Transcription of the episode “Identity vs branding: The power of messiness”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Garrett Broad, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. His research investigates the roles of storytelling and communication technology in promoting networked movements for social justice. Much of his work focuses on local and global food systems as he explores how food can best contribute to improved neighborhood health, environmental sustainability, and the rights and welfare of animals. This is part one a two-part interview. Welcome, Garrett.

[00:00:53] Garrett B: Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

[00:00:57] Amy H-L: Garrett, you see students in their freshman year of college, effectively 13th grade. Generally, to what extent are they in the habit of thinking critically? 

[00:01:08] Garrett B: So I’ve been teaching at the higher education level for over a decade now, and so I’ve had a chance to see them, yeah, in the 13th grade, 14th grade on up through graduate school for a while. And it’s the question of, do they think critically? I think the, the answer is unequivocally, yes. We have a generation of students the kind of Gen Z generation that I’ve mostly been teaching to for the last several years, that is as passionate and concerned about issues of ethics and society, of social justice, of racial justice, of environmental sustainability, I think that we’ve ever seen. I think a lot of that has to do with the amount of information that they have access to and that they engage with across a variety of media platforms.

 I think it also has a lot to do with the crises that they’ve lived through and that we’ve lived through. If you think about a kid who’s 18, 19, 20 years old think about how the last 18, 19 years have gone from their earliest memories, probably being around the ’08 financial crisis through the climate crisis through the pandemic and racial unrest, et cetera, here in the United States. So I think that has definitely led to a generation of students who are thinking deeply, critically about what is going right, what is going wrong, and what can they do to make the world a better place.

So I find that really energizing. One of the best things about the job that I do is being able to work with students who do come in with that kind of critical thinking and that passion for making a change. 

[00:02:42] Jon M: You make a distinction between branding and identity. Could you talk about that? 

[00:02:49] Garrett B: So when I think about it, so I’m a communication and media studies, researcher and teacher, and a lot of communication has this kind of more applied orientation, right, where it’s folks getting into the public relations industries, the branding industries. A lot of the students that come through my department have that goal, to work in PR and marketing, et cetera. But what I think sometimes a lot of people don’t realize, including sometimes some of my students when they enter my intro classes, is that the study of communication and media and culture is not just about application. It’s also about critical interrogation. And that’s, I think, kind of key to this distinction between branding and identity. And when we think about the way so many of us are cultivated to think about our brand these days, right, our personal brand, our professional brand, our organizational brand, our company’s brand. Whatever it is this logic of branding has really permeated so much of society. And it’s really about having this consistent narrative about who we are, what we do, why we do it and how to do it right, to differentiate ourselves from the others in the quote unquote marketplace. 

Identity is different. Identity is complex. Identity is messy. It’s different from a brand, which tries to be simple and straightforward. And so a lot of what we try to do in my department and a lot of departments like it, as we explore identity, is to really think about the complications of identity in a global society, in a society faced by a variety of intersecting challenges, opportunities, and identity as deeply intersectional in and of itself, when we think about how intersections between race, class, gender, economic status, sexuality, and so on and so forth. So I think that’s the way I think about this distinction when I’m teaching communication. Yeah, we’ve got this applied branding, here’s what we can learn from those folks in that kind of world of marketing and PR, which can be very useful in certain ways, if we’re trying to get a point across or trying to develop an advocacy campaign where a lot of my interests are in social cause branding, but the identity side is the messy part. And I think that’s the stuff., Yeah, even more important than the kind of applied branding stuff, because really the sort of key questions of the 21st century are questions of identity. And it’s those things that kind of social movements are increasingly built around. I’m fascinated by the idea of messiness and the degree to which students in particular, but this obviously applies to adults as well, the pressures on people, especially perhaps with social media being so omnipresent, to not engage, not feel safe, being messy.

[00:05:39] Jon M: How do your students think about that and how are you able to talk to them about what messiness could mean and what kind of risks people should be prepared to take, or need to take, in order to figure out who they are, what they think, and whether that changes over time. 

[00:05:57] Garrett B: It’s a really important question. And it’s something I think a lot about in my pedagogy, which is how do we create a space that is committed to a set of basic principles of values, of ethics around inclusion, around equity, but also allows 18, 19, 20 year old students to figure things out and to the test out their own ideas, to maybe say something today that maybe in another week or a year or several years, they might think differently about. And I definitely think you raised the point about social media and on social media often there is this expectation that everybody is sort of born a fully formed political actor, right, with a fully formed set of social and cultural ideas, and that if they ever say anything that’s contrary to that brand, that they’re subject to being pushed back against, right. Or for lack of a better word, “canceled.” I think sometimes we go too far in this obsession over cancel culture and that sort of thing, but what I see in a lot of undergraduate students is some fear about engaging in this messiness, about saying things that maybe they’re not about expressing an opinion or an idea or perspective that maybe they’re not sure about how it might land, right, and about the social backlash that might ensue, whether real or imagined. And so that to me is really the key challenge of this moment as a teacher in higher education is how do we, again, how do we insist on a space that is inclusive and that is cognizant of the specific challenges that marginalized communities have faced in institutions like higher education for generations, but also doesn’t make it seem like you have to believe one thing to be right or that you have to come in as a freshmen with all the right ideas.

And so what I try to do is just make that very clear from the start, right, with students. Hey, our ground rules. Be respectful, right. And think about the perspectives and the backgrounds and the histories of others. But part of that respect means being open to hearing ideas that you might not agree with, and that might even make you uncomfortable. And that sometimes comes within the room itself, right? Maybe there’s a perspective of a student that is contra what much of the rest of the class thinks. But oftentimes it means, I make sure to bring in dissenting ideas via a YouTube video or be it via a reading so that they develop that ability to discern differing ideas, different perspectives, different types of evidence. And that ultimately my job is not to get them to believe a particular way of believing about what is right and good, but rather give them the tools, the analytical tools, the critical tools, the ethical tools, to interrogate for themselves, and come to some of their own conclusions. 

So yeah, I’m all about the messiness. And I think that’s something that higher education at its best really promotes, that kind of messy engagement. 

[00:09:17] Jon M: So thinking about the ethical tools, how do you find students, and you mentioned students before, coming in thinking critically, how do you find students thinking about the ethical implications of what they’re learning or as they think about what fields they want to go into, especially if you’re talking about something like public relations and communication, about the ethical implications of these. 

[00:09:41] Garrett B: Yeah. I’m lucky to work at an institution that has a very clearly articulated social justice mission. And so we get a lot of students that show up with an interest in engaging in communication, media, even things like marketing and public relations towards the social good. So I have a lot of students who want to pick up these tools and figure out how to advance a movement that I’m part of or work with a nonprofit advocacy organization. Or if they do want to go into the corporate sector, maybe thinking about how to improve corporate social responsibility or the environmental and social and governance aspects of how corporations work. With that in mind, I would say I’ve been very encouraged by the openness of students to think about where theory meets practice. This is a huge part of my approach as a researcher and as a teacher and in my department and the programs that I’m a part of, which is alright, how can we figure out how to dig into these messy conversations, right, these concepts about identity and culture and social injustice and effective movements for social change and debates in the public sphere. But then how do we put that into practice? And so that’s a lot of what I try to do with my students is all right, let’s think about this and do some of the good readings and history and theory to figure out, all right, what should we know about the broader social context here, but then always trying to ground it in real world examples. And that’s something that I think students are very much looking for. How do I make this stuff actually worthwhile? How do I make it useful?

I think a lot of students have a great deal of anxiety about the job market, about their careers, about student debt, about all these sorts of pressures on them and emerging in an economy like the one we’ve been living in over the last 18 months, two years now, around COVID. I see them graduating and going out into this very difficult space. So they definitely are looking for practical stuff that can help them get a job and pay their bills. So there’s definitely this basic need that they’re concerned about.

But I think what, what I try to do is show them, and work with them to demonstrate, is how consideration of these bigger ethical questions and these bigger conceptual questions are going to actually make your practical work better, right. And also allow you to apply the practical work to the kind of social issues and social causes that you’re passionate about, because this is something I see a lot in this generation, of real major interest in doing it social good work, about finding jobs that have a purpose. And I think I’ve seen this even more as students are coming out in the pandemic that a lot of students, I see this a little more on the graduate level., A lot of students kind of rethinking their career path and rethinking their purpose and wanting to find work that feels that ethical passion that they have. And so to me, the way we do that and what I think students are often very responsive to is, is really thinking about that interplay between theory and practice, that classic praxis- oriented thinking, which has a long history in organizing and education. 

[00:12:56] Amy H-L: Garrett, you talk about networked movements for social justice. What does that mean? 

[00:13:01] Garrett B: Yeah. It means that we live in a digitally connected society and it means that humans are networked animals to begin with. When I approach my work, I’m in this field of communication, which can mean many different things, depending on who’s doing it and where you’re doing it. Lots of different research approaches. 

The way I think about it are sort two main concepts that I’m interested in. One is networks, right, which is to say, what are the connections? What are the ways we are connected as individuals, as institutions, as societies? And again, that’s building on human social development, which is, of course, building on non-human social development, which is to say, we’re not solitary animals. We are networked, connected animals. I mean, one of the things that makes humans different from many other species is our ability to navigate complex social networks, that’s one. And then this just becomes even more central to human organization in an age of digital technology, when these networks are not just about your local familial network, but also networks that expand around the city, around the nation, around the world. So that’s one.

The other concept in addition to networks, that I’m always really interested in are narratives. What are the stories we tell about who we are, about what the problems are in society, about what solutions might be and how we can put those solutions into practice?

And so I’m always interested in the relationship between networks and narratives. What are the stories that inhabit and characterize the kind of networks that we’re interested in? If we’re looking at something like a social movement, related to… , I focus a lot in my work around food movements. Who are the key players in movements to make the food system better? What are the networks of individuals, institutions, organizations, power, that are maybe standing in the way of positive change? And then what are the stories that all of these networks tell and, and that bind these networks together about what they’re doing and who’s doing it and why they’re doing it? 

[00:15:06] Amy H-L: Middle and high school students spend many of their waking hours on social media. So how does that shape their views? Does it expand or shrink their universe of obligation that is, those people or animals other than humans, for whom they feel some responsibility? Does it expand or shrink? 

[00:15:25] Garrett B: The answer is yes, right. The social media aspect, I think we can’t overestimate how central it is in the lives of young people, to the point where I think for many of us, who grew up without social media, as central to our childhood or young adulthood, many of us still think about sort of this distinction between online and offline. I think what we see with young people is that that distinction. doesn’t make sense. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that a lot of their social media, well, I think for those of us who are maybe a little older, a lot of my social media, for instance, is I’m on Twitter and I’m reading articles and I’m maybe interacting with some people I know, some people I don’t know. And then I may be on some texts and group chats and things like that with some friends and family. For young people, it’s all kind of together that their inner personal communication with people they know is, in many ways, indistinguishable from other uses of social media and they just, they go back and forth between Snapchat and Instagram and Tik Tok, and it’s them interacting with their friends, but it’s also them interacting with influencers and celebrities and news and so on and so forth. And so that’s one thing I think we need to understand is the way that social media, digital media, for all of us, but particularly for young people who are growing up, is that there’s not clear distinctions between the offline and the online. So that’s one thing.

The other thing, social media does, and this gets to your specific question about sort of expanding or shrinking. The great thing about social media is that it does, and digital media in general does, create an opportunity to learn and to interact with and to be exposed to perspectives that are all around the world and the kinds of opportunities for what scholars might refer to as counterpublics, networked counterpublics. I’m drawing from a really good book called Hashtag Activism by several scholars where they really work on this concept of networked counterpublics. Basically, the way that social media has continued a tradition of historically marginalized groups using the available media of that time to get their voices heard, right. And that there are particular affordances of social media that create really great opportunities as we’ve seen with Black lLves Matter, as we’ve seen with the #MeToo movement, as we see in animal advocacy movements and food advocacy movements, where I spent a lot of my time. So that’s the great news, opportunities for expansion. Digitally networked connections across time and space. Amazing. Wonderful. 

The downside is that it can also lead to a commitment to a kind of in-group philosophy. To go back to early in our conversation, this commitment to a unified brand that isn’t messy necessarily, and this assumption that if you just say the things that play well in your in-group and oftentimes the things that play well within your in-group are actually demeaning and denigrating an out-group. And so this is why we see this highly polarized environment in social media .

And so that is the constraining part, which is a lot of people spend a lot of time, sometimes myself included, fighting about things on the internet. Because you get this feedback, this very positive often, from your in-group, because they’re seeing this, right. There was a lot of talk about the filter bubble for a long time, right, this idea that we only see things that are sort of already within our own filter bubble. I actually think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that we don’t necessarily operate in filter bubbles, because we actually do see a lot of alternative ideas, but we often see those alternative ideas filtered through the lens of our filter bubble, right. So we see these other ideas, but we see them framed in a way that’s often not looking at them in good faith, right. And it’s just thinking about, how do I sort of dunk on to use some internet terminology, how do I dunk on this other perspective? So that’s one way that the filter bubble thing doesn’t quite fit.

The other way is that there’s often this assumption that if we just break the filter bubble by putting group A and group B that have been at odds, putting them in conversation, that that will fix things. And there’s a lot of evidence to show that that’s not true either, that if we’re going to try to bridge differences across groups that have either ideological differences or some other sort of difference, that we can’t just expect to put them all in one big room together, whether it’s a digital room or a real room and say, talk to each other and you’ll, you’ll learn about each other. And you’ll, you’ll like each other more. That’s not how it works, right. That there’s a lot of research and things like intergroup contact and intergroup relations in a group conflict that shows you have to be very deliberate about those moments of intergroup interaction. And you have to create a context for conversation that helps people see their common humanity, and doesn’t get people to immediately try to convince the other side. Because what happens there is then we just often just retrench back to our initial position. So that’s the bad part, right. 

The good part, expansion of opportunity and perspectives and diverse counterpublics that have a chance to share their voices and their experience,. The downside, tendency towards putting us into even more polarized sorts of situations, and polarized in group communities that lead to a lack of understanding of the other and a lack of kind of positive opportunities for engagement. And it’s a huge undertaking. It’s not easy to try to create inter-group understanding, but I can say that the dominant platforms that we have are the opposite of what you would design if you were trying to create that intergroup understanding across a variety of different types of difference. 

[00:21:21] Jon M: So, especially in the amazing context that you’ve just summarized, what are some concrete things that you think that justice-focused high school teachers can do, who are concerned about civics and student engagement in civics? What can they do to help prepare students to be effective change agents in this environment? 

[00:21:43] Garrett B: A couple of things come to mind immediately. So one is to work with students to really understand how people’s perspectives are shaped. So one thing I think they can do is help students understand the sort of broader contexts of debate and social issues and to understand how they came as a a person to believe the things they believed, and how someone who might completely disagree with them, where did that come from? And I say this, not to necessarily say that they should try to change their mind, right. Or try to go to that other side. But I think the more we recognize, like, all right, there are reasons why people hold racist views. There are reasons why people hold sexist views, speciesist views, or whatever else views it might be. And it’s important for those who are advocating for social justice to see the humanity in those people, to not to condone it, but if you don’t view them as potentially reachable in some form, then you’re never going to reach them, right. And the way to understand that, I think is often to kind of go and try to understand where are they coming from, right. So I do a lot of work around animal issues, for one, and animal advocacy. And so one of the things I’ve tried to do a lot in my work is really understand what is the perspective of folks working, for instance, in animal food production. Yeah. Okay, how did they get there, right. How did they come to believe that the structure as it exists or the structures they’re proposing is the right thing to do. And I think that has helped me a have better conversations with those people. B, recognize as well that I don’t necessarily know everything. So that’s another thing that I would say is to work with students to make them effective change agents. I think the more you understand other perspectives, it also pushes you to have a kind of intellectual humility, where you start to understand this kind of classic, the more the less you know, right? Or the more you learn, the less you know, and that’s something that’s been a big thing in my career and in my teaching. I often tell students, you will probably end up coming out of my classes with more questions and even more uncertainty than you entered. And that can be frustrating at times, but actually that’s my goal, because that is the key thing about being a kind of rigorous thinker, if you’re never totally sure. 

So those are a couple of things. One, think about where did these different perspectives come from. In so doing, develop intellectual humility. And then the third thing I would say is practical skills. Once you’ve done that kind of theoretical work, to go back to the conversation we were having earlier, okay, then what can you do? What can you actually do? What can you bring, for instance, to a movement? And those can be skills that you might have. If we think about young people might be really talented media creators, for instance, or they might really understand how to connect with people of their own age or demographic background or whatever else it might be. But also to identify what are the skills that movements need. You might be able to cultivate those skills. And sometimes those skills are kind of flashy and exciting, but a lot of times they’re actually like really basic day to day. Like a lot of nonprofits, for instance, really need somebody just to help them get all their spreadsheets together or like do this kind of basic, I think that’s something that we often lose as so much of our kind of movement activity has shifted towards social media, is we often think like movement theater, sort of these big, bold pronouncements. And I think we do not need that at times. We need to set the narratives and advanced these ideas in the public sphere, but movements also need a lot of like grunt work. And if you don’t do that grunt work, you’re missing out on something. And you’re probably going to really constrain the type of transformative possibilities of the movement that you’re trying to contribute to.

So those are three big things. One, think about varied perspectives. Two, cultivate that kind of intellectual humility. And three, do something. This is what I tell my students all the time. Show up and do stuff. Show up, show up, show up. That’s actually my biggest advice, right. And that speaks to the practical.

When students ask me, how do I, how do I make a difference? Well, you show up, you find the people who are already doing the work, and you figure out where might your strengths or skills contribute to this work. And what are some of the needs that they’re articulating within these movements that they could use support or kind of new opportunities.

[00:26:17] Amy H-L: You’ve done some town and gown collaboration, bringing together university and local communities for events. What makes that sort of collaboration so powerful? 

[00:26:29] Garrett B: Yeah. As someone who decided from a pretty young age that I was going to go into this academic route, although I didn’t know for sure whether I’d stay there forever, I still don’t know for sure whether I’ll stay here forever, but I’m certainly pretty locked in at this stage, at least for a while longer. Really important to me from early on that I did not want to adhere to this old stereotype of the irrelevant academic in their ivory tower. And I was very lucky to have great mentorship, primarily as a graduate student. And since then from scholars, from thinkers who are developing really interesting projects and programs. I’ve worked with my PhD advisor, a great scholar named Sandra Ball-Rokeach, who had this really wonderful project called the Metamorphosis Project, where we did community engaged, collaborative research in Los Angeles to try to support the work of community organizations, community media, to learn from them, and then to also bring some of our skills to the work that they were doing, to provide insights that might be useful, to provide research skills that might be useful. That’s something I did a lot of in my work around food, food justice, and continue to do a lot of work around food justice, where I’m collaborating with groups that are trying to make healthy food, more accessible, more affordable, with community driven and culturally driven approaches. 

 I have worked with others and could talk for a while about some of the other projects that I’ve engaged in and continue to engage in, both in terms of trying to bring local communities and local organizers into the university, as well as bringing students and researchers out into the community. And I think it’s just fundamental to the stated missions of the vast majority of universities, whether they’re public or private. Public universities, of which I went as an undergraduate, Rutgers University grad, they have a stated mission to serve the public. And private universities often also have a stated mission to serve publics. And I happened to be at a Jesuit university that has a very explicit social justice mission. And so I think one of the reasons I ended up where I am was because I was attracted to that and they were attracted to the work that I was doing, which is to find these interactions.

Now, it’s hard. And I often, in moments, I question, am I doing the most effective thing as an academic? Does it make sense for me? Have I actually ended up in the ivory tower, even as I’ve tried not to? And I think in some ways that is true. I also think there’s value to producing academic scholarship on its own, right. And so I think that’s important, but I just remain committed to thinking that the privilege that I have to do the work that I do. I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t find ways to actually make it work for others. And to find the role that I might be able to play within movements that I’m committed to. Where someone in my position who has a lot of autonomy, I mean, that’s really one of the great things about my job is I have a lot of autonomy to research the questions I want to research, to teach on the questions that I want to teach, to mentor students and to have students teach me about issues that are interesting in that moment, and to follow some of those tacks. And so that’s something that I’ve tried to do, is find that right balance of, okay, what can I, as an academic, do to leverage the resources of the university to advance movements, and how might I also bring community members, movement leaders, and others into the university to share their insights, to have them be taken seriously at that academic level. Again, a lot of this comes back to this sort of broader ethos where theory is practice. 

[00:30:10] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. Garrett Broad of Fordham University.

[00:30:14] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. This is part one of a two-part interview with Dr. Broad. In part two. We’ll discuss school gardens and food justice. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps others to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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