Right To Stay: How Migrant Youth Resistance Manifests Itself Through Social Media
"It's much more like Egypt then MoveOn", is the comparison Roberto Lovato used to describe how migrant youth use social media as we prepared for our panel in the National Conference for Media Reform here in Boston. It's an apt comparison, I believe. Unauthorized migrant youth, or Dreamers (after the DREAM Act), have had to use social media differently then most in the U.S.
This for two major reasons, I believe: (1) because of the widespread political violence, now escalated by the Obama administration, which has been unleashed on our communities (Yes, I count myself as being in community with migrant youth, as we all should), and (2) because only a few years ago there was not a single media outlet you could find that truly gave voice to undocumented youth. What has sprouted up in resistance to that violence and systemic silence is truly unique, I believe, and it's good to see social media behemoths like Mashable start to recognize it.
The impetus behind that Mashable article, Alonso Chehade, is a story all by himself, who begins to illustrate what I'm getting at. Alonso Chehade is a Dreamer who successfully organized to stop his own deportation. He's also someone I'm proud to call a friend. Jorge-Alonso, as I liked to call him, or "Al" as I call him, now, after he gave me grief for being the only person other than his Aunt to use his full name, is one of the most gregarious personalities you'll ever come across.
Despite living in the darkness of immigration purgatory, he is upbeat and outgoing enough for me to count him among the many Dreamers that I consider to be personal heroes and sheroes of mine. That's also a big part of what makes him an effective social media evangelist. If I didn't know better, I'd say the terror, violence, and existential conundrums that Dreamers live through can turn some of them into superhumans just as it can turn many more to nihilism.
Through his site, alonsochehade.info, Alonso has transformed himself from public nonexistence into social media marketing maven. This has manifested itself in Alonso's ability to "organize clicks" as he put it in a recent ebook he published, but it's also about much more than that. Alonso is a digital native as are many in my generation.
Like the telephone before us, and the telegraph before that, social media has become a natural part of the way many millenials communicate. Combine that form of expression with a nationwide cause like the DREAM Act and you're bound to get successes like the "DREAM Act 2010" Facebook page, which now has almost 90,000 likes. Just focusing on the clicks, though, is like zeroing in on a pixel of a computer screen. Up close, the changing lights and colors might inspire awe from someone who only knows paint, but it doesn't communicate the entire moving image.
I was honored to have been quoted in the Mashable article through Alonso's recommendation as saying the following:
A large community of pro-immigrant bloggers and organizers started to develop around 2005, says Kyle de Beausset, who curates a Google group in which more than 1,000 active bloggers across the country interact privately online. But platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have made it much easier for young undocumented youth to find each other without necessarily having to expose themselves."They were able to get together anonymously, see the numbers that they had and then start building on that," says de Beausset.Juan Gastelum - Mashable (19 April 2011)
Juan Gastelum did an admirable job reporting on Dreamers in a venue like Mashable where folks had heard very little about our communities (Unfortunately, the nativist reaction from most Mashable commenters shows we still have a lot of work to do). I was most pleased to have received a call from Juan and had an actual conversation with him over the phone, which seems to be going out of vogue, lately. I think what Dreamers have been able to achieve online, though, goes beyond what Juan Gastelum was able to write about in a short blog post, and I'll try to explain here.
People who have followed me personally know that I've gone from someone who was focused on getting over a 150,000 pageviews for posts like this, to becoming a social media monk with jaded opinions on how best to use up and coming tools, but very little will to use the tools myself except as targeted parts of much larger campaigns. In some ways, I've gone a little bit too far. This post is part of my effort to come out of my self-imposed social media monasticism and reengage. I feel this is especially necessary as tangible national pro-migrant wins like the DREAM Act seem unlikely for at least the near future.
I still feel that there are some real dangers, though, to investing significant time and energy into social media tools when you're trying to make change. Javier Barrera from the Latino Youth Collective once described the increasing reliance of youth on social media tools as a form of "digital slavery" and the term stuck with me. The hours we waste pouring our lives into companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, certainly adds immense value for them, and there's a certain point that we have to be honest with ourselves about whether or not we're getting that value back. In the migrant youth movement, to give an example, we know we're getting sucked into the vortex of digital slavery if we're spending more time "liking" or "retweeting" people asking use to call our Senators then we are actually calling our senators.
That's the first danger. Another danger, I feel, is that there is a real blurring between our public and private lives in social media. One of the most valuable lessons I learned as an organizer is the difference between public and private relationships. Private relationships are based on love and we experience them through our family, closest friends, and significant others. Ideally, the love we experience in these relationships is unconditional. Though there can be love in anger, there should always be the possibility of forgiveness, too. Public relationships are different because they are based on respect. Respect is different than love. It has to be earned and can be lost in a split second. We need the love of private relationships to sustain us, but the respect of public relationships to make change.
For an example of how people confuse the two, a lot of people think Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) is a nice guy. I have to concur after meeting with him. He's the type of guy that I'm sure a lot of people would like to have a few beers and a few laughs with. All of that doesn't mean a thing, though, if he's voting to do violence to our communities by voting against popular legislation like the DREAM Act. Just because I would like to have or I do have a private relationship with someone doesn't mean a thing if he disrespects me publicly by voting against legislation that is supported by the vast majority of the U.S. public. This blurring of public and private in social media also means that we tend to lash out against our allies more than we do our enemies because those are the folks we interact with most online. I believe it's important to be very conscious and very intentional about the people we call out publicly.
Which brings me to a third danger with social media which is that it is often more reactionary than intentional. I think Merlin Mann illustrates this point best when he references a scene from the silent film Metropolis (1927) as a metaphor as a critique of how we deal with incoming email:
When I honestly think about how I use digital forms of communication it becomes painfully clear that I spend much more time responding to what other people are doing then I do initiating things myself, and I think that's true for most of us. I think this extrapolates to most of our social media use where we spend much more time reacting to others than being intentional with what we want to do. There are times when you have to react immediately, but I think it's better for me to be intentional rather than reactionary if I want to make lasting change.
I focus on the negatives of social media only because people don't do it enough in a substantive way. There are of course a lot of positives to social media. The barrier is much lower to reaching large amounts of people then ever before. It's possible to identify large lists of people committed to your goal that would have taken months, even years to do so before. Social media provides invaluable tools to tell our own stories, and connect with masses of people on levels that was difficult to do before. Put a lot of stories together, as Dreamers have done, and you start to build a compelling public narrative that even the President of the most powerful nation on Earth is going to have trouble contending with. Those positives aren't enough to make a movement, though, and I'll finish by trying to explain how migrant youth use these tools to go beyond social media.
My interactions with journalists like Gastelum have become pretty irresponsible since the DREAM Act vote. I haven't been initiating the interactions with a tangible goal nor do I have prepared talking points that I repeat in various forms to meet that goal as I usually do. Instead I've been having extended conversations with folks which help to build relationships, but also allows reporters to quote whatever they need to fit the story they want to tell, rather then the one I want told.
I mention this not because Gastelum did anything wrong, but to direct people to a blog post by JuanSaaa, another Dreamer, friend, and personal hero, who has become the public relations guru of dreamactivist.org and the newly formed National Immigrant Youth Alliance. Through Juan's post I would have been able to learn all of these things about how to interact with the media. His treatise on how to use twitter as a pro-migrant tool also gives you a better sense of how migrant youth are using social media to resist. That Juan is now able to land articles in the New York Times with regularity would make him the envy of any public relations firm. Not only does Juan embody how we should be very intentional with our social media use, but like Alonso he has leveraged social media to go from public nonexistence to a public relations expert.
Finally, it would be negligent of me not to mention Prerna Lal, a co-founder of dreamactivist.org. If there is one person responsible for the broad, strategic, and public adoption of social media by migrant youth it is easily her. It's been a privilege to watch Prerna grow through the vast swath of pro-migrant content she produces online. Prerna very publicly identifies as queer in addition to being undocumented. It was through her beautiful coming out story that I first truly understood that LGBTQ folks who are hiding their identities are hiding the best part of themselves, the part that loves. Prerna's ability to be raw and personal, in addition to her voracious intelligence, is a big part of what makes anything she touches online grow.
The Obama administration recently put Prerna into removal proceedings. I can't think of a more stupid immigration enforcement move for the Obama administration to have made. If there was ever an embodiment of what it means to be undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic, Prerna correctly identifies herself as being it. If you've gained nothing from reading up to this point, sign the change.org petition to stop her deportation and witness first hand how the best of us are using social media to resist. I would also watch here recent speech at the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) Summit, to get a sense of how she got to where she is:
Prerna has been able to leverage her prolific online work to become a board member of Immigration Equality. She's currently a law student at George Washington University after having earned a Masters in International Relations. Like Alonso and Juan, Prerna has gone from public nonexistence in a few short years to a prominent and accomplished public figure.
The point I'm trying to make with all of this, in addition to telling what I think are some amazing stories, is that migrant youth have been able to use social media to go from public nonexistence to resistance. How they got there is easy to see through the stories of Alonso, Juan, and Prerna.
It's not just about the deportations we've been able to stop. Education Not Deportation (END) Campaigns as we've come to call them, were happening long before social media was broadly adopted. Before I had even gotten involved in the migrant youth movement, Mario Rodas, a paisano of mine who lives in Massachusetts, was able to organize around getting his deportation stopped. His "We Are Mario" campaign, in turn, was inspired by previous "We Are Marie" campaign for Marie Gonzalez out of Missouri.
Unauthorized migrant youth found ways to stop deportations long before social media came into the picture, though admittedly not as often and not on as large a scale. What we are witnessing is how that history of organized local resistance is melding with a new generation of digital natives. It's bring migrant communities on the other side of the digital divide out into the open, and it's thrusting youth more comfortable at their keyboards out onto the streets.
It's different from how most people use social media in the U.S., because our communities are faced with an administration which is implementing the violent nativist strategy of attrition through enforcement. Nativists know that they can't deport 11 million unauthorized migrants so instead they've settled on a strategy of making life so miserable for them, that they're forced flee back to the countries they're emigrating from. Nativists are trying to recreate worse than majority world conditions right here in the U.S. It's not just about "liking" or "retweeting" our friends for us. It's either resistance or it's nonexistence. If you think that's an easy choice to make it's a choice you've never been faced with. The stories you're hearing through social media are the stories of those who've decided to resist.
Cross-posted at Firedoglake.