Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Learning Cultural Competency through Social Media

What if there was a place where we could learn more about the experiences of people who are totally different from us? Where we could hear directly, in their own words, what they love, hate, fear, desire, dream?

There is that place. It is called the Web.

I don't care who you are interested in learning more about--people of a particular race/ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, physical ability, generation, sexual orientation--there is a bubble on the Web populated by them. People often complain that social media can become an echo chamber to reinforce pre-existing beliefs and expectations. It's true. The extreme atomization and diversity of media sources can enable people to burrow into mirrored caves.

But most of the Web is open. Which means you can go into whatever cave you want--including those occupied by people who come from different worlds from you.

Earlier this spring, I decided to go on a mission to use social media to increase my cultural competency around Latino experiences, issues, and interests. At our museum, we're making a big effort to increase our engagement with local Latino families. Alongside work we are doing locally with specific neighborhoods, individuals, and organizations, I wanted to use the Web to learn more about Latino issues generally.

I didn't do anything fancy; I just shifted my informal news diet. I eliminated some blogs and podcasts from my reading list that reinforced information I already knew. I took a break from my regular diet of feminist-tinted news. I used the time I had carved out to tap into new sources related to the Latino experience and people of color.

How did I find these sources? I started by:
  • subscribing to some mainstream aggregators, like Huffington Post Latino Voices, Latino USA, Colorlines, Codeswitch
  • reaching out to Salvador Acevedo, a brilliant marketing strategist who focuses on Latinos. Salvador gave me suggestions of websites and influencers to check out. I spent a few hours hunting around and subscribed to a few that related to my interests.
  • following a few hashtags and people associated with these sources on Twitter, checking out the lists of who they follow, and adding more people to my Twitter feed through their networks.
That's it. It's not a complex educational activity. I'm not segmenting or diving into very specific areas. I'm wading in the waters of someone else's media landscape. 

In three months of doing this passively, I've already noticed some specific changes to my work practice. Here are just two examples:
  1. It has made us more savvy surveyors. There has been a lot of coverage in the Latino/PoC mediaverse about how Latinos self-identify racially on the US census. Blog posts like this one--which I probably never would have seen in my old news diet--have informed conversations at our museum about how we ask visitors to identify in demographic surveys. We are in a year of developing assessment tools for our programming, so this issue is highly relevant to our work, and these news sources help us address weaknesses in our approach.
  2. It has influenced exhibition content. I'm neck-deep in a redevelopment of our permanent history gallery about Santa Cruz County. Reading news from a Latino perspective has helped me consistently encounter non-dominant ways to look at California history. Yes, these narratives are also present in some of the advisory discussions and reference materials we are using in developing exhibition content. But hearing those counter-narratives reinforced daily in my news diet builds confidence in them and makes me more thoughtful about how to frame historical issues of immigration, labor, culture clash, and racism in the exhibition context.
Again, I don't want to suggest that this approach is ground-breaking or intensive. It's not. But it IS easy, and I have found it to be powerful as a context shift.

I spent years immersed in a feminist media landscape. I consumed news, pop culture, and media through that lens. Now, I'm trying out someone else's media landscape. I'm noticing how that lens is showing me things I didn't see before. It's focusing my attention differently. It's turning the Web into a window instead of a mirror.
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