“Do something good… Famously.”

So….this story isn’t really about labor organizing, but it is about a really interesting use of new media. The challenge to “do something good…famously” was provided by an advertising agency to their interns. The interns decided that “…famous was just another way of saying make people listen. Go big. Be heard. Make real change.”

The result was Underheard in New York, an initiative to help make heard the voices of homeless people in New York City by giving four homeless residents of NYC prepaid cell phones and Twitter accounts. While “fighting homelessness 140 characters at a time” may sound like an advertising slogan, consider that in the space of two weeks, each of these men have more than 2,000 followers who are hearing about the experience of being homelessness directly from the voices that are so frequently ignored by those who all too frequently walk by the homeless person on the street. It may not end homelessness, but it is changing communication flows.

This initiative is quite similar to Voces Moviles,, an initiative in Los Angeles working with immigrant and/or low-wage workers to help them create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones, though coming from a very different origin (an advertising intern challenge, versus a popular education NGO in collaboration with a University). It also continues a much longer tradition of putting technology directly in the hands of marginalized populations, not just to help them gain a public voice, but also to help conduct research on conditions in desperately poor communities where outside researchers would be absolutely unable to gather reliable data. I’m thinking here of some of the PhotoVoice projects involving giving young homeless kids disposable cameras to document life at night on the street, or to Dalits in India employed in ‘manual scavenging’–the job of removing human excrement from dry toilets and sewers using basic tools such as thing boards, buckets, and baskets, lined with sacking and carried on the head–an extreme form of caste discrimination.

I haven’t done any research myself on this kind of work, but it is a vibrant area of work and I will try to track down some useful references in days to come….

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