Social media for social change

Using untraditional modes of communication to dismantle anti-Black racism within OSSTF/FEESO

…Not me using Twitter and Instagram professionally after disparaging both platforms as frivolous and superficial for so many years.

…I don’t know who needs to hear this, but social media being used as a tool of oppressed people to dismantle oppressive systems must be respected and encouraged.

…I mean, normalize marginalized people determining how they choose to communicate and navigate structures steeped in colonialism and white supremacy.

People who frequent Twitter may recognize these italicized words and phrases as popular clichés that are used on the platform to cleverly convey whatever it is they wish to communicate to their followers and a wider audience.
While I have not used any of this phraseology myself, I have, over the past year, become enamoured with the reach of social media where social movements are concerned. I first witnessed the impact of Twitter in May 2020 when a group of OSSTF/FEESO members from District 19, Peel came together to create and launch a petition demanding that our District make a commitment to dismantle anti-Black racism in the wake of the Ministry’s Review of the Peel District School Board and the corresponding directives. This petition was shared on Twitter and has garnered a modest 134 likes but resulted in the gathering of over 21,000 signatures. As I watched the support for dismantling anti-Black racism within the union grow, I also realized the potential that social media has. Crowdsourcing ideas, disseminating resources, cross-District organizing, and catalyzing and crystallizing substantive change are just a few ways that social media is a transformative tool for education workers who actively fight to eradicate anti-Black racism and white supremacy in union spaces. More specifically, social media is a tool for those who have been historically excluded from decision-making tables and provides concrete ways for traditionally silenced voices to be amplified.

Twitter as a site for planting and sowing seeds of activism in District 19
When education workers in Peel look back on the 2019–2020 school year, many will recall work-to-rule, the transition to emergency distance learning, and the Peel District School Board being placed under Ministry of Education supervision. I will remember all three of these defining historical moments, but will also always give reverence to how working during a global pandemic propelled me into the Twitterverse and (union) activism. For me, pre-pandemic, Twitter was a place to scroll for the news and to see what other education workers were sharing about their practice. It was a place to post pictures showcasing the work that was being done at my school’s boys’ club, and that was it. That quickly changed when a group of approximately twenty education workers, galvanized by their disdain for the insidiousness of anti-Black racism in education, came together to demand systemic change within our District, using #D19WeDemandAction. This hashtag was part of a Twitter campaign (i.e., an organized Twitter Storm) that aimed to put pressure on the local executives to make material changes in relation to dismantling anti-Black racism instead of simply writing statements. Ahead of our annual general meeting (AGM) in June 2020, this group of education workers aimed to garner support from our wider membership, encouraging members to use their voices for change at this important meeting. The hashtag was a success and education workers from different Districts and Bargaining Units who are part of the Twitter community joined in to show their support. Our visibility on Twitter translated into institutional change, as members crafted and passed a motion for a position on the executive that was wholly devoted to dismantling anti-Black racism.

Fuelled by Zoom organizing and Twitter engagement, the changes in my District were a direct result of this local group’s first foray together into collective action on social media. But, it was far from the last. Twitter quickly became the site of social change for the group as we fought for three time-release positions earmarked for dismantling anti-Black racism and intersectional oppression. To achieve this, we had to rally support to call a general meeting so members could vote on this change to the structure of our local executive unit, including moving from six time-released executives to nine. Even though we achieved this historic win with overwhelming support from the members in virtual attendance, Twitter remained a space that we continued to return to so we could take the temperature of members and gather their support. Hashtags like #OSSTFTimeIsNow, #MyOSSTF, #Big3RepMe, and #DisruptInD19 also assisted in bringing attention to systemic issues in the union that could be better tackled if Black voices were centred and valued rather than tokenized and co-opted. These hashtags brought more victories, such as the appointments of the Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Executive Team (DABRET), the passing of a levy increase in May 2021 to ensure the continuance of the roles occupied by the DABRET, and the transformation of the Disrupting Anti-Black Racism Advisory Committee (DABRAC) from an ad hoc to a fully-funded standing committee. Twitter has been a driving force in changing the literal faces represented in District 19 as a result of the combination of using it as a site to share information and build a critical mass of anti-racist educators who are willing to advocate for social justice. Unable to use traditional mapping techniques or gather in person because of COVID-19 restrictions, Twitter became the conduit for dismantling both anti-Black racism and white supremacy.

Twitter as connector: Cross-District leadership and transformation
Twitter can sometimes feel like being in a large room of people screaming about the issues that matter most to them. Many on this platform have a main theme and stick to it, for the most part. Both my personal Twitter account, @MzMcKeown, and our DABRAC account, @disruptingABR, focus solely on exposing anti-Blackness and promoting practical ways to dismantle anti-Black racism and intersectional oppression. The beauty of being in this proverbial room of screaming people is that it creates opportunities for shared understanding and collaboration across Districts. As grassroots members of District 19 fought for historic gains in our local, members from other Districts looked on in genuine awe and appreciation. Moving from quiet observation to making inquiries via direct messages (DMs) on Twitter, cross-District collaboration was born. Some OSSTF/FEESO members were interested in how they could make changes to their local constitution so they, too, could tackle anti-Black racism in similar ways to District 19, while others were interested in how our goals could align to make change at the provincial level at the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA). For a handful of Districts, Twitter connections have translated into committees that focus on addressing anti-Black racism and oppression, executive positions that aim to create more equitable and just union spaces, and clear pathways that we can take to make systemic and lasting change. Regardless of what aspect of Twitter has inspired people to move to action, what remains consistent is that this social media platform has connected us and made free exchange of ideas and reciprocal support a distinct possibility.

Airing dirty union laundry: Critiques of Twitter activism
While there has been free exchange of ideas grounded in shared vision and goals among anti-racist education workers, there has been much scepticism about the use of a forum as public as Twitter to openly grapple with deeply entrenched issues within OSSTF/FEESO. Some institutional or establishment unionists have expressed concerns that, by naming and attempting to address anti-Black racism and white supremacy within the union, we are sowing division and providing ‘union-busters’ the errant thread they need to pull on in order to unravel all of the gains workers have won over the years. Nothing could be further from the truth. Part of being a unionist, in my view, is having the desire to ensure the most marginalized workers are centred and protected. In education unions, this should also extend to wanting to improve public education for all students, with a laser focus on the ones who are made most vulnerable by systems of oppression. How do we achieve this? Accountability. And there can be no accountability without transparency. And this is why we tweet. We tweet to force others to confront some hard truths, and we do so unapologetically in our own voices. We do so to compel fellow unionists with positional power to do better, even if it is in a manner that some are not used to contending with. In sharing our raw, lived experiences via Twitter, we know we are reaching a large number of people, some of whom are completely unaware of existing inequities within union circles. The goal is to have difficult knowledge serve as a catalyst for change, and Twitter casts a wide enough net to inform a critical mass of unionists who can do just that. Always remember: it is unconscionable to ask oppressed people to suppress or repackage their truths for the greater good, which often simply means for the powerful and privileged. Instead, new vocabularies of activism, including spaces like Twitter, must be accepted as sites where those who have been oppressed can share ideas, reject attempts at their dehumanization, and make non-negotiable demands.

Doing it for the gram: Instagram as a medium for teaching and learning for social justice
While social media on the whole has the capacity for activism, I have found that the visual-driven nature of Instagram lends itself quite well to sharing information in quick, bite-sized pieces. From images with thought-provoking quotations, infographics that elucidate anti-racist practices, to promoting important resources, Instagram is a platform that provides opportunities for teaching and learning about dismantling anti-Black racism. Many of the tweets that were first formulated to inspire reflection in those following me on Twitter were later turned into visually pleasing Instagram posts with detailed captions. It is the caption option that allows for further exploration of the original thought, something more difficult to achieve on Twitter because of character limits and the reality that not everything should be a thread. Even though posts are often not commented on, frequent dialogue definitely takes place in the DMs. This is a space where many education workers have felt comfortable enough to pose questions, ask for clarification, or simply share related anecdotes of affirmation or struggle. In my role as OSSTF/FEESO’s first ever Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Training Officer (DABRTO), this type of dialogue gave me the chance to assist education workers across the province, but also helped me to further refine and develop resources that members needed to effectively work to eradicate anti-Black racism in education. Based on members’ interactions with me, I decided that sharing resources was needed so education workers could have easy access to texts such as the Try This Instead series, a three-part resource that features salient forms of anti-Black racism and how to deal with them in video, infographic, and booklet format.

And, even though my primary focus on Instagram has been to feature images that inform, it has also become a place to feature podcasts that I have been a guest on so education workers can learn from how others make their thinking visible, especially when critically interrogating anti-Black racism in education and unionism. It will also become the home for a new (hopefully) monthly podcast hosted by me, called D19 Dialogues: Blue Table Talk, that will explore how our local continues to work towards dismantling anti-Black racism. Moving forward, one of the best ways to engage people in this learning might be combining the visual with oral communication. The most natural extension of Instagram, if brave enough, would be TikTok. However, that platform certainly is not for the faint of heart or those with limited editing skills, like myself. So, the next best thing will be engaging in Instagram Live, with the aim of cultivating organic interaction, impromptu discussions, and new ways of organizing and building an anti-racist union. Embracing the means by which oppressed people choose to communicate is how we will all get free.

About judy mckeown
judy mckeown is a Teacher Bargaining Unit member of District 19, Peel. At the time of writing she held the position of Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Training Officer in District 19, Peel.

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