Community-Owned Media: What Does It Mean?
Many people today who work in social change are convinced that the typical 'top down' approach to development, where bureaucrats and international agencies design large-scale social programs and then impose them on millions of poor people, isn't working. Instead, they favor the idea of 'community-led development', in which communities themselves design the social programs, and interventions only arise from the stated needs of the communities. The goals of all these programs is the idea of eventual 'community ownership' of programs themselves and of the social change process. It means that communities won't only participate, but they will be able to drive social change in their area entirely on their own without outside intervention (except perhaps financial support.) This is seen as the most sustainable way to address poverty for millions of people.
For Video Volunteers, this is also the goal of the community video program--that the Community Video Units (CVUs) we set up will be 'owned' by the local communities, the villagers and slumdwellers in whose area the CVU is running. But what exactly does it mean for us? Here's one way to put it: when a CVU is entirely owned and loved by that community, it would mean that if anyone ever attempted to shut it down or the money dried up, local people would be banging on the CVU door saying, 'we will not let this close. This is our media, we need it, and we will do whatever it takes to keep it going.'
As Rehana, a Producer at our Community Video Unit Samvad put it recently, "I got in an auto a while back and the auto driver said, 'hey, I recognize you. You're the Reporter for the films being made for our area. Great job.'" "Right now," she said, "the communities know and recognize us. They know we are from here and we represent them. In time, we want them to need us, to know that this is THEIR media, that's what we are working towards.'
What will a CVU look like when it is owned by the Community? People will be stopping the Producers in the street saying, 'you must tell this story. Come with me now, there is something happening that must be filmed.' People will be offering to contribute financially to the running of the CVU. They will be helping the CVU expand into other geographic areas and other technologies, like running radio stations or setting up internet portals for that community. There will be continuous communication between the CVU and local people that means that the CVU provides the information that is critical to the community, and the community helps them produce the most meaningful journalism for that area, resulting in a much more informed and active local population.
The CVU model is devised to allow that to happen. It works in a tight geographic area of only 25- 50 villages or slums and all research, stories, and screenings happens in that area. The producers are from those 25 slums or villages too. The villagers 'see' the producers constantly and also know that they will be coming back next month, which makes them much more likely to get involved. (this is similar to how we all are much more likely to write 'letters to the editor' of a magazine that you know will appear next month than to the publisher of a book you read.) Our NGO partners, who invest in and manage the CVUs, agree that the goal is to eventually register each CVU as an independent organization. They do not view the CVUs as mouthpieces for their NGOs; they allow the CVUs to address issues their NGO may not work on, and give the CVUs names independent of their NGOs.
As Rehana said above, we are not there yet, but we are getting there. Community members now come more frequently for Editorial Board meetings and give better and more concrete ideas. CVUs have active volunteers in their screening areas, with community members giving electricity for the screenings and even whitewashing the walls of dedicated screening areas so the producers don't have to carry a big screen. Some villages have offered to pay for screenings, and community members are often coming to ask for copies of films they appeared in or would like to show to their neighbors as part of their own activism.
After two years of work, the Producers have understood the key to having their communities 'own' the CVUs: it is only possible when the communities see it is making an impact and delivering results that improve their lives. To date, more than 2000 people have taken action in their local communities as a result of the films, and this is why we believe we will achieve some of the first truly community-owned and led media operations anywhere in the world.