Media is a powerful tool. It is the way we become aware of the world around us. It shapes our perspectives and informs our beliefs. Yet while media provides a platform to elevate individual and community voices, just as many voices are just as often ignored.
Take Baltimore as an example. The media machine was quick to report on “rioting” within the African American community following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody, despite decades of media silence on the near-daily violence directed at the community by law enforcement prior to Gray’s death.
The reality is that when it comes to shaping the public narrative and public perceptions, marginalized communities are at the mercy of the mainstream media, which carries with it the ingrained biases that it also perpetuates.
What can we do to overcome this harmful bias? It isn’t always easy, but one important step is to begin to take control of our own narrative.Who is a bigger expert on what you’re going through, than you? Your experiences, thoughts, and struggles are best understood and conveyed by you and by extension your community.
This is the aim of the I AM poster project launched by the Boys and Men of Color (BMOC) group here in Fresno. In an empowering new type of representation, young people are defining themselves and at the same time letting the community know who they are. “I am an artist. I am ambitious. I am caring.” The messages these young men carry challenge the pervasive media stereotypes of youth as either thugs or hoodlums.
For several years the BMOC of Fresno has worked to improve the lives of young men of color through leadership development and direct advocacy. As a BMOC participant I have been able to witness firsthand the profound impact that an organization like this can have. The young people who participate come from some of the most neglected and underserved communities in Fresno and they work hard to dispel the prejudice that they confront everyday.
This past March, members of the group took part in a Letter to the Editor writing activity. The activity provided media literacy training on learning to identify media bias in reporting around young people of color. The BMOC youth participated in an exercise that helped them question popular media rhetoric and identify the presented narrative as well as how that might differ when introduced by people with different perspectives. Participants then drafted letters to the editor in which they offered their own narratives.
It is powerful when communities are given voice, and it benefits the whole city when all communities are given an equal shot at telling their stories of struggle and triumph. Here are a few of the letters that came from that exercise.
Fresno is diverse in culture, language, foods and beliefs. What happens when students in our schools don’t feel like they can be their true selves without being persecuted? The number of undocumented students in Fresno is huge, but the number of students who feel secure in addressing their citizenship is minute. There needs to be a bigger movement in our schools to advocate for and reach out to undocumented youth. The problem is there no is no concrete effort in our schools to organize, unify and help our struggling students find support, security and connection to resources. They matter.
-Antonio Jauregui, 18
IN RESPONSE TO: “‘I just don’t like the black kids’ comment by Fresno vice principal causes uproar,” Carmen George, Fresno Bee, March 17, 2015
Vice Principal Joe DeFilippo from Scandinavian Middle School’s comments on his dislike of black kids upset many people in the community. In the Black community and many other communities of color, we deal with dropouts, expulsions, lack of educational support and encouragement. This overt discrimination just adds to the experiences we are already going through. I feel that the school boards need to be changed. I feel sure there are more people like DiFilippo. We shouldn’t discriminate, we need to learn from our past. We as a people can’t move forward if we repeat the past. The kind of comments Mr. DiFilippo make us feel like we’re being set up to fail. The emotional wear is hard on students of color. We need to incorporate encouragement, trust and leadership in our schools.
-Adrien Ferguson, 23
Having gone through the Fresno school systems, I know how biased and judgemental the staff at some schools can be. It’s painful to see a respected school official say he doesn’t like students of color. As a person of color myself, I’m offended. This makes me feel like the reason youth of color keep getting kicked out of school for small issues at record rates is because of attitudes like this.
-Manuel Rodriguez, 18