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Brandon Forestor Puts Local in Local Internet Organizing - Building for Digital Equity Podcast Episode 13
Brandon Forester is the National Organizer for Internet Rights at Media Justice. We talk about organizing for digital equity and more specifically Brandon's vision for communities having agency over how technology shows up in their neighborhoods and digital communities. We discuss how Media Justice came to prioritize prison phone justice, what organizing is and how local solutions may differ in different communities, and the need to avoid purity politics in doing this work.
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Sean Gonsalves (00:06):
Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast where we talk to people working to expand internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast, and the Connect This Show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Goatee, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Gonzal, talking to people at the events we are attending to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get internet access to everyone. Now, let's see who we have today.
Christopher Mitchell (01:07):
I'm here with Brandon Forester, media Justice organizer for internet rights. It's good to be here. Brandon, how long have you been doing this work?
Brandon Forester (01:15):
I've been with Media Justice for a little over three years, and then I was previously with Free Press for I think about two years. So five years working on internet media technology, about a decade of being an organizer.
Christopher Mitchell (01:28):
And that's like five years working on broadband right now on internet issues is like 50 years. ... it makes you ancient.
Brandon Forester (01:36):
Yeah, I can, I mean, my hair has been churning gray and white, so that might be it.
Christopher Mitchell (01:41):
So tell us briefly what media justice is.
Brandon Forester (01:44):
It's so hard for me to do. We do a lot of things. We work on anything related to media and tech through the kind of intersectional lens of economic, racial, and gender justice.
And so my work focused on the internet. We have folks that are working on surveillance issues, mis and disinformation, really kind of all of the things. And we are an organization who's made up of other organizations in our network. So for example, ILSR is one of the right members of the Media Justice Network. And so really it can depend on what's happening locally and how we can support folks are doing local work but really just anything related to media and tech.
Christopher Mitchell (02:20):
And I feel like you're not going with like the hot and sexy topic that other groups might be prioritizing. like I remember back in the day which was quite a long time ago the, when I first became aware of media justice working on prison phone campaigns That was something that needed to be done.
Yeah. But no one else in the sort of media justice or media, that's a weird thing to use with your organization, your media justice, but in the media ... space. I really picked that up and run with it. Yeah. And I remember thinking, man, that needs to be done, but oh, that's gonna be so hard. Yeah. So how do y'all pick what you're working on? I mean, you just said you have other organizations Yeah. But like within that, how does it actually work?
Brandon Forester (03:00):
So that's in some ways that is a unique example. Or like the exemplar example where it actually came up because that was the issue that people locally were dealing with. The, the members in our network and their community was that they realized that there, you know, there's so many ways that the, the prison system is exploitive or extractive, but that was one of the ways that kept showing up for people.
And it, and it, you know, whatever people think about punishment for people who are inside of institutions, it wasn't punishing those people. It was punishing their family members and the outside community who were the ones that had to pay those expenses. And so that came up from the community. Now, there are times when it might look a little different. So for example, on this internet related work, I'm going actively to folks in our network and saying, Hey, there's this state planning process that's playing out. There's an opportunity for community voices to be included. I don't know if they're actually gonna end up in the final plan, but we won't know if we don't try. Right. And so that's a little bit more top down. And then you have sometimes, like this group of high school students in Baltimore -- Somos -- that were trying to deal with the digital divide in their community.
They came up to a kind of a, a corporate fight with their provider Comcast. And they realized they couldn't, they couldn't hold a Comcast accountable is one city. And so they needed to connect with other people to make it more of a national push. And so they got connected to us through another network member in Philadelphia. And so it happens all different ways. We're, we're in the middle of a strategic planning process right now because we realize we can't say yes to everything. And so I, I don't know what that'll look like in the future, but right now it's, it's really, you know, some of it is us figuring out like
Christopher Mitchell (04:34):
it's so anarchic,
Brandon Forester (04:36):
yeah. Where is, where, is there a space that that needs a little bit of resource? Or where is it that folks on the ground are saying, Hey, this is something that we're dealing with.
And it's not just us. There's, we know there are people in New Orleans and there are people in Twin Cities and there are people in Alaska that are all dealing with the same issue.
Christopher Mitchell (04:51):
Yep. And I feel like surveillance has risen to the top of that in a couple of different ways. One being policies around body cam. Yeah. And, and whether body cam is being done in a way that will benefit the community or not for police body cams. Yeah. that's one I see popping up a lot.
Brandon Forester (05:06):
Yeah. I mean, so I think for me, in some ways the surveillance work and the Internet work are the same, the different sides of the same coin. Because really the way that I think about it, and I think the way that we're starting to think about it more media justice, is we really want communities to have agency over how technology shows up in their communities, whether or not that's lack of access to useful technology to them, or the ways that technology has harmful access to them.
And, you know, the police body came. Like that's a, I feel like that can be a kind of a, a good example of like a challenging subject. So for us, because we have a broad range of folks in our network, and because we have kind of commitments to building towards the world that we want to see, we sometimes can get caught in this debate between what is something that is gonna be a reform that's gonna move us towards that world we wanna see or what is something that actually is a reform that is entrenching the world that we're stuck in and just making it a little less bad. And so I think that's true a lot in surveillance. I remember on a previous podcast you were talking about how schools needed fiber because they had to run all the cameras that the schools had
Christopher Mitchell (06:11):
To archive tons of video Yeah. Across the network. Because, because if there was an altercation or a student got in trouble, parents would ask, I wanna see the video before I decide if little Johnny or Susie is responsible. You know, and how I wanna react to that.
Brandon Forester (06:26):
What if some of, I mean, I, I think the schools should have fiber, so I'm not saying Right. But for the purpose of like watching kids. But, you know, I think that in general, there are a lot of times when we use our limited resources as communities, and I don't mean like the community members, but the, the, whether it's municipal, state administrator, folks, administrator... And, you know, public safety, public safety, public safety. And so you'll see where they'll often be spending so much money on these systems that are kind of watching us or trying to figure out, you feel like we're almost in a, in a adversarial relationship with our own government because they don't trust us as opposed to actually thinking, well maybe if we invested in things like affordable Internet or locally owned Internet or community run Internet, then maybe that would help to make it so that we don't have these problems.
Where we're seeing that there's diff there's actually a, I'll stop a sec, but there's actually this great participatory action research study in New York in Red Hook that was done between the Red Hook Initiative, which is a community broadband provider. And this group called Real Rights. And they were talking to young folks about what is it that you see as the contributors to community violence that young folks experienced in their lives. And there were two main things. One was that because of the way that the city policing had kind of taken over public spaces, young folks didn't feel comfortable being in community together there. And on the other side, now where they were finding community was on these social media places that are like toxic, driven by this kind of toxic engagement. And so these little things that would be these little beefs that would just be something that would be like a joke or get squashed or whatever in face-to-face communication became these things that turn into violent circumstances.
So I'm not saying that, you know, if we don't think about schools providing fiber because they need to survel the students, but instead so they can, like, I'm not saying that that's gonna solve all of our problems, but I'm just saying like, I think we should see those things as connected.
Christopher Mitchell (08:13):
Right. No, I mean, I think an example would be the, the amount of resources that go into getting a bunch of video surveillance up on, on high crime neighborhoods and like what if that money was put into creating real economic opportunities for people to have jobs Yeah. Or, or, or more ability for people to like be out on the streets and feel safe in the streets some way so that there was more of those eyes that were out there Yeah. Catching things. So, yeah.
And I think that's the, that's the thing is that like, I mean, I, I look at the body cam stuff and some of the surveillance issues and I think, you know, like, well, sure if I got mugged, I'd love to have some video evidence of it. But really that's not the question. Right? Yeah. Like, and, and the question is also that pill that kills me. Who is evaluating this stuff after one year, right. After three years? What is the cost benefit analysis this Right. Versus putting money into youth engagement programs so kids have something to do. Yeah. And I think those are the questions that, that we get asked a lot, but that, that, that we should be asking. But I, I do wanna ask you, so yeah, organizer. You're an organizer.
Brandon Forester (09:09):
Christopher Mitchell (09:09):
So how, how is that different from someone who's just trying to get Internet access out to people?
Brandon Forester (09:14):
Well, I don't think it necessarily has to be. and I just came from a panel where I was talking about kind of advocacy. And I feel like for me, what organizing is is it's about building power. And what the goal of an organizer is, is to create a situation where they don't need to exist. Where that job doesn't need to exist anymore. Now, it might be the case if you're an advocate that's more service based, that services might always be necessary, you know, whatever those services are. I'm trying to,
Christopher Mitchell (09:44):
like if you're doing a food pantry or something like that.
Brandon Forester (09:46):
Yeah. Well, IM, yes, as if you're doing a food pantry, but it might also be the case that those folks are working for the food pantry. I dunno, maybe they think like, we wanna make sure that the food pantry exists forever, and that means that people have to be hungry.
I don't think that's how they are thinking about it.
Christopher Mitchell (09:58):
No, but my point is, I think there's always gonna be some emergency that causes some families to need food. Hopefully it's not the same families over and over.
Brandon Forester (10:05):
That's right. That's right. And so, yeah, I think that that's, that's what I would say is maybe a little different, but I, I don't think that's a huge difference. It's maybe about my perspective of how I see what my role is and what my end goal is, is to, to think in little ways, how do we shift the system so that these conditions that we're trying to provide services for or try to correct against are not the conditions of my kids or my kids' kids, or, you know, future generations.
Christopher Mitchell (10:31):
What, what does it mean to build power?
Brandon Forester (10:33):
To build power? I, I mean, we could do a whole podcast on that.
I think, you know, power is the ability to get something that you want in some sense. And so when I think about communities, like building power means for them to, it can be a lot of different things. So at some level it's like the community, like building enough of a cohesion that they're able to ask for what they want. Was it, I don't want to get the, get it wrong, but the quote of like, you know, power concedes nothing without an organized demand. And so I think that it's something about like being able to not just articulate what you want, but being able to ar to do it in a way that is strategic and being able to do it in a way to where you understand you're gonna face challenges, but you're ready for those ch I don't know. I feel like I'm rambling.
I dunno if that's a great answer.
Christopher Mitchell (11:19):
No, I think this, you know, I don't, I don't know that we need a textbook. Yeah. Like answer. I think it's worth just going through how people think about these issues. So what, what is something that inspires you? You know, you're working on Internet issues, there's probably things over the five years you've been focused on this. What are some of the things that you've seen that just really like know that you're in the right place for this work?
Brandon Forester (11:40):
For me like I said, you know, my thought is about how do we, how do we fundamentally change systems? So I had mentioned this group Somo before.
Christopher Mitchell (11:50):
and they're so cool.
Brandon Forester (11:51):
They're so cool. They're so cool. They're, they're a group of high school students who had never done anything around digital equity. They were trying to address issues for immigrant and English learning students in their school district.
And during the pandemic, they came together and realized that they had this like, shared kind of shameful secret that a lot of folks didn't have the Internet at home and they weren't able to participate during the pandemic. And so, you know, there's a lot of that that's really incredible. And the students are so amazing, and they got so much media attention. They were so good. One of the students gotta go and speak to the vice president at a round table that was live broadcasted. But what, what what really brought me joy is I was telling my dad about this story and he was like, how is that possible? Like, how is that possible that they're in a situation where like they're, the only way that they can get Internet and it's not even Internet that's good enough for them to attend class is if their school district is being held hostage by their monopoly provider to say, you're either gonna pay us like $600,000, or we're gonna cut off this free Internet that's not even good enough to attend classes.
And my dad asked a few questions like, how is that possible? I shared a little bit about, you know, the racial digital divide and historical redlining, how it contributes. And my dad said, huh, I guess we need socialist Internet <laugh>. And I was like, yes. But that also came up in the last panel too. And I, you know, people might not say we need socialist Internet. You might not say like, we need socialist internet.
Christopher Mitchell (13:14):
I, I don't say that for instance, <laugh>.
Brandon Forester (13:16):
No, you wouldn't say that. But for me is, is that there's a realization that, that with, that the Internet should be thought of more as a utility. And with that is coming the idea, well maybe that utility shouldn't necessarily be one that's driven by profit motive. Not to say that it doesn't need to be able to, you know, fund itself.
We're not talking about necessarily like the post office. Yeah. And so I, I, I feel like there's just kind of a, an acknowledgement that these large ISPs, whether it's because they're not accountable to communities, when communities want to challenge them or because we don't like what they do with our data and they're part of the surveillance state, or, you know, all of these different reasons why we might have issues with them. People are starting to realize that we want different solutions. We want self-reliant, local accountable solutions. And a lot of times what that looks like is this small shift is saying, we want this to be a public good. And so for me, that's a little bit of people who may not, may not be as open to hearing challenges to the capitalist system are saying, well, there's a place where I see the profit motive actually is really bad for my community and it doesn't work.
Christopher Mitchell (14:26):
Yeah. And I, I have complicated reactions to that in some ways.
Brandon Forester (14:30):
Christopher Mitchell (14:31):
and, and the funny thing is I just feel like I don't mind that, I guess a big complicated world, even just Baltimore is, is complicated, right? And like, we don't need some sort of solution that, like, that like hits all of the, that dots all the i's
Brandon Forester (14:45):
Christopher Mitchell (14:46):
That's not how, that's not how the world works. Right. Right, right. And we gotta figure out what we're gonna do about it. And that's where I feel like you and, and media justice are out there. you know, for people who are, who are familiar, like I feel like we have great allies in DC but you're one of the other non DC based organizations that's out working with communities. And like, you know, I think I can see that, I don't know in your case, but like we work with Comcast on some issues
Brandon Forester (15:10):
Christopher Mitchell (15:11):
And, and recognize that also we're frustrated with them on other issues. Yeah. And, and that's kind of how it works. And like I feel like that's one of the things I'm curious about as an organizer.
Brandon Forester (15:19):
Christopher Mitchell (15:19):
When you think about that, that building power, I really worry when I see sort of politics of purity stuff. Yeah. Yeah. Because like I could be really angry with Comcast and also recognize there's really great people who are doing things that we'll make a difference.
Brandon Forester (15:32):
Like Yeah, absolutely.
Christopher Mitchell (15:33):
You know, like I just think about Internet Essentials connected, I don't know, between a million, 2 million people, something like that. Like over the past 10, 12 years, I haven't done that. <laugh>.
Brandon Forester (15:41):
Neither have I. Neither have I.
Christopher Mitchell (15:43):
And and the thing is is that like, is that we don't have to be like, they're terrible. We're awesome.
Brandon Forester (15:48):
Christopher Mitchell (15:49):
And, and I just, I think that's important for people to hear and I think as someone who's out there like doing the work Yeah.
You know, like that's just, I just dunno. I think people need to hear that.
Brandon Forester (15:58):
Yeah. I think that's fair. And I am not, I'm not saying that everybody should be of my opinion. You know, I'm not saying everybody should be out here being like socialist internet. You know, that's, that's, that's fine. And certainly folks who are working locally, it's really important. You know, you're gonna, those are your partners, you know. Right.
Christopher Mitchell (16:14):
In Maryland's a good example, right, right. You could have Baltimore have a majority of people be like, yes, socialist internet.
Brandon Forester (16:21):
Christopher Mitchell (16:21):
And you drive 45 minutes northwest of there. Yeah. And people are like, no, <laugh>. Yeah. You know, and actually like, you drive another 15 minutes northwest of there and they're like, yes. Yeah. And that's what we want is people to have like options to control.
Brandon Forester (16:31):
That's exactly. Control, right. Control over their lives. People to make those decisions. Yeah. Yeah. That's what's most important for us. And I, I, you know, I talk about what the world I wanna see. I wanna see a world where like my ability to access resources is not based on my ability to afford them. Exactly. At least for the basic
Christopher Mitchell (16:45):
Brandon Forester (16:46):
And so, but, but at the bottom of my work, what really we're striving for, I think is what you all are too, is that we want whoever is your provider, whether it's private, co-op, pub, public community, what whatever it looks like, that they're accountable to the community. And so there's an issue
Christopher Mitchell (17:00):
That's exactly right.
Brandon Forester (17:01):
Yeah. That they, the community can get it addressed. And that's where, for me, it's not even that, like, it's not that I'm saying that Comcast is bad, although I may think that, but what I'm saying is that their requirement is to respond to their shareholders.
Christopher Mitchell (17:16):
Brandon Forester (17:16):
Like, that's who they're accountable to. They're not accountable to the kids in the high school in Baltimore. Right. As much as they may want to be, or as much as they may want to show that they care about community, that's not who they're legally required to be accountable to. That's right. And so it's that structure that's the issue. It's not actually Comcast for me.
Christopher Mitchell (17:35):
Yeah. And that's, that's what I always think is so important. And I love that you brought that up. I just feel like it took me an embarrassingly long period of time to understand what like a Wall Street economy is like and understanding the difference between a for-profit Fortune 100 company and a local business
Brandon Forester (17:52):
Christopher Mitchell (17:53):
For profits. Yep. And, and the difference is there and, and also that, that some cities and co-ops are run by people that I think are really myopic and are not accountable.
Brandon Forester (18:02):
Christopher Mitchell (18:02):
They're like little kings that That's right. Queens that need to be more accountable and there's some businesses that do a hell of a good job.
Brandon Forester (18:07):
Christopher Mitchell (18:08):
And so that's where I just, again, the politics of purity, I think we need to get beyond that. Yeah. And, and people just need to appreciate that. So this is terrific. one last question for you.
Brandon Forester (18:17):
Christopher Mitchell (18:18):
what do you think about your Google Pixel Watch <laugh>?
Brandon Forester (18:22):
Christopher Mitchell (18:23):
I'm happy with mine too, honestly. I just, I have looked at that and we're like, I'm, we're on the same watch and I'm all right with it.
Brandon Forester (18:29):
I feel like I like the size.
Christopher Mitchell (18:31):
I would like a bigger watch and, which is funny cuz I have the tiniest wristfor any adult male that you'll ever meet. That's so funny. I'm glad, I think the podcast listeners will be glad to know this.
Yes. No, this is the kind of charm that I think I like to bring to our, our audiences. So yeah, it's been wonderful to talk to you
Brandon Forester (18:48):
for sure. And it also, it's an example of how I also am not a purist because Google is also a, you know, they have some things, the issues we'd like to them address, but I'm also like deep in the Google Google ecosystem, you know? Yeah. And so,
Christopher Mitchell (19:01):
yeah, no, and then, you know, there's, there's really great folks for a lot of different areas and at a certain point there was someone who said it and she, and this person, she said it so brilliantly, and I can't remember it for the life of me, but she was like, if you were spending like three hours driving around to try to like basically do like some sort of like local like artisanal solution to this thing when like you should be like, you know, using that time to be organizing and helping people, like, you know, like and then like I said, this is probably the possibly the worst possible recap of it, but the idea is that you need to be useful with your time.
We live in a society, we make certain compromises. We have to figure out how to do work that matters to people.
Brandon Forester (19:42):
Christopher Mitchell (19:43):
And not develop these standards that where we feel like we have to do unreasonable things before we can sleep well with ourselves.
Brandon Forester (19:49):
Christopher Mitchell (19:51):
Excellent. Thank you so much. Yeah, thank you.
Sean Gonsalves (19:55):
We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcasts at ilsr.org/podcast. Since this is a new show, I'd like to ask a favor. Please give us a rating wherever you found it, especially at Apple Podcasts. Share it with friends. You can even embed episodes on your own site. Please let us know what you think by writing firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, we'd like to thank joseph mcca.com for the song on the Verge.