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The People’s Media Record safeguards the past while making it radically accessible

November 21, 2019 Category: FeaturedLongMediaPurpose


This is guest column written by Helyx Horwitz, the information systems and technology manager at Media Mobilizing Project.
When the Stadium Stompers needed to investigate strategies for keeping a stadium out of their North Philadelphia neighborhood, they looked to study the successes of past movements here in Philly, like when Asian-Americans in Chinatown successfully kept the city from building a stadium in the middle of their neighborhood.

Our communities need to study records of the past to guide us forward.

As a lifelong oral historian, technologist, and filmmaker, I’ve been grateful to join dozens of community mediamakers, from a long and vibrant history in our city, documenting the last 15 years of struggles in Philly, creating thousands of hours of footage of Philadelphians’ resistance. From wintry meetings of parents and teachers fighting to keep their schools from privatizing, to cavernous shouts in the international hall of the airport when the Muslim Ban kept migrants from reaching their families, mediamakers like me were there, capturing not just resistance, but the beats of strategy that sometimes led to victory, and other times, to losses that we needed to learn from as we continued to fight.

We need to learn from that history, now more than ever. That’s why here at Media Mobilizing Project we are launching the People’s Media Record. The Record is the product of years spent digging through our old hard drives and miniDV tapes to catalog our raw media. We have created public metadata — ways of tagging and searching video content so we know what’s in it, like a digital card catalog — for over 800 hours of footage in the People’s Media Record. These records — over 6,000 individual items — document activism and organizing for almost 10 years in Philadelphia; from 2005-2013.

Our video archive is massive and diverse.  It covers events such as SEPTA strikes, the formation of the Taxi Workers Unified Alliance of Pennsylvania, and in-depth interviews with students, who we now know as leaders in the Philadelphia Student Union. So far, our cataloged collection includes over 250 hours of interviews. And we have just started to catalog 2014, so still to come are historic moments like the early #BlackLivesMatter protests and the end of the School Reform Commission.

From our Partners

Media Mobilizing Project grew out of the era of community media. When tools to produce video became affordable enough that everyday people could finally get their hands on them, independent productions soared, documenting our lives, stories, and struggles. Activists learned how to use video as a powerful tool to document and tell our own stories, and how to wield them to mobilize people and challenge power successfully.

Just six companies have dominated the mainstream media landscape for the last 20 years, but in the world of community media, scores of community institutions have helped individuals across the country tell their own stories and win real campaign victories.

In the age of the smartphone, we sometimes take the ubiquity of digital media for granted and underestimate its power. But the videos we produce are extremely vulnerable — and could be compromised or deleted in an instant. Facebook has been known to remove videos for the ambiguously defined reason of “offensive content” and hard drives fail every day. What happens to those videos in the long term? Even if they remain online, if they are buried at the in the middle of a “pile” of similar files, can we actually find the one that we want? What happens if the file gets corrupted? Or if that hard drive in the closet stops working? How would we even know?

After collecting evidence of activism from around Philadelphia for over a decade at MMP, we knew that we had amazing footage, but every time we or scores of allied organizations needed something in particular, it took hours or days to find it.

And every time we looked into archival options for our footage, we failed to find an institution that could support our existing commitments to the communities within the footage. Too many times, archival institutions only exist outside of our communities. They cloister our stories away behind restrictions and structures intended to protect material.

But the reality is that these structures keep those records inaccessible to the very communities at the center of the narrative — a narrative we need to transform society.

Community media is critical because it is produced by those at the heart of the narrative. With smartphone videos everywhere we look, we need community archives to shepherd the digital fragments of our stories, to keep them together, and to facilitate our storytelling.

And we need archival institutions to be built from within our communities, grown within the grassroots, to reflect our needs and priorities. The People’s Media Record is a place to turn to in Philadelphia to learn from our past and move towards the future. You can check out the Record here and email if you have questions or want to get involved!


Media Mobilizing Project

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