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When the digital world doesn’t reflect you, add your own voice

This article originally appeared on OpenCanada.org on September 29, 2017 as part of a larger series with 6 Degrees Citizen Space 2017 speakers entitled Walls that need to go: Ideas for a more inclusive world. See full post here.

In my work as a journalist, I come across this argument regularly: our world is increasingly polarized and we are using technology to divide ourselves. It’s a means to prove that niche digital communities are creating virtual walls, rather than virtual bonds.

I would offer a different view — in defense of digital storytelling communities across identities that are speaking to their own real, lived experience, and can no longer be ignored. These are communities that have always existed, but have not always been allowed to enter the conversation — as mandated by those with the power to set an agenda that is exclusive.

This has prompted communities and individuals to define and defy narratives on their own accord, rather than have them defined and framed for them. When people hear about “niche” community, they immediately think of the toxic alt-right’s proliferation of hate speech and disdain, which has spread quickly and dangerously. They overlook the incredibly creative and entrepreneurial expression bursting out of places that have been mired in negative, helpless narratives.

When I look for inspiration on this front, I’ve found media companies and collectives formed by young people in Pakistan that have grown into far-reaching enterprises, reclaiming space and negative narratives about youth in a country pathologized by stories terrorism and violence.

In a similar vein, for young queer Muslims seeking solidarity and wanting their stories reflected back to them across borders, these communities and platforms present a critical opportunity. Sometimes, they are a means of survival. And women from Afro-Caribbean diasporas share some of the most inspiring and politically charged work I have seen online. Young people across the world who have long felt marginalized from and misrepresented by mainstream news are not interested in reductive narratives: they are creating and celebrating their own futures for the world to take note. And we need to listen.

There is a decisiveness in this digital age to no longer produce for the colonial, or “white” gaze — but to do things on one’s own terms. They create without begging for recognition and room in traditional formats and media newsrooms. And with this unapologetic production, audiences grow and grow.

Meanwhile, traditional newsrooms need to reflect on their own practice. Some are being influenced by digital storytelling communities from around the world — from the ways that they report on certain identities and communities to the language that they use to do so — but they are still struggling with meaningful gender and racial representation in their own newsrooms.

To break down walls, we need both — greater representation in positions of power at influential media outlets and full support of the celebratory works of young people tired of being made invisible, and ready to define the terms that will dominate the next generation.

Sana A. Malik is the Founder and Creative Director of This is Worldtown, a platform featuring content exclusively by women of color storytellers from around the world. Sana is Pakistani-British-Canadian and previously worked in gender and development in Lebanon,Tanzania, Burkina Faso and the UK. She is currently pursuing an M.S. in Documentary Journalism at Columbia University in New York.