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The Power of Community Media

by Catherine Edwards, about 2 years ago

I began my professional life in media working as the Volunteer Co-ordinator for Shaw TV's headquarters community station in Calgary, Alberta in 1993. My experiences at the station profoundly changed the course of my life, and changed my vision of both the potential as well as the proper role for media in a democracy.

Two particular user groups shaped me the most.

A group of 15-year-old prostitutes in a rehabilitation program came to the studio with a social worker, and asked whether they could receive training in the use of portable cameras, so that they could go back into the street and document their experiences.

The process was demanding in every respect, trying to interface with a group of individuals who lacked many elements of self-confidence and also trust for authority. They needed our guidance on the one hand, but they needed to be left to their own devices and not be told what to do even more strongly, these young woman whom were struggling to reclaim ownership of their own bodies. It was a delicate line for us to walk.

They shot and edited an amazing series of vignettes about their lives under the control of pimps, about their aspirations, struggles to stay in school, addictions, and street violence.

I recall one of the girls (the only one who at that point in her journey had the stamina and focus to edit the content) told me that "It was the only thing in her life that she had ever finished". The program, called "Trax" won an award at the Best of the Northwest Video awards. Watching them work on that program was to watch the birth of a person.

The second was a group of deaf adults, who wanted to create a news magazine program about events in their community. They wanted to sign it. They didn't want to 'look in' like flies on the world of the hearing world, with a translator (what the broadcasting industry likes to call giving them 'access')... they wanted to make a program in their native language... sign language.

Two of the staff members learned sign language so that we could interface with the group. We had to rewire the studio and control room, so that their deaf director could direct his deaf crew in the studio with an extra monitor, as the headsets were useless.

I will never forget the joy of that director as he gleefully made a chopping motion across his neck to indicate at the end of each program that we could "cut".

These groups and many like them need our support. The Internet does not replace the need for media centres in our communities. People who self-publish on the Net already have skills of self-articulation. They already have a voice... they're just adjusting to a new set of tools.

I don't know whether these two groups of individuals have ever wanted to express themselves on mainstream media since, but I'm not sure it matters. What matters is that at a crucial time in their lives, they discovered that the communications system was open to them... that they could go back and use it again if they ever needed it.

I was moved too by the many users of our station from every political background and socio-economic strata. We had stockbrokers who offered free stock tips after the market closed on Fridays. They rubbed shoulders with a children's storyteller who did mobile productions in the schools, in which the children--as well as her--got to perform. Gay teens got to do camera on the program of the Penticostal Church, and volunteers who first came to the station to help with the Pentecostal Church program ended up helping out on Calgary's first gay program. All of us had to be more understanding, to listen more, to make space for these others, and their messages. We lived the adage "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will fight alongside you for your right to say it."

As staff, we saw the gradual development of voices in members of the public who first came in timidly, wondering if they might operate a camera. Later, they would come back and learn to write a news segment. One or two years later, they would come back with a mature idea, which would win a programming award. We saw them develop as members of a community who could influence community outcomes. We saw the community as a whole articulate itself.

To all of the other staff and volunteers, I am profoundly grateful for the lessons I learned.

I stayed until the day in 1997 that I was asked to write a letter to all our 400 volunteers (many of whom had volunteered for the channel for over 20 years, building their community, believing that it was 'their channel') telling them that they should not come back for the new programming season, because Shaw was switching to an all-professional news service. Gone would be the variety of more than 40 community-originated programs we produced every week, to be replaced by a 30-minute cycle of short standardized clips.

The future Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Community Television was born that day.

Cathy Edwards

Ottawa

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