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December 07 2010


Video Volunteers Launches 'IndiaUnheard' for Rural Issues

Video Volunteers recently launched IndiaUnheard, a new project (and website) attempting to create a bridge, through community media, between disconnected rural communities and web audiences who are interested in news on issues of human rights, development and corruption. You can see the result and watch the community videos here. As this is a relatively new venture -- it's only about 4 to 5 months old -- I'd love feedback from the highly knowledgeable Knight and MediaShift Idea Lab community.

Here are some videos to show you what it's about: The village of Natpura, featured in this video below, in rural Uttar Pradesh has no women left in it. Every single one of them has been sold into prostitution rings in India and around the world by their families.

At the other side of the country, in another village, impoverished children featured in this video are not able to take their national exams because headmasters demand a bribe their families cannot afford to pay.

These two stories were broken not by mainstream journalists but by people living in these actual communities -- people who themselves experience these same kinds of exploitation and disadvantage. Because of that, the reporters (or community correspondent, as Video Volunteers calls them) have a vested interest in making sure something happens as a result of the video. They are de facto activists. In the case of the second video, the teacher in question school has been demoted. After seeing that result, the people in a neighboring village asked the correspondent to come make a video about their horrible school, and the teacher in that school was also suspended. Angry villagers mounted a rally led by our young, 19 year-old community correspondent, Mukesh Rajak, himself a young Dalit from the "lowest" caste in India. Mukesh went to the government official's office and showed her the video on his cell phone. The official was furious and took action against the bribe-taking teacher. This is the power of community media and the cascading effect of local media.

How it Works

Our 30 community correspondents (CCs) are stationed across India, nearly one in every state. They make us on average one video a month and we pay them about $30 a video. We are trying to set them up as entrepreneurs -- they make videos, they get paid. If they don't, they don't get paid. This is different from the more charitable model of most community media and is possible because we are working with adults, not youth or children.

The first 30 CCs were trained in March 2010, with support from the News Challenge. They had a two-week residential training in all manner of video journalism. In our primary program, dubbed the Community Video Units, we give them 18 months of full time training that we have felt is necessary when working with such rural communities, so a short intensive training was a departure for us. We plan to take in two new batches of Community Correspondents every year.

A Diverse Network

Community Correspondents are dalits, tribals, Muslims, rural women, among others. Our CC in Chhattisgarh is Sarwat. He is a member of his village council and feels that IndiaUnheard offers a better platform for tackling real issues than local government does. Rohini is our CC from Walhe village in Maharashtra. She was married off right after she finished her 10th grade. She is determined to change the condition of women in her community and her videos bear testimony to this. She's made video stories on devdasis (temple slaves/prostitutes), early marriage and anti-women customs like dowry. Christyraj is a transgender CC from Bangalore. He is one of the only transgender journalists in India and works tirelessly to bring the issues of his community to the fore.

Since May 1 (we launched on World Press Day) a new video report on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education is being released every day on the IndiaUnheard website. They are also further distributed through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other online news portals like Ground Report. Though these communities in India don't have Internet access, they are speaking directly to a global web audience. The impact stories we have -- such as medical supplies being delivered to villages after an IndiaUnheard report, by a web viewer, and people getting their ration cards because of the pressure of exposure on corrupt officials -- are examples of something that is still very high tech in the developing world (cell phone video) actually seeping in to make an impact on corruption.

The people we work with are still totally unconnected, with only one cell phone shared between many family members, no computer skills and Internet cafes often hours away. We struggle with how to bring their media and their voices to a global audience when they themselves can't participate in the online dialog. We've designed some rather unusual solutions to this digital divide challenge-- such as maintaining Facebook and twitter accounts for them which we maintain on their behalf and call them on the phone when anyone asks them a question -- but the internet is still rather unreal and insignificant to them, though storytelling and the desire to be heard certainly is not.

IndiaUnheard fits with lots of efforts being made in India by the UN, the Indian government and NGOs to promote local democracy. IndiaUnheard's role is to promote democracy by enabling marginalized communities to represent themselves and their issues. Hyperlocal media models empower people with the tools to bring attention to their own issues and to come out from the shadows. India is the world's largest democracy; however, most people don't know their rights as information does not reach the poor majority. Simultaneously, government and the mainstream media cannot easily access the knowledge and perspectives of the poor. IndiaUnheard enables marginalized people to influence policies, highlight gross injustices and take a stand, so a better-informed nation can better tackle issues like rural corruption or failing rural schools or health systems.

A Business Model?

IndiaUnheard is an innovative business model for democratizing the media. I've written about this in other posts on MediaShift Idea Lab to make the point that India and other developing countries have a very small number of stringers in rural areas and those that exist are usually not professionally trained journalists. Video Volunteers believes the poor can be winners in the changing media landscape and that some community correspondents can, in time, support themselves in the market. It's not just that our community correspondents would be cheaper than other freelancers the mainstream could draw on. With the advent of citizen journalism and changing viewing habits thanks to the Internet, the world is hungry to see content they've never seen before. Our producers are in places that the mainstream media cannot or does not access so this is a window into the real India.

Mainstream journalists working in India tend to cover only a certain demographic, they do not dig deep to uncover the stories of the marginalized. Video Volunteers will be feeding IndiaUnheard stories to print and television media, giving journalists -- especially local media -- another source of interesting stories.

What Next?

Our ambition is to expand the program nationally to a point where there is one community correspondent in all 626 districts of India, and internationally, in partnership with NGOs, filmmakers and journalists. This is totally funding dependent, of course, but if we can find people to invest for a few years, I believe that eventually we can be earning a sizable chunk of our revenues from the mainstream media. The question is: is it 20 percent? Fifty percent? Eighty percent? We are trying to work that out now.

In the longer term, this low cost, innovative model is a way for every village in the developing world to have someone trained to use the latest technologies to advocate for their rights. There are now video-enabled cell phones in all corners of the world, and a model like IndiaUnheard can enable these technologies to be used to capture human rights violations and bring them to the attention of the world.

So, please go to IndiaUnheard and watch some of the videos. Write a comment, ask a question of the person who made the video. We'll get on the phone to them and post you an answer. In doing this, you'll help one isolated community in rural India feel a little bit more "heard."

December 16 2009


Video Volunteers Launches in Brazil

How can the disadvantaged earn a living from their creativity? Why are nearly all the "base of the pyramid" micro-businesses supported by microcredit agencies based on manual labor, or super-local activities like driving a rickshaw or running a small shop? Since much of the music we love today, or design that we see in stores, has its roots in folk traditions, why don't the rural and urban poor today earn much of a living through their creativity? This is the question Video Volunteers is asking with a new program we've launched in Brazil, called VCU.br. We're exploring how video can be used by slum ("favela") youth to earn a living.

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The project, funded primarily by the Art Action Foundation of Singapore, is taking place in Sao Paulo. Over a nine month period, we're working with nine Brazilian youth from the favelas to help them learn to run their own video businesses. After conceiving of the project and getting the grant, we found an amazing arts organization in Sao Paulo called Casa Das Caldeiras. with whom we have partnered to execute the project locally. They run artist in residency programs for artists and are part of lots of interesting community programs with youth focused on graffiti-ing, hop hop and many others. They are based out of an incredibly beautiful space in Sao Paulo, a converted factory from the 1920s, and they use the revenue they generate from renting this space out for events (it's one of the prime party venues in the city) to fund their community projects.

Our Entrepreneurship Curriculum
We're giving them entrepreneurship training in things like how to make contacts in the TV industry, how to write a proposal for grants or for NGO films, and how to write a "pitch" to a TV station. They are learning about financial planning for themselves and for a small business, and how to work with clients. Most crucially, they are learning about the spaces that exist for people like them in the new world of "citizen journalism" and low cost technologies, and are thinking deeply about the kinds of unheard stories from their favelas that they may be uniquely poised, above even the "professionals," to tell. We are trying to turn their background, which until now was a huge disadvantage for them, into an advantage, something unique and valuable. Over nine months, the Fellows are attending six hours a day of classes conducted at CDC, and are each producing three videos. The first video was a videojournalism-style piece through which they learned about producing for news. The second video, which they are making now, needs to be for a particular client who agrees to use the video. (So one boy is making a video on abandoned animals for a chain of pet stores to play in their shop, others are making videos for different NGOs to use in fundraising, etc.) The third video needs to be for a paying client.

Filling a Gap in Existing Youth Media/Journalism Programs
The nine Community Producers were selected in June, with the following criteria: they had to be from a needy social background, had to know the basics of video production already, and had to demonstrate that they had tried but failed to continue with their video work after their initial training. So, for instance, one young man had tried to enroll in a university course in media, but didn't have the right high school qualifications. Another had applied for a job in a TV station and was told he needed a degree.
All of the Video Producers had been through some video course already, run by different NGOs, but had never been able to earn a living from it. When we had visited Brazil three years ago to see where VV could be most relevant, it was clear there was no need for more video training programs. There were a huge number of groups doing amazing video training in favelas to help kids find their voice and to make media that might change perceptions about the Favelas. But the problem was that their graduates were not finding jobs in video, and when they left they faced either unemployment or menial labor. The impact on the youth was therefore not very sustained. In addition, a huge pool of talent - kids with great computer and camera skills - was being totally under-utilized. And thirdly, it might be counter-productive. To raise people's aspirations but then fail to meet them is often a mean thing to do. We'd learned this ourselves the hard way in some of our early VV projects. So, we decided that livelihood is what VV would work on in Brazil.
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Can Young People in Slums REALLY Earn a Living in Video?
But, you will surely ask, how can people from slums earn a living through video? News is in crisis and even many professionals cannot earn a living today! Well, the options we are exploring for these Video Producers include lots of non-news options such as starting a small production company that makes films for NGOs, local businesses and even wedding videos; getting a job as an NGO's videographer; getting funding to create community video projects in the favelas with NGOs; and running "cine-clubs" in the favelas that show films. In time, citizen journalism on the web will become a way for communities to earn revenue. Even though they may end up producing more for corporates, we are still focusing the training to prepare them to produce TV news, as that also fulfills the Community Producers' desire to increase the visibility of the favelas they come from.

The Economics of Video Production in the Favelas
Ultimately, the economics of this are quite interesting. Our Video Producers in Brazil say they need around $460 a month to live on, plus they need to get equipment. So is it possible for them to earn around $5500 a year (including equipment) through video? In India, one of our community producers would require half or a third of that. Does their lesser financial requirements make them financially competitive with professionals? Could TV producers from slums become part of the market, not just because they are low cost but also because they have access to great stories? It's not guaranteed, but I think it's likely.

I'd love to hear people's advice on this, as it is a question VV is thinking about in all aspects of our work. We have a partnership with the Indian Institute of Management, the best business school in Asia, to explore revenue models in community video. And we are about to launch a new community journalism program focused on rural video producers being able to produce for TV markets. This is what it means to make a community-based social venture based on creativity, not manual labor. This is what we mean by one of the taglines we use a lot, which says our goal is to create "a media industry at the base of the pyramid."

So where will this project in Brazil go? Well, we recently visited about 20 of the leading media NGOs in Brazil, and hope that this project will be useful for them. We'll be writing up our experiences here into a kind of training manual that other organizations can use to build in a video entrepreneurship element into their work. We also see real opportunities for VV in Brazil in other areas: for instance, our experience in using video screenings in slums/villages to result in real impact is relevant here. We would like to offer Fellowships in our new Community Journalism program to students of the various media organizations we've met here. And if we could be really ambitious, it would be fascinating to work with the different media producers and activists here to create a TV channel. There is so much amazing community-produced content in Brazil, that it seems the perfect place to launch a TV station focused on social issue documentary and alternative voices. But that's for the very long term!

But our future plans depend entirely on whether this current project is a success. So we are saying it here now: if, in a year or two, the nine Community Producers who will soon graduate from VCU.br are still making videos and earning from it, it was a success. If they are not, then it was a failure. So please hold us to account, and demand to know how many of these new favela video entrepreneurs succeed.

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