Writing this blog post feels familiar, writing this blogpost feels like visiting an old friend: writing. After building a career in journalism, it felt bittersweet to throw in the pencil and leave a life of full-time content creation behind. It has been two years since I left the field as a full-time employee to make my journey towards pursuing a full-time career in web development and I’m the happiest I’ve been in two years. Once I realized journalism would never love me back, not the way I loved it, I decided to give my love to another field that felt more rewarding, both financially and professionally.
The Importance of Community Based Content
Being on the content creation end for the bulk of my career, I know what terrible content can look like. Forced content, especially, is a huge turnoff for readers. It screams inauthenticity and desperation. No one wants to be inauthentic and desperate. But it has also shown me the power of strong and authentic content, this content cannot be fabricated. Which is why I’m a huge believer in paving the way for communities to build their content. Communities should be using content platforms to connect with one another and share common experiences, not respond to content written by a supposed subject matter expert that shapes their experience. Communities should be building their own narratives, plain and simple.
Building a Community by Building a Website
When I was a teenager I played RPG games like Baulder’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. It was around the same time Mozilla Firefox was gaining popularity as a browser. At that point in time, I learned about the “view source” feature and had used it for the very first time. I was astonished, “How can you view a site’s code just like that?” I exclaimed. I used the knowledge I had picked up from viewing different website sources to build a website for my gaming clan. iFrames and phpBB forums were popular in those days, so that’s what I used to build the most basic website at the time, it was a place for us to meet when we were not logged into the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) platform. It was nice to chat without worrying about our characters getting attacked by goblins and well, dying.
Building that simple (and quite ugly) website fostered a strong sense of community within our gaming clan. We exchanged ideas, checked in on each other during moments of adolescent awkwardness, and followed each other’s blogs using webrings.
Technology should be seen as a blessing for community builders. Those days helped me create a foundation for the development career I am pursuing today.
Fast forward to today, where I have founded an organization called YallaPunk, which celebrates the creative accomplishments of Middle Eastern North African individuals. An organization that has fostered a strong community of musicians, artists, comedians, and filmmakers in a safe space free of sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia. The timing is more important than ever for the MENA creative population to define our own narrative, especially during a time when our narrative is being defined for us as violent individuals.
Community building definitely carries over to building a website with the community in mind, as the accessibility saying goes “nothing for us, without us.” The YallaPunk website is meant to be a resource for the community, a place where information about the event can be found but also a place where members of the community can gather and discuss different issues that face the community and create action plans to address these issues.
Last year’s pilot event took place throughout the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, specifically at Johnny Brenda’s, The Barbary, and the Icebox Theater Project space in the Crane Arts Building. Over 200 individuals came out from within the city and outside Philadelphia, which is great for a project that was planned and executed within four months. Comedy Central featured comedian Aron Kader headlined the comedy portion while bands like Bidet, City of Djinn, and Coherence flourished in the music programming. Panel discussions such as “What does it mean to be Queer and MENA?,” “Arab images in the media,” and “How to sincerely market your creative product.” This year, the intention is to give ourselves more lead time to produce a bigger and better event and build stronger ties between performers and the community. But this year, we plan on having a different website, as last year’s was a pilot.
A good amount of community building happened at the festival, but the idea is to keep the community connected through other means. The website will have a blog component, where community members will be able to publish valuable cultural content from unique points of view. The content portion will go hand-in-hand with redefining the MENA narrative, as members of the community will be able to make their voices heard. The blog part will serve as a resource and an outlet for ideas year-round, while the festival and conference event will be a place where ideas are exchanged, as a way of staying true to the punk rock DIY ethos.
Creating and being a part of the YallaPunk community has been life changing for me because growing up as an Arab who was into punk rock, I felt as though I was the only person who possessed that personality combination. It felt as though I was an anomaly, that I did not adhere to the stereotype. But then I questioned who really defined that stereotype for me? Their stereotype was definitely not something I had signed up for. I felt like less of an anomaly when I met members of the community for the first time at the event last year, individuals whom I felt shared common lived experiences with me.
This is why creating a space for the YallaPunk community to meet both online and offline is so important, because it allows the community to tell its narrative through its own voice. Visibility is difficult, visibility can lead to tokenization and even danger at times. But if we remain silent about who we are as people, we run the risk of someone else who is far removed from the community defining our voices for us. Building a website, by us for us, allows us to create a platform for our voices.
The Interactive Mechanics Fellowship Program aims to build capacity for representation and inclusion in the technology field. We see it as a mutual learning experience for the fellows and for our existing team, so we’ve asked our fellows to share some of their expertise on our blog.