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Film: Mining The Digital Landscape Engaging Communities Of Color

Ravon Ruffin, Co-Creator, Brown Girls Museum Blog spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015 about how marginalized communities are creating creative spaces online and how museums can and should engage them.

Raven: Good afternoon. Thank you, MuseumNext, for having me. I’m not sure how I ended up on the same day as Nina Simon and Brooklyn Museum, but that’s cool, so hopefully I won’t let you down. Hey, mama, I made it.

So, thank you for having me to present Mining the Digital Landscape, Engaging Communities of Colour. My name is Raven Ruffin, as you said, co-creator of browngirlmuseumblog.com. I’m also a grad student, a master’s candidate at George Washington University, in American studies, and a concentration in museums and material culture, so that’s kind of how those things are married together.

I know that the programme says that Adrianne would be here – unfortunately she wasn’t able to make it. Hopefully I’m able to make up for her absence, but as you know, it takes a village, and so did this presentation, so she’s watching online as well as some other people that I will shout out near the end.

So, we’ll go ahead and get started. Basically, this presentation seeks to engage the importance and relevance of digital spaces, facilitated by communities of colour, and three overarching waves.

One, that these communities do in fact exist as alternative spaces to the museum, to create and criticise. Two, look at the need for museums to get to know these spaces, and the people that utilise them, and lastly, look at what has been some great examples of engagement in these spaces, and further the possibilities for inclusion for these communities.

Great thing we have some people represented on the board here, so Shout Out, Museum Workers Speak, and [unintelligible] Rising.

We’ve talked about these platforms, so it’s been really great. I hope that this presentation really dovetails what we’ve already been discussing. A, we know that inclusion and diversity exists; there’re old age problems that we’ve had, but we’ve looked at the platforms, and so we know what these platforms do.

One, there is an immediacy and ability to mobilise and respond, versus the top down structure of museums, that we often get entangled in the bureaucracy of that. Two, they collectivise people across institutions, so one of my favourite things is, I love that I’m able to get on a hashtag and communicate with people that I know are staff in a museum, that I know are interested in museums, and we’re able to talk, whether they’re in New York, California, Missouri, it doesn’t really matter. We’re able for that moment, whether it’s an hour, or a few times visiting in on each other, communicate. Lastly, what these platforms do is, they archive and preserve, so that’s whether that’s a URL or a tag, or a hashtag, as we know them.

So, mostly this presentation will focus on Twitter as a platform, but we also will provide, or I will provide, some more resources that are out there, throughout this presentation. What I’ve put up here is a really expansive representation of what is possible through Twitter, so I have Black Twitterstorians; Black Girl Magic is represented on here. What else? Some Wiki edithons on here, and then again, Museums Respond to Ferguson, which Adrianne is partnered in creating. So, again, platforms in which people are able to engage. But, that’s the platform. What about the people in these spaces? So, what we see is communities of colour filling in their own gaps online.

First, I do want to confront this word, engagement. It’s one of our buzzwords of the conference, along with inclusion, which is great on the surface, and you can confront a community all you want, but unless you’ve made it known that the museum is theirs, and that the culture … and that they belong in that space, you can engage all you want, but you haven’t really offered a proprietary sense on behalf of the community, to feel like they belong there. So, I really do want us to push back, too, on this word, engagement, and think about that as we’ve used it before, and as we go forward from here.

So, although museums have not typically engaged these groups in productive ways, it does not mean these groups have a stagnant and culture production, preservation or presentation. Creatively, they have established online spaces for themselves, circumventing the periphery. So, although I’m here speaking specifically to communities of colour, this is a model that should be utilised when considering all marginalised groups, and social justice initiatives, simply that first, look and see what conversations are already being had.

Communities of colour enact agency in these spaces, such hashtags that I’ve mentioned, Black Twitterstorians, and the phenomenon that is Black Twitter, that has become identified communities that not only participate, but create. As cultural institutions, such as museums, historic homes and national parks transition to dialogical forms of patron and museum, and staff interaction, and include more participatory models, such as hashtag ask a curator, but online had increasingly made itself more tangible within these spaces, to the representation of black and brown bodies, historically rendered invisible, and visible by the markings of servitude within these spaces. Communities of colour, through online participation, are able to make themselves visible as subjects, as opposed to objects within these spaces.

So, this is one of those things that I don’t really think that I need to explain too much, but I think first we do have to confront our own privilege as we’re able to be in this space together, and within our own museums. So, that’s one of those no caption needed moments, so I’ll let that soak in for a bit.

With studies like this, done by the Mellon Foundation, we have to confront that in these brick and mortar spaces that have historically allowed black and brown bodies entrance as specimen or security, it has neglected these individuals as visitors, which impedes on the interests of these communities to participate. In what ways has your institution prepared itself for the entrance narratives of these communities? And, is your museum willing to sustain interest in these communities, not as novelty items to programming, but truly seek to have transparent conversations?

So, not all hope is lost, and if we return back to these digital and social platforms, again we begin to see how the online allows for communities of colour to negotiate these spaces for identity and meaning making practices.

So, one, distributing responsibility. As of 2014, Twitter largely is used by 23% of all online adults, according to a Pew Internet Survey. So, while not all users may be active, the pervasiveness of the app can be attributed to user driven content. That is the very function of Twitter, that it depends on this use. Responsibility for creating, curating and promoting content is distributed to all users. By having a stake in the viral status of individual Tweets, promoted through follows, favourites and Retweets, users are responsible for creating their own communities, democratising ideas.

Following directly from the user generated content model, Twitter can be seen as a meritocracy, where the best content will naturally rise to the top. A lack of governance or editorial board allows for more radical or outside perspectives to be noticed and heard, and of course, this isn’t without its issues, when you have people able to go back and forth, but the fact is, these messages allow for people to get out of their own echo chamber and hear from other people, and interact in that way, which sometimes, it can be a safe space to really get your ideas out there.

Encouraging directness – so much has been made of Twitter’s 140 character limit on individual Tweets, and that limits has effects on speech and censorship. So, while the character limit does force users to abbreviate and self-edit, we might also see this enforced directness as a useful tool for our alternative viewpoints. Without the room to soften messages or debate issues at length, activists and outsiders must be direct in their communication, and know their audience. There is no room for subtlety or shyness. Twitter is like the headlines, and alternative communities must develop additional spaces for greater detail. So, it’s great that you can have this space where it’s really limited, but people then want to engage and know more, and so from there, you have blogs and forums that then are created to carry the conversation over.

And then, elevating collective knowledge – while Twitter operates at the return to collective knowledge, empirical facts, as we know, traditionally is valued in western society. Twitter has spotlighted the ways media outlets, in particular, do not always provide facts without their own biases. For example, on the ground news of activism in Fergusson was not broadcast from a single account. Rather, it was crowd-sourced journalism, and through the many Tweets of local activists and witnesses, a definitive story distinctive from the narrative of mainstream media was able to be told.

Again, this can be a double edged sword, as bias and errors are just as likely to go viral as the truth, but when the community grows large enough and tells a similar enough story, we can understand that narrative as fact. This elevation of collective knowledge again reinforces the distributed responsibility of Twitter, in which all members of a community have a stake in maintaining their online community.

I think, in this conference alone, we’ve seen the power of social media to mobilise us, as many of us have met through those channels. I don’t even know all of you in person, but I think I follow you, or I’ve talked to you more online than I have in person. So, I think that, alone, speaks to the power of us to be able to speak collectively across institutions.

So, I realise I should have did [a slow effect], because now you all are going to be looking at number six, so just be patient – they’re all important. So, again, here are a few things to consider when you do get to that moment where you’re ready to engage communities of colour.

One: sweep around your own front door. Does your museum support diversity in word but not in deed? Representation matters, and diversity outreach initiatives are worthless if you don’t practice what you preach. We’ve been talking about that at length. How homogenous is your staff or board? Are the people of colour segregated in certain positions? Are only white, [sis], able people depicted in your advertising? Acknowledge the intersectional and systemic oppressive structures that are present in your museum’s internal processes, and seek outside support with dismantling them. Being inclusive internally leads to inclusivity and programming, partnership, and patronage.

Number two: people of colour are not problems. Treating communities of colour like things that need to be fixed is unfortunately common. Often, it begins with good intentions, quote, unquote. We notice we don’t have very many black visitors. How can we change this? But, soon the issues being addressed are with less sensitivity and consideration, causing patterns of distress to emerge and be reinforced.

Three: Examine your access. How easily can communities of colour connect with you? What are the barriers? Are they intentional or unintentional? Have you created roadblocks in your physical and digital spaces? Are you inviting communities of colour to collaborate and/or design programmes and exhibitions? Ask people what they think of your museum. If it’s viewed as an impenetrable fortress atop an ivory tower, with access granted to a privileged few, you have much work to do.

Four:   mind your language. For organisations that pride themselves on careful word selection, museums can be strikingly tone deaf in regard to inclusive language. Carefully examine all writing, from programme copy to wall [labels], to social media posts, for coded language that suggests exclusion.

Then, number five: myth or monolith. Communities of colour are extremely diverse. Although it is customary for certain groups to be lumped together as if they’re connected, to [board like hive mind].

So, the last one … I haven’t checked if I’m [centred], but we’ve been okay. [Unintelligible 00:14:30]. There we go, I said it. Not speaking to anyone directly. But, communities of colour have a large and influential presence digitally, especially in social media. As I spoke before, Black Twitter, defined by Dr Meredith Clarke as temporally linked groups of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues, and talking about specific topics with a black frame of reference, has become such a topic of intense interest that the Los Angeles Times recently dispatched journalist Dexter Thomas to cover it exclusively. It’s not uncommon for the latest ubiquitous [vine] or catchphrase to originate from digital communities of colour. Unfortunately, it’s also not uncommon for businesses to want to tap into these trends, committing cringe worthy culturally appropriative acts and micro aggressions.

So, think carefully about the implications before your staff performs the latest viral dance, a la the Harlem Shake, or you declare your latest acquisition of [En Fleek]. Just think about it. If you don’t understand those colloquial phrases, then that’s kind of the point, and deliberate before you appropriate, is all I’m going to say.

So, lastly, we’d like to provide some resources. Obviously, museums can’t do it all, and especially within our actual physical spaces, but we do encourage you to actually take a look at some of these links, see who’s out there. Again, I am always on Museums Workers Speak, Black Twitterstorians, and I see the same people. So, it doesn’t really help if the same people are part of the diversity committee. It doesn’t really help if the same people are on the hashtag – we all know that stuff. We come, we visit, we support each other. If it’s not the work of your actual institution, then it’s probably not actually in your mission, and you should reconsider that. We’ve talked about, again, if it’s the passion of one person, then it becomes burdensome, and then it also doesn’t sustain the practice. So, consider how you’re able to sustain these practices holistically across your institution.

In the interest of time, I won’t keep us long, but thank you, and I’ll go ahead and take questions. Thanks, girls. Does anybody have questions? I see one back there.

Female Voice:  Thank you very much. You, early in your presentation mentioned about how institutions can prepare for the entrance narratives of communities of colour. Could you just talk a little bit more about that. It’s a new term for me. And also, just some of the ways that maybe you would suggest for institutions to do that.

Raven: Yes, absolutely. So, entrance narrative, when I’m speaking about that, I’m speaking about, have you properly prepared yourself for the existence of your visitor, ultimately? So, I think a lot of what Nina said this morning was really appropriate in thinking about, this is a political project. So, if you’re not interested in your visitor as they exist on an intersectional scale, then you’re really not prepared for them at all. To invite – again, I can only speak for myself, but to invite black communities into your museum and offer the same narrative of slavery, when you haven’t addressed the fact that right now we’re in the midst of Black Lives Matter, is pretty problematic, considering all that we’re up against through media, in classrooms that just the tension alone … So, to not address the class, the race, the gender issues that your communities are facing really supresses them within those spaces.

So, entrance narrative on that scale, on thinking about your visitor, but then also about who you’re employing. So, I think about, again, myself, my personal is political when I’m the only black person in my programme in American studies. So, when I walk into a room, I’m very aware of my existence, and so to walk into a museum, to apply for a job, all of that is on my mind as I’m applying for a job, as I’m thinking about what I’m going to wear, as I’m thinking about my hair – all of that is already up against me, even if I feel like I’m more than qualified for the job. So, it’s on both sides, employing your workers, your staff, but also your visitors. Yes, thank you for that question.

Anybody else? All right. I’m going to go now. Yes? Okay.

Thank you.

Ravon Ruffin, Co-Creator, Brown Girls Museum Blog spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015 about how marginalized communities are creating creative spaces online and how museums can and should engage them.

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