Video Volunteers Brings Citizen Media to Disadvantaged Communities

Posted on 04. Aug, 2009 by in Hyperlocal, Not-For-Profit

Imagine if citizens in low-income neighborhoods around the U.S. were given the necessary cameras, software and training to make short videos about important issues in their communities. Say, cultural, socioeconomic and political issues not covered by their local newspapers or television networks.

That is what Jessica Mayberry, co-founder of the global social media network Video Volunteers, has brought to underdeveloped and underreported communities in India. Her organization trains everyday citizens how to cover newsworthy subjects like local government inefficiencies, health and class divisions.

Most of the training is performed through workshops, where aspiring community producers are taught how to perform research, create story outlines, use the equipment and software, and then go out and shoot. The successful ones are then compensated by the organization for their work. Since 2006, Video Volunteers has trained 150 community producers in 350 villages with the help of other nonprofit organizations.

A live video screening

A live video screening in India

“What we’re seeking to demonstrate is look, you can produce topical videos,” says Jessica, a New York native who spawned the idea for Video Volunteers with her partner, Stalin K., in 2003. “What matters is that you’re from that local region, you know the issues there, and you have the communication skills to get the best stories out.”

The idea behind using video to tell those stories — apart from its visceral impact — is that many of the targeted communities have low literacy rates, she says, which keeps newspapers and magazines at a distance. Her organization’s work has resulted in a heightened awareness among audiences of how their communities function.

“Some of our community producers did a story a while back on the closing of a water treatment plant in their region,” says Jessica. “A lot of people got sick, and after the producers started to record what was going on, the local government came to one of the community screenings and told everyone, ‘No, no, no. We’re going to reopen the plant.’

“The purpose wasn’t to bring fresh water to India, but to empower local people with the communication and information tools to solve these problems on their own.”

One of the organization’s initial challenges was finding the money needed to buy cameras, computers and the right software. Fortunately in 2008 Video Volunteers won $275,000 in the annual Knight Foundation News Challenge, which awards several million dollars a year for innovative ideas that bring new “platforms, tools and services” “to community news, conversations, information distribution and visualization.”

Their other challenge has been keeping morale up among the community producers they train. Very often the effort put in outweighs the compensation — just like with most journalism (or advocacy) in America.

“It’s a tough job,” says Jessica. “They love it because of they attention they get, and producing videos is far more interesting than what they were doing before. But, they work really late at night and they feel they’re not getting paid enough, especially knowing that they have this very monetizable skill. If we were a bricklaying organization, they would know exactly how much they should get paid for their work and that pay would be far more concrete.”

Now as Video Volunteers extends its reach to other communities around the world, Jessica hopes to see her current model pick up enough momentum to sustain itself.

“The thing we need to figure out is how to do this in a way that’s permanent and ongoing,” she says. “What we’re trying to figure out is: what’s the lowest cost model to keep this going? How do we equip tens of thousands of marginalized people around the world with the necessary tools to tell their own stories?”

Video Volunteers co-founder Jessica Mayberry

Video Volunteers co-founder Jessica Mayberry

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