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_Interview with Ishita Srivastava

THE G-WORD producer Ishita Srivastava talks about gender stories, community, and building an interactive platform for user-generated content.

Sue Ding interviewed producer Ishita Srivastava about THE G-WORD, an interactive documentary project challenging gender norms with user-submitted stories. For more information on THE G-WORD, see the Docubase post here.

SUE: Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the project?

ISHITA: Breakthrough, the organization I work with that produced the project, is a human rights organization that works globally to make gender-based violence culturally unacceptable.

We look at the norms, the culture that really enables gender-based violence, and then look for ways to shift that culture. That involves a lot of storytelling and then inspiring people to take action in their own communities to challenge and transform the culture. The root cause of a lot of gender-based violence is often gender norms and the way that we are all conditioned to carry out these norms.

We do that through a lot of digital storytelling, and my job is producing all our digital storytelling content. Sometimes that’s an animated series, sometimes that’s short fiction films. They usually are part of a bigger project or campaign. That’s just some basic background.

Then, in 2013, we had a campaign called “1 Million Men 1 Million Promises,” inviting men to make pledges to end gender-based violence or violence against women in their lives in some way. A lot of men took these pledges and then without our asking, a lot of them started sending their personal stories of why they were inspired to make a pledge. These stories were often about their homes growing up, or their dads, or cycles of violence: seeing violence in their homes, or feeling pressure as a man, or having been violent themselves.

There were lots of personal stories shared and that happened organically. We then quickly tried to share the stories as a way for people to have conversations, and realized that those stories were way more powerful than pledges. Even though the pledges were important, stories have a way of generating conversations about things that are hard to talk about.

We decided that we wanted to do a storytelling project where we invited people, not just women but everybody, to share their story with the invitation that we all have a gender story. They range from everyday experiences of norms to really dramatic stories of discrimination and violence. That was how the idea came about, and then I spent a long time really trying to figure out what the project should look like. What it should look like actually, and what the mechanism should be, and as an organization, what are the goals of this project?

Of course it’s about a community and people sharing stories, but I really wanted to push it beyond that. To show that our stories are all connected. The LGBTQ community does a lot of amazing work but they kind of work on their own, and then within women’s rights there’s a whole siloed space between domestic violence and sexual assault and sexual harassment. They all have their very separate spaces. Then, straight men don’t even know they have a story, and don’t have anywhere to talk about issues like being bullied for not being man enough. They don’t see themselves as having a gender story. They don’t see gender as their issue.

The goal of the project was, everybody has a gender story. Some more dramatic than others, and by no means are they the same, but they’re connected. The same things that lead to a guy being bullied for throwing like a girl in middle school are the same sort of cultural conditions that enable domestic violence. We wanted to show that visually on the platform, show that as actually connected, not have stories divided up in the really obvious ways.

I’d never built an interactive platform powered by user generated content, I’d never done something like this before. Then I actually spent a lot of time on Docubase and TFI interactive sites looking for other projects that I liked both for inspiration and also to see who builds these kinds of things. I went to a few agencies that could produce the whole project but they were way out of my budget, so I realized pretty quickly that I needed to put together a team of freelancers rather than go to a one-stop shop. I also wanted to have detailed input as producer and director on this.

I hand picked a team and I was super lucky in who I found. All the people that I worked with are actually from the TFI and Docubase space, and it was an amazing team that I’m super lucky to have worked with.

SUE: We really want Docubase to function as a resource for people who are producing projects, so that’s great to hear. Can you elaborate a bit on the development process for the project?

ISHITA: It was very collaborative. I said, “Look guys, I haven’t done this before. I have really strong instincts about digital content and storytelling. I have experience with that stuff but not necessarily in this sphere.” Our digital strategist Jonathan Vidar helped us ask the right questions and as a group we came up with the basic user experience.

We came up with the idea that the stories are categorized based on universal themes: our bodies, our families, our schools, our jobs. They’re not categorized based on the traditional issue areas. But, people are also able to search by issues.

This project is about gender but when we tell stories we’re not just coming to the stories from the perspective of a gender. We might also be an immigrant, we might also be a person of color, we might also be someone from a lower socioeconomic background. There are lots of other factors and I wanted that to be explicit. We came up with a tagging system for stories that allowed that to be accessible and also to make people submitting a story have to think. “Oh, my story is about sexual harassment and I guess therefore it’s about ideas of femininity and it’s about domestic violence, but then is it also about the fact that I am black and is it also about…” I think the tagging system is kind of crucial to the project. People can search with tags, and they also have to submit tags when they go in.

We had a first round build, and then we built a soft launch based on ten days of testing, developing live. Then at least two weeks of live testing that included sending it out to a close group of people in our network to get feedback.

The big question of how do we get people to the site, I was aware of that before we’d even done anything. In terms of even our budgeting I made sure we put almost as much if not even more money on building a constituency for the site and determining how we get people here. That’s really hard. You can build the most beautiful thing but just building it doesn’t bring people to a platform. I was very aware that I needed to spend a lot of energy on this. Once we build it, then what happens? How do we actually get people to it? We came up with a pretty robust strategy for that and that’s still very much what we’re working on now that it’s actually up and running.

The videos were a way to really utilize our social media presence because, specifically on Facebook, we’ve put a lot of hard work into building a positive, young community of people that are quite engaged with our work. Since we have this fabulous community, our videos do really well on Facebook. The videos for me were really a way of getting people to the site.

We’ve set up really robust tracking and analytics on Facebook and on the G-WORD platform so we can see who is coming and where they come from. The majority of our people come from Facebook. When we get a story that’s really great my social media person will pull a really moving quote from it and make a graphic with an image. Then we share that on Facebook with of course some more stories. The thing about stories is that stories beget stories. You can keep asking for stories and no one will submit one, but when they share one or read one, they’re like, “Oh yeah! That happened to me!” It sort of sparks.

This whole project is built on that idea. We use the stories to create these graphics that we put on Facebook to seed additional conversation. Sometimes the Facebook conversations around the stories have been really powerful. We have a story about victim blaming that we shared on Facebook and there was a lot of support, a lot of people showing support for the storyteller. Then there was this conversation happening about it, why it happened, what does it mean, what should we do to counter it, how should people fight their natural instincts. Then a girl called her mother out, she felt empowered by that story to call her mother out in the comments to say, “See, this is what you did to me and you didn’t realize you were doing it.”

The strength of Facebook is that people can call their mother out directly right there, or they can call their friend out. They can have a conversation with a friend. A lot of people will share stories, a lot of people will immediately tag their friends who they want to read that story in the comments, which gets the stories out to more people. We just have to then to be really strategic about how to then get those people back to the platform. That’s tricky because there’s no clear answer for it but we do our best. Sometimes people share stories directly on Facebook and they don’t come to the platform. We just have to kind of let go and be okay with that—that’s all right because that’s our original purpose, there’s a conversation happening.

SUE: In terms of how the project is being shared and how you are sourcing stories beyond Facebook, it seems like in-person events and collaboration with other organizations could be an important part of the strategy. Is that the case?

ISHITA: There’s nothing like in-person events in terms of getting quality stories. As an organization we’re pretty small, but we do trainings on college campuses for small groups of people. They’re usually 10 or 15 people in a room for a day and half—it’s pretty intense. That’s one way we get stories.

Then we also have been going to events and speaking on panels. Those stories are often pretty good, but I think it depends on the space we’re at. I found that people really like to share their stories, but they want to go home and spend 45 minutes typing on their computer, not share in a public space. Either they want to be anonymous or they’re just hard stories.

When we do events where there are people that already work in women’s rights or in the women’s movement or the gender movement, they’re dying to share, they’ll share on the spot at an event, but our target audience is 15- to 30-year olds. That age group doesn’t necessarily just share at an event on the spot, but they’ll do it later. We have postcards that we hand out with the URL and information so people that want to do it can do it. We have a fundraising gala coming up and we’re actually trying to construct a little story booth. People can go in there with just a laptop setup and there’s a little bit of privacy even though it’s at an event. We’ll see how that goes.

Partnerships are a huge, huge part of our strategy. We have organizational partners from all across the board that support us. One of our strategies is to do campaigns with partners because the G Word is so broad, “gender stories,” and sometimes people don’t really get what that means. When we go on Facebook or we do a campaign, then we have very specific context. There will be a story in the news about revenge porn and we’ll do a very specific call to stories that’s based on that. We do that with partners as well.

We just partnered with an organization called No More and ran a joint call for stories specifically around sexual assault among people of color on college campuses. We teamed up, wrote messaging together, did some graphics together on social platforms. We did a call for stories via e-mail. Because we’re so broad, our project lends itself very easily to partnerships with different kinds of organizations.

We’re doing a global launch of the platform as part of a UN event, and so we’re going to start partnering with some international organizations that work in different countries. The Black Women’s Blueprint, I want to work with them to collect stories that are specifically about ways in which African American women have faced, and continue to face, gender-based violence. Similarly with immigrant rights groups and a variety of organizations. We got a story from a disabled woman about harassment and that’s something that doesn’t get talked about a lot, the sexualization or not of women with disabilities. I want to find an organization to partner with and get those stories too.

SUE: That all sounds really exciting! What have your results been like so far, and what plans do you have for THE G-WORD going forward?

ISHITA: We’re adding functionality right now so users can submit videos directly from their phones. We’re going to expand into a global platform, so we’re going to add language translation. At least all the static content will be translated and then the stories we’ll have to use a third-party Google Translate-type thing. Which isn’t ideal but we can’t actually manually translate all the videos.

I also want to add a map feature so people can see visually on a map where the stories come from, so they’re making connections not just between the issues but also between people in different parts of the world. This is often seen as a problem in The Global South, not in the U.S., but it’s a very universal issue.

The last thing that I want to do next is creating a digital curriculum to go with the project. We’ll show the ways we’ve been using these stories to generate conversations and change and action, and build that for organizations that might want to use it.

The results, we set up some goals when we started. For the number of stories we have about 460 at the moment, and it’s very directly connected to what push we’re doing and where. We can see when we get traffic and when we don’t, what kind of stories we get. When we launched the videos, one of the videos was about Destiny, this black girl who talks about intimate partner violence, and we got tons of stories from black women about intimate partner violence. People see themselves in something and they share. That’s clearly how it works and so that’s how we tailor our strategy.

We have a lot of comments and it’s interesting to see the way people show support. We actually have gotten very little hate or nastiness. First I should say nothing goes on the site without approval, we approve everything ourselves. I also think it’s because people who come to the site come here very sort of intentionally.

The other thing that’s come out of it which is really awesome is that people get really inspired by it and there have been a lot of people who have shared stories or explored the platform and then contacted us directly about wanting to do more. This girl who wrote a story, she’s 19 and wants to now take some action on her college campus. She’s part of a Catholic group and she wants to bring THE G-WORD to her Catholic group and do a story session.

Another student was really moved and said, “What can I do? I want to intern with you guys.” She’s a filmmaker so she’s going around getting video stories from her friends. There have been some really great catalysts and this is part of our strategy, using stories to inspire people to take action. When someone submits a story they get a pop-up and they get directed to different action campaigns that we’re running on our site. A lot of people also join our e-mail list and we send out actions they can take. Our whole theory is anyone can take action within their community, within their home, within their school. We help enable them to do that in whatever way makes sense.

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