Telling the World

Telling the World

Activists use social networks and digital video in pleas for rivers and groundwater

By Lauren Pongan '09

vimal boat
Activist Vimal Bhai during a tour of the Tehri Dam reservoir.
Photo by Katie Gillett

In many ways Kelly’s Guadalajara project is a culmination of the environmental studies and activism she engaged in at Colby. In addition to conducting an environmental analysis of water quality in nearby China Lake, which provides drinking water for Waterville and surrounding communities, Kelly and others fought for regulation of the Maine bottled-water industry.

Working in Mexico on water-rights issues during her semester abroad, she returned there after graduation, focusing on Guadalajara’s heavily polluted Rio Santiago. She and cofounder Arthur Richards began by going to the people. “We met with community leaders in El Salto and Juanacatlan and we asked them what population would be best to work with, and they said the youth,” Kelly said. The elders “didn’t really feel like there were creative outlets or ways for youth to be involved in the movement.”

Adapting to Scarcity distributed flipcams to high school and college students, organized workshops, and provided ongoing support to local environmental activists. “It’s most important to me to provide people with tools that they can use after we’re gone,” said Kelly, though she has no plans to end the Guadalajara project anytime soon.

Videos made by community members have been posted on YouTube and are linked from Adapting to Scarcity’s website. The films have been screened at community events, and the footage is being used in Kelly and partner Arthur Richards’s full-length film Como Corre El Agua [How The Water Flows], which is scheduled for release in October at Rivers For Life, a worldwide meeting of people (and their allies) affected by dams.

women's meeting
In foreground above, Moriah Mason, Tarini Manchanda ’09, and Katie Gillett, founders of Get on the Bus Productions, with activists at a meeting near Delhi, India. Photo by Katie Gillett

At first glance Manchanda’s and Kelly’s projects overlap considerably. Both were environmental policy majors, both are studying and documenting water scarcity in urban settings, both tell their stories through films. Both took American Dreams, and both are IHP alumnae. They have much in common, but their initial connection was serendipitous.

As a first-year student curious about IHP, Manchanda had lunch with Kelly to learn more. Kelly was not encouraging, but it didn’t work. “In trying to sort of dissuade her and just to tell her how intense the program is and how prepared you have to be, I inadvertently convinced her to go,” Kelly said.

In Tanzania in 2007, a funny thing happened to Machanda. “I was in the program library in Zanzibar and I opened some random book,” she said. “This postcard fell out that Sarah Kelly had written to a friend when she was on the program three years ago.” The postcard gave them a reason to reconnect, and later Kelly helped Manchanda reintegrate back into Colby after the program ended. “You become so idealistic, and it’s really difficult to come back,” Kelly said. “I wrote her with advice and tips and my story.”

Later, on the IHP listserv Kelly posted information about her project in Guadalajara. Since then Adapting to Scarcity and Get on the Bus Productions have worked together. “We’ve been in touch ever since, comparing notes, sharing our understanding and ethics. We’re staying in touch as our projects have grown and are supporting each other,” Kelly said.

The two organizations ran a collaborative workshop, Digital Storytelling for Social Change, at the 2010 U.S. Social Forum in June in Detroit. They hope to collaborate on a film project in the coming year.

Above all, both activists are drawn to film. “So much of what people say is really valuable in the moment that they say it and the way that they say it and because of their experiences,” Manchanda said, reflecting on what makes the medium powerful.

Their ultimate goal, they said, is to forge a connection between people and their environment and to create a sense of awareness about the systems of life that support us. “You can read about an issue, you can see photos,” said Kelly, “but video is the most tangible way to learn about different realities—be it problems or beautiful solutions.” 

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  • On August 13, 2010, Lokesh Todi wrote:
    A very well written piece by Lauren. Very proud of the work that Tarini and her colleagues are doing in India and elsewhere.