Allied Media Projects: Creative communications for the future

It’s almost that time again: every summer since 2007, media makers (and reformers), social justice activists, radical educators and librarians, technologists, youth organizers, artists, and musicians from around the country gather in Detroit for the Allied Media Conference (AMC).

Their mission is to explore how participatory media are (and yet could be) used to create a more just and creative world. Members of this diverse and expanding "network of networks" come together to organize and strategize, and to share stories, information, and tools. They envision a future in which greater numbers of people can access and use empowering technologies to tell their own stories, and to start meaningful conversations about issues relevant to their communities.

The AMC originated in 1999 in Bowling Green, OH as the Midwest 'Zine Conference. It’s currently coordinated by Allied Media Projects (AMP), an organization that emerged out of the conference in Bowling Green and later moved it to Detroit (in part because of the city’s long history of community organizing and grassroots media production).

AMP’s small staff works out of the Furniture Factory in the Cass Corridor, in a vibrant space designed to foster interaction and collaboration. (Think pods, not cubicles.) Hosting the annual conference is the most visible work they do, but their other, lesser known and locally focused projects, Detroit Future Media (DFM) and Detroit Future Schools (DFS), are remarkable, and well worth a closer look.

Both projects are about fundamentally changing the city: "One of our goals is to transform Detroit’s economy into a media based one," Operations and Outreach Manager Adriel Thornton says. "One way to do that is through Detroit Future Media. We’re also concerned with transforming education in the city. That’s Detroit Future Schools."

Detroit Future Media, an 18-week "train the trainer" digital media course, emerged organically from needs that arose after the Allied Media Conference. Co-Director Jenny Lee described how local individuals and community organizing groups would obtain technology training at the conference, then approach AMP for more once it was over. AMP itself couldn’t meet that need, and found few individuals in Detroit who could. Such educators would need to possess robust digital media skills and the ability to teach people with varying levels of comfort with technology, as well as the larger vision of using media for social justice and transformation. Program Director Janel Yamashiro puts it bluntly: "Folks who have these skills leave."

"There was this clear need," Lee says, "and each year the conference would grow the need, but not the capacity to meet it. So we wondered: what would it look like to design a trainer’s program that could grow our capacity to meet this need in Detroit?"

After a successful application for federal funding through BTOP, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (made available through the 2009 American Recovery & Reinvestment Act), they were able to design and implement their innovative program.

Students between the ages of 18-88 who are accepted into DFM have demonstrated that they have a strong vision for Detroit’s future and have considered how they will address specific problems in their communities. They take media training courses centered on one of three major tracks: entrepreneurship, education, or social justice organizing. Each track includes web design, graphic design, and video production education.

"The purpose of the program is to support and build capacity for the grassroots organizing community in Detroit, recognizing that online media helps economic sustainability," Yamashiro says. She came to Detroit in 2004, finding "all these people who wanted websites, videos, graphics -- who basically wanted to enter into the digital age but couldn’t. The more media makers we have who are brought online in a meaningful way, the more truly representative the Internet will be."

To that point, AMP Co-Director Diana Nucera says, "The most beautiful part of DFM is the intergenerational diversity of students," citing the incomparable value of young people, for instance, observing how an 80 year-old makes a website. "The way (an 80 year old) approaches websites is completely different from how you or I do," Yamashiro says. "And we’re trying to build a healthy digital ecology that sees all these nuances and complexities. We can’t see it all ourselves, but all these different perspectives make it possible."

Like just about everything AMP does, Detroit Future Media is heavily hands on, with built-in opportunities for students to connect with organizations that need help. Participants who completed the education track last year all had the opportunity to apply for a position with Detroit Future Schools (DFS) this year, the new AMP project dedicated to transforming education in Detroit and Hamtramck Public Schools.

Eight DFM graduates were paired with 15 teachers in an attempt to "reinvent the purpose and practice of education in Detroit to prepare the future builders of a more just, creative, and collaborative world," Jenny Lee says. The goal is to use digital media training "to foster students' sense of agency and power to define their own futures, then take that agency outside the classroom, into their neighborhoods, families, lives, and transform the city."

What skills are taught through DFM, and how, vary by teacher, DFM graduate, and the age of the students. I had the opportunity to visit Western International High School to talk with six remarkable eleventh grade students in the program to get a better sense of how it works. Our conversation was facilitated by Danielle Filipiak, their engaged and imaginative teacher at Western, and Isaac Miller, the DFM grad who’s worked closely with them all year. Filipiak says that the English course uses critical pedagogy, literary analysis, and new media production to explore three essential questions: "What’s the relationship between language and power, and how does that manifest itself in my life? What role does education play in the health of a community? How can I use my literacy practice to rewrite my world?"

The students have been considering these questions as they read books taught in high school English classrooms all over the country (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Night by Eli Wiesel, for instance). Then they consider them again, from the perspective of their own lives in Detroit. With Miller’s (and each other’s) help, they explore the questions through digital collages made with open source graphic design software, and produce videos about their experiences living in Detroit and their hope for its future. They write research papers, too, but Filipiak and Miller are especially interested in bringing the students' attention to the "ways that digital media are transforming them as human beings." You can see documentation of the first half of the school year, as well a more thorough discussion of Filipiak’s pedagogical methods and engagement with DFS, here.

It was evident that the students I met were in the process of developing valuable technology skills, of course, but also extraordinarily sharp analytical skills and a powerful sense of their individual ability to investigate, understand, and change their communities. And in their egalitarian classroom, where Filipiak encourages open, productive self-expression, they’re developing empathy too. "I hate video, audio, computers, all that," Raychel Gafford admits. "But doing it helped me learn stuff about communication. You have to keep an open mind and your ideas can’t overshadow others. You have to consider what other people feel too."

"In other classes," Maria Lopez says, "people make you feel dumb, that you’re wrong. (In this class), we all know that we can have our own opinions and that’s OK." In other classes, Keejanae Moore says, "you just go and do your work. And people fight all the time. Here, it’s easier to get along and learn from each other."

The students' perspectives reminded me of something that Jenny Lee says about Allied Media Projects in general: "We’re not training people in the one-way communication streams that traditional media provide. We don’t really think that if everyone could tell their own story, everything would suddenly be better. It’s the process that’s important, the face to face conversations and relationships that emerge through it."
And the process, these inspiring and empowered young Detroiters make clear, is working.

Matthew Piper authors the Model D series on sustainabilityGreen City Diaries.

Photos by 
Marvin Shaouni Photography

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Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at