Memories and Perspectives of the OURMedia Network
by Alfonso Gumucio Dagron
The only reason for being invited to address this opening session of OURMedia 6 in Sydney is that I am the only one in the network who has had the opportunity of attending the five conferences of OURMedia organised in the past. I was part of the initial group that met in 2001, and I’ve witnessed the growth of the network and its expansion to other regions. This gives me the opportunity to be more conscious of the risks and opportunities that the network has to face from now on.
This is the sixth conference. We started in 2001, in Washington D.C., with a one-day preconference, preceding the International Communication Association (ICA) conference. About 50 people, mainly from North America, South America, Australia and Europe, met for the first time with the idea of creating a network of academics and activists to discuss and work on issues of community media, alternative media, citizens’ media or radical media, as some might call it. Clemencia Rodriguez, John Downing and Nick Couldry, the organisers, were instrumental in putting the initial group together.
In 2002 we met again, this time in Barcelona, Spain, and the group was enriched with the participation of new colleagues, although it was still a small group. Once again, the OURMedia meeting preceded a larger congress, this time the International Association of Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). The obvious reason for doing some of our conferences along with a larger event, ICA or IAMCR, is that most of our colleagues from universities in Europe, North America and Australia, would get funding for their air tickets. Otherwise it would have been difficult to meet. A few other colleagues from Third World countries benefited from a grant that OURMedia got from the Ford Foundation for the first two years, which was later renewed for a third year. Our Web site was established with the help of John Higgins, and many colleagues contributed with documents and photos.
New and interesting developments took place in 2003, when my suggestion to meet for the first time in a country in the southern hemisphere, Colombia, was supported by my Latin American colleagues and accepted by all in the network. The OURMedia 3 meeting was not organised along with a larger conference, but together with a national communication conference with active participation of Colombian communication scholars, activists and students. For the first time we had a real local partner -- the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla. This meant a whole new development for OURMedia, since the organisation of the conference was shared with local institutions, increasing conference attendance. We had more interaction with local colleagues than in any of the two previous meetings, and we had, for the first time, the opportunity to visit local projects and initiatives of social development. This was the first time that an OURMedia conference extended over two days and included field visits.
Encouraged by the experience, we held OURMedia 4 in Brazil. We met in Porto Alegre, the city that is famous for hosting the World Social Forum, where social movements of the world have met almost every year. OURMedia 4 conference linked again with an IAMCR conference; however, we received local support from activist groups who organised field trips, ICT laboratories, a live community radio on the campus of the university, a media lab and other parallel activities. For the first time our programme extended over three days, including the conference and field trip. More practitioners and activists joined OURMedia, compared to the first two meetings which were attended mainly by academics.
OURMedia 5 took place in Bangalore, India. It was the first time an OURMedia conference was held in Asia, and the first time it was organised outside of the Western world. In fact, I remember when we suggested in Porto Alegre that Asia should be next, some colleagues reacted saying: “it’s is too far.” I replied: “Too far from where?” However it became feasible, thanks to the initial contacts of Ellie Rennie, Jo Tacchi and Dorothy Kidd, among others, and made possible by the Indian committee that was later formed, and with the contributions of Juan Salazar and few other members from the international committee.
This was the first time an OURMedia conference was not tied to any other event, national or international, and it stood on its own feet. Also, it was the first time the organisation of the conference was largely in the hands of the hosting country, led by a group of local institutions, mainly Voices (an NGO) and the United Theological College, where the conference was held. The group was not very large. However it was the first time that we held a four-day conference, including the field trip to Budikote to visit a Voices project of community radio and computer centre. It was also the first time a declaration was issued from an OURMedia conference, stating our main principles and calling attention to threats against the right to communicate in various countries of the world.
The “Firsts” of OURMedia 6 in Sydney
There are several important firsts for this meeting in Sydney:
- This is the first time the conference was organised in the South Pacific.
- The first time that it will last five days, including a one-day visit to Information and Cultural Exchange (ICE), a NGO working with young people from diverse cultural backgrounds. (If we continue adding one day to every conference, we may end up with two weeks before we notice. )
- This is the first time the conference was organised in thematic “streams.” We have 10 of them, each convened by one or two “ourmedians” (I just made up the word). Each stream handles three or four panels, and each panel includes from four to six presentations, plus discussion time.
- The total number of presentations, including those at the six plenary sessions, adds up to about 250, which is also by far a first in OURMedia: We never had so many before.
- For the first time, we have a printed programme (92 pages), and a beautiful flyer. Most of this was done through the hard work of Juan Salazar and the local committee.
- Artists with a profile of activists have joined the network and are present at the conference: The role of artists in social change will, without doubt, become increasingly important from now on in our network. The one-day video session (with examples from Japan, Timor Leste, Korea, Australia and Colombia, among others), is proof there is much to share in terms of alternative productions.
- But above all, the major “first” this time is the number of countries represented. In spite of Australia been “down under” and “too far,” we have no fewer than 35 countries represented by the 600 registered participants.
Why OURMedia is important?
I would like to repeat what I said at Bangalore in 2005 about the future and perspectives of OURMedia. This is a network of academics and activists, people involved in communication and social change, who recognise that a big gap still exists between the academic studies on communication and the needs for social change.
Most university departments self-labelled as “social communication” are narrowly oriented to conventional mass media: press, television, radio, as well as advertising, public relations and marketing. My rough estimate is that these universities produce 50,000 new journalists each year. Out of 2,000 “social communication” departments or faculties around the world, I found scarcely 15 that have programmes specifically related to communication for social change and development, some at the graduate level, some at the master’s degree level, and some at the Ph.D. level. Only one academic institution offers communication for development programmes at the three levels: the University of the Philippines at Los Bańos. These 15 universities are training a new generation of communicators for social change.
It is important to establish the difference between a journalist and a communicator, as I see it. Whereas a journalist uses the media he or she has been trained for (radio, TV or print), and decides on the content of an article, a documentary or a poster, a communicator has the capacity and motivation to be a facilitator of social change, and he or she is equipped with something very few journalists have: a strategic perspective of communication for development and the conviction that communication is not about messages but about processes of transformation and social change. Where a journalist will be able to write articles and prepare radio programmes and messages on tuberculosis or AIDS, for example, a communicator will be able to facilitate a national strategy to combat TB or prevent HIV/AIDS, using various forms of communication and media, but above all, involving, through participation and dialogue, the communities and institutions concerned with the issue.
The cruel paradox is that while most of universities keep training journalists, the need of communicators for social change is enormous. The demand from development projects and the offerings from universities do not meet. When I was in charge of the communication and information programme in UNICEF Nigeria, during the early 1990s, and later in UNICEF Haiti, I couldn’t find communicators when I needed them. I received dozens of CVs from good journalists, but they had no experience working with communities. I didn’t need a good writer or a good designer as much as I needed someone who could facilitate a process of participatory communication.
Most of us, communicators for development and social change, were actually trained by working during many years at the community level with participatory approaches. Many of my colleagues with a similar profile come from fields other than journalism; they come from rural extension work, from health work, from social activism. I am myself a filmmaker by training, and a journalist by practice. However, the communities I’ve worked with have trained me as a communicator.
This shows why OURMedia is so important. OURMedia has the opportunity to contribute to building the bridge between the practice of communication for social change and the way communication is taught in academic institutions. OURMedia can help to bridge the gap between demand and offerings.
Looking at the Moving Horizon
The horizon is always a moving target: The more we approach it, the farther away it moves. But that is the beauty of it, because, if we ever catch up with the horizon, there would be no more room for dreams.
I said in 2005 that the fifth conference of OURMedia in Bangalore was a turning point. From then on, OURMedia would gather new strength to continue or collapse and die. It depended on us and it will continue depending on the commitment of this collective of academics and practitioners. Nobody else out there will care about the future of OURMedia as much as we who made the effort to sustain it for seven years. Some colleagues have disengaged and others will follow, partly because of fatigue, partly because they embraced other projects, other dreams. Nevertheless, maybe this continuous renewal of the OURMedia network constitutes its main potential.
Although it had not been a common practice in previous OURMedia meetings, I suggested in Bangalore that the conference should craft a short declaration on our horizon in the future; a declaration that should also mention our rejection of discrimination policies that prevented some of our colleagues from Colombia from attending the conference. This time, we may want to draft a letter from Sydney, to our colleagues that could not attend and to the rest of the participatory communication community in the world.
I want to emphasize that the active and critical participation of every one in this meeting is crucial. We are all equal participants here, with the same rights, even if this is the first time you are participating. Everyone should express her and his views, critical as they may be. We need to think together as a network.
OURMedia conferences are not the same as other conferences, where everyone comes to tell the others about the great work she or he is doing in his or her research, country or community. The accounts of concrete experiences are useful, but we need to go further into discussing the principles that guide our work in communication for social change. This conference should not be a series of monologues and reports, but a true discussion on the ideas that drive us forward. As much as we want to learn about what the others are doing, we need to be more substantial.
Sharing information is fine, but establishing a dialogue of ideas and ideals is even better.