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Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 3:33PM   |  1 comment


"I will bring Americans together to strengthen our communities," exhorted Fox News pundit Glenn Beck, sarcastically acting out the AmeriCorps pledge in his July 24 broadcast. Costumed in lederhosen, white knee socks, and a blue tie, he stood atop a desk in front of a blackboard with an American flag last July during his Fox broadcast. He sung a refrain from "Edelweiss" at the end.

Quoting President Obama that "Americorps will be better financed than the military," Beck has insinuated that Americorps members are Nazis and Obama’s SS.

Beck’s vitriol against the rise of socialism, the inclusion of community activists into the current administration, and the destruction of the free market empire has picked up steam since President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act on April 21 The Act reauthorizes and expands national service programs to engage 4 million Americans.

The goal is to expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017. According to a White House press release, applications this year to AmeriCorps tripled from 2008.

If Beck took a minute to abandon his avant garde performance art career, he might have noticed that passage of the Act garnered bipartisan support. Even George Bush supported it.

But if you take off your lederhosen, hop off the table, and get out of the Fox Studios in New York City, the view from the ground looks, well, quite different. One might even ask, has Glenn Beck ever left the safe confines of his well-lit New York City studio to actually talk to real people working to build the non profit media arts infrastructures in the United States? I doubt it.

Take the Digital Arts Service Corps and the Transmission Project for example.

"The Digital Arts Service Corps is a small investment to cause exponential change in communities," counters Belinda Rawlins, the focused, passionate and clear-eyed executive director of the Transmission Project.

As Free Press’ Craig Aaron has pointed out, the US spends a paltry $1.37 per person for public media, compared to Canada’s $22 per person, England’s $80 per person—and the even more mind boggling figure of the US spending $565 per person to bail out AIG.

The Transmission Project, a non-profit center housed in the College of Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, matches Digital Arts Service Corps (DASC) members with public media organizations. Its motto is "amplify the power of public media and technology."

A 2009 Tulane University graduate from Maryland, Kelsey Parris embodies this motto. The Transmission Project placed her with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, which preserves the cultural foodways of minority cultures of the American south and advocates for literacy, nutrition and health. Parris is helping to maintain their webpage, migrate to a new website, and to stay visible online. "It’s a great experience to help a small organization," explains Parris. "I’m learning a lot and I’m having fun."

Digital Arts Service Corps members work with nonprofit public media groups around the country to help organizations become stronger in serving their mission and delivering their services. DASCorps members contribute skills and knowledge in website building, technical programs, board development, fundraising, managing volunteers and other key capacity building activities. The goal of DASCorps members is sustainable change for organizations.

The range of organizations where DASC have been placed show the depth, breadth, reach, impact and yes, redefinition of the public media field in local communities—about as opposite from Fox News as one can go. There’s the Academy for Career Development in Rochester, New York that provides educational opportunities for disabled, disadvantaged, and displaced children, youth, and adults. And Pro Bono Net, focused on increasing "access to justice for the millions of poor people who face legal problems every year without help from a lawyer." And the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, which uses media to tell stories from Western Michigan. And the New Mexico Media Literacy Project which cultivates critical thinking about "media culture to build healthy and just communities."

"The goal of the Digital Arts Service Corps and the Transmission Project is to help organizations do more with less, to build infrastructure, and to have strength to withstand the economic downturn," explained Rawlins. For the Transmission Project, public media can be media centers, PEG access, digital literacy groups or any organization that that deploys media for the public.

Latinitas in El Paso Texas, for example,  works  with at-risk, low income youths "to build confidence and express themselves through lessons on writing, graphic art, desktop publishing, web design, photography, film-making, and radio production."

"I have learned that change doesn't come quickly but hopefully with my year of service I can leave something useful for Latinitas," observed Claudia Escobar, a DASCorps member. "So far I have helped in recruiting new club leaders for the clubs and setting up all the afterschool programs activities and locations."

Formerly the CTC Vista program (CTC referred to Community Technology Centers), the Digital Arts Service Corps is part of AmeriCorpsVISTA. VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a federally funded program to help communities transition out of poverty through capacity building. It started in 1965.

Many vectors have realigned to bring national service into the public eye in the last year. Both Obama and McCain pushed for national service during the Presidential campaign—and propelled excitement about contributing to communities. The Millennials, the tech-obsessed, digital natives generation born since 1979 to baby boomers, have embraced group oriented community service. The economic collapse of Fall 2008 propelled layoffs, threatened the nonprofit media arts sector, and dimmed the hopes of new college graduates for jobs with health insurance. Many unemployed workers have transferred their skills to the nonprofit sector, making contributions to ideas and organizations larger than the self while looking for a paycheck.

The numbers mark these shifts in stark, almost overwhelming terms. This year, 130 organizations applied to the Transmission Project for 45 placements of DASCorps members. 800 new college graduates, retirees and career transitioners applied for 45 spots.

Members of the DACS, who must be at least 18 years old, receive a stipend ranging from $11,000 to $14,000 depending on placement. Their student loans are deferred for the year of service. At the end of their service, they can opt for a cash award of $1,000 or an educational award of $5,300.

"We’re building the next round of leaders for the field," explained Rawlins. To this end, the Tranmission Project sets up a four day orientation for new corps members on poverty in the United States and the role technology and media plays in moving people out of poverty and into the workforce.

They also provide roadmaps for how work happens on-site, budgeting, health care, expectations, project management, and project outcomes. Organizations have the corps member for one year, contribute $3,500, provide living assistance , and offer opportunities for professional development at a national conference.

Rather than the abstract ideologies propagated by the likes of Glenn Beck and his cronies, the Transmission Project emphasizes results: strong, sustainable organizations, professional growth, increased capacity in the media technology movement, new skills, and innovative programs matched to community needs.

Instead of best practices, the Transmission Project offers artifacts of what they term "honest practices." Artifacts span the gamut from how to to hands on in the new media technology terrain: a community radio manual, a guide to palnning and running festivals, concerts and fundraisers, a windows/MAC translation guide, a iGoogle dashboard, a basic search engine optimization technique, and Twitter guidelines and policies.

So, it's your time to choose. Fox News or your own local community? Glen Beck-- or Belinda, Kelsey, Claudia and the rest of the Digital Arts Service Corps?






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