Sylvia Mejía Piñeros
This profile was prepared when Sylvia Mejía Piñeros was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1999.
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.