When I moved to Santiago, Chile to study abroad at la Universidad de Chile in my junior year at UC Berkeley, my world turned upside down. In Santiago, I struggled through broken Spanish to buy basic groceries at the corner store, witnessed the city come alive to honor the memory of Chilean President Salvador Allende on the thirtieth anniversary of the coup, protested with expats against the start of the Iraq war (calling ourselves “Gring@s Contra la Guerra”), met my first love and drank terremotos with Los Tres playing in the background.
My host mom, Sandra, a rebellious feminist and single mother, introduced me to the women at ANAMURI (Asociacion Nacional de Mujeres Rurales e Indigenas), who worked to fight for the rights of temporeras, or women who worked as seasonal fieldworkers. Through ANAMURI, I interviewed over a dozen temporeras, wandering into living rooms with a tape recorder and virtually no understanding of agriculture or rural issues. I sat in on meetings of rural women who striked for their right to wear gloves to protect them from pesticides, and talked to women whose children were born with deformities as a result of chemical exposure. In one of my interviews, I nearly froze in disbelief when a temporera from down the street wandered into the house and broke into tears with the confession that she hadn’t eaten in three days—out of money and out of work in the off season.
Back at Berkeley, I wrote feverishly to depict what I had witnessed in my senior thesis, with the hope that my research just might draw some attention to the issue. I poured my heart and soul into this writing, and spit out a ninety-page senior thesis. A couple of professors and friends read it, and then it went on the shelf.
Simultaneously, I was taking an Ethnic Studies class led by the inspiring Chinese American filmmaker, Loni Ding, known affectionately as the Mother of Asian American Film. (Read my tribute to Loni.) She gave us cameras and threw us into groups with an open-ended assignment to make a film about whatever we wanted. Mine was about the Patriot Act. It was sloppy, full of editing mistakes and talking heads, and we finished it just minutes before running over to screen it in front of an audience of about 200 of our classmates, friends, families and interviewees.
However, while the thesis went on a shelf, the film started a conversation. After the screening, people approached us with questions. What happened to the young Pakistani college student we interviewed? What was the status on the law? How could students get involved?
This was the beginning of my journey to understand the power of multimedia as a vehicle to lift up community voices. In a media brainstorming session earlier this year, Dayna Cunningham from the CoLab put forth this point: “the compelling thing about storytelling is the ability to make sensible the experiences of people that are so different from yours that they are counterfactual.” For me, film/video and social media tools have the potential to viscerally connect people who would not otherwise cross paths.
As part of my summer series, I will share my thoughts on the role of multimedia tools in community work and planning. For now, I ask you this question—what do you think makes people listen to stories that are not like their own? What makes them take action? Do new media tools help this process or further exacerbate the divide?
Stefanie Ritoper is a Masters in City Planning Candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. With a background in community-based research and film, she is interested in increasing economic opportunities for diverse low-income communities and using multimedia tools to engage people in public processes. She has long distance love for her hometown of Los Angeles.
Photo courtesy of Municipalidad de Melipilla, Chile.