Tag Archives: art and social justice

Media Awards — With a Difference

18 May

Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico CityWhat do a documentary film called The Bengali Detective, a 20-something Somali-born model and Indonesian artesanal tin miners have in common?


They were all featured in one way or another at what was for me an unusual awards ceremony in London earlier this month, a combination of top-end cocktail party and thought-provoking look at a few of the multitude of fascinating stories from the developing world British viewers are offered on a regular basis by their national media. The annual event is put on by One World Media, a non-profit that promotes and supports media coverage of, to put it broadly, developing world issues.


The Bengali Detective, from Native Voice films, is about a team of detectives, actually, who investigate crimes in Kolkata, and attempt to win a talent show with their Bollywood dancing. The model, Samira Hashi, took part in a documentary made by BBC Current Affairs, visiting a refugee camp in Somalia, from which her parents fled when she was a baby. And the tin miners were the subject of the winner of One World’s Press category, an article called Death Metal by The Guardian’s Kate Hodal.

Inside Voladora Radio

For me, personally, the work of both nominees and winners, from journalism students to field-seasoned documentary producers, brought a mixture of admiration (for the dozens of examples of excellent reporting), jealousy (as I couldn’t help recall the many times my article ideas here were met with the ever irritating ‘but-what’s-the-Canadian-angle?’ response), curiosity (to know more about the many fascinating stories to which we in the audience were briefly introduced) and a recognition of the way our nations and cultures the world over are woven together in a vast web of strange, comic, tragic and compelling situations.

That we can only scratch the surface of these worlds through such stories about them is frustrating yet challenging. There is so much going on, so many characters — from Josephat Torner, an albino man in Tanzania who tries to counter the terrible superstitions that have lead to the murders of people with albinism, to former Afghan member of parliament Azita Rahfat, who decides dress one of her four daughters as a boy to gain social respect — and so many struggles in the world around us. Why would we not want to know about these things?

Yet in a recent podcast put out by the Center for Global Development in Washington, Nicolas Kristoff said he was “deeply concerned about the collapse in coverage of global news,” particularly in television.

“Your average news consumer is much less exposed to international stories, and those that they are exposed to are particular, segment stories,” he says. “It tends not to be development stories and I think this is going to be a real blind spot in the US and also, to some degree, globally.”

The contradiction here of course is that we are better able to access global stories and news more easily than ever. We are more avid than ever for information that should help us make better decisions socially and politically. Average people are more aware than ever that we live in an inter-connected world.

Yet national media are more convinced than ever, it sometimes seems to me, that domestic audiences are turned off by anything that is not local and trivial. It is easier to inform ourselves about the Kardashians than Kazakhstan, Kolkata or Cairo. We are encouraged to skim and peruse, to flip through pages, keep our brains on stand-by mode, rather than glue our attention to stories that are factual, compelling and meaningful.

One World Media and its annual awards go a long way to countering the inanity, just as their fellowships and student programs help younger journalists to both learn about and take on reporting in the developing world.

Like the super educated scientists who must spend their days working for Big Pharma searching for weight-loss remedies instead of a cure for malaria, I am sure that most smart journalists would rather be chasing unique and amazing real stories than providing free publicity to people who don’t need it. I have always believed that the whole point of being a journalist is to discover and write about the interesting aspects of reality, to be lucky enough to find curious stories that reveal more than first thought — like my article from Mexico about obligatory literature classes for beat officers to try to combat police corruption — and to give a voice, as many of the winners’ speeches noted, to the voiceless. It should be about explaining the world and shedding a light on its injustices as much as informing the public.

This is not the first time, I know, that I have written about this. But as can be seen in my earlier post ‘From Underdogs to Watchdogs,’ a short article about Ayiti Kale Je, or Haiti Grassroots Watch, what One World Media also suggests is that independent, investigative journalism can also, in its own words, “contribute to international development worldwide.”

In a world where ignorance is a tool in the hands of governments, big corporations and the global elite in general, independent information is one of the few arms with which people can fight back. So there is a thread here that is not hard to follow. What we write and what we read, what we film and what we watch, all matter. How we support independent media in nations wracked with poverty, inequality and corrupt governments matters even more.

SPI Demonstrators on September 24

SPI Demonstrators on September 24

To Speak to a Human, say ‘Human’.

28 Nov

I’ve had bear in silence for many years now the absurdity of trying to tell a disembodied voice answering a company’s phone who I need to speak to or why, trusting this gadgetry to do what an employee could do more quickly and efficiently. But last week, when I picked up a book at the local library, that practice hit a new low. I was pointed in the direction of a computer, actually beside the librarian, and told to check out my items myself.

The librarian who showed me this astonishingly ridiculous new system is herself, of course, likely to lose her job to it. Here in Toronto, our mayor and mostly right-ish city council, plan to reduce library hours and get rid of librarians along with numerous other city staff, in order to save us taxpayers money. Even more alarming, I will apparently be asked to pay now for swimming at the nearby community pool.

Now this structure, while unattractive, not exactly hygienic and in design similar to nothing so much as a pre-unification, East German sports facility, was at least convenient. Its presence encouraged me to keep fit. Because I could just pick up a towel and swimsuit, and walk there in seven minutes, I often managed to insert an hour of exercise into my already busy day. Will those facilities be improved with luxuries like heating in the change rooms and showers that work for longer than 3 seconds because of it? Highly unlikely. And now that I have to pay for the same crumby facilities, am I happy about it? No.

But we now have, in Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, a mayor who is actually proud of the fact that he thinks so small.

Nickel-and-diming both us downtown users of city services and the staff that provide them, is his way of putting the brakes not only on costs but on Toronto’s urban ambitions.

The police force, for example, Mayor Rob Ford’s ideological heroes in spite of the fact that they have over the years experienced increasingly lower crime rates while earning increasingly fatter paychecks, remain the one big ticket item that will not be cut.

According to a missive I received from the mayor’s office, the police are trying to trim down. They are firing all of their cleaning staff and replacing them with out-sourced minimum-wage employees from a private company for a $500,000 saving. But their pay, and even their premium pay, will be barely touched. So people earning $30 or $40,000 a year will be fired so people earning $80 to $100,000 can keep their hefty salaries — for a saving of less than a per cent overall.

The thing about urban life, or even modern life, however, is that it gets better the more it is based on neighbourhood relationships — and on other members of our society — the people around you — earning a decent living. Like the nearby presence of a handy swimming pool, chatting with a human being for a few minutes at the library is part of what makes Toronto a great place to live. Books and sport, free English classes, parks and bike trails have all been (inexpensive) perks that make people I know in other cities, from Mexico to Jakarta — envious of what we have here.

But the same policies that make life more inconvenient and kind of alienating for the average person also help the so-called 1 percent and their fabulous tax breaks become richer, while growing poverty within the 99 per cent. You have only to check out a recent NYT editorial on poverty in the U.S. — improved Census Bureau stats show that 49.1 million Americans are poor while those barely above the line form a much larger group than previously thought — to realize how the Occupy Wall Street movement is right to gather and protest.

And speaking of the OWS folk, has anyone else noticed how many occupations — even as they are in some cases evicted from public spaces in a number of cities — maintained lending libraries? The Guardian recently did a photo slideshow of some of these, and Toronto’s (now in storage, I expect) yurt was one of the libraries featured.

If the unemployed and young place such importance on books and the ideas they carry, why doesn’t a wealthy city in the midst of a super growth spurt? If real estate prices are still booming thanks to thousands of new immigrants moving to live in Toronto, why are we paring and slicing away at our infrastructure? I have a feeling the answer is already there in the skewed economic stats we are now becoming familiar with. Rich people don’t borrow books or walk their dogs in public parks. They want to concentrate on accumulation, and make random human interaction a thing of the past.

Voices for Change

12 Oct


Harvesting the Fruits of Solidarity


I subscribe to a great wordpress blog called What Gives, one that offers a daily dose of optimism by shining light onto a series of wonderful projects, many of them set up by regular folk who are just trying to help others. A particular favourite was one that rescued baby elephants. Others showcased Room to Read, the Little Flowers School for children in India too poor to pay school fees, and yet another, One World Futbol, that brought unbreakable plastic soccer balls to impoverished youngsters around the world. Recently, tho’, I was inspired by one on something called the Voice Project to investigate further and come up with an article for the Toronto Star.

The Voice Project not only offers viewers truly amazing video clips of musicians singing to support a cause – in this case, women in northern Uganda who are trying to bring home family members press-ganged into Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army. It also introduces to people like me the talents and integrity of a great many superb musicians one might have heard of before.

But aside from that, it provides a glimpse into the connect between art or music and honest (as opposed to press-hungry) solidarity. As Bedouin Soundclash bass guitarist Eon Sinclair told me during the interview I did with him for the article, “I think that as artists we are afforded a real opportunity to really create awareness of some things, whether you like it or not. You have a platform to do it. Not everyone chooses to do it but think the three of us,” he added, referring to the band, “have grown up somewhat socially conscious with some reference for our environment and the people that inhabit it as well. So whenever we have those opportunities we try to think critically about how we can help.”

As the article states, the band chose a song by K’naan, another extraordinary talent, who Canada has adopted as its own despite the fact he was born in war-torn Somalia. K’naan not only contributes a lot to important causes – his producer, Sol Guy, frequently speaks in schools about the power of culture in effecting social change  – but often addresses social, race and I would say even political issues head on in his art.

In fact, art and music can sustain and entertainment us, and also work as powerful weapons against status-quo thinking. “From the moment that we are able to step in front of a group of people,” said Eon, “and have them appreciate the music and take it in, you realize how powerful that medium actually is. Having a great speech or a powerful quote is a great thing to be lasting, but a melody or a rhythm seems to be able to quickly penetrate people.”

So aside from the link to my article, do yourself the favour of checking out The Voice Project at http://www.voiceproject.org