From Aid Worker to Change Maker: Why I Helped Found RYOT
One of my earliest memories was being trapped in a hotel elevator in Beirut with my mother. My parents were journalists on assignment just before the outbreak of the 1982 Lebanon war. We trembled in the pitch dark for 10 minutes while gun fights raged, echoing in the elevator shaft—I was four years old.
24 years later, I found myself again in Beirut during the 2006 war with Israel. Bombs jolted me awake at 5 a.m. I fell asleep to the hum of drones overhead. Following in my parents footsteps, I was reporting on a conflict but with a major twist. I was not there as a journalist; I’m an aid worker.
Growing up in the Middle East and Africa, I had a love for travel and exploration, but my true passion was photography, a skill learned from my father. After college, I wanted to put my photography into action and do good in the world.
I started working for the U.S. based nonprofit, Operation Blessing, documenting their projects. Quickly I fell in love with the work on the ground as much as telling its story. I transitioned to full time aid worker and immediately found myself deploying to the world’s most devastating humanitarian crises. The war in Somalia, earthquakes, Darfur refugees, famines, Pakistan floods, hurricanes—my job was to reach the hardest places as fast as I could and help as many people as possible when I arrived.
Often, I arrived before international media. Armed with a portable satellite internet system, I helped to pioneer a new breed of hybrid journo/aid worker—coordinating relief projects during the day then staying up into the night doing live interviews with the BBC, CNN, and other networks.
I was a reporter for the world’s largest news networks, but my incentive was always that chance to pitch the name of the organization and tell viewers that there was a way they could help.
During my downtime, at a sweaty Peace Corps party in West Africa, my path crossed with Bryn Mooser, a fellow filmmaker, nomad, and adventurer. Bryn spent his formative years in Zimbabwe, lived in a mud hut for three years in the Gambia, and is the kind of guy who gets excited about searching for wooly mammoth teeth in Siberia.
Bryn and I reconnected again in Haiti right after the 2010 earthquake and immediately started collaborating on relief projects. As we met those affected by disaster, we heard incredible stories of survival, resilience, and hope that we wanted to tell the world.
In 2011, we formed RYOT, a production company named after the lowest caste peasants of India, and directed our first award-winning short documentary, Sun City Picture House, the story of the first movie theater built in Haiti after the earthquake. Soon after, we directed Baseball in the Time of Cholera, an advocacy piece made out of frustration with the UN after cholera took the life of our close friend. Baseball won a special Jury award at the Tribeca Film Festival. We took it to Washington for a congressional briefing, which culminated in a formal complaint from the U.S. government calling on the UN to take responsibility for Haiti’s cholera epidemic.
With our success came frustration. Having worked for nonprofits for more than a decade and passionately giving voice to causes all over the world, we saw that there was a significant gap in engagement. Many organizations were doing amazing work, but getting people to engage in that work and in the stories we were telling was a challenge, even with the advent of social media.
Bryn and I searched for ways to flip the model on its head. We realized we had to determine what people were engaged with, and harness it for good. The missing link was the news.
News is happening all around us. From cat videos to war crimes, news is what we are most engaged in every day. But, ironically, news delivery hasn’t evolved much. Ever since Rome’s first newspaper in 59 B.C., news has been a one-way flow of information from gatherer to reader.
In this age of connectivity and hyper technology, the ‘one way flow’ news model was not only redundant but strayed into an ethical grey area. The philosopher Dietrich Boenhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.” Yet every day, the world’s news outlets report on stories of tragedy, crisis, and loss but offer no solutions. This never-ending flow of news with no solutions breeds indifference.
In October 2012, Bryn and I launched RYOT News, the first news platform where every story has an action. The goal of RYOT News is to provide readers with the breaking news, viral content, and real-time updates that can be found on other major news sites but on each story offers the reader a chance to interact with the story and “Become the News.” Our goal is to first engage an audience with news they are interested in and then introduce them with ways to make a difference, often in ways they never even knew existed.
With our network of world changers like Olivia Wilde and Ian Somerhalder, we are delivering a different kind of news to young people, news that offers a new dimension of interactivity. We are passionate about pioneering what we feel is the future of news. We strive to interconnect our content with ways to make a positive impact and give new relevance to the work of aid organizations and social good enterprises.
Our latest initiative, the #STARTARYOT Challenge, is a global crowd-funding challenge in partnership with CrowdRise to drive news consumers to support hundreds of amazing nonprofits. RYOT is giving away $200,000 cash to the nonprofits. It’s another exciting way that RYOT is helping organizations leverage more support for their work.
I hope you check out RYOT.org and enjoy the content, join the movement, and make it your source to be informed on what’s happening in the world and what you can do about it.