Men and women from 11 different countries came together in Almaty, Kazakhstan in early November 2019 to work together on strategies to empower women in the media industry and counter disinformation. The 30 alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs met in Almaty for an Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminar (Alumni TIES), representing countries across South and Central Asia and various media fields (journalism, film, television, academia, and music). The seminar would prove to be a space for these media changemakers and passionate exchange alumni to come together, share personal experiences and social challenges, and build a professional network to support one another’s work.
Stories of the storytellers
During the four-day seminar, alumni shared their professional expertise, perspectives, and personal experiences to shine a light on how to effectively promote women’s equality within the media industry and how to promote media and information literacy in their communities. These experiences, as one alumna put it, were “the stories of the storytellers.”
Representatives from the Office of Alumni Affairs of the U.S. Department of State kicked off the seminar with a networking session, where Alumni TIES participants shared stories with one another about how their U.S. exchange programs influenced them and the important work that they are engaged in their home communities to advocate for women’s voices to be fairly represented in the media on social issues. The group spent the rest of the day learning about the advantages and connections that they would gain from their continued involvement in the International Exchange Alumni Network, which ignited the conversation on how to empower women’s agency through media. To close out their first day, the group enjoyed a historic and cultural tour of Almaty, which included major sites such as the Zenkov Cathedral, the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen, and the Green Bazaar. By gaining a better insight into the culture and history of their temporary host country, they were able to connect with both the city and each other.
Throughout the rest of the seminar week, the Alumni TIES participants discussed the power of disinformation and the importance of engaging local stakeholders in the documentary filmmaking process, as well as data-based reporting, the role of citizen journalism in today’s media, and creating multimedia content for positive social change.
Press freedom, disinformation, and crowdfunding
For alumni, a major highlight of the Alumni TIES experience is the opportunity to visit local organizations within the host community that are working in the same space as the topic of the seminar. During their time in Almaty, Alumni TIES participants met with three local organizations — Hola News, Internews Kazakhstan, and Vlast.kz — to learn how each organization was addressing media literacy, press freedom, and disinformation in Kazakhstan.
At Hola News, alumni learned about how to maintain credible journalism, what it’s like to pitch a story that is crowdfunded, and how to engage with younger audiences, while upholding journalistic standards. While visiting Internews Kazakhstan, participants learned about media literacy, fact-checking, critical media consumption, and programs that improve the independent media environment in Central Asia. At Vlast.kz, the group met with the founder, who discussed how Vlast manages its reporting and news dissemination in Almaty, Atyrau, and Astana, and how independent media outlets sustain themselves financially in Kazakhstan.
Immediately following these meetings, the participants visited the American Space/Maker Space in Almaty, where Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) Aleisha Woodward of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs addressed the group. DAS Woodward spoke about her experience working at the State Department and the challenges she has faced as a woman advancing her career, as well as why State engages with international exchange alumni around the world. Moreover, DAS Woodward emphasized the role of journalists as gatekeepers and how disinformation can impact society.
After DAS Woodward’s powerful presentation, Alumni TIES participants put together hypothetical media campaigns to address social problems affecting women in their countries, such as domestic violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, and period shaming. By the end of the day, it was evident that every participant had come to realize that, regardless of their diverse home countries, they had much more in common in their respective communities than they had imagined.
During the seminar, the participants had several opportunities to connect with one another as they brainstormed projects that they could enact in their own communities to empower women’s advancement in the media industry and support media and information literacy. Alumni TIES participants can apply for a grant of up to $10,000 to implement a community project related to the seminar theme. Potential projects that were discussed included organizing media literacy workshops for underprivileged women, and hosting an educational radio show on how to identify disinformation campaigns and support women’s equality in the workplace.
The Chargé d’Affaires, Theodore Lyng of the U.S. Embassy Nur-Sultan, closed the seminar with inspirational words for the group after listening to an insightful participant-led panel discussion about media projects that increase community awareness about youth unemployment, migrant discrimination, and gender-based violence. The seminar ended with a closing dinner and cultural dance show at a traditional Kazakh/Uzbek restaurant. Through the laughter, smiles, and non-stop conversations, it was evident that this group had formed a bond that would last well after they had returned home. This seminar had created a space for these media changemakers and passionate exchange alumni to come together, share personal experiences and social challenges, and build a professional network to support one another’s work. The World Learning Alumni TIES team left confident that these participants will continue their work in breaking down social barriers to women’s advancement in the media industry, developing media and information literacy initiatives to counter disinformation, and including women’s voices on women’s social issues in media and film.
The Alumni Thematic International Exchange Seminars (Alumni TIES) program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by World Learning.