Field Project: Challenging New Media and Civics Education Paradigms {Work in Progress}

I recently completed my Master’s field project proposal, which consists of a literature review and plan around new media and global citizenship education. The project will materialize as a set of curricula and/or website activities geared toward educating youth in America around the ways digital storytelling shapes our perspectives of global issues. I intend to develop the curricula over the next few months, and it should be completed by December 2013.

A brief summary about the project is below. You can download the full version (30p) here: New Media Literacy Project. I welcome feedback and encourage you to read it!

Title: “Challenging New Media and Civics Education Paradigms: A Space for Critical Media and Postcolonial Frameworks”

Purpose of the Project: A supplemental form of critical learning whereby students actively participate in sharing stories, posting critiques and engaging in dialogue around current events and social causes. The goal is to foster global citizenship – a frame of mind that is globally aware and read to take action on issues both at home and abroad – and to develop critical thinking skills by empowering young adults to share their stories and feedback about the worlds in which they thrive – both online and offline.

Theoretical frame: The predominant frame is a concept knowns as the “White Savior Industrial Complex“. Coined by the author and poet Teju Cole in March 2012, it posits that Western media contorts, essentializes and oversimplifies developing or “Third World” countries’ problems in an effort to portray dominance. In this view, drawn from postcolonial theory, European-driven perspectives of the Global South are the representative and normative understanding of the world; moreover Third World problems are frequently viewed from an outside-in lens under the framework of humanitarianism. A good example of the White Savior complex is the KONY 2012 campaign, TOMS shoes and Charity:Water. (Full disclosure: I am not trying to condemn or vilify global humanitarianism; in fact, I have contributed to both Charity:Water and other large-scale campaigns in the past, and own a few pairs of TOMS shoes. The main theme I am attempting to shine a light on is white privilege – the power, wealth, and politics that surround it. For context, I will restate the argument that Mr. Cole put forth in his article: “Those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”)

Statement of the Problem: Globalization and the rise of social media, as a result, have shaped the contours of this White Savior narrative with greater impact – and ease: stories of “the other” are now circulated at warp speed across social networks, purporting “the other” as objects rather than subjects. Education programs may use KONY 2012 as a teachable moment, but many if not most fail to reach beyond traditional media literacy programs in identifying the power structures behind these types of events. New media programs, while beneficial in separating fact from fiction, do not routinely apply critical literacy and postcolonial frames to issues of global import like KONY 2012. And while successful civics engagement programs use new media projects to empower youth in oppressed communities, they lack the “global citizenship” framework to raise consciousness while critically examining new media’s role in shaping their perspectives.

Signficance of the Project: The ongoing effort to combat misinformation and distill truth in a 24/7 news cycle is daunting, and educators and parents lack the resources and time to be able to effectively implement these strategies. Moreover, they also lack the tools to guide critical discussions of privilege and power within these current methods and pedagogies. In addition, global activism campaigns target youth through aggressive marketing and storytelling tactics; by capturing the zeitgeist of the movement, these campaigns make it difficult for parents and educators to join the conversations or guide the discourse. In effect, social media campaigns’ stickiness and rapidity of scale make challenging the discourse in real time almost impossible. Furthermore, the essentialization that occurs in global charity and humanitarian campaigns makes for an increasingly difficult concept to unpack, especially given that these “global citizen” movements entice young people to “make a difference” through lending their voices to the causes they care about.

GOAL of the Project: This project aims to go beyond both the current new media literacy paradigms that largely focus on digital literacy as a tool to combat misinformation or distinguish fact from fiction and the civic engagement processes that urge youth to become agents of change without negotiating the broader worldviews they bring to the causes they champion. This project advocates for a marriage of the two paradigms within the greater themes of critical literacy and postcolonial studies from Cole’s White Savior theory. Be re-centering the frame from one that propels the West to be the agent of change towards a more inclusive model, this way of thinking can guide youth in understanding how their privilege reifies the current discourse around global causes. In turn, the process of changing these paradigms can empower youth the change the worlds in which they live.

Charity Capitalism and Citizenship

Charity Capitalism – not a new idea, but certainly generating big buzz this year. From TOMS, to Starbucks, to the awful Five Hour Energy – everyone is trying to “do right by doing good”. Well as the saying goes: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”…

As much as the media leads us to believe that we can “vote with our wallet” and “make a difference” by confronting complex global issues with small consumerist actions, the whole concept of Charity + Capitalism subverts power, dilutes critical reasoning and most importantly, normalizes Whiteness. Charity Capitalism is nothing but White Privilege with a price tag attached. You get something for giving something – not your time or skills, but your money. And where does that money actually go? I doubt many can answer that. You feel good about helping a child or a starving farmer, but what do they get? Do they have a say? Not really. They aren’t the agents, here – it’s YOU (You, the one with the money and power, not them). This is what White Privilege is all about – validating the subject (who is in this case the donor, not the receiver), because they carry the power, the words, the money, the fame (Hello, Live 8, or Charity:Water, or, ugh, KONY2012).

I like what Phil Baumann wrote on the subject: consumerism and capitalism don’t lead to good citizenship. He’s right, for many obvious reasons, one which I mention in my piece on the White Savior Industrial Complex (the core of which comes from Teju Cole‘s piece in the Atlantic, which is a must read).

It’s about privilege. Not just economic – it’s white privilege. Why white? Because those in power are predominantly Western and white (this is apparent across pretty much all of international development agencies – the IMF, the World Bank, USAID, NGOs, etc). How do children in Peru feel about their TOMS shoes, which wear out after about one week of walking across dusty, rainy and snowy terrain in the Andes? We don’t know –  all we see are smiling kids with their brand new shoes. Sure, some kids don’t have shoes, and having an extra pair can’t hurt. However, I doubt they feel empowered because they got new shoes from China. (And by the way, the leather sandals they usually wear, despite being open to cold weather, are much more durable, and not to mention, locally made.)  But to the consumer, it’s a great feeling – “I made a difference!” “I am a good person!”. (Full disclosure: I own 2 pairs of TOMS shoes, and they are very comfortable, but I don’t agree with their model). Charity Capitalism distorts this whole idea in many new and perverse ways because it plays on people’s emotions, and when you add money to the mix, it’s extremely volatile.

While Charity Capitalism desensitizes citzenry and erodes capitalism, as Baumann suggests, it also disempowers those at the receiving end, especially in the “developing world”. How do Colombian farmers feel about the fair trade $4 Starbucks cup you’re drinking? It’s not important, remember – it’s all about YOU and your empowerment, your agency, your voice (otherwise, you won’t care – it’s interest convergence, exemplified). Digital whiteness, and the continuous majoritarian form of storytelling that suppresses those in need while validating privilege, is what makes Charity Capitalism even more pernicious and threatening. It’s largely invisible, and rarely talked about.

Read Cole’s piece (and mine 🙂 ), watch Zizek’s RSA animate video, and you’ll soon see why humanitarism + social media + Western capitalism = a recipe for disaster.