Media and Social Movements: Scholar Traces Source of Letter M

By JL Johnson

I spent last spring writing my dissertation proposal on social movement communication and the social structure of digital media, sometimes taking walks around my Mount Pleasant neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C. A sign announcing the beginning of a school zone stands at the end of my street. Stuck to the sign is a black and white sticker of a cryptic capital letter M. On bad writing days, the M was a reminder that I was struggling to articulate a research project on movements and media. On good writing days, the M inspired wonder. What is this M? Who put it here? Why? What does it stand for?

I would walk east from my apartment to Columbia Heights, a neighborhood nearing total gentrification that historically has been a working class neighborhood for African Americans and Latinos. Ruby Tuesday now welcomes you at the intersection of 14th Street and Monroe Street. A community institution, the Hispanic Theatre Gala, survives next door, Z Burger offers grilled burgers, milkshakes, and fries for $15 at the end of the block. Across the street, corporations display their singularly colored banners at the maximum height allowed by city law. Bright red signs announce Target, the Washington Sports Club, and Staples. Best Buy’s neon yellow complements the attractions. Columbia Heights Metro Station sprawls out belowground. Expansive luxury apartment buildings stretch out to the playgrounds of Lincoln Middle School. The campus rests at the intersection of 16th Street and Irving Street.

16th Street serves as both an actual and invisible line that separates nearly gentrified Columbia Heights from my neighborhood, gentrifying yet resilient Mount Pleasant. By invisible line, I mean that community politics and neighborhood zoning rules seem to keep corporations at bay. By resilient, I mean that small businesses survive by servicing working-class Latinos. The presence of three Laundromats signals the absence of luxury apartment buildings. Haydees offers cheap enchiladas and margaritas. A bodega’s sign reads, “Los Primos Productos Latino.” This is not to say that Mount Pleasant is not gentrifying. A citywide Thai restaurant chain has established a location in the neighborhood. A locally sourced pizza place flourishes. An organic bistro is replacing a bar. The inexplicably named Marx Café hosts no communist conclaves, but its line-dancing night is popular with young white professionals. Sociologically, a conspiratorial link between line-dancing white professionals and the overthrow of capitalism would be ideal. Nonetheless, the M sticker near my apartment was not for Marx Cafe.

Sign that reads M Movement Media Communications Strategy for Social Change

Mount Pleasant Street, for all intents and purposes, runs diagonally from Park to Columbia. It is very short. A nondescript, red-bricked structure sits halfway down the road. This is La Casa, a multiuse community building. During one of my walks, I looked through a window to the right of La Casa’s front door, seeing the fair-trade offerings of an African boutique. Then there it was, to the left of La Casa’s front door, a small sign, white and blue, featuring the very M stuck to the school sign beside my apartment building. And unbelievably, the M stood for Movement Media, the combination of my two subfields.

After a few pass-bys, I found courage to cold-call the offices of Movement Media. I learned that Ryan Fletcher founded Movement Media in 2013 after spending more than a decade in a workers collective called Mintwood Media. Mintwood provided affordable communications and public relations management to non-profits and progressive groups engaging in social change oriented projects. Mintwood offered everything from campaign management to media coaching and digital media strategy. Ryan grew Movement Media out of Mintwood with a similar yet more focused mission to “create and anchor public relations and communications infrastructure to build movements, sustain momentum and influence social change.” Through its mission statement, the firm encourages within its own organization the very communicative relationships that it seeks to foster between movement groups and the public sphere. Movement Media focuses on under-heard stories. It seeks “healthy, honest, effective, and horizontally empowering dialogue.” Importantly, it serves as an outlet for social movement communication workers to do globally relevant projects that pay a livable wage.

Movement Media’s current clients can be loosely grouped under the umbrella of the political consumption movement, with a particular emphasis on food and environment issues. Forest Ethics is a non-profit organization supporting environment rights work to protect endangered ecosystems. It has helped transform Fortune 500 companies into best-practice corporations that better protect endangered forests and wildlife. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap is a fair trade company. It produces organic soaps and oils while supporting campaigns for Animal Rights and GMO labeling. In the weeks following my visit to their offices, Ryan and his team of “activists by heart and publicists by trade” were extremely busy helping Fair World Project participate in the People’s Climate March that took place on September 21st 2014 in New York City, where they petitioned the United Nations to prioritize small farmers in the fight against climate change.

Concurrent with the People’s Climate March, Movement Media assisted in organizing and publicizing the 21st annual hemp industry conference and Compassion Over Killing’s annual Vegan Festival, both in Washington, D.C. It was not the best time to host a pesky sociologist, but Ryan graciously answered a few questions by email.

JL: You worked for Mintwood Media before founding Movement Media. Can you talk about your work there, and what about it led you to found Movement Media?

Ryan Fletcher: I joined the Mintwood Media Collective in 2002. Mintwood began in the spring of 2000 as a worker-owned and operated collective providing public relations and communications services to non-profit and social justice organizations. The collective was founded by a group of activists in Washington, D.C. who came together shortly after organizing for the Mobilization for Global Justice, a large protest and rally targeting the April 2000 meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that focused on economic and environmental justice. Coming off the heels of the World Trade Organization shut down in Seattle, Washington, in November 1999, the project was founded during a really explosive and powerful moment of social movement activity. That energy went into the creation and continuance of Mintwood Media.

Mintwood began as a four person collective. It was basically an umbrella for activists working as contractors to share overhead and lean on each other for logistical, administrative and strategic collaboration. We did this work to throw ourselves into social movement work, and the collective helped fund many unpaid activist projects that each of us where involved in. From 2009 -2013, we ceased to operate as a collective when three out of five of the business partners left. When my business partner began preparing to launch a local ballot initiative, it became clear that it was time to end Mintwood and create a new entity that could better meet the needs of my clients. I formally launched Movement Media on October 1, 2013.

JL: What is the strategic significance of a Washington, D.C, location, and why Mount Pleasant?

Ryan Fletcher: I was born and raised in the D.C. area. It’s my hometown. Politically, I think it’s a logical place to be an activist. Our clients appreciate that we are situated here and that we know the D.C. political landscape and media. I live in Mount Pleasant. There’s a rich progressive history here of social struggle.

We are headquartered in La Casa, which has been an important space in the community for decades. It’s been a central meeting space for local organizers and activists. Benefits, film screenings and other progressive events happen there regularly. These are related to immigrant rights, housing and economic justice, environmental sustainability, anarchist, socialist and other left organizing, you name it. It also provides office space to the D.C. Language Access Coalition, a Fair Trade store, another progressive media project, and our business.

JL: Are Movement Media clients usually based in Washington, D.C.? How does a movement group partner with Movement Media? Can you describe the process?

Ryan Fletcher: Right now, none of our regular clients is based in D.C. But many of them have staff here doing lobbying or other work. We are often hired to provide support for protests or other events in D.C.  Location plays an important role in that. Many of our clients hire us in part because we provide a D.C. presence for their work. Typically we meet our clients by word of mouth and referrals from past or current clients. Occasionally we reach out to campaigns or organizations that are interested in working with, but mostly groups contact us. We learn about a group’s issue and try to figure out if and how we can help. Business is steady and sustainable enough that we can make choices based on whether or not the issue “speaks” to us and we can play an effective role in helping the organization meet its communications goals. Often we are too busy to take on new projects and will refer folks to allies who do similar work, like Aid and Abet or D.C. Action Lab. 

JL (after emailing a photo of the M): This sticker is on the back of a sign near my apartment, at the intersection of Newtown Street and 18th Street. It’s you guys right? How did it get there? What’s the story?

Ryan Fletcher: Not sure how the sticker got up on the sign. But yes, that’s definitely one of our stickers! I’m a fan of all things street art and love the concept of building intrigue and curiosity through imagery. The consistent placement of subtle and sharp images around the city is always something I enjoy seeing. Not sure how that sticker got up – but hopefully people see that sticker and wonder, what’s the M? What does it mean? It’s a fun way to engage with the urban landscape. I love artists like Banksy and Swoon, and even D.C.’s own BORF who do this stuff on an even more explosive scale.

We don’t know who put up the sticker, so the mystery of the M is not completely solved. Nonetheless, Ryan might be pleased to know that my interaction with the sticker led to the discovery of his firm, and hopefully their work will interest sociologists looking at social movements and communications.

Isn’t that like most things sociological? We pursue clues, unveil much, but ultimately struggle to find clean and direct causes of our personal experiences.

Return to November 2014 Issue

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