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Social Media Activism: Adding to the Haitian Narrative

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American relief efforts should be driven by an understanding of what resources would provide the greatest benefit, rather than driven by an ego-based desire to be the hero that swoops in and saves the day.

-Trina Chiasson, executive director of Media Make Change

NEW YORK - A survivor of a natural disaster has a voice and shouldn't be subjected to pity and judgment. If we can help Haitians share their stories through social media, we will all benefit. It's a form of media that is completely participatory and open to all, said Tara Conley, founder of Media Make Change.

Media Make Change, a media justice organization, launched a new outreach program, Project Haiti Speaks. They want to provide multimedia support to relief organizations on the ground and provide a multimedia platform for volunteers, workers, citizen journalists and survivors so their stories can be told. Conley stresses the significance of Haitians telling their own stories for the primary reason that sound bites about this disaster will have long-term implications.

"We always have to consider how mainstream media filters the stories of others particularly in the context of a natural disaster," Conley said. She said we need to ask ourselves, "How are Haitian citizens being portrayed? Who's telling their stories? What is the historical and political context of the crisis itself?"

The mainstream media has an important role, but she suggests that more stories need to be told from a first-person perspective through social media. "The mainstream media cannot be the only narrative when we look at this event 100 years from now," Conley said.

Collecting more donations for digital media equipment is Project Haiti Speaks' biggest challenge. They need more solar powered radios, digital cameras and batteries. Nokia, Flip Cam, Kodak, Radio Shack, HP, and Apple are major corporations they hope will donate equipment to Project Haiti Speaks. "I'm hoping that as the word spreads about Project Haiti Speaks, more people will be willing to donate," Conley said.

Media Make Change wants to provide a media outlet for Haitians and relief workers; and raise the awareness of the project. They plan to use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, MySpace and Media Speaks, their official blog, to accomplish this goal.

They are partnering with MADRE, an organization that, minutes after the earthquake shook Haiti Tuesday, January 12, was already in contact with its partners discussing the logistics of how to support the victims.

"We knew we had to respond quickly. The earthquake has the people in Haiti so vulnerable because of the poverty," said Yifat Susskind, MADRE's Policy and Communications Director.

MADRE is an international women's human rights organization that uses human rights to advance social justice. Susskind said that most people don't have an understanding of what it means to be a survivor of a major disaster in a poverty stricken area. She said it's important that survivors are able to tell their own stories.

"Telling their stories is a crucial part in getting past that experience," Susskind said. She went on to say, "Having [Haitians] tell their own stories is also a way to monitor the recovery efforts."

MADRE, for 26 years has executed extensive economic and environmental justice projects in Afghanistan, Guatemala, Bolivia, Panama, Nicaragua, Kenya, and Sudan. Susskind said MADRE understands the importance of monitoring aid and recovery to guarantee relief is distributed equally and to avoid the "truck and chuck" syndrome. The "truck and chuck" syndrome is when one fills a truck with goods and one chucks it out the other side to give it to the people, and the job is done.

Susskind said that "truck and chuck" is dehumanizing and also doesn't ensure that relief is given to those who need it most. She said the "truck and chuck" method doesn't guarantee that the injured, the elderly, women and children receive the relief they require.

Courtesy of Partners In Health

Thankfully, Susskind said that there are Haitian organizations like Zanmi Lasante, a nongovernmental health care provider which, since the destruction of government hospitals and neighboring clinics resulting from the earthquake, is now the single largest health care provider in Haiti. Zanmi Lasante is also the only clinic that delivers comprehensive primary care regardless of people's ability to pay.

Likewise, Evens Jean - born and raised in Haiti and currently serving as a youth development specialist for HANDY in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida - dropped everything and went to Haiti to assist the people and his family. He said he knows first-hand the importance of communication and the role of Project Haiti Speaks in helping Haitians contribute to the narrative of this disaster and recovery. He told his story on the Media Speaks' blog.

"[Media Make Change] is supporting me right now, to raise awareness about the devastation in Haiti and to make sure my country, my people are properly cared for and a new and better Haiti is rebuilt," Jean said.

Susskind said it's more important now than before that everyday Haitians have a voice and are heard. "The single most important thing that can happen is that the reconstruction process is administered by Haitians through a democratic process," Susskind said.

Conley said Project Haiti Speaks supports Haiti and wants to build coalitions one partner organization, one citizen journalist and one survivor at a time.

"Through Project Haiti Speaks, we are able to provide and facilitate communication platforms so people can share, document, and report on stories from their points-of-view," Conley said. "It's a way for survivors, volunteers, and citizen journalists to engage with the world community by raising the awareness and inciting activism."

Tent in the Water from Ciné Institute on Vimeo.

TREZO "Jou A Rive" Music Video from Ciné Institute on Vimeo.

Stories of Heroes from Ciné Institute on Vimeo.

The five ways you can help Project Haiti Speaks according to the Media Make Change's web site:

1. Send your used cameras. Don't let your old digital camera sit on the shelf and collect dust. Give it the chance to collect critical information on current events and social/political crises. We are currently collecting donations for Haiti in Chicago and New York City. Contact us to find out where you can send your digital media equipment.

2. Post about Project Haiti Speaks on your blog, Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter. Tweet about making change in Haiti today. Write a blog post about what you did to help earthquake relief, and then post it on YouthNoise to raise an extra $1 for Haiti.

3. Read blog posts and watch videos produced by Haitian citizens. The media giants get enough attention. Seek out the stories that are produced by the people. You'll get a much more balanced perspective on current events. Check out Global Voices and the Ciné Institute for digital media produced by Haitian citizens.

4. Contribute to the conversation about what we, as concerned global citizens and cit-journalists can do to make a difference. Learn about Haiti's history, comment on blog posts, talk about what's going on, and engage in the process of making social change.

5. Check on Media Make Change for updates on Project Haiti Speaks. Or better yet - stay in the loop by signing up for our RSS blog feed, following us on Twitter, friending us on MySpace, and becoming a fan on Facebook.

Contact Media Make Change at mediamakechange@gmail.com

Crossposted from Race-Talk.org.