We live in a world dominated by social media, and for an increasing number of us it’s how we get our news (more on that in a minute). What I’m wondering right now is whether or not we’re getting the same news, and what we should do about that.
Recently, when talking with a good friend, I brought up the Department of Justice (DOJ) report investigating civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department. Puzzled, my friend responded that she hadn’t heard of the report, but would be interested in reading about it. I was a little taken aback. From my perspective, the release of the DOJ report was the largest news story of the week. I could understand if my friend hadn’t read the entire 102 page report, but I was shocked she hadn’t even heard about it.
But then I remembered a conversation I had with my dad earlier this year. He called me, sounding frantic: “There’s a huge fire in Jackson by the Agricultural Museum! Are you okay?”
I was totally fine (although I do live pretty close to the Ag Museum). In fact, despite him being in Arizona and me being on the ground in Mississippi, a mile from the flames—I had no idea that the museum was burning. My father was watching the television news in Tucson, which was reporting on the fire. The Jackson news outlets were certainly featuring this story, too, but I don’t own a television.
I am not alone: Most of my friends don’t own televisions or subscribe to newspapers. According to the Pew Research Center, less than a quarter of Millennials (22%) read newspapers at least every other day, compared to 40% of adults overall. Overwhelmingly, Millennials get their news from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
What does this really mean? This is what it looks like for me.
Most of my friends who comprise my social network tend to hold views similar to mine. This means that the things that are posted on my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are generally things I’m already interested in learning about. Meaning, I rarely read pieces that challenge my viewpoint. Generally, I am presented with news and content in which I have already expressed an interest—and frequently presented it from a perspective with which I am likely to agree.
So, for someone in my generation who doesn’t have a real investment in what’s happening in Ferguson, news of the Department of Justice report is unlikely to reach them. While I recognize that it’s unreasonable to think many people would read the full 102 pages, I do think it’s necessary we seek out the sort of information released in the report, and talk about its implications.
This got me thinking not only about how this impacts me personally as a Millennial and a citizen, but also about how it impacts the work I do as a Community Engagement Fellow. My job is focused on social justice. The way that we approach social justice is from an informed perspective. In seeking to repair the world and fight for justice, it’s imperative that we first learn about the statistics and realities of injustices in our communities and throughout the nation. That’s why we like to begin our partnerships with Jewish communities with a needs assessment process—some sort of activity that asks them to research statistics in their area and learn about the realities in their communities.
Ferguson and the DOJ report represents an important example. The extensive report gives us a window into the realities of police brutality and civil rights violations happening in our nation right here, right now. It’s news to which we should be exposed, whether or not it’s in our self-selected newsfeeds. At least reading a well-assembled synopsis of the report is an important start, and helps everyone join the conversation.
Although my generation has exchanged TV screens for phone and computer screens, we are still engaged. This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. While there, I had the opportunity to hear President Obama speak. At one point, he said something I felt deeply as I read the Department of Justice report. The President said: “All we have to do is open our eyes and hearts to see that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
Let’s open our eyes and our hearts, and continue the work of the brave men and women that fought against racism and oppression 50 years ago. I think it starts with all of us, not just reading whatever comes across our screen but seeking out information, multiple perspectives and most of all facts and full stories. We need to be aware that we might not all be getting the same news, and when we come across facts and full stories worth sharing, we should talk about them—online, and offline, too.
I’ll admit, sometimes I browse Buzzfeed. In particular, since I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky, I often look at bucket lists for inspiration.
I recently opened a “Bucket List for Girls” post, which posed the question: “What do you want to do before you die?” On this Buzzfeed list, one of the to-do-before-you-die items was “volunteer in a foreign country.” Accompanying this statement was an image that appears to be what the list-makers imagine an unspecific African country might look like: black women dressed in bright, patterned clothing, lugging buckets of water on their heads. Among the black women is one white girl, dressed in safari-style camo wear, holding a similar bucket atop her head, with a look of great accomplishment.
I had a visceral reaction to this image. Shaking my head, I wondered – what is she doing? Why is she there? Where is she? Is she actually helping, or just volunteering for her own sake? That is the risk of “voluntourism.”
What is “voluntourism?” It’s pretty much what it sounds like: vacation travel, with volunteer opportunities awaiting at the travel destination. Search the web and you’ll find dozens of organizations, nonprofits and travel businesses alike, deeply involved in organizing volunteering vacations.This is a recent trend among my generation. A quick Google search for “Humanitarians of Tinder” will pull up a site devoted to Tinder [a matchmaking/dating site] images, of mostly white people posing with mostly black children.
This makes me uncomfortable. Apparently, it’s now cool to travel and volunteer to any unidentified country that needs us to save them. Photographs of us participating in these activities will even attract potential mates- after all, they show that we’re good people, the sort of people who devoted our whole winter break to needy children in Guatemala!
On one level, I find it exciting and inspiring that caring about others and trying to make a difference are qualities that have become “cool.” If this is the direction society is moving, I’m all for it. But I want to challenge this culture a bit. I wrote on this topic before, how images can stereotype people and erase cultural, historic, and geographic complexities. While looking through the Tinder images, I felt a great pit at the bottom of my stomach. These photos exploit others by defining them ultimately as “poor, helpless individuals, in need of saving.” What of their strengths?
The Talmud teaches in Brachot 19B: “Come and learn: Human dignity is so important that it supersedes even a biblical prohibition.”
Where is the human dignity in this trend of being a voluntourist?
I’m not trying to discount this idea altogether, but I think the missing piece with voluntourism is making space for dignity of both sides. So here are some tips that can challenge this phenomenon, since as we know from our friends at Buzzfeed, making suggestions into a list is helpful!
1) Learn about the history, culture and current political standing of country you’re interested in before you go.
2) Study the root causes of issues you’re interested in.
3) Speak with people on the ground before you volunteer- what are they doing, and how can you help them?
4) Take a strengths-based approach- focus on the strengths of the community you want to serve and think about how you can bring things back home that they can teach you.
5) Take some time to learn about issues in your own community, and find out what you can do to serve those closer to home.
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As we prepare for the new year ahead, we’ll be sharing several Southern & Jewish posts reflecting on “how we spent our summer.” Today’s post come from two guests who visited us down South, Jay Saper and Margot Seigle.
This May, the two of us—white Jews who grew up in the Midwest—traveled down to Mississippi. Inspired by emerging efforts to develop the South as a hub for cooperative enterprise, we sought to learn more at the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference. Like the Jews involved in the Civil Rights movement in the generations before us, we came South, too.
As we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the Medgar Evers Airport to take us to Jackson State University, we strolled into an exhibit about the person after whom the airport was named. In 1954, Medgar Evers was appointed the first NAACP field secretary for the state of Mississippi. He traveled the state courageously advocating for Black rights.
Evers’ bravery came with a toll. After driving home on the evening of June 12, 1963, he took shirts reading “Jim Crow Must Go” out of the car to bring inside his home. He started up his driveway, but a bullet took his life before he could make it to the door.
The following year, building on Evers’ dedicated decade of organizing, a coalition of civil rights organizations launched Mississippi Freedom Summer. It was a summer of change – and of more loss. As we read the names of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman on the wall of the exhibit in the Jackson airport, we wondered at their legacy, and our own role in coming South.
At the Jackson Rising New Economies Conference we learned about an exciting way people in the South are working to challenge racism today: by building a democratic economy that meets their presently unmet needs. This approach to community resilience comes out of a long tradition documented by Jessica Gordon Nembhard in Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.
We got to meet with John Zippert, a fellow Jew who has long acted in solidarity with Blacks in the South to advance racial and economic justice through the cooperative model. The son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Zippert was active in social struggles from a young age in New York City. In the summer of 1965, Zippert went South as a volunteer with the Congress of Racial Equality. He helped farmers looking for a better price on their sweet potatoes to set up a cooperative. Through this work he met Carol Prejean. The two would go on to be the first married interracial couple in Louisiana.
Since 1970, Zippert has been working for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization that grew directly out of the Civil Rights Movement. The Federation works to maintain Black owned land and expand the use of cooperatives for economic development. It has been integral to challenging discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. In 2012, Tuskegee University inducted Zippert into the George Washington Carver Hall of Fame for his tireless dedication to those who are disadvantaged.
The organizers from Cooperation Jackson and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project communicated with us that the movement for economic democracy is building in exciting and powerful ways. There is still a lot of work to be done, and when we come together, that work can get done. That’s why we came South, and will continue to partner with the amazing individuals and groups fighting for social change today.