Project update: #BlackLivesMatter as civic engagement

It’s been nearly a year since Deen Freelon, assistant professor of communication studies at American University, first reached out about applying for a grant to study #BlackLivesMatter as civic engagement.

Together with Freelon and Charlton McIllwain, an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University, I’m conducting research on how social media use factors in to personal and community activism. Deen handles the Big Data, searching for patterns and clusters that indicate meaning. Charlton parses the text of thousands of tweets, identifying resonant messages in the conversation that’s unfolding in the last 14 months. My role is to capture the stories of those who used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, whether online, in conversation or writings, or on signs held high during on-the-ground protests.

While the grant was approved in the spring, a delay in paperwork processing meant my portion of the study — in-depth interviews with people in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York City — was delayed until early August, weeks before the school year began. Rather than wait for the travel paperwork to clear, I decided to solicit interviews “in the field,” tweeting out requests for participants throughout the summer.

Thus far, there’s been mixed response to the call for participants. The requisite trolls showed up, telling me I’m an awful human being for “race-baiting” and refusing to move on from Ferguson. I’ve also talked on the phone and via email with a handful of folks concerned with the intellectual and emotional labor of being asked to talk about their experiences without receiving financial compensation. More than 100 people completed the informed consent form to participate. Thus far, slightly fewer than 50 people from across the United States and in Canada have participated in the research interviews.

This week, with the red tape cleared and the travel approved, I’m visiting Ferguson, Mo.; St. Louis and New York City to meet face-to-face with people who have been impacted by #BlackLivesMatter. Together with individuals from the communities that faced intense scrutiny over the last year and some change, I aim to capture narratives that illustrate how a hashtag works as a symbol of resistance as it moves from online spaces to the streets of our nation and back again.

I’m both pensive and excited about touching down in Missouri and New York this week. My recruitment strategy hasn’t gone according to plan, so there are alarmingly empty spaces where appointments to meet with people should be. By trade, I’m a journalist, so I’m working with connections (previous interviewees, working journalists, community members) to reach out to people and secure interviews.

Know someone? I invite your suggestions.

The most compelling part of this project is finally getting to move from behind the desk and out into “the field.” Previously, my work has relied solely on telephone and convenient in-person interviews as a means of data collection. This time, I get to immerse myself — even if only for a few days — in the communities I’ve watched via mainstream, niche and social-media coverage for the past year and some change.

I imagine that as I sit with participants, sharing coffee or snacks as we discuss what life’s been like since Aug. 9, 2014, I will hear some of the same things I’ve heard from a few dozen participants: how they explain #BlackLivesMatter is a statement of affirmation, not negation; the moment the images from Ferguson and beyond prompted them to do something; the outcomes they are working for via everything from sharing links to donating money to shutting down interstates.

The text of interviews I’ve done thus far primarily discuss the role of allies. Theirs are the stories I’ve heard the most. It’s a surprising finding as I expected to hear from more Black folks the first go-round. (I’ll interview anyone who is interested in talking with me about #BlackLivesMatter.) But I get it: until there’s a connection via email, phone or in-person, I am just someone tweeting out requests for time and information, with seemingly little to offer in return. It’s difficult to combat against the stain of abuse perpetrated by media and academic types who seek to gather tweets, blog posts and personal narratives for clicks and praise in elite circles.

But as with my research on Black Twitter, the implications of this work matter to me far beyond its public reception. Media indeed writes “the first draft of history,” but academia has a lasting role in shaping the institutional memory of cultural events and social movements. Digital and social media are precariously ephemeral – tweets favorited today are stacked into archives that are costly to reach; stories posted to the web are archived and retrievable only with the knowledge of what exists and where. Aside from community and individual labor that seeks to accurately and culturally competently record the experiences of those who marched (whether in-person or online) under the banner Black Lives Matter, there’s little support within the master’s institutions to preserve accurate narratives that are accessible to both public and canonical scholars who will reproduce knowledge about what happened in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and so many other cities during and after the uprising.

That’s what drives me past the fear, the unanswered emails, and the lack of response. I have no experience in community organizing. I live in a small college town that’s physically far removed from some of the centers of activist work. I no longer write a weekly column that can draw attention to these issues. I’m not on a public-speaking circuit, and I rarely blog. My activism is rooted in disrupting a structurally elite space with co-created knowledge developed via collective work with the very communities the academy has patronized, pathologized, and worse, ignored.

In contrast with those who organize, fundraise and campaign, my small contribution rests in making sure the story of #BlackLivesMatter as civic engagement is told accurately and authentically. I use what access have to enter their stories into the canon of work that is structurally relied upon by both scholars and media to frame discussion about this social movement.

I want to make sure that we get it right. That accuracy comes only with the help of those who are willing to lend their time to tell their stories. I hope to connect with more of you this week.

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