Civic media | MIT Center for Civic Media

The Activism of Anna Deavere Smith's Notes from the Field

Anna Deavere Smith in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education." Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

By Ethan Zuckerman and Erhardt Graeff

One of the best tricks educators can use is the technique of pulling students out of the classroom to encounter the issues we're studying in the "real world." So it's a gift when an artist of the calibre of Anna Deavere Smith opens a new work in Cambridge just as the semester is starting. And given that our lab, the Center for Civic Media, studies how making and disseminating media can lead to civic and social change through movements like Black Lives Matter, a three-hour performance about the school-to-prison pipeline is an unprecedented pedagogical gift. A dozen of us made our way to the American Repertory Theatre at the end of August for a performance we'll likely discuss for the rest of the academic year.

Deavere Smith's work is often referred to as "documentary theatre," and Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education follows a model she's rightly been celebrated for. Portraying individuals she's interviewed while researching a controversial topic, she recreates their physical tics and speech patterns on stage, telling their stories—and the work's larger narrative—through their original words.

Part of what makes this work is Deavere Smith's ungodly skill at mimicry. As it happened, the first character she portrayed during Notes From The Field is a friend of Ethan's—Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund—and when he closed his eyes, the rhythm of her speech was so similar to Sherrilyn's voice, he thought it must be a recording. In the next scene, as Deavere Smith donned orange waders to become a 6'4" 300-pound Native American fisherman, we were all willing to suspend any disbelief.

No Permission, No Apology: Designing For the Other Panel

This is a liveblog of a panel discussion about "Designing for the Other" with Catherine D'Ignazio, Yvonne Lin, Ridhi Tariyal, Kristy Tillman, and Zenzile Moore.

Civic Innovation Workshop in Mérida, Mexico

What does civic innovation look like in México?  There are efforts across the nation to build skills, interest, and capacity for civic technology.  Last week I contributed to these by facilitating a workshop for youth in Mérida, Mexico on the topic of Civic Innovation.  It was organized and hosted at the amazing Workshop school, just outside of town, with the help of my colleague and friend Alberto Muñoz.  Their student-led, collaborative approach to learning was inspired by the Reggio-Emilia style; reminding me of my roots in the Lifelong Kindergarten group.  It provided the perfect setting for this hackathon-style workshop to help youth learn about how to apply their technological and creative skills towards the public good.  The participants ranged from 6th grade, to graduate school; a great mix of skills and interests.


This past March, 3,500 students walked out of Boston Public Schools (BPS) in a well organized action to protest a proposed $50 million budget cut to BPS which would result in the closure of schools, layoff of teachers, and diminished services in extracurricular spaces, AP classes and support for special-needs students. Young organizers began to mobilize weeks prior, beginning when a group of students reached out to the youth-led Boston Area Youth Organizing Project. In an interview published last week in The Nation, young organizers from the movement expressed pleasant surprise with the number of youth who participated, articulated the process of organizing the walkout as well as the disastrous effects such budget cuts would have on the lives of young people throughout Boston and made sophisticated links between budget policies and institutional racism.

How do Social media Shape Collective Action? Helen Margetts at the MIT Media Lab

How does the changing use of social media affect politics?

Today at the Media Lab, Helen Margetts of the Oxford Internet Institute joined us to talk about a new book with Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action. Ethan Zuckerman facilitated the conversation.

The Effects of Surveillance and Copyright Law on Speech: Jon Penney at Berkman

What effects do laws and surveillance have on the exercise of freedoms online?

Today, the Berkman Center welcomed Jon Penney (@jon_penney), who is finishing his D.Phil at the University of Oxford, to talk about his dissertation research on chilling effects. Jon is a lawyer, Oxford researcher, and a research fellow at the the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.

What is a chilling effect? The idea, theorized in a US context by Schauer in 1978, was that laws might have an effect on legal, protected, and desired activities. Judges have been skeptical about this idea. In Laird v Tatum, judges claimed that chilling effects were not a 'cognizable' injury. In response to recent NSA cases, chilling effects were dismissed as too speculative. Scholars agree. Kendrick argued that chilling effects have a "flimsy" empirical basis. Many open questions remain, including the magnitude of chilling effects and their reach. In his dissertation, Jon set out to answer some of those questions.

When the church says recycle, you recycle

Lebanon has been suffering a garbage crisis for the past nine months, and people are living within piles of garbage - literally - and the ruling elite does not seem that enthusiastic to resolve the situation. The problem reflects the lack of infrastructure in the country and the crippling of local decision making where executive decisions need to pass by a parliament that is more interested in economic gain for its members than the public good. The bright side is that this crisis has created pockets of unprecedented civil society movements that are not dependent on hegemonic powers of political leaders. These initiatives have short life spans due to the lack of experience in undertaking such projects without an obvious leader, but they are interesting indications of a learning process that has to happen in order to reach a sovereign everyday life, a true meaning of citizenship. The following example stands out because it's an interesting utilization of existing ideologies, official municipal mediators, locality, a desire for change and a keen knowledge of the population.

We Should Have the Right to Trust Our iPhone Passcodes

Smartphones have become an almost universal tool for the masses, mainly as a simple gateway to the Internet. Though, in recent years these devices have increasingly become personalized and full of even more intimate data. Some would argue that our smartphones are extensions of ourselves because they could function as an "extended mind" and will start becoming a hub for internet connected devices that could leave behind real-time footprints of their users. The design of the devices themselves have shifted to reflect this closer intimacy between users and their devices. New iPhones have fingerprint scanners so that people can't just look over your shoulder while you type your password and iOS has tighter rules on when the iPhone requires a passcode if the fingerprint scanner is enabled.

Consider the Lawn Sign: elections as civic engagement


Last week I had the chance to watch one of the world’s great electoral-political spectacles - the New Hampshire primary - up close. It wasn’t by any means my first dalliance with American politics: I’ve had at least a loose involvement in the fascinating and frequently Freudian process by which Americans elect their leaders for several cycles now. But this time I saw the process through a slightly different lens.


My introduction to Civic Media

I am a Master's student studying civic engagement and socially engaged art at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and am excited to study civic media here. I'm new to the "media" world, and am nearly a luddite when it comes to digital skills. This said, it was a pleasant surprise to find that although I can't construct digital spaces, I can speak the language of participation, social engagement and organizing, which seems to means something around here.

Before landing in Cambridge, I worked with arts-based storytelling and educational programming in New Mexico. Some of the principles that I learned in that work, such as engaged research and multiculturalism, seem aligned with the basic principles of civic media. I am eager to learn about others, like transmedia organizing, hactivism and constructing democratic space; broadening my understanding of this discourse will, I believe, deepen my impact as an educator, organizer, and researcher in the field.