Monday, April 08, 2013

Cherry Spoon Bridge to Nowhere: on the Iconography of the Twin Cities

Originally published at Opine Season

I’m not from the Twin Cities originally, but I’ve lived in Minneapolis for five years. As an outsider/insider, one thing I’ve noticed is the gulf between the reality I’ve experienced here and the way that the Twin Cities (and Minnesota, for that matter) are presented in media.

Is there a shared Twin Cities identity? Maybe. But that identity is much more complex than what you’re likely to find in one of the many “Best of the Twin Cities” lists, or “that’s so Minnesotan” features, or any article, music festival, TV news segment, event, commercial, or other piece of media that seeks (whether explicitly or implicitly) to represent “the community.”

For example, when the City Pages ran a feature on why Minnesota is the best state, it pointed to things like the Hold Steady, Brock Lesnar, Target, ski trails, hipsters, the Coen brothers, the Walker, the Mall of America, and the fact that “everyone has a cabin on the lake.” When the MN State Fair has an area called “Heritage Square,” it features Americana, polka, old-time and bluegrass music. Browse the MPLS.St.Paul Magazine website and tell me whose faces you see. Whose stories are being told?

To be clear, I’m not saying that any of these symbols are bad. I like going to the State Fair. I like eating tater tot hotdish. I appreciate what The Current has accomplished. I’m just saying that by focusing so much on these symbols, we’re presenting an incomplete picture. We’re silencing a lot of voices. And as people who work in media, people who organize events, or just people who care about our community—we have a responsibility to do better.

Because the Twin Cities I know is a large, vibrant, diverse, complex, challenging, beautiful place. The symbols we so often encounter when talking about the Twin Cities—the sports teams, the idea of Minnesota Nice, the Cherry Spoon Bridge, “A Prairie Home Companion,” etc.—these are all fine. But they’re not everything. They do not represent me, or most of my friends, or many of the people in my neighborhood.

Of course, people who work in media may say “we’re just giving our audience what they want.” Event organizers may say “we’re just serving the people who happen to show up.”

But your audience is all white for a reason. Your board of directors is all men for a reason. Working class people don’t attend meetings for your organization for a reason. Young people don’t read your publication for a reason. None of this “just happens.”

And this is bigger than media. When whole communities are ignored, that plays out at a policy level too. If we have an incomplete view of our city or cities, that’s going to impact how we vote, how we view our neighbors and how we build for the future.

So what can we do? In a media context, it takes intentional promotion, a long-term view of audience development, creating authentic relationships in the community, and much more. I don’t have all the answers, but two organizations I’d like to point to are the Main Street Project and Community Action Against Racism. Both organizations’ work around media justice has been—and continues to be—inspiring. Our community’s diversity is a strength, and media has a responsibility to reflect that.

Finally, this is a piece I wrote about this issue after a lot of conversations and reflection. It may be a little more… blunt than this essay, but I hope it can at least spark some more dialogue:

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