It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire cultural change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
Today’s badass is Lina Srivastava. Lina studied law at New York University and now has her own consulting firm for transmedia activism. As a consultant, she has been involved in the production of documentaries such as Born into Brothels and The Devil Came on Horseback. Currently, she is the organizational strategist for VODO and 3Generations, and member of the Board of Directors for MobileActive and Global Grassroots.
And here is what she had to say to us!
Your background is in law. Can you tell us about how you came from there to activism, and this specific form of it? Did you go to law school with activism as your ultimate intent, or did this career develop somewhere along the way?
I didn’t go the law school with a specific goal of activism in mind, no. In high school, I had developed strong passions for the arts and culture, and for human rights activism. As I moved through college and then law school, I did have a vision to work in the public interest field, but I wasn’t sure what form that would take. I had majored in biology in college and had done coursework in philosophy and bioethics, so when I went to New York University School of Law, my thought was to eventually dedicate my work to global public health policy. But because I had a science background, I got sidetracked into intellectual property law.
The practice of law never sat well with me, though, from the very beginning. I’m very glad I have a law degree– frankly, it gives me facility with legal constructs and strategic frameworks (my science background and legal education have given me the foundation for the strategy consulting work I do now) and gives me a sense of confidence as a woman running my own consultancy. But the subject matter, the endless hours of working, and the lifestyle all put me off. The most significant reason that I left, though, was the feeling that I wasn’t contributing to a larger social justice movement, to something for the benefit of disadvantaged communities. I’ve always felt obligated and driven to apply my experience and knowledge to create a more just, livable and fulfilling society. And I wasn’t doing that in the law firm.
So I resigned and took a year off to travel, write poetry, dance Flamenco — to reconnect with everything dear to me personally– and to think about what mattered most to me, and where I felt I could apply my skills most effectively to “change the world.” It was during that year that I connected back to the dual missions of culture and of human rights that I had developed in high school. The question now was how to combine those two.
The answer came three years after having quit the law. I had gone through an “apprenticeship” of sorts with Michaela Walsh, the Founder of Women’s World Banking and a doyenne of microfinance, and then my first Executive Director position of a Spanish foundation contributing to development work and access to education issues in India. I was subsequently hired as the Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, which was started alongside the documentary about it, “Born into Brothels.” Suddenly, the combination of the arts, media, and storytelling with rights, aid and development all fell into place.
That experience led me to understand the power of cross-platform content creation and distribution in social change. Cultural identity and cultural expression are too often overlooked as essential elements of social transformation, and so I eventually started working in transmedia storytelling, social innovation and design, examining how those constructs could help me best apply cultural assets to systemic change.
Can you explain to us what transmedia activism is and how it works? What is its specific approach and what do you hope to achieve by using this approach? What sets it apart from other forms of activism?
“Transmedia Activism” is a framework I conceived in 2008-2009 and have been refining since (with help from a number of great thinkers in the field). It is a construct for social impact through storytelling by a number of authors who create content for distribution across multiple forms of media, to raise awareness and influence action around a particular core narrative and set of solutions to a social challenge. A transmedia universe around a social issue creates a number of entry points for activists, influencers, policymakers and members of the general public to participate in dialogue, create shifts in perception or culture, and engage in direct action. The specific approach to creating a transmedia universe has to be customized to each social challenge — essentially, you have to start with the question, “What are we trying to change?” and then “Where does this fit into the larger movement or campaign?”
The advantage to transmedia activism (and more broadly, transmedia for social good) is that it helps us tell the story of a system. True social change comes when solutions are systemic, and transmedia itself is a social innovation that allows us to view our ecosystem and create stakeholder engagement around systemic change.
The other advantages to transmedia — and what I hope personally to achieve– is that because it’s a participatory co-creation framework, we are able to create avenues to source local voice and highlight locally relevant and resonant culture. The more perspectives to a story, the more human the story is, the easier solutions are to uncover. Second, it lets us use narrative more effectively as a tool in aid and development, human rights, and community livability.
Where do movements for feminism and social justice intersect with the different platforms for storytelling and creative expression? How do they engage with and benefit from one another?
All social movements throughout history, at their base, live and die on their stories. You need to bring a movement to its basic components: What is the challenge? Who is being affected? How do we create empathy? How do we posit and act on solutions? And where the feminism and social justice movements intersect with storytelling and creative expression is where they have been most able to bring people into direct action. This is true regardless of the media used or the platform over which the media travels. But we now have access to amazing and rapidly evolving advances in technology and communications platforms, and so we have the ability to spread messages, stories, and calls to action with speed and reach. So the movements need to get creative with how they talk about the “ecology” of their challenges and solutions, because people all along the spectrum of involvement and influence want to engage, want to contribute, and want to be part of the conversation. That’s what gets commitment. And that’s why The Line’s campaign, and particularly the “Circle of 6” app, is so exciting.
Have you had to deal with any stereotypes or cliches when it comes to employing this mode of working? Transmedia story telling was made popular by, and is still mainly used in the context of computer games and comics. Have you had to break down any walls when it comes to using transmedia narratives in such a radically different way?
There are quite a few, yes, but the one factor I’ll talk about here is where platforms and technologies are seen as solutions themselves to social ills, not the vehicles or catalysts of social change. In the realm of transmedia activism, it doesnt make sense to fall too deeply in love with the technology before the solution; in other words, if your planned app doesn’t contribute to the solution for the community, don’t build it. It’s more important to look to the affected community than to the community of transmedia creators and their needs when you’re engaging in activism. Of course, creators need tools to do their job effectively, and new tool of media creation and production are essential to that, so we need to invest in field-building through those tools, as well as support and training for creators. But solutions for the affected community– hopefully articulated by the community itself– should take priority when thinking about the elements of a transmedia platform.
What project are you currently working on?
I’m working on a few at the moment. In the realm of transmedia and social change specifically, I’m the strategist for two start-up nonprofits, BYkids and 3 Generations, and am helping produce or providing strategic guidance for three projects; the first concerns systemic poverty and human rights along the US-Mexico border and in Central America; the second is about child homelessness and arts education in the US; and the third is about culture-based regeneration in Haiti with Haitian musicians. What I look for when I say yes to working with a project are: (a) Having at its core the use of local voice, in direct partnership with the platform creators; (2) Using the platform to move beyond awareness, to connect audiences and change agents to commit to a particular worldview, advocacy or action, by using these local stories and art; and (3) The potential to cross borders or silos using a number of platforms to foster transformation. I have a really great job and I hope this field continues to thrive.
Thank you, Lina, for these truly awesome and in-depth answers!