Social Justice for the Classroom and the Twitterverse: A Two-Part Series

Mother's Day march in the Bronx. Photo by Carwill. Courtesy Creative Commons By Kanene Holder, Center alumna

Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”Dr. Martin Luther King, "I’ve Been to the Mountaintop," April 3, 1968

For Every Act of Injustice, There is A Response for Equality Last week, April 4 marked the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Paying homage to MLK’s Poor People Campaign, I headed to a march for justice for fast-food workers. This is also the third week of the Stop and Frisk trial. I was stopped and frisked in 2002, hence I stood in solidarity with NYC high school students and activists near the courthouse demanding justice. The week prior, hundreds took to the streets of Harlem speaking against gun violence. The week before that, crowds sat and watched the 10-year anniversary of the award-winning Bowling for Columbine documentary and reflected on how far we have come. After the screening, I listened to the passion of organizers and was teleported back to my idyllic childhood filled with ribbons in my hair and black and white composition notebooks. Ensnarled in my own dissonance, I wondered why, in this land of opportunity I was taught to pledge allegiance to, justice is absent or missing in action.

Silent No More More than a year after my involvement in Occupy Wall Street, I am more hopeful than ever that we as a nation are at a tipping point, acutely aware of that economic, racial, and gender inequality that prevents us from living the American Dream. As reflected in Obama's last State of the Union address and conversations through mainstream media outlets, our national consciousness is lately focusing in on several inconvenient truths that plague our nation.

For example, recently during the Stop and Frisk trial, New York State Senator Eric Adams testified that NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly “stated that he targeted and focused on that group [African Americans and Latinos] because he wanted to instill fear in them that every time that they left their homes they could be targeted by police." This is just one limb on a tree of oppression that continues to cast shadows of doubt on a brighter future. This tree’s malignant roots seem too deep to dig out. The branches reach into our very souls. Instead of supporting a nest of prosperity and equality, this tree supports the fruit of home foreclosures, spiraling food and gas prices, and the prevention of a living wage, quality schools, gun reform, and affordable health care.

These are just some examples of "American Justice Missing in Action," but more people nationwide are saying “Don’t Tread on Me” as they speak up for equality. They understand the phrase "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," and they are on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere marching, sharing information, and advocating for better policies.

Fierce Urgency of Now We are no longer a silent majority. The Internet, social media, and camera phones have become tools for our freedom of information acts, reinforcing that we are not alone as we seek justice. We can document and share our story faster than zapping a frozen dinner. In fact, there is a wave of media warriors, engaged in the slow boil of  shaping a new society, and restoring justice. They know that “The arc of the universe is long, but bends towards justice.”

Keeping Hope Alive I’m encouraged by the momentum I see gaining across the country. Congress and corporations are being challenged. Outrage is turning into accountability. Together we are, as Ghandi implored, “[b]e[ing] the change we want to see in the world.” Today we can use a composition notebook, a laptop, or a smartphone to communicate our desire for justice. When will justice be restored in America and throughout the world? How can our youth take part in this process and lay the groundwork for themselves as engaged advocates? Stay tuned.


Read More about Kanene Holder and our other alumni here.

Social media and the Egyptian revolt

I’ve been paralyzed for the past few days following the historic events unfolding in Egypt.  I studied in Egypt in 2009, and I spent a year researching the April 6th Youth Movement (A6YM), an Egyptian political opposition group that played a significant role in organizing the initial protests that have since morphed into a national uprising.  There are a few things that my research on social media in Egyptian opposition movements can add to the understanding of what’s happening in Egypt.

Obvious as it may seem, this didn’t “just happen.”

Clearly, the unrest in Egypt was sparked by the apparent successful uprising in Tunisia.  And it is generally understood that economic, political, and social conditions in Egypt have deteriorated over the past thirty years.  Still, one cannot simply draw a straight line from the events in Tunisia to what is happening in Egypt.  An underlying fabric of opposition has existed for years in Egypt, growing larger and more efficient with the aid of social media tools, and it is this existing opposition which made possible the protests that snowballed into open revolt.

So far as opposition politics are concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood tends to draw the most attention in Egypt.  As has been reported though, they were not involved in organizing the initial protest on January 25, but have since joined in.  Instead, it was the Kefaya movement (Arabic for Enough!), and particularly the digitally connected April 6th Youth Movement (A6YM) that pushed for the January 25 protest and got the word out.   You can read about the origins of A6YM and the challenges they face in opposing the Egyptian state here (Wired, 2008) and here (New York Times Magazine, 2009).

Looking back on some of my notes on A6YM, in interviews with its leadership, I was told repeatedly that they are frustrated by the media’s attempts to pigeonhole their movement as merely an internet phenomenon (see “Slacktivism”).  A6YM made it clear that using social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. were extensions and intensifiers of traditional forms of social interactions, not replacements for them.  The bulk of their work is done on the streets, organizing protests through traditional means (flyers, posters, SMS, word of mouth), campaigning at universities, and engaging with neighborhood leaders.  Buzz terms like “Twitter Revolution” steal attention and trend well, but rob the activists of their role in generating street action.

Still, leaders in A6YM understand the important role social media can play in social movements and opposition politics.  The group gets its name from a strike they organized on April 6, 2008.  The Facebook group they created quickly grew to over 70,000 members (today it is over 87,000).  The success of this first strike and the buzz generated provided the group with a pool of people who identified with the aims of A6YM by joining the Facebook group.  On the group’s page are links to its website and Twitter account,  and the email addresses and mobile numbers of local leaders.  A6YM’s social media presence makes it easy for someone who wants to get involved with the group to find the right person to talk to.

Since their founding, A6YM has struggled to duplicate the success they had in generating attention in 2008.  This has less to do with the supposed pitfalls of online organizing (as Malcom Gladwell recently wrote about in the New Yorker, perhaps regrettably) and more to do with the strength of the Egyptian state security apparatus.  Egypt’s emergency law, which has been in effect since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, provides security forces with immense powers, including the ability to arrest and jail without trial, and banning gatherings greater than five people.  Given these powers, small protests and periodic disruptions were simple matters for Egyptian state security.  The open revolt that Egypt now faces changes the calculus that Egyptian security considers when in conflict with opposition.  Put simply, they can’t arrest everyone.

To sum up, social media played a key role and continues to play a key role in organizing opposition.  It is not the opposition, though.  It is both a communication tool and a social relationship intensifier, due to its ability to continue a relationship despite time and distance (think of your Facebook relationship with you aunt in Florida).  Just as businesses and non-profits use social media to sell products and communicate with their constituents, social movements use social media to organize and take action.

And what happens if Mubarak falls?  It seems lots of people want you to believe it will be something like this:


I’m much more optimistic.

Don Gomez is a Colin Powell Fellow alumni.  He graduated from City College with a BA in International Studies in 2010.  He is now attending the School of Oriental and African Studies pursuing an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies.  Twitter: @dongomezjr