The Most Valuable Witness

by CPXample on 11/09/2011

Witness is a non-profit organization started by singer/songwriter, Peter Gabriel in 1992. It all came to fruition back in 1988 when he traveled with Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! Tour.  Gabriel traveled with a Sony Handycam and captured video imagery of his experience.  Then Witness was then developed with the slogan, “See It, Film It, Change It.”   To date the organization continues Gabriel’s efforts and is dedicated to international human rights advocacy as they provide support and training to video activists, teaching individuals how to use video effectively in advocacy campaigns.

CPXample had the privilege of meeting Matisse Bustos Hawkes, Communications Manager for Witness, at the Social Good Summit back in September. We recently caught up with Ms. Hawkes to find out more about all the good things that Witness has been doing.

Q: Can you tell us more about a partnership program that Witness is currently working on?

MBH: One of the groups we’re working with is the Habitat International Coalition in Brazil.  As we see the World Cup come to the country in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, it’s causing a lot of excitement in the country, but it’s also coming at a cost to many communities that are being systematically uprooted without notice or compensation which is a direct violation of International law.

The other issue we are working on is Gender based violence in scenarios of armed conflict, partnering with a group called Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice based in the Netherlands, but have regional offices in Africa.  The focus is to increases access to justice for those who survive such instances.

Q: Peter Gabriel is the founder of Witness.  Can you tell us more about his connection to the organization?

MBH: It’s a great part of the Witness story and we are very proud of our association with him. For a long time, Peter has been an activist in human rights work. When he was on tour with Amnesty International, he was meeting with human rights activists and he was hearing the stories from these individuals who had been completely denied a voice.  Not only had there been a complete injustice, but their entire stories had been whitewashed or made up. Then with the camera that he had, he thought what if these people had a video camera in their hands and filmed what they’re talking about.  Could governments or people in power then deny the images? That’s what Witness continues to be about is trying to share with people are the best practices and tools that they can use in their particular circumstances or their particular campaign.

Q: Is there a particular ‘Witness’ story or moment that still resonates with you?

MBH: One of the women’s advocacy groups we recently partnered with in Zimbabwe had been documenting instances of abuse, rape and torture during election cycles there.   These women were contacted by the organization because they had been picked up either because they had been perceived or had an affiliation with the opposition candidacy.  Bands of youth militias would come and take them, gang rape and/or torture them over a period of several days. Some of these women, however traumatized, appeared on camera without any anonymity and would share their story on camera and talk about what had happened to them.  They were not afraid because they truly believed that by sharing the truth of the situation, that this kind of thing would not happen to them again, or anyone else for that matter.  That for me has been one of the most powerful experiences.

Witness is an extraordinary group that has found a truly significant way to affect change in the way issues with human rights are addressed.  Their continued work in the field of visual storytelling advocacy can make a difference in the lives of those who would otherwise not have the opportunity to share their side of the story and initiate change and justice for themselves and their community.

Check out their website at www.witness.org and connect with them on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.  To learn more about the Focus for Change Benefit Dinner and Concert, scheduled for tomorrow Thursday Nov. 10, 2011 visit www.witness.org/gala

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