Yesterday I finished a field visit to one of the Community Video Units Video Volunteers has helped to set up, in rural Rajasthan, in villages outside Jodhpur. Rural Rajasthan is an incredibly colorful and culturally rich area, and so the “Community Video Unit” has lots of potential for great programming on arts and culture. But rural Rajasthan is a deeply conservative and feudal place, where the women are veiled, and there is very high incidence of child marriage and female foeticide.

My hat goes off to the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, the NGO who has set up this Community Video Unit (they are one of the leading organizations working on the issue of water in Rajasthan), for embracing a project that is all about dialog and encouraging the lowest and most repressed members of society to speak out. It’s not easy for them and it’s not easy for the Community Producers, who come from such a conservative place and have so much baggage they need to get rid of. These community producers, who are also relatively new to our training, are a quiet bunch, quieter than many of the Community Producers we’re involved with. But it was interesting to see that they are much more open in their communication when they are in the villages.

My colleague Stalin went with them to a screening in the villages. The CVU, which is called “Marwar Media”, had recently finished a video news magazine on gender and girls education, and there were about 250 people who came for the screening. The “Call to Action” of the film was for villagers to come up to the mic and pledge to enroll their girls in school. Happily in this village, the girls were mostly enrolled, and so they asked villagers to pledge to keep their girls in school through high school, something that rarely happens here. One could see, even in this deeply conservative area, people being willing to speak up, including the Community Producers who spoke confidently and openly here when they are often quiet back in the office.

I want to make a few observations regarding community media in response to what we observed. One is that communications processes are very different depending on who is in the group. One might see this group of producers in the office and wonder if they would ever be able to be ‘the voice of their community’ if they seem so shy. But they are not so shy in their own villages!

I suspect that people — ie, development agencies and funders — have downplayed the potential of community media because they don’t realize the level of articulateness that happens when a community is speaking amongst itself. Another point is that anyone can be empowered and learn to speak out, it is not something innate. NGOs who want to start Community Video Units are always saying to us, ‘but how do I select the right community producers? How do I find people in my slums who are creative, confident, articulate? How do you identify someone with the potential to be a journalist?’ We tell them, yes, look out for people who have confidence and can speak well, but don’t only take those kinds, because the confident ones may not need this transformation process so much.

Our observation after a few years of doing this work is that everyone has the potential for transformation, and to me, that is deeply inspiring about the potential for any single individual’s potential for happiness. And also for society’s ability to make use of talent from any walk of life. Affection and encouragement work wonders for encouraging young women from poor backgrounds in India to find their voice. And theater exercises can bring just about anyone out of their shell.

Another thing one observes at a video screening and discussion in a village is that the way different cultures communicate has such different rhythms and speeds. My question is, can we ever alter the way we communicate our news so the ideas of people in rural villages can find a space? What happens if their way of communicating is very different from ours? Does it mean that communication is not possible? Does it mean that they will need to be excluded from our news-making businesses until they can talk ‘like us?’ I hope not.

All traditional news is geared to what seems to me a very American way of communicating: make your point quickly, bring things to a clear resolution, gather evidence and proof for everything you say. That way of communicating serves us well in the west, but what if it disconnects us from the ideas and knowledge of other cultures?