Gianna: Welcome and thank you for listening to the New Tactics in Human Rights podcast. A program of the Center for Victims of Torture, New Tactics helps activists become more effective through strategic thinking and tactical planning. My name is Gianna Brassil, and I am your host for today’s show.
Over the past year during my time at New Tactics, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to tell a story, what it means to testify to an experience. I’ve asked questions like, how can we use individual narratives in human rights work without erasing the individual in the narrative? How do we negotiate the differences between an institution’s political agenda and the complexities of one’s lived experience?
Throughout the podcast, we touch on many issues such as storytelling that emphasizes the story teller rather than the listener, and tensions inherent in using testimony as evidence of oppression but also as news hooks for gripping stories. We talk about the uniqueness of voices and the value of oral storytelling, and what’s at stake when personal testimonies are transferred to a human rights organization’s database. In the final section of the podcast, we talk about podcast accessibility, areas for growth, and the potential for empowerment through activist driven, independent media creation.
I collaborated with Loubna Mrie and Mustafa from the Irrelevant Arabs podcast. Both are Syrian activists currently based in the United States. Loubna participated in the early days of the revolution and has covered rebel held areas as a photojournalist for Reuters. Her work has been published in The Nation, Time, Vice, and elsewhere. She is now studying in the Near East studies department at New York University.
So the first question I asked Mustafa and Loubna was, why podcasts?
Mustafa: The reason why we chose podcasts was because we felt like the storytelling aspect of a podcast would be a lot more; it would be the right way to relate to our audience, and to actually tell our stories without someone directing our conversation.
Gianna: Nadia, the creator and founder of Palestinians Podcast, had similar ideas about what podcasts bring to the table in terms of storytelling.
Nadia: Palestinians Podcast is dedicated to telling the stories of Palestinians from all over the world. The aim is to rehumanize Palestinians in the mainstream media as often Palestinians are represented as victims of war, terrorists, or simply bodies by many parts of the media today. The podcast really is an opportunity for people to connect, understand and be informed about people’s stories that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to.
Gianna: So with this in mind, I think it’s important to pause and really reflect on the word storytelling—emphasis on telling. Another one of my guests, Sylvia Thomas, spent a year traveling around the world visiting different community radio stations and thinking about their role in democracy building. She centered this discussion by suggesting a theory behind community radio and podcasting.
Sylvia: So if you really uncover the fundamental of what community radio is and the theory behind community radio, it is used as a tool for communities to share their voice. So it’s really actually a lot more focused on the people who are making audio, who are making the content that’s being put out into the world rather than the listener. It gives a different sort of balance than maybe a public radio station that’s more focused on its listener.
Gianna: I thought that the way Sylvia articulated this idea of the theory behind community radio really captured why podcasting is such a unique medium. Its focus on the creators and the process of self-defined story and self-defined story creation is a radical act. It faces head on the topic of representation, which is one of the factors that informs Nadia’s approach to podcasting
Nadia: As a Palestinian myself I struggle with the idea of representation in the podcasts. These podcasts are edited in the sense that I sit down with people, I hear their story, and I record their story. But then I go back and I try to edit their story in a way that makes it coherent in one respect, but also entertaining. And that sometimes feels like I am shaping someone else’s story, and shaping someone else’s story in a way that they might not like. Of course we always get approval from people when we’re recording their stories, and before we release the podcast episodes. But I always try to keep in mind that these stories are being told by people in a particular way, and it’s not my responsibility to change that. It’s their testimony, and it’s not my responsibility to edit that. I ‘m very conscious of the voice that’s portrayed by the podcast and I’m always trying to really ensure that the stories are being told in a voice that’s representative of the storyteller.
Gianna: I wanted this New Tactics podcast project to engage in a critical look at how independent activist driven storytelling gives a unique and singular perspective on human rights issues. However, I also wanted to get input from human rights professionals and academics and hear what they had to say. Barbara Frey, a human rights law expert at the University of Minnesota, took the time to talk to me about her background.
Barbara: So I have worked as a human rights activist since the early 80s. I’m a lawyer but as the director of the human rights program I work in an interdisciplinary environment where I teach undergrads, graduate students, and professional students on human rights law, human rights advocacy, and then we carry out projects and programs for students, faculty and the general public here at the program.
Gianna: Representation played a big role in my conversation with Barb. One of the questions I asked her was about the difficulty in using personal stories as tools to create solidarity without falling into the trap of portraying a simplistic reality.
Barbara: So it’s a lot easier when you’re in academia because you can be nuanced and you can be constantly be interrogating these kinds of questions at the same time as you’re looking at effective methods of advocacy. In my observations of the movement, I think most human rights, some major gatekeeper organizations like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, or say in our neck of the woods, the Advocates for Human Rights, or other more issue based groups, the staff and people who design campaigns are quite conscious of this issue and they’re trying to walk that fine line between being able to tell the story about the violation to encourage solidarity and support without using someone’s voice without their approval or telling it in a way that they’re not comfortable with. I see a lot more consciousness of it; it’s certainly a constant theme that we talk about in my advocacy classes here. What I find is interesting since we talk in theoretical terms and then we also do applied projects in the class and what I find is that it’s harder once you get into the projects and you’re strategizing about what do about excessive police force in the United States, or we’re working on the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar. How do you get public attention without telling gripping stories? And so what’s good about our experience is really constantly being self-reflective what those lines are and trying to be at least conscious of it in the work we do.
Gianna: Just as Barb mentioned the importance of self-reflection in human rights work, Sylvia brought positionality to the forefront of the conversation. She talked of the critical importance to be aware of our subjectivity, informed by our upbringing, race, class, gender, education level, among many other factors.
Sylvia: For me, I’m a white woman, and I haven’t suffered the same oppression that a lot of people have in society. For me to go and want to do stories about people who are underrepresented in the media, that’s definitely an internal conflict that I have. What’s my role in doing this? Ultimately I have the editor’s say, the editorial say. From a journalistic perspective it’s not professional to have the people you’re interviewing listen to the piece to make sure that’s accurately portraying what they’re trying to say. But from a moralistic perspective, that does make sense to me. If it’s not my story and I’m trying to accurately portray someone else’s story, to have them listen to the story that I’ve produced before I put it out into the world seems like a good solution.
Gianna: Knowing what role each person plays in telling stories about an individual or community’s oppression, and that role’s relationship to the privilege of the storyteller, is key. In fact, the very sound of the storyteller’s voice is important in shaping how we interpret the story. Nadia makes this very point:
Nadia: There’s also something to say about the uniqueness of voice and the diversity of voices in a particular community. This is something that’s really struck me about making Palestinians Podcast. We as Palestinians come from all walks of life. We’ve been scattered across the globe in so many cultural linguistic, even geographic locations. And that’s really caused this great diversity that can really be heard in audio storytelling and audio podcasting.
Gianna: Mustafa relates a recent experience that he and Loubna had on the podcast that not only underlines the importance of voices but also highlights how sometimes non-visual media can actually be more emotionally impactful than visual media.
Mustafa: One of our latest podcasts, we had a guest on who was talking about Palestine, and there was a certain frustration in their voice, there was a lot of emotion in that voice, that we believe, when listened to, can really give the audience a realistic connection to what’s going on as opposed to them being interviewed on any news network or such where they are forced to reply to questions set by a host that is not necessarily what they want to talk about.
Gianna: But what happens when human rights professionals take these stories and try to transfer them into databases or spreadsheets? I asked barb about her experience with story to database transfers in the context of her work documenting disappearances of people in Mexico.
Barbara: In databases, you’re right, it’s certainly removed. We’re trying to add this notion of patterns so that we can literally see, what is the typical time of day when people are disappeared in this particular state? Are they disappeared from their homes, or in public places? Are there certain occupations that are more prevalent among those people being disappeared and not? So while it is disembodied in a way, it demonstrates certain attributes of the crime that you might otherwise not pick up, and we could argue that that’s a way of representing people in a different way in showing that people who travel in the roads in Coahuila are much more at risk than any other people in the state.
Gianna: So in theory, podcasts can be set apart from other media forms due to their emphases on voices, oral storytelling, and their capacity to interrogate questions of representation. But what about access? I asked Loubna, Mustafa, and Nadia, to talk about why podcasts are an important tool in their activism.
Mustafa: Of course the podcast is our best choice because the podcast is very accessible to the world, whether it is because of the easiness of starting a podcast which could be technically started with a phone recording a conversation. However we chose to upgrade to investing in some mics and some mics in order to produce a better quality sound that people can enjoy.
Loubna: Me and Mustafa don’t really have the ability to travel often and it’s way less expensive to be able to produce one episode if you are going to compare it to a short documentary or even a news clip.
Mustafa: The cost of production makes people like us, activists on a budget, able to put the word out there for people who chose to hear it, to be able to access it.
Gianna: Sylvia brought in another perspective as a Watson fellow who traveled around the world looking at community radio and participatory democracy. She talked with me about the difficulty in knowing how exactly to financially support community radio producers, and by extension, grassroots podcast creators.
Sylvia: It’s tough to know how to support them. Does that mean financially? It does not mean in content. Does not mean in content. I think that that was one of the biggest issues that I saw with UNESCO, the communications branch of the UN. They have a huge relationship with the community radio stations; they’re basically the main driver behind Komneto, which is the community radio station organization in Tanzania. I think they mostly do a good job, but I don’t think it’s very fair that to go into a community and say this is the content that you should be putting out to your local community.
Gianna: A question I had for all of my guests was about the potential growth of podcasts outside of North America and Europe. Sylvia talked about the constraints of expanding the geography of podcasting because many communities don’t have reliable access to the internet or data which are both necessary for downloading individual podcast episodes. In that case, community radio is a better choice for many local media producers. She mentioned initiatives like the Bangladeshi government has actually paid for several radio stations to be built because it recognizes that radio stations are a form for participatory democracy. I hope that in the future programs like that will be expanded to include grants for grass roots podcasts as well.
Finally, I’d like to end with the fact that knowing who is behind the mic matters. Knowing how is telling the story matters, and as Sylvia, Mustafa, Loubna, and Nadia articulate in these final remarks, the stakes are high.
Sylvia: I think that the power of media and the power of voices is held when local people decide what stories they want to tell, what information they want to share, what would benefit their own local community, and then do the work to tell those stories and put that out.
Loubna: I think everyone has a story to tell and a perspective to say, and especially people from countries that are kind of under reported. I think they have many stories to tell and I think podcasting is one of the best tools to do that, or best platform to do that.
Mustafa: I think it’s time for the irrelevants to become in control of the media instead of being told what to listen to and being told what’s important and thanks to websites like Patreon and Soundcloud who allow us to host for free, and allow us to receive donations from our supporters are helping in the creation of a new medium of voices being spread around the world in order to find a common ground of struggle.
Nadia: I think the process of making Palestinians Podcast has not only been a community building activity but it’s also brought me closer to my community and to my Palestinian roots. It’s created conversation and storytelling within my own family and I’ve learned more about my father’s story and my mother’s story in the process of making this podcast that I have in my thirty years of life prior. I think that that’s really an important thing that podcasting does as well and storytelling does as well. When brave people tell their story and share their story with the world, other people are empowered to do so. I hope and I think one of the major missions of Palestinians Podcast is to make sure that Palestinians have a venue through which they can tell their stories, that they feel empowered to tell their stories, and that we create a community around storytelling through the podcast.
Gianna: I am inspired by the potential of podcasts as places for individuals and communities to reclaim their own stories, but also, as Nadia concluded, as opportunities to reconnect with your roots. Questions about identity, representation, and storytelling will never go away. Throughout this whole process, I found myself reflecting on how this very project had me wading in the murky waters of the final editorial say. In a podcast about representation, I myself couldn’t escape making cuts, choosing quotes, and curating this experience. Creating this podcast has been a reality check in recognizing the subjectivity of every story in every medium. I believe that this type of consciousness and self-reflection should imbue every endeavor we make in our work as human rights activists and professionals.
I’d like to thank the Civic Engagement Center at Macalester College for awarding me the Action Fund to create the podcast. I’d also like to thank the staff at New Tactics for their support throughout this project. Finally, I’d like to thank all the listeners for your time. My name is Gianna Brassil, and this has been a New Tactics in Human Rights podcast.