Sean Jacobs, associate professor of international affairs and founder/editor of Africa is a Country, told roundtable participants that he created the site as an outlet for media analysis of Africa from a leftist perspective, stemming from his experiences as a journalist and political researcher covering resistance against Apartheid. Africa is a Country, with its tongue-in-cheek title, is an experiment in redressing mischaracterizations of Africa in mainstream media coverage.
“We are looking at how we cover Africa; what is Africa?; how we frame stories; who are our experts and why?” Jacobs explained, using narrative storytelling across digital media forms, including online commentary, original writing, media criticism, videos, audio, and photography.
Serendipitously, Peter Lucas, faculty at the Julien J. Studley Graduate Programs in International Affairs and a documentary filmmaker, came to the Collaboratory Symposium to discuss the Creatively Speaking film series, and the idea of participatory and inclusive media. Creatively Speaking has gained traction as a leading film series that conveys more realistic media portrayals of people of color.
Lucas emphasizes to his students the need for packaging media projects in a way that extends their lifespan and impact. This includes building a network, creating social platforms, and enacting social action plans.
Referencing Jacobs’s work, Lucas said, “I think we both do this in our ways, but how do we prepare students to make documentary media, how do we educate and design programs for participatory media; programs where people are creating impactful media by themselves?”
In this vein, Africa is a Country continues to do just that.
“We had to create our own media,” Jacobs stated in response to the way Western media outlets portray Africa. Anakwa Dwamena, contributing editor of Africa is a Country and an editorial staff member of the New Yorker gave an example of why spaces like Africa is a Country are critical, citing the disastrous “Kony 2012” campaign.
“Our site was one of the first places I saw to seek actual academics to speak on these issues, as opposed to outlets like CNN who were grabbing random people on the street like ‘you’re from this country, tell us about this,’” Dwamena shared with the roundtable. “That was a great way to come at this issue. Sometimes it’s not enough to just have studied the material and sometimes it’s not enough to just be from a place, and not have studied a sense of the history. The site does this well–bringing a balance together to provide more nuanced reporting and opinions.”
The table also discussed the differences between the dissemination and transformation of media, and how to facilitate spaces for marginalized communities to spread their own ideas and stories.
Yara Al-Nouri, a graduate student in the School of Media Studies at The New School, looks at participatory media, when executed efficiently, as a vehicle for social change. She asked the table, “How do we make inclusive media more sustainable?” to which Jacobs laughed good-naturedly and added, “You need money.”
In response, roundtable participants discussed actively looking into major players involved in media projects, translating ideas into forms that are more accessible, and forging partnerships across communities.
On a fitting ending note, a potential future partnership between the Creatively Speaking film series and Africa is a Country was proposed to continue to amplify the impact of participatory media through digital storytelling.
This article was written by Alexa Mauzy-Lewis. Alexa is a graduate student at the New School for Social Research studying Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism. She writes and edits for Research Matters and Revival Magazine, and works for the Schools of Public Engagement.