With well over seven billion humans currently calling earth home, the idea of developing a connection and shared experience with every single person on the planet seems overwhelmingly impossible; but the truth is, we are a global family, and the things that we have in common with one another far outweigh the things that separate us. The mainstream media has an uncanny way of putting world tragedies and issues on display in a way that makes us feel even more disconnected from the people affected– as a viewing audience we are turned into outsiders watching what has happened to someone else, thanking our lucky stars that it wasn’t us.
Luckily however, we have people like director and digital content producer Ishita Srivastava dedicated to developing projects that use digital content and the resources available to us in the age of information to not only expose injustice, but connect us in a way that gives us the power to change things.
As the producer and deputy program director of the global human rights organization Breakthrough, Ishita has spent the last six years using digital content and pop culture to spread awareness about issues ranging from unfair immigration laws to violence against women and gender inequality. What makes her work so unique is it’s range of medium and approach—for example, using satire and humour to deliver polarizing messages in a way that disarms, engages and entertains her audience, all the while shedding light on globally relevant issues that need to be addressed.
In 2013 Ishita created and produced the genius “Deport the Statue” video and accompanying #TakeLibertyBack social media campaign, which reached prompted audiences to take note of an important immigration reform bill that would be life changing for millions of immigrants in America. Reaching a whopping 20 million + people, the “Deport the Statue” video would go on to be featured on major media outlets across the world including the Huffington Post, the BBC, Univision, Telemundo and countless others.
Aside from producing digital content and cross platform campaigns to spread awareness and spark change, Ishita has created, produced and directed an impressive list of documentary films over the years that have been shown around the world. Some of her past works include the film “Desigirls,” which screened at the Davis Feminist Film Festival, the Queens Museum of Art, the Rubin Museum of Art Habitat Center in New Delhi, India and the Gaywise Arts Festival in London, U.K., “Mansimran,” which was featured on MTV’s A Thin Line, “Checkpoint Nation” and many more.
Overall the projects Ishita produces are effective because they lead audiences to take a step back and question some of the ideas that we have come to accept as societal norms. Her newest project for Breakthrough, The G Word, is a global storytelling platform that is connecting users around the world and providing them with a place to share their stories and experiences with gender roles, a deeply rooted cultural norm that affects us all whether we realize it or not.
To find out more about Ishita Srivastava and how she’s using digital content to change the world, make sure to check out our interview below!
Where are you from?
IS: New Delhi, India. I spent the first 20 years of my life there, went to college there, then moved to London for a second undergrad in media and communications at Goldsmiths College, London. In 2007 I moved to New York for a Masters in Cinema Studies and documentary production from Tisch, NYU, and have stayed here ever since!
How did you begin your career as a director and producer of digital content?
IS: While I was growing up, my mother started and ran the first ever photography archive in India, and so I grew up around photographs. Additional artistic influences included theater, which my mother was involved in, and I also joined when I was 9. I used to act in plays but always felt like I was sort of mediocre at it. When I was in college in India, I ended up directing a play for the first time, mostly by accident, and realized that I had a much stronger instinct for directing than I ever had for acting. But whether it was from the photography, theater or all the movies I watched, the common thread that engaged me was storytelling. So after my literature degree in India, I went to London to explore various avenues of storytelling using media/communications.
After taking courses in photography, journalism, radio, fiction and documentary film, I realized that my heart lay with the genre of documentary and nonfiction storytelling. I was—and still am— deeply interested in people and culture, and the ways in which culture holds and facilitates social change and social movements.
So I came to directing and producing via the medium of documentary, but after working in the space of culture change for some years, I realized that what I cared about was telling stories in innovative ways that engendered empathy in the audience, and the medium was secondary.
So over the last five years, I have produced and directed documentaries, fiction film, animated shorts, and interactive storytelling campaigns that utilize engaging user experience to inspire people to share stories and take action on various issues. While documentary remains the medium closest to my heart, I care about telling stories in ways that reach thousands of people, engender empathy, and create social change.
Can you list some of the issues that you’ve addressed with your work so far?
IS: The primary focus on my work has been issues of gender-based violence, sexuality, immigrant issues and rights, and racial justice. However, I believe that issues intersect, and therefore approach all my work from an intersectional human rights and social justice framework. This means that even if my entry point into a story is the frame of gender, telling a complete story means addressing intersecting issues of class, race, nationality, status, sexuality, disability, religious or ethnic identity, etc. As people, we are made up of multiple identities and experiences, so often, when we are faced with injustice, there’s more than one “issue” at play.
Why do you feel storytelling is such a powerful way of not only spreading information but uniting people as well?
IS: Stories connect people. They make people go, “oh, me too,” about things they might not have felt connected to when they read about them as “issues.” Stories help make sense of experiences and show how our challenges are often not universal. Stories allow people to process their experiences and heal; they help form community; and in the right context, stories can empower people into becomes agents of change. Most important to my work, stories can provide an alternative to mainstream narratives and allow us to break from the norm. Stories inspire us to expand or change our point of view, and have the power to enable us to see one another as fully human.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about the “Deport the Statue” video and the accompanying #TakeLibertyBack campaign you produced for Breakthrough back in 2013?
IS: In 2013, we wanted to create a campaign that would grab people’s attention in support of fair and humane immigration reform. Given the highly politicized nature of this subject, we decided to use satire and humor to shine a spotlight on the need for immigration reform; and especially on the fact that undocumented immigrant women are often an even more vulnerable segment of the undocumented population. So, working in partnership with the Yes Lab, an incubator at NYU that helps non-profits develop media-grabbing campaigns using satire, we created a mock organization, called the Legals for the Preservation of American Culture (LPAC), and created a spoof campaign (on LPAC’s behalf) to Deport the Statue of Liberty. The premise of the spoof campaign was that the statue of liberty should be deported since she does not have legal documentation for living and working in the United States. [Even though she has lived and worked here for over a century, she is denied citizenship because she does not have proper documents or any path to citizenship–the story of many hard-working immigrant women in the U.S. who have worked here for decades, yet have no path to citizenship.]
The campaign was anchored by a satirical video that showed the Statue of Liberty at her citizenship interview, where she makes a strong case for herself, and is still denied.
LPAC’s website, deportthestatue.us, incorporated video, text, interactive features, social media advocacy, and downloadable materials to promote their (spoof) goal. We even created fictitious Facebook and Twitter accounts for LPAC, the fictitious founder of LPAC, “Harvey Knowles-Briar.”
To complete the trail of breadcrumbs, the Deport the Statue website and LPAC website links directed people to related media and Breakthrough’s Deport the Statue campaign landing page, which explained the rationale behind the mock campaign and urged readers to join a movement for fair immigration reform by taking concrete actions, such as contacting their Congress members and joining Breakthrough online and on the ground.
Around its launch in June 2013, Deport the Statue received wide attention from the press, which further propelled the campaign. The goal of the satirical project, with all it’s layers, was to make a media splash and get people to realize that the current immigration system is broken, and that wanting to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants that are crucial to society and economy in the U.S., is as ridiculous as deporting the Statue of LIberty for her lack of documents.
I was extremely stoked when the campaign, and especially the video, received a lot of attention from the press, most notable being that I was interviewed by Jeanne Moos on CNN, and they showed most of the Deport the Statue video. Some of the other outlets that covered the campaign included ABC News 10, News 13 (Orlando, FL), AOL News, News Channel 4 (Oklahoma City, OK), Bay News 9 (St. Petersburg, FL), MSN Video, Snopes, Huffington Post Latino Voices, and Univision.
What was going on in American politics at that specific time that made this an important issue to address?
IS: At the time that we produced the Deport the Statue video, we were hoping to capitalize on the new Obama administration and the fact that a bill for comprehensive immigration reform was potentially coming before Congress. There had been some energy and focus on the need for immigrant rights, and especially the rights of immigrant women, during the Presidential elections the previous year, and we were hoping that we could draw some additional attention to the issue.
What kinds of things did you consider when you were developing the concept for the Deport the Statue video in order to give the message the necessary space to reach viewers and actually have an impact?
IS: When I was producing and directing the Deport the Statue campaign and video, I pulled on my three previous years of experience working on the issue of immigrant rights and racial justice and thought very intentionally about creating a concept that would enable people to move beyond the politics of the issue and actually think about it. Previously, I had produced short documentary films, featuring true stories of undocumented immigrant women that had been racially profiled and had their rights violated; in 2012, I produced a campaign for immigrant women’s rights called #ImHere, which had at its centerpiece, a short fiction film called The Call, about a family where the mother might be facing deportation. The Call sought to appeal to people’s emotions and empathy.
In 2013, I felt like it was time to use humor to lighten and spotlight a heavily political issue.
Can you tell us a little bit about using humour in the videos you create and why that is valuable when dealing with some of the polarizing topics you address?
IS: I care a lot about reaching the mainstream and inspiring them to care about social justice issues. And I’m very aware that people today are very savvy, and used to tuning out and off when they think they are being preached to. So it is important for me to challenge myself by using innovating, creative digital techniques, like humor, that take people by surprise, and get them to pay attention. Additionally, given the circumstances in which we live (and the 24 hour media cycle), we are constantly bombarded with heavy, sad stories in the media.
I believe that in order to create social change, in addition to being moved by what are often sad stories, we must also be creatively inspired. Humor allows people the chance to look at an otherwise complicated and heavy issue with some lightness; it invites them into a more open conversation rather than have them enter into the issue with preconceived notions, political ideology, and often defensive ideas. Humor can also be universal, surprising, and inspiring, and therefore, when used well, can be an extremely useful strategy in social change work.