Sylvia Mejía Piñeros

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 1999
This description of Sylvia Mejía Piñeros's work was prepared when Sylvia Mejía Piñeros was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.


Sylvia Mejia is training young communications graduates and other motivated professionals to become "video-transformers," who use the video camera creatively as an empowerment tool for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.

The New Idea

Sylvia has worked with video cameras for the past 25 years and has witnessed their power in changing people's attitudes about themselves. She is working towards breaking down stereotypes seen on television, and the common belief that television is only for celebrities and "important" people. With her technical skills, she has created a program in which she trains a strategically selected group of social workers, communications students, teachers and psychologists to use video cameras to help disadvantaged groups overcome problems of low self-esteem which prevent them from being productive members of society. Those whom she trains will in turn train others in the implementation of video as a transforming tool. One source she taps into is the pool of hundreds of graduates every year in Colombia with degrees in social communications. Many of them look to become famous movie directors, though there are few opportunities for such positions as the film market is very limited within Colombia and Latin America. Those who do consider entering the field of social development have mostly worked in the area of social documentaries, and have not used their capacities with video equipment to address the social, psychological, and creative requirements of the neediest sectors. Sylvia is instead encouraging these students to become "video-transformers," utilizing television and images as a true instrument of change. While many non-governmental organizations have incorporated video cameras to document the social problems and successes of their clientele, in Sylvia's model the importance of the camera work is not the end-product, but rather the therapeutic process of filming itself, which transforms the self-image and self-esteem of its subjects, allowing them to deepen their understanding of themselves and unlocking their creative capacity. Prisoners, sexual workers, street children, abused women, HIV patients, and other marginalized groups not only get filmed, but also do the filming. They often come to learn that they have certain skills in managing the camera equipment or conducting interviews, and become interested in pursuing further activities with the camera. Many of these subjects will eventually receive training to replicate their experiences with other disadvantaged groups, providing them with the opportunity to help others, while simultaneously increasing their own self-esteem. They also have the opportunity to observe themselves on screen, in a form which they typically associate with television or movie stars. They become aware and proud of their own creative capacity as they watch their performance in front of the camera. Sylvia and other facilitators have them act out scenes of other ways they might conduct their lives. Witnessing this portrayal on the television screen enables them to envision themselves in certain activities that they never thought possible and motivates them to make the vision a reality.

The Problem

In Colombian society there are tremendous social and economic disparities: close to 2% of the population owns 98% of the land and capital. According to Sylvia, there is a model of social interaction at work in Colombia which is based on disdain for those people who suffer from poverty. Furthermore, family organization is based on a traditional patriarchal system in which women are considered as the human element of least value, and are often physically and mentally abused. In Latin America as a whole, more than half of all women have been assaulted at some point in their lives within their own homes, 33% have suffered sexual abuse, and 45% have been insulted, threatened or have seen their belongings destroyed in front of them (United Nations Development Fund for Women, 1998). In other sectors, such as the prison system, inmates receive little psychological attention. Without rehabilitative therapy they often do not discover their true capabilities or learn about other life options once they complete their sentences. Such situations have created sectors of society with extremely poor self-images that paralyze their hopes and capabilities, and create within them feelings of fear, impotence and a debilitating lack of self-esteem, making it difficult for them to overcome their disadvantaged backgrounds and become productive members of society. Added to problems associated with poverty, domestic abuse, and a lack of rehabilitative penal system, is the overarching issue of increasing violence and displacement within Colombia, where more than one million people, equal to 3% of the population, have been displaced and forced from their homes in the last 10 years. 58% of those displaced are women heads of households and 72% are under the age of 25. With violence permeating all aspects of society, children grow up to be adults who have never resolved the pain of fundamental losses and become hardened to the suffering of others. In the absence of an awareness about the causes of the abuse they have suffered, people tend to repeat their own histories, and perpetuate violent actions toward others, making Colombia the leader in child abuse and mistreatment, with an abuse rate of 47% of all children. Problems such as these demand creative solutions that deal not only with political and economic dimensions, but also with the social and psychological aspects that the victims face. They require a battery of tools to deal with psychological issues, to make young people aware of how the violence has affected them and to boost their self-esteem after being displaced or abused, in order to break the cycle of violence. Television is a powerful instrument within Latin America. Even the poorest families own television sets and are bombarded with images that come from abroad, and do not approximate the reality of Latin America. Sylvia indicates that Colombians, and in fact many Latin Americans who see repeated images of wealth and beauty on television, look highly upon other countries' successes and want to emulate them, yet feel incapable of achieving similar conditions for themselves within their own countries. This type of television thus produces further feelings of impotence about their own destinies.

The Strategy

With its power and widespread use, social workers and psychologists can use television productively, as one of the tools to reach victims of violence, to change destructive opinions about themselves and to show them alternatives to violence. Over the past decade, Sylvia has experimented with video cameras among various disadvantaged communities including women, street children, HIV patients, prisoners, and sexual workers, touching the lives of over 400 people. She has witnessed the powerful impact her methodology has had on these groups and wants to disseminate it through an international network of people who will use the video camera as a tool for self-esteem development and empowerment, and who will expand its impact further by bringing more creative ideas to the process. Sylvia has selected strategic groups of social workers, anthropologists, NGO representatives, health professionals, teachers, women's empowerment groups, teachers, social communicators and, whenever possible, television professionals with an interest in social causes. She trains them in the use of the video camera to work with the above mentioned communities, as well as displaced families. These participants are combined into interdisciplinary teams of 10 people who receive training for 7 days. Training includes teaching of methodology and manipulation of the camera, made relatively easy by the use of very basic and inexpensive equipment. Participants then practice the methodologies by conducting video sessions within their learning groups. To complete the class, students receive guidance and must create their own innovative plan of implementation with the target groups of their choice. Sylvia encourages each participant to invite another person to attend the next workshop to keep the network growing. The actual workshops that these trainees then conduct with disadvantaged groups consist of lessons on using video equipment , the art of interviewing, and games geared towards opening up the participants. The workshop facilitator helps the groups to decide what type of filming project they want to do, developing interview questions and the kinds of performances they would like to carry out. The facilitator encourages participants to use their imaginations and act out what they would like their lives to be, to talk about themselves and what makes them special. According to Sylvia, the stronger the perception of participants that television is far out of their reach and only for famous and important people, the greater is the impact of the use of the video camera to boost their own self-esteem. Sylvia has already seen very impressive results from this program. In one case, she and her team worked with a group of adolescent sexual workers for 4 intense days of filming, with the girls opening themselves up, discussing how they arrived there, what other types of opportunities existed for them, and acting out these new imagined lives. Watching themselves on screen playing out different roles and observing their capacity to handle video equipment, enabled many to see that they were capable of various activities. According to Sylvia and shortly after the session, 80% of the girls involved in the workshop stopped working on the streets. One of these girls has created her own micro-enterprise, filming birthday parties as an alternative source of income generation. Sylvia has also witnessed how prisoners open up and begin to see opportunities for themselves once they are released from jail, in video production and in other areas that they begin to discuss and act out on video. From each of the training sessions, facilitators emerge who not only use the methodology with target groups, but who also become multipliers of the methodology, training more volunteers to spread the impact of the idea throughout the country. As these groups of facilitators grow, they strengthen the network of "Video-Transformers." Those facilitators whom Sylvia trains are using the video camera and related technology to transform disadvantaged groups into more confident and productive people. Participants from one of Sylvia's workshops with a poor rural community took what they learned and created a video education series on the formation of community leaders. The network will also hold conferences to spread their methodologies to social communication professionals and other film specialists to motivate them to use this medium for social goals. Because the nature of these video-transformers' work is filming, they will have an array of actual video materials that Sylvia will utilize to spread the message of their work in the clearest form possible. Sylvia takes advantage of her connections in the television industry to get other professionals involved in putting their skills toward social video programs and placing more responsible programming on television. Sylvia considers Latin America, rather than Colombia, to be her homeland. As she has traveled extensively, she has seen self-esteem problems block productive social development throughout her neighboring countries and the world. She is therefore working to spread her model, first throughout Latin America and then internationally. She has already conducted several workshops in Brazil, Germany and Switzerland. She has national-level links with the Ministry of Culture, the Presidential Council on Youth, Women, and Elderly and the National Directorate for Women's Equality, all of whom contracted her to create motivational videos for their programs. Funders of her workshops have included Colombia's Cine Mujer (Women's Cinema), the Foundation for Women, the Foundation Being and Life, The Institute of Fine Arts in Cali and the Municipal Government of Valle del Cauca. Internationally she has received funding from the Global Fund for Women.

The Person

Sylvia was raised in an upper-class community, against which she rebelled at an early age. She began to take buses past the stop in her wealthy community and instead to the last stops in very marginal areas to learn about these other worlds. Her parents, wealthy socialites, often left her at home to be cared for by housekeepers who came from displaced families. She spent more time with them than with her parents and learned a great deal through their stories and the songs they sang about all that they had suffered due to the civil war and being displaced from their homes. These caregivers became her best friends, and instilled in her the necessity to do something to help the disadvantaged in her community. In high school, Sylvia was always a leader, encouraging classmates to push the limits and to be creative. She consistently experimented with theater and music and began taking music classes at a young age at the National University. Spending time at the university awakened in her a social sensibility given the student movement environment of the 1960s. The liberation movement of 1968 impacted her greatly. As an adolescent, she wrote and directed theatrical pieces with social content, mixing theater and movies and challenging the standard thinking of her social class at that time. Although she began her university career studying music and the arts, she eventually dropped this major because she could not see the social benefit of such a degree. She decided to devote her creative talents to film and television as she considered this to be an efficient manner of reaching the masses and expressing messages about social reality. She studied Television and Film Direction at Harrow College of Technology and Art in London and Cinematography at Stockholm University, making her one of the first women in Colombia trained in film direction. The arrival of the video camera in the 1960s impacted her greatly as she saw the opportunity to use such technology to reach people in various sectors. She used her video capabilities with various women's groups in Europe and over time developed a methodology of using the camera as a therapeutic and development tool. Sylvia was living comfortably in Sweden when she felt an emptiness in her life and a need to return to Colombia to carry out her idea to reach as many disadvantaged groups as possible through her ideas of video-transformation. In 1989 she created Imagen-Mujer (Image-Woman) to promote positive images of women in video, television and film. Though she has had many lucrative offers to direct commercial television, she has consistently refused these positions in order to continue her life's mission of helping the neediest sectors realize their full potential by means of self-discovery through the use of video cameras.