Blog: Disempowered.

GPI HQ —Since the beginning, my goal has been the same: create a training-to-employment program that enables women in developing media markets to become the storytellers of record in some of the least-covered parts of the world.

That mission has long been communicated to funders, training recruits and staff in terms of “our three E’s.”

Educate, employ, empower.

GPI offers a training program that prepares local women to become ethical, investigative, feature journalists. In a 24-module curriculum they learn everything from ethics and interviewing techniques to photojournalism and safety and security protocols. (Educate.)

After completing the training, we offer 100 percent of our graduates employment, working as professional reporters for Global Press Journal, the award-winning publication of GPI. (Employ.)

Over the last 10 years we’ve opened 41 independent news bureaus and trained more than 150 women. We pay strong, living wages to all of our reporters to produce high-quality feature journalism from remote parts of the globe, offering greater access to information for local and global audiences.

It’s a system that has worked well.

A majority of our journalists also report extraordinary life changes – earning a living wage in a profession of literate leadership has propelled some of our reporters to win awards, earn greater respect in their homes and communities, improve basic life circumstances, even testify before their governments and attend international gatherings as experts. (One even ran for parliament.)

In our most recent annual report, 88 percent of our journalists reported being better able to care for themselves and their families thanks to their employment here. (More on the annual report next week.) What’s more, I am often the fortunate recipient of email messages from my team of global reporters that say things like, “We’ve moved to a safer part of town.”

“I got my son back.”

“My babies will have a wonderful Christmas this year.”

Or, “My husband and I are equals now.”

I used to think of these statements as evidence of GPI making good on its third E, empowerment.

But I’ve changed my mind.

And everything you just read was a long preamble to a simple decision to remove the word empower from Global Press Institute’s mission.

By definition empowerment is something given. And I used to believe that empowerment was something GPI offered, something that naturally followed successful training and long-term employment. But the truth is, the women of GPI have not been given empowerment. Those who have found it here, claimed it for themselves through hard work and tenacious commitment to a principled practice of journalism.

Of course, I do believe that journalism is an empowering profession. At GPI, it demands rigor and precision. Humanity. Dignity. Ethics.

Our particular brand of journalism is extra challenging, with its additional layers of local and global relevance, our lofty code of ethics and our commitment to accuracy at all costs (and time tables.)

So in fairness, I should add that there are reporters who don’t make it here. Just a month ago, for example, a promising trainee in India confessed that our standards of rigor were too much for her. The length of time it took to produce a story was oppressive, she said. She preferred to seek work in local media where her stories weren’t subject to scruitinous fact checks and quality-control processes. And she’s not the only one.

Then, we must consider the multitude of realities that our team of reporters, across 26 countries, exisit within.

Some reporters are proflific in publication, while others produce just four or six stories per year. Some really hustle and some just scrape by. Some have six children. Some have none. Some live in conflict zones. Some have family money. Some are victims of domestic violence. Some have higher education. And for many, local circumstances outweigh any positive gain that GPI brings.

So how can GPI promise empowerment?

It can’t.

So, last week, after 10 years, I deleted the word “empower” from our mission statement.

I announced the change in a year-end memo to my global team.

The three E’s of our mission are probably well known to you by now – Educate. Employ. Empower. The first two remain my commitment to you. But the third E, is up to you. I hope that you find empowerment here. I hope you feel empowered to tell exceptional stories. I hope you feel empowered to be leaders and to earn money. I hope you understand that this a truly limitless opportunity. But I no longer feel that that the third E is mine to give. Rather, it is yours to take.”

To my surprise, reporters and editors applauded the change.

“Empowerment is subjective,” Aliya Bashir, a long-time GPJ senior reporter from Indian-administered Kashmir wrote in an email.

Over the years, Aliya has produced some of our best stories. She’s also been outspoken when our editorial process has become inefficient or when we needed to staff up to keep up with editorial demand. I trust her opinion and I trust that she’ll tell me the truth. So when I asked her to expand on her opinion about GPI deleting the word “empower” from its mission she told me she was a big fan of the change.

“Empowerment is meaningful and special for us in so many different ways — economically, freedom of expression, growth, learning, decision-making power, being truthful, working on dream projects and much more,” she wrote. “In a nutshell, GPI is a powerful tool through which we liberate ourselves from being dependent on others to chase our dreams.”

Whoa.

“Reporters are given each and every skill and resource that they need to tell those exceptional stories,” she continued. “So I sincerely believe that we are active participants in our own empowerment.”

Responses from other team members were equally strong.

“It was not appropriate to consider education and employment at the same level as empowerment,” wrote Ivonne Jeannot Laens of GPJ Argentina. Ivonne started as a trainee in 2012, and fast became the country coordinator for GPJ Argentina before joining the GPI training staff for the Americas. “The empowerment is the goal. And to meet that goal one needs what is given from the outside and also what comes from inside. We can only offer the tools for the women of GPI to empower themselves.”

Congo Group Shot
The Global Press team in DRC with founder Cristi Hegranes.

And perhaps my favorite response came from Noella Nyirabihogo, a senior reporter and country coordinator from GPJ Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I know that with GPI my kids will go to a nice school. I know that they will eat well. I know that one day I will get my own house. And above all I know that one day I will be known as one of the most intelligent journalists in DRC, one who wrote life-changing articles,” she wrote. “But I am the only one who can achieve all of those goals. GPI gave me a field but I’m the one to cultivate it.”

So, just like that, I’m out of the empowerment business. But, I guess I was never really in it.

The act of offering an opportunity is not a promise of empowerment, I know that now.

In some ways, I regret t

he years when I assumed empowerment was part of the GPI package. But I am grateful to be surrounded by so many people who use the incredible opportunity that is GPI to tell brave stories, to speak truth to power, to invest in their own livelihoods and in their communities.

Most of all, I am proud to employ more than 100 women who don’t need an empowerment handout.

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