making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

making media, making change: a conversation with jesse hardman

In early September, we were excited to welcome our friend and newest collaborator Jesse Hardman when he visited our offices in Seattle. Jesse is a reporter and media developer currently working in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he manages and curates a community media engagement project called the Listening Post. Using text messages, public signs and roving recording stations equipped with microphones, the Listening Post provides the opportunity for people to capture and share information, opinions and news about the local issues they feel are most important.

Before starting the Listening Post, Jesse and his voice recorder travelled around the globe experimenting with different ways of gathering and delivering information in local communities. He shared stories about teaching radio classes at an all-girls Catholic school in South Chicago, building an information exchange in war-torn Sri Lanka, working with tribal radio stations in the Southwest United States, and establishing a two-way conversation about important issues with community members in New Orleans. He understands how to listen, how to get important information to people who need it the most and how that information is a lifeline for communities to thrive.

He sat down with us to share stories about his travels and his work, and to talk about the transformative experiences that changed the way he looked at media, information and social change—and how it led him to where he is today. I decided to take a page from Jesse’s playbook and experiment with audio recordings from his visit. Be sure to click through and listen! Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • Media can be a powerful tool in catalyzing community development. While teaching radio classes in South Chicago, Jesse saw that his young students responded intuitively to their assignments and used the power of narrative to create change messages that reflected their personal experiences and environment. “What they did was intuitive.”
  • Having a clear understanding of what people want to know drastically influences the process of gathering news. Jesse traveled to Sri Lanka in 2007 to join a humanitarian information initiative funded by Internews. While there, he trained and worked with a team of local reporters to create a newspaper and radio show that shared information with the country’s war-displaced population. “We asked people, ‘What do you need to know?'”
  • To adapt the way we communicate in different situations, we need to first consider the factors that influence the effectiveness of our messaging. For example, to adapt your communication style effectively, you need to understand who you are talking to, how they listen, where they are located, and what their point of view may be. Messaging needs to be impactful, clear and relatable to your audience. Whether it’s engaging a classroom of young students or appealing to a group of people who have survived a war, the way you communicate information can drastically influence an audience’s response and the overall outcome. In Sri Lanka, Jesse discovered quickly that the framework he was used to, having worked in public radio in the U.S., did not work well and he had to adapt. “Couldn’t play more than three minutes of informational radio without a Bollywood song in between.”

Lifeline

  • Media not only offers new opportunities to engage directly with people and communities, but it also transforms the ways in which people can take part in the process of information sharing. People should feel empowered to assess the information needs of their communities and think creatively about solutions for their own environment. Jesse visited with about 40 tribal radio stations across Arizona, New Mexico and California to learn more about how they share their information and the support role they play in Native American communities. Here and elsewhere in the U.S., media, storytelling and the sharing of information are tools for transformation and progress—an everyone should have a voice. “These community radio stations [. . .] are the lifeline.”
  • Public radio needs more diverse voices and perspectives if they are to facilitate important conversations in cities and communities. For example, 78 percent of the audience for public radio is white and upper middle class while New Orleans is more than 60 percent black and middle to working class. “78% of audience for public radio is white, upper middle class.”
  • Don’t be afraid to get creative and experiment with information, especially when there is a lack of funding and manpower. Jesse applied the concept of citizen journalism to focus on the capacity of community members in New Orleans to create narratives, share perspectives, and start a discussion about public concerns, visions and plans. “I was down in New Orleans [. . .] and seeing things that you see in developing countries.”
  • To engage an audience, you have to think about what would get their attention and why they would want to participate. Understanding your audience has profound implications for any strategy. It is an important step in the process to discover what will reach an audience most effectively and what will appeal to them. The Listening Post uses text messages and funky microphones designed by a local artist to attract the attention of passersby who are likely to be interested in what it is and how they can participate. “In New Orleans, [. . .] people are used to being weird and creative.”

listening post fish

  • The challenge in having a meaningful conversation lies in crafting the right question. That is, thinking about the words you use, how you phrase it, the sentiment behind it, and the way it is delivered. Sometimes changing a single word can alter the way people view your approach and their decision to engage with it. For example, the Listening Post endeavored to have a conversation with New Orleans residents about their feelings towards gentrification. To do so, they decided to present questions as real life situations or scenarios—such as what they would do with a blighted property if they had an opportunity to buy it—rather than use the word “gentrification.” “How do you ask a question that gets you stories and experiences?”

To learn more about Jesse, visit his website at jessehardman.com or find him on Twitter @jesseahardman. To hear what people are talking about on the Listening Post in NOLA, visit listeningpostnola.com and follow them on Twitter @lp_nola.

storytelling, time and grit

storytelling, time and grit

How long does it take to tell a story that makes an impact?

Susan B. Anthony’s speaking tour in 1873 in support of women’s voting rights brought her to 50 towns and villages in upstate New York, where she repeatedly delivered a 533-word speech calling for women’s rights to the suffrage.

In the 90-minute documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” director David Gelb was able to display the sushi master’s life, passion, and perfection in such a powerful way that we connected with someone we otherwise may have never known or noticed.

With a 110-character tweet and popular Facebook page, online activist and former Google executive Wael Ghonim (@Ghonim) was launched to the forefront of Egypt’s anti-government movement.

And in one instant, photographer Marc Riboud captured the 1960s struggles of war and peace in the iconic photograph “La Jeune Fille a la Fleur.”

We all have a story to tell and now there are stages that encourage every person to bring their own story to life…in five minutes.

In May, I attended the 27th session of Ignite Seattle. Ignite is an event that brings together local storytellers and gives them each five minutes to share 20 slides that flip through automatically every 15 seconds. I heard stories about harvesting bugs for people to eat, drawing comics and saving the world, mastering balance on a unicycle, connecting with kids through video games, the human experience of live-translated calls, the power of lone travel, and an experiment in saying “Yes” for 30 days.

As I listened, I thought about how storytelling takes true grit. It takes passion and powerful motivation, and it requires a continued sense of exploration. Storytelling is about being curious and sometimes getting into trouble. Particularly in the social issue space, it’s important to be disruptive and provocative without being irresponsible. Storytelling is about creating an emotional connection. It’s about moving people to laugh, cry, smile or to remind them how to savor life. Good stories impart some sort of wisdom that empowers people to think—to think differently, think deeper, or think at all. Stories are kept in words, images, digital manifestations, film reels, and 140-character tweets. They are spoken, sung, written, filmed, recorded, photographed, painted, and designed. Stories can be told in five minutes, they can be told in two hours, and some stories never end. This is, ultimately, the magic of storytelling.

the water we swim in

the water we swim in

We recently passed Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears around the office. From the publisher: “With scrupulous research and on-the-ground reporting, the authors assay the art and science of giving, determine some of today’s most successful local and global initiatives to fight inequality, and evaluate particularly effective forms of help such as early childhood education.” As we took turns reading the book and flipped those final pages, we were each struck by different chapters. This post is the second in a series inspired by the book. Read the first post.

Josué:

After reading A Path Appears, this was the quote that really sunk its teeth into me and wouldn’t let go:

“To be harnessed effectively, idealism needs to be grounded in a practical sense of how to get results and a grassroots understanding of the lay of the land.”

Idealism is something we see in nearly every social entrepreneurial effort and in the work of so many of our clients. They—and we—believe the work they’re doing will make a difference.

Idealism is tricky, though, and I’m glad Kristof and WuDunn mention it. At my worst, I can get swept away by or grow cynical towards grandiose idealism. The need for harnessing idealism in an effective way cannot be overstated—practicality and cultural understanding are vital to seeing idealism succeed.

Ashlie:

It’s interesting that you mention being cynical towards grandiose idealism, because I think I’m also guilty of that. Too many people, especially young social entrepreneurs, think they have found the next big idea that would solve one or more of the world’s major issues. But helping people is harder than it looks. When I was younger, I thought I understood the word idealism and I used it often. After taking some time to look at it again, I’m not so sure anymore.

Oxford Dictionary defines idealism as “the unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection.” It almost sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this also mean an idealist is someone who is unrealistic and impractical? I thought we referred to our global thought leaders as visionaries. There should be more hope and fight in us, rather than playing a feeble role that sets us up for failure.

Idealism is usually a term applied to an idea, objective, or plan considered to be unrealistic. Does this then mean the global elimination of poverty and injustice is idealistic and, therefore, not worth fighting for? These perceptions of idealism, as they relate to international relations, may be ambiguous, but they probably trace their roots back to some discouraging interpretations of human nature and/or diverse cultures that coincide with a historic judgment on the difficulty of peaceably achieving radical change in world affairs.

Josué:

I agree we tend to think in idealistic terms when we imagine a global solution to a nasty problem. But I think idealism has its place, especially if it’s rooted within a community. Kristof and WuDunn portray so many heart-wrenching failures by social entrepreneurs who lacked the cultural aptitude for their solutions. Understanding the needs of the people is one thing, but developing a solution that’s birthed from the community is another.

The culture piece reminds me of this parable by the saintly David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

Culture is the water we swim in—it surrounds us so wholly that we are usually unaware it’s there. This is, I think, the larger issue—even bigger than idealistic altruism. Often, people move so quickly to solutions that we forget to pause and take in the people with whom we are working. People can be blind to the culture of others, and may automatically assume they live under the same cultural rules that we do.

With your travel and aid work around the globe, I imagine you have tons of experience in this very thing.

Ashlie:

I have been lucky enough to visit many places, meet incredible people, work on a variety of projects, and experience many things in my life, but progress never came without communication and connection. It was important to enrich my time by immersing myself in the local culture. I was respected more by the community if I wore the local fabric, swallowed a plateful of fufu, joined the dancing circle, learned phrases in the local language, and made an effort to visit with people in the community.

I first travelled to Africa when I was 18 years old and, I have to admit, I was both naive and idealistic. I truly thought I could change the world. I spent the summer volunteering at the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp just outside Accra, Ghana, which easily became one of the most transformational experiences of my life.

I remember one incident very vividly: One morning, I was walking from the volunteer house to the organization’s main office. Rugged, red dirt paths radiated through the camp, connecting humans with homes, barbershops with bars, and schools with sewer streams. I had my head down, paying close attention to the bumps and dips in the street so I wouldn’t trip. I must have been walking fast and dodging people along the way, much like I normally did on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston where I went to college, when a hand grabbed my arm. I looked at the person holding me and she said, “Polé, polé.” The phrase meant to “slow down,” but more in the sense that I needed to lift up my head, ease my pace, smile at the people I was passing, and take in the colorful culture around me.

We may be aid workers, social entrepreneurs, researchers or travelers—all with a purpose or plan—but we’ll never get where we want to go by moving fast on a course toward a pre-determined destination. We must learn to observe, listen and engage with the culture before we try to inject ourselves and change it. From pilfered Toms shoes to abandoned flush toilets and poorly designed farming techniques to unsustainable microfinance programs, I am well aware that big ideas come and go. The ideas that last and influence are those that are woven in the fabric of the culture.

Josué:

Ideas woven in the fabric of the culture is a beautiful way of describing the work of the social entrepreneur. The greater we are able to root ourselves into the culture, the greater we can respond with ideas that find traction within the community.

I love how we often joke at Aggregate that “Anthropologist” should be added to our job description. So much of what we do is developing that grassroots understanding of a culture or community. We study communities—pockets of people struggling with a common problem and striving toward a common goal. Through our study, we are able to discover solutions that respond to the real needs of a community rather than just meeting the desires of our clients.

I find that it’s by using an anthropological lens to view our work that we’re able to turn idealism into reality. It roots our idealism within the community we’re working for.

Ashlie:

At Aggregate, we seek deeper explanations that help influence our ideas, recommendations, and proposals. We enrich our work—and, therefore, our clients’ work—with our intimate understanding of a certain group, organization, community, or issue area. Ultimately, this helps inform our strategic approaches to communicate value propositions that make philanthropic efforts effective.

Each day, I’m blown away by the caliber of this team. Professionally, we are able to match our altruism with practicality, and build upon a company culture and tradition of strong realistic idealism.