Conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas and Ryan Eller of Define American

Conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas and Ryan Eller of Define American

(Jose Antonio Vargas speaks with a small group of students at the University of Minnesota Law School on April 14, 2015 in Minneapolis, Minnesota/ Michael Conti, © 2015 Define American)

Conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas, Founder, and Ryan Eller, Executive Director, Define American: May 14, 2015

Taryn Higashi (TH): Could you tell us about your partnership with the LA Times and #EmergingUS?

Jose Antonio Vargas (JV): #EmergingUS.com is launching this summer—around the fourth anniversary of Define American's founding. We have been referring to #EmergingUS as a digital magazine. The first video that we’re featuring is on #BlackLivesMatter, featuring the three founders, who are all women. We are also going to have a podcast series called The Invisibles, about housekeepers, construction workers, telling their stories in their own voice about what it’s like to work in LA. We will have Undocumented Chronicles, a column that I will anchor, all about undocumented people. Another section is Citizen USA. It will be a great way to complement the work we do at Define American and distribute our content, and vice versa. And we have a section called the White Pages, all about white Americans as an emerging racial minority in the US.

I am also working on a film called White People, with MTV, which follows five people to tell the story of a changing America, and the fact that young whites are now minorities in their schools. We profile a young woman in Arizona who believes she didn’t get a scholarship because Hispanics took all of the scholarships; it’s actually factually incorrect. Another part is in Bensonhurst. We meet an Italian family and talk through what it’s like to be in a changing community, one that shifted from predominantly Italian to Chinese. We get to create a campaign about young white Americans and immigration, and tie race and immigration together in a way that’s accessible, constructive, and provocative.  

TH: How did the idea emerge?

JV: I’ve been interested for a decade in how white people think of race. Immigrants, and people of color always get asked where we’re from, and we never ask white people where they’re from. We can’t really talk about race without talking about whiteness. We can’t talk to young white people about immigration if they don’t realize their own immigration story. I’ve been to 190 college campuses now in 4 years. Now, especially when I go to conservative places, I try to push people into this question of, ‘What are you, Where did you come from? How did you get here? And who paid?’ 

TH: With the MTV platform, how do you see it reaching new audiences?

JV: Talking to young students, especially college students, has been really effective. We are talking to mostly white, some black students, about immigration, and taking it out of the US/Mexico border, Latino idea in their minds. That’s how we see the White People project reaching a different audience. We know that when you mobilize a group of people—this is not just about the DREAMers—these are the ones who haven’t been mobilized, or don’t think immigration is about them. And since it’s going to be free, we can build a set of programming and curriculum around it to engage that community. Getting colleges to talk about immigration is hard, but getting them to talk about white privilege is easy, and as much as we can tie immigration to that, in a natural and accessible way, the better.

TH: Looking at Documented for a moment, what evidence do you have of its impact on people’s attitudes?

Ryan Eller: We’ve had about 40 classrooms that are piloting use of the curriculum. They do everything from art projects to storytelling where they interview each other; to using the film as an entryway to do literacy education, so folks tell their own story; to civics where people investigate their immigration story. We’re getting HR departments using the film to talk about diversity. In Long Island, in Suffolk County where there have been hate crimes against Latino immigrants, the police department is using it in their training. We’re estimating that 350,000 people have now seen the film. We’ve had thousands of people join on social media.

TH: Why did you choose to start #EmergingUS with the video on #BlackLivesMatter?

JV: #EmergingUS has a hashtag in it, and #BlackLivesMatter, from social/online activism, outside from the Arab Spring, is probably the most effective, controversial, and necessary hashtag-driven movement. Part of the packaging of this is how do you tell the story of the #Not1More Campaign as a hashtag. I felt that that video expresses the vision and tone of the magazine. Right now, The New York Times doesn’t have a single reporter that covers race full time. The Washington Postdoesn’t have a reporter that covers immigration full time. This magazine is about race, immigration, and identity.

TH: How has #BlackLivesMatter influenced the immigrant rights movement?

JV: Opal’s parents, Nigerians, were undocumented for a while, and she talks about them in the video. If you go to the #BlackLivesMatter website, you will see immigration—and LGBTQ rights—are front and center in how they talk about #BlackLivesMatter. The movement has become very male-dominated. All of the spokespeople and the people who the media contact to speak about it are male; TIME magazine put #BlackLivesMatter on the cover and never contacted these women who founded it. And it’s become solely about policing. It was fascinating to hear them unpack that, and broaden it. For me, the biggest reason we chose it to be the inaugural video is because it talks about intersectionality in a very organic, accessible way.

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