Creating Technology for Social Change

Civics Beyond Borders at the MIT Knight Civic Media Conference

We’re here at the 2013 MIT-Knight Civic Media conference here at the MIT Media Lab, where the theme is Insiders/Outsiders. Across the next two days, we’re going to be looking at this theme of institutions and innovators across the areas of government, media, and disaster response. Across the event, speakers will be asking if it’s better to look for change inside institutions or try to transform things from the outside.

This session, Civics Beyond Borders discusses the idea that in a world of ever-increasing human migration, we can no longer pretend that civic action is neatly contained within the boundaries of the nation-state. Civics Beyond Borders explores transnational citizenship in the Brazilian diaspora, online organizing for immigration reform by undocumented youth, artistic interventions along the U.S./Mexico border inside the Tohono O’Odham Nation, and immigrant integration in the New South.

This post was liveblogged by Becky Hurwitz, Chris Peterson, Stephen Suen, and Erhardt Graeff. The Prezi visualization above is by Willow Brugh. Additions/corrections by Sasha Costanza-Chock.

Alvaro Lima, Director of Research, Boston Redevelopment Authority
At BRA, Lima oversees a research team that formulates public policy and legislation related to planning and community and economic development. He has published extensively on transnationalism. He was Formerly Senior Vice President and Director of Research for the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC), where he was responsible for designing and executing The State of the Inner City Economies report. Previously, Lima served as the Director of Economic Development for the Urban Edge Housing Corporation from 1995-1999. From 1985-1987 he served as the Chief of the Economic Development Department for the Ministry of Industry and Energy at the State Directorate of Metalworking Industry in Mozambique where he was responsible for the design and coordination of the Rehabilitation Program for Small and Medium-scale Enterprises. In his native Brazil, he served as the Coordinator of Regional Development Projects for the Institute for Social and Economic Research from 1980-1981.

Celso Mireles, Online Strategy Coordinator, United We Dream
Celso came to the U.S. at the age of 3, when his family moved to Phoenix, Arizona to start a new life away from the NAFTA-destroyed Mexican economy. Celso graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Business Management from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in 2009. Celso started his own company, Computer Dude Services LLC, after graduating from college, repairing computers and providing online consulting. Celso was a founding member of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition in 2009 and played an active role in the beginnings of the DRM Action Coalition. He helped lead online organizing around United We Dream’s Right to Dream campaign, which helped pave the way for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program announced by the White House in June 2012.

Ofelia Rivas, Founder, O’odham Voice Against the Wall
Ofelia is a Tohono O’odham woman, artist, and activist who lives on the U.S./Mexico border. She is founder of O’odham Rights Cultural and Environmental Justice Coalition, and of the O’odham Voice Against the Wall. Ofelia was co-chair of the vital Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Cochabamba, Bolivia, at the World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. She was also the recipient of a Borderlinks’ Women on the Border Award 2010.

Emily Zimmern, Director, Levine Museum of the New South
Emily Zimmern has served as director of Levine Museum of the New South since 1995. Under her leadership, the museum has received numerous honors, including the National Award for Museum Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Excellence in Exhibition Award from the American Association of Museums and the Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History. The Museum’s COURAGE exhibit about the landmark Brown school desegregation case toured nationally and a smaller version traveled in South Africa.

Photo of Panel



Sasha introduces the session, then asks the participants to come to the stage

Sasha: In a world of mass human migration, we have known for some time that civic action is not neatly contained within the boundaries of the nation-state. At the same time, the media landscape is increasingly transnationalized, not only through social media, but also mass media, for example the rise of Spanish language broadcasters and print newspapers, as well as by translocal media practices, like Oaxacan Home Town Associations sharing media about community controlled development projects between their places of work in the USA and their home towns.

This has important implications for civic action. In times of economic crisis, austerity, and ecological devastation, powerful social movements echo around the world and across the mediascape, from Occupy Gezi to the battle of pimienta and vinagre in Brasil, using every available media platform they can access. Here in the USA, this conversation is especially salient b/c of hot debates over immigration reform. But “Immigration Reform” also ignores the realities of Native Peoples in the US, whose own lands continue to be taken from them and divided yet again by the militarization of the US Mexico border.

In our Civics Beyond Borders conversation, we’ll explore transnational citizenship in the Brazilian diaspora, online organizing for immigration reform by undocumented youth, artistic interventions along the U.S./Mexico border inside the Tohono O’Odham Nation,  and immigrant integration in the New South.

The session kicks off with a round of quick introductions.

Alvaro Lima: I’ve been living in Boston and NYC for the past 25 years and has been working with the Brazilian diaspora to connect the diaspora and various mechanisms and safety nets.

Ofelia Rivas: I’ve been doing artwork on the border to make people aware of problems at the US Mexico border. I advocate for people caught in the middle of the international border.

Celso Mireles: As an undocumented youth, I come from a journey of adopting a narrative that told me that I couldn’t use my bachelor’s degree because of my status to being a business owner and an activist with a movement of 11 million undocumented people.

Emily Zimmern: The Levine Museum of the New South collects the history of the South since the Civil War. This whole notion of inside outside is really relevant to our work because we are seen as inside institution but we try to give voice to those outside.

Sasha invites the panelists to open the session with a few “pieces of media” to frame the forthcoming discussion.

Alvaro Lima

Alvaro speaks about the current uprisings in Brazil and among the Brazilian diaspora in 18 other countries at this moment. Images and stories about these are showing up in Brazilian media all over the world and entirely absent from US mainstream media. This reflects how the there are channels of information within the diaspora.

We watch a video showing images of the protest movement in Brazil and throughout the world and the Brazilian diaspora:


Inside Brazil, the government is surprised — it’s popular and democratic, but by being both of these things, people think things are better than the military, but the coupling of the raise in transportation costs and the revelation of the cost of development for the World Cup, in a country where you don’t have education and healthcare.

This is interesting — there are no leaders or messages to co-opt. The only thing they are demanding is that more people come to the street. The government is receiving the protest of the diaspora poorly, that we are traitors that we are portraying Brazil in a not so good way, and we are now connected with the movement in Brazil. The government tried to co-opt the diaspora to represent Brazil as a good place, we are happy, we have soccer, but we aren’t supposed to protest.

You can find more information on the Boston Redevelopment Authority website — information about other communities in Boston. We have a series of tools on to provide a set of media making and sharing tools for the Brazilian diaspora so that we can aggregate and create a space where we are visible. We’ve also been using a Vojo group to gather stories.Today on Google, you’ll mostly find soccer and Carnival before you get to Brazil or to us. A few years ago, if you searched for “transnational” + “brazil” + “diaspora” — you used to get a null search.

Ofelia Rivas

Sasha: Ofelia, let’s move to you. We came to know you through the work of Catherine D’Ignazio, who has been a collaborator of yours. Catherine is a graduate student here at the MIT Center for Civic Media and she worked with you for a number of projects doing art around the border. Would you like to introduce the Erase the Border site and clip?

Map of Tohono O'Odham nation's lands

Ofelia: Before 9/11, no one knew who the Tohono O’Odham nation was. But after 9/11, when everyone became worried about border security, and a Secure Fence Act came through Congress, it enforced the actual existing international border. If you could see that image [see above], it actually depicts our ancestral lands, and how it got divided by the international border, and the existing reservation in orange is a third of our original land. On the southern side, in Mexico, there used to be 47 communities, but now there are only nine because of ranchers and miners, who intruded on our lands and took over our lands without much support for the government. And then the United States legacy of just confining people who are not in conjunction with your beliefs, but despite the fact that we are on this reservation, we have lots of laws enforced upon us.

People who live on both sides of the border, my father’s communities, fifteen miles south of the border, are still on our land but not recognized as such, and me living just less than a quarter of a mile away from the border and not having a document, since I was born at home, I can’t prove I’m a citizen. The U.S. Border Control can stop me, they have stopped me at gunpoint, and ask me to declare my alliance ,and have wanted to deport me because I have no documents. I’ve been arrested because of that, beaten up because of that, because I say that I’m an original person from the land, from Mother Earth.

Coming to this conference, it would be nice to have this kind of infrastructure on the reservation, to even understand how to turn on a computer, to educate ourselves. My activism has included a lot of international travel to help understand the people who are trapped between borders. And this project with Catherine began as a way to engage young people, and the general public, and make sure they understand who we are, and what the problems are in my home.

Our reservation has three main exits, and each one is manned by a border control checkpoint. Those illegal checkpoints demand to see documents that I, as an original person, have the right to travel on my own lands. People get arrested for not having documents and beat up for not speaking English because we speak our own language. I travel around to speak about these things to try to let people know that these things are happening in our own borders.

It’s very elegant and exotic to see the problems around the world, but the indigenous peoples are a developing world right here in our own nation, and we hope to bring more focus to that.

Sasha: Could you talk a little bit about how your artistic practice relates to your activism?

Ofelia: In working with Catherine D’Ignazio, we brought the border to the people. It raised the border as a project we’ve been working on, just to get some support for the immigration policies that are being discussed in Congress. We don’t have a say in it — we’re not at the table — and it does impact our people. That is this the reason that we’re working on this art project, in a fun way so that young people can understand the impact of these policies.

Celso Mireles

Celso: I guess in transitioning I just want to point out that the original people of the nation have been struggling for a place in immigration reform yet they are in no way immigrants. And that’s an incredible paradox.

We had an action at the border called Operation Butterfly Reunion. The goal was to redefine and reframe the conversation around immigration reform to show it as the reunification.

Sasha: How many people in the audience were here at last year’s conference? You might recognize Renata Teodoro from Student Immigrant Movement (SIM). She was here at last year’s Civic Media conference, on a panel, and was one of the youth who traveled to the border for this action.

Celso: It started basically from a Facebook post by Carlos, who you saw in the video. “I really wish I could see my mom,” he said. We wanted to show the pain of not being able to see your mom for six years. It’s a long time. We wanted to show that and be able to make that moment something that they would take with them.

Now that we have deferred action, we can plan actions at the border now. I had never been to the border. As you drive there, you can see there are cities and hills, the border is right down the middle and I thought, “Why do we need this here? Who’s the prisoner here?” When you see Renata’s mom reaching across the border, you wonder.

Sasha: You mentioned Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), can you talk about your role in winning this, together with thousands of other youth?

Celso: I think what it comes down to is as DREAMers one of our most basic, fundamental powers is the powers of our story. So we started the “End Our Pain” campaign, targeted at President Obama, which highlighted the story of DREAMers across media. After stopping so many deportations through direct action at the federal government, we asked what’s next, because people are still being deported. So we started this campaign to tell President Obama that yes, you can do something for us. The White House kept saying there was nothing they could do, but we mobilized, we got letters from law professors, and we worked hard. We were not prepared to have won so fast, and it’s only now sinking in that we, as DREAMers, with the power of our stories and our advocacy tools, have been able to effect change.

Sasha: One of the things I’ve been amazed by about DREAMers is how effectively you’ve managed to use all media platforms, from posters to print, from YouTube to livestreaming, to getting Operation Butterfly onto the front page of The New York Times.

Celso: There are different questions in the “supply chain of the stories” — how to collect stories, how to get them to the people who can advocate on our behalf who have more power than us because they can vote. Politicians do dismiss us sometimes: “You have no power to vote, goodbye.” After deferred action, we realized the next step was immigration reform and we decided as a network to broaden our narrative to include our parents in our organizing as well. So how do we include our parents who work all day, who don’t have the time to spend online — Facebook and Twitter? We’re looking to other tools that we can use that they can contribute with, ways they can use phones and tools like Vojo. The other question is how to get that story out — video is one of the best ways to convey an emotion and a feeling and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.

Emily Zimmern

Emily: How many people have been to Charlotte? You probably know that our context is incredibly different from a Boston, or a Los Angeles, or New York. In 1990, our county was about 500,000 people, but now we’re about to top a million. The fastest growing hispanic market in the country between 2000-2015 is Charlotte. We are now a multicultural, multiethnic city, and that’s a brand new experience. Like most of the South our history was written in the history of black and white and racism. We were poor. There was no economic opportunity. But now, Charlotte is opening its gates, and while there are debates, and not everyone is on board, it is happening, and we are moving towards this new future for our city.

Just as a seed needs soil to grow, immigrants need a fertile community in which to take root and thrive. That’s the context of our work as displayed in this video.

Sasha: Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to arrive at such an interesting analysis of what is happening in the South?

Emily: We’re only 22 years old. Part of our founding mission was to develop a community forum for issues around civic education and engagement and history. We used an exhibit around Brown v. Board to begin a conversation around much of the troubled history of the South. Whether you arrived yesterday or lived in Charlotte your entire life, cultural change was something you were grappling with. As a city where half the people didn’t live there 10 years ago, you have to build bridges. You have to work with intentionality to build civic spaces where people can share stories and build bridges.

I have to share — hearing Ofelia and Celso — recently we hosted an exhibition of kites by a Mexican-American artist. She brought together teams to tell stories of a family member who had been deported and created a kite to represent that family member. She told her tale through the kite made from a piece of cloth from the family member who was deported. Those kites gave voice, not only to the family, but to so many people who came to the museum. A member of the board — an old, white southern businessman — was brought to tears, because he was a father, and it made it make sense to him about what it meant to have a family torn apart.

Sasha: I like the framing you have around the change not only being about the new arrivals and the cultural context in which they’ve come to find themselves, but also the character of the surrounding community also shifts. The science fiction writer Octavia Butler writes a lot about these dynamics.

Emily: This arrival of newcomers is happening in a suburban context, not a urban context, and so the dynamics are completely different. 100 years from now Charlotte may be a case study for this kind of immigration for three reasons:

  1. The change has been so quick and dramatic;
  2. We don’t have the experience of the European immigration;
  3. Change is taking place in the suburban space and not in the urban space.

Panel Discussion

Sasha: I want to kick us off with a question about access and equality. I’d like us to go a little bit deeper and think about what are all of your thoughts on digital access and equality, not only in terms of broadband access and availability of computers, but the full range of media literacies that we’ve seen here on display over the last few days.

Alvaro: My experience with the Brazilian community is that it’s the immigration of middle class folks from Brazil to Boston and they are pretty literate on a wide variety of technologies. Skype is how they communicate to home. Lots of interesting things which happen — seven years ago I went to a wedding in Framingham, where the wedding was mediated through a webcast with the family remaining in Brazil. I have been in many houses where people have dinner with their families in Brazil via Skype. The computer or the TV becomes the link to Brazil and your family, and if you are undocumented, that becomes your only travel path back.

Sasha: Ofelia, do you have more thoughts about the digital access questions you mentioned?

Ofelia: Yesterday, in the breakout sessions, I was wondering about what happens to the people who fall in between the cracks, or more like the big old voids. In our schools we have such little access to the Internet and to training. And in my village, a lot of people wouldn’t know how to just start a computer or a laptop to even begin to understand this concept. And that is a huge void compared to where you all are at now and the discussions we had yesterday. And a lot of the Indian nations in what you call the United States have varying degrees of access, whereas in my area there is no access at all.

Sasha: There’s a danger when we create civic technologies that if we create tools that are only accessible to some people it will actually strengthen the inequalities which already exist. Celso, we’ve talked about this in our context, and in the 11 million dreams project you are working on.

Celso: Yeah, in the undocumented community there are a lot of divergent literacies, because people may be poor but still have different privilege, from savvy students to day laborers who only have a pay-as-you-go phone with no data. We’re really intrigued about Vojo for that reason because it leverages simple accessible concepts like calling and SMS. Right now we’re using Vojo to collect stories from, for example, parents. And now we see moms, DREAMers moms, organizing on Facebook, in Miami, in Phoenix, and they’re trying to learn how to use it, asking us how to use email organizing and other tactics. We’re at a point where we are trying to enable people to have more power while not ignoring the people who are disempowered.

Sasha: Emily, you have a physical institution, brick and mortar, but also have web tools; how do you think of these issues?

Emily: Well, we’ve got an interesting workshop coming together: Whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, LGBT teens, the children and the elderly, of different privilege, and asking them to come together and create some activist new media themselves, coming out of that interaction. The Knight Foundation has been working with us to help improve digital literacy and open up the possibilities for access to our work.

Ann Beeson: Hi, I’m so inspired by all the work that you are doing, thank you. It’s been great to follow your work. Picking up on this theme highlighted by all of you — the need to create a shared sense of belonging. I’m struck by the shared sense of not belonging. My question for you is to share more ideas for what we can do to create shared sense of belonging — for those that have lived there a long time, for 10 years, and the newcomers.

Emily: Well, having dialogues, bringing people together who don’t normally come together. What we’ve learned is having a third thing to react to — an exhibition, a film — we had a book club with African-American teens and undocumented teenagers, and they read books and looked at both Brown and the Mendez case, where they learned much about what they had in common while understanding their differences. We are all in the same city, and once people get to know each other, it really does shift how they think about one another.

Alvaro: I think that one thing for me that is interesting is that notion of belonging itself is changing. It is not what is belonging, but belonging to what? If you look at Brazilian immigration, the frame of community or local belonging is very problematic because people actually have a lot of affiliations — where you live, work, play soccer, work. This creates some disconnect between what you belong to. Until we unpack that, it will be difficult to address the question.

To the question of tools. I don’t have anything against the tools, but if your sociology is wrong, and you have tools for the wrong social analysis, the tools are not useful. We have tools that presume that we are all in one space, speaking the same language.

Marcio Pinto: I’m from Brazil. I think we have a very interesting opportunity in our country, but I also think it is a challenge to lose the opportunity, because there is no one movement. There is a whole amount of people interested in changing the country. My question is: for the civil society organizations, which have some space for influence, how would you suggest they tackle this? I think we can lose if we don’t coordinate.

Ofelia: In recognizing the original territories of aboriginal people, that to recognize those original people in the lands that you have come to occupy. That is very crucial to engage the original people of the land and if you don’t, that leaves a big gap and creates further gaps. That’s true not just for indigenous people of the western hemisphere but from around the world.