Promoting Engaged Scholarship and Community-Oriented Media for Social Good

A year-long academic sabbatical this past year offered me and my family the opportunity to visit multiple countries, interact with new people, and engage with numerous cultures.
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A year-long academic sabbatical this past year offered me and my family the opportunity to visit multiple countries, interact with new people, and engage with numerous cultures.

We learned that people around the world are more similar than different. We all share universal human values, aspirations, and motivations. We all care about the same basic things: clean water, unpolluted air, nutritious food, affordable healthcare, violence-free neighborhoods, stable jobs and education. We are all striving for a meaningful life filled with peace, wellness, sustainability, dignity and justice.

As a media scholar at Texas A&M University, I have devoted most of my life to using media as a positive tool for bringing meaning to people's lives and elevating communities. I believe that community-oriented engaged public scholarship is critical to our educational mission, especially in public universities. However, there are hardly any forums that allow media educators to connect with industry professionals and community leaders on a global scale.

That is why it was important to create and sustain a global alliance like Media Rise, a nonprofit initiative that I co-founded last year, to promote meaningful media around the world. Our festival this September in Washington, D.C. brings together media educators, activists, artists, and community leaders committed to using media for social change. Through information-sharing and collaboration, we seek to celebrate the power of storytelling, art, and design to make the world a more peaceful, healthy, sustainable, and just place to live in.

As an educator and a parent, I am concerned about the constant bombardment of hyped-up advertising, the long-term effects of meaningless media violence, and the skewed worldviews from sensationalist biased news media. I am frustrated by most of the content on mainstream media, which as a global nexus of excessive greed and violence, generates content that is often divisive, desensitizing, and derogatory in nature.

The statistics speak for themselves. Americans spend over half of their leisure time consuming media entertainment, with over 74 percent of us using social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or Pinterest. Today's millennial generation spends almost 8.5 hours per day with media, considerably more than with family or friends.

Since mainstream media content is often produced by a few white male-dominated multinational media corporations, it is no surprise that the content is not necessarily inclusive or diverse. Research shows that only 28.4 percent of speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing films are female and that only about 16 percent of writers, producers and directors in the film industry are female. Gender and racial discrepancies are also significant in newsrooms, television, and the video gaming industry.

Media portrayals have serious consequences in how our implicit attitudes, beliefs, and feelings are shaped in everyday real-world settings. My research shows that popular media portrayals of African-Americans and Latino-Americans as criminal or lazy increases modern racist beliefs that race is no longer an issue in contemporary America. The reality of systematic racism in American society becomes more pronounced as we mourn the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and protest the injustices that have played out in our frenzied news cycle and on social media.

Community-oriented media initiatives for social good require access to resources, passion, courage and hard work. Marginalized groups have incredibly rich stories to share but often lack the social, economic, and culture capital to participate actively in the digital participatory culture. Courageous journalists such as James Foley and Daniel Pearl have been killed in gruesome ways for simply doing their jobs. Outspoken professors such as Steven Salaita have been reprimanded for voicing their political views on the Gaza-Israel conflict. Yet their stories are the ones that need to be told.

I believe media can serve us better by creating spaces for empathic dialogues rather than uncivil trolling; facilitating intergroup harmony rather than sustaining implicit prejudices; and becoming catalysts for social good rather than for profits alone. There are many positive, community-oriented media projects that elevate and inspire communities around the world: Three Birds Foundation that teaches high school students about renewable energy, Nuba Reports that is a network of civic journalists reporting credible and compelling news from Sudan, and The Water Tank project that uses art installations to bring awareness about global water issues.

There's also Nalanda Way that create art workshops to bring self-confidence to under-resourced youths in India, Gone Adventurin' that creates documentary films from adventure tours taken by corporate professionals wanting to connect with the communities they serve, Question Bridge that uses transmedia storytelling and participatory art to renegotiate Black masculinity, and the Pulitzer Center that promotes independent international journalism, especially relating to under-reported topics meant for a diverse audience.

Let us rise up to promote and sustain community-oriented meaningful media initiatives in this increasingly global participatory digital culture.

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