Traditional media: obsolete or compulsory for citizen participation?

Active Voice an organization based in San Francisco leveraging social change by the creative use of film to effectively communicate stories about commonly encountered social problems like racism, environmental issues, or health. This organization mainly embodies the horizontal participation facets, individual, community and cultural, and currently very little digital participation. The organization has online portals that mainly share content but allow limited interaction at the moment.

My interest in the organization is the fact it capitalizes on the power of traditional media like TV – which are still widespread mediums compared to new technology across the world – to create social change. Studying extensively the digital divide during the literature review, it quickly became evident that relying completely on Internet platforms is not an effective solution to holistically address any community. There is still a large population percentage in the developed as well as the developing world, that has either never used or knows very little about new communication technologies. With this fact in mind, it is essential for governments to leverage their participatory profile utilizing both existing and new technology.

Beginning with the hypothesis that Active Voice is an excellent model to address the digital divide gap misinformation and achieve community engagement, in early January I spent a few days working with the organization. The purpose of this site visit was to enhance my understanding of Active Voice’s mission and identify how its services can be adjusted to meet governance as well as corporate needs.

Ellen Schneider, the founder of Active Voice, gave me an overview of the recent and current projects at the time. Each message delivery mechanism has a solid structure, developed around a narrative and tied to a social issue, which is then strategically communicated to create sustainable impact. Such examples are the films Food Inc, The Visitor, and Shelbyville, which were looking to raise awareness around the food industry, immigration laws, and community segregation respectively. Beyond the right message, Ellen highlighted organizational partnerships to be vital for the pursuit of long-term goals and hence a milestone for the sustainability of social change.

During the days I spent with Active voice, I had the opportunity to see how social change derives from the art of storytelling via the academy award winning film “Lincoln.” Participant Media, the producing company of “Lincoln”, in collaboration with Active voice worked to instill the discussion around racism in the modern era, by bringing communities together for a free movie screening. Not surprisingly there are several communities named after the famous American president across the US; and that was where the conversation started.

Eight communities agreed to participate in the initiative and bring their citizens together for an active discussion following the free film screening. However, this was not a simple task as different methods had to be used to raise awareness of the event, from direct calling, to the use of social media to newspaper and radio advertisements, depending on the respective community particularities. A toolkit was developed and circulated to ensure the effective and consistent event promotion.

Most importantly, what stroke me in this process is the fact that the municipal authorities from each of the eight Lincoln towns that agreed to participate in the screening, volunteered their time and did extra work for no additional compensation. In this case, this fact proves that racism was recognized as an issue in these communities and hence they saw value in promoting the dialogue. Similarly, it can be assumed that people will volunteer to support a number of initiatives faced by their community as long as there is an infrastructure that allows them to take action.

Within this framework of voluntarily addressing social issues, the eight Lincoln screenings on the 12th of February 2013, were indeed valuable on both a local and national level. On a local level, because the respective administrations learned to use several communication tools to reach the community members, and organize them to take part in an activity, setting the basis for future events. On a national level, because this organized simultaneous initiative demonstrated to these communities how to coordinate and create a greater impact than they would otherwise. It also attracted media publicity, which leveraged the dialogue on a much broader level.

The organized national media coverage combined with the power of social media helped to raise awareness of the movie screening and its messages beyond these eight communities, indicating once more the necessity of coordination between existing and new communication technologies. The Lincoln screening example is a pioneer of how to use relevant story telling material and raise awareness about the tackled issues, and also to develop collaboration among several different communities for the same purpose.

It is also worth emphasizing that to ensure community attendance to this celebratory meaningful event, there had to be an incentive. As mentioned earlier, the screening was free, to guarantee as many people as possible joined the dialogue. This approach verifies incentives, and benefits as a core components of behavioral and social change. People must experience first-hand what community participation is, to understand the potential of human capital and become involved.

At the end of my short stay with Active Voice, my preliminary hypothesis that Active Voice is an excellent model to address the digital divide gap misinformation and achieve community engagement was indeed confirmed and the methods and tools used will be highly relevant for the promotion of digital participation initiatives by the government in the community.

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