Tears mixed with memories, moments of levity and inspiration as three media justice advocates were honored today by the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication, Inc. at the 36th Annual Everett C. Parker Telecommunications Lecture and Awards Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
Helen Brunner, a longtime philanthropist and founding director of the Media Democracy Fund, delivered this year’s lecture. Gigi Sohn, a Distinguished Fellow at Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a Benton Foundation Fellow, received the Everett C. Parker Award in recognition of 30 years of work in support of greater public access to affordable and open broadband technologies. And Kevin Sampson, founder and director of the D.C. Black Film Festival, received the Donald H. McGannon Award in recognition of special contributions to advancing the role of women and persons of color in the media.
OC Inc., the UCC’s media justice ministry, created the Parker Lecture in 1983 to recognize its founder’s pioneering work as an advocate for the public’s rights in broadcasting. In 1963, Rev. Parker filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission that ultimately stripped WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, of its broadcast license for its failure to cover the local African-American community. The court case also established the principle that the public could participate in matters before the agency.
Brunner recalled that she first experienced the legacy of Parker’s work when she attended the D.C. Public Schools and a teacher assigned her class to monitor how African-Americans were depicted on local television shows. She said that although the District’s population was then about 70 percent black, “Amos and Andy” reruns filled half of daytime programming. Despite the passage of years, she said, we “still have the same problem.”
Brunner devoted much of her address to the audience of advocates, policy makers and faith leaders to the importance of addressing mental health concerns and practicing self-care—particularly as it relates to social justice advocates. She acknowledged that she had “almost died from my own self-inflicted pressures,” but that in the two years since she had stepped down from directing the Media Democracy Fund, she had taken steps to address her own mental health and learn more about the nature of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
She acknowledged that media justice advocates have watched the work of “decades-long battles. . . be destroyed with a stroke of a pen.” Brunner said that “organizers, activists and advocates are … fairly exhausted and overwhelmed” and living in a “fight, flight or freeze mode.”
“The ground has shifted,” she said, “and many things that used to work, don’t any longer.” She encouraged her audience to fight burnout and to recognize that social justice work would “go better if you protect your mental, physical, and spiritual health. Your work will be more effective and creative if it comes from expansive rather than constrictive thoughts, if it comes from love rather than fear and overwhelm.” She emphasized that “the future is going to happen and we have a choice: we can work for the future we want, or we can let it happen. Know that you will have results.” Brunner drove home her message by coaching her audience in a round of meditative breathing, and providing a break of laughter by encouraging them to bat beach balls around the sanctuary of First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Washington.
Sohn recalled her early days at the Ford Foundation, looking through “its dusty basement archives” to learn more about its involvement in supporting communications law and policy advocacy. She said that she found a copy of the ruling that Warren Burger, then chief justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, made in Parker’s landmark case, with a handwritten note from Burger addressed to McGeorge Bundy, then the foundation’s new president. The note read: “I think this might interest you.”
“Thanks to Everett Parker’s efforts,” she noted, “a new field was created, along with the resources needed to protect the public interest in communications.”
“In these difficult times,” she said, “when much of what we have worked for so hard and for so long is being dismantled, we should all strive to be like Everett. His was an uphill battle too, also during a dark time in our country’s history. Nevertheless, he persisted as we will, too.” She said she drew energy from the new advocates in the field, looking forward to a time when “the pendulum will swing back in our favor” and “the arc of the moral universe will bend toward media and social justice.”
Sampson recalled that he had been sitting “on the floor of the ping pong room in the Google office of San Francisco” late last year when he received the news that his grandmother had passed. A Google Next Generation Policy Leader, Sampson said that the experience gave him a sense of responsibility to “give back for the sacrifices made for me.” He said his work to increase the voices of women and people of color in the media— “tough and thankless as it is at times”—is “a way to open doors in the way doors have been opened for me.”
Sampson recalled with sadness and concern that coming home from that same trip, he learned that his six-year-old daughter had told her mother that “she wished her skin was white.” Bringing home the urgency of his work to the audience, he spoke about having to teach his three-year-old son that “he can’t act like he’s shooting a gun made out of a plastic card in a restaurant because some people may want to kill him.” Noting the “Making Black Lives Matter Through Film” panel that his festival has organized, he said, “If the stone of a conversation can have a ripple effect in the pond of care and compassion and allow my son to make it home safely in the future. . . it’s worth it.”
Sampson concluded by asking, “What’s the ‘why?’ that will help you push through those late nights, or times when you want to give up? It’s in that pure place that we can combat the injustices in our world in an effort to keep the focus on the beauty of it. Because what I’ve seen is that even when your why comes from a ‘selfish,’ personal place, there’s always someone who can relate and who will benefit from your effort. It’s only truly selfish when we don’t act.”
About the United Church of Christ: The United Church of Christ is a mainline Protestant denomination comprised of nearly 900,000 members and 5,000 congregations nationwide. Headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, the UCC is a church of many firsts, including the first mainline denomination to ordain a woman, the first to ordain an openly-gay man and the first predominantly white denomination to ordain an African American. The UCC and its members are tireless advocates for social issues such as immigration reform, racial equality, LGBT rights, marriage equality, environmental protection and economic justice. The Parker Lecture is the only lecture in the country to examine telecommunications in the digital age from an ethical perspective. More information is available at https://uccmediajustice.org/content_item/parker2018.
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