Friday, February 15, 2008

Empowering Women Citizen Journalists: An Interview with Cristi Hegranes

"Now, 18 months later, all of Juana's children are in school. She went from being somebody's servant to somebody who when she walks down the street of her community, people stop her and shake her hand and thank her for the stories that she is telling, or ask, 'When are you going to interview me? I have a story that you have to hear.'"

The Press Institute for Women in the Developing World is an international nonprofit organization and citizen journalism initiative. Last month I interviewed Cristi Hegranes, its Founder and President. In January, Cristi was named one of the 21 Leaders of the 21st Century for 2008 by Women's eNews. She was also awarded their annual Ida B. Wells prize for Bravery in Journalism. You can listen to the interview on the Big Vision Podcast, or read an edited transcript below.

Cristi Hegranes: My name is Cristi Hegranes and I am the President and Founder of The Press Institute for Women in the Developing World which is an international nonprofit organization that was founded in order to train women in developing countries to become investigative reporters to report their own news.

The goals of the organization are three-fold. We use journalism because it is a very empowering profession, enabling people to become the "question askers" in their societies. It is a really exciting and empowering position, especially for women in developing countries. Our primary goal is to provide that empowering employment.

The secondary goal is to provide better free, or fair information to people in these countries. So often, government control, or just lack of access to information and media, prevents people from really being able to be educated and informed about serious issues that are going on around them. We make a huge effort to disseminate our news locally via radio partnerships, and other satellite partnerships, so that the people in the communities we serve are benefiting from our news first.

The third goal would be, on an international level, to take this news, that is really created from the inside out, as opposed to the traditional model of foreign correspondence, which is an outsider coming in, out into the world. We sell our content to mainstream and other media organizations all over the world.

Britt Bravo: Why is it important to have women citizen journalists in developing countries at this time? What is it that motivated you to create this program now?

CH: You know it is funny; it actually didn't start out as a women-centered initiative, but the more research I did about creating global training sites and free media enterprises in these developing countries, training women just makes the most sense. When women have access to specific skills, training, and education, all of a sudden their survival and livelihood statistics shoot way up, not only their own, but entire communities.

For example, when women have this kind of specific skill-set training, they are more likely to have less children, to keep the children they do have in school, to be able to provide access to medical care, and things like that. Training women became an obvious imperative for us when we are talking about who are we going to train and why.

I think there is an extra added level of really pushing the envelope of gender equality. In some of the places where we work, women are very often not in professional roles whatsoever, much less the media. We are pushing an envelope there.

There is also a really practical level of source access. For some of the topics that we train our reporters to cover, like reproductive rights and political oppression, women have better access to the kind of sources that we want than men, outsiders, or other traditional foreign correspondents would.

BB: Can you talk a little bit about the program, how long it is, what the women learn, and what some of the challenges are for them to make the training happen within their every day life? Who are the women who are showing up? Are they women with families, are they young, are they old, and how are they fitting the training into what I am sure is a very busy, and already challenging life?

CH: Right, exactly. Well, they are all of the above. Our age ranges in all of our global training sites range from 19 to 56. We are training women at all levels in their life. Many of our trainees and journalists in Nepal do have children. They come from all different casts, all different religions, and from indigenous backgrounds in Mexico.

We really try and get women from all walks of life to be able to participate in our program, the goal being to provide as many unique voices and opportunities as possible.

BB: What is the path that brought you to this work personally?

CH: I was a foreign correspondent in Nepal from 2003 to 2004 and had a really amazing experience in Nepal. I learned to speak the language fluently, and was there at a really intense time in terms of the civil war, and a lot of the political uprisings that were going on.

I had an amazing opportunity to cover the civil war, but also to cover a lot of the human rights issues that were emerging as a result of the war. But at the same time, I realized a lot of the limitations that the mainstream model of foreign correspondence often provides.

I came back to the States after working in Nepal, and I took a job as a feature writer in San Francisco. It was what I thought would be my dream job. I was actually making money as a feature writer in a great city, but it became really obvious to me that my definition of journalism, and the definition of journalism that I was being asked to practice, as a member of mainstream media, were not the same.

I kept going back to this one experience that I had in Nepal, where I was working in a village that was literally inhabited only by women, because so many men in Nepal were either at war or they go abroad for work. A lot of Nepali men are working in the Middle East, or they go abroad to India to work, just because there isn't really a job market at all in Nepal. It is getting better now, but especially in the heat of the civil war, there wasn't one.

I was in this village that was inhabited pretty much only by women, a couple of old men, and some little kids running around. I remember being so frustrated with my inability to fully tell the story that I knew was going on, but it was a matter of an absence of historical, political, and social context that I just didn't have. And no matter how long I spent in-country, I would never have.

I remember handing a notebook and some pens to a women, Pratima was her name, she was the matriarch of the village. I said, "You write it. You tell your story." It was written in very scribbled Nepali, her literacy skills were incredibly rudimentary, but what she ended up writing was a piece of journalism.

When I was back in San Francisco, in my cushy feature writer job, I just couldn't get that out of my head. I had the feeling that there was something else that I could be doing with my passion for journalism and my knowledge of international reporting.

BB: So right now you work in Nepal and in Mexico?

CH: Yes.

BB: And do you have plans to expand to other counties, and if so, where?

CH: Yes, we do. We have a grand plan; my dad calls it the grand plan for global domination [laughs]. Our office in Rwanda was supposed to be our next office opening anytime now, but because of the war in the Congo, visas and business licenses and things like that have been put on hold.

Our office in Kigali is sort of in a state of question right now. Hopefully sometime in 2008 we will be able to establish that office. Hopefully, the situation in the Congo resolves itself and doesn't cross the border into Rwanda, as it did in the '90s. We are hopeful that we will be in Rwanda by the end of the year.

We are also in discussions about the whole process of getting international nonprofit licenses in different countries. It is different in every place and oftentimes very laborious, but we are working on a potential program with The Open Society Institute in Myanmar.

We are also in discussions in Peru, in Burkina Faso, and in Botswana as well. I am working with a foundation right now trying to plan out our Africa initiative for the remainder of the year. It would be great to have as many as two to five new offices in 2008 as our goal.

The path is laid out very clearly now. We know what we need, all the materials are prepared, we know how to recruit, we know how to train. The first two offices were great trials and so now, we are hoping to be able to expand more quickly, which is of course fundraising dependent, but that's increasing as well, so that is going well too.

BB: How will you know when you have succeeded? If you have a success story, you could share that too.

CH: I think I am conscious of the fact that we are all succeeding constantly, because the impact has been so profound. When we do recruitments in these countries, and we get the word out, what our program does and that we are training. . . .There are only two requirements to join our program: basic literacy skills and the ability to sort of talk about how good journalism would make a difference in their communities and their lives.

That is pretty much what we go on. We go on our gut instinct from people's answer to that one question, and then there is literacy testing involved as well. When we recruit in these areas, our first recruitment session in Mexico, we had about 47 women show up for five spots. About eight months later in Katmandu, we had hundreds of women show up for five spots.

For me, that was the first time where I was like, "Oh, maybe I didn't throw my entire career away, and I am actually doing something worthwhile." It's a really powerful thing to come up with an idea and have people, so different from you, believe in that same idea.

With this award from Women's eNews, the Bravery in Journalism Award, I told Rita Henley Jensen, who is the founder of Women's eNews, I will accept it, but know that I don't accept it, that I accept it on behalf of the women who work for me. They are the ones who act in bravery constantly; they are the ones who take risks and make bold statements constantly.

My definition of success has been watching women grow. I am impressed constantly at the way that these women have been able to use journalism to lift themselves out of really depressed economic or violent situations. We have one woman in particular who is very close to my heart, because of what she has been able to do with this opportunity.

Her name is Juana and she is one of our journalists in Chiapas. When she started our program, she had the least education of anybody in our group; never been to school. She had been a domestic servant since she was eight years old, and she was 28 when she joined our program.

She had four children. They were 14, eight and three, and she was in an incredibly economically depressed situation. She had me over to her home for dinner, and it was four very ramshackle walls, a tarp for a ceiling, dirt floors. They all slept in one bed, and there was an open fire in the middle of the room where they cooked their food, which is certainly not an uncommon situation in rural indigenous Mexico.

Now, 18 months later, all of Juana's children are in school. She went from being somebody's servant to somebody who when she walks down the street of her community, people stop her and shake her hand and thank her for the stories that she is telling, or ask, 'When are you going to interview me? I have a story that you have to hear.' Sometimes really serious tips come her way too.

She just did a piece recently about land use fraud that she got from a tip, because she has such a phenomenal reputation for being somebody who is providing accurate, fair news, and writing about stuff that nobody else in Chiapas is writing about. Just a couple of months ago, I guess three months ago, when I was back down there, I went to her home again. She had bought a roof and her youngest daughter, Lucia, was so excited to show me that they had a sink, and Patty, the oldest, had her own bed.

She has been able to use this opportunity to uplift herself professionally. The way she walks, the way she dresses, the way she speaks, it is all very different now. Eighteen months ago, she was an uneducated woman who was somebody else's servant. Now she is the commander of her own life and she has been able to uplift herself and children as well, who are in school and are just angels.

That to me is the definition of success. She is probably the most shining example of what The Press Institute is capable of both journalistically and personally.

BB: With your recent awards, you are probably getting more interview requests. What is the question you wish people would ask you? What is the thing you would like to talk about?

CH: How much money can I donate? [laughs]

I think the best part of The Press Institute, and what I wish people would see, is that it is an example of the kind of media that is possible. One of our board members, who lives in Nepal, always does a little spin on Gandhi's famous quote, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." She says, "Create the media you wish to see in the world."

I think The Press Institute is a lot of things, but I think it is primarily an example of how you can use development, technology and the core principles of journalism to really create change internationally. I think that it is so easy to be placated by the kind of news that is common now, but it doesn't have to be that way.

If The Press Institute can spur any kind of conversation, I would hope that it would spur conversations about creating new ways of reporting, and that new ways of creating access to information for people everywhere is really possible.

BB: How can listeners help? How can they get involved if they are interested in your work and in supporting you?

CH: Our headquarters office here in Oakland is staffed entirely by volunteers, and I always like people to know that of all of the foundation dollars, and donations and grant money that comes in, I divert 94% of it to our in-country operations. I don't currently take a salary from The Press Institute, and this office is entirely staffed by volunteers.

Very little of the money that we get is used in the U.S. It is great when people know that their money is going directly to the journalists, directly funding somebody's life and somebody's well being.

They can volunteer locally, or from anywhere. We have a lot of people who are not local here in the Bay Area that host dine-arounds, and little fundraisers for us, things like that.

Just reading the news that our journalists produce and forwarding it along. We do sell our content to media organizations all over the U.S., so oftentimes some of our big fans of our content have contacted their local newspaper and said, "Why aren't you picking this up? This is the kind of stuff we want to be reading." That is also very valuable for us, for more media outlets to be aware of our content, and what we are producing.

There are many ways that people can be involved, and I am incredibly grateful for it. We probably have four or five dozen volunteers around the United States, and we have more than 500 individual donors all around the world, which to me is such a powerful statement.

We have $2 donors out of Zimbabwe and $20,000 donors out of San Francisco. We're making the rounds around the world, and it is really nice to see people read our content and really get on board with our message.

BB: Is there anything else that you want people to know about The Press Institute that you didn't get to talk about, or mention?

CH: I think one thing that is so important to me is the principles of journalism. Our reporters are trained with a really strong push and focus on objectivity, balance and fairness. It was my goal initially to create a 100% independent newswire, and we are sticking to that. We don't take government or corporate dollars for any of our funding through grants, or anything else.

We really pride ourselves on our ethics, our objectivity, and that goes from the journalism, to the fundraising, to every aspect of the organization. It is important to me that people know that we are really a 100% independent newswire, and that our journalists are trained to be very objective. We study the concepts of objectivity and balance and fairness, and what it means in each unique situation, with each unique story that they are telling. It is huge focus of the training.


  1. Anonymous8:53 AM

    Britt - re Christi's request for How to get more donations. Please send her to (launching soon) It's an extension of Profiles in Caring, a TV program dedicated to non-profits and good work. It will have a place for donations and volunteer sign ups.

  2. It is always an honour to work with Cristi. We look forward to raising citizen journalists in Kenya. With The Press Institute as our mantle of Hope, we know that women in rural Africa shall arise,shine and shout making a diference in their communities.


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