In this installment of 5 Minutes with a Social Agitator, we talked to Sarika Bansal, the editor-in-chief of BRIGHT Magazine (formerly the Development Set) and founder of Honeyguide Media. Here, Sarika discusses the role of compelling, nuanced storytelling in shaping how we think about and solve global development challenges.
In a nutshell, what big global problem are you trying to solve, and how?
My goal is to help people see each other as human beings, through journalism. I came into journalism in a slightly untraditional way;I had previously worked as a consultant for McKinsey and in microfinance. I transitioned to writing because I grew to understand that before we can solve big development challenges – whether it’s global health or gender equality – we need people to see each other as human beings. Storytelling has a huge role in changing that. I came into journalism determined to present each person with as much dignity as I could – and that still drives what I do.
At BRIGHT Magazine we are trying to publish stories that are about social issues in a way that isn’t dull, is more vibrant, and involves more voices than traditional journalism.
What are some key elements of each Bright Magazine story that help you do that?
We have five storytelling principles, and each story we publish usually hits two to three of them:
- Experimenting in storytelling format – We’re trying to be creative in publishing with things like comics, short stories, and photo essays.
- Keeping our stories jargon-free and approachable.
- Staying solutions-oriented when it’s possible – That means we’re not shying away from the potential solutions, and also not just presenting the global south as a place of war and destruction.
- Making people uncomfortable – We try to have conversations that are deliberately provocative, but that will also make people smarter.
- Showcasing a diversity of storytellers – we mean this in every sense of diversity.
If you could get two groups that don’t usually collaborate to work together in some way to help solve a global challenge, what would that look like?
In the U.S. the hyper-partisan news has in part destroyed people’s empathetic muscles. When BRIGHT Magazine did our refugee issue, some of the comments we received were…so bad. We were trying to reach an audience that wouldn’t necessarily be generous towards refugees, but it didn’t work. Sadly, I have become more cynical over time about how possible it is to evoke empathy.
There is still more work to be done among the hyper-privileged who say they support certain things, but don’t actually change their lifestyles to act upon it. With that in mind, I would bring a group like those that went to Davos, the “limousine liberals” – people who say things such as “black lives matter” but never actually do anything – together with, say, young student debaters. The students would ask the adults why they say the right things but haven’t effected change, and haven’t changed their lifestyles to fit their supposed social values. I would love to have some popcorn and watch how the conversation plays out.
Tell us a story of a time something went massively wrong with your work, and how you rebounded.
For our refugee issue, we did a story about how Christians in the U.S. are fighting the refugee ban. We tried to bring the story to Christian groups as part of our engagement strategy and it didn’t catch fire. It showed we weren’t ready to be a part of that conversation, and that we weren’t the right people to present it.
We didn’t have authentic relationships with people in those communities and that showed. I was hoping it would result in responses on Christian blogs and dialogue with Christian churches. We did a good job of outreach, but it was just too far outside of our comfort zone. We are now trying to understand our existing audience better and cover topics relevant to them – but that will also stretch them.
What advice do you have for other “social agitators” driving urgent global change?
One thing I’ve learned over the past few months is how important it is to build a team and internal culture that aligns with your social values. That is the only way to make transformational change. I don’t like the myth of the Silicon Valley unicorn who does it all alone – that is a very reductive way of thinking about social change.
After moving to Kenya, I hired a new team of people who are fantastic and care as much about BRIGHT Magazine’s success as I do. BRIGHT Magazine would not be here today without the dedication of this team. We set aside time to have big conversations about our future, while also setting tangible and ambitious goals that we measure our performance against.
If you had control over significant philanthropic funding, what “big bet” would you fund?
I’d invest in building critical thinking skills among people of all ages. The fact that it’s so hard to distinguish fact from fiction could spell the downfall of modern civilization. My other big bet would be climate-related, like desalination, as climate is the slowly ticking time bomb in many places. Having traveled to Cape Town in December, I think clean water will be the biggest problem that will affect most major cities in the next 10 years.
Where do you see yourself and Bright Magazine going next?
My goal for BRIGHT Magazine is for us to be the go-to magazine for social issues and the magazine on record for these topics. I want the magazine to grow from an online platform to hosting live events with storytelling so that we can have productively uncomfortable conversations.
For me personally, I feel like I am growing and learning a lot every day. I want to be the best editor that I can be and completely plugged into the social change space. I also never want to be beholden to any person, funder, organization. I like to be able to speak my mind and cause agitation.
*This post is part of GDI’s series “5 Minutes with a Social Agitator.” We define social agitators as people driving urgent change around the world using unorthodox approaches that cut across silos. If you would like to be featured or get in touch with GDI, contact us here.