[Editorial Notes: At Pluggd.in, we cover a lot on social entrepreneurship and interesting experiments all around the country. Here is presenting a guest article by Aarti Shrivastava, an entrepreneur focused on media for social change. Read her earlier contributions Design is Capable of Igniting Change !! & You don’t need to ask for permission to change the world !!]
Video Volunteers’ mission is to empower the world’s poorest citizens to right the wrongs they witness by becoming players in the global media revolution. It provides disadvantaged communities with journalistic, critical thinking and creative skills, and creates locally owned and managed “community media units” that teach people to articulate and share their perspectives on the issues that matter to them “on a local and global scale.”
Since 2003, Video Volunteers has trained more than 300 people including former diamond polisher, rickshaw drivers and day laborers as Community Producers and Correspondents. Most are working full-time in slums and villages; their work has been seen by more than 250,000 people in thousands of widescreen village screenings. Video Volunteers has also launched IndiaUnheard – the first ever Community News Service.
Video Volunteers has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Knight News Challenge, a prestigious journalism award; an Echoing Green Fellowship, the premier recognition for young social entrepreneurs; a Tech Award; and the Manthan Award, as well as winning the NYU Stern Business Plan Competition. Jessica Mayberry has been recognized as an “Architect of the Future” by the Waldzell Institute of Austria and was named a TED Fellow. In 2008, Video Volunteers was shortlisted for the International Development Prize of the King Baudouin Foundation of Belgium.
Being honored an “Outstanding Young Person” by the Junior Chamber International, she says that it is much more empowering to turn the camera around.
Aarti – Jessica, what is your opinion on the news coverage of events in the world and especially in India?
Jessica – Media is supposed to be the mirror of the society. It builds the consensus of a nation over which that nation grows and develops in its culture, dynamism and intellect. But the sudden boom and with the industry gradually aping the glamour world, the sole purpose of such establishments have drastically changed. News coverage around the world generally excludes the voice of the poor. there’s been a big trend whereby beats like health, education, etc. have given way to beats like fashion, celebrity, etc. Obviously, the previous state of affairs gave communities more of the information they required. This is true not just in India but the world over. There are tons of issues that the country is facing, low wages, unpaid salary, difficult work hours, discrimination against women labourers, education of migrant labourers getting affected, so why can we not address those issues.
Aarti – It is very difficult for any government to do a policing job. A government can do such things in a country like England where there are three or four channels, but a country like India which has nearly 42 channels and 24 more queued up. So you thought Community Media would be the best way to address this problem?
Jessica – Along with the basic needs of food, water, infrastructure that communities need, there is a crucial need for creation of a media outlet which can both educate and offer a platform for carrying voices. All too often small communities are fed information from bigger cities, and to that end, this information often has no local resonance. India is a good country for community media. So are countries like Kenya, Mexico, Indonesia. These are all countries with large amounts of poor people but also a strong middle class and a democratic government that allows free speech. India is also very special for a program like community media because it is such a strong country technologically.
Aarti – How and with whom was this project conceptualized?
Jessica – The projects of Community Video Units and IndiaUnheard were not just conceived by me but also by my husband and partner Stalin K. He is a filmmaker and human rights activist with years of experience in community media. For instance, he helped to set up some of the most important community media projects of this country, the community radio program in Kutch run by the NGO KMVS. He was also convener of the community radio forum and one of the activists who got community radio legalized in this country. He is really a visionary in terms of articulating the importance of communities having a voice for this country, and has inspired me every step of the way.
Jessica – Yes, he did! Our target group is the rural poor, grassroots activists, Indian NGOs and through India Unheard, the larger Indian and world community at large. Through local stories, told by local people, we are hoping to create an impact. Already, one of our stories about the lack of health facilities in the North East has prompted action from an NGO. Both stories (including impact) have been uploaded on our website.
Aarti – How is this idea helping you in shaping your vision?
Jessica – The major idea is hard to summarize! But basically, it is about communities using media to encourage local action and to devise solutions, and also about developing new business models through which communities use new technologies to affect news and media control. It creates impact by reducing local corruption and creating a new class of community leaders, who are women or Dalits or other marginalized groups.
Aarti – How would you best explain your India unheard campaign?
Jessica – I think you should have a look at our promo! The energy and confidence our community correspondents have shown, is incredible!
Aarti – How does the community feel about your initiative?
Jessica -To train local community members to become journalists helps them identity their problems and address them in constructive ways. There is a feeling in the community that ‘someone is listening to us’ which further leads to the confidence that they are too included in the democratic process (beyond election time). For individual members of community media, who are often from the most neglected parts of society – so-called lower castes, women, religious and sexual minorities – it is both a voice and also a paradigm shift in terms of professions available to them. The tag of ‘journalist’ allows their social status to rise and in turn they can help raise the profile of their community.
Aarti – Was the selection procedure difficult as you had to choose few from millions?
Jessica – The first phase of the plan was simple enough: two persons from each state of India would be selected to participate in this program. We would had to ensure, to the best of our ability, that they would be equally from both genders, and also from the least represented pockets of society. For the purpose of the first phase running smoothly, a decision was taken that these ‘community correspondents’ (CCs) would have to speak either English or Hindi, which meant that immediately their economic profile was raised as they would have to be formally educated on some level. We decided to send out applications throughout the country through grassroots (and some national) NGOs, who could nominate intelligent and driven persons who wanted to explore using media for development work. Applications flooded our office, and a careful selection was made so that a diverse group would be selected. We took special care to ensure that we had adequate North East representation, as this project is pan-India.
Jessica – Firstly, video is the mainstay of video volunteers, so therefore, video training would be imparted. Since these CCs would be individuals from different regions of the country, it is our responsibility to train them as ‘video journalists’ capable of conceptualizing, scripting and shooting a story by themselves. The second part would be to familiarize them with new media – sms updates, twitter, Facebook – so that people could not just follow their video stories but get invested in the individual CCs themselves. On our end, we have to create an interactive website that hosts all these stories, identifiable by themes, CCs and regions, so that it could become a one-stop spot on the internet for finding out stories from the ‘real’ India. An online platform essentially means that our target audience is not necessarily an Indian audience (as broadband speeds and internet penetration levels are quite low) but it is to find and secure a large international audience. Through their interest we can show these videos on multiple websites, TV channels and so on. But for all this to happen, one needed to also create a very efficient system at the Video Volunteers headquarters that could handle the influx of these videos every month. Right now we have about 30 CCs, and if they send in the decided number of 5 videos per month, then VV will have 150 videos come to the Goa office that will then have to be edited, subtitled, uploaded and organized. For that there was a rapid expansion of staff; a program director was brought in from the US along with project managers, editors etc.
Aarti – What tools are being used to make sure these voices are heard?
Jessica – VV’s work is helping unheard voices to be heard by giving them:
1) training to articulate their issues
2) tools to make their own media
3) platforms, such as the India Unheard website, to communicate with the outside world
4) platforms to communicate internally, such as screenings in villages of CVU films
5) platforms and tools with which to advocate directly with local authorities to demand change. There are many, many instances where government officials have taken action after seeing these films. For instance, just a few weeks ago one of the IU CC’s Mukesh showed a local education authority his IU video on his cell phone, and that local official immediately demoted the teacher in the school. the video was about how teachers were taking bribes and only then would allow kids to sit their exams. That’s not happening now because the cc, with the video on his cell phone, could prove to an official, and move that person emotionally, that this was happening.
Aarti – How many community Correspondents are you currently working with?
Jessica – There are 24 ccs now working in 24 different states. Some states are not covered, even big ones like Andhra, because of translation issues. we must have people who can speak either English or Hindi, so that we, with our limited resources, can handle translation. but they must also meet our criteria of being truly economically disadvantaged, and in certain states it is hard to find people who meet those criteria. In addition, in our CVU program, around 150 people have been trained to make their own videos and many ae still working full-time doing this work. 15 CVUs have been set up, who have had more than 4000 screenings in different slums and villages, more than 300,000 people have seen these films in villages, and we have records of more than 3000 people taking direct action after seeing these films. All of these CVUs are set up with different NGOs, some of the leading NGOs of this country, who invest their time money and years of grassroots experience in making this a success. and it’s important to recognize their contribution and how they are recognizing that media and communications are the next big event in development and human rights work.
Aarti – Why was Abhay Deol Chosen as the brand ambassador?
Jessica – I met him at the TED Conference after his impassioned speech about media as a force for change. I told him about our work, we immediately clicked. He is hugely articulate on the subject of media and on Video Volunteers. We organized with our partner Akshara a screening in the bastis in Mumbai where he and Imtiaz Ali spoke to the 20 or so community producers and about 800 community members. it was a huge hit! he exemplified his role beautifully that night when he told the communities how powerful and meaningful he thought their media was. Basically, a star like Abhay can help the general public to look differently at community media, so people don’t say, “oh, this was made by a villager. it must be useless.” Instead, he is advocating for democratizing media.
Aarti – Why was Goa chosen for the establishment?
Jessica – It is a lower cost place to be based than Bombay or Delhi and for a small org, that was crucial. VV had projects and partnerships around the country so we realized we could be anywhere. It’s also a great, gentle place to live. I believe if one is surrounded by beauty, one makes more beautiful work! But there are challenges. The internet is atrocious here. It is really like living in a village and that is challenging for a media project that depends on computers and internet.
Aarti – What is your Next step?
Jessica – Video Volunteers’ vision is a global social media network, which provides solutions-based media for marginalized and poor communities around the world. Our goal is to train 500 community correspondents and we want to achieve that in 5 years. In 2006, we started the first 6 Community Video Units. By 2010, we had 100 full-time community producers working with us. We do this because we believe equal participation of all sections of society in development. Lacking access to information and local platforms for the dialogue necessary to devising solutions, poor communities in India rarely participate much less lead the political and development initiatives that affect them. Indian mainstream media fails to focus on issues relevant to poor people, or on the actions of their elected officials. CVUs are already creating local media units that serve about 30 villages each, and we hope to expand these units as we grow. Another very important milestone for us was the launch of the ‘India Unheard’ program, which is an evolution of the ideas of CVUs. We have trained 32 individuals from villages and small towns in video-journalism so that they can cover local stories that feed into a central network. This program already functions as a stringer network and in the long-term, we want stringers in each state of the country. We are exploring how community media can be used to increase the knowledge base and awareness in the country, and through that advocacy, and to that end we feel we have taken some important steps in the right direction.
We wish to grow the program to a point where there is one community correspondent in each of India’s 625 districts, and where the cc’s can earn all their costs through payments from the mainstream media. If we can work out an economically scalable model for community media, I believe that, over the next decade, the global media could be transformed.
Aarti – How do you plan to incorporate documentary filmmakers & Journalists to be a part of this project, As they too have unheard India stories with them?
Jessica – Indian filmmakers, with language skills, work as trainers in VV. Foreign filmmakers come as volunteers to make films about the work, to edit videos, and share their own work with the communities.
Aarti – Do you wish to elaborately talk about your News Channel slot?
Jessica – Its too early to share this information but as soon as we can, we will tell you for sure.We are finally going to become a rural newswire, so this means mucho expansion.
Aarti – All the very best Jessica! Keep up the good work!
To check VV’s latest Videos Click herehttp://indiaunheard.videovolunteers.org/