Creating Technology for Social Change

Youth, Pop Culture, and Participatory Politics Panel at DML 2013

Liveblog of Youth, Pop Culture, and Participatory Politics panel at DML 2013.

Panel Description
This panel will look at how young people’s engagement with pop culture is a gateway to finding their voice and place in the sphere of participatory politics. Drawing from a variety of pop culture formations including hip hop, fan cultures, etc. the panelist will consider some of the creative ways young people engage in participatory politics. (

Henry Jenkins (chair) – @henryjenkins
Mark Anthony Neal – @newblackman
Andrew Slack – @andrewslack


Henry Jenkins reviews the theme of the panel and plugs his new book, Reading in a Participatory Culture, which he describes in detail in a blog post on his own site.

Mark Anthony Neal works on Black pop culture. Mark is really interested in doing something that his father would appreciate (functionally illiterate, high school drop out). So this may mean being a public intellectual but not on CNN. Instead, he wants to reach publics that would find the content meaningful. Started writing for Pop Matters in the 1990s.

A professor at Duke, Mark now runs the Left of Black YouTube show. He conducts Skype interviews with the interviewee on a screen in the traditional setting of an opposing chair. They broadcast it on YouTube and pretend it’s live with live tweeting of the show while it’s playing.

Mark also plugged his upcoming book Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. He is interested in looking at “legible” images of black pop culture that are made illegible and vice-versa, e.g. Jay-Z as a cosmopolitan queer. Another example is his provocation: What if the Greensboro Four had Twitter? discussing a 21st century version of their sit-in as it went viral.

Andrew Slack begins by saying that he and many others have poured their ETR (Energy, Talent, Resources) into Harry Potter. Before Harry Potter Alliance, fans had created a sports league (quidditch), reams of fan fiction, and Wizard Rock. Andrew was frustrated by the idea that if HP was in our world he would do more than just talk about HP. He would do something to tackle the problems in the world.

For Andrew, magic a.k.a. creativity can be used to fight the dark arts in our world in the form of social media, fan fiction, etc. Using the plot elements and themes of the HP books, he notes parallels like “nobody should have to live in the closet with their identity,” a reference to LGBT experiences that can also be applied more generally to identity. So he founded HPA in partnership with members of the Wizard Rock band Harry and the Potters as “A Dumbledore’s Army for our World.”

There efforts started with a virtuous circle of attention: they would get a lot of media attention for their early campaigns, then social media community of HP fandom would get excited and produce more output, and achieve more media attention. They created innovative phone banking system that rewarded Houses (e.g. Gryffindor, Slytherin,…) with points. This way they helped pass the Maryland DREAM act, mobilizing after one of the HPA members came out as undocumented online, saying he couldn’t go to a HP conference because he couldn’t get on an airplane.

HPA now has 130 chapters and 40 core volunteers. Andrew says they are “tapping into the whole self,” and seeing ourselves as activists that can make change now: “Fantasy is not an escape from our world but an opportunity to go deeper into it.” He calls this “Cultural Acupuncture,” in which the stories are the needles, the stories are what resonate. And the weapon they have is love, based on the greatest weapon Harry had against Voldemort.

HPA is now spreading there efforts to other fandoms: Hunger Games, Dr. Who, and more generally through a partnership with Nerdfighters ( This broader set of work is in a new project called “Imagine Better” (, which asks how do we take this into our learning communities? how do we use the power of popular culture to do this work? Andrew cites Joseph Campbell as hitting the nail on the head: “We need new mythos for our times.”

Q: (HJ) How do we define popular culture?

MAN: Popular culture is a site of ideological production.

AS: Nobody owns a story. Twilight creates problems for us: “We don’t celebrate every text.” Andrew describes HPA’s “Hunger is not a Game” project. Lions Gate tried to shut down the whole campaign on the eve of the film launch. Some colleagues suggested that HPA let the lawyers sort it out, but Andrew argued “The only court we win in is the court of public opinion,” and kept it up. In the end it turned out that are a part of Lions Gate had reacted automatically. Lions Gate was not the villain; it was the lack of communication (internally) that was the problem.

Andrew mentions another project pushing for fair trade HP chocolate. Warner Brothers, who owns the rights to HP commercialization uses non-fair trade chocolate, which Andrew argues is made by enslaved kids. In HP parlance, the campaign resonates because chocolate is what we use against Dementor attacks; we’re screwed if its magic is tainted by its production. This is an ongoing campaign now at, which demands to see WB’s internal report in which they claim enslaved kids are not producing the chocolate. The campaign has been effective in incorporating YouTube celebrities to endorse it as a push for corporate transparency.

HJ: Pop culture is becoming more participatory. Web 2.0 commodifies culture as soon as it’s produced

Q: Weapons of Mass Distraction: Pop culture is often seen as the enemy of political action. How do we change that?

MAN: Pop Culture can serve as an entry into politics. Hip Hop used popular culture as a vehicle and narrative into these situations. The local was so present in early hip hop. They shot videos in their hood to claim these places and spaces that are critical to they are. This helped nationalize black youth culture. Hip Hop videos became a lingua franca for black youth culture in the 1980s.

How do we popularize critical movements within the black community? Hip Hop was critical to community reaction to Rodney King beatings. Note: Ice Cube’s album in response. Gangsta Rap is a critical response to the police culture of the time. Pop culture is never outside of politics. Savvy candidates like Obama have used pop culture, in that case using hip hop to identify with a community of voters.

AS: Andrew was shocked growing up and learning about Dr. King, and blown away by how beautiful storytellers the civil rights leaders were. Rosa Parks was hand selected to create a narrative around the bus protest. Nobody knew Dr. King was going to be such a compelling story. Creating story worlds is key.

HJ: When Visiting the Occupy Wall Street campsite in 2011, Henry witnessed a busload of zombies arrive from a local horror meetup to support the event using the trope of undead corporations. Similarly, he saw the Game of Thrones referenced as the “Lannister 1%.” And Occupy Sesame Street: “1% of the monsters get 99% of the cookies.” Spreadable content in the UC pepper spray incident was used to share a story and mobilize a new community very effectively. Superman is the perfect embodiment of the illegal alien, Kal-El, who fights for truth, justice, and the American way despite the fact that he must live in secret.

Henry uses these examples to say counteract the mainstream media claim question, “Doesn’t this represent the trivializing of political discourse?” He cites Binders Full of Women. Lots of women responding in seconds to that line, where MSM didn’t. Instead, the cultural movement in this way is a cue to journalists to do their work: Romney didn’t commission the binders, he needed binders because their were no women on the board of Bain, etc.

At Andrew’s prompting, Henry describes another example: the Avatar activism in Syria, in which folks painted blue like the Na’vi to protest against the “Sky People,” (Syrian government/Assad) producing videos of themselves writhing on the ground under tear gas at the border of the occupied territory.

Q: What is the educational value of this work? And are the risks of copyright and other legal action worth taking when using remix culture for activism?

MAN: Mark teaches a course on remix around soul music with a music producer. They talk about the political history of soul music as well as IP because they are thinking about these soul tracks as raw material. Can you produce something new and distinct from the original? More importantly, can you get youth to think critically about how they can use their creativity to shape a new text? Example: Moon Sunshine video brought in Black artists cut together in a way that he could use it to teach a whole course on Black music and culture. But YouTube came after the video with a take down notice, probably from the Michael Jackson estate since it heavily used MJ clips.

Mark shows the YouTube video of Black Moses Barbie.

Mark asks us, “What would be like to have a 7 year old girl create her own slave insurrection with the barbie?” (Django Unchained style). Using commercial culture, young girls and boys can reimagine the world by taking control of these commercial products.

AS: Andrew reads a question from Twitter, “Does HP really represent a white savior complex?” True: HP mostly attracts privileged white kids. Rainbow coalition that Jesse Jackson predicted came to be in 2012. Our members are learning through doing by connecting the stories to their personal stories and agency.

Andrew tells a personal story about substitute teaching in shop class, which was really a study hall because he knew nothing about shop class. He used the time to create a superhero story with the students. They created a superhero that is nervous about talking to women, and the students naturally started talking about themselves. They created a story world. He’s done a number of these experiments mostly with underprivileged kids. You connect to things that are going on in the real world: Darfur, etc. They say they learn more in those sessions than in weeks in school. It feeds off of human interest in story. It’s straight up Joseph Campbell.

He’s confused by some of the problems with education inefficacy: why we aren’t using stories more in education? Right now, he is partnering with Pearson for in-kind donations to develop a curriculum using popular culture to connect to personal stories, agency, and civic potential. The next step is using digital media (again in the parlance of Harry Potter) to cast Instagram spells, Twitter spells, and translate this into civic action.

HJ: Henry is very optimistic that pop culture can be space of political participation. The majority of all races are not politically involved. If we can gather together by talking about popular culture rather than strictly politics, maybe we can get beyond left and right, blue and red. Unfortunately, fan communities are very segregated.

Henry mentions the Race Bender movement, started in reaction to the “whitecasting” for the live-action film version of The Last Air Bender, which featured a multicultural set of characters in the original anime. Whitecasting is a common Hollywood practice. The fandom protested this decision, requesting a multicultural cast. Mainstream media covered it. It was ultimately unsuccessful in change the casting choices, but it did force the media frame to talking about race with regard to this culture.

Q: Pushing back on the HPA, how do you choose your sites of activism? How do you get the HPA to mobilize for Brooklyn, Kimani Gray? (Riots have ensued in Brooklyn since police shot him last weekend.)
AS: I feel bad that we didn’t do much around Trayvon Martin last spring. We have yet to get the Bat Signal for HPA to come to the aid of every issue. There is a bandwidth issue since our base spends a lot of time working on book drives. Stepping back, I think our community can get involved in issues of police brutality against minorities. But I won’t deny that our community is mostly white and this is hard and we would love to have a conversation about how to make that happen.
HJ: We have to integrate our political movements. Do we build infrastructure across racial and class divides or do we mobilize who we can now?
MAN: The lessons that were learned during the Jena Six court case and Troy Davis’ execution were immediately engaged around Trayvon Martin. The reason the mobilization around Trayvon was so successful on social media was because these groups had started linking up before then around the Jena Six and Troy Davis.
AS: HPA is working to link up with the Race Benders to start addressing this issue of race in pop culture activism. I also think stories can help with compassion fatigue that I experience when I hear stories like Kimani Gray.

Q: (Sasha Costanza-Chock) How can we mobilize mass cultural movements, how do we lift up cultural producers that are already doing work in sync with social movements: Lupe Fiasco, etc.? How come we don’t have megastars and icons that are clearly and directly linked to the social movements of today?
MAN: Jasiri X? Pittsburgh based rapper who got on the map with an X-Clan alumni from 80s hip hop scene started making video around issues like Trayvon Martin. I think those elements are there. But those moments in the past where we have a Harry Belafonte figure? We have a generation of artists less willing to go out on the limb in that way. Jay-Z was willing to close ranks around Obama on gay marriage, but we probably won’t see him speak on Kimani Gray because Obama won’t speak about that. I don’t think we can look to the old model where Hollywood is willing to take an unpopular stand.