Week #7: Meet WITNESS -> Authentic Voices for Human Rights Change

This week President Obama made a little trip to South East Asia and stopped for 2 days in my home city of Phnom Penh. In preparation for this important visitor, Cambodia has spent weeks both sweeping up the streets and sweeping all things that could make look the country look bad under the figurative carpet.

At the same time, there’s been a group of local citizens doing just the opposite- they’ve literally taken to their rooftops calling on Obama to use the opportunity of his visit to address human right issues- in particular the issue of land rights and forced evictions.

A quick Google search can link you to information on the issue and a report about Obama’s visit. But can I suggest alternatively that you actually listen to what the people affected by this situation have to say about it.

One of the most amazing things about the digital age we live in is that everyone, almost everywhere, has the power to tell their own story. Certainly in some places it can be dangerous for local level activists to do so- but it isn’t impossible.

In light of all this, this week I’ve decided to get on my virtual rooftop to tell you about an organization I think is absolutely amazing. Meet WITNESS.

WITNESS trains and supports people and organizations to use video safely and effectively for human rights change. They partner with more than 300 human rights groups in over 80 countries including current hotspots like Egypt, Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Videos produced by WITNESS and partners have helped put warlords behind bars, reinstated rights of indigenous peoples to return to their lands and catalyzed laws against modern-day slavery. In fact, it was through a WITNESS video that I first learned about the land rights issue in Cambodia.

I’m thrilled for the opportunity to ask our #give10 questions this week to Matisse Bustos Hawkes, WITNESS Communications Manager, who has been working in human rights video for nearly a decade:

1. Last year we gave $10 to Witness. Can you tell us what good this has done?

Your $10 helped fund outreach to volunteer translators who translated critically needed tips and best practices for activists in the Middle East. We produced short tip sheets that could be handed out at protests – as we learned many activists do not have reliable Internet access so offline resources are crucial.

2. What project accomplishment are you most proud of this year?

In addition to helping people on the ground we also work to change the systems so activists can use video more effectively as a human rights tool. As part of this work we lobby digital platforms and our most recent success was when YouTube launched their new face blurring tool.  This came after public and private lobbying on our behalf and means activists can speak out against human rights abuses in a safer way.

3. What are you most excited about in the year to come?

We’re currently celebrating 20 years of the organization’s mission to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations and we’re hugely excited by the potential for our work right now. With billions of people now having access to cameras on their mobile phones our role is to turn these witnesses into advocates, and turn their videos in to social justice.

Over the next year we’re developing a program which will allow us to respond to crisis situations much more nimbly and effectively, and we’re also working on a project to ensure video evidence can be admitted in more human rights court cases – sounds a bit nerdy but crucial for justice to be served and people to be held accountable.

4. What is one thing you wish that the people who give to your cause knew or understood better?

I think supporters of WITNESS and human rights work around the world understand that change in policy, practice and behavior to “accomplish” justice takes a long time, sometimes decades or generations even. I believe that our supporters know this but that in our fast-moving world, there is sometimes an expectation or a hope that results will be more immediate. Accountability is important with respect to donors, and we are always looking for ways to scale our impact, but when dealing with human beings we need to be realistic and acknowledge that progress takes time.

5. What value does WITNESS bring now that everyone has a camera and can share their own footage online?

What we hear from activists and from ordinary citizens around the world is that they still want and need training about how to use video safely and effectively. The proliferation of cameras and people using them hasn’t directly translated into direct change- in fact it sometimes has put more people in harm’s way when their identity is revealed or they are targeted because they appeared in a video or filmed video on a sensitive topic.

We’re learning from these emerging use cases of video and adapting or creating new tools (like ObscuraCam), resources (like How to Film Protests video series), and training models to share our expertise quickly and in a manner that will reach the most people.

6. What do you think stops people from giving to a charity?

There are a lot of charities and causes that need support and funding. The sheer number of them can be overwhelming to people. I think charities need to do a good job of explaining what they do, and how people can be a part of making change happen in order to win support. A good organization also thanks people and communicates with them frequently (according to a donor’s preferences) to update on progress as well as to get feedback from supporters.

7. What do you think is the value of the individual who can only make a small donation?

One individual can make a world of difference. Although the financial contribution may be small you never know the ripple effect: that donation can easily lead to more through motivating others to follow suit, or through donors introducing friends to our organization.

Also, our staff and partners are hugely inspired when people give small amounts because this reminds us of all the people cheering us on from around the world and re-energizes us for our work.

8. Doing world changing work isn’t free. Can you explain the model that your project uses to cover its operating costs?

WITNESS is funded through a combination of foundation support and donations from individuals like Stephanie and many of thousands of others who have supported us over our 20-year history. We have a dedicated team who craft thorough proposals to foundations in order to secure grants that in turn fund our projects from in-person trainings to online resources development (e.g. the Video for Change Best Practices I mentioned above) to keeping our website and blog running, to overhead expenses such as staff salaries and office space, etc.

9. What are three projects you would want other donors to learn about and support?

ECPAT International – Works to end sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. WITNESS worked with their US-based branch on a campaign to end the criminalization of trafficked minors.

Video Volunteers – Primarily working in India to empower community voices through video and other media training.

The AJA Project – More than a ‘give cameras to kids’ project, this organization provides photography workshops for youth in San Diego, California affected by war and displacement. They work with high schools, city agencies, art institutions and galleries to build long-lasting partnerships and have created some permanent public projects as part of their mission.

10. How can people learn more about WITNESS and donate to their work?

Visit the Witness Website: (www.witness.org) and Blog

Connect with WITNESS on social media: FaebookTwitterG+

Donations: via WITNESS online  or via Causes


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