Challenge. Change. Conversation. Revolution.

March 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Whatever it is that I do for a living today, it all started with community video. Five years as a portapak toting video activist in the early 90s gave me deep roots. It sparked DIY entrepreneurship and hacking. It taught me that media is conversation. It fascinated me with the power of fluid, open, participatory ways of working. In so many ways, community video made me me.

Much of my inspiration came from the NFB‘s Challenge for Change: a late 60s effort to put video cameras in the hands of the poor and marginalized. Like the Challenge-for-Changers, I trained scores of people to make their own media. I helped build half a dozen media collectives. I pitched in on a few very important tapes, and on hundreds of energizing, but ultimately forgettable, hours of video fun. I committed every waking hour (and many dreaming hours, too) to the community video revolution.

And then, one day, I just gave it all up. I gave it up for the Internet.

In 1994, as the non-techie world got it’s first glimpse of the web, I stopped preaching video and began to teach activists how to send email. Unlike the television world of the early 1990s, the culture of the Internet encouraged me (and millions of others) to use words like ‘participatory’ and ‘media’ in the same sentence. It was the perfect backdrop for a 10+ year adventure building social change media channels, co-creating participatory, unconferency conversations and collaborating with community tech activists all around the world. This adventure has become my life.

The thing is, I’ve never forgotten Challenge for Change. I’ve carried it in my heart everywhere. Last week this part of me stirred, and I smiled.

Misha asked me to help with facilitation for Handheld, an unconference built around an Internet-era participatory media project on inner city health. All of the women participating in the project a) used to live on the street and b) have recently had babies. They took pictures. They shot video. They did interviews. This material was then shown to health care workers, and interviews with health care workers were shown to the women. The resulting video bridge (and I suspect the final cut of the video) creates a dynamic, honest picture of the attitudes, rules and tiny daily actions that are rolled up in our very broken health care system.

Yet, it wasn’t the power of this social message that made me smile. I smiled at the unconferency buzz of 100 people talking about both inner city health *and* media empowerment. I smiled as I met the women from the project, and heard them offer to work with other mothers during the closing circle. I smiled as ideas for a participatory video network for Toronto were proposed to the group. The unconference process was unleashing all kinds of creative energy that would simply grow once Handheld was over.

When I think back, this idea of media as messy beginning rather than neatly folded ending is one of the things that inspired me most in Challenge for Change. And, I suspect, it may have also inspired Kat Cizek, who organized Handheld. Kat’s NFB Filmaker-in-Residence program at St. Michael’s Hospital is very explicitly a riff on the Challenge for Change idea.

Of course, we now live in a viral media world where where open ended beginnings are commonplace. Kat says on her site: “We are in a revolution right now, and many people might not even know it.” This is not only a revolution in access ($25,000 portpaks replaced by $100 cameraphones) but also in the whole form and function of media. We have moved in great part from consumption to conversation, which in was one of the main points of Challenge for Change in the first place.

As Handheld ended, I smiled a very huge smile about this conversation revolution. I also reminded myself that all conversations are not created equal, and the best ones require care, love and finesse. This of course was the brilliance of building an unconference around a participatory video project. It nurtured an already-started conversation further, sparking ideas, passion and commitments in all sorts of new directions.

It’s useful to celebrate the conversation revolution. But then it’s time to move on to nurturing, facilitation and curation. These are things we need more of now. Nicely, Handheld, Kat and the women she is working with offer a very helpful example.

PS. For a little more on what I was thinking about as I switched from video to the Internet, check out From VTR to Cyberspace: Jefferson, Gramsci and the Electronic Commons. Written by a Mark Surman who was much more idealistic and naive than the one you’ll meet today, but still an interesting snapshot of a beautifully chaotic moment in time.

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