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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.

The Open Web and Participation

Live blogged by Rahul Bhargava and Matt Stempeck Monday, June 23, 2014 - 3:45pm

The Internet lowers coordination costs, making it easier for groups of people to cooperate and work together. Despite this, it's often been hard to apply the lessons of online cooperation to the world of civics. A set of exciting new projects and initiatives offers hope for what's possible and a clearer sense of the challenges of using the web to participate in offline social change.

The Ukraine-Latin America Connection: Clustering Countries by Video Trends

Why would some online videos trend in both Ukraine and Latin America? I don't know, but it looks like they do. Continuing our work on the What We Watch project, which Ethan previously blogged about, I noticed that Ukraine has a surprising (to me) number of trending videos in common with countries like Mexico and Argentina. Here's one example:

Remixing Videos for Social Commentary with Media Breaker

Blog Contributors: Erhardt Graeff and Rogelio Alejandro Lopez. 

Today’s Civic Lunch speaker was D.C. Vito from the New York City based Learning About Media Project aka The LAMP. Vito is a returned Peace Corps volunteer and works with media, specifically with video. The lunch talk centered around LAMP’s new video remix tool called Media Breaker, which is ultimately intended for encouraging social commentary, parody, and critique through media creation. Along with covering Media Breaker, the talk also touched on questions of fair use, copyright, and how legal systems affect online media creation.

Media Breaker

D.C. Vito mentions that the goal of his team is to create 10,000 little Jon Stewart’s around the country, which means people actually engaging with and being critical about Mass Media.

Hackathons don't solve problems

Qualcomm, a company known for their manufacture of semiconductors, stopped by the Center for Civic Media a few weeks ago to interview people about hackathons. Today, they released the video, which features Nathan Matias and I:

Thankfully, all of the words that I say on the screen in the video are words that I actually said. But the edit and framing message that they present is literally the opposite of what I said in the interview.

What is Video for Change -- and Its Forms?

[Cross-posted on the EngageMedia blog]

Over at the blog, the video4change Impact Research team have begun blogging about some of the issues, questions and lessons from the preliminary literature review. In a series of three blog entries, they have explored the definition of using video to impact and influence social change, and how organisations, individuals and social movements have done it.

In the first entry, Video for Change: What is It and Who Does It? the researchers have come up with the broadest possible definition:

“any initiative that emphasises the use of video for creating change, whether that change is at a personal or individual level, is focused on a group or a specific issue or is at a broader social level.”

Exploring Video Advocacy, Impact and Social Change

[Cross-posted from]

Over the past few months, the video4change network has been busy starting the 'video4change Impact Research'. Through this research, we are looking to come up with a preliminary set of impact indicators by conducting a literature review, and interviewing video4change network members on how they assess the impact of their work.

At the end of this of this prelimary research, we expect to have the following results and output:

Distributed solidarity: how creates an intimate global movement

Nathan Matias and I recently spoke to a few staffers from 350, a global climate movement organization. Especially worthy of your attention are the concept of “distributed solidarity,” making that solidarity visible to participants and—to Civic—a sort of tightrope between professional and citizen footage. This post is for background; jump over to Nathan's post for some technically based civic ideas.

Two Media Tech Ideas for Distributed Solidarity

In this parallel post alongside one by Denise Cheng, I review the media-making practices of, who coordinate thousands of events into global days of climate action. I also propose two technology designs for collaboratively tagging and remixing media from an event.

Read Denise's post on the story and mission of, annotate this post using ReadrBoard, or suggest your own ideas

Here at the Center for Civic Media, we have spent the last year discussing the idea of peer-based politics. In a Media Lab talk at the beginning of the year, Rebecca McKinnon argued that international politics sometimes needs the consent of the networked.