NEW YORK – It’s easy to go on a guilt trip: eating sushi, sipping wine, at one of the poshest addresses in the heart of Manhattan overlooking Central Park, and then turn with light banter to watch stark documentaries from India focused on the country’s abysmal poverty, realize myriad ways that millions of poor people’s spirt and lives are crushed nonchalantly on a daily basis in rural environs. Where survival is a chore; despair normal. One winces, truly realizes the unbridgeable chasm between civilized development in America and acute hopelessness across the globe.
Stories emanating from destitute people in India is nothing new. Watching it on screen in New York City is always surreal though; an aberration, a vast reality that gnaws the conscience, then dissipates, as one gets cloaked by the normal existence around – where people even living of their own volition in streets are coaxed to stay in shelters, provided with food.
Then there are some rare New Yorkers with a huge heart, indomitable spirit and preposterously ambitious mind, like Jessica Mayberry, who not only let her conscience be rankled seeing poverty of India, but has been ensconced in rural areas there for the last 16 years, trying to make life better for millions of people.
Mayberry, a sophisticated, suave, cosmopolitan woman who worked in the TV industry in New York City, for CNN and Fox News, among others, had a sea change in life after she spent a year in India, in 2002, working for Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) as an American India Foundation Fellow, mostly in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. She got a new mission in life, has led a remarkably productive life since.
Mayberry founded Video Volunteers (www.videovolunteers.org), which train unskilled, poor people in some of the poorest communities of India, to make compelling videos and documentaries of problems that swamp their community, seek succor.
These videos, of appalling lack of facilities like elementary schools, and ambulance services, gross negligence, lackadaisical cruelty and injustices, age-old hindrances to women’s development – patriarchy, domestic and sexual abuse, marital rape – and human rights movements, are then circulated on social media, sold to media outlets, brought to the notice of local government officials.
One of the videos is of a mother of five children, who during her sixth pregnancy, was shunted between five hospitals, getting no care, till she died. Some 1,500 such videos have been made in the last five to six years.
Mayberry has strived relentlessly to bring not only development in rural communities in India, but evoke empathy and humanity from government officials and local politicians, in some of the poorest neighborhoods, where misery and death often go hand in hand, with little to no respite.
If India ever has a chance to emerge out of the shackles of pathetic quality of life in rural areas, she needs many more champions of development like Mayberry.
On May 10, at a reception, screening and fundraiser at 15 Central Park West – the latter courtesy of Sybil Shainwald, the prominent American attorney who is former chair of the National Women’s Health Network, co-founder of Health Action International and Trial Lawyers for Public Justice – Mayberry detailed the work of Video Volunteers, which has grown from its inception in 2010, to now around 250 Community Correspondents in two dozen states. It is the largest such network in the world. She wants the number of correspondents in India to swell to 2,000.
The evening raised over $11,000.
Mayberry detailed that her goal is to raise $25,000 this May to fund new correspondents, who will be hired and trained in the next three months, in India. All correspondents are paid, starting from $10 for each video.
“For $5,000, you can sponsor the recruitment and training of 25 new correspondents. For $2500, you can support a correspondent for a full year, including the professional support and mentorship we provide them. For $250, a correspondent can achieve an impact – she can not just make a video, but she can screen it and lobby with it until the goal is achieved, whether it is getting a new teacher in a school, a road repaired, a maternal health clinic reopened, or helping women escape domestic violence. For $100, she can shoot and edit the video,” Mayberry said.
Mayberry explained how the community correspondents are effective because they have “skin in the game.”
“They have extra incentive of being involved in the community and get answers. Their own self also depend on (securing) government services,” she said, at the reception.
In Jharkhand, for instance, Video Volunteers built up a network of only Adivasi women correspondents, who were themselves evicted from their homes.
Mayberry wants to disseminate as to what would work best for India’s rural areas.
“We also try to ask that when things do work in rural India, why does it work? What are the tactics that people are using? So, we are doing research on it, trying to figure out why; to do it on a much larger scaler, to find out why government officials take action (after their videos are screened), she said. “We feel that it need not be like this. India can have development with democracy.”
Mayberry is hopeful of big change coming to rural India, though.
“Couple of interesting things is happening in India. One is that the Internet is finally coming in rural areas. India is one of the slowest developing countries in the world. Two years ago, none of our rural correspondents could get onto our WhatsApp groups. They work in the 200 poorest districts in the country, and we thought they would be the last in the country to get online. But then about a year ago, of India’s major phone companies, Jio, started offering free internet to the entire country, and now everyone has come online. It is quite amazing,” Mayberry explained, adding that also helpful is the fact that video editing apps on smartphones are now much better in quality.
“These videos will not get any Oscars, but it will get the message across,” she said. “The quality of the video really does not matter, but it has impact on community. They shoot them on their own, they edit them on their own, and then they just distribute them in local WhatsApp groups, YouTube, Facebook. It’s a valuable tool for how we can democratize the media,” she said.
Responding to a question by News India Times, if videos are forced to be retracted, and if she has run-ins with local politicians, Mayberry said that videos are retracted and taken down because a community person changed their mind, after speaking on camera.
“We never make them sign any release forms, so whatever stage it is, we say if you won’t want it, it will be down in five minutes. But we have never taken it down because of a government official complaining,” Mayberry said, adding, “each of our 1500 impact videos have a government official behind it to do the right thing. So we talk about it. That impact we tweet at the officials, we call them. We thank them, we invite them to our events, make them our special guests. But the ones whose corruption is exposed, they don’t like it.”
To donate to Video Volunteers, go to: https://www.videovolunteers.org/take-action/make-a-donation/
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)