Equal Access International uses the power of compelling media to educate and empower communities around the world. Photo courtesy of Advocate Creative.

Storytelling for Social Change

Equal Access International uses the power of storytelling and media to solve problems around the world.

The Tech
The Tech
Sep 14, 2016 · 5 min read

The Tech Awards, presented by Applied Materials, will be held Nov. 17, 2016. This year, The Tech Awards will celebrate a retrospective of the program’s history by honoring seven past laureates who have made an enormous difference in the world. For more information visit: www.thetech.org/tech-awards-presented-applied-materials.

It was the kind of project that deserved a larger audience. Two young people in Nepal hosted a radio show called “Chatting with My Best Friend.” While the program attracted a following with its charismatic hosts, the real draw was the serious topic: HIV/AIDS and how youth could make good decisions to protect themselves.

Photo courtesy of Advocate Creative.

Young Nepalese craved a trustworthy, non-judgemental source of information about the challenges they faced. But a larger microphone was needed. San Francisco-based Equal Access International provided it.

Encouraged by winning a 2003 Tech Award in the Education category, Equal Access expanded the show’s reach by partnering with UNICEF Nepal. Today, that little program has grown into a national treasure. An audience of 7.2 million listeners — a quarter of the entire country — tunes in to “Chatting with My Best Friend.” Nepal’s youth have come together through social media and in listening clubs to support one another in making positive changes based around discussions from the show.

Equal Access is being honored again this year as part of a retrospective gala on Nov. 17, 2016, celebrating the program’s first 15 years. Equal Access will be recognized with the Microsoft Education Award for the impact it has had since first being named a laureate. It will receive a $50,000 prize. Learn more about all of this year’s laureates.

“I’ve worked in many different countries replicating this project, and while people might be from different countries, their core issues are very similar,” said Binita Shrestha, the Equal Access country representative in Nepal. “The life skills that we’re teaching are useful for everyone, no matter where they live.”

“Winning The Tech Awards was so important to us early on. It had a huge impact. It made us feel like we were on to something. The people who were funding us at the time, like the UN Foundation, were really excited, too. It was validation that our work and its impact are important.”

— Ronni Goldfarb, Equal Access CEO and president

In fact, the Equal Access model of social programming for people of all ages now is in nine countries and produced in 21 languages. Simply put, Equal Access believes people everywhere hunger for knowledge, role models and inspiration. When information and education facilitated by Equal Access is presented by local indigenous staff from those countries, real change happens.

“Our programs help people believe in themselves and gain the confidence and skills they need to improve their lives no matter what their circumstances,” said Ronni Goldfarb, Equal Access CEO and president. “We just have thousands of success stories where people tell us: ‘Through your shows, I now believe that my life has potential and you have given me the courage to take action.’ ”

James L. Koch, a senior founding fellow at Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, said he has never seen an organization have a greater influence on more people than Equal Access.

“They’ve changed the narrative to one of hope, especially for women,” he said. “I just don’t think there are many stories better than the one of Equal Access. They have shown people the possibilities of life.”

Equal Access relies on local journalists and content creators to tell stories that will make an impact in their communities. Photo courtesy of Advocate Creative.

For instance, in Afghanistan, Equal Access has played an ongoing role in supporting women and girls by promoting an end to early forced marriages and greater access to education. In 2014, the organization launched the world’s first, and only, Hausa-language satellite TV channel, in northern Nigeria. Today, AREWA24 provides programming that educates children, empowers women and girls and celebrates the region’s diverse culture.

“Media is one of the most powerful influences in the modern world,” Goldfarb said. “With the ability to reach millions, media can be used as a positive force or a force that creates fear and division. I always wanted to create media that would be useful and empowering.”

Two key influences in Goldfarb’s life led her to create Equal Access. She worked in the New York City public school system teaching life skills to at-risk youth through peer-to-peer counseling. Later, after attending NYU’s film school, she spent 15 years creating multimedia product launches and videos for Fortune 500 companies and United Nation agencies.

She founded Equal Access in 2000 to combine those interests. Media, she said, is the supreme storyteller.

When Equal Access was first honored by The Tech Awards, it was reaching 10,400 women and girls in marginalized, remote regions of Nepal. Today, the organization touches 67 million people in countries around the world via radio, satellite TV and social media. This past year alone, Equal Access produced nearly 3,000 episodes and broadcasted almost 10,000 hours of programming.

“Ronni is an inspiration for all of us,” said Shrestha, speaking from Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu. “She listens and understands what our aspirations are, and we always have her full support. That’s the great thing about Equal Access. She wants us to follow our dreams.”

In Nepal, “Chatting with My Best Friend” has been on the air for 15 years. For the people behind this success, it’s become clear that it’s not just a radio program. It’s much more — a source of community, a wellspring of hope.

That philosophy and vision carries over into every program the organization produces, Goldfarb said.

“Equal Access is a movement that is positively transforming millions of lives when our world needs it most.”

Year of Previous Award: 2003

Regions of Impact: Asia, Africa

Funding Sources: International development agencies, foundations, individual donors.

Problem: People in the developing world lack access to information that can change both their lives as individuals as well as their societies as a whole.

Solution: Seeks to create positive social change for millions of underserved people in the developing world by providing information and education through innovative media programming and community action.

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