Project Update: Race, Money, and Power

by annabelle - June 21, 2016

In the past few months since the website launched, we’ve been pretty quiet. That’s because we’ve spent more of that time listening than speaking, more energy reflecting and learning than creating.  Until this post, we’ve written almost nothing about our intentions for and thoughts about the project. We wanted Behind the Blue Line to stand on its own with little commentary to distract from our participants’ words. We’d like to take this blog post as an opportunity to bring transparency to that process and share some updates.

Changes to the Project

One of our main efforts over the past couple months has been  developing cross-racial collaborations  and partnerships. We’re excited to share that two phenomenally talented artists are joining the Blue Line team:  photographer Den-Zell Gilliard and spoken-word artist Joe Davis. You can read about them here. We’re also exploring the possibility of partnering with local racial justice organizations in order to make this project more accountable to affected communities.

Joe Davis reciting poetry at a protest calling for justice  Jamar Clark. Photo by Annabelle

These developments are partially a response to feedback we’ve gotten about our project since its launch, and partially a product of our desire from the outset to make every aspect of Behind the Blue Line consistent with the ethics in which it’s grounded.

The Role of Race

From the beginning, we’ve been attentive to our role as white people heading up a project about an issue  that  mainly affects  people of color.  We didn’t want to contribute to the long legacy of  white people profiting from,  misrepresenting, and consuming for entertainment the stories of people of color. Regardless of our good intentions, the fact that we’ve been raised in a white supremacist culture means that there’s a real possibility of our project continuing that legacy. We have been and continue to be in constant dialogue about ways to dismantle that power dynamic in our work.

Catholic Worker protesters block off the light rail tracks outside the Minnesota Twins Stadium. Photo by Annabelle

From the outset, we’ve felt that one essential strategy is grounding the project in  non-hierarchical, cross-racial collaborations and partnerships. Despite several efforts to reach out to local justice organizations and activists, it was hard to generate interest without anything more tangible than a plan. We decided to focus on building the site before approaching more people about it.

After the website launched, interest in the project greatly grew and we found ourselves in a much stronger position to bring in new people and groups.

Collaborating with justice organizations and  people of color is not, on its own, a radical or transformative praxis. Diversity is not synonymous with justice. We recognize that we also need to critically examine power dynamics within our working relationships as a multiracial team. As white people in a society that has inherited white supremacist ideology, we know we definitely don’t have all the answers, but we’re committed to relentless, proactive self-reflection and an ongoing process of incorporating feedback.

Fundraising

Once the website and fundraiser went live, people started voicing understandable concerns about the intentions behind our fundraising. Ideally we wouldn’t have to fundraise because it’s difficult and can at times come off as unsavory. Ultimately though, the material costs and the time this project needs to succeed necessitate it.

The fundraiser is probably the most uncomfortable part of the project because it can seem that we’re profiting from people’s stories.  However, we’re working under a non-profit fundraising model, meaning all funds go back into the project. We’re still in the process of raising money to pay off material, website, and transcription costs. Although our goal is to also raise enough money to give each  artist working on this project a stipend, this will probably not be possible within the first year. This means we’re giving our expertise as photographers and oral historians to the project largely pro bono, and do not expect to recoup that given this project’s extensive startup costs and labor. When we do raise enough to compensate artists for their time, we will pay Joe and Den-Zell first.

That said, we strongly believe in the value of supporting artists to do their work and hope to raise enough to cover these stipends. That money would allow us to spend enough time on the project to allow it to truly thrive.

Paying Participants

Another question people raised about the fundraiser is why we didn’t allocate money to pay participants. Though we completely understand the sentiment behind this idea, we ultimately feel that it could jeopardize the project given the highly sensitive and vulnerable nature of these stories. We want to be sure that participants feel completely comfortable and empowered having their stories on the internet. Money has power, and that at times that power can be coercive, compelling people to make choices they might not otherwise feel comfortable or safe making. This is why it feels inappropriate for us to offer money in exchange for people’s stories.  We don’t want it to cloud a person’s clarity about whether it fully makes sense to participate in this project.

Besides, what does it say when we put a price tag on someone’s story?

All that said, we believe in non-coercively compensating people for their time and emotional labor. We give each participant full, non-commercial ownership over their interview and portrait, and are open to hearing other ideas about non-monetary compensation. More importantly, we encourage people to only participate if it feels good to do so.

Thus far, those who shared their stories have told us they feel a sense of validation, empowerment, and sometimes healing from being in the project.

Co-Creation

Once someone decides to be part of this project, we treat them as co-creators and work to include them in every step of the production of their story.  From the outset we’ve given project participants full control over how their story is used and represented. We ask participants to share ideas for questions and topics to bring up in their interview, and to pick a setting that makes the most sense for their portrait. Before the interviews and photos are made public , participants have the opportunity to review them and make any edits they see fit.

Brettina speaking at the Behind the Blue Line launch party. Photo by Annabelle

We ourselves do not edit the content of these interviews. Any changes besides grammar and punctuation are at each participant’s discretion. If at any point someone decides that they don’t want to be in the project, we completely respect that decision.

Legality

Because participating in this project can come with serious risks, we’ve worked with a lawyer who represents victims of police brutality to vet the project and help write  the release form that each participant signs. Anyone who has an open claim or trial is asked to speak to their lawyer before participating.

Deep Listening

If you have feedback, critique, or questions, we encourage you to share them with us. Drop us a line at bluelinemn@gmail.com or use our contact page.

You can also subscribe to our new email list for regular updates on the project.

-Erica & Annabelle

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