Interview Highlights: Boston’s Student Immigrant Movement Part 2

The following is a summary of an interview with Renata Teodoro regarding a project with the Center for Civic Media at MIT on the role of Media and Technology in Social Movements.

Networked Collaboration

Collaboration with networks and alliances has played a large role for the Student Immigrant Movement in Boston, comments Renata. Recently, SIM has found support from the faith community. “The faith community is still a huge resource…I would say even more than organizations.” Churches are significant because they are often indiscriminant of citizenship status, which allows for outreaching to both undocumented immigrants and non-immigrants at once. Also, high schools and universities have been excellent sites to reach undocumented youth. “Most of those people [faith communities and students] aren’t engaged yet into any type of movement.”

There are both positive and negative aspects to being part of a network of organizations. When working with the faith community, Renata states “it’s helpful in terms of…outreaching to people and getting people to actions, and getting people to…make calls, write letters, and in large amounts.” SIM is also part of United We Dream, which is a national network of undocumented youth. Through the support of United We Dream, a national network of undocumented youth, SIM stays up to date on national issues. Collaboration with United We Dream also results in trainings and the opportunity to interact with activists from across the nation. “We get to connect with other groups, [and] see what they’re doing. Is it effective in their area? Can we bring it to our area? The national network is good for like learning, and even…learning about social media,” comments Renata. The United We Dream network provides social media trainings through an appointed “social media person.”

The challenges of being part of a network were also discussed during my interview with Renata. One of the challenges involves balancing local and national responsibilities that occur simultaneously. “[Sometimes] there’s [something] happening in DC and we need to send people over there, but at the same time here locally…there [is] like an In-State battle and anti-immigrant amendments…” Being part of a network comes with added accountability and responsibilities, which can overexert organizations. In some cases, allies can request trainings, attendance at events, or help with campaigns, which add more work to the already hard working members of SIM. Despite these minor challenges, SIM described the relationships with its networks and alliances primarily as fruitful.

Communication Flow in Networks

As far as how communication flows through SIM’s networks, there is regular contact that occurs in several ways. Through United We Dream’s national network, a structure is in place where “state leads” and “regional leads” communicate with each other, with staff and leadership, and with members at large. This communication largely occurs through emails and conference calls when in-person meetings are not possible. State and regional leads are then entrusted with sharing crucial information to their respective organizations. SIM uses a cascading method, where information from networks cascades from leads, to leadership and staff, and eventually to general organization members and communities. The preferred channels for disseminating relevant network information are emails, Facebook, and phone calls. In terms of the scope of regional the network, SIM collaborates mostly with states along the Eastern Seaboard: “New England and [the] Mid-Atlantic are like joined,” stated Renata. The broad regional scope is due to the lower concentration of undocumented youth along the East Coast compared to other parts of the country.

Stepping Out of the Shadows

Renata went on to comment on what she considers to be a major victory for the national movement: “I think a big victory and a big step was the fact that we mobilized…250 students in DC for weeks…on Capitol Hill…[and] pretty much took over Capitol Hill.” This mass mobilization was in support for the Federal Dream Act in 2010. Although a filibuster defeated the Federal Dream Act in 2010, the visibility and mobilizations of undocumented youth surrounding the measure were groundbreaking. Renata also commented on how the undocumented youth movement has become bolder in their approach, especially in terms of visibility. “Once we were [like] out there already…we just became fearless and it just became a lot easier to organize people to our actions because we didn’t have to keep it a secret. We could put it all over Facebook [and] we could tell media.” Stepping out of the shadows has been very powerful for the undocumented youth movement, and SIM has experienced greater success in outreaching and mobilizing because of it.

The Movement in Massachusetts

On the other hand, some of the challenges SIM is facing are region specific. “I feel like we need to grow more. One of the biggest challenges here in Massachusetts is that we’re a fairly new immigrant population. It’s kind of harder to organize when there’s not that many immigrants to organize,” she said. For SIM, the smaller membership base has posed difficulties when pushing back anti-immigrant legislation and the Secure Communities Program. The battle for an In-state tuition bill in Massachusetts has faced similar complications. The particular political climate of Massachusetts has also been a tough issue to tackle. “People just assume that we’re such a progressive state, so we never get as much support as we need. The majority are Democrats, but if you really go talk to them, they’re anti-immigrant,” said Renata. On a national scale, states like Arizona and Alabama are well known for anti-immigrant legislation. However, the perception of Massachusetts as a “blue state” has posed problems for SIM, especially when working with networks:

“I think locally…our biggest setback is the misinformation people [like] have about Massachusetts…that we’re such a blue progressive state because we have gay marriage, but we haven’t been able to pass In-state [tuition legislation] in ten years. People [in the network] are always like, ‘why hasn’t Massachusetts passed In-state yet?’ and we’re always…a little embarrassed. It’s an uphill battle over here…[because] we [Massachusetts] are disguised as progressive.” –Renata Teodoro

Dreamers and Mass Media

In terms of the movement’s relationship to mass media, Renata notes an increase in coverage due to the efforts of “Dreamers,” the undocumented youth eligible for the Dream Act, across the nation. “The larger movement has only been tapping into the mass media recently. In the past…I hadn’t seen that much on immigration, or Dream Act.” Since Dreamers have been “coming out,” their presence in the national news has increased. Renata comments: “It grabbed the media’s attention and everybody wanted to do an article about The Dreamers. I mean Dreamers were getting arrested, Dreamers were coming out, Dreamers were standing…in from of The White House for weeks having their own university.” While controlling messages still poses challenges, Renata believes that recent increased attention in the mass been has overall been positive.

The Role of Digital Media

Renata also commented on the role of digital media, such as blogs and social networking sites. “That type of media reaches a younger group…and it’s more accessible. Anybody can do it, and its really effective,” she said. Renata spoke of a relationship between digital and traditional media, where movement coverage in traditional media can encourage participation in social media that is directly related to the movement. “It’s really effective when people…area already hearing about…The Dream Movements through TV or…newspapers. It’s effective because of the reputation that we…already built, and the personal connections that we already made,” commented Renata. According to Renata, the news coverage that SIM gets through traditional media builds awareness about their cause, which in turn generates interest in the original content that SIM creates. “It’s really amazing…how like a short video on…the speech about The Dream Act could get…2000 people watching it. And that’s just…from video…little videos that SIM does. [It has] been…a little blessing for…organizations like SIM,” stated Renata.

Text Messaging

Text messaging also plays a role in SIM’s approach. Part of the appeal of text message based organizing is the convenience that it provides it terms of time and resources. “Sometimes it’s easier to communicate with some one through text than it is by calling them,” said Renata. Some of the focus of SIM’s texting strategy involves regular text reminders of meetings and other events, which is assisted through the web platform GroupMe. “As staff and leadership…we use GroupMe…to communicate any emergencies or anything that’s going up, and that’s been pretty effective,” she said. Renata and other SIM leadership and staff have incorporated the use of texting and GroupMe into their daily approach. “If I don’t get one message during the day then it just…feels strange,” she commented. While texting and GroupMe have been instrumental among SIM’s leadership, Renata comments that the practice “hasn’t been effective in terms of membership yet.”

Strengths of the Internet

Stepping away from material forms of media like printed posters and fliers, SIM has moved towards digital media and the strengths of the Internet. Some of those strengths include the archival properties of the Internet and the broad availability of online materials, such as news articles about SIM. “Information is a lot more accessible…[and] articles and stuff…are not just a one time deal. People can go back and see an article from…two or three years ago about The Dream Movement.” The archival properties of the Internet can extend the life span of news sources that would have otherwise been lost of forgotten. “I have people still…message us from articles they saw…on the internet that were written like two years ago…so I feel like it immortalizes us a little bit,” states Renata. Other ways in which the Internet has assisted SIM’s approach are through providing research resources, outreaching possibilities, “getting the word out,” and raising awareness of SIM. For example, SIM can outreach to high schools in local Boston neighborhoods quicker by compiling lists of contact information found on the Internet.

Challenges of the Internet

On the other hand, Renata also spoke about the challenges and dangers that the Internet can present. One challenge involves the ease by which people can find SIM using the Internet, yet they fail to get involved with the movement in concrete ways. In this sense, the Internet is not a very effective recruitment tool for involvement that extends beyond the Internet. As Renata puts it: “The Internet could never replace…one-to-one relationship building. We still have to go out into the community…[and] it doesn’t replace the fact that we still have to do traditional organizing.”


This concludes Part 2 of 2 of this interview summary blog. 

I would like to thank Renata Teodoro once more for agreeing to collaborate with the Center for Civic Media: Thank you Renata!