The following is a transcription of an interview with Jessica Mayberry by Marc Ostrick.
I’m Jessica Mayberry, and I’m the founder of an NGO called Video Volunteers, which is a media and human rights organization based in India.
Jessica Mayberry, founder of Video VolunteersMarc Ostrick
I’ve lived in India for 12 years now. I can hardly believe it but it’s been an amazing journey. My background was in television news and that’s what I did in New York City after graduating from college. Basically I was so disillusioned with how polarized the American media was. And I was graduating a little bit after 9/11, and working in television stations there, and I just felt it was really difficult for me to comprehend that our country was bombing other parts of the world, and the people who were transmitting that information had never been to those countries and really seemed to be speaking from just the most rudimentary information. So that made me think, "Huh, let me see what else is possible with a career in television." So I went to India to volunteer in 2002. One thing led to another and I now run this organization, Video Volunteers.
At Video Volunteers our mission is to empower communities with a voice. We essentially run the largest grassroots newsgathering, video news gathering organization working in rural India. But all the content that we produce is made by people who live below the poverty line and who come from India’s most marginalized communities. We call this "news by those who live it."
But it’s also not just news... this is stories that make change. And so actually another way to understand Video Volunteers is as a governance and accountability model. We are really, really interested in understanding how marginalized communities themselves can make local government function better in a place like India.
The reality of India is that it’s the world’s largest democracy, and that truly is an incredible thing. India has lots of amazing laws. The issue is that these laws are not implemented properly at the local level. That has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t know what their rights and entitlements, are and they don’t know how to hold local government accountable.
Power of the Camera
The camera is a really, really good way to do that. Somebody can have been ignored going to a government office for years and years, but when that person walks in with a camera, people pay attention. So that power of the camera is what we’ve been capitalizing on, the power of the camera to hold authorities accountable. And then also the power of the camera to give access to marginalized groups, to spaces where they are usually excluded. So much of the conversation in your average village in India is men lazing around the walls in the center of the village while the women are in the houses doing the work, and the men are talking about roads, and the men are talking about jobs, and the men are talking about politics. And women are really excluded from those conversations. Things that are of concern to women -- education, water, these sorts of things, many other issues, and gender itself in all of those issues, like child marriage and domestic violence, alcoholism... all of this -- are just not spoken about in the sort of general public sphere. So we have been enabling women to use the camera to gain access into those spaces. And we’ve seen the camera gives women the opportunity, gives women the power to ask difficult questions. It starts a conversation about gender issues that really wasn’t there before, which is kind of the harbinger of change right now.
One of the reasons that Video Volunteers has been able to scale in the way that we have to become one of the biggest community media organizations, to have a sort of national presence, we have correspondents in about one quarter of India’s districts, which also happen to be the poorest 25% of the districts, so spaces where people are needed the most. So we have a fairly big spread. And the reason that we’ve been able to do that has a lot to do with the way our impact model works.
I’m talking a little bit about funding. Still, people can be very skeptical of media. They can say, well how do we know what impact it really has? Sometimes people will use arguments like hey, look at advertising, the whole advertising industry wouldn’t exist if we didn’t believe that messages communicated actually changed people. But there is nonetheless still a lot of skepticism about media. Why invest in a film about water when you just go ahead and build the well? Video Volunteers has developed this impact model and we say that in 2017, in 2018, about 20% of the stories that we produced actually managed to solve the problem that they were about.
I hope that that will be something, sort of an example to be able to say, hey look, this is a very concrete way the community media can actually create tangible, measurable impact. So for us, these almost 2,000 examples of impact that we have range from very small--we call them micro-impacts--a household getting a widow pension, or a village getting more hand pumps. Or an extra teacher being appointed into the school. These are the kinds of things that have really significant impact on people’s lives. So those are impacts in the area we call rights and entitlements here in India. Things the government is supposed to be providing that may not be being provided.
Video as Campfire
It’s also very important to look at the more systemic kinds of issues. Issues where the community itself may be at fault. So for instance we have a campaign called Dismantle Patriarchy where our community correspondents make films about subtle sexism and then they screen their films in these discussion clubs. This is utilizing the other power of video, right? There’s the power of video, which is kind of to expose, and then there’s the power of stories to bring people together. The power of screenings, the idea of video as a campfire that pulls people in for interesting discussion, which is also really important. From a social change point of view, we believe you know that on the one hand, people need to hold government accountable, but also we have to look inside ourselves and ask how we can change. And I think that’s something applicable in every part of the world. I also think it’s something applicable in my own life. And I think it’s kind of something that’s a universal need today on the one hand to hold power to account, and on the other hand to say how are we part of the problem, how do we need to change.
Citizen Journalism and New Journalistic Models
The organization is called Video Volunteers; it’s actually a misnomer because all of our community correspondents are paid. So you can think of them as freelance journalists. You could also think of them as fellows. We pay them on a per video basis. And that for us is fulfilling our mission, saying look, how can we create an alternative media industry?
We spend a lot of time looking at the business models that exist. For instance, why is there so little content that’s getting pushed out of rural India? News organizations will definitely say it’s because there’s no advertising dollars in telling stories about rural areas. This is not what people want to hear. This is not what our urban audience where we’re making the money what they want to hear. There are also structural issues. Live, on the ground field reporting is expensive. So a reason why around the world so much television is people sitting in a studio and talking--that’s cheap to produce. Of course the best way to solve that problem is to say, let’s enable people who live in those communities to produce the stories themselves.
That was not possible twenty years ago. That was hardly possible ten years ago because cameras were expensive. There was no internet, there was no way to get these stories out. But right now, it IS possible to make anybody a storyteller, to make anybody a news producer.
I’m really interested at an Indian level, at a global level, to see how citizen journalism is going to change over the next few years and where it’s going to go. It sputtered to a start in the early 2000s; it’s made some really significant changes to the way that we see the world today. Black Lives Matter, the MeToo movement, the Arab Spring, these are all extraordinary examples of social change that has been driven by citizen video. Now I think the question is to say what new business models are going to work? How can this become part of the fabric and the operating model of news organizations themselves? I think that’s quite an exciting thing to think about.
The Future of Video Volunteers
So for the future of Video Volunteers, one of the things that’s quite exciting is the way that technology is changing in India. A few years ago, the people that we work with, 215 community correspondents that we have, they were not online. They were not connected. We talk about how the whole world is connected or that’s how technology companies talk about it, but it’s really not true. However in the last couple of years that has started to change. And most of rural India is now connected. That’s really exciting because what that would mean is that Video Volunteers, the name that we have, can actually start to mean something. We are starting to train large numbers of community members in group workshops to use their own phones, use their own devices to put forward their own ideas, to look at how the newly digital can become video activists. The use of technology in the kinds of places that we work -- the way that people interact with the internet, interact with a cell phone, is really different than what we’re used to in the West, what we’re used to in the cities. And so that’s really interesting from the point of view of thinking what kinds of stories and personalized stories can people tell when they start to experience the internet for the first time. This is one of the things we’re going to be trying to be doing. How do we have our 200 community correspondents, but also how do we build a layer of thousands of people, who are engaged, digital citizens talking about issues that matter to them?
ChangeChitra is a new program that Video Volunteers has started. And we are training 60 young people in documentary filmmaking for activism from across India. We’re running workshops in five Indian cities. Three workshops in a row and three workshops one after the other over a six-month period. At the end of the day we’re going to have 15 films, 15 short documentaries made in groups of four. We’re going to be doing a film festival with them. This is a project funded by the US Embassy in Delhi, and we’re doing it in partnership with The MY HERO Project, in California, who’ve been really wonderful to work with. And it’s a really interesting idea to think about how can young globalized citizens--of which there are so many now, in India, right? Young, global citizens--how can we build a bridge, how can they become a bridge, to another culture. Like the United States. We’re here in Goa right now in a hotel in Goa, the first of the 15 workshops that we’ll be conducting and we’re having lots of interesting discussions about how do the issues of India and how do the issues of the US compare. It's been really fascinating. It’s also really nice to be reasserting the importance of the value of documentary. At a time in our culture when everything is about sound bites, an opinion, and putting forth your own view and snap judgments, and documentary film can be an antidote to that.