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Already mid-way through summer vacation, I seem to have broken a fundamental blogger code of best practices: be consistent with your posts.  Before I give a brief overview of my new vision for this blog, however, I should mention a couple new ventures that have been distracting me:

1) Blogging for BestThinking.com (you can find my content here)

2) Interning at Peace Corps Headquarters in D.C.

While in D.C., I’ve had the opportunity to explore organizations that work on international media development.  Like other sectors of international development work – including health outreach, microfinance and human trafficking prevention – media development is interdisciplinary.  It lies at the cross-roads between professional journalism and the nuances of international development work such as project management, grant writing and project evaluation and reports.

The media development organizations I’m most familiar with all abide by a similar development philosophy.  They focus on empowering local journalists to identify and report on local issues that matter most.  This support is specific to each individual media development organization, but generally includes technical and professional training, outfitting newsrooms with equipment and the promotion of locally produced content.

Drawing upon two years of development work experience in Kyrgyzstan and my passion for storytelling, I’m engrossed with this blend of journalism and development work.  As I dig deeper into this international network of storytellers, I plan on sharing the resources, conversations and remarkable stories on underreported issues and new media initiatives that I find along the way.

Stay tuned for a new blog layout and fresh content late August/early September.  Until then, I’ll be taking the time to  organize, and possibly migrate, my current blog.  Thanks for your interest and patience.  I’ll be looking for reader feedback once I’ve launched the new site.

Indu Ramesh was busy collecting interviews from village women in Karnataka state, India, in the spring of 2011.  These women were organizing in preparation for the upcoming round of elections in which, under a new constitutional amendment, half of India’s local government seats were now reserved for women.  In her early 70s, Ramesh had developed a walking handicap, but she was insistent on overcoming barriers, be they defined by physical ability, social status or gender.  In a bustling nation of more than one billion people, Ramesh and her audio recorder honed in on rural women’s voices.

Satisfied with the material she had foraged, Ramesh went back to Bangalore, sat in front of her home computer and packaged these audio clips into a radio program titled “Women in India’s Panchayats.”   After distilling all the information she had gathered, the program ran just under 30 minutes.  She uploaded it to the Women’s International News Gathering Service (WINGS ) website, leaving it in Frieda Werden’s hands.

Indu Ramesh at her computer in Bangalore, India.

Werden opened this file at her home computer in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the sun cycle lagged 12 hours and 30 minutes. Her living room doubles as the production studio and is overrun with file cabinets and boxes full of cassettes and CDs that she plans to digitally archive.  From every surface, papers teetered toward the ceiling, but she stayed focused on editing Ramesh’s story, to broadcast it on WINGS.  Two weeks later, the thoughts and opinions of novice female Indian candidates would land on the ears of Canadians, Americans and Australians who turned in for their weekly dose of authentic international women’s news.

This is a spotlight on women empowering women through radio.  “Women in [their] countries speaking for themselves – this is not something that I invented,” said Frieda, the woman who started WINGS in 1986, back when feminist media was still fairly new.  Continue Reading »

A box of Kleenex stood in the middle of the floor.  Within reach, a handful of mothers sat facing each other, ready to pull another tissue as they fought to regain their composure.

During the day, these women answered to the duties of teachers, college advisors, doctors and secretaries.  But in each other’s company, they were mothers – mothers of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGBT) sons and daughters.

Between hushed laments of “What did I do wrong?” and “It’s my fault,” a sense of solidarity slowly took hold.

In full attendance, about 30 members are now active with the Madison chapter of Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), which began over two decades ago.  Some pay dues to show their support, even though they  may have very little face time with other members.  The group meets once a month, for two hours at the Friends Meeting House, to advance their three-part initiative: support, education and advocacy. 

I first heard about PFLAG while interviewing Casey Garhart, a long-time local member, for a story on straight allies.  At my request, four other PFLAG women organized an impromptu weeknight meeting at Jo Elder’s house to share their experiences as allies.

Their energy felt easy.  However, as they took turns sharing their personal stories, I caught a glimpse of the path each forged to get to this point.

Elder is 80 years old, but she remembers the pivotal conversation she had with her youngest son while she was giving him a hair cut.  They were talking about a touring play called “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” when her son segued straight into the fact that it was the “brothers that turned him on.”  Apparently he had been dropping clues for quite some time, but she had repelled them all.

“You couldn’t be dumber,” she said, slightly amused by her lack of paternal intuition.

This comment triggered a chorus of agreement from Carol Holterman, Kay Heggestad and Sharon Whitney.  As exhibited by these veterans, emotional support is a fundamental component of PFLAG.   Every time they suspect they have exhausted this mission, someone new comes searching for a sympathetic ear and fresh perspective.

“When you no longer need PFLAG, PLFAG needs you,” Whitney explained.

Often times it is the mother who makes initial contact with the group; but many fathers have also come out in support of their sons and daughters.  Part way through the evening, Jo’s husband, Joe Elder, joined us.  Not only is he one of the initial Madison PFLAG members, but he also spearheaded the LGBT studies curriculum at UW-Madison.

This drive to educate is central to the group’s mission.  They are both students and educators, themselves.  Each meeting starts with a guest speaker who offers insight into issues of identity and discrimination that LGBT people face.  In order to inform the greater public on such issues of equality, these men and women continue to construct their own curriculum.

This book is a group favorite. Previously, a few of the characters were active in the Madison PFLAG chapter.

In response to difficulties they privately encountered in trying to find relevant library books, they went ahead and created their own public collection.

Whitney remembers feeling self-conscious when she first started hunting through used book stores, thinking, “They’re gonna think I’m a lesbian.

Jo Elder described a similar scenario: squirreling through the stacks to find a stash of LGBT resources that were actually locked out of reach from vandals.  Eventually she had to go up to the librarian.

“I had to confess what I was looking for, in order to get the books,” she said.  “And you know, they weren’t very good books.”

As our conversation turned to books, Holterman passed around a new photography book on transgender people that she had brought along to share.  Her youngest son had completed the female to male transition and she took pride in educating herself on his identity.

Initially, she had blamed herself for being inadequate as a single parent.  All it took, however, was one authority figure calling her son “unacceptable” to extinguish this sense of insecurity.

“He may do some things that are unacceptable, but he is never unacceptable,” she asserted.  “I went all tiger mom on that one.”

Advocacy is the third PFLAG initiative.  Every summer, these mothers and fathers voluntarily staff a table at the Dane County Farmer’s Market.  They take turns hauling their banner and PFLAG swag back and forth each week, rain, snow or shine.  They are a familiar public interface, able to reach potential allies.

“Had [my son] not come out, I never would have been a straight ally,” said Heggestad.  “Unless someone had come up to me and said, ‘Hey, this is a really important issue.’  I think that’s what’s going on with a majority of folks out there.  They figure, ‘It’s not my issue.  I’m not against LGBT people, but I’m not gonna go out and campaign for them.’”

Apathy may be a difficult sentiment to target, but these allies remain undeterred.  Sharing their stories for the umpteenth time and getting carried away on friendly tangents, they went through a carafe of coffee while we were all sitting in the Elders’ living room.

Dishes of nuts and fruit covered the center stool and we celebrated with a birthday cake interlude.  For an hour and a half, we ate, drank and laughed without a Kleenex in sight.

Around the world, new parents are busy perfecting their animal noises.  These animals will become some of the main characters in their child’s formative years, serving as a shared language for barnyard songs and interactive story time.

The cuteness factor also contributes to the appeal of little kids imitating farm animals.  Cuing up a demonstration of your little tyke’s comprehension skills is endearing.  In the baby-talk vernacular, we perceive these animal noises as universal sounds and treat them pretty matter-of-factly.

But the bark of a French dog and the exhausted snort of a Russian horse are nuanced.  In reality, adults interpret animal noises according to the sounds and intonations of their native language – some more convincing than others.  Take a look at this Sesame Street clip that teaches what dogs say in Korea, South Africa and Romania:

Professor Derek Abbott, of the University of Adelaide, has amassed a collection of common animal sounds in 17 different languages.  His animal sounds project also charts animal commands and popular animal names.  For instance, the English command for calling a cat is “Here kitty kitty,” while Russian speakers will coax with a staccato, “Ks-ks-ks.”

When you start to explore the logic behind each language’s impersonation of animal sounds, a well articulate “oink-oink” or “neigh” may sounds more manufactured than we originally thought.  As you watch the following clip, conduct your own survey of the most convincing animal sounds:

In pursuit of my own amusement, I decided to interview friends and family who are bilingual in animal-talk.  They graciously obliged my request to bleat, cluck, and moo over the phone, often pausing part way through to laugh at themselves. We stuck to a basic list of domestic animals.

Kyrgyz; Dilbar (my host-sister in Kyrgyzstan)

Russian; Oskana (my Ukrainian-American aunt)

Do you speak another language that interprets animal noises differently? Are different animals noises more prominent than barn yard calls?  Please share in the comments section below.

This past week, astonished readers around the world goggled their eyes over Samantha Brick’s narcissistic lament and let out an audible tsk-ing sound that is still reverberating throughout mainstream media.  Anticipating some backlash, she gave a first-hand account of being victimized by other women for her good looks.

But there are downsides to being pretty — the main one being that other women hate me for no other reason than my lovely looks.

As a journalist for the Daily Mail, this provocative article went viral, in a caddy fashion.  Brick felt it was her responsibility to speak out against the discrimination attractive women face in the workplace  – in her case, the newsroom.  While her defense that a hunk like Brad Pitt proclaiming his own beauty would not evoke the same hypersensitive response makes for an intriguing social commentary, my concerns over this controversy lie elsewhere. Continue Reading »

When I began grad school for journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had every intention of preparing myself for a career in international reporting.  For me, effectively communicating across cultural tensions is a fulfilling lifelong pursuit.  Journalism is a means of addressing apathy towards issues of human rights abuses, poverty and natural disasters that largely derive from physical distance.

Foreign correspondents recognize this disconnect and seek out the nitty-gritty details and personal narrative in desperate situations that will drive these issues home with their viewers.  I would argue that the best liaisons are able to balance these disheartening exposes with empowering stories of hope and inspiration, which often aren’t celebrated enough.

My celebrity moment: Meeting Lisa Ling when she came to speak at Gustavus Adolphus College.

While I’d still choose coffee with Nicholas Kristof or Lisa Ling over dinner with any Hollywood hunk, I’ve discovered an alternative to foreign reporting that has shifted my international news ideals.  The goal – raising awareness – hasn’t changed, but the strategy has.  Instead of sending Western reporters to report on foreign issues, these media organizations I’m interested in allocate their resources to helping local journalists report on humanitarian issues that they have unique access to in their own communities.  Even a well-intentioned Western reporter may not be fully equipped with the language skill and cultural understanding needed to access sensitive, nuanced issues such as women’s rights and child labor systems.

Since August, I’ve been keeping a list of international news organizations that cater to grass-roots journalists and the growing number of citizen journalists in developing countries.  To varying degrees, these organizations are specifically dedicated to empowering female reporters to report on women’s issues, which are grossly underreported in the media, at large.  Check out the Global Report on the Status of Women in the News Media for more details. Continue Reading »

On May 14th, 1980, Angie Motzko secured her 8-minute-seniority over her brother, Eric.  But they would experience all major landmarks together, falling in-sync on a level exclusive to twins.  Despite their parents’ best efforts to deliberately separate them in school and extracurricular activities, Angie and Eric were capable of channeling the best and the worst in each other.  They thrived off of shared experiences – learning to ride a bike around their cul-de-sac (modified as a scooter with peddle block, for Eric’s shorter legs), getting their driver’s licenses and sharing in the hype of getting ready for high school dances.  Their senior year, Eric was crowned homecoming king and Angie recalls it with a paralleled sense of honor and pride.    

When it came time for college, they split like a mini kit-kat bar, brining goofy grins to those they invited into their lives.  Outside of the package, their relationship continued to grow, but in a way that neither of them had anticipated.  Eric identified as a gay male.  This new reality set them on a uniquely comparable “coming out” journey – Eric as the gay male and Angie as the straight ally.

Self-discovery

Eric was not always attuned to his attraction for men.  He had bought into the status quo by dating a couple girls in high school, never paying serious thought to his incompatibility with this role.  Long before Sex Ed class defined the social laws of love, he was, admittedly, very involved with other people’s lives and “making their lives authentic.” Continue Reading »

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