Interview: Jessica Mayberry reimagines media made by and for villagers
When the World Bank asked 20,000 of the world’s poorest people to list their greatest need, the most common response was a way to express their voice. Jessica Mayberry, founder of Video Volunteers, works to meet this need by training villagers in India (mostly women) to produce newscasts and documentaries about local issues, which are then screened outdoors, reaching thousands of people in surrounding communities. Here Mayberry shares her experiences facilitating media made by and for villagers.
Dowser: Historically, the voices of the world’s poorest have only been televised through documentaries and newscasts made by outsiders. How does Video Volunteers address that problem?
Mayberry: The poor are excluded from the mainstream media. Our big dream is to create a media industry for the billions of people who make up most of our world but who we don’t see or hear.
We envision thousands of video producers in villages around the world leveraging the low cost and accessibility of video technology to create a sustainable news industry of their own. We have 75 such producers at the moment, mostly in India, but we think the concept is really scalable.
What are the keys to creating a sustainable model for news that is produced locally and updated continuously?
People have been giving cameras to poor communities for decades now. We’re trying to improve the quality of the process. A poor person doesn’t just press record on a camera and voila, they have a voice. People need serious, long-term, sustainable training for quality community video work, which Video Volunteers provides by building community video units. Each unit is co-run with a local NGO, which invests half the cost of running and maintaining the unit.
What does the community involvement look like?
We select eight community members–former diamond polishers, rag-pickers and rickshaw drivers–who become the producers. They don’t have to be literate. They get a full-time salary–another unique aspect of the model.
They create community editorial boards, and every six weeks they produce a film on a different social issue decided upon by that editorial board. They screen these films on widescreen projectors in the center of the village and have discussions around an action point. All the films derive from one question: ‘What’s the action local people can take on this issue?’
You founded Video Volunteers in 2003. Are you seeing success thus far?
We are starting to see increased community participation in the units that have been going for a few years. People come forward with ideas for the program; people in the community vie to be in the films; people organize their own screenings. The community itself is not the passive consumer of the media but also a participant.
There are 12 community video units, and we’ve reached about 180,000 people in the last two and a half years. We’ve had about 800 screenings in the villages and made around 50 films.
Did you have any early career revelations that drove you toward Video Volunteers?
I worked at the FOX News Channel in New York for three years after college, and was quite disillusioned with the way television was being made. I remember thinking, ‘How can I be part of this? This is so caustic and negative.’
But that was also the time when video journalism was exploding, and young people were getting cameras and making documentaries. My initial idea was to go to India and make my own documentary, but I quickly realized that the last thing the world needs is another white girl from New York spending two months in India and saying, ‘This is what the country is.’ What the world needs is people actually expressing themselves.
But you did end up going to India. How’d that come about?
I went on a fellowship with the American India Foundation (AIF) and worked on a video project with an organization called the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). I trained with them for a year and I saw things there that didn’t work but were extremely inspiring, and I knew this was an area in which I wanted to work.
Did you have a ‘Eureka!’ moment in which you came with the vision for a media industry run by the world’s poorest? Or did it sort of sneak up on you?
I actually started thinking, ‘OK, I’ll make a small project out of this.’ And then each step was kind of gradual.
What were Video Volunteers’ early years like?
The first year we experimented with lots of different community media models. We collaborated on projects with about 16 different NGOs. We trained volunteer filmmakers and worked as volunteers ourselves. I made films for NGO’s on my own to support myself.
How did the projects go?
The projects were not very impactful; they would sort of fall flat. We were using volunteers who were not from that area and had full-time jobs, and we were only taking two months to complete a project. That was not enough time to make something sustainable.
What did you do to improve the situation?
I worked with an India media human rights activist named Stalin K., who has been doing community radio for 20 years, to create the model for the video unit. That was the watershed moment.
We got one sizable grant, $40,000, from an individual philanthropist in the United States. Then, through Stalin’s connections, we got six Indian NGOs to invest in Video Volunteers. Three months later, the first six video units were up and running.
How much time do you spend in India now?
The last two and a half years I’ve been in India full-time. I’ve been in New York probably four months in total over the past three years. I’m really happy over there. I love being close to the work, but my board is always saying, ‘You need to come back and spend more time in the States.’
Where is Video Volunteers headed?
We’re continuing to operate in India but also growing our efforts in Brazil. We’re also beginning to work with new technologies for distributing content, like the Internet and cell phones. And we’re looking at networking we can do with the whole alternative media movement in the States. We feel that our role in that community is to say, ‘Hey, who produces the content is as important as what they’re saying.’ And what we’d really like to do in the future is to get this media into the mainstream.
Photo: Video Volunteers