Riverwise Interview with AMC Organizers Jenny Lee and Morgan Willis; Interview conducted by Eric Thomas Campbell
Allied Media Conference (AMC) has been a point of convergence for visionary media makers for 20 years. Thousands of participants from around the country will convene June 14-17 on the campus of Wayne State University to explore how social justice can thrive through media-based organizing.
Riverwise spoke to Allied Media Project (AMP) Executive Director Jenny Lee and AMC Program Director Morgan Willis about how the conference has worked to be wholly inclusive, how participants have transformed the conversation around digital media, and how the AMC has evolved into one of the most dynamic events in the city.
Detroit’s involvement in the AMC began partly with the regular attendance by members of Detroit Summer, a youth-led collective, during the conference’s early years in Bowling Green, Ohio. We began by discussing how the conference moved to Detroit and developed into its current form, which includes over 300 workshops, panels, film screenings, tours and related events.
Jenny Lee: There was a lot of excitement amongst the people that had been attending over those years which was primarily a Midwestern audience. It wasn’t primarily Bowling Green residents, but it was people from all over the Midwest. And they were increasingly intrigued about what was happening in Detroit in terms of social movements and learning things about Detroit, that especially at that time, people didn’t know or care because everyone had written off Detroit in so many ways nationally.
Morgan Willis: Right before it became the Allied Media Conference it was The Underground Publishing Conference which was a growth from the Midwest Zine Conference. As media continued to evolve and became understood as something that was more accessible by not just mainstream media, not just journalists or filmmakers or formal people who had studied media, but all of us with our phones, recorders, pen and paper, and zines, the concept of who the conference was for expanded. Underground Publishing was an effort to expand with the expanding frame of what media was and who was using it. And then it became the Allied Media Conference.
Jenny: Yeah, I think the origins of ‘zines, it was always about do it yourself media, grassroots media, anti-corporate media. But then with the internet it took on a whole dimension of digital media as Mo (Morgan) was saying. And then the AMC, and the shift to Detroit specifically, came out of the focus on media-based organizing for social justice. So more about the media as a part of movement building, but also this idea that the process of community media can itself be an organizing process, can itself be a transformative and visionary process. So again, tying back to Grace Lee Boggs and Jimmy Boggs, Detroit Summer’s ideas around self-transformation and structural transformation, the move to Detroit really grounded those ideas in the context of media making.
Riverwise: And you’ve mentioned, that a big component is the digital justice piece, which developed as the technology advanced and access to it became a digital rights issue.
Jenny: Yeah, another global thing that was happening was the growth of indie media as a network. There were dozens of sites that popped up around anti-corporate and anti-globalization protests all over the world. The idea was to push back against corporate narratives with these really basic internet citizen journals and tools. So these were online publishing platforms where anyone could post. This was before blogging was a thing, before Twitter, before any type of social media. Very rudimentary, independent publishing on the internet. So people who were organizing with that network started attending the AMC and using that as a space to convene. Some of the problems with that was that it was very tech-dude focused and, especially in the U.S., it was primarily white spaces organizing. So another shift that happened around the time of the move to Detroit was the conference becoming more about people of color, women, gender non-conforming, queer POC as media makers and technologists and how that meant a different kind of technology, different relationships to technology and ultimately better, more liberatory technologies.
Morgan: I think about the earliest iterations of the internet also being, not just potentially restrictive to who gets to access it, but the other side of it being this open space, this space of huge potential. And it felt really radical to bring together this group of radical folks and get to dream about the ways we could use this space. And I think that a lot of that has to do with the work that’s happening now: for example the Detroit Community Technology Project, with tons of our sponsor projects and partners. The outgrowth of being able to dream together about how we can take this thing, this entity, and make it work for us, use it to build our stories or our work, connect with each other. And as the internet has continued to grow and evolve, as one of the bases of how we access and share information, so has the conference. It’s a really beautiful thing to look back over 20 years and just be able to see this history of how social justice organizers have continued to work around some of the limitations of the internet, the opportunities of the internet and maybe some of the things on the internet hadn’t even been thought of yet.
Jenny: I think at the core of AMP’s theory of change is that when we shift from just being consumers of media and consumers of technology to be active creators of it that the technology itself changes. Our experiences on the internet changes and who we are changes because we are infinitely more powerful than all of these circumstances. You mentioned the digital justice coalition, which did grow out of the AMC. A big part of the vision behind that work was increasing access to media and technology throughout Detroit, not only on a consumption level, but really increasing access to the tools and the skillsets to create the internet and create the content of the internet. So out of the digital justice coalition group the Detroit Future Media program, Detroit Future Schools, Detroit Future Youth, were all these intensive digital media trainings for people whose voices were not on the internet, were not shaping the narrative about what Detroit was and what Detroit could be, to then gain that access. And so we saw these notable shifts in the online story of Detroit through the way that people started using the internet to tell their own stories and to push back against prevailing narratives on Twitter, on Facebook, on their own websites that they built through the classes that they took. And so all of those three or four years of trainings that we did grew out of the digital justice coalition which grew out of the AMC. There’s a lot of examples of these ripple effects that you can trace back to the AMC because it’s been such a rich space.
Riverwise: That’s intense. From your remarks, I’ve already gotten a better sense of that duality of working in this new realm of technology and doing it in a space that’s safe for marginalized communities. So we see a dual transformation happening— to systems outside and within yourself as well. It’s vital.
Morgan: And simultaneously, on the complete other side is also this continued investment in developing and understanding technology as also being non-digital. So what are the things that we’re already doing in our communities that don’t necessarily rely on the internet. Like, farming, healing justice work, asset mapping, community mapping, the ways that we intentionally gather to have conversations that are either based around strategies that at the AMC led to things like the WNUC coming out of a lot of the work that happened in non-digital person-to-person, brainstorming, dreaming together ways. So I think it’s also exciting to think about there’s also been a really deep investment in remembering that there have always been ways that our communities have exchanged information, ideated, grown, organized, communicated with each other and figuring out how those innovations can look online but also in person, among each other.
Riverwise: So the community that has grown up within and around AMP and the AMC, how do you discuss taking that to communities in Detroit that aren’t necessarily getting involved in these circles, or getting involved in tech at all?
Morgan: Moving here for me it was very important, and I felt very aligned with AMP’s network principles, and the main one being we begin by listening. So, it was very important to create a space of listening and not a lot of prescriptive thinking around how the context should look and feel, and really to receive the guiding lights of AMP in Detroit, which are Detroiters who are doing community and media-based organizing work in Detroit, who are mainly black…. Having content that’s open to people who are not registered and content that’s not even on campus…. we’re working with community partners in spaces all over the city, specifically in the area around the conference where folks can access it readily.
Jenny: One of the reasons that the AMC is still here after 20 years is that there is a cost to it and people pay for it. And that cost is prohibitive to a lot of people. Even though on the national scale of conferences it’s super cheap, but because it isn’t free and by a lot of standards it isn’t cheap, the people that come every year keep us accountable in that it has to be really good and really relevant to be worth it to people to spend that money. It also keeps it afloat because we’ve never been completely reliant on foundations. So, if any one funder were to be like, this is too radical, I’m not gonna support it, it would not take the AMC down because it’s user owned.
But that does create this tension where, for so much of our city, it’s unaffordable. I think it’s important to be said that we never want cost to be a reason that someone who really wants to be at the AMC can’t attend. And that’s why we have scholarships available for Detroit and Flint residents who just can’t afford to pay the registration…. anyone that wants to attend and is looking at the registration cost and feels like they can’t should absolutely contact us. We can work to figure out ways to make it possible for people to be there.
For more information on the Allied Media Conference and Allied Media Projects, visit www.alliedmedia.org.