Civic media and dealing with emotions after the US election

Election parties that turned into funerals. Sleep-deprived humans floating through the street, numb after a weeknight of crying, alcohol, or both. Silence: the morning of November 9, 2016, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was frighteningly silent. For all the rationality, all the number-crunching, all the exploration of electoral scenarios, dealing with elections remains a deeply emotional task.

The task for many on November 9 was to find ways to help themselves and others process those emotions. As it happens, I had to start that very day with a class I was meant to facilitate. On civic media, of all things. In 2016, can the discussion around civic media provide us with opportunities to process appalling outcomes, help us transition from the surreal to making sense, or does it just really rub salt into the wound?

I bypassed the never-ending slideshow and made a guide for discussion. I used the main points of the Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice chapters assigned for this class by professor William Uricchio (see at the end of the post), and framing questions I learned from workshops with feminist organizations in Mexico.

For something kind of thrown together in the last minute, I think it ended up providing opportunities for catharsis, discussion, and for collectively remembering that there is a path forward, and I want to keep a copy of it for when I am back home and dealing with elections in 2018. After seeing mail after email (in both activism and academic spaces) asking for ideas on ways to create spaces that can help people move forward this week, and as progressives in the US go back home for holidays, I thought I would share this.

Discussing civic media after electoral loss – discussion guide

Like with all curriculum creation, this module reflects things I modified after the first run – if you end up using it, please consider adding your feedback.

How did it go for us? When talking about fears, the different stages and paths of everyone in the room helped us cover our fears from the very individual access to services to the global impact of the electoral process, spending a long time talking about identity, our loved ones. When talking about democracy, the discussion shifted to lack of clarity and powerlessness, and the different roles ascribed to media throughout; and, when discussing participation, civic opportunities both within and outside the electoral framework were discussed.

More importantly, though, a lot of tears were shed in group; intimacy was built, even if just for an hour and a half; and, I hope, positive visions for going forward were exchanged. As Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shrestova et al wrote when discussing certain dance performances within frameworks of civic engagement, “Whether participatory or spectatorial, these spectacles do political work, empowering these movements to go out and change the world”. I like to think that, both in good and bad days, both public displays of emotion and discussions on media can do the same.

Related efforts, references, acknowledgements

One of the good things about big events like this is that they elicit positive efforts from tons of people, and here are some of the ones that I have found most inspiring:

– For more on conversation guides to use this season, keep an eye on Willow’s work.

– People creating spaces. While we had this discussion in class, other MIT students gathered to create a day-long space where people could process what happened. Participants there, too, were asked to discuss fears and hopes. Some professors, like Chris Peterson, held their classes there. Olivia Quintana wrote about it for Boston Globe.

– Educators thinking of ways to build the world they want to see and planning their next semester around it. Practitioners in the field of advocacy coming together to start reading groups on populism. Information security advocates discussing what the next steps are on the face of the election results. Progressive academics and practitioners talking about ways to go back to the communities and families that saw them grow up and that hold views very different from their own. This all is happening today thanks to the fact that someone sent a simple email to a list and got the conversation going.

– Let’s never underestimate the importance of using our voice to stand for human rights, for decency (a term pin-pointed this season by David Weinberger in a way that really resonated with me). Thank you, Shaun King, for keeping track of the instances of racism surfacing after the news; HRC, for standing with the LGBTQ community by sharing information about resources available; Everyday Feminism, for reminding everyone about the importance of self-care, and making it easier to do.

– Throughout the electoral season, and now, many inspiring social media posts have popped up on my feeds, and I am sure they have on yours, too. Let’s all take the time to thank those around us who have inspired us throughout. Extra points if you do it offline. But this is a topic I’ll leave for my personal blog.

– The texts that informed my discussion guide are On democracy and the digital age by Peter Levine; Superpowers to the people! How young activists are tapping the civic imagination by Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik; Partnering with communities and institutions by Ceasar McDowell and Melissa Yvonne Chinchilla, and Effective Civics by Ethan Zuckerman. All of these are chapters in Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice, edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (2015, MIT Press).

Thanks to Kishonna Gray, William Uricchio, Usha Raman and Erhardt Graeff for helping me keep both activist and graduate student hats on for this post.