Tweets for Liberation

Shay Akil McLean writes of the promise of digital popular education.


December 10, 2014

#BlackLivesMatter as a hashtag, organization, and series of movements has managed to do a lot. BLM is seen as a movement that gives voice to many Black people, not just in the US but across the diaspora. Living in a settler colonial police state that is organized around what Cedric J. Robinson calls “racial capitalism” has very much shaped the experiences of people of color worldwide. The death of Mike Brown was not the first nor will it be the last life claimed by police brutality. The uprising in Ferguson was one of the many boiling points we’ve seen Black communities arrive at after enduring endless violence from police vigilante acts. But now that race is being seen as a hot topic in the media, people from everywhere are weighing in.

What appears to be lacking from the center of the national conversation about racist violence is a strong connection between the public and those who research the social issues impacting their daily lives. One promising way to strengthen such a connection is through popular education, also known as education for liberation. Discussions on #BlackLivesMatter, police brutality, and race relations need to move beyond just hot topics.  While discourse for the sake of discourse seems a lot like improvement, it’s not. We can’t begin to move forward in any way if we aren’t having informed conversations about the impacts of white supremacy, cishetpatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, and settler colonialism on the lives of Black people, as well as Indigenous peoples, killed by police.

The call for informed discussions about inequality can only be met by empowering people through education. One thing that #BlackLivesMatter has managed to do as a collective movement is highlight the need for the people outside of academe to know what is being said about their lives versus the popular notions that we’ve all been told to believe. Contextually accurate historical information enables communities to more effectively organize themselves, produce platforms that move beyond reform, as well as join in solidarity with other communities.

The contextually accurate scholarship being produced in academe doesn’t always reach the very communities impacted by the research topic. As a graduate student and activist, I can see where the disruptions lie. There are issues blocking the public from having access to information from academic gatekeeping, language barriers, paywalls on scientific research, to the defunding of public libraries and the dismantling and defunding of predominately Black schools across the US. Knowledge being made public via social media is an important and crucial means through which people are working to forge that connection between academe and disempowered communities to promote popular education. Popular Education is education for liberation. It was theorized by Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire. Popular education is a process that fosters the empowerment of dominated people to take control of their learning process and contribute to building social change, justice, and equity from the bottom up.

Black Twitter (as a complex number of interactive communities and not a single entity) has changed a lot of the ways in which people create community and share knowledge. There are a number of communities within Black Twitter acting as informed voices of dissent. We’ve seen academics like Dorothy Roberts (@DorothyERoberts), Kimberlé Crenshaw (@sandylocks), Crystal Fleming (@FlemingPhD), Jessie Daniels (@jessienyc), Eric Anthony Grollman (@grollman), Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd), Christopher Emdin (@chrisemdin), Matthew W. Hughey (@ProfHughey) and many others have contribute to discussions about social issues based on their expertise.

You can also find a wide range of reading lists, syllabi, topic discussions, and hashtags around important issues (e.g. #BlackTwitterstorians, #HipHopEdChat, #DATT, #BlackAugustReadingList, #BlackResistanceReadingList, #SaturdaySchool, etc.). These hashtags, storified discussions, Tumblr posts, and other blog pieces are finding ways to realize popular education. Hashtags are not only a means to having discussions but also a useful teaching tool that people organize around to distribute popular education. Making scholarship public through social media is one of the many tools that we see people employing as a means to not only push back against popular narratives in media, but also to amplify the voices of those silenced by intersectional inequities.

And, academics aren’t the only ones chiming in. People across demographics are finding ways to analyze the social issues impacting their lives. There has been a range of digital non-academic and academic knowledge communities formed in attempts to making popular education accessible through digital teach-ins. As a graduate student and activist, I (as well as other students and community members) have worked to make the knowledge we come across accessible to the public. That was the goal of the “Decolonize All The Things Freedom School” (@DATTFreedomSch) that I ran this summer. There was a syllabus, access to all of free reading materials, Twitter chats for discussion, and summaries of the readings written by me and another intellectual activist, Arash Daneshzadeh. I later redesigned the program for online use.   We did our best to avoid difficult language in scholarly text for the program to increase its utility across populations. I, and many others, have used our Twitter accounts to do some of that same work of undoing gatekeeping surrounding academic knowledge.

This year, I attended a couple of academic conferences and noticed a disturbing trend: there is a lot of research about inequality, but most of it is limited to expensive conferences that exclude the public. Researching inequality for the sake of just researching inequality turns social issues into spectacle and inequity into a sort of fetish. It is time for academe to move its research from being “inequality porn” to knowledge in service of the public, knowledge in service of a vision of transformative and restorative justice.

However, relying on an entire institution to provide the education people need to liberate themselves isn’t realistic. The voices of these scholars should not be on the margins of public conversations about the very phenomena influencing the lives of those most affected by it. There are academic intellectuals and community/organic intellectuals who are finding ways to connect and disseminate information crucial to social movements. Making knowledge public through social media is a means through which we can find ways to empower our communities through an informed awareness.

Popular education is what is needed in oppressed communities to foster justice, progressive social change, and equity led by the very communities affected by domination. As stated by Assata Shakur, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.” And, with that understanding, we can see the need for organizing around education through digital platforms to provide the tools that we very rarely receive from the formal institutions that limit or lock us out of participation. Popular education enables oppressed communities to ground their individual troubles in the larger context of the social issues causing them. The promise and potential of digital popular education is to formulate a means of empowering those on the margins with a means to fight back and organize to build equitable communities.


Shay Akil McLean is a sociology Ph.D. student and activist.


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