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Media Literacy and Restorative Justice: A Workshop with Students in Grand Rapids

July 10, 2018

Yesterday, I was invited to present on media literacy with a group of students who were working on a project about restorative justice through the Restorative Justice Coalition of West Michigan.

The students had a goal of making video(s) about how restorative justice works and its importance.

The 2 hours I spent with students was delightful, in that these were students who were inquisitive and had lots of opinions about media. I began the session with a media literacy exercise that is in 2 parts. The first part had 9 Marvel movie characters that the students needed to identify. The second part was a picture of the 9 US Supreme Court Justices, even though one of them was dead and one of them justice announced they were retiring from the bench.

The exercise was meant for students to talk about why they were able to identify the Marvel characters and not the Supreme Court Justices. One students stated that he recognized the Marvel characters because they do have a moral compass and can teach people about self sacrifice. This student also stated that the Supreme Court Justices make decisions without public input, so since this student had no agency in determining how the justices would decide, he had little interest in who they were. It was a most excellent observation about the limitations of our political system.

We then looked at some basic principles of media literacy and talked about how all media is constructed, the cumulative effect of media consumption, how everyone navigates media images & messages differently, gender representation, body image and how advertisers develop brand loyalty.

We then began to talk about and look at examples of racial representation in the media – news stories, films, advertisements, video games and various online sources. It became clear to the students that communities of color were being stereotyped in media, with unfair representation, with an overt emphasis on the criminalization of being black in the US.

The criminalization of black and brown people in media, both entertainment and news media, is one of the manifestations of White Supremacy in our society. The negative representations of people of color normalizes the biased perceptions that white society has about black and brown bodies and solidifies their belief that punitive actions must be taken against these communities in order the keep them safe. The media’s role in fostering a fear-based reaction from white people is then reflected in the types of policies that are passed, especially when it comes to policing and the prison industrial complex.

One way that this all plays out in society is through the so-called War on Drugs. The War on Drugs is understood within the black community as a war on their community. We discussed a statistic from the group Critical Resistance, which does prison abolition work, that demonstrates how the criminal justice system is so bias against black people when it comes to the issue of illegal drugs. This one sentence (seen here to the right) got a strong reaction from students, with some of them calling this an outrageous.

This same sentence and the statistics it contained also demonstrated to the students that the criminal justice system was not interested in anything remotely like restorative justice. In fact, one student named exactly what the statistic demonstrated, which was that the criminal justice system was punitive.

The 2 hour session concluded with us looking at some possible video messages that the students could produce in the next few days. We talked about the War on Drugs, policing in the black community, the City of Grand Rapids budget for the police, racial profiling by the cops and the current Kent County contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), all of which were punitive measures by systems of power.


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