NEW YORK – Ryan Schlief appears the consummate New Yorker: familiar with the subway, at ease walking amidst the busy Brooklyn traffic, relishing a good meal at a hidden cafe, and naturally dressed in black. He has an easygoing persona and he exudes the confidence of a person who is exactly where he wants to be.
Schlief works for WITNESS, a nonprofit organization that seeks to put the power of video and technology into the hands of activists working for corrections to human rights violations around the globe. It is a job he has been preparing for since he was a teenager growing up in rural Minnesota.
Schlief’s typical workday usually begins later than our 9 a.m. meeting. When he is in the office, he works what he calls an “Asian workday,” since his contacts and work center on countries like India, Cambodia, and Papua, Indonesia. These locales make it necessary to spend late evenings and many nights on the phone or exchanging e-mails with people half a world away. More likely than not, he isn’t in the office at all – he is actually in those countries, filling up his passport again and again.
WITNESS is based in Brooklyn in a tall, slim, brick building named for a local councilman gunned down by a political rival. From the outside, the James E. Davis Art Building seems like any other multistory office building in the historic brownstone area.
Inside the modern WITNESS offices, the energy of a group of people working for a unified cause nearly speaks out loud. Tokens of WITNESS’ work are everywhere: an almost archival shelf of now-archaic, heavy video cameras; a pile of new, compact hand-held video cameras ready to be put to use; huge screen-captures of faces from around the world stare into the office; and mementos, artwork and postcards from nations that are oceans away dot the desks and walls.
Schlief’s office space is organized. His world is electronic so there aren’t piles of papers. Instead, he has piles of video cameras and a battered laptop. On a shelf are some knickknacks from his trips abroad – a menagerie of elephant figurines, some posters and artwork – and a photo of a couple of young children. One of them, a young boy with cheerful eyes, blinds the camera with his smile.
“That is Lance,” says Schlief. On a St. Thomas-sponsored VISION trip during his time on campus, Schlief met Lance at a Boston nursery school. “He was so animated – a great kid.” One day, Lance arrived with bandages on his face and had turned sullen and quiet. Schlief suspected child abuse and was furious but powerless to pursue any action. The school director’s response to Schlief’s reaction: be happy that Lance was in a safe place for the day.
“I learned an important lesson on that trip: I may not be able to resolve a difficult situation completely, but I can try to help a single person who is inside that situation.” Lance’s photo has traveled with Schlief from St. Thomas, to jobs in St. Paul, London and now to Brooklyn, and keeps Schlief’s inspiration fueled.
Schlief’s awareness and interest in human rights started when he was 15. He traveled to Germany and quickly made friends who were Turkish. As an ethnic minority, the Turkish were (and still are) often subject to discrimination. Schlief saw this and understood, even at 15, that it was a problem. “I realized that depending on where you are born and your race, you will have a separate set of opportunities. I felt that, with this awareness and knowledge, I had to do something about it.”
That “something” included enrolling at St. Thomas, where Schlief described himself as, “probably the most excited first-year student of all time.” Born in Lowry, Minn., population 284, attending a university in the Twin Cities was not a part of Schlief’s immediate family history. He adjusted quickly.
“I was so thrilled to be at St. Thomas. I felt as though my interests in human rights were being validated and recognized when I was admitted.” He wasted no time in blending his interest in human rights with his academics and extracurricular work at St. Thomas.
Elected vice president of the All College Council (now the Undergraduate Student Government) during his sophomore year and president his junior year, Schlief’s natural leadership bloomed immediately.
“Ryan was one of the most inclusive student leaders I have ever met,” said Karen Lange, dean of students. When she first met him, Lange was the assistant dean of students and responsible for student orientation for first-year students. In working for Lange at orientations, Schlief brought humor, warmth and sincerity to the event, she remembers.
Once into student leadership, Lange watched Schlief integrate students who came from marginalized groups at St. Thomas, into public positions on student government.
“He didn’t do it because it was politically correct, but because it was the right thing to do. He gave a voice to those who might not have had one otherwise on campus.”
Schlief remembers his time in student government as a learning experience. “I figured out how to get things done in a political structure – with some activism thrown in,” says Schlief with a smile.
Nominated and voted Tommie Award winner in 1997 while studying in Ghana (St. Thomas’s first student to do so), Schlief’s initial reaction was: “Whoa – you sure about that?” He felt the award validated what he and others at St. Thomas were trying to do, whether it was raising awareness of sexual health on campus, working with Multicultural Student Services, supporting the Allies group or getting the university to recognize and appreciate diversity within its student body.
Schlief’s first entry into full-time activism came after graduation when he joined AmeriCorps in St. Paul. He worked with Mayor Norm Coleman’s office in support of English as a Second Language, housing projects and youth services in St. Paul. His next step was to work for Sen. Paul Wellstone.
“He was amazing,” Schlief recalls.
Schlief greatly appreciated his time working in Wellstone’s office on immigrant and human rights issues – again giving a voice to a group who had a need for recognition. And with his travel experience (to Germany, Ghana and St. Vincent) and international business degree, he also was a good fit to be on Wellstone’s staff for international issues.
Schlief remembers, with a smile and a shake of his head, a particularWellstone moment: “At a Somali meeting at the Riverside Community Center, [Wellstone] had lost the speech I had written phonetically for him, so I had to rewrite it on the spot. He gave a welcome shout in Somali and the room went crazy. He gave me a thumbs-up and continued his speech. That’s how he worked.”
After more than three years with Wellstone, Schlief took a sabbatical for six months to India. Wellstone held his position open as Schlief worked with expatriate Tibetans, helping them set up hospitals and schools in an effort to maintain Tibetan culture as much as possible.
Speaking of his time in India, Schlief’s love of international travel is obvious. There’s a need in him to experience what is outside of the comfortable and familiar. This need led him to pursue an LLM degree (Masters in International Human Rights Law) from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
While there, Schlief also worked for three years at the headquarters of Amnesty International as the coordinator for campaigns in India and Southeast Asia. It was while he was doing this work that he first saw a video produced through WITNESS.
The video’s purpose was to promote standards for police searches as a result of complaints by women of unnecessary strip searches.
“I saw the video and knew that working with them would be my dream job,” Schlief recalls. “I would have a chance to foster my creative side through the video work while blending in my work with human rights.”
WITNESS is the “it” organization for video distribution of human rights infractions. Started by the musician Peter Gabriel in 1992, WITNESS partners with activists from around the world who are working against human rights violations to add video and technology to their ongoing human rights campaigns.
After a lengthy application process, a campaign is selected and initiated. A program coordinator for that location (Schlief, one of five, is assigned to Asia) sets up trainings for the activists and teaches them how to use a video camera and edit and plans with them how to put the video in front of the people who can make a change.
“Recording is where the potential danger of what they are doing comes into play,” says Schlief. Danger, not only for the activist videographer or those transporting the tapes, but for the subject as well.
“Political situations can change on a dime, so an interview done months ago when the situation was calm may endanger someone if the situation heats up,” Schlief reports.
Before any taping starts, such situations are explained fully to make sure everyone involved understands the risks and gives consent.
Once the event is documented, the video is edited based on its purpose. Depending on the campaign, the final video can be public, via the Hub, or kept private to become part of the campaign’s communication plan.
“Sometimes the videos are created to convince a city council to make a decision. Other times, the videos may be intended for the United Nations,” Schlief explains.
All of this effort means one critical thing to Schlief: “This event will not die once WITNESS is involved. The people in these situations have lost their voice. We are trying to give it back.”
Since WITNESS’ output is primarily video, Web sites like YouTube seem like the perfect vehicles for distribution. They can be, Schlief explains, but Internet censorship can limit their reach.
YouTube can be censored by countries or companies who have a stake in the violation, and viewer information also can be distributed to opponents of the campaign. Most importantly, videos posted on YouTube are absent the full context of the situation, undermining the video’s effectiveness.
For these reasons, WITNESS created the first Web site for uploading, sharing and discussing human rights media. On the Hub, activists can add content, describe its context and provide ways to act. No user information is gathered, so activists can organize with less risk.
As technology continues to expand exponentially, it will only benefit organizations like WITNESS. Video cameras will get smaller, and Internet connectivity will improve.
When Schlief talks about his current campaigns in Asia, he becomes electric. He speaks quicker, sits forward in his chair and actively engages with the listener. The contrast between the absurdity of the actions of oppressing forces and the suffering of the victims incites him.
Indignant phrases like “this event will not be allowed to die” and questions of disbelief like “how is something so horrible even possible?” pepper Schlief’s speech as he describes two of his newer campaigns in Phnom Penh and Delhi.
In Phnom Penh and across Cambodia, the government and land developers are forcibly evicting families and even flooding lakeside neighborhoods with the intent to demolish the ruined houses and build new offices and condominiums. The videos produced with the Cambodian organization, LICADHO, fit perfectly into the campaign to protect those homeowners and communities.
In Delhi, Schlief will be working with activists to support wastepickers. Nearly 170,000 people of all ages – and mostly Muslim – support themselves financially by rummaging through garbage for scraps of material that may be sold to recyclers. They do so illegally, and often are arrested and mistreated.
In Delhi, Schlief is working with the organization Chintan to support wastepickers. Wastepickers earn an income by collecting waste door to door from houses and businesses, and by sorting through landfills for recyclables and anything else that may be resold. They constitute a massive workforce of nearly 170,000 in Delhi alone, and manage up to 59 percent of the city’s waste without any compensation from the city. Since they are often not authorized by the city to do this work, the wastepickers are frequently arrested and mistreated. The campaign aims to have their contributions to the city officially recognized and a video is a tangible means to show their value and discrimination.
Communicating a foreign and incomprehensible existence to an audience thousands of miles removed, or just down the road, presents a challenge that WITNESS and Schlief are eager to face. And although these campaigns are a world away from the clean, well-lit conference room at WITNESS – with its wi-fi computer access and tray of Friday morning bagels – Schlief never forgets their connection.
His suggestion for those living in relative comfort and excess: get involved with the consequences of our actions, whether on a local or global scale. Shop locally, recycle, use mass transit.
“It’s the small changes everyone can make, when you look at them proportionally, that can force a change,” Schlief says.
Karen Lange knew the moment she met Schlief that his voice would make a difference in the world. Ten years later and a world away from flooded houses and piles of garbage, Schlief concurs in a more humble style: “Campaigning for anyone is a luxury, and it’s an immense honor to be involved in their campaigns.
“Using technology to tell stories of injustice can be such a democratizing process for communities fighting for their rights. It can put the ‘human’ in human rights. You just need to watch, listen and act.”
One campaign of Schlief’s has reached completion: the economic displacement of indigenous women from their traditional marketplace in the provincial capital of Papua, Indonesia.
The city government had demolished the traditional market and built a new one outside the city with the excuse of improving the aesthetic of the city. One problem: the new market had no place for the native Papuan women to sell their goods.
WITNESS involvement with the local partner resulted in a promise from the city government to build a market exclusively for the women. It is still just a promise at this point.