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Personal Trajectories

Along the way:  Personal Trajectories

What is meant, what is intended, by the term "personal trajectories"? People do not often simply grow up with a desire for civic engagement. Rather, they grow into that desire over the course of some time. We have noticed that many of our case studies served as sites for people to begin their personal trajectories towards civic engagement, starting from a point of taking part in participatory culture - or, conversely, sites where people who were already civically engaged began to become more interested in the workings of participatory culture. Generally speaking, studies of civic engagement point to actions taken: how many people mobilized? How many dollars raised? Our case studies, however, have served to highlight another important question. Are people moving closer to being engaged citizens, even if they aren't all the way there yet?

Some of our examples do not provide very clear evidence of particular personal trajectories. Rang de Basanti, for instance, inspired some Indians to take part in one protest, and there was a spike in political activity during the movie's run - but there is little evidence that the effects were lasting. Rather, Rang de Basanti inspired "flash activism." This kind of activism is important and significant, but it does not necessarily suggest that those taking part in it are any further along their personal trajectories.

In other cases, our examples seem to be nothing but personal trajectories. The director of public relations for Invisible Children, Jedidiah Jenkins, says that his goal is to “wake up Western youth… to a life of activism and social engagement.” By emphasizing the personal relationship between each Invisible Children supporter and the youth of Uganda, Invisible Children seeks to shift the discussion about Uganda through the individual efforts of many Western youth. Rather than seeking to inspire flash activism, their storytelling is intended to catch the imagination of Western youth and lead them to a deeper interest in social justice. They seek to set individual youth onto paths towards greater civic engagement as the primary goal of their organization.

It is not only organizations that can impact many people's personal trajectories towards civic engagement. RaceFail '09, as it is called, consisted of a variety of blog posts on a variety of journals; it was absolutely decentralized. Many people taking part in the conversation moved one way or another along trajectories towards a greater awareness of race, and some were moved to taking action about it. For example, in a comment on a blog post by author N.K. Jemisin, Jules writes, "RaceFail was a revelation for me. I ended up taking a college course and completely changing my minor as a result of it, because I realized that I didn’t even know enough to enter into the conversation as it was happening." Her comments are representative of many participants' expressed experiences. Yet these individual changes also have led to "ripple effects" across science fiction and fantasy fandom. For instance, this year's International Conference on the Fantastic in Arts is themed "Race and the Fantastic," and other sf/f conferences have added more programming on the issue of race to their lineups. While interventions such as Verb Noire
were long-planned and merely catalyzed by RaceFail '09, the discussion around science fiction and fantasy seems to have fundamentally shifted as a result of the many personal trajectories that were altered by RaceFail.

In at least one case, it is evident that RaceFail '09 provided an important spur towards intense and long-lasting civic engagement. Loraine Sammy cites it as a discussion which increased her awareness of how many problems with race remained in the world of sci-fi and fantasy - a discussion which left her, as a person of color, boggled at how many intelligent people could say such ignorant and hurtful things on the topic of race. When the movie Avatar: The Last Airbender, which features explicitly Asian characters, was announced with an all-white cast, Sammy was pushed to take action. She went on to found Racebending, an organization against the "whitewashing" of movies and television. The impact of Racebending is debated, as they have not succeeded at their original goal (to have Avatar: The Last Airbender recast with Asian actors) and have had weak showings at in-person protests. Yet the Racebending website remains a place for individuals to bring up questions of casting practices and debate whether it is right for actors to play across race and nationality. Loraine Sammy moved from being a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender and sf/f in general to perceiving problems and taking action; the Racebending website is certainly at least providing a forum for others to begin perceiving problems.

A number of the members of the Living Room Rock Gods had similar trajectories to Loraine's. The Living Room Rock Gods performed cover versions of their favorite rock songs, uploading them to YouTube as tributes. When they began to be taken down under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the LRRGs were spurred to action. While many of them did not know much about copyright law, they quickly educated themselves. One, Munkybarz, had a video removed, and responded on the LRRG forums: "I'm not clear on the steps that need to be taken in order to try to get the suspension lifted. Be assured however that there will be no bowing and scraping by this LRRG, and I ain't grovelling." Munkybarz and other LRRGs had no history of activism, yet when their community was threatened, they banded together to respond. Their sustained pushback against the DMCA takedowns of their videos was highly successful. That pushback relied on each individual Rock God moving through a trajectory: understanding the problem, deciding to take action, and following through as their own advocate.

Of course, there remains the question: without that final action, how "activist" can personal trajectories be? RaceFail '09 may be significant because it catalyzed the founding of Verb Noire and helped Loraine Sammy found Racebending, but is it significant because it caused a few people to rethink their understandings of race? What if those people never take civic action about race in future - instead only trying to act in a less racist way personally? Similarly, is Invisible Children useful if it encourages young people to think of themselves as activists - even if their actual activism is limited to Invisible Children-sponsored protests and marches? Do personal trajectories have to reach a certain point - the point of full civic engagement in many parts of one's life - in order to be significant for our project? We are still struggling with these questions.