Making International News

Cristi Hegranes and her nonprofit train women around the world so they can help their communities — through journalism.
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In July 2004, Cristi Hegranes found herself in a small village in Nepal, near the border with Tibet, as civil war enveloped the region. In the brutal, decade-long struggle between Maoist rebels and the government forces they wanted to topple, nearly 13,000 people were killed, with hundreds of thousands displaced. In the midst of an eight-month reporting stint to finish her joint master's thesis in journalism and political science, Hegranes was freelancing for international news organizations, producing stories on human-rights abuses, gender issues and the cultural impacts of the war. Most foreign correspondents had been kicked out of Nepal, but Hegranes was able to stay on her student visa.

And yet, she was stuck in a tiny village, high in the mountains, several miles outside the town of Silgarhi. The monsoon season had set in and rain swamped the roads, meaning travel was possible only by walking or riding an elephant, and the fighting that had broken out in nearby towns effectively trapped Hegranes. The male population had all but vanished, either looking for work in the more promising economies of India or the Middle East or swept up into one of the factions fighting the war. Only a few dozen women, children and very old men remained in the hamlet.

So Hegranes struck up a series of conversations with the matriarch of the village, hoping to write a profile of the elderly woman's life as a backdrop to the chaos descending on the area. Although Hegranes spoke Nepali, the local language, she was frustrated by the strained nature of their talks and the hard truth that, as she puts it, "there was a certain level of cultural, political and social context that a foreign correspondent, no matter how well intentioned, can never have. What you write is never false, but it's never fully true, either."

Determined to give a fuller account of this woman's life, Hegranes took an unusual step. "I ended up giving her notebooks and pens and said, 'You write it. Write down your story; say what it is to be you in this time and war.' It took eight or nine days. But what she ended up giving back to me was a piece of journalism," Hegranes, now 27, recalls, infusing the last word with a note of wonder.

"And it dawned on me in that moment: These people need to be reporting news, not just for an international audience but for themselves."

When she moved back to the United States, Hegranes' fledgling journalism career took her from New York to San Francisco, and she stored her Nepal epiphany in the back of her mind, largely dismissing it as the product of being "half-starving in a small village somewhere." But as she grew disillusioned with the stories she was writing for the American media, her mind gradually returned to that scene in the Nepalese village, when an old woman with no journalism experience wrote a great story, simply because she was given pens, paper and the opportunity.

"My boyfriend at the time had just broken up with me," Hegranes says. "It was me and my dog. I figured, 'I'm young; I don't have any children — if I'm ever going to do something stupid, now is the time.'" But far from something stupid, Hegranes began sketching out an ambitious business plan.

Hegranes had no experience running a business, had never written a grant proposal and knew next to nothing about nonprofit organizations. But a little more than two years later, the award-winning nonprofit she founded, the Press Institute for Women in the Developing World, has offices in three countries, including its headquarters in Hegranes' live-work loft in Oakland, Calif. The institute trains female citizens of developing nations to be reporters in their own communities, publishing their stories locally and internationally. The women have no journalism experience when they begin the training, which emphasizes reporting techniques and six core issues that most directly affect the women in their developing homelands: HIV/AIDS, violence against women, poverty, reproductive rights, political oppression and community development.

The Press Institute operates two training sites — one in Kathmandu, Nepal, and one in Chiapas, Mexico — with plans to open a third this summer in Kigali, Rwanda. An international, multilingual newswire service disseminates the articles to an international audience in 50 countries; the institute has also established free literacy centers in its training communities, offering men, women and children classes four days a week. Earlier this year, the international news service Women's eNews named Hegranes one of its 21 Leaders of the 21st Century for 2008; she was also awarded the group's annual Ida B. Wells prize for Bravery in Journalism.

To get the nonprofit going, Hegranes worked 20-hour days, soliciting a variety of organizations for help and financial backing. Along with former journalism professors and colleagues, she developed a curriculum. She needed $54,000 to run the initial training site in Mexico for the first six months; the reaction to her first fundraising efforts was not altogether promising. "I met with a lot of, 'That's cute, Cristi,'" she says. "I think other journalists resented the idea that any half-literate Joe Schmo in a village can do it just as well, or better. Other people appreciated the idea but doubted one person's ability to get it up and running."

Hegranes learned how to write grant applications and draw bylaws and soon had a Web site and the beginnings of a board of directors. Fundraising events started bringing some money in, and volunteers began approaching Hegranes. The requisite $50,000 was raised, and within six months the Press Institute's first office, in Chiapas, Mexico, was running. It was not Hegranes' initial intention to focus the institute exclusively on women, but as she dug deeper into the academic research on development, she saw that improving females' lives often had wider benefits.

"When women receive skills training, studies show they're more likely to have fewer children, to keep those children in school longer, and the success indicators for the entire community go way up," Hegranes says. "Radically feminist politics don't interest me at all. My board is 50 percent men. This is practical feminism."

Hegranes vividly remembers that first "moment of truth" in early August 2006, during the Press Institute's inaugural recruitment day in Chiapas. The center's opening had been advertised for about a month, through radio spots and word of mouth, and Hegranes "foolishly" said sign-ups would begin at 8 a.m. — at an hour when many of the local women were still caring for their families. For much of the morning, Hegranes and her small staff waited anxiously for recruits to show up; none did. Then, about 11 a.m., a knock sounded on the door. When Hegranes opened it, she saw about 30 women standing in line. Over time, 47 women would apply for the five spots in the program.

The only requirement for applicants to the institute's training program is very basic literacy skills. In a one-on-one interview, applicants are asked to explain how their becoming journalists would benefit their communities. "Some people don't have that ability to articulate 'what if?'" Hegranes says. "Some people bring tears to your eyes." At the most recent recruitment drive in Nepal, Amrita Thapa, a 20-year-old married woman with a 3-year-old son, told the institute staff: "I want to ask questions about abolishing caste here, and the jail system is very bad, and there is so much corruption in our government. I want to talk about the big suicide numbers and dirty water in my village where I was born. I'm sorry, have I gone for too much time? I just have too many ideas now."

The five women accepted into the program are required to complete two six-month training sessions back to back. (Women who aren't accepted can sign up for literacy classes at the training center.) Applicants must also agree to sever ties to political groups, a particular problem in Chiapas, where the Zapatista rebellion still tugs on allegiances. "The first day is all about redefining the concept of journalism in these people's minds," Hegranes says. "Most media (in developing countries) are either radically ridiculous or government-owned." By the fifth day of the first program, the trainees are reporting a local news story; by the seventh day, their first stories have been written.

The reporters are expected to produce one story a month, along the way learning to interview sources, to develop angles and, working with one of three institute educators, to write, edit and translate their articles for both global and local audiences. (The institute publishes a run of about 7,000 copies of its own broadsheet newspaper in the training communities; there is also a local Web site.) The second six-month training session emphasizes advanced reporting techniques and includes ethics training. The reporters earn an hourly salary, are also paid per story and photograph and receive royalties when their articles are reprinted elsewhere, as well. As a result, institute reporters see their lives changed in profound ways.

"I wanted to tell the stories of my town," institute reporter Juana de Jesus Perez Mendez says through a translator. "I live so much injustice, and I knew that this was my chance to step out and do something that could make a difference for me and for my family and for my comrades who live in the same poverty. I remember I was the first to show up that day for the interview."

Although de Jesus Perez Mendez came to the initial recruitment day in Chiapas with a second-grade education, a couple of years later, Hegranes calls her a journalistic "rock star." She has tackled stories on health care, welfare reform, corruption in filthy medical clinics and illegal land sales. It's difficult for her to walk down the street in Chiapas without being approached by someone wanting to have a story told. "I have learned that information lets people live freer," de Jesus Perez Mendez says. "I learned that to write an article, you have to give voice to those affected as well as those who affect. To have both sides of the stories, the journalist must not go in favor of one or another but to arrive at all truths, to be objective with all parts."

Since she graduated from the program, de Jesus Perez Mendez has enrolled all three of her children in school; the family just recently got its first sink. "I've learned about the environment and government, things I wasn't aware of," she says. "I've learned many things about life by practicing journalism. And I discovered why journalism is such a hard profession and why many journalists are persecuted or followed."

Recently, the institute had to put the Chiapas office on a three-month hiatus, as donations have fallen during a worldwide economic slump. The institute has redoubled its fundraising efforts and hopes to reopen the office in July, but the government taxes and fees required to maintain nonprofit status in Chiapas are daunting. "Our office in Mexico is constantly in limbo," Hegranes says. "The government makes it clear they don't want us there."

But if funding for Mexico is hard to come by, the institute has received all the backing it needs to open its Rwanda office this summer — as soon as the nearby civil war in the Congo calms down enough to allow Hegranes and her staff to safely enter the country. Hegranes admits she can be frustrated by the effect public perception and media attention have on fundraising. Right now, she notes, Africa is a much easier "sell" for the institute than Mexico. "Some people say, 'Mexico? I've been to Cabo plenty of times; that's not the developing world,'" she says.

The institute has submitted applications to launch training programs in Peru, Paraguay, Botswana, Burkina Faso and Thailand, but the schedule for opening any of those offices depends on fundraising success. In any of those countries, the institute would be training women to report in truly dangerous circumstances; Hegranes says the institute takes these risks seriously.

"We make no bones about it. It's not like running for a popularity contest," says Hegranes, who so far has seen only one of her reporters detained, in Nepal. "There have been times Juana has had a security detail on her. But there will always be safety risks inherent in good journalism."

Hegranes' long-term goal is to split the operation, creating a for-profit publishing arm that would sell institute content to subscribers and using the proceeds to support the nonprofit training centers. She's also exploring venture-capital opportunities. A handful of the institute's graduates have moved on to established newspapers, and one of the reporters used her published stories to get into a university. Most trainees, however, continue to write for the Press Institute after completing the program.

Hegranes has never drawn a salary for her work as president of the institute. To make ends meet, she tends bar in Alameda, Calif., six days a week. "We divert 90 percent of our budget to the global training sites," Hegranes says, noting that program's administrative arm is run by a "small army" of volunteers. "We're still proving the stability of our program. But this works. You can take a half-literate woman and make her write news. What's absent in developing countries is the ability to share your stories with each other. If people have the bare-bones basic tools, communities will drastically change."

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