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An Interview with Jennifer Humke, Senior Program Officer, MacArthur Foundation…On How Bottom-Up, Citizen-Made Media Strengthens Democracy
September 19, 2018

Jennifer Humke is senior program officer for Journalism and Media at the John D. and Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation. Jennifer focuses primarily on grantmaking in participatory civic media as part of the journalism and media team. In this role, she makes grants to enable more individuals and groups to use participatory media for social change.

Recently, Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives for Foundation Center, interviewed Humke about how supporting citizen-made media can improve our democracy. This post is part of the GlassPockets’ Democracy Funding series, designed to spotlight knowledge about ways in which philanthropy is working to strengthen American democracy.

Jennifer Humke 2GlassPockets: The MacArthur Foundation has long supported media. How has the way that the MacArthur Foundation thinks about the connection between journalism, media, and a healthy democracy changed over the years?

Jennifer Humke: MacArthur has invested in media for more than three decades. The first grants made in the 1980s focused on supporting independent and diverse perspectives on broadcast television and documentary film to ensure a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints were contributing to and represented in the media.

Of course, the world and the media have changed and evolved enormously since then, introducing new opportunities and new challenges. Our grantmaking also has evolved as a result, but we still hold strong to the fundamental belief that a high-functioning democracy is dependent upon a well-informed and engaged American public.

”Investments are designed to strengthen our democracy by supporting just and inclusive narratives that inform, engage, and activate Americans to build a more equitable future.“

Today, our Journalism and Media program makes grants totaling approximately $25 million each year to support nonfiction storytelling (primarily documentary film), investigative and accountability reporting (primarily through the support of national nonprofit newsrooms), and participatory citizen-made media (and I use the term citizen in the broadest sense to include everyone living in this country). Investments are designed to strengthen our democracy by supporting just and inclusive narratives that inform, engage, and activate Americans to build a more equitable future.

A priority of this grantmaking is to ensure all Americans, and especially those from historically marginalized groups, are able to have their voices heard and help us move toward a more inclusive and pluralistic American society.

GP: While on the topic of inclusion and pluralism, more foundations are developing initiatives around diversity, equity, and inclusion. How is the lens of racial equity informing your grantmaking strategies and practices?

JH: When Julia Stasch became President of the MacArthur Foundation, she charged all of us -- her staff -- to lead with a commitment to justice in all that we do. This included everything from elevating the voices of those who are not always heard in policy discussions to ensuring that our grantmaking considers and supports a broad diversity of organizations and helps to address historic and structural inequities. You can read an update by Julia Stasch about MacArthur’s “Justice Imperative” here.

The Journalism and Media program has an explicit focus on inclusion. Our grantmaking focuses on amplifying the voice and influence of often excluded and under-represented individuals, organizations, and communities, and on facilitating leadership opportunities for people of color.

Macarthur foundationGP: “Elevating the voices of those who are not always heard in policy discussions” makes me think of young people today. Since the students who survived the Parkland High School shooting have so effectively organized around gun control, there seems to be growing interest in youth movements and youth organizing. Yet, when I look at Foundation Center’s historic data about the populations served by most foundation democracy grants, youth-focused democracy grants have received less than 1% of funding. Is this changing at MacArthur? Do you think this is changing field-wide?

JH: MacArthur does not have a strategy to support youth movements and youth organizing. But our grantmaking in participatory civic media was deeply influenced by findings from a research initiative MacArthur supported to explore new strategies and approaches for preparing young people to be good citizens in a digital world. Called the Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, it was a nearly decade-long effort, carried out by an interdisciplinary group of academics and practitioners, who worked together on a range of intersecting projects. One of the Network’s main insights was that young people are as engaged today -- if not more so than in any era in the past – in civic and political activity, but that it looks different today. Young people are not engaging through traditional civic and political institutions, but rather their engagement and participation is reflected through their media making online.

”Young people are not engaging through traditional civic and political institutions, but rather their engagement and participation is reflected through their media making online.“

The fact is that most young people, especially youth of color and from other marginalized groups, do not believe that many of our country’s institutions care about or are interested in meeting their needs. As a result, their organizing and engagement is taking place in spaces where they are better able to influence policy, culture and institutions, and that is oftentimes online and fueled and scaled using social media and other digital technologies.

The March for Our Lives is a prime example. The scale, reach and pace of that effort to organize youth in support of gun control happened largely outside the realm of adults, and it was made possible by new media tools, practices and platforms. It was the result of a highly distributed network of young people who together were able to shift public debate and, in some cases, sway multinational corporations to change their policies in support of the young people’s demands, through their media making and organizing online.

It is clear that Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have become the new public sphere, and our grantmaking is designed to enable inclusive and equitable participation in our democracy through these platforms and practices. We are supporting a number of youth-focused organizations -- such as Youth Speaks, Youth Radio and Voto Latino -- in part, because young people have been historically marginalized from public debate, but maybe more importantly, because they tend to be the leaders in using participatory media for social change. 

GP: It’s interesting to hear about some of the organizations in your portfolio. To help bring your work to life a bit more, can you describe some of the new grants you are making as part of your Participatory Civic Media grantmaking? And how does this complement the other longer-standing parts of the program?

JH: The participatory civic media strategy is the newest part of our Journalism and Media Program. It encompasses the media produced, remixed, and circulated by individuals and small groups to express their lived experiences, viewpoints, and concerns with the goal of influencing policy and culture. A significant hallmark of this type of media making is its low barrier to participation. Advancements in technology and communications have dramatically expanded the ability of non-experts to use media and storytelling for social change. Today, anyone with a smartphone can help to shine a light on long-ignored issues, such as police brutality or violence against immigrants. These are issues that have been marginalized from public debate for decades, if not longer, because they disproportionately affect communities that hold little political power, and as a result do not have access to traditional gatekeepers of news and information. New media platforms, tools, and practices are enabling bottom-up citizen participation in our democracy by knitting together the individual voices of those from marginalized communities that, together, have significant influence over public debate and agenda setting.

We are supporting organizations and activities that are doing work in various ways at the national level to create more opportunities for individuals and groups, especially those that have been historically marginalized from inclusion or representation in mainstream media, to contribute to public dialogue.  This ranges from improving the media making and media literacy skills and knowledge of youth in news deserts across the country (with grants to organizations such as Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute and Utah’s SpyHop,) to supporting storytelling initiatives that amplify the voices of under- and misrepresented communities (examples include, Pillars Fund, Define American and The Opportunity Agenda.) The goal of this grantmaking is to increase civic participation in our democracy, largely through the making, sharing, circulating, and critiquing of media online.

”Social media platforms have disrupted traditional news business models, diverting most ad revenue away from publishers and into the coffers of large technology platforms.“

Of course, we recognize the negative impacts these new platforms and practices are having on our democracy. Social media platforms have disrupted traditional news business models, diverting most ad revenue away from publishers and into the coffers of large technology platforms. At the same time, the participatory nature of these platforms has empowered extremists and hate groups to spread and, in some cases, mainstream misinformation and lies. These, of course, are messy problems with no simple answer. We have entered into this space with great humility, making a small number of exploratory grants – to organizations such as The Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Data & Society – to examine the dynamics of these problems with the goal of identifying interventions and seeding and building alliances and processes to address them.

GP: What you’re referencing reminds me that #FakeNews is a hashtag that has grown in prominence since the presidential election. Since working toward a more informed citizenry is at the heart of much of your Journalism and Media portfolio, how has the aftermath of the election and what we’ve learned about how misinformation played a role, affected your grantmaking moving forward?

JH: As a foundation, we spent a lot of time post-election reflecting on whether our grantmaking strategies were addressing the most pressing issues in our fields of operation. The spread of false and misleading information and the role it played in the election was of great concern to us in the Journalism and Media Program. As I mentioned earlier, we have made some new grants since the election to more deeply explore the role large technology platforms have played in spreading lies and amplifying hate, but we also believe that our continued investments in the range of efforts we have supported over the years to ensure all Americans are well-informed and highly engaged is the most important contribution we can make to strengthening our democracy in the current media environment. We will continue to support nonprofit newsrooms and independent documentary filmmakers to create and distribute rigorously researched and nuanced news and narratives and support individuals and citizen groups to use participatory media to engage civically. Together, we believe, these strategies work to hold power to account, uncover injustices, and result in more just and inclusive narratives that reflect the needs and aspirations of all Americans. 

--Janet Camarena

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About Transparency Talk

  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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