Open Conversations & Collaborations in Franschhoek: Thoughts from the 2019 WITNESS Global Retreat

“We need to be able to show breasts.”

This was only one of many of my learning moments at this year’s WITNESS retreat: the importance of Facebook support groups for the trans-community, specifically around sex-reassignment surgery and for those navigating the challenges of transforming their body and identity. “For much of the queer community, this is all they have in terms of support,” one of my colleagues pointed out. “If Facebook moderation takes down these images because of their AI around breasts, it could cause a lot damage.” Seeing photos of people from around the world, sharing their transition, creates a lifeline of support for many to not feel isolated and alone.

It was my 3rd day at WITNESS.

WITNESS team in a facilitated group exercise

As a social change documentarian who has worked for years in global development, I feel like I’ve known about WITNESS almost since its inception. Through its many evolutions from solely video work to short-term video advocacy intensives to longer-term video collaborations, I undervalued the importance of technology and its contributions to social connections. But it’s core to WITNESS’ secret sauce.

It was a very real juxtaposition: the retreat sessions were device free but in the rest periods, people were learning how to use drones. WITNESS is a small and nimble team of thirty staff and several more regional consultants: technology (Slack, Signal, Email) is at the core of how we connect. Our teams in various regions in the world stay engaged with local and national activists at scale through social media.

Yet, at the same time, we are a deeply passionate and opinionated team that thrives on collaboration and a collective spirit. Rather than spend our off day as tourists in Cape Town, we spent the day with local communities a few miles from the retreat center in Franschoek, learning about their histories, sharing meals, and enjoying a local braai. We brought in facilitators deeply entrenched in the feminist and radical movements in South Africa, as well as a graphic artist to visualize all our sessions on poster board that we could reflect on back home.

We had many of the sessions one would expect: what is our culture? Values? Let’s review our upcoming strategy and mission. But then towards the second half of the week we embarked on collaborative work planning. While the term is incredibly unsexy, it’s a truly new way of working that many organizations aspire to. Essentially, based on the first half of the week, different program teams and leads strived to create a work plan with input from ALL members of the organization, from external relations to operations to programs. If this wasn’t challenging enough, there are cycles of renaming, restructuring, and reframing how people work that impact their work immediately. It’s literally how to work forward as a cohesive team.

I’m excited with what we’ve come up with. We have decided to focus on thematic areas — police violence, land rights, and war crimes for the near future — with the lens of equity, tech advocacy, and video as evidence throughout. We are defining our impact and goals based on activists we can reach as well as policies and regulations we can influence. And we have decided to keep bridging the gap between our NY and regional-based teams, committing to global, community-based retreats for upcoming years.

I’m excited for the work ahead, and to see where our conversations — online and in-person — lead us.

Written by Ambika Samarthya-Howard, Head of Communications, WITNESS

Originally published at WITNESS Blog.