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Rising Voices at the Budapest Summit

I’ve spent the last two days as the MC of the Global Voices meetings in Budapest. It’s a deeply rewarding activity, as it means I get to be part of every conversation and listen in on every discussion. But it’s exhausting, and has been extremely sweaty work, as Budapest is going through a heat wave. The main downside of the activity, for me, is that I don’t get to blog. But we’re in a room filled with more than eighty of the world’s finest bloggers, and basically there’s no doubt that every event is being covered thoroughly, usually using Cover It Live, a tool designed for liveblogging. Let me recommend some bloggers accounts in particular:

– Rebecca Wanjiku, one of my very favorite bloggers, is both covering sessions and her travels through Budapest.

– David Sasaki, who will be MC-ing today’s sessions, has a great summary post of yesterday’s activities.

– Jose Murillo, who’s helped bring voices from the Brasilian community into Global Voices, is offering his perspectives in English and Portuguese.

Yesterday’s sessions at the summit focused exclusively on human rights and freedom of speech online. While these topics are critically important to our community and a huge focus of their work, it’s easy to udnerstand how ten hours of this discussion could leave everyone ready to head to a bar. Which GV folks did, en masse, occupying the hotel bar here with the ferocity of a visiting army.

David Sasaki notes that he thinks of Global Voices as a global party. He envisions Sami ben Gharbia, our advocacy director, as a cape-wearing crusader who fights “the evil bartender”, the guy who wants to keep people out of the party. (We’re all looking forward to photos of Sami in a red cape in the near future.) David sees himself, in this party metaphor, as the guy who shows up at an intimate dinner party with a few busloads of friends. The goal of Rising Voices, the project he runs, is to fight elitism in global blogging by radically expanding the pool of people participating in online conversations.

To give us a sense for what’s happening with Global Voices, David offers a video overview of the ten projects Rising Voices is supporting, ranging from an effort to help people within prison in Jamaica blog to working with the One Laptop Per Child project in Uruguay to blogging women’s issues in Bangladesh. The folks here on stage in Budapest are grantees, including Lova Rakotomalala, our moderator for the first session. He introduces himself, saying, “Yesterday, we had a dentist from Pakistan. I’m a molecular biologist from Madagascar.” That’s pretty typical of this sort of event.

Collins Oduor, from the REPACTED community theatre project in Nakuru, Kenya, starts his presentation with a story – my paraphrase of it:

A young girl is very sociable and likes to play with all the children in the village. Her mother is worried that she’s too friendly and doesn’t want her playing with the boys in the village. So she tells her daughter, “You can’t climb trees with the boys because they will look up your dress and see your underpants.” So the next day, the girl takes off her underpants and climbs the tree.

Oduor ends his story with the single word, “Communication” and the room breaks into laughter. REPACTED specializes in communicating through community theatre. “We don’t have a lot of streets, so we don’t call it street theatre – it’s village theatre.” The productions use a wide range of techniques to get communities talking about HIV/AIDS. One popular strategy is to run rap battles, where two MCs compete to offer the best free-style rhymes on a randomly selected topic, like condom use. They do a great deal of work in prisons, and the community photographer and videographer, Fidel, is a former participant, who took an HIV test at REPACTED’s urging while in prison. Oduor is helping REPACTED use blogging to spread the impact of their work nationally and internationally, documenting the techniques the group uses, and helping the people they work with to understand and use technology tools to communicate online.

Catalina Restrepo of the HiperBarrio project in Medellin, Colombia, presents in Spanish, translated by Jules Rincon. The focus of the HiperBarrio project is to transform the image of the communities of La Loma and Santo Domingo. Both communities have historically been viewed as violent slums, places that no one should visit. By letting people in their communities tell local stories, they’re challenging the impressions people have of these neighborhoods, and are starting to see visitors from both Medellin and around the world who want to learn about these communities.

Mialy Andriamananjara is one of the coordinators of the remarkable Global Voices Malagasy, and a co-founder of FOKO Madagascar. The project is encouraging high school, college and journalism students to explore citizen media. This is a challenge, given both digital divide issues (the cost of connectivity, frequent electrical blackouts) and perception issues. Blogging is seen as an activity that isn’t very serious, and that Malagasy community society frowns on people “standing out” through writing online. But the project has been very effective at technology training and in helping people break into journalism. It’s had some unexpected side effects as well – one of the FOKO groups ended up organizing the first translation and performance of the Vagina Monologues in Malagasy. Another project, “Helping Kamba“, called attention to child who was born with a severe deformity. The project has raised sufficient money to bring the child to the capital city, and yesterday, he had surgery to correct his condition based on money raised from online activism.

Voices Bolivianas, led by Christina Quisbert and Edward Avilla, focuses on the voices of indigenous people, especially indigenous women in Bolivia. Christina explains that there are strong tensions between the majority indigenous population in Bolivia and the Spanish-speaking minority. In digital spaces, people who speak languages like Aymara are much less well represented than Spanish-speakers. Christina’s blog, Bolivia Indigena, focuses on these issues, and Voices Bolivianas is working to try to get more people writing and talking about these issues.

I’m blown away every time I read about the work the Rising Voices grantees are doing. It’s a huge treat, and a major inspiration, to see folks like this on stage.