Media-savvy kids turn a community on its ears – and find a voice
When a taxi driver in the Dominican Republic asked Canadian Heather Borquez to keep quiet so he could hear the latest installment from this new teenage investigative reporter on his radio – she knew she had a hit on her hands.
What had started as a pilot project to let kids express themselves through the media had turned into a highly successful and very popular radio feature. More important, it had given dozens of children who had few other opportunities a powerful voice and an opportunity to lead change in their communities.
Breaking the barriers
“These kids were talking about issues that people rarely spoke about publicly,” recalls Borquez, who at the time was Country Director of Plan Dominican Republic. “The topics included child abuse and incest, rape, alcoholism and pollution.”
Today, as Director, Program Management for Plan Canada, Heather Borquez continues to speak enthusiastically about the Child Media project – one of many projects she oversaw while working in the Dominican Republic.
When the project was launched in the village of Barahona, near the border with Haiti, the goals were pretty straightforward: Teach the children how to interview people, record the story and edit it. The segments were to be broadcast once a week on a local radio station. Children between the ages of 10 and 16 from half a dozen villages were invited to participate.
“What impressed me most was that they broke all the barriers,” says Borquez. “They introduced a host of very serious issues.”
They wanted to know if the government knew that cars were speeding through their villages, hurting and even killing people. Parents were coming home drunk, beating the children, not feeding them. Frustrated by the rampant alcoholism in their community, the kids began to publicly chastise the bar owners for allowing their parents to drink. They would ask the bar owners why they didn’t care this was going on.
“It was interesting because everybody knew about these problems, but no one was talking about them, especially not on the radio,” says Borquez. “And the kids would just blast through social norms and even name names!”
A community transformed
One boy became interested in the lake his family lived on. He interviewed relatives, friends and neighbours and discovered that the fish were dying, threatening a key food source for the village. He followed the story for five or six weeks, uncovering the fact that pollution from the nearby factory was killing the fish. He interviewed the factory’s manager and its owner.
“When my cab driver became riveted to the story,” recalls Borquez, “I was delighted to see that it had garnered that level of interest in the community.”
The children succeeded in bringing about changes in their villages, such as the installation of speed bumps to reduce accidents.
But having their voices heard also transformed the children.
They came from the poorest part of the country and had little reason to hope for a better future. When they first joined the project, they were often dirty, in rags and very subdued. Many came from troubled family backgrounds, and some had suffered abuse and rape. But within a few years, they blossomed into self-confident, articulate young people.
“We had trained them, given them the tools,” explains Borquez. “They had truly become a voice in their community, which is a key goal for Plan. We believe that children have unique insights into what it will take to create a better life and a better future, and that too often their voices go unheard.”
With a new-found sense of purpose and confidence, these children were equipped to have a say in decisions that affected them, providing valuable input to Plan project staff working in the community and to local politicians.
Today, Plan’s Child Media program has expanded into 76 villages throughout the Dominican Republic and involves thousands of children. Other Plan offices around the world are replicating this successful model.
As for the young man who broke the story about the pollution killing all the fish in the village, he is on record as saying he wants to be President of the Dominican Republic some day.
Given his track record, he may well succeed.