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February 03 2012


Video Volunteers Makes an Impact in India with Incentives for Media Makers

As part of a 4-part series, Video Volunteers is sharing what we've done over the last year, our experiences, and what we've learned. Part 1, which you can read here, was a basic introduction to IndiaUnheard, our flagship rural feature service.

Part 2 outlines new ideas we implemented into our training programs in 2011. For instance, we set incentives for our community correspondents in India. This triggered a series of valuable positive changes for the communities concerned.


Incentives work

In October, we held an advanced training session for our strongest community correspondents which focused on activism and getting "impact." (To us, "impact" means that the community correspondent is able to resolve the problem the video addresses.) We told them we had decided to incentivize impact.

They would be paid 5,000 rupees (approximately $100) -- more than twice the regular stipend -- for an "impact video," which means they would make a video; show it locally to get the issue solved; and make another documenting that process and proving the impact actually took place -- and for that second video, they would get the 5,000 rupees.

Some amazing impacts happened this year: In Orissa, illegal timber smugglers were stopped by local villagers. In Mumbai, a factory was forced to clean its pollution. In Assam, politicians released desperately needed water to villagers. Rather than be turned away, Dalit children got help in village child centers. Expectant mothers received folic acid which had previously been withheld. And, in one area, some 600 women for the first time were paid minimum wage.

These are just some of our stories. You can watch our impact videos here.

Recruitment is challenging

Our goal is to have 645 community correspondents, or one in every district of India. We had to think hard about how we could quickly scale up if we needed to.

Our first two rounds of recruitment for IndiaUnheard was through our existing network. We sent emails asking people to nominate someone from the villages they work in and then to help them fill out the online application. We got a few hundred applications that way and thought we could keep doing it like that. But when we tried for the third round, the number of eligible applications was low (though the overall applications were higher than previous years). Maybe we had tapped out our existing network.

So how could we quickly scale up? Possibly through big non-profit institutions (like microfinance). We are reaching out to them now.

Choose the right geographies

For our first two rounds, our goal was to get one or two people in every state. Now that we've almost done that, we're going to focus on key regions we feel are "unheard."

Last month, we took about 20 new community correspondents from Jharkhand. We chose Jharkhand because it is part of the so-called Red Corridor where there is a Maoist insurgency taking place. In the future, we'll look at the North East where other separatist movements are taking place, and Kashmir. (Those two areas were out of our budget this year.)

My colleagues Kamini Menon and Stalin K. spent two weeks traveling around this area meeting the activists and doing the recruitment; this live recruitment is making recruitment easier and will also make retention higher because the 13 new correspondents, each representing one district in the same state, can support each other.

Partnerships are challenging

Two years ago, when our Community Video Units were our primary focus, we felt that we could scale this network through investments from NGOs (non-governmental organizations). We've realized that co-ownership is very difficult and can at times be a hindrance to innovation.

We now feel that we can scale better through partnerships with the mainstream media, rather than NGOs, and so for that reason, a huge focus this year has been on ensuring the content can work for both a local community and outside audience.

From our Community Video Units, we've learned a few other things: One is that a model where people are paid only when they perform is better than the Community Video Units model, in which the six or seven people who work together on a film are given a monthly wage.

Women produce more

Two observations we are thrilled to see: Women produce more, and retention is higher with the underprivileged. It suggests that journalism really is an appropriate livelihood for the poor. We started to see that with online recruitment, we had selected certain people whose incomes were clearly higher than they had told us on the phone. Live recruitment in extremely remote areas of Jharkhand will help get the correct balance.

The amount they can produce is low

We ask correspondents to produce two videos a month. They produce on average one or less. One reason is that being a journalist is difficult; it takes a lot of personal courage to confront officials and ask people private questions. They can spend a whole day on a bus getting to an official who then won't see them. They have to take care of their families, too.

I learned this year about the concept of "businesses in a box" and franchises, such as rural women selling solar lamps or soap sachets, and I discovered that we should make the process as simple and step-by-step as possible.

But journalism is simply harder than selling soap. We also ask them to produce tough stories that they have to research and which take time, unlike stringers, who are told to "go film this event and send us the footage." This means that our "cost per story" is higher than we would like. But we also aren't taking huge steps to increase their productivity right now, because we don't yet have enough buyers to support a huge level of production.

Choose the right people to train

The fact that we put such effort in selecting interesting people to train is a huge asset for us. Our new batch of correspondents includes people whose personal stories are, in some ways, the story. We have two boys from Kashmir who have seen the insurgency; a young man whose sister was the first dowry death in his state; women who have experienced sexual violence and have the courage to speak about it; and a good representation from the North East, including one young man who got the first footage of a particular insurgent camp because he's from that area.

In our training, we teach them that their power as a community correspondent will come through using their personal experiences and connections to the issues. This is what they have that no professional, no outsider, can ever replicate. They learn that they themselves must speak out, and speak personally, if they want their communities to do so, too.

Good training is not necessarily scalable. (That's another thing that we learned in 2011 -- that the training aspects of our work will always be expensive because education doesn't have a lot of economies of scale.) But it is the most valuable investment.

You can watch a video from our trainings here:

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, which will focus on our modes of online and offline distribution and our experience with earning income from partners and the mainstream media.

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."

Sponsored post

July 26 2010


The Need for Cultural Translation with Community Media

The TED talk of Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of the international blogging site Global Voices, provides amazing insight into the challenges of telling international stories online. It's told in the great TED way of painting lots of pictures and using a ton of anecdotes.

Zuckerman said it's a big myth that the web is bringing us closer to other cultures or countries -- when we're on the web, we're basically in our own small islands of our social networks. Most of us who are building businesses/non-profits around non-traditional media content know this, but he has some great PowerPoint slides that add a lot of meat to the arguments. Give it a look:

Cultural DJs

In addition to providing some very telling facts -- did you know that "Madagascar" the movie is a bigger brand than Madagascar the country? -- he talks about translation. And not just the challenges of literal translation from one language to another, which is something Video Volunteers faces in our work all the time, especially now when we have community video correspondents working in nearly every state of India, a country with dozens of official languages. He talks about "cultural translation." He makes the point that we need more "DJs ... skilled human curators" who can speak the language of the West and of other cultures at the same time.

The incredible editors at Global Voices fit that bill, and so does the blog Afrigadget. Video Volunteers attempt to do this, too, in the articles that accompany the online videos made by our community correspondents in our new IndiaUnheard community news network.

This is really interesting to me because at Video Volunteers we talk a lot about the need for "unmediated" voices -- essentially, voices that are not culturally translated. This is one of the differences between community video, which to us means equipping traditionally "unheard" communities to tell their stories in their own words, and documentary film, where a professional uses his or her artistry and insight to translate community voices for outside audiences.

At VV, we believe, in fact, that so much is lost in translation that you want to keep "cultural translation" to a minimum. And so, with our newly launched IndiaUnheard community news network, we want to bring voices out voices in their raw form. As my partner Stalin K. often says, "if I say the words 'Masai warrior' you get an immediate visual in your head. You don't, in a similar fashion, hear their voices in your head."

We know from TV what the Masai look like. But we don't know what they sound like, because in traditional National Geographic-type media, we just see the Masai with a narration; their whole culture, never mind their language, is translated for an international audience.

There are real limits to the possibilities for translation. As I heard Zuckerman himself say at a Civic Media conference, it's hard enough to find cultural translators for English to other cultures. But what about all the learning that could happen between the readers of, say, Kurdish media in New York City and Haitian media in New York City? How is that translation going to happen? I don't know that we could ever have enough translators to solve that problem.

Two Videos to Watch

So how do we get people to watch -- rather, to want to watch -- videos like these two posted below, made by our IndiaUnheard correspondents? If the world had an ideal system for enabling the poor to represent themselves in the media, which I would say is something like one community journalist per village (or even per 20 villages), how would we interest people outside those villages to watch this content? Here are two recent videos to check out and see what you think:

Children Carry Trash, Not Books shows how children of poor families do not benefit from the current schemes on compulsory free education. The video is produced by Pratibha Rolta, a community correspondent from the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, who works as an activist on women's issues.

The second video, titled Children Denied Education, captures the plight of child labourers in Haryana's brick kilns who are deprived of several rights, including education. The correspondent here, Satyawan, was a Sarpanch (village head) for five long years before joining IndiaUnheard, and has in-depth knowledge of corruption within the local administration.

Besides our own website and within the communities where the producers work (where most of our work is shown) there are some forums for videos like this. I showed these two videos two weeks ago as a panelist at the IFP/UN-sponsored ENVISION 2010: Addressing Global Issues through Documentaries, an event organized by the IFP, UN Communications Department, and New York Times. This was a one day conference on education and documentary films and, happily, there was space for user-created content.

A few years ago there probably wouldn't have been. I was on a panel about the impact of user-generated media, along with with Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough, John Kennedy of World Without Borders and Ryan Schlieff of Witness -- all good friends in the field of media and human rights. People in the world of documentary film, or in the UN sector with its huge budgets for traditional communications, were getting a taste of what's possible when you turn the camera over to communities. This is progress towards the acceptance of these voices.

More Global Than Ever

With our work, I take a long term perspective. (Wanting every village in the world to have someone skilled and motivated to represent his neighbors' concerns in the media kind of requires that!) I think that media preferences are not fixed in stone. What Americans liked on TV and in the movies in the fifties is different from what we liked in the seventies and today. Who knows where people's tastes will be twenty years from now?

I'm an optimist. I think we will only get more global and more curious, and more open to raw, unfiltered reality. I believe there are even studies that show that kids today who've grown up with mashups and social networks are much more open to gritty media that their parents wouldn't look at.

In the meantime, we keep telling our correspondents to tell their stories in their own words, with their own style, their own analysis -- no matter how challenging it may be for outsiders to understand without translation.

May 17 2010


Meet 'India Unheard' Producer Zulekha Sayyed

As Video Volunteers' second program, India Unheard is gathering steam, with some wonderful stories by our new community correspondents, we can't help but think about all the wonderful and dedicated community producers we have worked with in the past - and are still working with.

As many of you know, it takes about a year and a half to train our community producers, all of who come from situations of dire poverty. What they have in common is their honesty, passion and intelligence. Our aim in training an individual with immense potential is not just to create a technically sound and editorially sharp professional, but also to encourage leadership in their local communities.

I'd love to share the story of one such person: Zulekha Sayyed.

Zulekha grew up in a slum under harsh conditions; her father died when she was young and her mother worked as a domestic maid, earning roughly $35 a month. Often, they went hungry. She remembers how she would scavenge food from the roadside. She joined Yuva, a local NGO, at the age of 13. Yuva is an organization that has been working with slum dwellers for 25 years to help them formulate their own action plans and mainly, secure their right to housing. They have been organizing slum dwellers against the city's continuous cycle of forced evictions, in which the government razes the shanties of thousands of the city's workers. Yuva has initiated an extensive water campaign in response to the proposed privatization of Mumbai's water supply, and the CVU contributed in a real way to the success of that campaign.

Yuva also runs the Knight-funded CVU Hamari Awaz (literally translated as 'our voice'), which Sulekha joined after finishing high school. She is well aware of the turn her life has taken and says that she wouldn't wish her childhood on anyone else.

Hamari Awaz is a CVU that operates out of the slums of Mumbai. A quote Zulekha has given for our official brochure tells us a lot. She said, "The TV reporters never come to the slums. They only come when something like a bomb blast happens. We are the only local reporters here. So, community media is necessary."

As part of her team's efforts, Zulekha has been helping slum dwellers organize action plans to secure their right to housing. She has helped to organize people to fight against the city's continuous cycle of forced evictions, in which the government razes the shanties of thousands of people to make way for new developments.

As Zulekha's example demonstrates, using the community media in these underprivileged areas is not merely creating journalists, but creating leaders and social activists. To that end, our mandate increases from simply providing journalistic training to supporting entire campaigns carried out by communities. For example, when we aired a story about applying for "Below Poverty Line" cards issued by the government, our producers had to help with filling out application forms too. So, the producers cannot behave like traditional journalists, for whom the story can end once filed with the bureau.

But that is the genius of community media and community journalists. There is no "off" switch. It becomes a passion and a calling. It is then VV's duty to constantly innovate methods of communications and provide them newer platforms to make their voices heard.

Producers like Zulekha make it well worth the effort! (To read more about the work of Zulekha Sayyed, check out this story on GlobalPost.)

January 29 2010


Creating Community Video Entrepreneurs in Brazil

Late last year, Stalin K., my partner in the Knight-funded project Video Volunteers, and I were seated in the video laboratory of VCU.br in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We were joined by nine of VV's new Brazilian Video Fellows.

We were there to conduct a workshop about entrepreneurship in the creative field of video. The purpose of our recently-launched program in Sao Paulo is to create "video entrepreneurs," and this post is a snapshot of one of the exercises we did while we were there.

The nine young people were all from favela/periphery areas of Sao Paulo, and on that day we were conducting a workshop on how to market to clients. One young man started to read aloud from his introduction:

My name is Allan Jones. I'm 24 years old and live in the Guarulhos municipality of Sao Paulo State. My parents were born in the Amazon. My mother works as a seamstress and my father, I do not know who he is. I graduated high school only last year because the work I had to do did not allow me to study. I've worked in several areas, including as an installer of air conditioning, and around this time I had the opportunity to visit several theaters and see many shows. It was there that sparked my desire to work with theater and learn video.

Today I'm part of the project VCU.br, which is about how young people can work as independent videomakers, and I want to work in the area of script and production. I'm making a video about community theater in my area. My video tells the story of Mrs. Santa Catarina, an independent artist. She is self-taught and without resources or support, but manages to run a theater workshop in the community of Vila Isabel, in Guarulhos."

h2. Turning Disadvantages Into Advantages

The primary purpose of the exercise was to teach these young people to write compelling video proposals for different clients. But the deeper purpose is to teach them to turn their disadvantages into advantages, and to inspire others to see it that way.

If they are going to go into the market and compete with professionals, they must be able to communicate the value of their personal perspective. Why? Because their perspective as people who live close to the stories they are telling is the only thing they have that a professional does not. The problem is that they have spent so long hiding the fact that they're from the disadvantaged parts of the city that they're reluctant to write about it.

The personal narratives they wrote during the workshop revealed the challenges faced by the poor in the big cities like Rio, Sao Paulo or Mumbai. These include the long distances the poor have to travel from their homes to work in the city centers; the high costs of public transportation; the need to support their families financially; and insufficient public schools. In terms of our exercise, they all also highlighted the fact that they didn't have any professional contacts.

For one participant, all it took was a kind word from a TV reporter covering a story in his favela when he was 16 to give him the courage to ask for advice and tips about breaking into TV news. That was a turning point, and it gave him the conviction to pursue a career in media. Compare that to the 101 pieces of career advice that a privileged young person will receive by the time she is 21. Is it any wonder our Fellows seemed a little incredulous when we told them that their backgrounds are in fact a strength?

"It's because we live there that we're unique!"

As the days went by, the Fellows learned the step-by-step process of managing an independent video business, from identifying clients and writing proposals to creating a budget and rate sheet and "closing the deal."

But, really, they were learning to tell and celebrate their personal stories, and to find the personal connection that makes all work meaningful. We told them that they need to dig deep inside themselves to find this connection. Being an entrepreneur, ultimately, is about finding your personal power and confidence, and believing in yourself and your ideas.

The reality is that even if they send a compelling favela story to a television producer, the TV producer will always have the option of sending his own more "professional" freelancers to cover it. Our Fellows/Producers need to learn to convince people that they have something the professionals don't -- a perspective that will enlighten and captivate the audience.

After a couple of hours of them slightly struggling to "get" this concept, Beatrice jumped up. She is a beautiful and lively girl. Over the course of our three weeks together, her hair transformed from extension corn braids to a Nefertiti-style tall wrap to, finally, a beautiful disco-inspired Afro.

"I see!" she said. "It's because we live there that we're unique!"

From there, they started making the connections. One girl, Layla, used to work handing out fliers on the street. She knows what it's like to feel invisible on the street and have people walk by you as you try to get their attention. That's why she can tell an interesting story about street artists that have to fight for the acknowledgment of passersby. Another girl, Juliet, is the right person to tell a story about schizophrenia because her brother is schizophrenic.

A third person felt inspired to tell the stories of stray and injured animals because he used to see dogs getting run over when he worked as a delivery driver. This was just one exercise, but the process, I think, was key to the whole idea of community video as a social venture for the poor. Community producers need to be their own agents in terms of convincing the "market" of the value of their background. That means not just having self expression -- a voice -- but also self-reflection, and a large degree of self-awareness.

Identifying Entrepreneurs

Going into this project, one of our concerns was whether we would we be able to find people who were entrepreneurial, and who would want to run their own video business. The reality is that other jobs are less satisfying, but they can guarantee work. We had our doubts about whether entrepreneurship could be taught, so we needed to find that drive in our Fellows/Producers.

Business skills are easy to teach, but personal drive or motivation is another thing. Not everyone is an entrepreneur. If we were to tell our staff one day, "from today onwards, no one is getting monthly checks; instead, everyone needs to earn their own salary," most people would quit. Yet that's what many people in the NGO sector expect the poor to do.

As we saw our group's business plans develop, we became convinced they were the right people. All are committed to a career in video; all are committed to developing their own creativity, and to working for their communities.

For example, Rafael is now writing government proposals for him to create video projects in the slums. Luana is pursuing internships with TV stations they connected with during the project. Another participant, Layla, had this to say:

My experience in VCU.br was so good and the other Video Producers are such interesting people. Next year, I hope we'll get together to make some production companies. I want to really go ahead with videos, and I think I also have the capacity for fiction, too. I don't want everyone here to go off on their own and leave the group, so I'm thinking about how to make the idea of a group production company happen. Some of us love to write, some like to produce, others to edit. For me, we have a production company right here.

Stalin and I are convinced, as we always are with our community producers, of one thing: there is an abundance of undiscovered talent and knowledge out in the world, and we need to start tapping into it. When you give people opportunities, and you help them find their voice, there is no end to what they can achieve.

January 27 2010


An Overview of Community Media in Brazil

Almost undoubtedly, Brazil is the country with the largest public investment in community arts and culture. There are dozens of groups teaching video, hip-hop, graffiti, circus arts, carnival-related arts and digital media to youth from the favelas. In Rio alone, we visited five groups doing community arts, and between them we calculated there were roughly 500 kids from favelas this year alone learning video up to a semi-professional level.

By contrast, when we started Video Volunteers in India, there were only two other groups in the country running permanent programs in community video. So the difference in Brazil, where we recently launched, was amazing and wonderful to see.

Below I've collected some of our observations about Brazil, and listed a few of the inspiring moments and facts regarding Brazil's community media that we learned during our month spent visiting the different groups. (I hope I've gotten all the facts correct, but please correct me if you see any mistakes in what I've written below; much of this information is from notes I took during fascinating discussions.)

Brazil's Commitment to Community Media

The Brazilian government is committed to supporting community arts and culture. There is a three percent tax break for corporations that support the arts, and this only applies to the arts! The government created a "points of culture" program around the country, where they have invested in 150 community arts projects to the tune of R$150,000 (around $75,000) per year, for three years. Many of the media NGOs we visited were funded in this way. The singer Gilberto Gil is currently the minister for culture and, given that he's one of the most revered celebrities in the country, this focuses citizens' attention on the importance of the arts.

It makes sense that this level of investment would be happening in Brazil and not in countries where poverty is more prevalent. One of the major societal challenges in Brazil is to keep young kids from favelas out of gangs and drugs and violence. Speaking to them in the languages they understand and love -- hip-hop, graffiti, video -- is possibly the best strategy for reaching disaffected youth.

Susan Worcman, director of the Brazil Foundation, said this is because "artistic talent in Brazil is generally very high. We have a lot of creative people." Driving around Sao Paulo seems to confirm this. The city is the graffiti capital of the world, and some artists from favelas have exhibited in major museums in Europe.

All over the city, as much in the hipster area of Villa Madelaina as in the favelas, you see incredible graffiti murals. It integrates the middle classes with the favelas in powerful ways. For instance, there was a community fresco program in Sao Paulo a few years ago, where kids from favelas worked with professional artists to create frescoes on the sides of buildings all over the city. All of the works included plaques reminding people that they were produced by slum kids.

The quality of community arts work is generally very high. Several NGO programs were started either by famous film directors (such as, Cinema Nosso which grew out of the film, City of God), TV producers (Instituto Criar in Sao Paulo, which was started by a Globo Executive) or musicians (such as Afro Reggae, which was started by a hip-hop artist).

As a result, community video work has been seen on TV, won awards, and one even resulted in a feature movie deal ("Cine Cufa," though the project may now be on hold). For us, we've put less emphasis on how artistic a community film is and focus more on how it will inspire action. But because of their quality, these Brazilian films are more marketable to the mainstream.

Photography Class at Observatorio de Favelas

The purpose of most of the community media groups we met is to empower youth to fight stereotypes about the favelas that dominate Brazilian media. One great organization we visited is the urban planning organization Observatorio de Favelas. Its very name implies changing the point of reference of who is watching whom. It is about the favelas observing the rest of the city, and this is a very different way of doing urban planning. Instead of talking about the "city center" and "periphery areas," they highlight areas of high and low public investment.

Portrayal of Favelas in the Media

It is clear after spending even a brief time in Brazil that the image presented of the favelas in the media is as sites of violence. They are never shown as the culturally and creatively rich areas they are. This creates real fear among the middle class population of Brazil.

The receptionist at our hotel begged us not to go to a certain area when we asked her for directions. Cab drivers refuse to take people to some places. The point of most of the community media we saw is to challenge the stereotypes and teach the kids to be critical of the media. (As a result, there is relatively little community media/journalism being done the way VV does it, where the purpose is to screen media back to communities.)

Arts and Culture vs. News and Information

Each country VV has worked in has a different outlook or way of using community media. In India, at least in terms of our work, media is a tool to empower people to take action; it is a tool to accelerate other social change efforts. In the U.S., the scene is much more about news and information, and how we can respond to the current crisis in journalism.

In other parts of South America, there is a very strong indigenous media scene that unites different tribes. In Brazil, the focus is definitely "community arts and culture." It's about community media as a right in itself, and as an educational tool. Most of the organizations we met were focused primarily on training, as opposed to the distribution of that content or its use.

Brazil Media Stats

We learned some interesting media and policy facts from our conversations with Flavio at Ashoka, Bia Barbosa at Intervoces, and John Prideaux, the Economist's correspondent in Brazil. Newspaper readership in Brazil is extremely low compared to other countries. TV is by far the dominant information source in the country, and nearly everyone watches only one channel, Globo.

We saw for ourselves how media-watching habits seem much more unified in Brazil. A recent and very popular "telenovela" was a drama set in India, and everyone mentioned it to us. People were coming up to my Indian partner Stalin in the subway, giving him a Namaste bow and repeating "arre baba." It's just one of the ways you see these two incredibly strong emerging markets coming together through globalization.

Ninety percent of the country is reached by terrestrial TV, thanks mainly to the efforts of Globo. Very few people have cable or satellite TV. We asked Barbosa at Intervoces if media activists and community media organizations had tried to jointly create a TV channel, given that there is such a huge amount of content produced by community media groups. She said an impediment to this is the fact that terrestrial TV is the only option.

All of Brazil media is controlled by six families/companies, and there are no limits on cross ownership of media, or on how much of the audience one company can reach. Barbosa is fighting for the introduction of these limits, because as it stands corporations are able to heavily influence public opinion. Other policy efforts undertaken by media activists include:

  • The creation of independent public TV, a la BBC, which doesn't currently exist. The government recently created an education channel, which did create more space for socially relevant media -- but it is controlled by the government.
  • The increasing of diversity on television. Barbosa said that with so many community media groups and productions, the government should make space for programming that truly reflects the diversity of the country.
  • The liberalization of Internet laws. One upcoming fight will be to allow political parties to use the Internet to gain support. What Barack Obama's did with the Internet would currently be illegal in Brazil.

There is clearly much more to learn about the movements in Brazil to reform and democratize the media, and these are just our first impressions.

January 11 2010


Lessons Learned When Expanding Video Volunteers to Brazil

Video Volunteers recently started a new program in Brazil that is focused on using video as a way for young people from favelas to earn a living. Starting a project in a new country has been an interesting, but also challenging, process.

When I started VV in 2003, we did a few projects in countries such as Brazil, Rwanda, Uganda and the U.S. in addition to India, where we are currently based. But at that point, what we were doing was relatively easy: identifying volunteers, designing some basic video training modules or film script ideas, and sending them off. Once we came up with the idea for the Community Video Units, we realized we needed to focus on one country. The work was too intense for us to be able to manage in several countries, especially given the hands-on nature of community media.

Making the Decision to Expand

In our experience, social change initiatives that are based on empowerment, voice, and creativity are hard to replicate. This is because the training needs to be of such high quality, and the projects need a lot of hands-on management. So we focused on India for three years, always telling ourselves, "next year... next year... we'll be ready to launch outside of India."

Our board and other mentors seemed to be divided about whether we should expand. Will it detract from the work in India and spread us too thin? Do we need to be in other countries in order to continue to learn and test our models? Are there practical issues like availability of funding or being perceived as "global" that make it smart to expand? These are some of the questions we debated.

In the end, one thing really convinced us: the Brazilian community arts and culture scene. It is so rich and fascinating, and probably the biggest in the entire world. It's also producing some amazing media. We had to be there.

Lessons Learned

Now that we have finally expanded outside of India, here are some lessons we've learned that might be relevant to organizations of a similar size.

Understand Cultural Differences: This is the hardest -- and the best -- thing about working in another country. One big difference between Brazil and India are the priorities and outlooks of the groups working in citizen/community media/journalism. In India, community media is generally seen as a tool, never as an end in itself. So for VV, though we are motivated personally by the belief that the right to speak and be heard is a human right, we also see our work as a tool for community-led development, strengthening local governance, etc. In India, media and information are seen as tools for poverty alleviation or human rights -- probably because India's problems in these areas are so much deeper than in a richer country such as Brazil.

In Brazil, by contrast, community media is first and foremost a form of creative expression for youth. The primary purpose is giving people a voice to combat misrepresentation. That's what funders and the government seem to demand. As a result, the videos are very high quality, and the young people in the youth media/journalism programs are free to express themselves about whatever they wish. But because the environment (meaning primarily the funding environment) allows these groups to stay focused only on empowerment and self-expression, issues like mainstream distribution, sustainability and job creation seem like they are not happening at the level they could.

We found people in Brazil seem to doubt the importance (as well as the feasibility) of young people earning a living as a result of these programs, which I think is a big cultural difference between the non-profit world in Brazil compared with the U.S. and India. Livelihood, sustainability, and revenue creation are ingrained in the thinking in the non-profit world in the U.S. and India. The issue they are dealing with in urban Brazil is youth violence and disaffection. Perhaps people have realized that the best way to combat these issues is not livelihoods and jobs, but empowerment and self-expression. I wish there was actual research on this fascinating question.

Think About Organizational Setup: Do you want to start with your own office in a new country, or partner your way in? In Brazil, the pro bono lawyers at Lex Mundi told us we had two options. We could register as a Brazilian non-profit, staff it locally, and then begin work. Or we could identify a partner NGO to hire as consultants. At VV, to say the least, institution-building is not our strong point. We could not imagine starting in Brazil by first taking a year or two to go through legal and government processes of registering. (Also, registering and opening an office would have been prohibitively expensive for us.)

We knew we first needed to do a pilot project in order to gauge the possibility of success. Then, with that completed, we could work on registering. That said, there were also drawbacks to the other option. Working through consultants and partners means less control and potentially less ownership. Some people might see you as a funder in their country, and people will question how committed you are to the country for the long term. But on the plus side, things can get going really quickly.

Choose Your Partners Carefully: We initially developed a proposal with one organization in Brazil. Then, for various reasons, realized we should go our separate ways. It took us almost a year to find another partner, and we interviewed several different groups to find one that would be suitable. After speaking to several of the leading media organizations in Brazil, we decided that the most important thing for us was to go with a group we trusted and felt like we knew well. A good "gut feeling" about the organization was more important than going for the most experienced group in our field. Very vague, I know.

Our eventual partner, Casa Das Caldeiras, did not have any video experience when we started this project, but I could tell that, as a relatively new organization themselves, they would make this project a priority. They have as much riding on its success as we do. I could sense integrity, energy, passion and creativity -- and these were the most important qualities. So far, it's been a great partnership. They are focused on the visual arts, and run artists-in-residency programs, as well as working with lots of Sao Paulo non-profits that run programs in the slums on hip-hop, painting, graffiti, and more. So all of this creativity is influencing our project.

Expect Some Things to be Lost in Translation: Managing things at a distance is hard. For our project, it's been a challenge to run the entrepreneurship side of the project from afar. CDC has managed the video production side of things fantastically. They've selected great fellows, who are producing exactly the kind of videos we need in a very short period of time. But the video entrepreneurship elements are harder for them, I think, because it is so new.

VV has been obsessing about the issue of earned income for three years now, and we have a lot of ideas and learnings to transfer to the project in Brazil. But this transfer of knowledge has been harder than we expected. It's an area where face-to-face contact is critical, and so it was very important that Stalin K., a VV board member and media and human rights activist, and I could spend the whole month of October in Brazil.

All in all, going beyond India has been a good step for Video Volunteers. I'd love to hear from other people running small or medium-sized NGOs who can share their own stories and lessons from expanding to different countries. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

January 04 2010


The Fascinating Innovators of Brazil Community Media

During our month in Brazil working on our new project VCU.br, my partner Stalin and I met with more than a dozen different community media groups. Every meeting was too short, with us starting off by explaining why we had called them and explaining our work, and then them explaining theirs, and then a brief -- too brief -- discussion about what we could do together.

All the while we typed away at our laptop, eager to capture all the innovations and unique stories of the Brazilian community/alternative media innovators. Below are our meeting notes, which we hope give a little snapshot of some of the amazing work being done here. I apologize to all the people we met for any mistakes and misrepresentation. When you're eager to get the full picture in a whirlwind meeting, sometimes the details get lost!

Karen Worcman of the Museum of the Person

The Museum of the Person started by Karen Worcman is an archive of 12,000 personal stories which they have been recording from private citizens the world over for decades. These stories are captured in several ways, many unsolicited by the museum itself -- people wanting to share their stories, write their personal histories and mail them to the museum, knowing they will be archived for history; people come to the museum's recording studio and are interviewed; and museum staff go out into the world to gather the stories.

They also do workshops with NGOs around the world, such as one with Dream Catchers in Tamil Nadu, or by putting up "story booths" in buses and train stations, and going into public schools in Sao Paulo to teach kids to document the histories of their neighborhoods. The stories are archived in a state-of-the-art manner, and most will eventually be online. Already they are searchable and highly used by academics and researchers and school teachers who use the archive to research particular themes -- such as trade unions, war, death, family, etc.

We asked Karen about the purpose of the histories. Is it for social change, community action, personal transformation, or a political statement about everyone's right to a voice? She said one major purpose is to create a record of the personal stories of everyone on the planet. This is a museum after all.

We also asked about the process and the methodology. Because most of the personal histories are in video and they work with the Center for Digital Storytelling (with whom they organize the "day of sharing life stories" once a year) in the Bay Area in the U.S. which has a very set process for story creation, we thought she might have a training methodology that we could incorporate in our work. She said the methodology changes for the purpose of the project, but that when she conducts the interviews, her methodology is that of a historian. Though most of her materials were in Portueguese, she offered to share with us her curriculum that she created in Tamil Nadu which is in English, and we will surely incorporate this methodology into our training.

Stalin pointed out the power of this method for documenting village histories in India, as he has done with KMVS, where they wrote the personal histories of everyone of the 900 villages in Kutch, for broadcast on the community radio stations. Karen's methodology could be very useful for the community radio scene in India, which (with licenses only being allowed for the past three years) is struggling for methodologies for creating content.

A few things struck us in particular in meeting Karen: one is the documentary use of this content for research and academia. We have wondered whether there is interesting anthropological evidence in our raw video tapes from the CVUs, and Karen has demonstrated the importance of community media for research purposes. The other is the seriousness of the archive. She has made dozens, if not more, written publications of these personal histories. The third is, of course, the importance and uniqueness of the idea of the world's history as a collection of millions of personal stories and histories. This was too rich and important an idea for us to explore in such a short meeting!

Bia Barbarasso, Intervoces

Bia is a young Ashoka Fellow who is one of the leaders of the movement to reform media policy in Brazil. The premise of her work is the lack of diversity in the media in Brazil. We met her on our last day in Brazil when she was kind enough to come to the house where we were staying, and it was a great way to end the trip. She was one of the few people we met with a truly multi-pronged approach that combined grassroots action, networking and movement building, training and policy. If Video Volunteers were to work in Brazil in a much deeper way, we would want to work like this.

We contacted her because of an amazing victory she had which we read about on her Ashoka profile, and which we wanted to know more about. A few years ago, she brought a case against a major television station saying that their programming had consistently discriminated against gays and violated their human rights. The basis for the case was a law that says that, because TV licences are granted by the government and are public property, they must show content that is helpful for society. The court agreed with her and ordered the TV station to show human rights focused programming for 30 days in a row!

They were also ordered to pay a small -- way too small -- amount to assist in the creation of this programming. So Bia issued a call for programming to the documentary producers and media NGOs in Brazil, and received over 500 applications! This was one of her first contacts with the video-producing groups, and it deeply impressed her to see how huge the alternative media scene was. So much great content, and no spaces to share it!

She used the small sum of money for editing, and combined the different video submissions into hour-long programs on a particular theme for one evening's broadcast. She has since used the success of this project in her lobbying efforts, arguing with the government that Brazil has masses of quality content and the government must give them space to distribute these alternative views. This story fascinated Stalin and me as it was one of the only examples I've heard of people successfully using the law to create space on TV for alternative programming.

These are short descriptions of only two of the amazing media activists in Brazil. As I continue to work my way through all my notes, I'll try to keep writing up these short profiles.

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