LA Times Fest of Books explores ‘Selfies for Social Change: Claiming Space in Social Media’

"Selfies for Social Change: Claiming Space in Social Media," presented by USC at the 2021 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (Photo credit: LAT Fest of Books)

Los Angeles — On Saturday, April 17, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books hosted an online discussion called “Selfies for Social Change: Claiming Space in Social Media.” It featured writer and internet creator Jackson Bird, comedian and YouTuber Akilah Hughes and USC assistant professor of journalism Allissa V. Richardson, Ph.D. The webinar was moderated by USC research professor Colin Maclay.

Jackson Bird’s new book is titled “Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out and Finding My Place” while Akilah Hughes’ new book is titled “Obviously: Stories from My Timeline” and Allissa V. Richardson’s new book is titled “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones & the New Protest #Journalism”.

Moderator Colin Maclay: I’m super excited to dig into this multimedia mix of discliplines and practices and explore all kinds of things from the world of memoir witnessing the value power and limits of social media, humor and culture and wherever else we go. If I could ask each of you to gloss the main ideas. I know this is hundreds of pages and years of work just a few sentences. Tell us a bit about your book, the ideas, where it came from and what we should know.

Jackson Bird: “My book, ‘Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out and Finding My Place’. A fun fact behind the scenes about this book title is we went back and forth on the sub title forever and I still get it wrong when I do events on this book. It is a memoir about the first 30 years of my life mostly through the lens of figuring out my gender. It is about coming out and in addition to telling my own story and it has a lot of little educational sidebars within the book, because I am very aware, as a Trans person of two things: One that unfortunately knowledge about Trans people is sort of a new thing so sometimes it feels like we need to come with a glossary and also that all Trans people have very different narratives and very different experiences and relationships to their identity. I didn’t want my story to be the only one that people were hearing. I wanted it to be a jumping off place for anyone whose story of a Trans person they are engaging with. There’s my story and a little bit of extra information as well.”

Jackson Bird’s new book is titled “Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out and Finding My Place” (Photo credit: LAT Festival of Books)

Akilah Hughes: “My book is called ‘Obviously: Stories from My Timeline.’ I also went back and forth on what the subtitle would be and we thought, that’s a cute little play on social media like Instagram stories and your timeline. The book is actually about essays from my life, comedic essays about growing up in Kentucky in a place that is not especially diverse at the same time that the internet was becoming a huge force for Democracy in general. It was democratizing what people are able to do and say and opinions but also at a very crucial time in this country where we’re about to have a Black president and 9/11 just happened. I am a Millennial if you couldn’t tell and it’s kind of the story of what it means to be not seen in your own community but building communities online where you can be seen and hopefully help others be seen as well.”

Allissa V. Richardson: “My book is ‘Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones & the New Protest #Journalism.’ In it, I really trace the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement and follow around 15 of its original activists who are day ones as they call themselves and really delve into how they use cell phones and social media to build a movement from the ground up. What we saw last summer was really the result of nearly eight years of work and it just kind of flourished from a hashtag. I go into how each of these amazing people had organizing power before, how they were trained and battle tested on various smaller campaigns and eventually joined forces, if you will, to create this huge following that they have now that we [call] the largest social justice movement in America. Last summer, when I thought of everyone’s cell phone in the air and what it means to look and what we do after we have looked, that’s what this book tries to answer. What are the pros and cons of having visual proof of brutality against African Americans.”

Moderator Colin Maclay: While your book is scholarly, you also appear in it. You don’t kind of write yourself out of the story in a kind of meadow way.

Allissa V. Richardson: “Absolutely. Ten years ago I started this MOJO Lab as I love to call it. The Morgan MOJO Lab was a mobile journalism lab that I started at HBCU Morgan State University. In Baltimore, we were experimenting 10 years ago with what are the limits of this tiny device that you have in your pocket. Can you do news with it? I took my students around the world to experiment with organizations like Global Girl Media. Global Girl Media had a branch in South Africa and that’s really our first international bureau that we experimented with this technology in. I really saw from the continent, had a front row seat, as the Arab Spring began just how powerful these cell phones would be. As I was watching dispatches from Egypt, Indonesia, Libya, I got back home after that and thought, ‘wow, I need to start writing up what I’m seeing’ so I’m included in the book in an almost 10 year journey of figuring out how can the cell phone revolutionize how we tell stories, how it can create counter narratives and how can it counter when official sources lie. That is a lot of what’s going on in the book, too.”

Allissa V. Richardson’s new book is titled “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones & the New Protest #Journalism”. (Photo credit: LAT Festival of Books)

Moderator Colin Maclay: Akilah, this is exactly what you do in your book. You kind of give your personal version from where you started making videos and what that’s like and integrating humor kind of thinking of humor and social justice and how that emerges in your practice and becomes your channel.

Akilah Hughes: “In my experience of just being a Black woman, you have to have a sense of humor about things because things are often terrible. So I felt like the humor part of it was second nature. It’s how you have to tell your story, how you can process some of the traumas of living in a society that doesn’t value you at the same level as other people. There’s an essay in my book called ‘Racism to a 15-Year-Old Girl’ because I remember, obviously, I’ve experienced racism in my life to varying degrees. But I remember in high school feeling like such an outsider and having no sort of media representing what that felt like in particular. Like being the only black kid in the year 2003. You still don’t feel the progress that everybody talks about in Black History Month has affected you personally. To that extent, I definitely put myself into the story. But I went into writing this book for young adults knowing that this was a book I wish existed when I was younger because I never felt like there was someone like me or had the same thoughts or was on the same websites. I needed to express that it’s OK to feel like you’re alone because you’re definitely not.”

Akilah Hughes’ new book is titled “Obviously: Stories from My Timeline” (Photo credit: LAT Festival of Books)

Moderator Colin Maclay: Jackson, do you feel that parallels yours? It sounds to me to be pretty familiar.

Jackson Bird: “Akilah said everything better than I probably could (laughs). It is very similar especially about what you were saying about being the only Black kid at your school and for me, from my earliest days having these feelings of I should have been assigned male at birth but I didn’t have the language for it, I didn’t have anyone to represent that in my life. As I got older, I kind of learned that Trans woman exist because the media showed inaccurate portrayals of Trans women when I was a kid like in the ‘90s. There was nothing of Trans men. So literally I did not know that Trans men existed. I’m not the only one. Anyone that was my age on up, that was basically their experience for Trans men growing up just not knowing that anyone else felt what you felt that there was nothing wrong with you. To be able to help share my story, add to the story so that kids coming up now have someone to look to and be like, ‘Oh, people like me exist and I can have a future. Here are the things I can do to feel better.’ It’s just massive—both in my books and on YouTube. That’s why I do it. It’s very much like what you said Akilah about sort of being that representation that I didn’t have when I was a kid. I’m very grateful to be a part of a huge movement of Trans people sharing their stories now.”

Visit the L.A. Times Bookshop to purchase copies of all three books mentioned above:

Watch: “Selfies for Social Change: Claiming Space in Social Media,” presented by USC

Video by The Los Angeles Times

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