Amaranta Wright's journey and creation of BULB Magazine.
It was the perfect job for a restless twenty-six year-old, hungry for adventure. I was in Miami and it was 1998 when Levi Strauss asked me to spend a month each in ten Latin American cities, investigating their youth cultures. Would I mind!? I’d had to have a screw loose to refuse such an offer. And so I became a “cool hunter;” the next four years I spent eavesdropping and infiltrating youth in South America. I did not know then that the experience was to completely transform the way I viewed the world and my own place in it, by revealing the power of corporations and their branding strategies over young people.
Levi’s wanted me to get inside the hearts and minds of youth – noting their emotions and thoughts. At the beginning, it did not occur to me that there was anything wrong in ‘knowing their market.’ It was the 1990s and all the global brands were going in to catch the wave of the newly opened Latin American economies.
As I travelled from Panama, through Colombia, down to Chile and Argentina I listened to the struggles, frustrations, hopes and dreams of random young people on the street. My travels and talks with what amounted to hundreds of kids, also became history lessons. Through their common tales, it dawned on me that every single country I visited had, thirty years before, either governments’ that were trying to break US hegemony or popular movements that had grown so strong their governments’ couldn’t ignore them. Then the storm clouds of US backed dictatorships closed in to suffocate these dreams of independence. Whilst I had previously bought the idea, perpetuated by western media, that Latin America had been liberated from these dictatorships by new democratic governments implementing IMF prescribed neo-liberal economic reforms, I saw the devastation of livelihoods that this process entailed. No country had in fact voted for this model nor was it implemented democratically.
The contradictions between the inequalities and injustices I saw and my growing realization of what I was part of and being asked to do became glaring. The information that my interviewees so eagerly delivered (as if they thought I was going to help them), Levi’s would transform into marketing strategies to replace their real desires with consumer desires. Rather than give them a voice, or help them realise their ideals, the mechanics of branding strategies was placing even more obstacles in their way, creating distractions, divisions and delusions before they were old enough to realise what was going on.
On my journey I learnt many things. I learnt that market forces are not the natural expression of popular desire, but a political process imposed by corrupt political and business elites reinforced by military force. Brands like Levi’s, flooding in on the back of this process, don’t reflect or serve desires either; they manipulate and transform truths. Through their sheer economic power they are able to turn real meanings into “cool” things, devoid of meaning. Ideals = desire. Identity = aspiration. Principles = status. Consciousness = greed.
I thought: if only the thoughts and feelings I was collecting from young people could be used to encourage their visions for a fairer and peaceful world (that they expressed to me) rather than be manipulated to steer them towards consuming more stuff.
My return to Britain coincided with the run up to the war on Iraq. Needless to say, I left Levi’s. With time to reflect, I saw that invasion of Iraq as a repeat of what had happened in Latin America whereby open markets were preceded by invasions or interventions by western governments wanting new markets for their products and resources to exploit.
I also noticed how young people in Britain knew exactly what was going on through a shere gut instinct that aroused a sense of injustice. Some bunked, but many walked out of schools to protest. All the time, politicians and the media complain about ‘youth apathy’ and yet they choose to ignore this section of youth that is alert to global injustice and do campaign on issues, perhaps because they are only interested in selling either an ideology of consumer goods to them.
I realised that young people in Britain and in Latin America shared very similar ideals of justice and peace, and yet in neither place were they reflected in the consumer and celebrity-driven youth media. Huge resources are spent by corporations on creating consumers out of young people, little is spent on creating a culture of solidarity and independent thinking. It occurred to me that, what was needed was a medium, a platform to reflect this youth culture, to help give expression to their ideals for a better world, rather than subvert them by replacing them with consumer ideals.
This was how I started BULB, Britain’s first and only global issues magazine for young people. I wanted to provide an alternative. But how to start? Of course, everyone told me I was mad. Publishing is a ‘high-risk’ and hugely expensive business. Practically all magazines are funded by advertisers, who would certainly not see BULB as a friendly product and it would be difficult for us to promote independence, whilst limiting our own by taking money from them. In retrospect I see why they thought it was impossible, but I kept remembering the words of the Mayor of Curitiba, who transformed his city in Brazil by taking thousands out of proverty simply through implanting a novel public transport system. When I asked him “How did you do it?!” “The most important thing of all,” he told me “is just to start”. Seems silly advice really, but in fact he was right. It’s about setting yourself in a direction and, rather than getting overwhelmed by the overall vision, taking one step at a time. However trivial that step may seem, it will lead to another, then another.
The first step I took was to set about finding co-conspirators; I advertised at the journalism schools and handed out leaflets at anti-war march. One girl, who worked at a big multi-national, left her job to come on board. People come and go, but there will always be a couple of crazy people who share your vision and commitment! The next step was to build partnerships. I knew I had to somehow find the support that brands fulfil for commercial magazines. Since one of BULB’s main aims was to channel young people’s energy into campaigns, which are already being run by NGOs, I figured that NGOs and like-minded organisations could support us in different ways, helping promote us, distribute us and support us generally.
Some were sceptical, but others (such as Amnesty, Untld, New Internationalist) shared our enthusiasm and Christian Aid took the leap of faith (for which I feel truly indebted) and gave us £10,000. With this (enough to print two issues) we launched in November 2004 at the European Social Forum.
Thanks to much dedication and conviction of dozens of people, we have defied the sceptics and survived thus far. With no marketing budget at all our subscriptions quickly exceeded our expectations and we are selling out in Borders, HMV and independent retail outlets. Within our first year, BULB won several national and international awards for our business practice, content and design: The Unltd. Award for Social enterprises (June 2005), 2nd place for best newcomer in the Utne independent media awards (Jan 2006, USA), 2nd place for best cover design at the Indy Press Annual Conference (Feb 2006, USA). BULB is now being distributed internationally.
Most importantly, however, is the participation from young people. It was them, after all, that inspired it! The feedback has been astounding. We are inundated by emails from young people from all backgrounds, races and religions, from all around the world, thanking us and wanting to participate. We have built an international network of contributors and a nationwide network of passionate teenagers who contribute, promote and sell the magazine (they get £1 a copy they sell) in their schools and universities.
It is this achievement I am most proud of. For me, BULB was never about philanthropy, or ‘trying to get young people to think.’ It was about really serving a need rather than exploiting it. It was about breaking isolation which is fostered by consumer-driven culture and encouraging young people to come together to fight for a more just and peaceful world for all. We didn’t want to turn into just another moaning magazine that depresses people and turns them off politics. We wanted the information to inspire and spur action. It was about nurturing a movement, not just selling a product.
The magazine itself has come on leaps and bounds (it’s difficult to produce something good with no money!) and this is largely due to our young contributors. The idea is to challenge the status quo, but also focus on what we CAN do to change it, focusing on people who are doing things at a grassroots level. It includes culture, music and sport so it’s not ALL about issues but also a celebration of life and culture in all its forms. We also balance young people’s voices with authoritative figures such as John Pilger, so its not just a youth magazine with loads of opinions, but packed with information. The result is inspiring, provocative, challenging and…most of all, fun.
There is still loads to do (and we still need money to do it!). We want to reach more young people, not just those who are already engaged. We want to generate a culture of solidarity and empower young people locally to reach out to global peers. To do this we need to use BULB to create opportunities through workshops and training. Only by giving opportunities can we replace an inward-looking (me,me,me) culture with an outward looking one, where people fight together for social change. This is just the beginning.
Amaranta Wright’s book ‘Ripped and Torn: Levi’s Latin America and the Blue Jean Dream (Ebury) is available at all good bookshops.
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