In The Beginning, There Were Citizen Journalists

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Before the American Revolution, journalism, if you could call it that, was an elite practice heavily censored by the colonial government. So when Thomas Paine and John Peter Zenger published their defiant tracts, fellow American colonists yearning for freedom did not question their credentials to write. Instead, they enshrined their right to do so in the First Amendment.

"We are the first nation - arguably the only nation - in which top-down control of the flow of information never was seriously attempted," AOL Huffington Post Media Group editorial director Howard Fineman writes in his 2008 book, The Thirteen American Arguments .
He notes that Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense anonymously, yet "It was the most influential pamphlet of our time, and perhaps even in world history."

Yet today, even though Americans have centuries of experience with independent reporting and self expression, the term "citizen journalism" still raises eyebrows.

Does that mean anyone can do it?
Why should I read them?
How do I know they're any good?
Is anyone vetting their stories?

These are common questions - even in an age when millions of bloggers find readers who rarely complain about opinion or the lack of sourcing. We've grown accustomed to a little authority behind our news, no matter how often those authorities are called into question.

So I'd like to offer an answer from a group of first-time writers in an East African nation where few rural women complete an education, no less develop a professional career: because they can tell their truth the best.

Meet Kimberley Sevcik, Media Relations Manager for Camfed, an international educational organization with offices in Cambridge (U.K.) and San Francisco, who just returned from three weeks in East Africa. There, as she did on two previous trips (to Zambia and Tanzania), she trained women in basic communications techniques, empowering them to talk and write about what most impacts their lives and what they would like to see done about it. In other countries such as Zambia and Ghana, Camfed (the Campaign for Female Education) previously hired professionals to teach filmmaking as a communication tool, resulting in deeply affecting documentaries about previously taboo topics such as AIDS and domestic violence. The latter was the topic of their latest film, "Hidden Truth," which just won the Prize for Best Documentary at the Zanzibar International Film Festival.

If you think about it, "People are always speaking for African woman," Sevcik observed. "Isn't is better to ask them, 'What are you experiencing?' - and let them find their own voices?"

CamFed founder Ann Cotton, who blogs for the Huffington Post, certainly thinks so. Her research on the impact of female education on cycles of poverty and disease in rural Africa, led her to develop an organization that has so far altered the destinies of about a million and a half African woman and children, according to their reports at (

Communications training is an important aspect of Camfed's work. Learning to describe the barriers to their progress in their films and writing, strengthens the entire group so they can see themselves as capable of doing something about it.

"Basically we are cultivating leadership in women by handing the mic to them," Sevcik explains. "We're putting tools in their hands but not telling them what to do with them. It's an extension of their education."

When Camfed first trained women as filmmakers in Zambia, they specifically talked about film making as a tool for change. "Telling their stories was a way to create dialogue about the critical things going on, to talk about change and to influence the culture," Sevcik says. Similarly, on her most recent trip, the workshops started with conversations about the group's greatest life concerns, such as their lack of power within their marriages. Only then did they move on to basic journalism discussions about what makes a good story, and how to tell it.

Before Sevcik came to work in the San Francisco office of Camfed, she was an accomplished storyteller. Her book, Angels in Africa, about seven African women tackling critical social issues was praised in Bill Clinton's 2007 book Giving and named a best book of 2006 by The Guardian newspaper. She had also written freelance articles for Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, Mother Jones, The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian (of London) and other publications.

She praised the courage of the Zambian women's group that produced the film "Hidden Truth", and as an investigative journalist understood why they had been successful in their undertaking.

"Speaking out against domestic violence is taboo everywhere, " Sevcik said. "Even in this country it would be difficult for us to approach women about the subject and have victims open up. But by training women in the communities -- because they know each other -- they were able to gain their trust, and their stories."

Now that the film has been seen and discussed throughout the country, Zambian law makers have passed a law against domestic violence with a penalty severe enough to be a deterrent, she says.

"This is the power of storytelling to create change," she asserts. "It's not just the intrinsic value of storytelling for self expression."

Yet there is some thing about the self-expression of the less trained person that can be compelling. At best, their words can penetrate the glut of professionally produced news.

"I find that unfiltered voices are more interesting," Sevcik confides. "As people work through their process of figuring out what they want to say - they get there more poetically. It's fresher, more real; beautiful, even."

And that's aside from the facts they bring forward.

"It's always good to bring anything into the light," Sevcik says. " These are the universal values of journalism."

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