The Civic Media Series: Participatory
This series exists as a part of academic work being done in a Civic Media graduate course and will cover the proposed principles of Civic Media.
This series can be found under The Civic Media Series.
The participatory nature of civic media is what makes it so vital. If not, who is it for?
In his TED Talk “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” Ernesto Sirolli said that we Westerners approach foreign aid one of two ways: patronizing or paternalistic. This is way too true of civic media in general. Whichever we choose, we take away their autonomy and the ability to shape what they need themselves. Empathetic listening is the only way to avoid both of these pitfalls. Hearing is not listening—hearing is automatic for most abled people, it’s something you don’t think about and it’s not engaging. To listen is to emphasize, to understand, and to engage with real understanding, and it goes behind hearing someone. Civic media has to rely on talking to people, listening to them, and responding to their needs, not what we think they need. To be participatory means to engage, quite literally.
If the purpose of civic media truly is to use media to foster and stimulate civic engagement, then it must be participatory. Part of that might even mean engaging people you disagree with. Disagreeing or even disliking someone doesn’t negate their lived experience and it doesn't mean we can disregard them. This is not the same thing as including people who are in opposition to your community’s goals. That is not lived experience, that is denial and only does harm.
It’s the community that fosters change and who decides if the work we have done has been successful, even if it’s our community. We can have the best intentions and work to benefit our communities, but the impact will always outweigh the intent. It’s our job to respond and if they decide that the response wasn’t good enough or wasn’t right or wasn’t what was needed, then it wasn’t. We have to push our feelings aside—easier said than done—and keep working toward an equitable solution.
It’s easy to say everyone needs to be included and involved, and it’s true, they should. It’s a lot harder, though, to look at why people aren’t involved and fix the underlying issues. Are people actually disinterested or have they been repressed? Have they been historically excluded? Is it truly accessible? The concept of being participatory cannot stand alone. It’s great in theory, but there are barriers that deny people the ability to participate that must be navigated and dealt with and destroyed.
Civic media is less of a dialogue and more of a monologue—the back and forth is important, but it requires stopping and listening. Maybe that’s for a while, maybe that’s period. If we listen and respond with action, we can engage our community and be led to something really successful. It has to be community-led or it will never be reciprocal. In this work, we have to meet people where they’re at. It means not being overly academic or patronizing. It means having Easy Read and plain text formats. Using flowery language doesn’t get you closer to solving any problems, but it will likely push away the communities already doing this work.
They know their community. They know their needs. They know best.