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What is co-creation, and who co-creates? Co-creation resides within a diverse ecosystem of practitioners and systems of knowledge. Chapters include a conversation about co-creation and equity by five media makers of color.

Published onMay 14, 2019


Travelling to the Qobustan petroglyph site, across the flats of central Azerbaijan, one arrives at the base of a sudden, enormous heap of rocky boulders jutting out of the semi-desert. On the interior sides of the rocks, in hidden crevices and sprawled across its interior rock faces, there is a spectacular collection of more than 6,000 prehistoric rock carvings etched over the course of 40 millennia. The petroglyphs feature human figures dancing, warriors with lances in their hands, antelopes and wild bulls fleeing, battle scenes, long boats with lines of armed rowers, caravans of camels, and images of the sun and stars. Here, inscribed in stone, is life on earth and the cosmos, as understood by humanity over time. These carvings also provide evidence of the recurrent practice of the co-creation processes that have shaped our languages, music, texts, performances, architecture, and art over the millennia.

The Qobustan Petroglyph site in Azerbaijan features more than 6,000 prehistoric rock carvings. Photo by Walter Callens. Under Creative Commons.

The remarkable thing about petroglyphs is that they are quite commonplace. They exist almost everywhere in the world, and have been made since the dawn of humanity in Africa. Were they made by priests, prophets, and proto-professional artists, or by ordinary people, collectively, over thousands of years? Of the thousands of engravings at the Qobustan petroglyph site in Azerbaijan, one inscription was likely the work of a single person. Probably the last carving of note here is a piece of graffiti found at the base of the site. It appears to be carved by a Roman legionary passing through the region in the First Century C.E., one who chiseled out a version of the message, “I was here.” The sentiment feels lonely, almost mournful, however, when juxtaposed against the collective spirit rising from the petroglyphs across the interiors of the massive rock faces, and surviving across millennia. What vibrates instead is something joyful and ecstatic, the proclamation, “We are here!”

Yet in the past century and longer, the gazes of commerce and scholarship have tended to focus on the singular, “I was here.” Industrial forms of top-down media privileged the myth of the singular author, which often served as a rationalization of extractive, harmful, and commodifying practices. By contrast, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in a 2009 lecture: “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

From rock carvings to immersive storytelling forms fueled by artificial intelligence (AI), the new Co-Creation Studio at MIT Open Documentary Lab shines a light on under-documented collective media practices. For us, media co-creation is defined by methodologies that offer alternatives to the singular-author vision, and that seek collaborative routes to discovery and towards justice. The spirit of co-creation allows for projects to emerge from process rather than the other way around. It seeks to decolonize the systems that oppress and to stimulate projects that don’t simply document or passively observe the world, but insist on change. This study focuses on the radical practices of co-creating media within communities, across disciplines, and with non-human systems. What emerges is the elegance of collective wisdom, that is, a shared, decentralized understanding that, when intentionally channeled can lead to transformative shifts.

“We Live in an Ocean of Air” (2019). Photo courtesy of Marshmallow Laser Feast.

Yet, today, co-creative practices exist in the margins, in the crevices and hidden rock faces. They are rarely acknowledged, documented, credited, and accounted for. They are buried and overshadowed by prevalent conventions that support the individual author, which we argue is in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon that is now being challenged by the digital era. To clarify, we do not seek to displace singular authorship in media-making. Rather, we are interested in opening up parallel pathways for funding, institutional support, celebration, distribution, and sharing of the complex ecosystem of collective practices that currently exist in the margins.

For this field study, we draw on interviews and group discussions with 160 people, our collected databases of relevant literature and media projects, along with twenty years of our own personal fieldwork and production using co-creative documentary and journalism practices. These practices including Katerina Cizek’s decade-long sojourn at the National Film Board of Canada (2004-2015). Our study is limited mostly to the U.S. and Canada, with references to a few international projects. We begin with documentary, emerging media, journalism, and the arts — all through a critical lens — and extend our search for commonality and alliances into adjacent fields. We trace multiple lineages across time, geography and areas of knowledge.

Collective intelligence is the term coined by cultural theorist Pierre Levy,1 understood as shared, group intelligence emerging from the collaboration, collective efforts, and sometimes competition of many individuals, often appearing in consensus decision making. The concept has been applied to bacteria and animals, especially hived insects. Recently, it has been used to characterize crowdsourcing and the potential of computer systems, as explored by MIT’s own Center for Collective Intelligence. In this study, we are interested in collective intelligence, as it provides us with a system of tools. But the phrase, collective wisdom, goes further, to evoke the spiritual and the philosophical, and broaden our range of questions to ask how to co-create, but primarily, why, and why now.

The term Collective Intelligence is often applied to insects, such as termites, pictured here in their cathedral Termite Mound. Photo by J Brew Under Creative Commons.

This field study launches our Co-Creation Studio into the public realm. It is the assembled result of many years of thought, work, and dialogue. But it is only the beginning of what we hope is a new chapter for our lab—the emergence of a studio. One that researches, supports, and works with many in broad networks to extend the possibilities for collective visions and collective practices. And it is one that insists we name a canon, share our lessons, and find and understand new ways of working. It will be our version of the message that says “we are here.”


Through our research, field experience, and interviews, we have arrived at this definition of co-creation:2

Co-creation offers alternatives to a single-author vision, and it is a constellation of media production methods, frameworks, and feedback systems.

Projects emerge out of process, and evolve from within communities and with people, rather than being made for or about them.

Co-creation spans across disciplines and organizations — even beyond them — and can also involve non-human or beyond human systems.

The concept of co-creation reframes the ethics of who creates, how, and why. Our research shows that co-creation interprets the world and seeks to change it through a lens of equity and justice.

The Making of a Term

Words bear traces of their historical making, but the word co-creation, at least in English, seems something of an anomaly. The Oxford English Dictionary, that compendium of all that has been accepted as part of the language, finds no previous uses of the word, and thus offers no definitions. And yet the Ngram Viewer, based on Google’s digitized book holdings, documents the term’s appearance as early as the mid-nineteenth century, in horticulture, with rapidly escalating usage after 1960. There are many criticisms of Ngram, including that it draws on a limited and culturally- loaded knowledge base, and is distorted by the flaws in the Optical Character Recognition technology it relies on. Still, it links the user to the sources cited and gives a sense of how the term has been deployed. Ngram’s links include texts on sales organizations (“a marketing concept requires co-creation. It calls for living with your customer on all his decision making and influencing levels, at all stages of his planning …”),3 on philosophy, spiritualism, the family, jurisprudence, and music (“Mr. [Paul] Hindemith calls the process by apt but agonizing Americanisms like ‘co-construction’ and ‘co-creation’”).4

More recently, though, co-creation has been on the upswing, picked up by social-movement proponents, management specialists, and big-tech entrepreneurs alike. Unsurprisingly, it enjoys some semantic slippage. Co-creation can mean something as general as participation in a cool new movement, or can be unpacked into nuanced and competing brands that share certain principles while asserting their own particularities (see the interactive graphic of associated practices in this section). Obviously, the term bears a close relationship to some more familiar terms such as collaboration, communal creation, and grassroots.

Another closely associated term includes participation.

“Participation, for me, assumes that there's one person who's created the art that people are participating in, but ultimately, it is that person's project,” said Lucas LaRochelle, of the crowd-sourced cartographical project, Queering the Map, in our interview. They stated: “Co-creation would be a more distributed network of actors coming together to create something.”

“Queering the Map” (2018) is a crowd-sourced cartographical project.

Courtesy of Lucas LaRochelle.

Co-creation overlaps with, and diverges, from other terms used in particular fields. Co-design, for example, implies the collective build of a tool or a platform rather than the co-creation of a project, according to Amelia Winger-Bearskin, an artist and curator, during our interview. Co-authorship describes a wide range of practices, only some of which could be considered co-creative. While some co-authors submit their distinct chapters to each other without discussion, others conceive and write every sentence together. Co-production, is a term often used in the realm of radio to describe co-creation, but in film production it carries a specificity of contracted obligations between production houses, often in different countries or territories.

Absent in the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, and yet deployed for over a century across a myriad of fields, is the term co-creation simply a term with ample cognates? Or does it refer to practices that are so intrinsic to human social behavior that they have failed to be called out and inscribed in language? Perhaps it is symptomatic, and signals a change in the status quo of cultural production, with an attendant shift in assumptions so dramatic that a new term is required to mark the place of the old.

The 160 people who participated in this field study offered many interpretations and definitions of co-creation. Here, we will relate some of those ideas, hoping to position the term co-creation within a more dynamic, open, ecosystem of associated practices in various disciplines and fields.

Our definition is not intended to be prescriptive or to claim territory; it is an offering for those who may find it useful, and an attempt to articulate a shared language and best practices across divergent, specific localities.

A Myriad of Perspectives

What we found striking throughout this study was the range of definitions offered for co-creation and interviewees’ connections to the term. While many participants did not claim co-creation as a term they used to define their practice, throughout our hour-long (on average) discussions they often moved towards a stronger identification with the term. At its core, co-creation is relational. The word connotes a collective sense of ownership, a joint journey of discovery and an abandonment of ego. All participants agreed that co-creation is not for everyone, or every project, or even every stage of every project. But discussing its meaning leads to deeper questions about how media can be, or is created.

“We Live In An Ocean Of Air” (2019). Courtesy of Marshmallow Laser Feast

First of all, when is a media project definitely not co-creation? And how does co-creation differ from participation or collaboration? “If it's about one person's need to tell their particular version of that story, I don't think it's co-creation,” said Nell Whitely of Marshmallow Laser Feast, an immersive storytelling studio in London (UK). Another point of view was given by Nicholas Pilarski, of the Peoples Culture arts collective in New York:

I think if you’re in this to articulate your own personal viewpoint of the world, and if that is your chief desire, then you don't go after co-creation. […] We're after learning something with somebody, [and] going through a process.

Gina Czarnecki, a British pioneer in bio-art— a practice in which humans work with live tissues, bacteria, living organisms, and life processes —specifically distinguished between collaborating with scientists and co-creating with them. In her interview with us Czarnecki stated:

For me, [co-creation] means developing the ideas from concept, [the] original concept. I suppose that's pure co-creation. The other form is finding people who can develop and enhance the project into something that you could never have anticipated yourself. It’s better than the sum of the parts, and taking both of your disciplines and strengths and co-evolve it into something together. That's my understanding of co-creation.

Gina Czarnecki is a multimedia artist who regularly works with human biological materials like fat cells and donated baby teeth. In her work “Heirloom” (2016), she grew living portraits of her daughters through cultivating and nurturing a single sample of their cells taken in 2014. Installation view of “Heirloom”, Gina Czarnecki and John Hunt.

“Co-creation is at the beginning of the process. Everyone's there from the very beginning,” said Toby Coffey of the National Theatre in London. “While collaboration is one person coming into the room with an idea that brings a group of people together.”

Ingrid Kopp, of Electric South, an emerging tech studio based in South Africa, commented: “I would say hiring a technologist to do your bidding is not co-creation.”

Electric South is a South African nonprofit that supports a network of artists across Africa to tell immersive, interactive stories using virutal reality, augmented reality, and other digital technologies.

Elizabeth Miller, documentarian and scholar at Montreal’s Concordia University, said that she thinks of “participation as a continuum. Participation can be consultation, but co-creation feels like the side of participation that really, deeply engages with partnerships.” Whereas Hank Willis Thomas, an artist who says it’s time for a canon for co-creation (which he calls a new form of collaboration), believes that: “It’s diverse and complex authorship.”

Anandana Kapur, artist, scholar and fellow at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab, calls co-creation a “gift economy”, and Babitha George, a designer and festival founder based in Bangalore, reported that:

Co-creation is really about allowing your own practice to be examined and questioned, based on perspectives from other people and other practices. […] So as much as it is about creating something new, it's also about being able to be a little more reflective and thoughtful about your own practice.

Not only does co-creation inspire self-reflection, it suggests shifts in power. Loira Limbal of Firelight Media, a documentary production house in New York, says she sees it as an opportunity to “interrogate what is seen as the norm in how documentary films are made, and wanting to move beyond that to something that is more collaborative.”

Co-creation is often closely connected to social movements. Jenny Lee, of Detroit’s Allied Media Projects, said that it could be a way to describe “the need for naming multiple visions and multiple people, in an organizing sense” to move away from the idea of the ‘single charismatic leader’.”

“CareForce” (2017) is a multimedia public art project about caregivers working the USA. The CareForce project includes film, a mobile app, print materials, an online series, and more, to help amplify the voices of caregivers and raise conversation to help protect workers' rights. Caregivers have worked together with artists to create public demonstrations, know-your-rights print resources, informational trading cards.

Courtesy of Marisa Morán Jahn

Co-creation is used to describe a collective working with each other within a community, or across communities. It can mean professional media-makers working with non-professionals — with people formerly known as subjects and audiences. And as Sam Ford, director of Cultural Intelligence at Simon & Schuster, stated:

It's a mindset to think about the process not as being producer/consumer or sender/receiver … but to understand the creation, circulation, sharing and development of the stories we tell ourselves as a collaborative experience.

“It's about realizing that you're not creating the thing on your own. You're responding and incorporating the feedback,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, Program Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. While Electric South's Ingrid Kopp commented:

There has to be sort of an intention where the work is shared, both in terms of the process and the final product, if indeed there is a final product. […] A lot of that is really about opening yourself up to different ways of working. Which can be really uncomfortable, I think.

Co-creation, our interviewees agreed, requires strategy and frameworks.

“Methodologies are really important, because otherwise people just default to usual ways of talking,” said Heather Croall, director of the Adelaide Fringe Festival. “You'll just revert back to, ‘I think this, and we'll do this.’ People get frustrated about the ambiguity.”

Co-creation is widespread in the digital arts. ‘Collaboration’, a chapter in Explorations in Art and Technology (2018), does not use the term yet it is devoted to co-creation, and documents examples from professional practice, including a theatre company and an interactive installation collective.5

Quite a few of our interviewees clarified that while co-creation is not a word they may use to describe their own work, they feel the word is moving into the current vocabulary, as people search for a way to describe these emerging (yet age-old) sets of practices.

“Co-creation isn't a term that I use, but I understand the principle of it,” said Anishinaabe filmmaker and artist Lisa Jackson, “In the Indigenous film community, there's a lot of talk about ... reciprocity. That is a word that's used a lot”.

Loira Limbal of Firelight said that “the term co-creation has been kind of sneaking into our mix, and it does seem like it could perhaps contain some of these things that we are aiming for, in terms of new models of creating work.” Assia Boundaoui, Algerian-American journalist and filmmaker, noted that she’s been hearing the word more in the last year and stated: “I finally found a word for something that we had been thinking about for a long time, and I'm very interested in telling stories from inside of my community.”

Many people whom we interviewed say that co-creation refers to something larger than one person, one individual. For many, it’s a whole greater than its sum — a transcendental sense of humanity. Opeyemi Olukemi of PBS (US) articulated the following:

Co-creation is the ability for people to humble themselves and let their guard … down, to create something that they cannot do by themselves. […] Co-creation to me is the attempt to reach this whole mind state, where people also understand that everyone has a piece of the collective puzzle. And jointly, and only jointly, can we create something that is truly revolutionary and meaningful.

“The end goal is all of us claiming back our humanity, and for where you are, that means different things,” said documentarist and media strategist Jennifer MacArthur, “Co-creation allows, perhaps, I hope, a way into a process that gets you closer to reclaiming your humanity.”

Stages and the Spectrum of Co-Creation

Co-creation may not be used for all stages of the media-making journey, especially in long-term, ongoing projects. Hank Willis Thomas, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, said that one of the biggest challenges of co-creation is to understanding that partners and relationships come and go, and that in the long view, people may also return. Heather Croall described co-creation broadly as moving from the abstract to the specific, from divergent to cohesive systems that require different skills and relationships along the way. So too, Ethan Zuckerman, Director of MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, described his process as iterative, and changing players as the needs require. Co-creation resides on a spectrum and may be used only at certain stages of a larger project. The following diagram suggests how co-creation sits in the range of a joint discovery process, a parallel track between partners, in which no partner is driving, rather, all are co-pilots.


The big question is why co-create? Why embrace a mode that is often unrecognized, and is perceived as messy? Why now, when media making is already difficult to fund, make, and share? We argue throughout this report that the investment is worth it.

Five reasons to co-create in the making of media surfaced as recurring themes in our research. These themes are identified below in italics, then discussed in depth later in this chapter.

Co-creation helps us navigate uncharted territories of change sweeping the planet, change that includes: technological, digital culture, political and economic upheavals. All of these are intertwined in patterns that legacy 20th-century models are unequipped to handle. Co-creation confronts power systems that perpetuate inequality and offers alternative, open, equitable, and just models of decision-making, rooted in social movements. Co-creation can lean in to complex problems, especially climate crisis in the epoch of the Anthropocene, with the commitment to finding solutions at, and with, peoples living at the local level. Co-creation deals with time differently, and recalibrates our clocks, by insisting on responsiveness but expanding the timeframe of consequences. Finally, co-creation is part of an ecosystem of practices across many disciplines that redefines the public good, civic trust, and the commons. How do we share the world with each other?

Co-Creative projects work with the premise that solutions already often exist at local levels. Ghana ThinkTank is an international collective that creates Think Tanks in “developing” countries to work on solving problems submitted from the “developed” world, flipping common narratives about who is in need and who has the capacity to solve global problems. Above: During this think tank session, Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers analyze problems from residents of the neglected neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. Photo by ArtPort Gallery. Below: Ghana ThinkTank Mobile Unit, Corona Queens, 2011 Maria del Carmen Montoya and John Ewing push the Ghana ThinkTank mobile unit through the streets of Corona, Queens. Photo by Christopher Robbins.

“People are beginning to realize that this super-individualistic view and process of living are quite damaging to the individual and to the planet,” said Opeyemi Okulemi, VP of digital production and innovation at American Documentary at PBS. Okulemi reported:

A result of what happens when you just focus on money and growth and materialism. I think people are hungry for more. They’re hungry for more community. They’re hungry for authentic connection. I think whether people realize it or not, people have become quite lonely and isolated and I think co-creation offers that human to human contact. And I think people also want to be more than they are.

“[Co-creation is] happening in different disciplines, and that's really healthy,” said Electric South’s Ingrid Kopp. “It's just that it's happening in this completely messed-up political era where everything feels very fraught and very dangerous, as well. It's hard to know.”

“My experience is more anchored in the social movements,” said Monique Simard, veteran producer and cultural development executive in Québec:

And because I've been around for a while, I realize how social progress has been achieved by not only co-collaboration, co-working, solidarity, but also … by points in history that merge together and make you do the ‘big leap.’ And after that you can't go back in history or, at least, you're better positioned not to go back in history. All this energy and dynamics come together and make change happen.

In this next section we look at the five major themes uncovered through our research and that we identified above.

i. Navigating Uncharted Territories

“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

— Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message

Co-creation helps us sketch routes, and maps for use in the uncharted territories of the 21st century, to draw on our collective intelligence, and to shed old legacy models that have become irrelevant.

“What’s happened post-World War II with consumer capitalism, hyper-consumerism, it's chipped away at our will, public will, and interest for collaboration,” said Michael Premo, a documentarian and artist based in Brooklyn. “Now, the explosion of technology is reminding us of the collaborative nature of social organization that we haven't maybe thought about for 100 years, that can really kind of push us into a new place.”

New technologies, then, afford and demand new ways of working. Yasmin Elayat of Scatter, a hybrid start-up, next-gen creative company told us: “Co-creation for me is pretty central to anything that I call interactive […]. Any work that I would do defined as interactive, I believe, needs to be actually co-created with the audience.”

“Zero Days VR”, produced by Scatter, directed by Yasmin Elayat (2017). Scatter is an Immersive media studio, that works co-creatively to develop new accessible technologies, collaborative systems and a poetic visual language in a process they call volumetric filmmaking.

We also need new frameworks for understanding what is already happening. Patricia R. Zimmermann and Helen De Michiel have offered the term, open space new media documentary, in their book of the same title. They write: “Earlier theoretical models focusing on representation and aesthetics cannot account for new collaborative documentaries sited in the lived experiences of particular individuals in specific places.”

“I really deeply believe that we have to change the systems that are completely obsolete, that are nowhere to reality,” said Monique Simard. She added:

I think that right now what we're observing in our world is that the citizens we call ordinary people have bypassed the institutions and the systems, catching onto the possibilities of technology and to network and to communications. The institutions just didn't realize it was happening and now they are so backwards.

Co-creation provides the grammar and the vocabulary for these uncharted territories, or what cognitive scientist Kristian Moltke Martiny of the University of Copenhagen called the “third space,” and many others interviewed defined as in-between space.6 “It's a transcendent idea going beyond what the discipline entails,” said Martiny, adding:

Its own structures, its own narratives, its own self-awareness, its own methods or processes to a third space together with one of the other disciplines that you're co-creating with. Which also means it's an unknown. It's an explorative process, typically.

ii. Challenging Inequalities

“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”

— Nelson Mandela, Make Poverty History Speech, 2005

Co-creative processes challenge and bring transparency to the power dynamic of relationships entrenched in the legacy models of professional production — between people formerly known as the makers, the subjects, and the audiences. A new space emerges for equitable, inclusive, and democratic practices. For people with access to institutions, on a personal level, it means leveraging that power.

As Salome Assega, an artist and Tech Fellow at the Ford Foundation commented:

I have maybe been granted access to certain resources, so I partner a lot with community groups or subcultural movements. […]. I'm always thinking about how do I bring people into the spaces. Once I have an invitation, how do I extend that invitation?

This process of redistribution and sharing access, creation and decision-making happens at a micro-level within productions, but it extends out to a macro level of movements, organizations, and broader social relations.

“Beyond the work itself,” said Michael Premo, “co-creation is a model of free-organizing society in a way that really favors collaboration and reorganizes our relationship to hierarchies in a way that kind of models ways of how we relate to each other.”

“Co-creation is generous,” said Monique Simard. “It's using the best of everybody's skills. It is, I would say, democratic. It shatters a notion of one author, one person owning everything 100 percent of a product. […] It goes against exclusivity. It goes against all these notions that were very, very valued by neoliberalism.”

Neoliberalism’s hierarchies are under attack with large, intertwined social movements that flatten hierarchies, broadly called, Horizontalism. Scholar Marina Sitrin has been tracking it, and defined it in an article in the magazine NACLA Report on the Americas in September, 2014:

Horizontalidad, often translated as horizontality or horizontalism, was first used by the movements that emerged in Argentina in the wake of the 2001 economic crisis. It has since been adopted by social movements around the globe, and is used to describe new forms of social relationships that are developing in place of traditional methods of political organizing … from Spain, Greece, Bosnia, and Brazil, to the U.S. Occupy movement.

Horizontalidad was first used by the movements in Argentina, in the wake of the 2001 financial crisis. Above: a protest in Argentina against the banks in 2002. The large sign reads "Thieving banks - give back our dollars". Photo by Pepe Robles Cacerolazo / under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

At the core of co-creation, inclusion and diversity are fundamental to addressing power dynamics within projects and at deeper structural levels, as laid out in the searing call to action by emerging media consultant Kamal Sinclair in her online project, Making a New Reality: “Emerging media cannot risk limited inclusion and suffer the same pitfalls of traditional media. The stakes are too high. Together, we must engineer robust inclusion into the process of imagining our future.”

Co-creation does not necessarily remove power dynamics, but can help name them, which can be the first step towards finding new systems of relations.

iii. Climate Crisis and Complex Problems

“Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place. The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily, there is still company, human and not human. We can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes — the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons — and the elusive autumn aroma.”

— Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World7

Climate change is a central theme in the work of Marin Zurkow, a media artist exploring interactions between nature and culture, focusing on issues such as invasive species and petroleum dependency. Her work utilizes a variety of media, including animation, dinner parties, biological materials, and software. Production image from “Mesocosm”(Wink Texas), and “Hazmat Suits for Children”, 2012. Software driven animation and Tychem TK sculptures. Installation documentation, bitforms gallery. Photo by John Berans.

The complex problems we face in the 21st century are too big for old, legacy systems. Overwhelmingly, co-creative veterans name the climate crisis as a top priority, to be tackled from the ground up. Complex problems need large teams, and solutions are often found in the communities that are impacted most by the problems. Julia Kumari Drapkin of ISeeChange connects dots of data with stories, from the ground up to the sky, using NASA’s satellite images.

She states:

Climate change is so large and big and coming at us from such large amounts of time and space. We need to be drilling down into the specifics of how a community is experiencing it and what's causing it. It's that tangible community context that allows solutions to happen, that allows the journalism to happen.

Extreme weather conditions are becoming more common as the climate crisis accelerates. Photo under Creative Commons.

“The world is so complex now,” said Patricia Zimmermann, adding:

It's so interconnected, the problems of the Anthropocene and global climate disruption, the problems of poverty, the problems of racism, immigration, the problems of nuclear disaster, the problems of underfunding health care around the world, the problems of clean water. The majority of the world does not have clean water. One person cannot make a film about any of that, it's impossible. It's too complicated to do alone. When I look at these individualistic models, I don't see a lot of energy in these projects at all. They feel formulaic to me.

“Will it really matter what we create, whether it's a project or an initiative, if we don't have clean air to breathe?” asked Opeyemi Olukemi, further stating:

If we don't have water to drink? If we have a series of superbugs that start to kill off entire populations? Not just to create, but to be responsible and have people realize that we are entering new territory and that this is a possible way to help address and stem the damage of what is coming down the pipeline.

The anthropologist Anna Tsing has developed the concept of collaborative survival. Co-creation can likewise provide a set of methods and techniques to pursue that hope, and to distribute resources and governance more widely.

iv. Deep Time

“What time is it on the clock of the world?”

— Detroit writer and activist, Grace Lee Boggs8

Co-creation stretches conventional notions of time. It may be a term that seems to be currently entering the zeitgeist, but it refers to millennia of human practice. It can also describe processes that may be perceived as long, messy, and not defined by what they can deliver at the onset. Co-creative processes acknowledge that trust, relationships, and democracy take time. The practices challenge the perceived efficiency of capitalistic models, the templates of production that aim to keep the costs down for maximal profit. Co-creation defies the bottom line. Co-creation acknowledges deep time. It accounts for artistic projects that aim to unfold over decades, even centuries; projects that may integrate the time frames of rock faces and forests.

The Flammarion engraving called “Wheel of Time” is by an unknown artist. It first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire” (1888).

Yet this expanded sense of time simultaneously accounts for responsiveness, and may have the flexibility needed for rapid deployment. Because co-creative projects have multiple goals, and multiple outcomes, they are suited to exploring rapid responses to emerging issues.

v. The Commons and Rebuilding Public Trust

“To those who are awake, there is one world in common, but of those who are asleep, each is withdrawn to a private world of his own.”

Heraclitus, fragment 95 , translated by G.W.T. Patrick

Co-creation helps build public space, or, the commons, at a time of heightened polarity and privatization. It seeks to find common ground in unlikely places to rebuild dialogue and a shared vision for governance. The commons refers to public spaces, including our cities, our resources, our media, platforms and our narratives.

In the HIGHRISE project at the National Film Board of Canada, an agency of the Federal Government of Canada, Katerina Cizek and associates worked for over five years in a privately owned highrise in suburban Toronto (there are over a thousand such high-rises in the city). The meeting spaces and participatory media workshops that were created in this privately-owned building allowed for people from many divergent backgrounds, political stances, and religions to re-imagine their shared place, e.g. turning abandoned tennis courts into playgrounds, neglected yards into community gardens, and parking lots into pop-up markets. The resulting media outcomes, and there were many—from community bulletins to internationally acclaimed documentaries—became poetic, compelling tools to share with government actors, urban planners, and private owners. Together, these collections insisted that residents’ perspectives need to be included in the Tower Renewal Plan for the city and the province of Ontario. The initiative helped shape policies at multiple levels of government. But also, through its iterative and highly public presence, HIGHRISE as a whole helped reshape Toronto’s own understanding of itself, albeit more intangibly, as a growing vertical, digital city, and what that means for the commons.

In “HIGHRISE: One Millionth Tower” (2011), apartment residents worked with documentarians and architects to re-imagine the neglected spaces around their buildings. Above: sketching ideas on overlays over photographs. Below: the resulting collaged animated version of the film, in which residentes imagine a farmer’s market in the parking lot on weekends.

Similarly, media scholar Henry Jenkins advocates for civic imagination which he defines as being: “The capacity to imagine alternatives to current social political or economic institutions or problems.” He sees this being done through bringing together at the ground level, diverse players around a common issue.9 Civic engagement and the arts are one and the same for artist Hank Thomas Willis, whose new project, For Freedoms, is decentralized across all 50 states of the U.S., at the local level, from billboards, to town halls, to large-scale art projects.

Henry Jenkins (centre, in turquoise shirt), attending a civic imagination workshop in Bowling Greene Kentucky (2017). Photo by Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, courtesy of Civic Imagination Project.

In journalism, Carlos Martinez de la Serna, in Collaboration and the creation of a new journalism commons (2018), a Tow Center report on collaboration, calls for a commons that “can be described as an intricate resource system, functioning under an open access regime, with both local and global dimensions, and hosting all components and social activities pertaining to journalism.”

The commons are connected to the construction of “truth” in journalism, as danah boyd argues at a 2019 Knight Media Forum, where she said “truth is fragmenting, but it’s not just about information, it’s about community.” She insists that to counter what she calls epistemological fragmentation, decision-makers in journalism need to build community, and not only deal with content but also context.

Co-creation is about holding ground for the commons and building new platforms of public trust, though not necessarily in traditional spaces. Cynthia Lopez, former POV commissioner and now Film Commissioner of New York City suggested in our interview:

Years ago, we would think that public media has to be on public television, right? Now, we understand that there are pieces that, whether they're on Netflix or they're on HBO or they're on Showtime, they still have that public-media agenda, but the distribution outlet is not a public one.

A next generation public media project was announced in 2019 called American Journalism Project, financed mostly privately, with a focus to reinvigorate local news.

Conversely, Monique Simard insisted that this project is not only for private companies, foundations, and philanthropists to create. She noted how crucial it remains for the conventional public sphere to participate and take responsibility. “Public funding, in a way, is always more democratic,” she said, “because it is supposed to be established where you have consulted people, or things have been debated.”

Ana Serrano of the Canadian Film Centre sees the Sidewalk Labs experiment in Toronto as a pivotal example of this dilemma over the commons. Sidewalk Toronto is a smart city experiment in an entire district of the city, on the waterfront. It is a private-public relationship between three levels of government and Alphabet, the parent company of Google, one of the largest transnational conglomerates of our times.

A smart city is term used to to describe an approach that prioritizes tech solutions to urban design, including data collection, surveillance, and the internet of things often at the expense, critics argue, of public interest, good governance, transparency and citizen's privacy. Photo by Jai Jinendra, under Creative Commons.

“We've heard for the last 20 years,” Serrano said:

this narrative that suggests that governments don't know how to do anything, and that they're bad at doing things, and that they're not the ones that can make these decisions. They're ‘not innovative.’ I think that's been an unfair narrative for many, many years, and I think that’s the dominant feeling of many citizens. Now, you have corporations saying that they can explicitly make these better decisions in partnership with government.

Now, more than ever, governments and public organizations need to update their digital infrastructures and cultures. We need to fully recognize and respond to the implications of public space, civic trust, and the commons in a digital age. We need to examine and address:

  • Who owns and runs data;

  • Who owns the algorithms;

  • The ways they are programmed and managed in our cities;

  • Who owns and governs our media and platforms; and

  • How to rebuild public trust in a time of fragmentation and heavy digital commodification.

In her report, Making a New Reality (2018), Kamal Sinclair describes the challenges of trying to identify how to create commons or public space in emerging media. Sinclair wrote:

Unlike film or television, when there was a well-defined system of a single channel broadcast or screened to a mass audience, the new communication architecture is more dynamic, abundant and complex than any other time in human history, especially because it is not just a tool, but an intelligent collaborator.

Sinclair asked numerous people in the field how to create public media in this emergent system, and they pointed to the need to understand the commons in multiple layers, beginning with the basic infrastructures of the internet itself, through to complex accessibility issues of the immersive web platforms. Sinclair describes it this way in her report:

  • Web 1.0 — Public media goal is to get everyone access.

  • Web 2.0 — Public media goal is to get everyone access to safe and equitable platforms.

  • Web 3.0 — Public media goal is to increase diverse representation, leadership, and participation in building the new internet.

  • Web 4.0 — Public media goal is to ensure diverse minds and communities are leading in the design of our AI future.

The commons includes our cities, our resources, our platforms, and our narratives. It also includes the hazards that digital interaction can introduce or heighten, including misinformation, trolling, appropriation, data insecurity, and other forms of abuse. How do we imagine a future that is, by contrast, inclusive, equitable, transparent, and sustainable? Co-creation offers a set of tools that attempts to answer and connect some of these questions.


We intend our definition to allow space for co-creative practices across many divergent fields, areas of knowledge, and traditions. This diagram illustrates the connections:

Interactive Graphic: Associated Practices

In its effort to center on communities and question expert knowledge, media co-creation shares commonalities with practices in many other fields. Some embrace human-centered practices primarily for profit, e.g., in product development, while other, more justice-based practices can challenge power dynamics. In many professionalized fields, community-based co-creation processes are called participatory. Architects, for example, may work with residents of a co-operative for the hearing-impaired in order to understand and co-design an appropriate building with the people who will actually live in the space. Matthew Claudel, an architect at MIT, calls this open-source architecture, and defines it in opposition to the starchictecture that valorizes a singular, rockstar-like architect-author.

“Open-source architecture is the way that we've built architecture for millennia,” said Claudel. He added:

It’s this vernacular idea of architecture, that people construct context for daily life. It has beautiful results like the adobe dwellings in the southwest of the United States that are very different than the wood-slat houses that would have been built in the northeast. And everything in between and beyond. Vernacular architecture, it's really an expression of community, culture, climate and place.

These approaches also extend to urban and rural planning in a practice often referred to as place-making, which emphasizes processes that bring communities and residents into planning.

In social sciences, health, and other research practices that involve fieldwork, participatory methods have been codified as Participatory Action Research (PAR). Informed by feminism, PAR suggests that even designing the research question in the first place requires deep listening at the community level. PAR requires researchers to ask what the community needs to be addressed, as opposed to what an outside expert wants to research. Elizabeth Miller, a documentarian based in Montreal, said she believed that PAR “means curating a space instead of presenting a research question. It often means sharing skill sets and beginning there. It often means extensive dialogue before you even begin the process of research.”

Participatory methods, and even the term co-creation, have also cropped up in the fields of organizational and business management. Management academics such as C. K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy have used the term to describe “the joint creation of value by the company and the customer; allowing the customer to co-construct the service experience to suit their context.”10 In this model, the customer is always right — or, at least, the customer is centered and asked to contribute to, and evaluate the creation of a product or service. However, in more progressive interpretations it can also involve questioning the single bottom line of profit, and creating the framework of a double or triple bottom line that also measures social and/or environmental impact.

"Make the Breast Pump Not Suck"(2018) is a human-centred design project at MIT Center for Civic Media iwhich uses participatory design, community based practices to put a human, social and political context into the design of the breast pump. Courtesy of Catherine D'Ignazio

In other disciplines such as engineering, industrial design, and software design, similar practices have evolved and are called human-centered design or co-design. This concept is based on a similar idea that engineers cannot design useful products solely in the vacuum of their labs without input from people, or, end users. Although popular, these practices do not guarantee democratic design or fair outcomes “if you're just mining users for ideas and then you create the product and sell it back to them,” said Sasha Costanza-Chock, who founded the MIT Co-Design Studio. “Yes, you've made a product that's more usable, but it’s an exploitative relationship with people.” In response, a relatively new practice called design justice prioritizes the voices and lives of people and communities who most risk adverse effects from design decisions. Importantly, the questions remain: Who chooses the design problem, how can benefits be most widely shared, and how can exploitation be minimized?

Babitha George, a partner in Quicksand a design firm in Bangalore, emphasizes that in her community-based water-sanitization work in India, she find parallels within local social grassroots movements and many of the western-defined design practices she draws on. She cited her friend and mentor, Vishwanath (a.k.a. Zenrainman), who has proved through his water-conservation work, according to George, “Solutions or answers have to be found within communities. And therefore this notion that everything can be scaled is not true at all.” Vishwanath left a government engineering job to look for non-engineering solutions to water conservation and now works in deep partnership with local collectives. He has also become a popular YouTube personality with his videos that demonstrate him sharing his methods and solutions.

At their best, these community-based methodologies show that designs and solutions can be found in traditional and local knowledge, and movements, especially when thoughtfully intersected with the use of accountable research methods, open technologies, and appropriate engineering. In our interviews, opinions ranged about whether these co-creation models truly flatten hierarchies, or risk deepening inequities that already exist. Some practitioners reason that community-centered projects can at least make power dynamics more visible and explicit. Others call for researchers to relinquish power to communities in order to have authentic meaning and a positive impact (see Part 2: Risks, for more on this debate).


Co-creation helps to unpack the myth of the single author. That concept is, historically, a fairly new construction linked to ownership and private property. It is also linked to ideas about the individual. Co-creation suggests, instead, a distributed notion of authorship (and authority), and creates open spaces for many voices.

To be sure, the category of the author has multiple functions: attribution, authority, credibility, and responsibility. Certainly, all remain relevant for scientific as well as political discourse. This is neither objectively better nor worse than co-creation. Authorship is more visible, more saleable, more heavily promoted, and it has affordances that are particularly relevant in the digital age, an age wherein technology can make counterfeiting images and information simple, and tracing sources difficult.

However, the industrial-era notion of the author and the positioning of it as the cultural default has come at the expense of co-creation. With this project we wish to articulate co-creation’s values and argue for their importance at a moment of digitally-enabled, cultural change, and socially-mandated reassessments of business as usual. We do this fully aware of the continuing importance of authorship and attribution at a time of a breakdown in social trust and consensus regarding reality.

The idea of the author is strongly tied to concepts of the self, the ego, and individual will. Films and media projects, for example, are by default considered authored, i.e., directed by one person. The industry of funding, production, and distribution models of non-fiction all defer to crediting and acknowledging one director, or at best two co-directors, as authors of the work. The entire media industry continues well into this century to be founded on and built up around these principles. Film, Media and Journalism Schools teach and replicate it.

Co-creation, by contrast, enables challenges to the way stories are extracted in this industrial model. Michelle Latimer, a Métis filmmaker, pointed to the colonial relationship of collecting oral stories within the context of Indigenous communities:

It's not authorship because you collected the story. It didn't generate from you. It generated from the community. […] Just because someone might not be schooled as an academic writer, or maybe they can't write a novel, that story is still an oral story, and you have to recognize where it comes from and honour the authorship of that, which is a community, and can be generations of a community.

Our languages, the beliefs that bind us, and the narratives that serve as our cultural operating systems all have taken form by drawing on the active participation of people from across the social spectrum. The dynamic and radically inclusive nature of this process is all too often occluded by the dictionaries, sacred texts, and compendiums of stories that have been extracted by cultural arbiters, systematized, and handed back as dominant culture.

Mural depicting King Gesar of Ling. Photo by Andreas Gruschke, under Creative Commons.

The Rigveda of ancient Hinduism, the holy books of Shinto in Japan, the Tao Te Ching , the Upanishads , Buddhist Sutras , and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures all have undergone a similar process of slowly accreting from the activities of diverse authors and peoples, and returning to them as authoritative texts. The same principle holds for the grand epic literature in the form of the Manas of Kyrgyzstan, the Mahabharata , and the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar. We tend to celebrate their crystallization as texts, but fail to acknowledge their emergence from a dispersed and participatory cultural space. It is easy to miss the nuanced and delicate social interactions that gave rise to culture in the first place, distracted as we are by the institutional edifices that have been superimposed upon them, which tend to be organized around authors, experts, decision-making hierarchies, authority, and profits.

The Mahabharata is an epic Sanskrit poem, passed down first as a collection of popular stories and performances before being written down in a collected text. Image is in the public domain.

Over the long haul, the practices that this report described as co-creative have at times been understood as basic modes of sociality and group survival, while taking their collaborative dynamics for granted. Terms like barn raising , or quilting bee, say more about what was worked on, rather than how. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes the range of activities for which the term bee was deployed, alluding to the basic social contract at its core:

A meeting of neighbors to unite their labours for the benefit of one of their number; e.g., as is done still in some parts, when the farmers unite to get in each other's harvests in succession; usually preceded by a word defining the purpose of the meeting, as apple-bee, husking-bee, quilting-bee, raising-bee, etc. Hence, with extended sense: A gathering or meeting for some object; esp. spelling-bee, a party assembled to compete in the spelling of words.11

The OED also notes the mid-19th Century usage of the term, lynching bee, a powerful reminder that not all forms of collective action are benign.

A Quilt from Gee's Bend, (1979). Quilt by Lucy Mingo, under Creative Commons.

The people of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an isolated community enclosed on three sides by a river, offer a striking example of the power of co-creation through bees. The small, predominantly African- and Native-American community was impoverished as a result of a history of land theft, plantation slavery, and sharecropping, but began to be restored to local control with assistance from the US Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s. The ensuing transformation was documented by FSA photographers Mary Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange, and Arthur Rothstein, putting Gee’s Bend on the map as a successful New Deal experiment. But it was the community’s women who drew the world’s attention, thanks to their quilt-making. Drawing on inherited African and Native American textile traditions, their distinctive quilts were exhibited at the Whitney and Philadelphia Museum of Art, and many other museums and galleries , along with work from the Freedom Quilting Bee in neighboring Alberta, Alabama. While the art world and collectors clamored for the names of individual artists, the women of Gee’s Bend held firm to their collective, eventually banding together officially in 2003 to form the Gee’s Bend Collective.

The Gee’s Bend quilts, like countless barns raised by neighbors across North America, attest to centuries of co-creation, as isolated and rural communities pooled expertise, labor, and commitment in ways that cemented social bonds and passed knowledge from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, just as with cultural belief and epic narratives, the significant work of the many remains largely invisible, washed from the historical record; nowhere is this truer than with marginalized people. Meanwhile, the attempts of a few individuals to formalize this dispersed labor, to reaggregate it, package, and label it, tend to live on.

A barn raising on the farm of Daniel and Matilda Dickerhoff in Stafford Township, Indiana, circa 1900. Photo by J.E. Curtis.

The turning point that eclipsed co-creative practices was coincident with the industrialization of media that dominated the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This development amplified the Romantic era’s notion of the author as creative genius, and transformed it into a business model, an instrument of power, and — as we’ve seen from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs (Apple) — a brand. It is important to recall that, like Jeff Koons today, celebrated masters such as Rembrandt, Rubens, and Rodin often created their work with teams of unnamed assistants. But the 19th and 20th Century biographies of these artists, like the investment markets that fed on their work, opted for a highly selective notion of attribution.

The late 19th Century also marks the birth of mass media, that is, of the industrialization of the newspaper, film, and later broadcasting. Michael Schudson’s history of the American press chronicles the period’s transformation, as family-run and community-centric newspapers became overshadowed by national syndicates answering to stockholders rather than communities.12

Several films, in production, circa 1914-1915, at Edison's Bronx studio.

In the case of film, after a few initial years in which amateurs and craftsmen experimented with the medium, and even the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue encouraged its customers to buy film equipment and organize community screenings, the Edison Company intervened with lawsuits, essentially claiming the medium as its property. Although Edison did not prevail in the long run, the company’s actions opened the door for the expansive, hierarchical, profit-centric entertainment industry that was in place in the US by the First World War.

The reasons for this shift include such factors as population migration and urbanization, the technological advances stimulated by the period’s wars, and more. But while it has been interpreted conventionally as progress , it also resulted in collateral damage. Industry overshadowed its artisanal and sometimes co-creative counterparts. Non-specialized, community-centric endeavors—be they architectural (barn raisings), artistic (quilting), or media (community newspapers)—were recast as folkish, amateurish, and pre-modern. Those views shaped the further evolution of concepts of cultural ownership and intellectual property, for instance, through patent law and copyright.

Collective authorship, or even the collapsed authorship of co-creative models, breaks down these systems of individualism, ownership, and property. “If one makes something uncommodifiable, how does that recast things, and allow different types of relations to come out?” asked Chi-hui Yang, of the Ford Foundation. These tensions do not mean that co-creation is necessarily antithetical to existence in a marketplace, but it might have to negotiate its place there in distinctive ways. As well, despite the cultural default of this report, which is emphatically North American, co-creation takes place in social spaces, regardless of where in the world they happen to be located. Earlier references to the creation of language, beliefs, and popular narratives might be concretized, as Michelle Latimer suggests, by looking at the co-creative story traditions of Iranian coffee cafes and the Marrakesh night market or, as Amelia Winger-Bearskin reminds us, by recalling the Iroquois tradition of making corn-husk dolls as a way of maintaining community planting and harvesting skills.

The Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov (1913) is known for his films and writings that explored the language and social implications of cinema in the beginnings of the 20th century. Founder of the Kino-Eye filmmakers group.

Almost simultaneously with the Industrial Revolution-era turn towards concepts such as individual authorship and production, of course, was born a rich lineage of more collective and collaborative counter-efforts. Co-creation has continued under various names and programs, as well as at the community level from Dziga Vertov’s Soviet film collective, through Canada’s Challenge for Change project at the National Film Board, and Bolivia’s Grupo Ukamau, to countless artists’ collectives, radical 1960s film collectives all around the world, transdisciplinary initiatives, and more. Some of these practices have strong roots in theater, such as Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, in 1960s and 1970s Brazil, which positioned theatre within people’s movements by breaking the fourth wall between actors and spectators. “We are all actors: being a citizen is not living in society, it is changing it,” as Boal wrote in a 2009 World Theatre Day message. Devised theatre is another system dedicated to collective creation, and verbatim, or documentary, theatre draws on scripts built from interviewing real people. Indeed, a surprising number of interviewees in our study had backgrounds in theatre, dance, comedy, or performance, which might have primed them for an interest in co-creation in other media.

Still from Grupo Ukamau's “Blood of the Condor” (1969).

“Everything for me has come from dance and theater, everything,” said Michelle Latimer, Métis/Algonquin filmmaker and actor. She stated that:

There's an active listening that happens in the body. It's an active listening that isn't about words, it's about your physical body language … leaning forward, eye contact, a sense of openness in your body.

On another level of creative interaction, scholar Henry Jenkins, drawing upon his long interest in fan communities, famously identified the phenomenon of participatory culture in 1992, in which public players act as contributors and creators, rather than passive consumers of unidirectionally-aimed authored works.13 These fandoms challenge the authority of the author, they mix and remix and take on a life of their own. The internet has facilitated that kind of participatory fan culture, as well as countless other co-creative (and sometimes co-destructive) practices through the web and social media.

Indeed, the web, especially the social web, has reconfigured our sense of time and space, introducing an immediacy and complex feedback system to this cacophony of collective, multiple and collapsed authorships. Digital culture extends our connections outwards while seemingly rewiring our own inner circuitry. However, as digital empires have consolidated in the last decade corporations have found ways to re-commodify, re-integrate this participatory content into a super-circuit for their own increased profit. Digital culture has opened up new opportunities for connecting, contributing, collaborating, and co-creating. These are complex and still evolving terrains where, compared to some media forms of the past, we can rightly feel like we have a more active role in their creation. But the nature of that role, the limits of agency and constraint of structure, elicit different views, from utopic to dystopic.

“What kind of problems are we solving? Who owns these problems? What kind of needs are we trying to meet? Where is the context for these questions to be posed?” asked Carlos Martinez de la Serna, who recently wrote the report Collaboration and the creation of a new journalism commons.

Correcting for the domination of the single-author model in the past cannot mean merely crowdsourcing creativity and media, without regard to whose voices gain traction. Co-creation should open spaces between makers, communities formerly known as subjects, disciplines and the people formerly known as audiences. The models continuously feedback with the opportunities and threats of technology, digital culture, and AI systems. Authorship and co-creation have different strengths and there is a need for both.

“Tatsuniya” (2018) is a collaboration between artist Rahima Gambo and ten girls from the Shehu Sanda Kyarimi government school in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, an institution previously attacked by six Boko Haram gunmen. They collaborated on an improvisational series, playing with gestures, expressions, and movements to explore their past and futures. Photo courtesy of Rahima Gambo.


An excerpt from a conversation between Juanita Anderson, Maria Agui Carter, Thomas Allen Harris, Maori Karmael Holmes, and Michèle Stephenson.

Clockwise from top left: Maori Holmes, Janita Andersion, Maria Aqui Carter, Thomas Allen Harris and Michèle Stephenson.

There is a political yearning and narrative turn toward a more ethical form of storytelling inherent in the co-creation process. This is undoubtedly an auspicious moment. However, for media makers of color, there’s one vital concern. While it has been acknowledged that the co-creation of stories can be traced back to early civilizations, there has not been an explicit recognition of the specific ways media makers of color have shaped and inspired contemporary co-creation practices, emerging from accountability to their communities, the drive for more complex representation, and the necessity of creating media with less financial resources than their white counterparts.

Oftentimes, media makers of color, especially those documenting urgent political issues, are faced with increased demands of proving their professional media making expertise within the field, acting as cultural interpreters between their communities and the field, and ensuring respectful engagement of their cultural communities. This complex navigation has given rise to deeply organic and mindful co-creation processes that predate the increasingly popular use of the term within the media making field.

To present co-creation within media as a re-emergent practice without explicitly acknowledging the long-standing co-creative approaches practiced by communities of color, doesn’t simply erase their work, it undermines the very tenets of co-creation.

At its core, the idea of co-creation seeks to reconcile systemic power and singular authority. This fundamental principle extends beyond the creative process within media making, compelling all us to interrogate fundamental ideas of ownership, meaning-making, attribution and—if we optimize the potential of co-creation—realize a more just society. With this larger imperative in mind, this chapter seeks to provide an overview of the long-standing co-creative practices of artists of color. The idea for this work is derived from a break-out group conversation, which took place at the two-day symposium, COLLECTIVE WISDOM: Co-Creating Media with Communities, across Disciplines and with Algorithms, organized by the Co-Creation Studio at the MIT Open Documentary Lab. Its content is not meant to be comprehensive nor does this work represent the multifarious approaches and perspectives of media makers. The function of this chapter is: to begin mapping the history of co-creation across communities of color within the U.S., to explore non-institutional power, innovation, and co-operation amongst media makers of color, and to unpack the un-calculated costs and labor of deep co-creation processes.

The content presented here is based on a conversation structured around a series of prompts that have been edited for brevity and includes our collective voices:

  • Maria Agui Carter is an Indigenous Latinx/Chinese immigrant who grew up undocumented in NYC and graduated from Harvard. She is an award-winning filmmaker (, teaches as an Assistant Professor at Emerson College, and serves on the Diversity Coalition of the WGA (Writers Guild of America).

  • Thomas Allen Harris is an artist who uses media, photography, and performance to explore family and identity, in a participatory model of filmmaking, since 1990. He is presently in production on Family Pictures USA - a new PBS series that examines America through the lens of the “family photo album,” slated for national broadcast in 2019. Born in the Bronx and raised in East Africa, Harris is a graduate of Harvard College with a degree in biology and is presently a Senior Lecturer at Yale University where he teaches courses related to his socially engaged art project, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion.

  • Maori Karmael Holmes is a filmmaker, writer, and curator. She is founder and artistic director of the BlackStar Film Festival. She has organized programs in film at a myriad of organizations including Anthology Film Archives, Institute of Contemporary Art - Philadelphia, Lightbox Film Center, Museum of Contemporary Art - Los Angeles, The Underground Museum, and The Whitney Museum. As a filmmaker, her works have screened internationally.

  • Michèle Stephenson is a Brooklyn-based media maker, author and artist who pulls from her Haitian and Panamanian roots to tell complex intimate stories by, for, and about, communities of color. Along with her partner, Joe Brewster, they co-founded multiple award-winning media production company, The Rada Film Group.

  • Juanita Anderson Juanita Anderson is a producer, director, documentary filmmaker and educator who proudly hails from Detroit. The head of Media Arts and Studies programs in the Department of Communication at Wayne State University, she has been named Wayne State’s 2019-2020 Murray A. Jackson Creative Scholar/Artist in Residence. Her multifaceted career includes a combined 17-years at public television stations WSIU, WTVS, and WGBH, before embarking on a career in independent media in 1993. A former lead producer of two of public television’s longest running African American television series, Detroit Black Journal and Say Brother, she co-founded the National Black Programming Consortium (now Black Public Media) in 1978. She also served as a member of the ITVS Board of Directors from 1998-2005. She currently serves as a principal advisor to the Detroit Narrative Agency.

Interrogating the mainstream framing of media making

JUANITA: For me, the moment that I questioned what we were doing at MIT was during a panel session where someone commented that they spoke to the community members rather than journalists. And I was thinking obviously, as people of color, we always speak to our communities first. We’ve been working from a co-creation model for decades—taking us right back to the history of African American, Latinx, and Asian American programming in public television back in the late 1960s. Television series like Black Horizons in Pittsburgh, Say Brother in Boston and Detroit Black Journal, all launched in 1968, had community advisory boards and community input all along the way in terms of both the content and management of those programs. The failure to recognize this, and many other histories, demonstrates an issue in current co-creation conversations that hasn’t been resolved. There doesn’t seem to be a priority to support media makers of color working within their own communities. Are we talking about white media makers going into communities where they have never been before?

THOMAS: I definitely concur with what Juanita says. It’s also important to note that within the larger context of colonialism, there is a certain class of people going in and telling stories of a wide range of historically marginalized communities. Today because of the economics of long form documentary production as well as pressure by distributors for diversity of representation, there is increased talk of co-creation, which I think is a response to these changes. And I’m wondering if collaboration is really happening or whether it’s a certain kind of blackface or Asian face—a cover to continue to exploit these communities for content and access to funding and distribution in an age of multiculturalism.

A focus of many of my mentors—William Greaves, St. Clair Bourne, Pearl Bowser, Marlon Riggs, Camille Billips—was critiquing dominant modes of representation that served to disenfranchise their communities while simultaneously empowering these communities by providing access to tools, a voice as well as modalities of storytelling that communities could use for self-representation. This process, and the community building it engendered, was considered in some cases just as important as the final film.

This process of community engagement as part of the production, together with a merging of art and activism, placed many of these projects within the avantgarde. I’m thinking particularly of Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, or Camille Billops’ Suzanne Susanne, or the early pioneers of black independent film that Pearl Bowser’s work has documented over decades, or Marlon Rigg’s Tongue Untied. Yet, much of this work was not written about or critically appraised sufficiently within the field until years after they were made, if ever. This benign neglect, often due to the work’s resistance to certain stereotypical narratives, resulted in its marginalization so that today some can speak about co-creation as something new, without feeling the responsibility to find and cite precedence within media makers of color that have long been ignored by the mainstream. The result is a kind of a painful double negation. So as we revisit or re-package the concept of co-creation, it’s important for us to interrogate our power relationships and our motivations vis-à-vis process, community as well as outcomes.

MICHÈLE: Yeah. I want to affirm what's already been said. I also want to question the current emphasis on co-creation in the field. Is it simply a way to legitimize a space for dominant culture to continue to be involved in telling our stories; a way of keeping some sort of white control and presence over narratives by and about communities of color? I won’t get into the whole capitalism versus collaboration model that has existed in media making for a long, long, time but as Thomas mentioned, power is shifting more significantly now in dominant spaces. We can’t ignore that this co-creation conversation is gaining all this visibility and weight at a time when people of color are commanding more authorship power. Suddenly, single authorship is being questioned and talk of co-creation is taking place within the mainstream.

MARIA: I couldn't agree more with Michèle, Juanita and Thomas— such great points. I originally studied anthropology, a discipline predicated on the belief that it is possible for an outsider to parachute into a community and gain access to its culture, knowledge, and stories, then speak for them to the rest of the world. I remember reading Claude Levi Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques, a book by the much celebrated French anthropologist, one of the fathers of anthropology whose memoir I found racist and problematic. As one of the “natives” that he would have talked about, I found him to be so bound by his own cultural biases that he could not truly see, and I questioned his capacity to spend limited time with a community and yet understand it well enough to properly frame the story or ask the right questions. He is someone who spent little time in the field and yet made sweeping pronouncements about how the “natives,” thought, and explained their societies, their philosophies. I think of the arrogance of his observations and his many books as an “expert” on other cultures given he was known to have said, “ fieldwork is a kind of women's work (which is probably why women are so successful at it) … I had neither the interest nor the patience for it." It reminds me of documentary filmmaking, when people (usually extremely sympathetic and well-meaning) from outside our communities of color choose to speak for us without having put in the equivalent of the research and field work that earns them the right to make those observations. The research we do as filmmakers of color about our own communities often lasts a lifetime and is not just that of lived or shared experience. So many of us specialize not just in the craft of filmmaking, but in reading and researching the arts, the culture, the politics of our own people and our communities as well as those of the larger communities around us.

With regards to co-creation and collaboration, as filmmakers of color making films about our communities, we have always felt that we needed to speak and to listen to those from within. Yet we are not credited by the power structures as experts, instead we are often accused of bias, nor are we often funded adequately to tell our own stories. For instance in the foundation world in the United States, the last studies I read showed that Latinx organizations across all fields receive about one percent of all foundation dollars - that includes everything, from direct services to the arts and film. Yet we make up almost 18% of the US population and we now have a very large community of trained Latinx media makers and storytellers. And so it's not just that our stories need to be told, it’s important that the world respect, fund, and support our telling our own stories.

Mapping media making projects—a few good examples

JUANITA: I want to build on Maria's comment about anthropology because if you think about the work of European[s], l visual anthropologists like Jean Rouch whose ethnographic filmmaking in African societies during the 1940’s and 50’s was often in direct service to colonial interests. A prime example was Les Maitres Fous in which his narrative framing of Hauka spiritual practices in Ghana were reported to have so incensed African peoples that in some respects he is credited with giving rise to the African cinema movement which rejected and countered the European gaze on African societies. From the work of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène whose pioneering 1963 film Borom Saret is considered to be the first film by an African filmmaker to be made on African soil, African filmmakers, at least in the West African countries that I have visited, have always engaged communities in the making of their films. And not just as actors, but as production crew members, community advisors, production designers and the like. So, there are international models that demonstrate people of color calling upon our communities and our families to make media.

THOMAS: Yes, and Juanita, I’d like to build on your excellent point about public television. You also had innovative shows that brought community into the studio such as Ellis Haizlip’s SOUL!, which gave voice to the burgeoning Black Arts Movement that was sweeping across the country in the late 60s and early 70s. I worked closely with Ellis when he was at the Schomburg Center and he made it his mission to mentor the generations of cultural producers that came after him. Like Ellis, I first began my media career and my training at WNET in the late 80s. My tenure there coincided with the movement around responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic particularly as it intersected with the communities of color, queers, and artists. Highlighting these communities became a focus and, because I was in public media, I was able to incorporate these voices within my shows years before commercial television would do so.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge the roles that the newsreels of the 1960s played on shaping this landscape as well. Third World Newsreel (TWN), is where I actually took my first class. Cara Mertes was also in that class. In addition to educating generations of filmmakers, TWN’s mission is to create and empower community through media as well as building and maintaining archives of and by communities of color and other disenfranchised communities. Christine Choi (co-director of Who Killed Vincent Chin ) was one of the instructors. Pearl Bowser was another. Both Bowser and Michelle Materre, were really instrumental in making media by filmmakers of color accessible to audiences and building audience support for projects before the idea of crowd funding became a thing. They and TWN were especially helpful in facilitating connections and collaborations between diasporic filmmakers and diasporic communities.

MAORI: One of the examples that I can think of is the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia, which has two projects that I think are good examples. One of the projects is The Precious Places Community History Project. This project is a place-based oral history program that teams neighborhood groups with experienced filmmakers and humanities consultants to make locally-authored documentaries that explore the political and cultural history of public spaces in their neighborhoods. Another [project] is called Community Visions, which is a free ten-month video production program for members of community groups, wherein participants learn to produce short documentaries about issues of importance to their constituencies. What these projects have in common is that a community organization or an agent within a neighborhood applies to this program and then gets paired with one or two filmmakers to make work about themselves. I'm still sort of learning about the term, co-creation, but these examples are the opposite of the traditional filmmaker going out in search of community— instead the community is inviting in the media maker and both parties are creating the project together. This is an important distinction.

THOMAS: There is a tradition of filmmakers working in service of their communities and deeply collaborating with communities as an essential part of the creative process. I am particularly thinking about the history of black independent cinema in this country. For instance, the LA Rebellion filmmaking school with Julie Dash, Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Sharon Larkin, and Charles Burnett were focused on working within their Los Angeles communities to co-create projects. Fortunately, this has recently been documented in the book L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, edited by Allyson Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, as well as Zienabu Irene Davis’s film, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema from UCLA. Both of these texts also speak of the influence of UCLA Professor Teshome Gabriel and his theory of a Third Cinema – a cinema that is revolutionary in politics as well as in form. Like the LA Rebellion filmmakers, Gabriel’s work provided me [with] a blue print to claim the freedom to side step traditional styles of filmmaking as well as feeling the need to conform my work into a specific category such as documentary or experimental. When I look back on my media work of the last three decades, the central focus of the work has been, and continues to be, on co-creation with my various communities – whether its handing over super 8mm cameras to black Brazilians in Salvador da Bahia, or returning my late stepfather’s photo album to South Africa to inspire youth to engage with their history, or bringing Americans together to see our community through public sharing [of] our family photographs. As an artist, I claim the space to activate and invite communities on a journey to tell their/our stories.

JUANITA: Yes, I also think that you have to look at the long history of Scribe, which Maori mentioned. Since its founding in 1982, Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia has been engaging communities in media workshops so that the power rests within the communities that we're describing—training community members in camera skills, editing skills, sound recording skills. So it's not just some random filmmaker coming in to do this work.

This is an important model. Historically I think also we go back to, as you're talking about bridging independent media and television, not only Ellis Hazlip with the public television series SOUL! but people like William Greaves and St. Clair Bourne, who were both with the original Black Journal as well as independent documentary filmmakers. We look on the west coast and the work that the late Lonnie Ding did in San Francisco in really saying that there are voices that have to be heard from the Asian American community. And this is happening in the 60s as well.

I mean, I think about the work of Henry Hampton and Blackside Inc., which in many ways codified the notion of living witnesses as integral to historical documentary storytelling. Blackside’s Eyes on the Prize also codified the concept of “production schools” that brought independent filmmakers from different backgrounds together with both scholars and community participants in the planning of the series. Before this, the public television community, far too often considered “good history” as that which was told principally through the voices of scholars, policy makers and narrators. Acknowledging and giving voice to the people who lived this history as experts in their own right, became a whole new way of approaching and changing the narrative that we have to credit Henry Hampton for. So, this is not new and we can keep going.

MICHÈLE: Another, relatively recent example, is the Blackout For Human Rights collective, which emerged after the uprisings in Ferguson. Ryan Coogler, brought together a collective of artists, activists and filmmakers across the country to organize artistic events that included music performances, poetry reading, film screenings to highlight the plight of state-sponsored violence against black bodies in the United States. These events continue to take place annually on Black Friday and MLK Day. Also, it’s important to talk about the ways we have co-created and collaborated among ourselves. Filmmaker, St. Clair Bourne spearheaded the founding of the Black Documentary Collective. The original mission of the BDC was to support each other’s work, share information and in many cases co-create film pieces that would later take on the black film festival circuit across the globe and grassroots screenings. The first five to six years of the BDC were truly active in terms of the creative support we gave each other. Sometimes it's not necessarily about the task of co-creating a particular piece of work, but creating community and spaces where we can simply support each other's work, whether it is screening rough cuts or other kinds of support needed to keep doing the work collectively and individually.

These initiatives we’re discussing and so many others are truly horizontal in terms of approach, bring together people with varying skill sets to express resistance, and are often born out of an urgent political moment that leads to spontaneous collective action. I think that the frustration and feeling of erasure stems from not properly acknowledging the co-creation work happening in our communities for centuries in some way or another.

THOMAS: I just want to re-emphasize that filmmakers engaged in these kinds of movements and co-creation processes that we’ve been discussing, have yet to be recognized within academic institutions or even in the field. These filmmakers of color who’ve prioritized a co-creation framework are often placed in a subgroup within mainstream media.

Case in point is William Greaves who has foregrounded co-creation as an essential part of his practice. I remember going to a celebration for Bill a few years before his death and speaking to a white Academy Award-winning filmmaker after the event who commented how surprised she was to have never heard of him, and wondered why there had been no mention of him in grad school. Yet, this same filmmaker was adamantly resistant to the idea that racism could possibly be a cause for this erasure. So, as we talk about recognizing the co-creation work of racialized media makers, past and present, we also have to talk about what is being legitimized, documented, and studied within the canon. We have to make sure that while we’re centralizing the histories and work being done in particular communities, we’re not marginalizing this work. It’s about rewriting and telling a more complete version of the history of this work. For me, that is really important. I observe that my students are hungry for exposure to this work. Even today, it’s still so rare that they get an opportunity to see, discuss, reflect and respond to it.

Thomas Allen Harris' Digital Diaspora Family Reunion (ongoing) collective uses film, video, live events, social media, and workshops as part of an integrated toolkit designed to break down social barriers and inculcate dialogue across cultures and between generations through the use of every day images that people create to celebrate their connections. Photo courtesy of the artist.

How can this work be better honored and supported?

MARIA: First, these three things: funding our work, exhibiting our work, and writing about our work, such as in film and media criticism and history, reviewing it in the journals and trades and news media. It is also important that editors hire and assign writers and reviewers with enough cultural, social and aesthetic background to capture more of their nuance and context!

MICHÈLE: I also think it's about having the people of color in positions of power shaping co-creation conversations and processes. And I'm not sure I am entirely comfortable with this honoring idea. I believe it's even deeper than that. I already know what we're worth and I know what we've done. Honoring speaks directly to those who have ignored or been unaware of the work that has always been there. Honoring doesn’t address deep structural inequity. It's about shifting the current power dynamics, which requires a daily practice of self-awareness by those with power and leverage. There's a deeper dynamic that has to do with the pathology that's outside of us and outside of our communities. I'm not sure how to do that because the problem is not here. Right? So, we're having this conversation but this is not where the problem is.

THOMAS: But I would say that we are also a part of the solution. We're at a critical moment historically both in terms of our independent work and in terms of what's happening within the industry. We have critical context to add to this conversation. I tell my students it's really important to protest injustice but it's also important for us to be aware of our power to build as honestly as we can from where we are, which is why the documentation of this conversation is so significant. It’s actually similar to another a conversation amongst a group of queer African-diasporic filmmakers that Raul Ferrera Balanquet and I organized in the early to mid-90s tackling issues around funding and distribution as well as marginalization and invisibility we experienced in the midst of the New Queer Cinema movement. We used our power to write ourselves into history but instead of this google document, we used the fax machine to construct the dialogue. This document entitled Narrating Our History: A Dialogue Among Queer Media Arts of the African Diaspora, was published in Germany in the mid-90s and was recently re-published in Yvonne Welbon and Alexandra Juhasz’s book Sisters in the Life: A History of Out Lesbian African American Media-making, as it is the oldest documented discussion among Lesbian media makers. I agree that it’s important to identify the problem (whether injustice or inequality) and it's just as important to really interrogate our own power, and our relationships with like-minded or like-spirited communities, and to be responsible for historicizing ourselves as [we] make media.

MICHÈLE: I agree with that and I’m working in universities and exploring the same kinds of ideas. However, there is a work practice of self-awareness that has to happen on the other side. That's what has to happen. We’re having this important conversation and there also needs to be a parallel conversation in white communities about racialized power and where does co-creation practice fit into that.

MARIA: Also, it’s not a question of our asking for permission as filmmakers of color, although of course we need funding. What's happening is that audiences are diversifying in the U.S., that the balance of power in global audiences is changing. As of last year China overtook North America as the box office superpower, and American media making will become obsolete if our cultural media stories remain provincial and focused on one white privileged storytelling mode. Audiences want to see a reflection of themselves and are becoming more diverse and international. And in the one media system that is mission- supported, as opposed to profit-supported, in our American media world, I would love to have a more diverse public TV. I would love to have more programmers in that system who are diverse and reflect the complexion of America and who choose to air more diverse media with nuanced and complex representation. I would love more executives in the system who understand that greenlighting and funding diverse programs is imperative to serving the American public given our demographics. Unless we see representation in all aspects of media making there will be a continued decline in audiences for this media; the field won’t be successful.

THOMAS: Yeah. Work has to move beyond simply having a black face as Executive Producer, or another figurative role which looks good on paper, which is sometimes what is passing as co-creation in mainstream circles right now. There needs to be more investment in communities as well as the next generation of filmmakers connected that have a deeper level of connection to these communities.

Unpacking the complex roles of media makers of color

MICHÈLE: Okay. At every stage of the creative process I’m asking myself a series of questions like: What conversations do I need to have with the editor around character development to avoid stereotypes; How can I create a communal space for assessing and validating the story; How can I be creative in terms of compensating historically marginalized subjects for the labor they are expending in sharing their stories? At every stage of the creative process, I’m asking these kinds of questions and making corrections when needed. This is what is required for disrupting traditional extractive models of storytelling —to be more of a partner with subjects and communities.

THOMAS: Yeah. I just want to say that I watched my stepfather who was part of the African National Congress, and my biological father who was unable to be present for his family, both die of alcohol-related disease. And so, healing is a part of my co-creation process. I’m not trying to heal a particular person, but healing in the sense of inviting participants to engage in a healing process that I journey along with them. My projects, like VINTAGE – Families of Value, E Minha Cara/ That’s My Face, Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, or Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, are all very different formally. But there is a unifying theme in terms of engaging community in the co-creation process. Whether it's a community of LGBT siblings, a South African community where people are not talking across generations, or my current work where I’m asking people to look at each other through our family pictures as opposed to our racial phenotypes—my co-creation work has to do with truth and with healing as a kind of a modality of practice and empowerment through the act of storytelling.

MARIA: It's such an interesting question. For me co-creation can also be the practice of self-reporting when we’re making films about our own communities. Sometimes this is implicit and other times it’s explicit because we are so connected to the subjects. And in communities of color, we are likely to have blended families that represent all walks and classes in life because we know we live in a biased system punitive to communities of color. Yes, today I am a brown US citizen filmmaker and professor, but I have undocumented family, I have family that has been in prison, as well as having professionals in my family, including a NASA scientist who sends his experiments to Mars. There are so many stories and worlds that I can explore from inside my community, but sometimes to dare to do that is very challenging and painful and work that is personal and makes me vulnerable. As filmmakers in our communities sometimes in the co-creation process to tell an important story we must choose to expose ourselves within the work.

For example, I get so tired of hearing people from outside our communities tell the stories of the undocumented, with so many gaps and errors. Filmmakers from outside the community might say [that] this is the direct and authentic testimony of this experience, because for example, [they] “let them speak for themselves.” But we know filmmakers cut and edit and frame these stories and so they may ask the wrong questions or cut the wrong answers. The stories told by outsiders are mediated stories, through an outside lens. I decided to tell my story of growing up undocumented and I’ve been surprised when I’ve been met with resistance. Perhaps it’s too raw, or too painful, or not framed by the familiar master narrative created by outsiders. Perhaps when we use a different frame carved out of our own experiences it doesn’t fit their vision of our truth.

I’ve been told by funders that they just funded an immigration story, as if the subject had been exhausted, or there is only one story and one truth about the immigrant experience. I have had mentors from outside my community tell me that my own mother’s character wasn’t believable because she did not save her daughter when she was being abused by the stepfather who was the key to their citizenship. That kind of story does not fit conveniently into the simple victimhood framework for immigrants portrayed by some, nor the story of the criminals and the drug dealers that others might prefer. To many outsiders, “the undocumented” means men standing on corners near Home Depot or the male day laborers on the road to a farm. “The undocumented” has not, until fairly recently, meant the mothers and children living here for years that make up half the eleven million undocumented in the US. Our media focuses on the stories of undocumented children who just arrived [and who are] placed in cages, but doesn’t want to hear about the millions of undocumented families already living in the US who shake the bars of their virtual cages of systemic oppression. They often lack basic human rights and legal protections as a silent and powerless minority and are an easily exploited workforce for America. As someone who grew up undocumented in America, I see the focus on the attention-grabbing headline, on the horror of children separated from parents and stuck in cages. To me, there is also a deeper question: what chains must these children rattle for the rest of their lives as long as there is no immigration reform but market conditions encourage this underground exploitation of a labor force? I know that ahead for those children, and those families, may be even greater horrors, of living in a country that criminalizes your very existence, that will not allow you to work, to study in a state university, to have a driver’s license, to move freely across borders, to earn a living wage, to seek civil and judicial protections from the many predators that prey on the undocumented. As a person who grew up undocumented, I choose a different frame for these stories, I choose different questions. I may start by looking at the cage, but the longer story of living in that limbo hell for a lifetime feels like such a horror unexplored in the media. That is the story I choose to tell. That's the difference I think between telling community stories from the outside and telling them from the inside. It is that complexity, that refusal to conform your story to the convenient political agendas or boxes, that the power structure needs us to fit into. Our authoring our truths is dangerous to the status quo, it is our greatest weapon for breaking the grip of our own oppression.

MICHÈLE: I just want to add one thing to this very important point in terms of these microaggressions that happen in the very pitching of your story—being told your own mother is unbelievable or doesn’t exist. Your legitimacy as a filmmaker and a person is questioned and again this goes back to the idea of power. Who was on the other side making those determinations validating what stories? And so, it leads to all kinds of things around just our own personal health and personal questioning. I'm sure the other side doesn't even realize they’ve done something wrong.

Fostering community power amid systemic challenges

MICHÈLE: I’ll use the example of American Promise. We would not be able to create that work if it wasn’t for the program officers of color who supported us and believed in our story along the way. People like Orlando Bagwell, Rasheed Shabazz, Raquiba Labrie, [and] Kathy Im. I’m not saying other program officers didn’t support the work. They came later. Black program officers came in first and immediately understood our vision in terms of our story and on how we worked with our partners as we worked on what our engagement campaign would look like.

JUANITA: I think historically, the power is in the work that we do behind the scenes— that nobody ever sees. Back in the early eighties, as a first-time participant on a CPB cultural affairs funding panel, I was shocked that white panelists were about to turn down proposals by makers of color because they had never heard of this particular artist or issue. And in those instances, you have to sit there and assert that this is the very reason this artist and their story needs to be told. Also, it is important to recognize the work of black, brown, and Indigenous filmmakers and producers in founding consortia associations to help each other’s projects get into the world.

MICHÈLE: Oh yeah. People are like, “Well, I have some money. You got some money, let's make this move so we can help support this and that project.” And I think this kind of co-operation between those with some leverage in the industry is really important to note.

MARIA: I want to jump in here because there's a couple of things. First, I have been mentored by so many, and love so many of my black brothers and sisters in positions of power, and they have been there for me because we have fewer Latinos in those positions as program officers, as funders, as show-runners, as executives in media across the board. And I want to pick up on this concept of co-creation as our communities of color support each other in funding and creating work. I spent many years as Chair of the Board of NALIP, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, now about to celebrate its 20th year. We're the longest running organization of Latinx media makers and many of our programs for the field have resulted in an explosion of Latinx media-makers today. And co-creation is absolutely our community of artists picking ourselves up by our bootstraps when sometimes we didn’t even have boots, and a number of years ago we began accepting non-Latinx people of color to our NALIP programs because we recognized how kindred we are with access issues around media-making. I started a [residency for women] writer/directors-of-color … across all ethnicities, and I still don't see another residency like it. Right now, it's on hiatus because we lost our very special (and charitably contributed) estate where it was being held. And there’s a gap because I have testimonies from women who attended the retreat, many of whom have said it was one of the most formative experiences of their careers and have gone on to do very well, and to lift each other up. I think this was in large part because I also engaged mentors of color from our communities so that we could share collective wisdom of our master artists, and we also called on and honored the value of the knowledge and critiques our fellows could provide for one another. It’s valuable to not privilege the guidance coming from people outside of our communities who may be very well intentioned but lacking the nuance that comes from understanding of our particular histories and priorities. Often, the microaggressions can happen from those mentoring us from outside our communities not because they are trying to hurt us, in fact, they are trying to be allies, but they don’t always have that necessary knowledge base. That’s part of why I and some other artists dreamed this retreat was necessary - it did not exist before. We had a submission and review process and selected twelve artists for each cohort. It was such a joy to think about the specific needs of our writers and directors of color in a retreat tailored to their needs. As Artistic Director I poured so much care into it, and so much joy. We had a chef cooking our fellows multi-course farm-to-table meals so they felt how valued and cared for they were, beautiful rooms with fresh flowers everywhere, we had forest and mountain, fire circles and waterfalls and walks and picnics, and we had so much story and art and supportive criticism and deep elevation of our work and each of us questioned and pushed and held each other up, but also respected and trusted and believed in one another’s capacities. I am hoping to run that Artist Retreat Center again if I can find the support!

MICHÈLE: Maria, there’s no reason why that retreat that you started shouldn’t continue to be funded. The need is clearly there.

THOMAS: Agreed! I think that's the kind of thing that funders should actually be seeking out to fund, especially given where we are right now in the media landscape. I mean that kind of nurturing or workshop or residency, that can really lift folks up—and also comes from a person of color perspective that re-orients assumptions around who gets to speak for whom. We are at a place now where we can question what is mainstream and who is mainstream and why. For the television series I am working on now for PBS, I was mentored by the Center for Asian American Media. I am obviously not Asia American but CAAM was able to actually see the value of my project and how it contributed to their larger goals around representation and public media. Things are no longer siloed and we’re realizing a kind of win-win narrative as opposed to I've got to get mine, which is so much of ethos of this industry on a certain level and can be very destructive. We’re supporting each other and giving back.

MICHÈLE: While giving back and mentorship is a great thing to do and important, it's also draining. It's part of what many of us feel we have to do. We are constantly supporting up and coming filmmakers of color but you know, there's only a certain amount of bandwidth. And I think in some cases, if we don't carve out time for our own creativity, our own creativity suffers because that requires head space as well.

The other thing that will lead to this idea of empowerment is more transparency in funding and how money is distributed in the field. Give me what the real numbers are. The Center for Media and Social Impact and the International Documentary Association released a study last year on the state of the documentary field based on data gathered from non-fiction filmmakers. I felt there were some key questions around money, power and race, and class that were not directly addressed. And more importantly we still don’t have the numbers from funders and foundations. It’s one thing for us to answer a survey, and another to find out the lay of the land from foundations, broadcasters, streaming entities/platforms. I want to know what's being funded, also where do I fit in the larger landscape or field. In order to see that, I need to know from the funding and investment side what their statistics are. If that makes sense? Then we can get an accurate picture and have a deeper understanding of what sustainability looks like and where self-reflection intervention may need to happen to achieve a greater sense of equity and re-imagine the possibilities of co-creation. With an accurate assessment of what the funding landscape looks like I can make an informed decision about the directions I can pursue in the field. I feel the field is still far from transparent. We don’t have the statistics when it comes to those who hold the purse strings and power to greenlight. The studies of those trends need to come to the light. It's something that I'm hoping IDA does a deeper dive into so [that] we as storytellers can better understand the funding landscape. But also, so we as a field can render those with funding power more accountable..

THOMAS: And the idea also of sustainability.


Exploring personal costs and required self-care when co-creating

THOMAS: I think it's important to take vacations and mental health breaks. That’s difficult to schedule in the middle of a production schedule and you always wonder if others will think you are working hard enough—even when you’ve been working beyond capacity. But it’s a question of self-care—even basic things like taking the time to address your health and mental health. And scheduling space to re-charge the batteries. I say this as an act of affirmation because it’s very hard for me to do.

JUANITA: So, I just wanted to ... I've sort of been thinking about what mental health would look like for me and I have none, I just realized. But the stories documentary filmmakers tell often get inside of us. On top of that is the issue of consistently having to deal with microaggressions all along the process. I realized that as an executive producer, I oftentimes absorbed a lot of negativity and bias from program gatekeepers to shield my filmmakers from it so they could concentrate more on creating the work.

MICHÈLE: I think for me the self-care is building a community of peers who support each other—whether it’s being able to vent or create spaces that advance our work. It’s having solidarity. In those instances, I can feel the burden lighten. I totally get what you're saying and I want to include more of that kind of self-care in my life. Just throwing that out there …

MAORI: Yeah, I don't, this is main worry. I am really troubled I think personally and professionally by this question because there doesn't ... I am not proud that I don't have the space to take vacations. And I am kind of caught in the middle of, I think sort of generationally as a late-Gen X-person. I have all these millennials who work for me who are all about self-care and all about vacations and I can't be upset with them at all, right? They say things like, “I can't come in today because I'm having low mental health,” and they're so clear about it. And the ones who are working, I'm very proud that they have the space to say this. And it isn't like they are making an excuse but I'm also kind of baffled because I was trained by people who didn't take breaks and so I'm kind of caught in the middle of that.

And so, I've been burning the candle at both ends for 15-plus years of my career. And not really sure how to sort of move forward. I've been making films and doing this festival work on the side of full-time jobs. Sometimes it's been teaching, other times it's been other non-profit work. All of those jobs have been 60-hour a week jobs and then taking on another 60 hours somehow. And I know I'm not the only one doing that. I think the field is asking us to do that. The expectations require that you work this hard.

And then I think this is stating the obvious, but for myself, being a woman and then being a person of color, feeling the need to have everything be in place in a certain way so that it's presented correctly so that there are no questions asked, with the budget and proposal. You know, it also requires that you work even harder. No one should work this hard. The idea of self-care is very fraught on a daily basis and I don't think I'm alone in that.

MICHÈLE: Yeah. Just to bounce off of that, it's so important what you mentioned and this idea of perfect presentation. It’s an extra burden of needing to make sure that our work is foolproof so we’re taken seriously. Mediocrity is not an option for us.

MARIA: But also, thinking about this one precious life, there are only so many hours in the day, so many years in a life, and how do I serve my community, honor my own expertise and unique and authentic voice and artistic output also as part of that community? What stories do I feel must be told? And I’m an artist, I’m not just a translator, so I want to work with the poetry and language of my medium. And I’m finally at the point where I understand the game and see where the funding trends are, and sometimes I need to say no, that’s not what I’m doing, because there is an even greater need I feel to tell a different story or tell this story in a different way than what the trend or the master narrative is demanding. So sometimes, self-care is choosing your own path as an artist and storyteller, even when the larger system tells you that’s not how you’re going to thrive within that system today.

JUANITA: Maria, you said this so well. Our work is about the authentic voices of our communities, about our own authentic voices as artists, storytellers who are members of communities. I’m so appreciative of the work, experiences and perspectives that each of us has brought to this discussion. This entire community is so powerful; this conversation has been healing and a form of self-care in itself.

(Agreement and appreciation expressed by all.)


From our research, interviews, and experience we propose the following guiding principles as elements that are often key to co-creative projects.

  1. Create projects that don’t originate from the single-author vision. Rather, ideas originate from relationships.

  2. Create projects that emerge from the process, potentially with many outcomes rather than solely outcome-driven processes.

  3. Make media with people and from within communities, rather than for, or about, them.

  4. Reframe who gets to tell which story, who owns it, and why. Ground these choices in principles of racial equity, narrative sovereignty, and digital justice.

  5. Work with citizens, communities, and scholars across institutions, across disciplines, in a shared, parallel discovery process. These processes are often entangled with non-human systems such as biological, AI, and infrastructure.

  6. Ensure all partners respect each other’s expertise, including first-hand experience. Challenge power dynamics, and prioritize inclusion, equity and diversity.

  7. Use appropriate technology, workflows, tools, leadership, roles , and multiple modes of storytelling.

  8. Ensure that impact, sustainability, healing, and reciprocity are paramount. Consider how communities will benefit from the project.

  9. Not only interpret the world, but change it. Tackle complex problems by acknowledging a multiplicity of points-of-view, and ensure that solutions come from within communities.

  10. Share and learn. Be open. Contribute to transparent, open, and public knowledge frameworks.


Moritz Menzel:

Would it be possible to make Part 1 available as a pdf download? The download button currently links to the executive summary instead of Part 1. Thanks in advance:)

chris davis:

this begins in school where we train the singular narrative. However, I know that we can change this approach, maybe even without changing the individualized grading system that disrupts the cooperative effort, intrinsic creative agency, and framing of learning as a linear progression of mono-psychometrics. The mosaic, the quilt, the meshing of individual pieces into a collective whole, the granular co-constructions that are part of the constructivist dialectic throughout the day - all of this breaks down this obsessive focus on top down accountability. Did learning happen? Formative documentation of process and learning products should make the question mute.

Katerina Cizek:

@catherine what’s going on with te image above?

Catherine Ahearn:

Should the image above have a caption?

Catherine Ahearn:

Note here in google doc about a screen shot. Do you have this?