re in your own brain they do you damage but tey don’t get expressed in the workd.

2. Interpersonal level: if we have biases, prejudices against one another, someone who has power (ie, jobs/hiring, etc.) has more ability to

3. Institutional level: written (policies) unwritten (practices) — both count, both are ground for change, interrogation, investigation. It might be a school or the Board of Ed., may be one hospital or health care policy.

4. Structural level: where institutional interact with each other. The school to prison pipeline — a structural analysis of connections between educational and criminal justice systems.THere are very few issues where we can make change that aren’t related to other institutionals. Domestic iolence, for example, there are rules governing families, that might happen in family courts. There are rules that criminalize domestic violence and move a cuple into a criminal justice / court system. There are schools that teach about how boys and girls grow and how mena nd women are supposed to relate to one another — so if you want to organize comprehensively about domestic violence, you have to address all these institutions.

Most of what is written on justice issues focus mostly on level one and level two — the personal and interpersonal levels. For example, the Beer Summit — the Obama/Henry Louis Gates/cop meeting, so much coverage of that, but very little coverage or institutional analysis of the institutional causes of racial profiling, criminal justice system… Also, there was so much coverage of the gang rapes of young girl in Texas and California, what was the girl doing, what were the bystanders doing, etcc., but few asked what the institutions do to allow these attacks to happen, etc.

We’re obsessed with routing out the racist, the sexist, the homophobe. What we don’t ask is, what is causing the racial, gender, sexual injustices/inequities and that allow perpetrators to act again and again with immunity. We need to change the question from who is the racist, to what is the systemic cause of oppression.

Sometimes there is specific individual racist/sexist intent (someone wanted to rape a woman; some police officer really wanted to shoot a Black person) — but most often the issues are systemic and institutional. We need to focus on the impact of the oppression, not the intention. Our best example out of the Applied Research Center where we’re connecting the stories of individuals to systemic experiences… your average reader can relate to and understand how something is lived. Our job as media makers, as journalists, as feminists, as social justice activists, is to explain how that works. For example, how I come here looking like a model minority is very clearly related to policies that the U.S. government decided related to which Asians would be allowed to immigrate here in the 70s and 80s.

[[Rinku now tells a story in detail about immigration policy, drug policy, children being torn from parents, lives torn apart — and how their report Shattered Families has made those connections and have made important shifts.]]

You have to be able to look for those stories to help you make those connections.

President Obama acknowledged our report in a briefing with Latino journalists.

Our strategy is to keep pulling up personal cases to keep a drumbeat going on this. But we’re also talking with ICE and Dept of Child Services about policy changes.

Want to say something about the intersection of race, class and gender. There are those three and others, too — physical ability and how we deal with that. Class. Sexuality. When we’re trying to have a complicated analysis we want to follow all these thread, but we don’t want to mush them together as if they are the same. But they play out differently. Sexism often happens within the family. Racism often sets in when people leave the family, out in the world. Whereas gender hierarchy, you’ll get it form how parents deal with each other, it often starts at a much earlier age. Those differences between systems affect how they operate, and we have to operate

It’s lazy to say I’m going to draw a gender analogy when making a racial justice argument. These systems don’t conflate down to the same system, and important to be able to deal with that different system.

It is important for women who make media and do journalism, to also do some organizing. You don’t have to

There are plenty of things in media policy that require your attention.We have a campaign going to dropping the language of illegality in reporting. After a year and a half we have our first meeting with the A.P. People said we should forget it and focus only on policy — but policy is so connected to the language.

Other media policy: wh has access to the internet? You all shoujld be saying something about that, to the people who make decisions. This isn’t just about signing a petition, but being a leader or a follower in a group. Because organizing is difficult. it’s very easy from a distance to make judgments about what has been done well or badly in organizing. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen progressive journalists write that organizers “let” compromises be made. But the notion that organizers and activists control the compromises they’re let into, that’s just not the way it works. Those choices come very hard, and you don’t know what it’s like to make them unless you’ve had to make them. And the experience of holding a group together with all its conflicts and ego trips and experiences or organizing, unless you’ve been in that mix you don’t have a clear appreciation of how systems work and how the process of unleashing piwer and building power works.

Finally, to the getting ahod of yourself piece. This work requires a whole lot of emotional resilience. We make a lot of unnecessary messes. If you make a mess it should be a mess you wanted to make. Get a hod of your triggers — often a reaction way disproportionate to the action you’re reacting to. You’re reacting to the first time this thing every happened to you. You’re reacting to something that happened maybe when you were five. Identify the source. Go down deep and try to figure out what that reaction’s about. What’s my first reaction, second reaction, other times I’ve had that reaction. Go down deep using that incident, to track it. Is there anything useful in that reaction I have that could change my behavior, lead me to a new project, getting me to a place where I need to be in life? And what else can I do? Getting to the source is important. Have courage. When you’re triggered, don’t act. Take time. Don’t write that story. Don’t send that email. Don’t have the conversation. But once you’ve taken the time, then take action: which can be having the courageous conversation, or it can be letting it go. Second: deal with your own biases but keep it moving. Those four levels I talked about, they’re not a chronology. Dea with your own biases = that is a lifetime project, it doesn’t end until the day you die. If you rely on a litmus test of some sort for yourself or the people around you who you love, in your community — most people aren’t going to pass that test. When Ghandi said you must be the change you want to see in the world, he didn’t mean you have to be that change FIRST. Do examine your biases, but don’t get stuck. Keep moving. Make mistakes, learn, move on. That’s how we get better.

The third — make some really good friends. People who will tell you the truth. People you can share your truths with. How you fucked up, what you fear… that’s love. There’s power in it. That’s the kind of love you have to apply to the stories you tell, to yourself, to all the beings around you. That’s the kind of love that transforms communities and countries. Thank you.

Q&A:

Q from Nancy Goldstein: where did you break Shattered Families stories?

A from Rinku: We had a deal with ABC News, and were going to break the story on Nightline. People did extra work, gave up vacations, etc., to meet their requirements. Their schedules changed, we needed to get the story out by Nov at the latest, so we didn’t break it there. So the way it broe: we organized a number of groups who work on immigration, child welfare, etc., and they all sent out press releases, called reporters, etc., some on their own, some with our materials — on the same day. So, by the time we called CNN to pitch, they had already heard it several times, there was momentum. So the story broke initially in local papers and ethnic press. Nightline finally ran a story months later.

In the systems people work in, including activist systems, there’s a lot of separation. Narrowings. Silo. Insularity. There is a really important role for people who relate to multiple issues.

Q from Liza Sabater: asks about the systemic financial barriers for journalism and organizing

A from Rinku: We have to sustain our own. Colorlines, as beautiful and awesome as it is, we don’t have the same reach as Nightline. As a strategy, what can ColorLines get done, and what else do we have to do outside Colorlines to expand that reach and get it done? We have full control of the stories we want to tell somewhere, but then branching out.

We have to think about money like everybody does. I know you all just want to do the work. We need to eat. Work on it every day, creatively. Most of my staff have a staff that has a piece of paper on their desk that says, “generate cash today.”

Q from audience: what’s your opinion on writing for free?
A from Rinku: I don’t think publishers should be OK with letting people write for free. Whatever you can pay, it’s important to pay. As a practitioner, as a writer, if you have to get your byline out there, it can be a good first step. Now I get paid for it. I think it’s — when you’re really think that when you’re faced for writing for free, the skill you want to develop is — ask for the money. Ask for it.

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