The best way to help a community help itself, say Dayna Cunningham and Alexa Mills, is to enable its members to find their voices and talk to each other. In several projects in the U.S. and overseas, the two speakers are developing methodologies for enabling communities to express and define themselves, so they may become more engaged in a larger civic and political process.
Cunningham describes her particular focus on African-American civic engagement. She confesses she had “come to the conclusion that the infrastructure of black civic engagement was dead” — and then the U.S. elected its first black president. However, in spite or because of this triumph, she feels there’s more reason than ever to find channels for African-American involvement in the civic process.
Alexa Mills recounts her efforts in two historically black Brooklyn neighborhoods to create community-based media projects. A large Baptist church, the cornerstone of the community, was challenged by various issues of gentrification, and asked Mills to conduct interviews with a diverse group of African- American community members to hear their perspectives. “Their goal is to hear one another before projecting their voice,” says Mills. Although she went into the enterprise imagining organizing the community around affordable housing, she found that instead, there was fierce concern about white people moving in and behaving in an uncivil way: New neighbors wouldn’t say hello as they passed on the street or in buildings. She hopes her interviews and an envisioned future website will help make connections among new and old community members, and ultimately inform the church’s future efforts.
In another project, Mills worked with people in an Eastern Kentucky town who felt oppressed by the destructive environmental behaviors of local coal companies. She helped make a movie about one local man’s fish pond — his life’s work — that was poisoned by mining runoff. The web site designed by a community group hosts lively conversations about this video, and other issues provoked by mining, and partly through this technology, the group is learning to “fight for what it wants,” says Mills.