Paradigm Shift: how one young activist uses documentary film to inspire change

| 20th December 2011
Rebecca Sweetman, the Paradigm Shift
Rebecca Sweetman created the digital activism platform the Paradigm Shift to empower people with solutions to global issues
Rebecca is an ordinary woman with extraordinary ambitions, inspiring people all over the world and making 'Shift Happen' through her charity that creates free educational films

You have just returned from your talk at TED... how was it?

The talk at TEDxValletta was incredible! I feel so lucky to have had this amazing opportunity to speak to such an incredible audience of really switched-on people. It actually felt a bit like a coming-out party- announcing to the world that this is who I am, and this is what I do. Hope I was able to inspire some fellow shift-disturbers to follow their hearts and jump into the joy that is creating, and being a part of, social change.

Where did it all begin?

I was eight years old when the war broke out in Kuwait. By the time the mainstream media was reporting the crisis, with images of burning oil fields, tanks, and American fighter planes, I was horrified.

I had so many questions. Why were people fighting? Why was the Earth burning? Why was the US involved? Why does it seem so matter-of-fact in the news? And why is no one my age talking about it? I needed answers.

I turned to my teacher, Ms. Malta, for answers. I'd ask her what was going on in Kuwait, and she'd cut me off before I could even say "Middle East". She would pretend it wasn't important, or even if it was, it was way over my head and I shouldn't be asking such disturbing questions. Even at just eight years old, I felt the education system had failed me.

I would go to my parents in tears after watching the news, wanting to know why the world was such a horrible place full of violence and greed. Their reply would tide me over for a few years, until the genocide in Rwanda actually. Needless to say, it didn't sit well with me. I desperately wanted to hear the good stories- the ones that would make this planet one worth inhabiting. And so I started my mission to find, and share, the solutions to the world's problems. With my education focusing on sustainable development and social justice, and my practical experience in the film industry, it finally hit me that I could use the mediums of documentary film and photography to build connection and inspire a shift in how we see and engage in our world.

I created The Paradigm Shift Project as a Canadian charity in 2008 to do just this. Each year, we choose up to three global issues in social and environmental justice, and feature grassroots solutions in a short documentary film. We then give this film to non-profits for them to use to support their work, and we also give it to educators with a toolkit of activities for students from first grade right through to university level that are linked to current curricula requirements. All of our films are available online, free for the world to see and share.

What has been your most successful campaign to date? What has been your least successful campaign to date?

All of our films to date continue to be successes- inspiring people all over the world to get involved in new and positive ways. We've worked on the issues of rice cultivation, natural disasters, palm oil plantations in Indonesia, the rights of street, stateless and refugee children in Malaysia, urban agriculture and food security in Peru, access to water in India and Indonesia, and sexual slavery in India, Thailand and Cambodia.

In terms of the most quantifiable success, supported by traditional grantmakers, our education outreach is certainly the easiest to track. In the past year alone we've directly worked with over a thousand students in Canada, the USA, and Indonesia, and with the free release of our educator's toolkits, we've surely impacted hundreds more.

Paradigm shifts, on the other hand, are far more difficult to quantify. The full impact of our work might not be known for years- even decades- to come. Our biggest challenge to date lies in finding innovative funders who will invest in the creation of the documentary resource, from which we create our education outreach materials. Our budgets are very small as our organization is run completely by volunteers, but with more funds for the creation of these resources, we'll be able to deliver the films more quickly, with better quality, and with wider distribution.

What gets you out of bed when you're at your lowest?

Good, organic food from my garden always helps! But to be honest, what really keeps me going is a deep knowing that the world is shifting, and that I can help it shift in the right direction.

Most of the time when I tell people what I'm working on, they say, "How do you cope? Aren't you completely drained and overwhelmed?". But I'm not. In fact, I'm inspired. This admittedly odd reaction to some of the world's toughest issues has certainly prompted a lot of self-reflection and analysis, and I think I've figured it out: people feel overwhelmed when they feel they can't do anything about the state of the world. But I feel inspired because I know I can do something about it- not just with what I do, but with who I am.

Corporations: work with them or against them?

Obviously, it depends on the corporation. We haven't worked with any corporations to date, but I'd certainly be open to it if they're operating on the same ethical framework from which we work.

What is the best way to motivate people?

Empower them! I've found that the best way to get the most out of people is to get them working on what they're most passionate about. Having my volunteers and even board members identify what they're most interested in contributing to the organization allows me as Executive Director to not only place people in the right roles, but it also truly shows me where the gaps are, and which other individuals I'm looking for. Often times people are keen to get involved, but haven't even asked themselves what it is they really have and want to offer, and so they just respond to whatever opportunity I've posted. But if an individual is keen to get involved, it's so important that they're passionate about what it is they'll be doing! Getting people to write their own job descriptions holds them more accountable for their work, and also, in my experience, means that they'll be better- and more sustainable- volunteers for the organization.

What is the most important thing to avoid when campaigning?

I think the nail in the coffin for campaigning is focusing on the problems. Especially when people already feel so overwhelmed by - and therefore distanced from - those problems, the bad news stories just aren't cutting it anymore. Show people that shift is already happening, and that they can easily be a part of it - and everyone's on your side. Tell them, and show them, how they can be part of the solutions with you, and they'll join you.

Most important thing government could do next year?

All governments would certainly benefit to take a page out of The Paradigm Shift Project's book (or film!), and focus on the SOLUTIONS. There's a great Iroquois model of decision making, whereby you have to take in to consideration seven generations into the future with the knowledge you have available today. That certainly would be a BIG step in the right direction for all governments.

Most important thing individuals could do next year?

Think about how you can make your contributions to social and environmental justice most effective. Consider donating directly to a grassroots organization working for- and in- their local community. Your money/goods/time/skills will go so much further than if supporting the cumbersome bureaucracies of some of the bigger organizations. Prioritize the effectiveness of your donation over your tax credit. Need suggestions on organizations doing awesome work? Email me.

Also think about your role as a global citizen. You are one, whether you like it or not. So why not evaluate your impacts- big and small- across the globe as well as around the corner, and look for positive solutions the same way: across the globe, and around the corner.

What makes a good campaigner?

Passion. Joyful passion. And the attitude that nothing can hold you back from that passion.

What (other) campaign has caught your attention recently?

I am in awe of the work of some of the organizations in India working on sexual slavery. Guria, in Varanasi, has a big picture approach, and has managed to get those brought up on charges of human trafficking and/or sexual slavery held without bail, which means that these cases actually go to trial, where before offenders would get out on bail and disappear with no legal recourse for the women, and girls, held against their will for years in sexual slavery.

In terms of the environment, Gravis is an amazing Indian NGO working in the deserts of Rajasthan to create community water tanks. I interviewed their team in Osian, where women and girls were previously walking up to 10 kilometres a day for water. Now that they have a water storage tank in their community that collects the rainwater they do receive and can be filled by water trucks in times of drought, these women have created a micro-enterprise cooperative, with each woman contributing funds toward community investments. And the girls finally get to go to school like their brothers instead of making the 10km trek daily.

Who is your campaign hero (past or present)?

My father. He died (way too soon) when I was 18. He taught me that I could move any mountain I chose; that my opinion is important and valid - at least as important and valid as anyone else's; and to shift or get off the pot.

Further information:
Paradigm Shift

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