In case you missed it, we’re reposting recent Seattle U grad Paige McAdams’ blog post on the importance of filtering your good intentions through a critical lens when approaching social media advocacy. She critiques the recent video sensation “The Homeless Read Mean Tweets,” questioning the ethics and effectiveness of a public service announcement that exploits vulnerable individuals’ suffering without giving these same individuals agency in sharing their narrative and their truth.
Paige also interviewed Rex Hohlbein, executive director of Facing Homelessness. The nonprofit’s Facebook page “Homeless in Seattle” has more than 17,000 followers and their “Just Say Hello” campaign has popped up all over the city, with its simple but compelling message:
“We can begin by simply acknowledging those suffering, trusting that we are all the same, all wanting to love and be loved. When we take the time to listen to another person’s journey, we begin the process of turning a stranger into a friend and opening our compassion for another human being” (from Facing Homelessness’s “Community” page).
Paige applauds Rex and Facing Homelessness’s compassionate and transparent approach to advocacy through partnership and solidarity with those experiencing homelessness as a model for all social justice advocacy.
Read the piece to learn more, and join us next week, on Wednesday, June 24th, at 7:00 p.m., for a remarkable interactive art experience, “Portraits of Homelessness & Multi-Media Exhibition,” that features Rex Holhbein as its keynote. This community event is part of the 3-day Global Street Paper Summit, an international gathering of more than 120 journalists, entrepreneurs and activists from street papers in 22 countries, hosted by INSP and Real Change.
For tickets and to learn more about the powerful art and stories being exhibited, go to http://ow.ly/OrGnC.
*Featured images above are from the Facing Homelessness Page, Homeless in Seattle’s “Just Say Hello” campaign, and the YouTube video “The Homeless Read Mean Tweets,” respectively.
Social Media Advocacy: Whose Story Is It Anyway?
Written by Paige McAdam, project assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness
Social media has played a huge role in activism geared at ending homelessness. Sometimes it can spur us to action. Other times, it backfires. In fact, that was my reaction to the recent social media sensation, “The Homeless Read Mean Tweets.”
This video was inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s popular “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” segment. In thisalternate version, created by homeless advocacy organization Raise the Roof, people who are either currently experiencing homelessness or who have experienced homelessness in the past read “mean tweets” about homelessness.
But what can we learn from this? What’s the right way to tell stories of homelessness?
Traditional mainstream news outlets often perpetuate the negative stereotypes associated with homelessness, and as my colleague Lindsey Habenicht found in her research on social media and homelessness, many people are now looking to social media as an unfiltered news source. Social media is in a unique position to advocate for ending homelessness in the information age, and many organizations have begun to use this opportunity. But there’s a right and wrong way to do it.
To me, the Mean Tweets video is the wrong way.
Even before I hit “play” on this video, there were knots in my stomach. Something about the entire premise just didn’t sit well with me, and as I watched, it only got worse.
While the video itself is only 1 minute and 20 seconds long, it dragged on agonizingly slowly. The utter devastation on the people’s faces as they read the tweets immediately brought me to tears. All I could think about was the blatant pain in the voices and eyes of these individuals who are already experiencing such a huge amount of personal hardship.
The first time I watched it, I had to stop halfway through and compose myself. The second time I watched it, I did not make it all the way through and had to turn it off.
As an advocate with a well informed perspective on the causes and issues surrounding homelessness, I felt that the tweets read by these individuals began to chip away at my belief in humanity. They were not simply mean. They were even beyond what I feel comfortable calling cruelty.
With tears in my eyes, I became determined to learn more about the ways in which advocacy can take a wrong turn.
THE BIG PICTURE AND THE BURDEN OF EDUCATION
While well intentioned, this PSA demonstrates a few issues beyond just my own emotional reactions.
First, when celebrities read mean tweets, they are reading something solely about themselves. They are not being relegated to a faceless mass of other individuals.
For many experiencing homelessness, these messages are one more reminder of the collective dehumanization that happens daily. Rather than being individuals experiencing homelessness, they are “homeless people” or worse, “the homeless,” who are walked by and looked away from every day with assumptions made about their moral character.
Secondly, the pain evident in the voices and faces of the people in the PSA strikes me as a result of being exposed to unnecessary cruelty for the benefit of attempting to educate those who treat them as sub-human on a day-to-day basis. Why does the task of humanization land on those who have been most dehumanized?
SHOCK VALUE OR PROGRESS?
As Perry Firth so memorably wrote, studies show that the part of the brain which empathizes and recognizes others as human does not register those that are most marginalized (particularly people who are homeless or struggling with addiction).
Is an 80-second PSA going to change the wiring of the human brain in such a way that leads to real change each time a person walks by someone who is homeless?For me, the video holds a stronger element of shock value than it does legitimate progress.
The video is heartbreaking, and the responses to it on the Internet are largely positive, lauding it as a progressive social move. Apparently, the shock value of the video is effective; as of today, the video has more than 1.3 million views on YouTube since its posting in March of this year.
The traction that it gained in such a short period of time is staggering, but like any media, the video must be viewed through a critical lens. It allows us to examine bigger questions around advocacy:
- How do we truly fight something so deeply ingrained in the social aspects of our psychology?
- Is it worth risking putting a person through pain in order to advocate on their behalf?
- And most importantly, who is responsible for telling their stories?
THE IMPORTANCE OF INTENTION
I recently wrote a post regarding the power of storytelling and the exemplary April community showcase with The Moth. Storytelling provides an opportunity for individuals to own the agency of their own narratives—but often, this agency can be lost in cyberspace with the widespread use of social media.
When we can tell stories in 140 characters or less, click share on any photograph and have it viewed by hundreds of our friends, and upload just about anything we want on Instagram, issues of autonomy and agency need to be examined.
That is not to say that all social media advocacy removes agency from marginalized populations. Facing Homelessness is the new nonprofit organization founded by the creator of Homeless in Seattle, a Facebook page that introduces stories of individuals and allows for specific donations based on the immediate needs of those individuals.
Additionally, the Facing Homelessness community page features dozens of portraits of individuals experiencing homelessness. To read a person’s story, simply click on their photograph.
LESSONS FROM “HOMELESS IN SEATTLE”
I spoke with Rex Hohlbein, executive director of Homeless in Seattle, about how his organization conducts online advocacy. Homeless in Seattle is unique in that most of its participants approach them hoping to meet specific needs from benevolent individuals who might see their photo and request online.
According to Rex, the biggest thing to look for in any kind of advocacy is intention. If the intention comes from a grounded place and comes from love, the individual being affected by it should be able to tell.