Participatory Human Rights Advocacy: A How-To Guide
Human rights lawyers sometimes indulge in the fantasy that their work is limited to the domain of law and formal justice–that their business is the formulation (or recognition) and impartial application of binding law. Laws certainly exist, as do rights in some fashion, but their meaning and the form of their application is fundamentally determined by society and the political process. As such, influencing social norms, public discourse, and politics through advocacy—as disturbingly subjective as the undertaking may be–is essential to project of human rights.
Storytelling can be a highly effective method of reaching a large number of people–particularly people who are not actively aware of human rights law. Storytelling through audio or audiovisual media, moreover, can more effectively reach communities with low levels of literacy. However, if these stories are to truly represent reality, they must be grounded in the experiences of real people—the victims of human rights violations. The use of participatory processes—wherein organizers bring together members of local communities to discuss the problems that they face and share their experiences–to collect and spread such stories allows just that. Moreover, by bringing such people into the media production process, the method serves the dual function of creating media products that can sway an audience as well as providing participants in the process with skills and experience that can help them to advocate for themselves in the future. Additionally, the process of bringing together a group of people for the purpose of discussing and solving a problem can itself be empowering to that group, as it allows members to more fully grasp the systemic (rather than individual) nature of the problem, helps them to understand what action is needed to address it, and facilitates community organization to that end. Under this participatory approach, the process of creating the media is, then, as important as the final product.
An example of this is process is a project by Voices of Women Media, a Kathmandu-based feminist NGO, Girls’ Voices. The organization conducted a six-week workshop in which ten girls from a Kathmandu public high school were given training in photography and storytelling techniques. Each of them was also given a digital camera, which they used to take a series of photos illustrating the barriers that they face to finishing their secondary education. Each of the girls then wrote and recorded a voice-over describing her experiences and relating them to the photos. NGO staff edited the girls’ work into short films, which are being screened at public schools in Kathmandu.
This form of advocacy provides the subjects of advocacy pieces with a considerable degree of control over the production process. Participants themselves write the script and determine which images and music best represent their experiences. Facilitators nonetheless play an important role in helping participants identify compelling stories and shaping narratives in such a way as to reach specific audiences. However, in these processes, there is always a risk–particularly given the likely differential in social prestige and power between participants and NGO workers–that facilitators will usurp the role of storytellers, even if unwittingly. Facilitators must therefore remain cognizant that their role is fundamentally that of an enabler.
Spreading knowledge of information technology has the added benefit of potentially aiding the documentation of rights abuses in the future. With the increasing ubiquity of smart devices with onboard cameras, the proliferation of skills related to recording technology and web-publishing can allow victims of abuses to record and publicize violations quickly and with relative anonymity.
There are, however, inherent limitations to this approach. It is severely hobbled in contexts in which the rights to political expression and freedom of the press are not respected. Such restrictions can prevent advocates from disseminating the media within the country–limiting its impact to the ‘boomerang effect’ of using international media to move foreign governments to put pressure on the local government –and may even cause participants to become targeted by their governments.
If creating participatory advocacy media does seem appropriate to the local context, the following pages can provide a basic outline of how to proceed. Given the variety of different forms of media that the participatory process can be used to produce, this guide is, by necessity, written at a fairly high degree of generality so as to make it as widely applicable as possible. The final section, however, contains links to resources that readers can use to conduct further research into more specific participatory media strategies.
Step 1: Planning
A. Identify Participants and Facilitators
It is important that the method used to recruit and select participants is transparent and fair according to the standards of the community; otherwise, some community members may feel arbitrarily excluded. It is also very important that potential participants are aware that they are likely to share personal and possibly sensitive information with others–possibly very many others. The role of facilitators is vital to any participatory media project. Facilitators need to be both deeply familiar with the local and national social and political context and to have knowledge of relevant human rights law (or at least have immediate access to those who do).
B. Work out Logistics
It is possible to create compelling media using relatively common technology–particularly smartphones–and free software. Participatory media workshops are therefore generally fairly inexpensive to organize. What is needed is a private space in which participants feel comfortable expressing themselves and a sufficient number of power outlets (and consistency of electricity supply) for the number of devices used. For the purposes of video and web editing, at least one computer is usually required as well.
Step 2: Media Workshops
A. Get Informed Consent
It is imperative to receive informed consent from interviewees and participants in the media project before recording any information about them. Informed consent exists only when a person assents in the presence of:
i. Disclosure to the participant of what information will be recorded and the purpose for
which it will be used;
ii. Comprehension by the participant of the potential consequences of the distribution of that information;
iii. Authentic voluntariness on the part of the participant; and
iv. Competence of the participant to understand the implications of participating.
One of the most important parts of any participatory media advocacy project is to identify a problem or a need within a group or community. It is often the case that outsiders–including people from the same country or region–will misunderstand the needs of a group or community, or accidentally attribute their own interests (or those of funding organizations) to that group. For example, a human rights lawyer may assume that a group that has been subject to crimes against humanity will identify justice as their primary need, when, in reality, more immediate material concerns take precedence. Workshops serve the essential role of enabling groups of participants to identify for themselves their most important problems.
i. Build Trust
At least the first hours of the first participatory media workshop should be dedicated to building trust between participants. This can take multiple forms–from games and activities to story circles –depending on the age, background, and preferences of the participants. Given their key role in the process, it is very important that facilitators fully engage in these activities as well.
As the workshop sessions continue, the facilitator should begin to elicit discussion about common problems and issues that participants face and to guide the discussion toward connecting those problems with political, social, or economic factors. A key function of the facilitator here is to a foster a supportive environment within the group that allows participants to freely express their experiences and perspectives.
ii. Build Skills
Facilitators should use group activities to teach technology skills to participants. Many of these activities serve a dual role of helping groups to identify and analyze the issues that they and their communities face.
iii. Identify Rights
After participants have decided on the focus of the project, facilitators should help them to link the issues with human rights. Here, facilitators should help participants to link their moral intuitions and experiences of unfairness or victimization with legally enforceable human rights. Human rights lawyers can play an essential role in this step by identifying human rights implicated in the issues raised by the group and to help participants to articulate how duty-bearers have failed to respect, protect, and fulfill those rights. They can do this by either by acting directly as facilitators or closely supporting facilitators.
After identifying a problem but before advancing further into the planning process, it is advisable to find out whether there are other organizations working on the issue. If there are, and their goals are consonant with those of the group that you are working with, it may be worthwhile to coordinate and determine what each organization can contribute to a broader advocacy campaign.
D. Identify an Audience
It is essential to know the audience that you are trying to reach before producing advocacy media, as the target audience will determine the format of the media piece as well as much of its content. It is likely, for example, that a piece that aims to move elite decision-makers to change policy will look different from one that is aimed at changing attitudes among the public. (It is worth noting here that, although human rights advocacy traditionally targets policymakers–either directly or indirectly through influencers–participatory media can also function as a community organizing tool, and one of its major target audiences is thus other members of the community. )
Important questions to ask at this stage include whether the chosen medium is accessible to the target audience (Can they understand the language? Do they have the technology needed to access the finished product?), and whether the anticipated content is relevant to the audience and likely to draw their attention and influence them toward a desired opinion or behavior.
E. Identify a Message
Through discussions and activities, participants must decide what they want to tell the audience–that is, what knowledge or awareness they want to audience to gain from the presentation. Participants must also determine what, if anything, they want to ask of the audience. Facilitators should also help participants determine whether there is any necessary context or background information that the audience may need to be aware of to understand the message.
Although displays of raw emotion can be powerful, facilitators should remain aware of the sensibilities of the audience and try to steer participants away from narratives that might alienate audiences and thereby undermine the objective of the project. Generally, non-confrontational approaches that appeal to the audience’s sense of empathy tend to be more effective.
F. Plan Production
Finally, participants should collaboratively decide what to produce and how to produce it. The media produced through this participatory framework can take many forms, from videos to photojournalism to radio broadcasts, and each format will pose unique challenges and require specific production plans.
If the product is an audio presentation, participants should work together to prepare and edit the script and to decide whether the production would benefit from including music. Likewise, if the product is a video, participants should both write the script and collaboratively plan the style of the direction (whether the video should be a single shot, spliced together with editing, narration over still images, etc.). Moreover, when planning videos, storyboarding can be very useful.
Sometimes, participants can produce finished media entirely on their own. In other cases, it may be necessary to bring in experts for tasks such as filming and editing. The extent to which the media can feasibly be produced internally is a question that facilitators and participants should thoroughly discuss before beginning production.
Step 3: Production
A. Build Skills
When reviewing material–viewing photographs, screening footage, or listening to audio–facilitators should help participants involved in the process to reflect upon successes and challenges that they have encountered during the production process. This form of self-critique will allow participants to learn from their experiences and make increasingly informed decisions as production moves forward.
As far as possible, participants should control the editing process. However, if participants lack expertise with computers (or lack sufficient time) this may not be realistic. Organizers of the project should nonetheless make every effort to bring participants into the editing process, as the choices made during edits profoundly impact the finished product.
Step 4: Community Review and Discussion
As the media product is being edited, participants, facilitators, and organizers should give members of the larger affected community access to unfinished versions of the piece. This provides the community with an opportunity to provide feedback on the product while at the same time spreading awareness of the project. The community should ideally be allowed to review and comment on successive versions of the piece before the product is finalized.
Step 5: Dissemination
Finally, participants should be involved in formulating the dissemination strategy of the media product; this is closely linked with, and should be addressed during, the discussions within workshops of target audiences.
Participants should decide–perhaps with input from partner organizations if the project is part of a broader advocacy campaign–who sees the product and how. One advocacy tactic, for example, is to present the product privately to duty-bearers and thereby attempt to move them to address the abuse or failure. Alternatively or additionally, the product can be presented to select groups of people (such as middle school students) or disseminated widely through the Internet, DVDs, or broadcast media.
Final Note and Resources
Participatory approaches to media advocacy projects thus build skills and capacities within oppressed and marginalized communities, produce often-compelling human rights advocacy media, and have the potential to build critical consciousness within these communities. Workshop participants are encouraged to imagine a different but attainable world in which power is distributed more equitably and rights are considered inviolable—a world in which their situation, and that of those around them, is profoundly different.
Therefore, although organizers of such projects may face significant pressure to cut corners in order to quickly create a media product that will satisfy organizational leadership or funding organizations, doing so would represent a grave disservice to the people and communities with which they engage. Such compromises are likely to yield disillusionment and alienation within the communities that are meant to be served by the projects. It is also possible that the media produced by such efforts—propaganda dreamed up by elites—would only reinforce the destructive and oppressive discourses that it ostensibly exists to combat.
Examples of Participatory Processes in Advocacy Media Production
Photography: Viva Favela
Viva Favela is a Portuguese-language photojournalism project that publicizes Brazilian favela-dwellers’ reporting on their own communities, allowing them to have a voice in the national discourse on urban slums. According to its coordinator, the project’s main aim “is not the production of content, but rather the consciousness raising of favela dwellers, who begin looking at themselves and their neighborhoods critically.”
The Afghan Women’s Writing Project organizes storytelling workshops for women in Afghanistan. The women write poems or essays, and their works are disseminated widely via YouTube. To protect the women’s anonymity and safety, the video production work is done outside of Afghanistan, the authors are identified pseudonymously, and Afghan activist Noorjahan Akbar reads the texts.
Audio: Community Radio in Nigeria
In 2003, three Nigerian NGOs launched the Initiative for Building Community Radio in Nigeria, a project that produced a series of workshops across Nigeria that raised awareness about the potential of community radio. Community radio provides members of local communities direct access to the airwaves, allowing them to tell their own stories and share their perspectives with others in their region. In communities that are not electrified or experience frequent power disruptions, radio is a popular form of media (as hand-crank radios can still be operated). Even in areas with little internet penetration, participatory media in the form of community radio is still a viable mode of human rights advocacy.
A Rights-Based Approach to Participatory Video (from which I drew much of this material)