AMC Session Inspiration: “Babel’s Workshop”

The Allied Media Conference is a space to come together to explore the practice of “media-based organizing,” which is any collaborative process that uses media, art, or technology to address the roots of problems and advances holistic solutions towards a more just and creative world.

As we gear up for AMC2017, we are excited to take a look back at some highlights of last year’s conference. We hope the ideas and creative strategies explored in the interview below encourage you to propose a session for AMC2017!

One of your favorite sessions was Babel’s Workshop: Best Practices for Multilingual Events, a language justice workshop and interpretation demonstration. Read our interview with facilitators Tony Macias and Jazmín Rumbaut, and get inspired to submit a session idea of your own for AMC 2017!

How did you get involved with the AMC?

Jazmín: I got involved with AMC because folks that I knew recommended it highly. I kept saying “No, I have nothing to do there, I don’t make podcasts or videos,” but I came and had a great time. A lot of my friends and colleagues also went, and two of them facilitated a language justice workshop called “The Revolution Will Not Be In English”, and that was part of what got us thinking about how to do more and build on that.

Tony: “The Revolution Will Not Be In English” is a really popular phrase in the language justice movement in the U.S., where English is the dominant language. We wanted our workshop to follow-up on what our friends did the previous year, and take it in a new direction that would challenge us to talk about language justice in new ways. We chose the Community Technology track after asking ourselves questions about what technology we already use, and what technology we might be able to use to make language work more usable and affordable for folks, without losing sight of the overall vision of language justice. It’s very important for communities at the grassroots level to have access to top notch language work, and so we’re always asking, “What are the best tools to get the message across, without adding or subtracting from that message?”

Babel's Workshop
Participants of “Babel’s Workshop” engaging in a story sharing activity. Photo by Tony Macias.

How did the idea for this session come about?

Tony: We both participated in the 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit as part of the language team. That was the first time I heard about AMC. We were part of an international team working to make sure that as many of the sessions as possible at the forum were multilingual. We ended up really building community that week, and kept in contact ever since. That crew is now part of a growing network of trainers, organizers, and language workers interested in language justice around the U.S., including both people who do the language work, and those who don’t but who understand it and bring it into their organizations and communities. Over the past decade, the unifying force of our community has been around a multi-day training and curriculum called Interpreting for Social Justice which was first developed at the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, and is now offered regularly by groups in North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, California and beyond.

Jazmín: We often find equipment can be an entry point to a broader conversation for language work. For example, we often use FM transmitters and receivers with headsets which allow for simultaneous interpreting (where the interpreter translates over the voice of the speaker) instead of consecutive interpreting (where the speaker talks and then pauses while the interpreter repeats). That can make communication across languages smoother, in some situations.

Equipment is also something to organize around since it’s usually expensive and it takes sharing and lending for groups to have access to it. We started experimenting with using conference call lines in some settings, which would be cheap or free, and figured consulting with nerds and activists would help us figure it out, so we plotted to come to the AMC in Detroit to present this session.

Why was it important to present this content at the AMC?

Jazmín: Before our time there were AMC workshops in Spanish, even a Spanish language track. Currently, there are Spanish and ASL interpreters at AMC; lots of people don’t know that. So, there’s precedent and room to expand upon this work if enough people get fired up to make it happen. You can’t just think of a multilingual event as “Well, we need interpretation for this one event, so let’s call this one person that we know to take care of it”. It’s a lot more contextual and holistic than that. It takes planning, community investment, and has to be integrated into the organizing at every step. AMC was a really great place to talk about building multilingual community and multilingual spaces because a lot of folks who come to AMC have energy towards creating space, whether digital or physical. They’re the perfect sort of people to be geeking out with!

When we use our voices and our hands to communicate, we’re using the oldest form of media there is: language.

Tony: Speaking of geeking out, there’s a reason we decided to call our session “Babel’s Workshop”. It’s a reference to an ancient story where, because of the hubris of humans, God “punishes” them, instantly dividing them all up by so many languages that they can’t communicate anymore. We wanted to play with that, because we think that the many languages in the world are a big part of what makes it so great. These languages that we dream in; the languages we use when doing math in our heads; the languages our first lullabies were in, and the languages we sing in - they allow us to be our full selves. When we use our voices and our hands to communicate, we’re using the oldest form of media there is: language.

What were some highlights and takeaways of the session?

Jazmín: I was stoked to see so many people walk in the room, just for starters. I had no idea how people were going to respond, so it was gratifying to see so many people with an interest. It made me feel like this was something of use that we were offering.

We facilitated in Spanish a lot and switched off interpreting for one another. I think relying on simultaneous interpretation into English over the headphones was a very good experience for folks who might have never been at an event where most of the content and interactions were in another language that was not their dominant language. It made people aware of the privilege that comes with speaking the primary language

Tony: About 30 people attended the workshop, so it was a nice mix of folks – several people in the room didn’t speak Spanish, and plenty were monolingual English speakers as well. We tried to demonstrate some best practices of interpreting while teaching, which was pretty “meta”. We were interpreting ourselves! People also came out of the gate with so many challenging questions about the work that they were already doing – really dense ethics questions, like “How do you handle children being asked to interpret for their parents or other adults?” or “What do you do when the English speakers in the room are actually the historically marginalized group, and the bilingual Spanish speakers are the ones using language as a tool of power to exclude the English speakers?” It was exciting to be in a room with people who already had such great ideas, and we just got to spark that. Selfishly for us, we enjoyed being in a room with people who know so much and have such challenging ideas for us to bring back to our colleagues.

Jazmín: We also got some great suggestions about how to better use the conference calling technology that we demonstrated, and I was happy that folks wanted to keep in touch afterwards... We are both willing to nerd out with anyone who has tools or resources to share!

What’s next? How has this work continued post-AMC?

Jazmín: Right now we have a set of equipment in DC that’s managed collectively and rented out at a sliding scale so folks who might not otherwise have access do have access. Presenting the workshop helped me conceptualize how to talk about these practices and questions. I want to share these resources more and integrate them into what I do in DC, where I’m blessed to have a group of comrades who approach language work from a similar theoretical framework and place in our hearts.

I was reminded of the power of creating space for participants to share from their experiences, and that you don't always need a whole day long workshop to go deep.

Tony: Overall, it’ll definitely change the way I do workshops from now on. I was reminded of the power of creating space for participants to share from their experiences, and that you don't always need a whole day long workshop to go deep. I also liked having the simultaneous interpretation be both a topic and a practice that we used in the room, because it let people see the practice done well even as we talked about it.

We’ve also had some requests for follow up. One participant, Allison Corbett, is doing oral histories of language justice workers. I’m also helping another workshop participant with a best practices toolkit for intersectional work between LGBTQ youth and migrant workers in New Orleans.


Interested in language justice work? Check out some of these resources that were shared in the workshop.

It’s that time of year again! We’re coming up on the 19th annual Allied Media Conference, June 15 - 18 in Detroit, and we need your ideas to make this year’s conference the best yet.

Artists, designers, technologists, policy advocates, media enthusiasts: we encourage you to submit a session proposal! The deadline to submit your idea is March 12, 2017.

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