the new media/new democracy forum took place march 19-20 in warsaw, poland. organized by the US embassy, the forum explored the ways in which new media can and have empowered citizens to organize and participate in the political process. the forum brought together young and old, history and the present, media analysis and media creation.
the forum began, smartly, by placing new developments in media and democracy within historical and polish contexts. this was done first by a keynote talk by stefan bratkowski, a journalist, writer, and organizer whose 50+ years of work has promoted public discourse and debate within poland. he was then joined by a panel of polish media makers and freedom fighters: andrzej borzym, a journalist with radio free europe from 1981-1994; mirosław chojecki, a documentary filmmaker and former underground publisher and activists; and andrzej paczkowski, a historian, professor, and author of many books on the history of polish press.
the evening program included a panel on traditional and new media in repressive societies that featured alaksei dzikavitski (of BelSat tv in belarus), a representative (who refrained from using her name for security reasons) from european radio for belarus, and jacek michałowski (of the polish-american freedom foundation) and moderated by jim wolfe, press attache at the US embassy. the evening concluded with a moving (but, unfortunately, non-translated; the rest of the forum was expertly translated into english and polish) play called "democracy" - written by edward gordon craig, directed by inka dowlasz, and performed with passion by the students at giedroyc college of media and communication.
the forum's second day began with the americans: joe rospars, new media director for obama's presidential campaign; me; and moderator candace faber, deputy cultural attache at the US embassy, main organizer of the forum, and an alumnus of UW where, years ago, we worked under the same roof at the simpson center for the humanities.
it was a real treat to share a stage with joe and to hear his ideas and strategies for employing digital media like social networking sites, online video, text messages, and good old fashioned email to transform obama supporters into obama organizers. for joe, and for obama, it was not enough for supporters to donate money and vote on election day. instead, it was important, if not integral, for supporters to participate in the political process - to organize local events, to educate neighbors, to share opinions and positions, and to foster networks.
next up was me, and i spoke about the september project. i began with a few examples: a book display at an academic library in seattle; an art workshop for kids, teens, and adults in a public library in buenos aires, argentina; student voter registration at cape central high school in missouri; a film screening and discussion at a public library in lithuania; and four days of events at a public library in milford, new hampshire. next, i explained the project's three rules: events must be free, events must be public, and events should be about issues that matter to the community the library serves.
i continued by suggesting how the structure of the september project resembles some of the best characteristics of the internet - decentered, grassroots-driven, flat hierarchies, and built and grown through networks. i explained that libraries are another kind of network and that library systems can serve as powerful agents and foster what i like to call distributed civic engagement.
i concluded by echoing something that joe said: that democracy is not about a single vote in a single election - it is something that we do, collectively, over and over and over again. and it is something that looks different in different times and different places. like democracy, the september project assumes no one shape - there is no cookie-cutter model for participation. the project's success is not measured in numbers but rather in diversity, and it exists not only as an event but also, and perhaps more importantly, within the processes and relationships fostered before, during, and after the events.
following lunch was a panel on new media in poland, featuring: jarosław milewski and krzysztof krejtz of the institute for social psychology of internet and communication, or SPIK; grzegorz piechota, special projects editor at gazeta wyborcza (which blogged many of the forum's events); and tomasz płudowski, author, editor, and professor. the panel was moderated by susan parker-burns, counselor for public affairs at the US consulate in krakow. for me, the highlight was piechota's presentation, "news as community," which recounted his paper's innovative and highly successful experiments with user-generated journalism and local activism.
maciej kuziemski (university of warsaw); jakub michałowski (free belarus association); natalia sosin (POLSAT, formerly cafebabel.com); konrad stolarski (association of polish youth); and kamil wiszowaty (projekt: polska). unfortunately, i had a difficult time following this panel. although their talks and discussions were live-translated, i was unfamiliar with many of the issues they were discussing. moreover, jet-lag started to kick in real strong! that said, although each of the panelists had worked and/or were working on interesting projects, many of them were quite negative about the future of new media and democracy within poland. (if blog readers have something to say about this panel - or, naturally, any other part of the forum - please add your perspective with a comment.)
the forum closed with an inspiring convergence between old and young. the forum featured many multimedia components that explored the intersections among new media and democracy. there was a collection of underground publications and an exhibit of audio clips from radio free europe. and there was a gorgeous photo exhibit by konrad wedekind, a young polish photographer who toured parts of the US to document the 2008 election.
there were also contents. the first was a photo competition for polish students focused on "democracy is ..." and organized by the US embassy in collaboration with the center for citizenship education. the second was a democracy video challenge which was part of the larger youtube/US department of state democracy video challenge.
all twenty-six polish entries were available for viewing at the forum. as the forum came to an end, in walked andrzej wajda, the legendary polish filmmaker who, at 82, recently released katyn. gentle and generous, wajda noted that as he grows older he sometimes worries that today's young filmmakers lack an interest in the social and political, in the spaces beyond ourselves where other people and other people's sufferings exist. watching the videos, however, gave him pride and hope for the future. he then called the names of three finalists and gave them trophies for their efforts. standing besides the famous director, the student filmmakers and photographers glowed with pride.
to the student media makers, to the young and old presenters and audience members, to the translators joasia zasun and andrzej rossa, and to the staff of the US embassy in poland, including candace faber, malgosia dzielak, asia kapica, andrea mcglinchey, beata milewska, susan parker-burns, pamela quanrud, iwona sadecka, marta selinger, izabella szarek, and jim wolfe - a hearty thank you until we meet again.