Author: palikamakam


Youth Visions of #NoDAPL


By Cathy Cain



The Missouri River near Cannon Ball, North Dakota

In September of 2016, I started going to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to support the water protectors and the #NoDAPL actions. I still wax nostalgic when I smell burning sage; it reminds me of nights where I would stare at the campfire sparks floating sinuously into the darkness while people drummed and sang their prayers for the river.

It was an emotional experience for me, a student of political ecology. One of the things I studied in South Africa as a graduate student was the human and ecological effects of colonial dispossession of land during apartheid. I remember in one of these township communities there was a funeral, where family and community members sang gorgeous elegies for their lost comrade. And it was powerful to hear how, despite generations of oppression and all the social problems that arise from poverty or at least alongside it, people come together to create something beautiful and meaningful to their lives.

Through music and prayer, the #NoDAPL camps embodied that same power, and this was, at one point, central to the movement. Moreover, it was the actions of the indigenous youth that inspired this struggle for water and environmental rights. But all the ensuing political fights and internal struggles would often deafen the voices of these youth. This is why it was so important for the Babel Project to go back to Standing Rock and try to preserve their stories after the camps closed.

In June of 2017, filmmaker Alice Obar and I went to the reservation to collaborate with several youth from Cannon Ball and Fort Yates, North Dakota to make films about their stories of #NoDAPL. While taking residence in these communities, we did not fail to experience the sense of community and warmth that I grew to appreciate at Oceti Sakowin and Sacred Stone camps. We learned so much from the youth in the process, such as the continuing struggles of their communities against: a.) exploitative oil companies like Energy Transfer Partners; b.) longstanding social problems like drug and alcohol abuse; and c.) the ubiquitous epidemics of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. Their personal connections to these struggles made their stories so rich and complex.

Screen Shot 2017-07-10 at 3.09.12 PM

From left to right: Tyrel Iron Eyes, Aliya Eagle, and Gracie White Eagle

Tyrel offered so much insight into what it was like growing up a Native American and facing the overt racism of white dominant North Dakota communities. He talks about what it’s like not to be able to walk away once the protest is over.

For Aliya, the camps were a transformative experience that helped her face her own depression, an illness that so many native youth her age encounter.

Gracie has such strong emotional connections to the #NoDAPL camps, as well as to the animals and wildlife of her ancestral lands that she feels are under threat because of the pipeline. In her story, she talks about how #NoDAPL was formative to her becoming a youth activist, but also how she wished that there were more Standing Rock youth who wanted to be active. Her eyes lit up when she brought up the river.

While Gracie was the only youth to complete her film, the others still did such important work that we want to showcase on We are so proud of their work and the people they are.

As we watched our last sunset at Standing Rock, and the prairie winds undulated through the ocean of grass, we recounted the pulsating drums at a powwow we attended, the sweet smell of frybread, and the meals and stories local people shared with us. Having finished the workshop, we knew we were leaving a sacred place of paradox where struggle and nurture feud next to a river that brings forth and takes away; a river where a people’s hopes are anchored by the visions of their youth.


Cannon Ball, North Dakota


The Babel Project at GO Summer 2016

This summer, The Babel Project ran its fourth annual Documentary Filmmaking class with The GO Project in NYC. A total of thirty students in two classes worked together to create three short documentary films–a video portrait of a fellow student, a film exploring racism and how to stop it, and a doc about how to eat nutritious food. Students also created a “Humans of GO Project”, a photography gallery based on Humans of New York.

The students reflect on their work in the short video below. Check out the links at the bottom to view the full films!

Thoughts on Racism (password: gosummer2016)
GO Summer students in the Babel Project workshop chose to address the impact of racism in their community with this documentary. They interviewed teachers, students, and people on the street about their views on the pressing issue of racism and how people can help to stop it.

Choose Healthy (password: gosummer2016)
Students interviewed each other, people on the street, the school cook, and their cooking teacher, about what eating healthy means to them.

Moments of Michael (password: gosummer2016)
Student producers wanted to know more about Michael, one of the GO Project students who loves the sport of “bottle flipping”–tossing a partly-filled water bottle with the goal of it landing upright.

– Alice Obar


Guided Independence: Reflections on Facilitation

Above and below: student photography
DSC_1554     DSC_1570

About the Author: Alice Obar is a media producer and educator. She holds an MA in International Affairs from The New School and is currently a Curriculum Development Consultant for The Babel Project.

The irony of teaching youth media, and probably teaching anything to kids, is that at a certain point you’re not really teaching anymore so much as you are standing back and giving students the space to learn by themselves. I realized this a few weeks into my job teaching the Tuesday Photo/Film class with middle schoolers in The Babel Project and Global Kids program at the School for Human Rights in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. When a student holding a camera asked how to zoom in, I would find myself almost reaching for the lens to show them. Then I would stop myself — I already know how to do this. Explain how to zoom, but let them take ownership of their own skills.
I joined the Babel Project in Fall 2015 having been inspired by my graduate youth media work in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2013, where Executive Director Palika Makam and cofounder, Carlos Cagin, began conceptualizing the Babel Project. The human-rights-based approach to youth media we had learned at The New School took shape in the Amazwi Wethu (which means Our Voices in isiXhosa) workshop, and I quickly became passionate about the world of youth documentary and media programming. My experiences have made it clear that youth voices and opinions must be central in the media they make.

learning photography_5

Furthermore, I wanted to expose the ten participating Global Kids students to a variety of media so that each student might find something that piqued their interest. Palika and I met regularly to discuss lesson plans and logistics around maximizing the students’ use of the Babel Project’s camera equipment. Together we decided to incorporate a variety of projects and equipment in ten weeks – including sound equipment, instant cameras, and DSLRs (professional cameras). We used this equipment to engage students in concepts of social activism and human rights.

In the first week, students took digital photos in different styles such as macros and landscapes. Later they used Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 cameras to illustrate articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). During the last month, students were separated into two groups, in which they conceptualized and shot a short documentary on a topic they wanted to cover (and relate back to human rights).

Students planned out their instant photos that represented articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights photographically.

Students planned out their instant photos that represented articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights photographically.

Article 16: "Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family."

Article 16: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”

Some students thrived during the digital photography weeks, checking all the boxes in the “photo hunt” activity and snapping portraits of each other, leaves on the ground, and green barrels with beautiful shadows. Then when we moved on to instant analogue photography, and they were very excited to use the cool pastel pink and blue cameras. They proudly labeled all of their photos with the UDHR Article it portrayed.

Student photos taken during the photo scavenger hunt in the second week   DSC_1529

Above: Student photos taken during the photo scavenger hunt in the second week

Student photo illustrating Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”.

Student photo illustrating Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family”.

A student reviews her polaroids

A student reviews her polaroids

Instant photo of a student playing basketball, illustrating Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 24: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure”.

Instant photo of a student playing basketball, illustrating Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 24: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure”.

Because the Fujifilm Instax photo project was about the ability of media to reflect real-world issues, it was a great segué into making documentary films. To introduce the students to documentary film styles, I had students watch previous Babel Project films and a documentary called The Art of Fighting, which is about an Iranian refugee in Australia who has a dream of being a martial arts movie star in Hollywood. The film is an amazing example of how documentaries can use personal stories to raise awareness about global issues. With this as inspiration, students brainstormed issues that were important in their own lives and would make good topics for a documentary.

I am proud to say that the students made their documentaries in just four weeks. The first step was drawing storyboards , and thinking of key people to interview and scenes to shoot. Each student took on a production role on the interview set such as interviewer, camera person, audio person, and producer. Each crew filmed and record interview subjects with lavalier microphones, and discussed the human rights implications of their topics.

It was an amazing feeling to see the students present the photos and films they had produced during the last session. One student remarked that she liked taking photos because she was “in control of the camera”. One student loved saying “1 2 3 action”. Another hoped that through the basketball film, more girls would be exposed to why basketball is so fun.

A student films scenes on the basketball court.

A student films scenes on the basketball court.

A scene from  Our Basketball Journey

A scene from Our Basketball Journey

Students reenacted one of their peers' experiences with bullying in their film Bullying in School

Students reenacted one of their peers’ experiences with bullying in their film Bullying in School

For many students it was the first time they had produced media and taken ownership and pride over their creative media work. I was also happy with my decision to give the students the space, equipment and training to create different forms of media without being overbearing and pressing buttons for them. When I was their age, my passion for photography came through improvisation and practice. While guidance and mentorship are key, media production is ultimately a very personal practice. In the end you won’t take your best photo with a teacher looking over your shoulder to tell you how they think it should be done. I look forward to using the lessons I learned with this workshop in my future work.

– Alice Obar


The Babel Project in Ferguson!

I’m leaving Ferguson today with a reaffirmed belief in the power of movement work, and a reaffirmed life commitment to amplifying those important voices. Theirs are the voices on the ground, the ones beyond the mainstream media, too complicated for a large foundation to invest money in, too nuanced for a hash tag or social media campaign. They are the people behind the closed down restaurant, in a cold Midwest winter parking lot, organizing, strategizing, chanting, and fighting for justice, opportunity and human dignity. These past 10 days I heard stories of pain, loss, and unbelievable heartache with no explanation, no chance for closure. Imagine losing a child with a promising future. Twenty-five gunshots through his body while his hands remained in surrender position. I can’t imagine it, and THAT is my privilege. But beyond just stories of pain and loss, I spent these past 10 days hearing and baring witness to stories of strength, intelligence, community building and so much love. Thank you for allowing me into your homes, for sharing your stories with me, for allowing me to be an ally. Thank you for trusting me and believing that we can take control of the narrative and produce media that truly represents the movement. I’ve learned so much in just 10 days. My mind is going a million miles per second, and I just can’t wait to get back here in a couple weeks to continue working with the raddest four young women around. Look out for our film in collaboration with The Truth Telling Project in the spring!


Papers or no papers, we stick together.

I was first introduced to Make the Road in 2009 during an ‘Urbanization and Citizenship’ class at NYU. My professor cited the organization as an example of why we need activists working at a policy level and at a grassroots level to create change.

Throughout my academic and professional career, I find myself constantly returning to the power of this concept:

When we engage our community at the top to collaborate with authority and policy work, and organize our people on the ground to incite action among our peers…we are unstoppable.

So when I had the chance to meet with activists from Make the Road’s Flushing, Queens site this past October, I was eager to collaborate and offer them a way to add filmmaking and storytelling as another set of tools for their organizing work.

Along with my coteacher, Paola Piers-Torres, we ran a six month guerilla style youth filmmaking workshop with three creative, committed and intelligent young ladies: Perla Lopez, Beblin Pereira and Sara Ladino.

We worked in any spaces we could find (hallways, shared offices, restaurants, outside in the bitter New York winter), and spent weekends and weeknights filming all over the city.

From that process, our students created three short films that allow you into their homes, their hearts and their incredibly beautiful and complicated stories.

Make the Road will be using our films to educate New York City public school students on immigration policy and reform, and help humanize their organizing work.

I have learned so much from these three young ladies.

Perla reaffirmed for me just how resilient the human spirit is, Beblin taught me the importance of self care and sillyness :), and Sara reminded me that as long as you have your purpose, you have everything.

I am so proud to call these ladies my friends, and I can’t wait to work together again this summer to create more meaningful work.

No matter what our status is, papers or no papers, we stick together.

Please check out their work and visit The Babel Project’s website to learn more about how you can help us continue our Project.

Perla Lopez: I am a Dreamer: Undocumented and Unafraid
Beblin Pereira: Majadito: Keeping My Culture Alive
Sara Ladino: Life’s Travail


The Babel Project in The West Bank!

We’re so excited to announce that we have a new partner! The Babel Project will be working with Al Rowwad Centre for Culture and Arts (based in Aida Refugee camp in Bethlehem) this summer. We had the privilege of meeting face to face with the organization’s director and some of the students we’ll be working with a few weeks ago during a research trip to the West Bank.

Look out for a short video documenting the trip and a fundraising campaign that will allow us to support young Palestinians in sharing a different narrative about their lives than the ones we see in Western media. We hope that you’ll be a part of this new adventure!


Our New Website Has Launched

We’re thrilled to present our new website! Come back for updates.


Documenting Justice

Check out our feature in the latest issue of The Block Club (‘Documenting Justice’ pg.22)! The issue’s themes, Home and Away, speak perfectly to our aim of creating a global community through media.

Oh, and check out this photo of our Executive Director reading the article in a cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Cough, hipster alert, cough.


An Interview with PBS’s POV Blog!

Connecting Youth and Filmmaking.

Our Executive Director was interviewed by PBS’s Point of View Blog writer, Lisa Daniels, about The Babel Project and our work with Global Kids!

Check out the interview here!