Rewriting the Future of a Free and Just Press with Media 2070’s Alicia Bell

Alicia Bell is director of Media 2070. What started as a research essay detailing the role that media has played in anti-black racism and harm has grown into a free press and a growing consortium of media makers and activists, collectively working toward media reparations.

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We’ve talked at some length this season about the role of the media — all kinds of media — in fostering hate and division, and the massive opportunity that exists in our communication spaces to lift one another, to repair, to rebuild. Our guest this week is someone whose steeped in a major movement to rewrite media’s story in our society.

Alicia Bell is director of Media 2070. What started as a research essay detailing the role that media has played in anti-Black racism and harm has grown into a growing consortium of media makers and activists, collectively working toward media reparations. What does Media 2070 say about themselves?

This work is an effort to radically transform who has the capital to tell their own stories by 2070 — 50 years from today. This work is an idea, welcoming critique and feedback. It is liberation work within a lineage of civil-rights activism, racial-justice organizing and calls for reparations.

This work makes visible the ways in which the media have taken part in and supported state violence and harm against Black people.

Anti-Blackness is a global issue and we will never build the critical mass to transform our culture if we don’t marshal the political and cultural resources required to address it in our media, first. Alicia and her team are not just talking and writing about the need for reparations, they’re actively working on that change. They partnered with more than twenty lawmakers to call on the FCC to examine how media-related policies have harmed black communities and other people of color. They’ve created tools for newsrooms and journalists to assess their own cultural norms, and pledge to build more radically inclusive practices. They’ve presented the need for culture change in a way media itself never could have done.

Alicia is at the heart of this reckoning, one designed to move newsrooms to a place that can care for and support all people in the community and finally address the issue of anti-Blackness that has been present in our media for hundreds of years.

We can’t wait to introduce you to this powerful force standing up for the future of a free and just press, Alicia Bell of Media 2070.

Links & Notes

Episode Transcript

Carrie Fox: Hi there and welcome to the Mission Forward podcast, where each week we bring you a thought provoking and perspective shifting conversation on the world around us. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and Certified B Corporation. We have such a special guest with us today. Someone who is literally working on the ground floor of rewriting the role of media in society. Alicia Bell is Director of Media 2070, which is both a project of Free Press, a research essay detailing the role that media has played in anti-Black racism and harm, and a growing consortium of media makers and activists, collectively working toward media reparations. Alicia and her team are not just talking about the need for reparations, they’re actively working toward it. They just partnered with more than 20 lawmakers to call on the FCC to examine how media related policies have harmed Black communities and other people of color. This is serious and needed stuff we’re talking about here. The reality is that anti-Blackness is a global issue, and we will never build a critical mass to transform our culture if we don’t address it in our media first. Alisha is at the heart of this critically important reckoning, one that is designed to move newsrooms to a place that can care for and support all people in the community, and that can finally address the issue of anti-Blackness that has been present in our media for hundreds of years. Stay tuned for this powerful conversation to dream up media reparations with Alicia Bell of Media 2070. As I read and dig more into Media 2070, and I re-read the essay over the weekend, and we’ll make sure that folks who are listening have a link to that, but I continue to not just think, but very deeply believe, that you all are leading one of the most important movements of our time, and dare I say maybe even of all time, to transform media. And that transformation includes a call for media reparations, which I hope and suspect we’re going to break down what that means a bit more in today’s conversation. But really, it feels like what’s happening here is a much broader call for an entirely new media culture. One that moves newsrooms, as you’ve said, to a place that can care for and support all people in the community, and that finally, hopefully fully, addresses the issue of anti-Blackness that has been present in our media for hundreds of years. So there’s a lot that want to get to in this 30 minutes, but I first want to just start by having you talk a little bit about you, how you came to this work, and introduce us to Media 2070.

Alicia Bell: I really appreciate that overview, Carrie, because it is, reparations, we talk a lot about it being a destination, but also a pathway with several destinations on the way. And the ultimate destination is this one where there is a media system and a culture surrounding media news and information that is caring, that is feeling, that is reparative in and of itself, that is a constant kind of reparative culture that is acknowledging harm when it happens and gets more practice and skill at doing that. But to answer the first question of who I am, [inaudible 00:03:59] coming into this work, my name is Alicia Bell and I’m currently the Media 2070 Director at Free Press. And I came into working in and around media news and information, and I really kind of happened upon it. I don’t come from a media background. I don’t come from a journalism background. My background is mostly in advocacy, organizing, education, and I have always been around what I now know are culture creators. So maybe that was artists, creative folks, folks who were curating events or gatherings or things like that. And it’s been this thing that’s kind of just been on the side of everything I’ve done. So I’ve done my work and my education and my professional work, and then also would be in these artistic spaces or these creative spaces. And so through that, all of those kinds of things led me back to North Carolina, which is my home state. And in North Carolina, I was working at a coffee shop with a local nonprofit who was building up the coffee shop as a way to build mentorship and skill building for the working class communities of color here in Charlotte. And through that work, I began mapping out the community because folks are coming through. Folks are having events. Folks were wanting coffee. People were having meetings in the space, all of those things that you do when you want to support a nonprofit and you also want coffee. And so through that, I got connected to folks who were running a listserv about progressive organizing jobs, and I saw a role on there for Free Press. And I had been looking for things that were organizing based because I wanted to expand so much of this work. And when I saw the work of Free Press, it was launching a project in North Carolina called News Voices, which aims to make the space between communities and newsrooms smaller through relationship building. And so I saw this, and I knew that I knew how to organize, and I knew I knew how to build community, but I didn’t know anything about journalism, or media, or media justice, or any of these things. So I applied. I have the things they want, but there’s a lot I don’t know. And I was surprised, every time I got called back for an interview, I was shocked. And I was in between doing research, so I’m like, what is this movement? What is happening? And asking my partners so many questions, because they’re so much more skilled and knowledgeable about tech and media and the digital sphere. So I’d be like, "Okay, I heard about net neutrality, what does that mean?" And so it was my partner who would tell me all these things, And so, Free Press hired me, and had it not been for that, I don’t know if I would be doing the same kind of work around media and community building, and community making through news and information that I’m doing now. And the way that I learned journalism was the way that you organize. When you organize, you have one-on-one conversations with people, you ask them what they care about, what their goals are, what their intentions are, and that’s what I did with journalists. I set up a lot of coffee meetings with journalists to say, "What is it that you want to do? Why do you do this?" And that’s what brought me into this work initially.

Carrie Fox: You know what I loved so much about that is that you touched on a theme that we’ve heard in other conversations on Mission Forward, and actually we talked about it in the conversation with Jada Ping too, that you mentioned you don’t come from a media background and yet you have created something that the media needed, and has needed for so long, but almost was too close to it, but couldn’t do it for itself. Maybe you brought an outside perspective that allowed you to work with this team and collaborate in a way that maybe wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have someone who had truly a fresh and outside perspective.

Alicia Bell: Yeah, when I’m doing newsroom trainings, I often tell that the newsrooms, I’m the person who you were trying to engage before. When we’re talking about community engagement and we’re talking about what’s possible, for me, it’s very much I’m thinking about what did my grandmother need from newsrooms, and what did my sister need, and what do my neighbors need? Because that is a space I’ve been in forever. But I do think it influences so much how I think about moving around the news and media, and also what feels possible in this space.

Carrie Fox: Then pickup on that, and to get us a layer deeper into the conversation, I want to start with your vision, which you outlined at least in part, on last week’s, so June 16th’s Free Press live discussion. And so you were talking about how you envision a future where Black dreams are fulfilled in abundance, and that we’ve been able to facilitate that dream because we have shifted the culture of media across all forms. And I told you, I was going to read you back to you, because as you were talking that stuck with me so deeply, because you touched on something that we have known for so long, see it right in front of us, and yet almost haven’t had the muscle or skill to disrupt it. But it’s how we connect with one another, how we build relationships with one another. So much of that reality is the media we create and the media that informs the culture that we are in. So I just want you to talk a little more about that vision that you have and how you are driving that vision through Media 2070.

Alicia Bell: At its best, media is a community center and a community hub because it is a place where all kinds of people can connect and overlap with each other. When I think about newsrooms, and journalism, and the ways that there are coverage and stories about art, and stories about food, and stories about politics, and all of these different things. That is such an overlap, I mean, that’s a kitchen table, those are all the conversations that happen at a kitchen table. And so at its best, that’s what journalism is, and I think the thing that makes it that way is that, the thing I love about information and news, is that it has the ability to shrink the space between community members. So there’s so much, like urban sprawl and gentrification and displacement and all kinds of things, just the way that we build community is so different. The relationships we have with our neighbors are different in a lot of ways, in a lot of spaces. And so the thing I love about news and information is that it can make that space smaller and it can help us understand each other more, and it can help us understand what’s going on in the context for what’s going on. So when I think about some of the White elders in my life and the things I’ve had to talk to them about in terms of just understanding Blackness and Black experience, there’s only so much I’m able to do in a one-on-one conversation or a one-on-one relationship, but that work has been so fruitful. And I’ve been in conversation with some of them who are retired now, and they’re like, "But now I have all this information, and what do I do with it?" And so I think about that a lot with news and with journalism, because I think there’s so much there that if, there are folks who have contacts and have knowledge and still don’t want all people to be well, and don’t want all people to have access to equity and economic mobility, thriving, and justice and all of that. But for a lot of people, they just don’t have the context and the knowledge and information, and so I see the way that the media does that. Media creates the culture and it’s not, it’s both journalism, but all kinds of media. So when I am talking to folks in the entertainment industry who are working with writer’s rooms, and they’re saying that those writer’s rooms are pulling from news articles to kind of determine what the story or the script is going to be, then that, to me, showcases the interweaving, even between these parts of media that don’t see themselves connected, between Hollywood and your local newsroom. And that creates public opinion, it creates perceptions of what’s acceptable and what’s right, and what’s wrong. And a lot of times, kind of focused on organizing spaces, and academic spaces as well. We’ll talk about this over [inaudible 00:13 window of what’s possible right now, what policy is possible, what programs are possible, and it’s media, in a lot of ways, that creates that. And then, it’s impacted by itself. So when we think about all the workers rights and labor rights issues that are happening in so many newsrooms, and the pace at which a newsroom works, and the ability to speak up or not, so much of that is created by the culture that old media has created. And so it ends up also just not, it’s not even self-serving in that way, because some of the cultures that get created don’t even serve the journalists that are a part of them. That’s one of the things that is important about how we create change and how we create a world that is free of anti-Blackness and free all different kinds of oppressions. We have to think intentionally about the culture that we’re contributing towards, as writers, as journalists, as poets, as actors, as publishers, all of these folks. And think about whether the actions that we’re taking over time are contributing to that culture or not. And a lot of times I just see that there’s not intention, it’s not there, because folks aren’t always thinking of themselves as nodes of that culture, and are instead thinking about just, I have to do this reporting work, I have to do this thing that I was assigned to do, or I’ve seen this happen this way, and then that’s what I’m going to do, without kind of contextualizing it in a larger way.

Carrie Fox: Yeah, and to that point on intention, and maybe starting to pull in movement, that there potentially has been intention for some time, but it’s almost as if the movement hasn’t been big enough, or great enough, or disruptive enough, and that we have been on this cycle. I’ve heard you talk about every 50 years, there’s something in the movement that happens, and I think it’s in part tied to why you chose the name Media 2070. So, talk to us a little bit about what has happened in that every 50 year cycle that we’ve been in, and how maybe Media 2070 is the disruptor in that cycle.

Alicia Bell: Yeah, fingers crossed, that’s the goal, we’re trying. There has been so much labor over time, especially amongst Black and Indigenous and other folks of color who have been media makers and have been in all different fields, who have been journalists, to try to shift what’s possible and shift that space. And I honestly do not think that our call for media reparations currently wouldn’t be possible had it not been for that work. Even when we say, okay, diversity equity and inclusion initiatives have to be oriented towards reparations or have to be oriented toward something bigger than a single tactic or a single initiative, I also have to acknowledge that were it not for all of the diversity initiatives, were it not for all of the representation initiatives that have happened throughout the past few decades, that my work right now would not be possible. And so I have so much thanks and so much gratitude for that work. When we think about situating the year 2070, it does start for us in the early 1920s in Chicago. So during that 1919-1921 time period, we saw that there were so many race riots and uprisings happening across the US. And also what we know about uprisings in the US is that they tend to mirror global uprisings and contribute to global uprisings as well. So there were these movements happening across the US, and in Chicago there was a commission brought together to study the Chicago race riots and figure out what was contributing to them, and what the commission found was that journalism played a huge role in perpetuating segregation, and then perpetuating anti-Blackness and racism, because of the language that they use, because of the stories that they told, because of the structure. And so they made recommendations to try to mitigate that. By and large, the recommendations were not met, the newsrooms did not do that, there were some things where they were like, "Use the word Negro instead of using a racial slur." And some of those things changed, but for the most part, the recommendations didn’t change. And so that’s why you see, 50 years later, in 1968, the Kerner Commission comes and studied the racial uprisings that were happening across the country, this was a federal commission this time, and say almost entirely the exact same things that the Chicago Commission found. And the recommendations were also very similar. I mean, in the community relations committee that was contributing to, and a part of the Kerner Commission, was talking about the ways that there was no institution or industry that left out what they called minority participation, as much as the news media, as much as journalism, and said that it was a narrative, but it was also in management and leadership, and structure of organizations. So they put these recommendations forth, also. Then 50 years later, we’re having the same conversation about how our newsrooms need to change, how our media institutions need to change, how much anti-Blackness there is, how much racism still exists. People are making the same exact calls that they’ve made for the past hundred years. They tend to rise up and bubble up every 50 years. And so when we were releasing this last year in 2020, we were just like, this conversation can’t happen again in 2070, and we have to start making different actions and different choices now, so that we can build up the skillset and build up the practice and the muscle that it takes to make what we know now, old hat. Whatever the new thing that we create is, we want to be skilled in that by the time we get to 2070. So that’s what folks are inheriting, when they’re inheriting news, and they’re inheriting journalism institutions. We want them to be inheriting something that is more expansive, more abundant, and where there is more space for Black folks to steward and hold our stories from ideation to creation to distribution.

Carrie Fox: There is an excerpt in the essay that really speaks to this, at least in part, that stuck with me this line that you all had written, it said, "It was never the goal of a settler colonial nation to become a multiracial democracy." And as you all discuss throughout the essay, our nation’s dominant White media system has played a central role in preventing any kind of progress on this front. And the essay is one example after another of all of the instances when any sort of multiracial democracy was squashed or stopped, and the efforts, in fact, that politicians and newsrooms went through to, in fact, stopped that. How much of this incredible background and history did you know before coming in to this essay?

Alicia Bell: I did not know much of this at all, honestly. I knew, being in North Carolina, I knew a little bit about what had happened with the Wilmington riot and the targeting of Black folks in Wilmington by White supremacist forces and militias. I learned about that in a space where folks were lifting up the history of lynchings, because there was an increased amount in Wilmington after that happened. And so that’s how I learned about Wilmington, and so that was, again, in that kind of arts, creative, organizing space before even coming into media. But what I did know was that every single time I was in conversation with a Black or Brown community, and I was asking folks, "What is your relationship with local news?" People were questioning me, they’re like, "What do you mean relationship? I don’t even know that there’s a relationship. I know that I’ve heard of them. I know that they’ve asked some questions sometimes, but I don’t think I’d call it a relationship. I don’t know if I trust them at all. I don’t know if they even care about me outside of that one instance." And so I was hearing from these different folks in different communities, and this was across North Carolina, but also in other places across the country, at conferences and convenings and gatherings of folks that people were saying, at best, I don’t have a relationship, but at worst, that I’ve been harmed by news or I’ve been harmed by media. And so, that was what I came into this knowing, and knowing that if it was happening across the country, then there was something systemic about it and something structural about it. And so I was in conversation with my colleague, Joe Torres, who wrote a whole book about this, News for All the People. And he wrote about that history of media harm and the way that journalism and news would harm communities. And so through his work and his experience, I’m trying to make that shift. Also this work I was doing, but then thinking about different things that other folks at Free Press were seeing, and other folks in our wider media justice community were seeing. We started thinking about what repair would have to look like, and what repair for this harm or repair for this lack of relationship would be. And so, initially, we were like, okay, well the process of repair is reparation. So we started kind of playing with this idea of media reparation, and initially we thought we were going to write op ed about it, that was just the case for media reparations. And we thought that we could do that in 750 words, and in hindsight, that was foolish. I don’t know why we thought that. But as we started writing, one, we started learning more, and then two, we had started having more questions. And, because you’re so rooted in past community sourced the media, us playing with the concept of media reparation also meant us being in conversation with our community about that. So we were talking to folks at the organization Media Justice about, "We’re thinking about media reparation, what do y’all think about this?" I would be in journalism gatherings and talk to journalists, tell them, "We’re thinking about this thing, what you think, what does that feel like to you?" And so it was through those conversations, as well, that there were more questions that were coming up. And so I think about, for example, one of the questions, we had already kind of named and had written a little bit about the ways that news business was rooted in slavery and the facilitation of shadow slavery. And then that made me curious about how that influenced, like, was that what influenced creating classified ads? With this kind of space? And so what we learned is that those ads, those slave ads, were being run in the first iterations of classified ads, and what would go on to be such a huge part of the business of news. Those advertisements were some of the first advertisements that created the advertising industry that’s a part of the news and media business. And so we would hear about the way that the death of classifieds killed local news, but there was nothing that went beyond that to say, actually, the creation of classifieds and what they were advertising and what they were sharing with people was also the death of local news and also the death of the media in the beginning. We had questions around distributions, we heard from somebody they were like, "Well, this legacy paper never even delivered to my neighborhood." And so we looked into that more, and found out that there were processes of newsroom redlining, distribution redlining, where newsrooms wouldn’t distribute to communities of color because they didn’t see them as worthwhile. They didn’t see them as important business interests. And so much of what I was experiencing kind of anecdotally [inaudible 00:25:30] people made sense in this historic space, because it’s no surprise that there’s no relationship or there’s no trust, especially when we know that relationship to institution, and trust with institution, passes down generationally. There was nothing to pass down. There was no knowing and no trusting to pass down.

Carrie Fox: I imagine that this process of discovery, and uncovering layer after layer, must have been, I’m not even sure of the words to imagine it, but as I’m hearing you talk, the true realization and proof how deeply media is rooted in slavery, and in White supremacist norms, and how you go from then learning and discovering all of that to then saying, "Here’s what we can collectively do about it." What does media reparations look like? How do we learn from where we’ve been to help inform where we go?

Alicia Bell: As we were writing all of this, it didn’t feel ethical to us to just put out this huge document of harm and say, "All right, y’all, here’s this to hold. Good luck." We knew that we had to, well, if we’re naming this harm and we know it’s real now, we are positioned, because of the way we have been doing trainings and organizing the folks already, to begin organizing towards something different. Organizing towards this media reparation that would alchemize and transform harm. And so when we’re thinking about media reparations, we’re thinking across a few different institutions, because we know that newsrooms have harm to atone for, that they have committed towards Black communities. We know that newsrooms and institutions have harm to atone for, and the way that Black journalists have been treated. So that’s two different kinds of harm to atone for. We know that media funders and philanthropy have harm to atone for. When we think about the ways that folks made their money and all of those things, there’s a lot of harm wiggled in there. And we also know that governments have harm to atone for, in the way that media policy has been created. I think, for example, about the first radio licenses that were distributed, and they were only distributed to White men. That’s a harm to atone for, and there’s much more, that’s just one example. And so, we’re thinking about these different kinds of harm, and then we know when it comes to social media and the way that those platforms are existing, a lot of the way that they function are based off of the way that news and media and journalism have functioned historically. And so when we think about the platform and with White supremacy on social media, it mirrors the platform of White supremacy in news and in journalism that has happened historically. And so that’s another harm to atone for. When we consider all those different kinds of harm, what we’re looking at are four different categories of atonement. And I think four is broad, because there’s a lot of things in them. But we’re thinking about what is the acknowledgement of harm, first of all. What is the reckoning then, to have community conversation in both curriculum and knowledge so that more people know that this is something that has happened and something that we have to grow from. And then, what is the accountability for that harm? Whether that be transfer of power, financial compensation, new funds that get created, whatever, new institutions, what does that accountability that stops the harm now. And then what is the redress that is in place that makes it so that this harm doesn’t happen again? And that’s, I think, that’s the one place where we see the least initiatives currently, and it’s also the one place that’s so necessary, because if we only acknowledge and we only stop now, and we don’t create plans and systems and structures to prevent this harm from happening in the future, then we will be in the same conversation in 50 years. And I don’t think anybody wants to continue being on this hamster wheel where we keep working, but don’t see progress and don’t see change that reflects the amount of work that we do. So that’s what we’re looking at when it comes to reparation, and we’re also lifting up, there are theater practitioners, artists, who have already lifted out calls for what reparation would look like in art spaces. There are folks organizing in Hollywood and entertainment to figure out what a Hollywood for Black Lives would look like. And so we’re working in collaboration with those folks to make sure that there is alignment in all of the ways that media impacts people’s lives, in all of the different shapes that media takes.

Carrie Fox: As you talk, every time I’ve had a chance to hear you or listen to you, it becomes even further clearer to me that your future is the future that I want to be part of too, and that it requires all of us to play a role to create that new culture. It won’t just happen by saying let’s read the essay or let’s look on and support from the sidelines, but this requires very active support and participation. And very recently, you’ve all done a few things, you have a pledge out there for newsrooms to take to confirm that they will, in fact, move towards a commitment to caring for their whole community. And there’s also a petition, if I’m correct, that any individual can sign that challenges their local newsrooms to also take on this issue fully.

Alicia Bell: Yes, and the petition is something anyone can sign on to. We also recently opened up the pledge so that individual journalists can sign on as well, because we were hearing from some journalists that they were going to their newsrooms and not getting support from their newsroom leadership, but they wanted to sign on and they wanted to make that commitment. So now we’ve opened it up so that individual journalists and newsrooms can sign on to a pledge to care for Black communities. And I don’t think that’s asking for too much. Care is the minimum.

Carrie Fox: Right, right. Absolutely, absolutely feels like the minimum.

Alicia Bell: So that’s what we’re calling for folks to do as a way to just start moving and strengthening that foundation of work that needs to happen.

Carrie Fox: Well as I said at the top, this work is, indeed to me, feels like some of the most important work of all time as it relates to transforming the future of media, that it requires a critical mass to transform that culture and that everyone listening today, and everyone that I can share this message with, I ask you don’t just listen and hang on to this, but think about what you can actively do in support of it. Alicia, I am so grateful to you, for you, your colleagues, all of the work that you’re putting in to get this work started and to create the framework and the playbook for us to follow. But it’s not on you to see it all through. We need the entire community, we need the entire society to take this on and to push it forward so that your vision in that 50 years is indeed one that works for everyone.

Alicia Bell: Yes, absolutely, We’re excited for all the different shapes that that work takes, because it is, it’s going to take so many of us, and there’s so much further we can get in coalition than we can alone.

Carrie Fox: Well, thank you so much for your time today, and we will continue to support you, and I look forward to staying in touch.

Alicia Bell: Thanks so much, Carrie.

Carrie Fox: And that brings us to the end of this week’s show. Thank you so much for listening, and if you like what you heard, please share this episode with a friend. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Nimrah Haroon and the Mission Partners team. Engineering by Pete Wright. Music this week is run by Tristin Barton, and roots by Josh Leek. Thanks for your support, and we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.