Digital Alchemy - Alice Wong, Digital Spaces as Freedom for Disabled Folks

Moya Bailey 0:02
ICA presents

Hello good people. Welcome to this episode of Digital Alchemy. I am so excited to be hosting this episode with Alice Wong. Alice Wong is a disabled activist, writer, editor, media maker and consultant. Alice is the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture. Alice is a co-partner in four projects., a resource to help editors connect with disabled writers and journalists; #CripLit, a series of Twitter chats for disabled writers with novelist Nicola Griffith; and #CripTheVote, a nonpartisan online movement, encouraging the political participation of disabled people with co-partners Andrew Pulrang and Gregg Beratan; and Access Is Love with co-partners Mia Mingus and Sandy Ho, a campaign that aims to help build a world where accessibility is understood as an act of love instead of a burden or an afterthought. Alice's areas of interest are popular culture, media politics, disability, representation, medicaid policies and programs, storytelling, social media, and activism. I have the good fortune to connect with Alice, particularly around this area of pop culture. And we share a love of all things television. And now I'd love to just get into it. Alice, you and I have the good fortune to know life pre-internet and the digitalization of everything. How has the digital is shaped your work now? Has it helped? Or has it hurt?

Alice Wong 0:39
Before the internet, I was already a disabled cyborg. A person tethered to technology inside and outside of my body. I have metal rods in my back from a spinal fusion surgery and use the power wheelchair to get around. When I was a teenager, the internet started becoming available and I got a dial-up modem which opened a whole new world for me. For the kids out there who don't know what that is, the earliest internet providers require the usage of a telephone line. So I ended up hogging our family's phone line as I spent hours on the internet downloading free songs from Napster, (again, kids, Google it to learn more) and explored message boards and listserv spaces on my interests in music and culture. It's hard for me to travel. So being in digital spaces has meant freedom. I've been able to learn from others and find community as well as access critical information for work, education, and life in general. In many ways, I developed a fuller sense of self with the internet, and it gave me the tools to create a platform of my own making. While there are clear drawbacks, as we can see with the cesspool that is Twitter, I still find value in being very, very online.

Moya Bailey 3:23
So I use this term Digital Alchemy to talk about this podcast. And for me, alchemy is the science of turning regular metals into gold. When I talk about Digital Alchemy, I am thinking of the ways that Black women and other women of color, transform everyday digital media into valuable social justice media magic: we turn scraps into something precious. It's a delicate balance of making do and pushing for more than informs our thinking on women of color’s transformative digital media magic. And I'm curious how you see Digital Alchemy showing up in your work, or do you?

Alice Wong 4:04
I love the term Digital Alchemy because maybe we are witches conjuring up spaces for us by us. Disabled people and disabled people of color in particular are so creative and innovative with what they have in front of them. And like many other underrepresented communities that have been erased and shut out from traditional mediums and institutions, our power and sharing what we have creates an infrastructure built on our wisdom, labor, and witchy powers. For me Digital Alchemy happens when I dream up a hashtag. And not every hashtag takes off. I don't expect that at all. But sometimes once in a while, it sparks something with the people that follow me and has a snowball effect. I love seeing a hashtag that came from my brain that reaches hundreds of thousands of people out in the world and how people are using and interpreting it in their own ways. The kinds of conversations and actual changes that can happen from hashtag activism, to reference the book you co-authored, Moya, is truly magical.

Moya Bailey 5:16
So at the top, I mentioned a couple of your digital campaigns. What one has been your favorite that you've sparked, and why was it your favorite?

Alice Wong 5:27
There are a few, such as #CripTheVote, but one recent one was #HighRiskCA. This started out of pure anger and frustration on my part. Listeners go back in time with me in the beginning of 2021 when vaccines first became available, and they were in limited supply. Many states created tiers of populations that would be eligible for vaccines. The state of California had several tiers with high-risk people being last. And on top of that, Governor Gavin Newsom contemplated going with an age-based rollout which would leave so many younger high-risk, disabled, and immunocompromised behind. I Tweeted with the hashtag and encouraged high-risk Californians to share their stories and contact their elected officials in the Department of Health. It really took off and people were actively mobilizing online and in other ways. The hashtag also gave us a central way of organizing and funding one another. Disability rights organizations who have been pushing the state to change their policies started using the hashtag too. I also feel that part of Digital Alchemy is about creating an archive for the future. Anyone now can find those Tweets and its parts of history, so that makes me feel good too. While I might have initiated it, the alchemy requires collectivity, which is 100% pure magic.

Moya Bailey 7:04
What do you want researchers of communication and other folks in the academy to know about your work? What would you like them to research, or what do you think they should be paying attention to? How can they be better accomplices to you and your work?

Alice Wong 7:21
I was recently asked to write a foreword to a text book about disabled people and archival work. And I've been thinking a lot about how Digital Alchemy is archival work, even if people like me are hesitant to identify as archivists. And why is that? It's because social media is still a liminal space without the backing of institutions or academia. I'd like academics who study communication to understand how everyone can be a curator, archivist, activist, and communication specialist. We may have different skill sets, tools, approaches, and sensibilities. But there is such a wealth of knowledge that is generated by people who have been shut out of the academy. And let's be real: academics have exploited marginalized creators and community scholars. Citational justice is a thing, and there needs to be less extractive and transactional relationships between academics and lay people. Researchers can co-author and collaborate with us. They can and should cite us and write us in grants for research projects. And they can amplify our work in publications, conferences, and lectures. And I say this with gentleness and care as a former academic, ha-ha-ha!

Moya Bailey 8:52
Given predictions that humans have at best 50 more years on the planet. How do you prioritize where you put your energy?

Alice Wong 9:02
Oh, Moya. This is such a great question. I want to spend more time in the sun among a garden of my own. I want to create a home where I have the space to work, dream, and rest. I want to have lots of dinner parties and potlucks with my friends and family. And more importantly, I want to continue to create, let my imagination run wild, and build a world centered on liberation, justice, and interdependence. Thank you for having me on your podcast, my friend.

Moya Bailey 9:39
I so want to come to your home Alice. Here's to the beautiful future and the interdependence that you make possible. And I am so glad to have had you on the podcast today. Digital Alchemy is a production of the International Communication Association Podcast Network. This series is sponsored by The School of Communication at Northwestern University. Our producer is Dominic Bonelli. Our executive producer is DeVante Brown. The theme music is by Matt Oakley. Please check the show notes in the episode description to learn more about me, my guests, and Digital Alchemy overall. For more information about our participants on this episode, as well as our sponsor, be sure to check the episode description. Thanks so much for listening.

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Digital Alchemy - Alice Wong, Digital Spaces as Freedom for Disabled Folks
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