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Beyond The Lens – In Conversation With WITNESS

Discovery dictates much of what we feature here on

The Style Line and what we’ve come to find, are that the best discoveries are usually the most unexpected. This year, for us, has really been all about defining our voice, with a goal to share stories that prove the inimitable influence that both personal style and creativity can cultivate when approached in new ways. In April, we found ourselves at the helm of these opportunities. Navigating through the excitement and ferocity at this year’s Shorty Awards reception we serendipitously crossed paths with the team at WITNESS – a human rights organization whose goal is to educate and train activists to use video safely and effectively. Beyond just exchanging pleasantries, we became quickly captivated by their line of work, which in many ways was unfamiliar territory for us. But like anything, once hearing Matisse Bustos-Hawke’s (who serves as the Associate Director of Communications and Engagement) initial explanation of the company’s mission, we found our strong common ground, storytelling.

As stated in today’s featured interview below, “WITNESS was founded on the belief that there is nothing more powerful than visual imagery. At our core we are a creative organization, committed to storytelling for good and we fervently believe that the video of human rights abuses move people to action, and ultimately change.” With warmth and sincere interest in our own mission, that night laid the groundwork for the beginning of a collaborative conversation that would take place over the next six months. From friendly check-ins to brainstorming ways to join forces and empower our audiences, we were excited by the mutual interest in coming together to share our stories and aspirations with one another’s engaging communities.

Fast forward to this Fall, where in the midst of our ongoing conversation we received an email from San Francisco-based human rights lawyer and entrepreneur Flynn Coleman. As the founder of the newly-launched online shop Malena, Flynn has found a way to infuse her professional background in human rights law and economic empowerment with a personal passion to empower people creatively; propelling Malena on the fast-track to become the premiere conscious fashion destination that can yield truly transformative results.

  • the style line flynn coleman witness
    International Human Rights Lawyer and Entrepreneur Flynn Coleman prepares interview questions for this feature.
  • the style line flynn coleman witness
  • the style line flynn coleman witness

In crafting this story, we wanted to bring together these two important groups whose undeniable synergy for community, craftsmanship and creativity is affecting positive change, globally. Seven months, six collaborators, two cities and one story later, we’re thrilled to introduce WITNESS, whose impact is a result of the team’s talent and penchant for storytelling. Read on to discover behind-the-scenes moments of Flynn preparing her questions and tour the WITNESS office in downtown Brooklyn where you’ll discover more from Matisse (and meet WITNESS resident Creative, Bridgette Bugay). We hope this piece encourages you to think about the opportunity you have to cultivate something good just by doing what you love. While at times it may be hard to believe, remember this: No matter where you are in the world, your voice matters and in the age of technology, it’s up to you to make it heard.

Story by Rachel Schwartzmann in collaboration with Flynn Coleman – Shop Malena – Visit WITNESS – Photos by Joanne Pio and Melissa de Mata for The Style Line

THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN OCTOBER 2015  and reflects updated changes to the layout

the style line witness

I’m Matisse Bustos-Hawkes

and I am the Associate Director, Communications and Engagement at WITNESS.

In just about a month I will be celebrating 12 years with the organization! When I joined in mid-2003, YouTube was two years away, the founding of Facebook- six+ months (and about three years from the ability of people outside of university students to use it) and the debut of the iPhone was still four years in the future. Even before all of these existed, WITNESS believed that ordinary people, human rights advocates, and often marginalized voices could make themselves seen and heard through the power of video. 

I’m married and have two young boys. Like many women in my shoes, I’m constantly seeking balance between “leaning in” and reserving space, calm and joy for my family. My husband and I share most daily responsibilities so that we’re both able to be as present at home and at work. One of the things I value most in life is access to education. I was part of the first generation in my family to attend college. My parents’ dedication to the empowerment of my sister and I is the greatest gift they could have ever given us. So much in my life has been made possible by my education. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights names the right to education as a fundamental right for every human being. I couldn’t agree more. 

WITNESS is an incredibly diverse staff with people from all over the world and backgrounds. But you happen to be hearing from two (of the three) California girls on staff. Similarly to Bridgette, I couldn’t be happier then when sitting on a beach or swimming in an ocean. The smell of salt water and the sound of waves are some of the best sensations on the planet. And after living in the Northeast for about 20 years, I still don’t love the cold, but I do love the changing of seasons and the way we have to adapt to each of them. 

I’m Bridgette Bugay.

I arrived in Brooklyn a year ago to serve as the Creative at WITNESS.

I moved from Kampala, Uganda with my (now) husband where I was working for another international NGO reporting on a conflict in central Africa. I love travel, experiencing different cultures, and meeting new people (this is the fifth city I’ve lived in in five years!), but there’s no adventure like living in New York and so am very happy to settle into the rhythm of the city and call it home for a while. I have absolutely fallen in love with the energy and creativity of New York and am so grateful to work with the incredible team of dedicated human rights defenders at WITNESS. I’m originally from Santa Barbara, CA where I grew up with my parents and younger brother who I love to the moon and back. Growing up on beaches, my forever happy place is swimming or surfing in the Pacific Ocean.

 

My husband and I (we just got married in August!) both work for international NGOs and are deeply committed to social justice. For me personally, that has meant using the arts and creativity to inspire people to be a part of something bigger than themselves. But I don’t think you have to work for a non-profit, or dedicate your life to a single cause to make a mark on the world. I believe everyone is uniquely gifted to make the world better (corny, I know, but I really believe it)— do what you love, play to your strengths, and when you can, use those things to make life a little better for the people around you. 

What is one of the most inspiring stories you have seen in your work?

Our Senior Program Manager, Bukeni Waruzi was attending college, near his hometown, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when he borrowed a wedding photographer’s video camera to document the conditions and treatment of children who had been recruited by regional armed groups to fight with them. He recorded powerful testimonies from the underage soldiers and their families. The footage was then used to create videos which were screened to over 50 communities in eastern DRC and Burundi showing the devastating consequences of using children in war. 

 

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The campaign not only resulted in a significant decrease of child recruitment, but the footage was later used to help convince the International Criminal Court (ICC) that charges should be added to the indictment of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga for recruitment of children for combat which constitutes a war crime. When Lubanga was convicted in 2012, the court stated that without the video that so clearly evidenced the recruitment and use of young children by his armed group, justice may never have been achieved. It was this victory that in part inspired our video as evidence program that’s active today. There is nothing can make up for the atrocities committed by Lubanga in using children as soldiers, but we were, and continue to be, encouraged by this ruling as it so clearly showed how video can be used to secure justice.

Where do you see Witness heading in the future?

Like all cause-driven organizations, the dream is that one day human rights abuse no longer happens, people are able to defend their rights, and WITNESS can close up shop. Unfortunately that seems pretty far away right now. Until then, WITNESS is working to build a global movement of human rights defenders armed with cameras. We believe that if everyone, everywhere had the tools, resources and knowledge to use video to expose the truth about human rights abuses in their community, we would make monumental strides towards social justice. So for us the future is continuing to learn and adapt to the ever changing technological environment, and share our learnings with our partners on the frontlines— from Ukraine to Syria, Rio to Ferguson. We want to continue to be a resource for anyone who wants to use video and storytelling for good. 

What have been the greatest challenges/benefits you have seen as technology has evolved and more people have access to using technology and media to document human rights issues?

It’s estimated that there is nearly one mobile phone for every human alive on earth today- that’s about seven billion phones and most of them are equipped with a video camera. That’s a lot of people with the power of video in their hands. People spend hundreds of millions of hours watching videos on YouTube every day. And that doesn’t even include videos on Facebook, Vine, Instagram… you get the point. With so much video available, it can be hard to discover stories about human rights even when they make it to public platforms. It’s also important to keep in mind that just as everyday people have greater access to technology, so too do governments, repressive regimes and their policing forces. What about the videos that never get shared because they are destroyed or confiscated, their creators silenced? With cameras just about everywhere, we’ve become used to documenting and sharing nearly every moment of our lives. But some activists need to be careful about linking their identity to their actions. More people need to be aware of concepts like informed consent which is essentially getting permission to film people in your video and to ensure they understand the potential consequences of having their face show up in a video that may be seen by many, including hostile parties. 

 

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The safety and security of you as a filmer as well as for those who might appear in your video are primary concerns for us at WITNESS. We’ve created a ton of free resources to address safety and security when using video for activism. The majority of us with access to the internet and digital media are watching video, not creating it. We all have a role too. While immediately sharing a story of something that outrages us and moves us to act, is it helping the conversation if we help distribute disturbing footage, often filmed by perpetrators of abuse? We’ve created guidance for how to think about sharing important stories without perpetuating graphic or denigrating imagery. Human rights are fundamentally a commitment to human dignity and respecting that in each of us, especially at moments of vulnerability. As told to Flynn Coleman

How do you think creativity contributes to some of the world’s bigger conversations and what role is WITNESS playing in this shift in thinking?

Today’s media environment allows for us to have access to more stories, be a part of more conversations, interact around more issues than ever before; but at the same time, important stories about human rights issues and brave individuals like the activists we work with can get lost in the endless sea of content.

the style line witness

It takes creativity to share these stories in a way that will cut through that noise and get policy makers, lawyers, really the whole world’s, attention. The reality is, activists and survivors of human rights abuses often use the same digital channels to share stories of abuse that the rest of us share cat GIFs on. It takes knowing how to package these critically important stories in a compelling way, without ever sacrificing the integrity of that person’s experience, to open all of our eyes to what’s happening around the world. WITNESS was founded on the belief that there is nothing more powerful than visual imagery. At our core we are a creative organization, committed to storytelling for good and we fervently believe that the video of human rights abuses move people to action, and ultimately change. In this way, WITNESS was a little ahead of it’s time. In the beginning, 23 years ago, the organization was flying around the world telling people about the power of video and distributing handycams. Now, with camera phones and video sharing platforms that allow us to share, watch, snap, or stream, video is no longer an unfamiliar medium used by a select few. We all use and see video everyday. Now the challenge for WITNESS is training people on how to use your camera phone, or whatever camera you have available, to effectively document human rights abuses. And if you do capture abuse on camera, then what? How do you use that video for justice or social change? In short, we believe the power of visual imagery and storytelling are the best ‘weapons’ we have to fight injustice and we’re making sure anyone who wants to work for peace is equipped to do so.

For those in the creative fields looking to use their creative talents and passions to cultivate good/awareness, how would you suggest they get involved with WITNESS and what other tools/resources would you suggest exploring?

Tell your story. Never stop creating. At WITNESS we believe everyone has an important story to share with the world. When you share your experiences and listen to the stories of others it fosters a sense of community and understanding that can stretch across the world. We have a whole library or resources for human rights defenders or anyone looking to get involved in using video for good. There are hundreds of digital tip sheets, field guides, and video how-to’s that are free to download and easy to share. Whether you want to use video for social justice or to share your personal experiences in hopes that it will inspire someone else, we encourage you to check out our library.

Based on your work at WITNESS how would you define modern activism and how do you hope WITNESS contributes to this narrative?

We’d argue that modern activists have more opportunities than at any other point in history to make a difference. Technology has enabled more voices than ever to be consequential in calling for social change. An example from our work is the use of video by the indigenous Endorois community in Kenya in their fight for the rightful return of land stolen from them to create a game reserve in the early 1970s.

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Commissioners who heard their case at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights cited their landmark use of video as being a particularly effective part of their argument. 

What is one question you wish people asked you more often?

“How can the technology we use everyday also be used for social change and how can I get involved?” Having clear objectives and choosing the right method to reach your target audiences with stories that are going to motivate them to listen and act are still key to activism. But an unprecedented number of people have the power of video in their hands now, mostly in the form of our mobile devices. And we’re sharing guidance and support to those millions of potential activists, striving to ensure that as many of them as possible can harness the power of video.

Here at The Style Line, we believe that celebrating personal style can cultivate so much opportunity. With this in mind, what do you think people with this mentality  can contribute to the mission at WITNESS and generally remain active in some of the world’s bigger conversations?

 

As we’ve mentioned before, we’re big on the power of stories. The Style Line is a perfect example of a place where a community has grown up around sharing stories of common interest. For you and your community that is the expression of personal style, which of course focuses on fashion, but it obviously extends well beyond that. 

After meeting The Style Line’s founder Rachel Schwartzmann at this year’s Shorty Awards (for which we were both finalists in our respective categories- fashion for The Style Line, news for WITNESS), we were drawn to her passion for featuring people in the fashion and creative industries who are also fundamentally concerned with creating a more just society. The Style Line is helping to contribute to WITNESS’ mission by sharing our story with a new audience. And we’re so honored to have the opportunity to start what we hope will be a conversation with many of you here today. 

The fashion industry can support human rights through committing to more ethical labor practices, partnering with local artisans around the world for ideas and paying as much attention to the environmental impact of their production lines as they do to their bottom lines. We can all be active in social change by the choices we make from how and what we purchase to how we treat people in our daily lives. Human rights are fundamentally about dignity, about respecting that dignity in ourselves and in every other human being. 

“In short, we believe the power of visual imagery and storytelling are the best ‘weapons’ we have to fight injustice and we’re making sure anyone who wants to work for peace is equipped to do so.”