Telling Women’s Stories
In 2003, with minimal financial backing and only a rudimentary grasp of radio production techniques, Stephanie Guyer-Stevens ’86 launched a multimedia project—Outer Voices—to document the lives of grassroots women activists in Asia. The project has since developed into a nonprofit media outfit whose long-form radio documentaries have aired to critical acclaim on public radio stations in the U.S. and around the world.
“I started the project very moved to find a way to make real the idea of a women’s version of history,” Guyer-Stevens says of Outer Voices, which now involves a dozen writers, producers, and photographers. “We really wanted to infuse into people’s thinking some profound new ideas from women who are in serious situations of conflict resolution, and who are coming up with brand new approaches.”
So far, three of the hour-long programs have been completed, and three more are in the works.
Radio makes perfect sense for telling this type of story, because the women—who are often in physical danger—can speak anonymously.
“Girls from Cambodia,” described in reviews as “great public radio” and an “experience that leaves your mouth agape,” immerses the listener in the stories of girls who have escaped from sex traffickers, and profiles a woman who has set up crisis centers to help them. “Radio makes perfect sense” for telling this type of story, says Guyer-Stevens, because the women—who are often in physical danger—can speak anonymously. Advocates for child prostitutes in Cambodia and Thailand, for instance, report being harassed routinely by corrupt police and government officials, as well as by well-organized pedophile groups from the West.
Not all the pieces are so dark. Guyer-Stevens calls “The Hula Lesson “ her “foundation piece,” and says it comes directly out of intellectual interests she cultivated as a religion major at Reed. The documentary is based on recordings made at a hula practice sessions led by a renowned Hawaiian hula teacher, Roselle Keli’ihonipua Bailey. Guyer-Stevens, who ran a small farm in Hawaii in the mid-1990s while raising her young children, says the program focuses on an issue that she sees as vital for effective peacemaking—“understanding who we are in relation to other people, knowing our social and cultural identity.”
The theme of how to perpetuate traditional culture and maintain its integrity is explored in “The Women Canoe Builders and Navigators of the Solomon Islands,” which will be released soon.
Guyer-Stevens first encountered some of the Burmese refugees who tell their stories on the program “Kawthoolei” at an international conference of women activists in Bangkok in 1992, where the germ of Outer Voices was planted. Guyer-Stevens was one of four American women there. She had been invited because of her work at the Women’s Health Education Project, a grassroots nonprofit she founded in New York City in the 1980s at the onset of the AIDS epidemic. The organization connected high-risk low-income women with holistic and community health-care providers. Two friends from Reed, Susan Davis ‘88, who is now a public radio producer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Maggy McCormick Brown ‘88, were instrumental in launching and managing the project (Brown died of breast cancer in 1998).
When Guyer-Stevens came back from the Bangkok conference in 1992, she was determined to publicize the stories of the women she had met. When Outer Voices was finally launched more than a decade later, “we thought could do it in a year,” she says. It’s been three years and there are two shows still in early production—about women activists in Vietnam, and on Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea.
Seed money has come from the Ford Foundation, the American Friends Service Committee, eBay, and the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute; corporate sponsors include Air Pacific, Thai Airways, and Hawaii Forest and Trail. Guyer-Stevens says finding sustainable funding is a perpetual problem—“it keeps many people out of radio.” For now, she’s running the project out of her home in Sebastopol, California, while planning future trips to Asia to scope out new stories and advise grassroots women’s groups on media strategies.