“Because we are all citizens of this democracy, because we will all be voters, we must all be educated for our responsibilities.”
A compelling theme or narrative can drive an idea deep into the cultural consciousness, even when conventional wisdom argues otherwise. From a little-known African-American Senator boldly declaring “Yes We Can!,” to the methodical decimation of public schools reframed as “choice,” people respond to the stories that tap into their hopes and dreams (and, yes, fears), and offer them a gateway to getting involved with minimal friction.
When I was helping launch Digital Book World in late-2009, I tapped into the underlying sense of optimism that drove the most passionate people I knew in the publishing industry, and built upon it to distinguish us from other conferences and communities that traveled the crowded fear-mongering, gloom-and-doom road. It’s always easier to go negative, but few people actually prefer to live or work in that kind of environment, and so many immediately responded to our sense of optimism that DBW grew exponentially over its first 18 months of existence.
Further back in time, when I founded the a little bit louder reading series back in March 1998, the Nuyorican Poets Café was pretty much the only game in town for slam poetry, and one of the few venues capable of drawing large audiences for any kind of poetry. It had a pugnacious vibe, the poetry was usually topical and political, and while theoretically open to all, there were a couple of tight communities of poets who really drove it. Most other reading series at the time were extremely cliquish, usually not very welcoming to poets who enjoyed both the craft and performance of poetry, and they had relatively small audiences predominantly made up of other poets. From its inception, louder was committed to the idea that poets come in all shapes and sizes, and that New York City needed a venue where all styles were welcomed and encouraged, and that said venue had to generate an audience that included more than just other poets.
Coming off our victory at the National Poetry Slam that August, representing the Nuyorican, I decided to add a semi-monthly slam to louder‘s schedule, a move that led to all kinds of drama, including my being banned from the Nuyorican for a couple of years. The drama sent ripples throughout the slam community and made for a tense week at the 1999 National Poetry Slam in Chicago, but by the following summer in Providence, RI, the NYC slam scene decided to put the community first, and was united again. One could even argue the community was made stronger because of the drama, as it led to expansion, and the establishment of three strong venues where formerly there was only one: the Nuyorican, louderARTS, and Urbana.
[Read Chapters 18-20 in Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam (Soft Skull, 2007) for the whole story.]
I often note that almost everything I’ve learned about community engagement, I learned during my first five years on the slam scene, and over the past year of learning about transmedia development and its potential applications beyond fiction, I had an “A-Ha!” moment.
Long before blogging and social networking, many thriving slam communities across the country developed around two central themes: everyone deserves a chance to tell their stories; and those stories, well-told, had the power to inspire change. Poetry slams were often started by a poet or groups of poets who were inspired by one or both of those themes, and there are currently more than 100 of them officially recognized by Poetry Slam, Inc., and countless other unofficial slams around the world.
More recently, I’ve been intrigued by the excellent (and controversial) documentary Waiting for Superman, and the success, for better or worse, it’s had in re-framing the debate about school reform by focusing on the stories of specific kids. Not content with the typically short life cycle and limited impact of documentaries (Fahrenheit 911, anyone?), Participant Media has built an impressive transmedia platform that’s reminiscent of Obama’s historic campaign for President. While I don’t personally agree with every argument the film makes, there’s no question it makes those arguments far more compellingly than those who champion public schools from a more theoretical, distanced approach.
By not just encouraging people inspired (and angered) by the film to take action, but also enabling them to do so in a variety of ways, they are building an engaged community that has the potential to effect genuine change.
Conversely, Diane Ravitch’s truly excellent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, takes the traditional approach, an expert voice armed with data, strong opinions and a call to action, all buried between the covers of a hardcover book that will be read by far too few people, and offers those who might be inspired to act… nothing.
Stories just as powerful and compelling as those Waiting for Superman put in the spotlight are confined to the printed page instead of being unleashed across multiple platforms for people to connect with, share with others, and inspire action. The rough road to the kind of national curriculum Ravitch argues is essential to genuine reform is made even rougher by not offering any tangible method for people to take action and get involved. Her vision, compelling as it is, is constrained, and the community that might have gathered around its narrative is left with no clear next steps, while the well-funded drumbeat of “reform” via privatization continues to gain traction and move ahead.
As an artistic endeavor, this shortcoming would simply be unfortunate; a missed opportunity to extract maximum value from an intellectual property. For an issue like educational reform, though, it’s negligent at best; surrender at worst.
The tools are there for everyone’s use, and the potential for transmedia creatives to engage in projects bigger than their own artistic and commercial interests is enormous.
The challenge is, how do we make those connections? And who is going to take a stand?