How this Filmmaker Realized One Person Can Make a Difference #ExperteerSpotlight

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

It seemed like every time Shiouwen turned on the news, a new humanitarian crisis was breaking. The constant stream of negative stories affected her, but she felt stuck: too small on her own to make an impact, but too impassioned to stand by and do nothing. What’s an aspiring changemaker to do?

Through MovingWorlds, Shiouwen was able to channel her passion into a meaningful contribution to the greater good. Continue reading to see how this filmmaker used her skills to create new opportunities for special needs students in Northern India.

A few of the special students in class at Bodhi Tree School

What inspired you to take the leap and go experteering?

Making films and telling stories have always been my passion. I love the work, but I grew tired of doing the same thing on repeat for purely commercial purposes. I have always been inspired by for-profit brands that are socially conscious with progressive marketing strategies, such as Toms and Patagonia. My dream job would be to work for a purpose-driven company like that. I wasn’t sure how to connect the dots between dream and reality though, and it seemed far-fetched that I would really be able to make a meaningful impact as one person without being attached to a big-name company. At least, that had been the excuse in my head for not ‘taking the leap’ sooner.

What ultimately spurred me into taking action was my increasing awareness of the seemingly nonstop humanitarian crises all over the world. The major outrageous acts of violence and hatred flowing in through the news on a daily basis reached a point where I could no longer shut myself off to it by thinking “I don’t care about politics.” Instead of joining the complaining or hating, I wanted to help make a change by getting involved and doing something. It was finally time for me to look for something more than a ‘job’ that aligned better with what I love and believe in. If I am sick of watching the news portraying the bad, I should be out there finding and sharing the good. Even if I couldn’t change all the hatred against race, gender, religion and sexuality, I could seek out stories that connect people and reflect our common humanity. As a professional videographer and photographer, I know well the power of media to change perceptions, and know a video could go a long way in reaching and connecting world audiences.

Finding a way to contribute my skills for positive change became the objective of my decision to go experteering. When I started looking initially, I realized that finding a skill-based volunteering project wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Of course I looked into the brands I admired as a starting point, but as it turns out most of their video work was done elsewhere by a professional production company. Without any connections or proper introductions, I felt that I didn’t stand a chance in getting a gig like that. So I started searching for opportunities that were on the same spectrum that could open those doors for me. I was so excited to find exactly what I was looking for in MovingWorlds!

What were you doing before experteering?

I am a freelance director and designer for various commercial work. I have been working in the industry for almost 10 years now, and videography and photography are integral to my profession. I have always aspired to contribute my skill set for a greater purpose beyond commercial work. As a freelancer, time and physical location are relatively flexible, so epxerteering seemed to be an obvious choice to break the routine and explore stories that weren’t often featured in mainstream media.

Village families are up working before sun breaks. Farming is the main income source in rural areas. Instead of going to school, children (particularly of lower castes) are often asked to stay home for chores or help in the fields.

What did you do on your experteering trip?

I partnered with The Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation, an organization that helps transform the lives of children and their families living in poor underserved villages around the region of Bodhgaya, in Northern India. Through the Bodhi Tree School, the organization brings quality education and proper healthcare along with family and community support programs to those that need it most. Its work is founded on the belief that when children receive good education and caring support, they can become leaders that help lift their families and whole communities out of the cycle of poverty, and I was immediately inspired by their mission and eager to support.

Bihar is one of India’s most illiterate states and has the lowest rate of female literacy. Most girls in rural villages are married by age 18 and have never attended school. Bodhi Tree Foundation works hard in creating equal access to education for both boys and girls.

I worked with the team to make a short film that shines a light on the cultural and personal impact of their work to support special needs children in the community. In collaboration with Bodhi Tree School, I followed a down syndrome student, Neha, to share her experience in the village she lives in and the challenges she and every special needs child faces in the community. As the special needs program for children program just started a few years ago, the school is still working hard to keep making improvements to grow and scale it. The organization was looking for more ways to tell its impact story, and wanted to use media to help. Through these videos, the organization hopes to raise awareness of the problem they’re solving and to create new marketing materials that will secure more funding for the program.

Neha, the main subject in the documentary, has Down syndrome and endures various learning disabilities. Yet nothing holds her back when she dances!

What was the highlight of your experteering trip?

Throughout the days I was filming, I spent a lot of time in the Bodhi Tree School special needs classroom. I was too overwhelmed to engage at first, but all of the students were so welcoming and helped me ease into the interaction in an authentic way. I got to know some of the students really well, particularly Neha, the young girl with Down’s syndrome who I profiled in the videos. Bodhi Tree students have various learning disabilities, and for most of them it takes time to get comfortable with newcomers. That made it all the more meaningful when I could see the students warming up to me — toward the third week of my visit, Neha would come running next to me and held my hand saying “Good Morning!” when I arrived. At that moment, I felt proud to have made it into her circle and to have gained her trust. Her bright smiles became a huge motivation for my work.

Handing out school flyers to village people. On daily basis, children with disabilities are at risk of abuse and neglect. School staff walk door to door to ask families in need to come to school for a psychological assessment.

Another highlight came at the end of my experteering project. The school arranges a monthly meeting for student’s families to exchange ideas and best practices for helping their special needs children at home. While framing the event behind the lens of my camera, I saw in their faces the love and determination involved in providing care for their children and supporting them through their unknown futures. There was so much cultural context required in order to fully comprehend their experience trying to support these special kids in an environment without the resources or cultural dialogue to facilitate it. I couldn’t pretend to know the depth of their struggle within my short stay, but what I experienced and felt in that room was both awe-inspiring and heartbreaking. Parents attending this event demonstrated so much love and belief in their children, even if some of the parents were still in the mindset of wanting their children to be “normal” like everyone else. Providing education and resources to manage expectations and offer new tools to parents is part of what makes the Bodhi Tree School so important in the community – it touches all levels, promoting acceptance and appreciation of those who are different. I couldn’t stop my tears and put down my camera for a moment. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of both hope and grief the parents faced. I felt we were together in fighting the pain and fears. I tried my best but there are really no words that could portray the exact hues of binding over time and a shared space. That is something truly rewarding about experteering — that you go to do a specific task, but you leave having gained so much more and it changes you even after you return home. It is a continuous conscious endeavor, to say the least.

A biweekly special needs program meeting is held at school to inform and educate parents about how to help their children with self-care skills at home.

What was one thing you wish you knew before volunteering overseas?

Looking back, I am grateful for my experteering opportunities. The experience provoked new thoughts and connected me with the most beautiful people with the biggest heart, and that humbled me indefinitely. Personally it was a great cultural experience as a traveller. Professionally the connection with local people adds great depth to my work.

Like any overseas experience, there were obstacles along the way that looking back I could have mitigated. A major lesson was learning not to take certain knowledge or information for granted. For example, in this trip particularly, I wish I’d communicated more about the logistics of videomaking and production. I was surprised and not surprised how little people know about video making basics, like maintaining a sense of timing. This resulted in having to deviate a bit from the original schedule, which we still made work in the end but I think it’s good to do some contingency planning ahead of time.

Overall, my biggest take-away was that while planning is crucially important, it’s important to remain agile and adaptable to unforeseen changes on the ground. To capture the authentic emotions and reality of daily living takes numerous trial-and-error attempts which couldn’t have been fleshed out in the pre-planning. Overall, experteering is all about working with local culture and people. My best advice would be to remember that common knowledge in one place isn’t necessarily common in another, and to keep an open heart! Throughout my project, I would remind myself to not get so caught up in the ‘plan’ and enjoy and fully embrace the present as that is why I came and ‘took the leap’ in the first place.

What advice do you have for other people thinking about experteering?

If you share a love of travel and the freedom that comes with it, experteering is an incredibly rewarding experience. When I started looking for programs that could offer this kind of immersive cultural experience, I was initially searching for volunteering programs, but once I discovered experteering I realized it fit my purposes better. The emphasis on capacity building and skills transfer allowed me to deliver real value as a high-level consultant of sorts and gain relevant professional experience.

I actually ended up working closely with a few Bodhi Tree volunteers throughout my project, and I got to learn more about both endeavors (volunteering vs. experteering) which are very different. Experteering normally involves one or two specific tasks/deliverables and takes a lot of work and preparation in advance, while volunteering involved mostly non-specific field work with more flexibility day-to-day. I’m grateful to have found experteering because I felt I could operate at a different level and have the satisfaction of seeing my project through to the end.

Puri in the making- another one of Shiouwen’s Experteering highlights, where she got to experience authentic culture. “It was so beautiful to see women in the family working together to prepare lunch. In India, women play key role in the kitchen as well as binding families together.”

So keep in mind that not all ‘volunteering’ projects are equal and that experteering is different. Particularly because experteering engagements are time sensitive and project-specific, communication is crucial to having a successful project and being able to navigate the unexpected. If any advice at all — be restless, be cool!

Anything else you’d like to add?

I want to thank the MovingWorlds Matching Team and community for connecting me with this opportunity, providing support throughout, and facilitating shared growth and learning through the program. It really helps knowing someone’s got your back when you’re immersed in an unfamiliar environment, and knowing I had the team and community behind me helped me feel a lot more confident and secure when I arrived on the ground.

Continuing to advance the cause with a march for special needs children. Due to limited medical and learning support, children with disabilities were often mistreated by their families and neighbors.

We’re grateful to Shiouwen for sharing her story, and to Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation for the opportunity. You can keep up with Shiouwen’s work by following her on Instagram and checking for the final version of the video! Inspired by Shiouwen’s story? Take action to make the world a better place with your skills by applying to experteer.