phil borges

a global movement
toward gender equality

By Photographer Michael Costa

Everything in life comes full circle and that is how I describe the magnificent Viet Nam adventure that I recently participated in.  Some would call it work that I have been doing this 15 day workshop with the Stirring the Fire staff, but I see it in a different light and think of it as an open door, one that will lead to another documentary adventure.

Michael collecting b-roll in Ms. Bich’s village.

This Viet Nam experience has been invaluable, like the commercial says “priceless.”  I write this as I am flying back to my destination of San Francisco from the Incheon Airport in South Korea.  As the Boeing 757 takes flight in the late evening sky, emotions come flooding over me.  I am not going to lie and say that I am not sad about leaving because I am.  This has been a life changing experience and I truly feel that I am going home a changed person.  Strong feelings are pulsating through my body and I can feel the heat from my blood flowing through my veins.  Looking out the window the tears begin to run as I feel such a sense of accomplishment and joy.  I am already missing my companions and co-workers from the Stirring the Fire team.  What fascinates me about the view through this tiny airplane window is that the more we ascend above Korea, in reflecting about my time in Viet Nam, it felt less like a country. To me it felt more like a living, vital intimate space where we were immersed in the daily life of two amazing entrepreneurial women and their families.

Michael and team with Ms. Bich, a joinFITE entrepreneur.

For two weeks, from December 1st-15th a group of six people, some who barely new each other, became a family.  We all first gathered together with at midnight at the Hanoi airport and from there we all slowly began to bond and mold into an eclectic team with a purpose to create two short documentary films.  We laughed, joked, walked, talked, ate a lot of amazing traditional Vietnamese food and even drank a little wine, like most families would during a Thanksgiving gathering.  WE thoroughly enjoyed out time together – there was nothing dysfunctional about this family.

The STF Vietnam team.

We interacted and engaged with one other, asking intimate questions and we had a sense of trust that made it safe to be vulnerable with each other. It is amazing how a group of people could bond so tightly just like super glue piecing together a shattered vase.  With each passing day the bond with one another became.stronger.  I think all of us will miss the witty comments, late night dinner walks, favorite restaurants, crossing the busy intersections and celebrating Phil and Julee’s 12th Anniversary in Viet Nam.

Lead by Phil Borges, a master social documentarian, we all began to pick each others brains and learn from each other.  No one person contributed more than the other: it was an equal partnership, with one goal in mind, to tell a compelling story, in an honest representation of our two heroines, Ms. Ngan and Ms. Bich and their struggle to better their lives.  Just like you and I, we all strive for a better future, no matter what our circumstances or background.  We all want to be healthy, educated, clothed and have a roof over our heads so we can hold our heads high when we are surrounded by our peers.  We discover that we are more alike than different, which is when the walls of judgment and separation come crumbling down, bringing humankind closer to achieving a peaceful co-existence.

Stay tuned! The Viet Nam films will be published for you to view soon!

One Response to “Reflections from Viet Nam”

  1. Lindsey Weaver says:

    Thank you for sharing moments about your journey in such achingly beautiful and meaningful prose. You inspire me everyday in many ways! I’m excited for the film!!

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Here is the second part of our interview with Merril Cousin, Executive Director of King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

What are the current pressing issues?

I think the whole family law arena is the most commonly cited problem from providers and survivors. I think a lot of it stems from the adversarial system that civil court is. It is incredibly complicated and over-burdened. There are competing interests: what is best for the child versus parents’ rights to have contact with their kids versus safety concerns. Even under the best of circumstances these can be difficult things to balance. There is still a lot of misinformation and gender-bias with people working in the system. Then you have abusers who have learned how to use the system to harass and control. You have all of these factors coming together and it ends up being pretty bad news for survivors trying to go through the process. There is a huge need for increased language and culturally-competent services for communities that are becoming increasingly diverse. The issue of poverty, what’s happening with the economy, is having a huge impact on survivors and what their choices are. The feminization of poverty was an issue before the economy went south and it is just being exacerbated now. Homelessness is a big issue. For DV service agencies, the increasing administrative burden from funders is an issue. Figuring out how to really prioritize prevention is important. We’ve been so focused on developing interventions and have made huge progress. But we also need to focus on how to prevent these problems. But it is really difficult to focus on keeping people alive and at the same time work on prevention in a way that is addressing these big problems in communities in a meaningful way. Not just doing a one-time outreach or even going into communities several times, but finding a systematic and cultural way to work on prevention and change. On the other hand I don’t think it is ethical as a society to pull money away from interventions that save lives, even to focus on prevention. Until we have community will to do what it takes, it will be an issue. I think there is a lot of exciting work that has been happening, some of which unfortunately been put on hold because of the economy, such as: different community engagement models, community organizing strategies, innovate work being done in specific cultural communities. There is a need and an opportunity to engage community. I hope we can get back to more emphasis being placed on these things. We – the DV agencies – need to really figure out how to integrate with other social justice movements. I think that is what it is going to take to turn it around and create permanent change. There has been an erosion of movement-based politics; there needs to be a resurgence. DV needs to be an integral part in this and see these other issues not as side issues but as central to what we are doing.

Domestic Violence Legislation Lobby Day in Olympia, January 2012

Why have you stayed in the field for so many years? What keeps you going?

The fact that there were these rapes on my college campus totally changed my behavior. The more I learned about it the more I realized my behavior was shaped by the threat of sexual and domestic violence. To quote the old slogan – my fear turned into anger and my anger turned into action. Taking action made me feel like I could do something. What depresses me is not doing something. What keeps me going is feeling like, or hoping on some level, that the work I am doing is making a difference. I also think that the people who work in this field are some of the most incredible people: smart, creative, interesting. Of course I don’t know if I know anyone who doesn’t work in this field (laughter). Being able to connect with my colleagues keeps me going. There are definitely days where I think I just cannot hear one more survivor story, but then I think about all the survivors who have changed their lives and that keeps me going.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about pursuing a career in the DV field?

I never made the decision to have a career in DV – I just started doing it and never left! It was where my heart and energy was. The fact that I was able to make a career out of it is amazing. I feel really privileged. The best thing to do is to get involved. I know many people who first get involved with DV starting out as volunteers like I did. I know more and more people who have gotten to it through college internships. More professions are integrating DV into their curriculums, which is good. There are not a ton of jobs in DV, so one of the best things to do is to learn about the issue. Many DV agencies have wonderful volunteer trainings where you can get a great education on the issue. This is a great place to find out if this is what you want to do before you invest time and resources into doing it and it is also a way for you to get a foot in the door. Other than that I would say you’ve got to be passionate about the issue. It is really hard to do this work if you’re not. You need to take care of yourself. Be open to learning. I thought I knew it all when I first started doing this work. Now I realize I know less and less the longer I do it. (Laughter)

Merril presents the superwoman award.

One of the things people admire about you is your balance between work and life. What’s your secret to maintaining a work-life balance?

I don’t know that I have a secret; I don’t know that I do keep a successful balance. I think it is always a challenge. I don’t think I would ever be happy doing a 9-5 and at 5pm being out the door. I’ve never had that kind of a job. I think you’ve got to figure it out and at some point say it’s enough and leave. You need to have strong connections and interests outside of work. There are times that I maintain that balance and times that I don’t. The times that I don’t have almost led to me leaving the work. I don’t feel that I’ve found the answer. If I don’t find the right balance, I work too much, I don’t sleep because I worry about things. I do have supportive family and friends that help pull me back. Therapy can help at different times, and the support of colleagues. I’ve noticed over the years that when I start to spin out – and I don’t even know what comes first – but it is times when I’m becoming isolated or when I’m not receiving input and feedback from colleagues. Not in the “yeah you’re great” but real help problem solving or giving me other points of view to consider. It’s been important for me to either formally or informally set up mechanisms for that collegial support, whether it’s calling up my peers and saying “we’re having breakfast this week tell me when” or pulling together groups to think through certain issues. Once I get that kind of support I feel like I can manage the stress.

If you weren’t ED of a large and influential coalition, what would you be doing?

I don’t know. I don’t know that that is a good thing that I don’t know. It is hard for me to imagine doing something else. I know if I do something else it has to be working for positive social change. I feel so lucky, most days, for my work. I get to do something that has a lot of variety and flexibility, is interesting and engaging. I get a lot of interaction and support from people and recognition that people think I’m doing a good job, and where I feel I’m making a difference. I don’t take it for granted.

2 Responses to “Merril Cousin, ED of King County Coalition, Shares More About her Work and Work/Life Balance”

  1. John Wasko says:

    I’ve known Merril for over 20 years. This is a really good interview. I especially liked her honesty and willingness to acknowledge ambiguity or not knowing something, as well as the clear and thoughtful analysis she brings to situations. I particularly liked her thoughts on family court proceedings and the challenges there, as well as the need to integrate prevention and intervention, and commit, as a community, to doing both. That certainly rings true. I think the best results in this field come when we look at situations in all their complexity, and apply our imaginations and energies to every possible point where we can disrupt the momentum of violence. That allows the best opportunity to see positive changes emerge.

  2. I’ve worked as DV Children’s Advocate for over four years and am still relatively new to the field. I have known Merrill for several years through trainings put on by the Coalition and through volunteering at the DV Take Action Awards. I found her interview really inspiring! I too struggle between the thoughts: Can I keep doing intervention and How do we create social change that prevents DV in our culture in the first place? I enjoyed learning about her journey! Thank you.

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Stirring the Fire is dedicated to highlighting women around the world doing ground-shifting work and bringing their stories to you. We are excited to start including more local women doing similar work of this caliber. We recently interviewed Merril Cousin, Executive Director of the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, asking her about the depth of her work and what keeps her going. Here is the first of a two-part interview.

When did your work in Domestic Violence begin?

I came to domestic violence (DV) through politics. I grew up in a progressive household with an activist tradition. I went to anti-war marches and union pickets before I could walk. I also was a life-long feminist from the time I was very small and I got involved in some feminist organizations on campus. I started focusing my action there. I got involved in anti-violence work because during my sophomore year there were a number of stranger rapes on my college campus. I found myself being really frightened, then being angry because I was frightened. I then saw a notice posted that the rape crisis center was recruiting volunteers. It was interesting because despite the fact that I had been involved with feminist organizations I didn’t realize that feminism had taken on sexual assault (SA) as an issue. I had visions of these “do-gooders”. I almost didn’t go to the training. Instead, when I walked into the room I saw that I knew half the people. I didn’t know they volunteered for the rape crisis center and it was totally coming from a feminist perspective. So I went through their training and it was a very experiential; I was just totally hooked. So I became a sexual assault/rape crisis volunteer and that became the focus of my activism. I had been a biology major and had wanted to be a veterinarian but politics started taking on more of my energy so I decided to try to get a job at a rape crisis center or battered women’s shelter.

Merril Cousin, Executive Director of King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence

How did you start working at the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence?

I moved to Washington State 1989 and got involved with relief work at homeless shelters. My first job was as a program coordinator in Everett with the DV organization there (the only one in Snohomish County). The organization was not doing well and by way of being the last person standing, I inherited the job of Executive Director. I was ED for 10 years. I was also on the board of AABL (now the Northwest Network), and I got involved with the state coalition and was an active board member for 6 years. In 1999 I applied for the job of Executive Director of the King County Coalition, which until then did not have staff. It felt like jumping off a cliff, but the job and the challenge spoke to me. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with this gigantic cell phone – we had no office at that time and one staff person: me.

Can you give us a brief overview of what the Coalition does? Why is the organization so important?

KCCADV builds capacity, leads, connects and educates. We serve as a hub for many organizations in this county and collect and distribute information to key entities. Our main function is to identify emerging issues, develop potential solutions, and advocate to have those solutions adopted. We connect all sorts of different players and people in leadership positions. For example we work with the state coalition to organize a policy agenda and a Lobby Day in Olympia (save the date – the 2013 statewide DV Lobby Day is January 31st!). We defend current service funding and advocate for increased funding for human services, especially during these years of recession, and we work to influence policy and the City and County level around most aspects related to domestic violence. This year we were very successful in getting new and expanded funding for DV and SA services from both the city of Seattle and the County (and we thank the Mayor, County Executive, and Seattle City and King County Councilmembers for that!). But it’s not because of the money, but rather what it translates into: more survivors getting the help that they need.

Merril Cousin presenting Senator Patty Murray with a KCCADV award, with Grace Huang of WSCADV.

Describe a typical day working at the Coalition.

The typical day at the Coalition is that there is no typical day. It is rare that I am in the office all day. I am usually out and about at different meetings in the community. I also spend what feels like an inordinate amount of time doing email, either sending, responding to, or sorting it. I recognize that some of that is just a symptom of where we are at in society, but also that is what my job is: to stay on top of who is doing what and to communicate to people the information they need to know. Then there are the days where I sit through a County Council meeting to be there for the vote because they are passing a budget that includes funding for domestic violence and it is important for us to be there to let them know that we appreciate it. So for some of that time I’m sitting through discussions on things like waste water, but that’s part of the job. Then there are the other things that are related to being a director of an organization. We have a Board of Directors (our board is fabulous), and the Board has a number of committees and I need to attend most of those meetings. Right now we are recruiting new members. There is some grant writing, though more and more I contract out for that. There is the financial management, talking to other staff members about how they are doing and help them problem solve. There are six staff now including me, which is pretty good considering that we started with 1.5. What I love about my job is that there is always variety. It is also a difficult part of my job. I think any ED is pulled in a million different directions and in this job one of the difficult things is to figure out what to prioritize getting involved in. It is balancing being flexible enough to be responsive to the issues people need us to be responsive to, but also staying clear on what our goals and direction are as an organization. We work closely with both the Seattle Human Services Coalition and the King County Alliance for Human Services. I have co-chaired the Alliance for a number of years now; we are focused on getting dedicated, adequate funding for regional human services. I really see as part of the role of the Coalition and my job specifically, is to make connections between the DV agencies and the movement as a whole with other social justice organizations and issues. We get very involved not only in advocating for DV issues but also related issues like immigrant rights and anti-poverty initiatives.

Merril with KCCADV staff, Alicia, Lauren and Alyssa.

What progress have you seen since you started?

I’ve seen incredible progress. It is interesting to me now, to be one of the ‘longer-term’ people in the field. DV and SA programs were still pretty marginalized when I started doing this work. It was considered the purview of radical feminists; we weren’t taken seriously. Having any voice in government or criminal justice initiatives was difficult. Now DV is a topic of major concern for the mainstream. The level of awareness around DV has grown astronomically. I think most people now understand that DV is a pervasive problem. Most people do believe there should be resources for victims of abuse and that abusers should be held accountable. We still have a ways to go in terms of more nuanced aspects like victim-blaming attitudes and who people see as “deserving” or “real” victims. And we have a long way to go in terms of people knowing what to do about the problem. But the basic premise that DV is a social concern is accepted by most people, and that wasn’t the case when I began. When I began this work most public officials wouldn’t want to say the words “domestic violence” or “sexual assault” and now clearly, many community leaders and public officials want to be seen as on the ‘correct’ side of the issue. I think that is why we have been successful in holding back some of the worst of the cut backs during the economic crisis. As much as policy makers have had to cut, most are reluctant to be the one to cut back on DV program funding. There was no such thing as the National Office on Violence Against Women or DV units in police departments or courts when I started. Some of the things I would have hoped would be different haven’t necessarily changed, things like images in the media and some of the values people have around relationships, though I do think that a lot of younger people are able to talk about these issues in a deeper and more nuanced way than when I was younger. The backlash when I started doing this work was about “it’s not an important issue” or “it’s in the family”, or “it doesn’t happen as frequently and isn’t as bad as you girls make it sound.” They thought we wanted to split up families and that we were anti-male.  Today’s backlash has shifted to the assertion that men are being victimized by the measures we have put in place to support and protect women. In some ways it’s more difficult to counter. I also think it is an indication of the progress that we have made.

Stay tuned for the second half of our interview!

One Response to “Executive Director of King County’s DV Coalition Opens up about the Work, and her Perspectives”

  1. For years I have admired Merril Cousin’s unflappable dedication to helping make women’s life safe. This is a fine interview of her, and – for me – a welcome introduction to founder Phil Borges’ upbeat blog. I recently had the pleasure of reviewing his stunning, inspiring book, Women Empowered on Amazon and on my blog, nicarthyadventures, so I’m delighted at the prospect of seeing more of his work.

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By Photographer Michael Costa

Staring out of a car window as we drive to the east coast village of Hoang Hoa, a district located about 21 kilometers outside Thanh Hoa, one could feel like a tourist, looking out a window with eyes glazed over as scenes of a country village begin to unfold.  Yet, I have realized during this trip that as a photojournalist you see and observe local life much differently than when you travel as a tourist.

Bich at home with her husband and granddaughter

Once arriving at the home of our second Vietnam Hero, Bich, the Stirring the Fire team was quickly greeted with a smile and a cup of traditional Vietnamese tea by Bich and her husband Mr. Trung.  Bich is the classic example of a strong documentarian candidate–her life has strong visual opportunities that she is willing to share with us.   What a blessing.

All of the sudden, we were surrounded by kids!

Before we know it the whole village is in our presence. And I am not sure if the crowd hindered the production or enhanced it.  How quickly the word spread, actually faster than a tweet on the internet!


Bich in her home

After a short brief with Bich we are off to film her daily routine:

Wake up at 3am to pull fishing nets from the river with her husband

Go back to the village to sell her fish and shrimp catch

Go to the market to prepare lunch for her family

Take care of her grandchildren

Return between 2pm to 4pm to place the nets back in the river

Go home to prepare dinner for her family before finally having a few hours to rest.

Phew (wiping the sweat off my brow)…try being a photographer and keeping up with both her and Phil Borges.  It’s like running a short sprint around a track in less than a minute.

Bich fishing with her husband

The beauty of it all is the access to an adventure of a lifetime.  Being able to experience everything in one breath can be a little overwhelming, yet rewarding.  Even though there are many highlights to the experience of filming Ms Bich’s life–from sitting down to a traditional Vietnamese lunch to wandering around a curious and well-built village–what stands out in my mind is riding in a small fishing boat along the delta.  This moment to me has been serene and most memorable and very “ZEN”……it is what I consider..LIFE CHANGING.  What is glorious about an experience such as this is that it makes you a different a person.  So the question I propose to you and I challenge you to discover on your own, after a incredible experience such as this is to make your way into a foreign land, sacrifice your comforts, wrestle with your demons and then ask yourself….Would YOU ever be the same?

One Response to “The daily life of a Hero”

  1. Michael, Not only are you a fabulous photographer you write well! We are looking forward to your being home!

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By Alice Reeves

Our guide and translator, Thao

There are language barriers, and then there are language barriers.  So often overseas many of us seem to muddle by with a combination of badly pronounced phrases that are apparently hilarious to locals, and a copious amount of wild gesticulation.  And maybe I am speaking for myself here, but it is definitely very rarely I get the result I want!

Communication is crucial when you’re telling someone’s story, and with our tight, action-packed schedule, avoiding cultural faux-pas is of the essence. Fortunately we have been lucky enough to have most of our language dilemmas and miscommunications result in being given yet more delicious Vietnamese food, but now we’re on location in Thanh Hoa documenting to film the lives of our two female borrowers, something more is required to make things roll smoothly.

Thao making sure the team gets to where they need to go

Into that breach has stepped our fantastic interpreter and guide Thao.  While our joint STF and Kiva team has been grappling with the intricacies of a complex tonal language where if you get the sound wrong you may offend someone, Thao has been enabling us to speak to women we are filming and get a more detailed insight into their worlds.  But communication is more than just words, especially in Vietnam.  Smiles, laughs, nods and gestures hold a bewildering variety of meaning we are utterly unused to, and as Thao continues to remind us: ‘You must read between the lines!’

Without Thao we could never have achieved this kind of understanding of the lives of Ms Ngan and Ms Bich.  Her effortless switching between Vietnamese and English and continuous interpretation has allowed Phil and the team to capture the families, neighbours and friends of our heroes going about their daily lives.

Thao and workshop participant Michael have become quite the pair

Through Thao we have learned all about the local custom of offering beautifully intricate handmade objects that can be anything from a flowery display to a large paper ship to household gods or dead relatives.  We now know that once women here marry, they move in with their husbands families.  We have been teased about being alarmed at the prospect of eating dog (for all you pet-lovers – no, we have so far not succumbed!) and been introduced to the delights of handmade local peanut brittle candy.

With only a few more days left to go there is a genuine feeling that the team has found a small way of getting under the skin of the local culture here, and we are now working hard to illustrate this in the short films… Thanks Thao!

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Ms. Ngan

By Photographer Michael Costa

Would you be brave enough to allow a complete stranger to come into your life and film your everyday events?   Ms. Ngan, our first hero for this project, has done just that.  Once finishing the initial interview with Ngan, we began to create a strategic plan of how we are going to film her daily events in a three-day period and most importantly how are we going to illustrate her life through video, still photography and audio. With the interview you only get a tiny look into their lives, but once you enter their home the bigger picture begins to unravel, the scenes and the sounds start to unfold and that is when the magic begins.  But it really isn’t as simple as magic–poof! you have story and film–it takes the eyes and ears of everyone involved in the production to be present and to dissect the needs of the story line.  The wonderful thing is that you never truly know exactly which direction the story will go, so in a sense it is like living with eyes and ears wide open.  I know this almost sounds obtrusive, but it is what needs to happen when you are under a time and culture restraint.  It is the embracing the fear of the unknown that truly matters and once you allow that fear to subside you are a richer and stronger person because of it.

STF team interviewing Ms. Bich’s son

The process is almost like a stage production where all the actors go to into their prospective roles, but what you don’t see is the film and audio crew, who are more than just rolling credits.  They are the eyes and ears of the production, diligently working out the kinks and looking for new avenues in which tell the story. Bouncing ideas off with each other is where the real learning experience begins.  From my perspective the experience has been very hands-on and the rewards are endless. Not only am I immersing myself in a workshop gaining one-on-one knowledge from Phil Borges and his Stirring the Fire (STF) staff, I am also learning the fundamentals that go into creating a strong social documentary piece. What I find amazing is the amount of hats one wears while working on these projects.  No one has just one role–one moment you are preparing for an interview and recording, the next you may be shooting stills or scouting for B-Roll, while praying that you are not missing out on an amazing opportunity else where.  I feel that during a production you truly get in tune with your instincts and become fully aware of your surroundings, which is very important to do in order to effectively convey the feelings and emotions to your audience.

STF team with Ms. Ngan and family

But again I think the real question to be answered is why would an individual would be compelled to invite us into her home and allow us to film her everyday life and every move.  The reasoning behind this is that Ms. Ngan is a strong women with a story to tell, so after three days of filming a bond begins to form and each day you chisel at that form creating and designing until you have a finished product. In our case that finished product is a film that is engaging and compels others to learn while also raising awareness that we are here on this earth not merely to take of ourselves but to break down the barriers and walls of judgment that may have been passed on from generation to generation. This is the true benefit which occurs during a production and once that happens, the true story unfolds.

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By Photographer Michael Costa

Michael enjoying a traditional “hot pot” Vietnamese lunch.

What seems like worlds apart, in reality isn’t.  That is my philosophy as I embrace the Vietnamese culture here in Thanh Hoa, Vietnam. This being my first trip outside the United States, the anticipation has become reality. A team of 6 individuals have come together with one common goal: to make a difference.  No we are not “The Avengers,” coming to save the world. Rather, we have come together to use multimedia to raise awareness and shed light on the importance of micro-credit loans and the ripple effect they have on an individual, their families and the communities in which they live. With the help of Stirring the Fire, joinFITEFund for Poor Women and Dermalogica, Phil Borges has once again created a strategic team to achieve this goal.

The STF team learning about Kiva field partner, Thanh Hoa Fund for Poor Women.

Once we touched ground at the Hanoi airport we were greeted by our interpreter and guide Thao, KIVA representative Alice Reeves and STF’s Sandy Jeglum.  After overcoming some jet lag and traveling 3 hours to our destination of Thanh Hoa, we began our first day of a 2 week journey bright and early.  Once we arrived at the Fund for Poor Women office we were greeted by the staff who reviewed their goals, mission statement and objectives about their organization.  FPW’s vision is to become the leading Microfinance Institution in Central Vietnam, as well as become a leader in information sharing, technical assistance and technology.  Their objective is to target and serve the poor in Thanh Hoa province and those located in coastal districts, improving the standard of living for poor women and their families, while at the same time improving their overall confidence and become more active in their lives.  Some of FPW’s achievements include the amount of actives clients involved, which has exceeded over 14,000; the amount of outstanding loans, which has exceeded over $2 million USD;  and successful repayment rate of 99.7%.  Their staff’s hospitality is also amazing.

STF team conducting the pre-production interviews.

After lunch, we all assumed our respective roles and began to interview our prospective subjects.  The selection process began nearly 2 or 3 months ago when we first were contacted by the organization.  After narrowing down the list, there were four women we planned to interview.  With the help of our interpreter Thao, the interview process began.  The four subjects took two or three hours of filming and recording audio.    Each individual was asked a series of questions, including the women’s visual diversity, backstory, along with the commitment to be documented throughout their daily events.  Specifics that we are looking for are welcoming body language, on screen presence, articulation, emotion and if they fit the profile as a successful candidate that represents the FITE program.  From the four candidates we ended up choosing two to film over the next two weeks.

Our first hero is Bich.  She supports her family by selling fish sauce at her home and throughout her district, has been in business for over 10 years, and has received four business loans.  She also supports her husband who is a fisherman by working alongside him, where she goes out daily at 3pm to throw the fishing nets into the ocean and returning back the following morning at 5 a.m. to collect the nets and returning to care for grandchildren by 7 a.m. Bich is no stranger to hard work, from the time between casting the nets in the ocean to collecting them the following morning she is delivering her fish sauce and making money to support her family and pay back her loans from Kiva.  With her loans Bich has invested in fishing nets and a small boat in order to succeed in her business, so she definitely is a key role in providing for her family.  For Bich the micro-credit loans have been a life changing experience for her and her family, who comes from a background of living in poor conditions, but now her and her family reap the benefits form the KIVA micro-credit loan and live a positive and healthier lifestyle.

STF team conducting the pre-production interviews.

Our second female hero is Ms. Ngan.  She lives in Thanh Hoa City and took over the family business 15 years ago and is working on her third loan cycle.  Ngan started her loan process in 2010.  She uses the money from her loan to create what is called “ghost money”, which is type of note that families gives as offerings to dead relatives to help pay for things in the after life.  With the loan monies is she able to invest in her business by buying raw materials.  Ngan supports her eldest son who currently is enrolled in cosmetology courses and also has a daughter who is currently in school.  Ngan says that since she received her loan her business has increased dramatically.  Ngan feels that the loan for her business has allowed her family to move up in society. The hardship that she faced was that her husband wage was not enough to support her children and now, though it is still difficult they can pay for their education. The KIVA loan has changed all that for her.  She feels that now her and her family are happy and can live a good life.

Stay tuned for more “In the Field” notes from the Production team as they film each Hero in Thanh Hoa, Vietnam.

2 Responses to “Heroes in Vietnam”

  1. Valerie Gemanis says:

    Kiva! What a great program. I’ve been “lending” for years. Way to go Michael!!!!

  2. Rebekah moore says:

    U all r awesome! Great job especially to Michael costa!!

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Today we’ll focus on the social documentary workshops, specifically on the education and collaboration aspects. You seem to have a unique approach. You, as an artist, could be doing them yourself but you place such emphasis on collaboration and education with both the participants and the organizations.  Why these things are so important?

Doing still photography is something you can get away with on your own. With film you can’t. It has to be a collaborative process. In the production phase, if you’re doing an interview you need somebody monitoring the sound, cameras, a good interviewer, so it is a 2-3 person project. When I’m shooting I like to have a second camera so you can cut between the two angels so having a second person is really important. Collaboration is, if you’re going to do it well, necessary. Making film is a collaborative team sport, not a one-man operation.
As far as education goes, you not only have to learn your specific role but also have an overview of all the roles necessary to the process. It’s good to also focus on where you want to excel and, as far as education, learn to work with other people artistically. Especially when you’re starting to make artistic choices in terms of how this piece is going to be edited and produced it’s good to learn teamwork. So it is really a team sport: different positions and different specialties come together and work cooperatively.

Phil shows Ashley, photography student, a moment of “How To”. Photo: Danielle Prince

How does this benefit the organizations and producers? What does each take away?

Number one is the fact that the organization gets a lot more media, a lot more coverage. We’re not only shooting video but stills so they come away with extra media that they can re-purpose later on beyond the film we make for them. They come away with really high-end raw material that can fuel their media efforts for years to come. The second fact is that they can get it at a reduced cost.

In terms of participants, this is what we can give them: a real client that needs a real product that is intended to accomplish a real result. They get the experience of working with an ad hoc team that just comes together in the moment, which many film teams do. They get the experience of doing advocacy work and storytelling. We do empowerment stories, inspirational stories – this is what works the best. We do what Joseph Campbell calls the ‘hero’s journey’. These are the stories that serve an organization best in spreading how they are conducting their various programs.

What topics are covered in the curriculum of your workshops? Do they vary per workshop or are they standard?

I guess they vary a little bit. As much as possible we tailor the workshops to the needs of the organization. We do a lot of pre-workshop work with the organization. Justine heads up this effort. We want to get the organization thinking about the type of media they need and the audience they are trying to approach. We try to make our stories to attract the widest audience possible in the way we tell the story. The story is much different if it is for a general audience versus if they are trying to attract other experts. Then we start talking about storytelling: the importance of storytelling, what makes a good story, the classic story structure and then we get into actual production phase. Capturing audio. How do you do a good interview? Capturing video, stills. What are the technical considerations, the aesthetic considerations? Then we get into the edit. We do less around the technical considerations of editing; in other words we’re not teaching how to use the software (Adobe Premiere Pro) though we give a basic overview of it. What we are teaching is how to put the pieces together to make a compelling story; how you pace it and lay it out. We talk about our particular methodology which is laying out a radio cut – all your interviews and sound bites you want to tell the story – then building all the visuals and B-roll around that skeleton. After the edit we get into distribution: how you get this piece out there. We especially focus on new media and the internet.

Phil shooting stills in Cambodia. Photo: Danielle Prince

In terms of distribution, is this something you work on with both the producers and the organization?

Yes. We work with both the producers and the organization. Whenever possible we have the communication person of the organization be a part of the workshop. They are working directly with us during the whole process. We’re in good communication with them the whole time.

“We know that the media we produce is strong.”

How do organizations take part in these workshops?

So far it’s word of mouth. I’m known for doing this kind of work so when I speak at different conferences and events they come to us that way. Some of them are previous clients like Resurge and One Heart. During the workshop it just depends on the organization. We try to encourage as much involvement as possible on their end. For example, I just worked with Resurge and had the Communications Director, who was fantastic, with me on the job and we could make our decisions on the ground. I had somebody there to tell me “we need a kid with a cute face”, something I would not have known. So having a key person like this to give us on-the-spot feedback is great. Part of the collaborative effort is making sure everyone is on the same page, getting the ok on everything from the rough cut, to what’s said, to stills, to model releases.

In multimedia, revisions can go on forever so we set a limit. We have a rough cut plus one revision. After that it’s an extra charge for doing any extra revisions. But while putting it together and refining it there is a lot of back and forth. You want to identify one or two people in the organization who have a communications background to be your sounding board to make the decisions on the edit. If you have too many people it becomes a design by committee and there is a lot of censorship that goes on that cuts down on the effectiveness of the piece. I’ve seen that happen. You want to screen your pieces and make sure they’re understood, but when it comes to artistic decisions and what makes a piece strong or not, that’s best left to people who know media.

The author working with an interpreter to get a model release signed n Cambodia. Photo: Phil Borges

Who have you learned from? Who is someone in your life who has influenced you?

Oh, that’s a good question. Several people. I just jumped into this and tried to do it by gut instinct. But I realized there is a lot to learn besides your gut instinct. I guess the first place I learned is by watching a lot of documentaries and seeing how they were done. I really admire this organization called Media Storm.  I went and spent a week with them to learn their methods and how they approach it. Everyone has their ideas about what works and what doesn’t. I agree with most of what they’re doing but I have my own ideas as well. I learn from the participants that I’ve taken on these trips. Every time I do one of these workshops I learn something. It’s a constant learning experience.

What is also important is sharing our methodology in our curriculum. Stirring the Fire will be set apart from others because of the open knowledge share we’re planning on doing. We’re in the process of making this happen. We also want to attract new media students. We offer them a great way to hone skills and gain experience.

The next STF workshop is slated for March 2013 in South Africa.  To find out more about this and other workshops, contact

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Our founder, Phil Borges, along with two Volunteer Production AssistantsRachel Gray and Catherine Cussaguet, just returned from Nepal where they worked with Resurge International.  The organization does incredible work to provide free reconstructive surgeries for the poor and builds year-round medical access in underserved areas.   

Story by Rachel Gray

Author Rachel working with Phil Borges in the field

In my phone I have a picture of a young girl holding a sign that says “No one is free when others are oppressed.”  Photography is becoming my outlet for understanding and experiencing social issues.  Truthfully, I have to experience something with my own eyes in order to really care about it. The news does not have this effect on me.  The news fights for your attention and before you can breathe the cameras have been turned half way across the world, where another tragedy is being called upon.  It’s simply too much!  How can one take action, let alone concentrate when there is too much stimulus? (Welcome to America).

Traveling with Phil Borges and ReSurge International has changed my life.  Helping make this documentary about burn victims in Nepal was an intimate and powerful experience.

        The girl setting next to me barely has a face.  Its been burned off completely and she’s now lefts with scars and eyes that don’t blink.  Her lips are big and stretched from the contractures.  She sits next to me writing (not real words) in my journal.  Page after page and I sit quietly next to her writing on the other side of the journal.  She’s only five years old, she hasn’t even begun to face the challenges that the future holds for her.  It’s hard to think about.  She’s silent; I wouldn’t know what to say either.  As she sits with me writing her world, I wish for her to become a leader in the face of her tragedy.


Dr. Shankar of Resurge International

Dr. Shankar is by far one of the most extraordinary people I have met in my life.  He knows no limits, and has committed his life to helping his nations poorest people.  When asked about why and how he got interested in burns, he replied:  It’s what was needed.   He encourages people go into the world and confront a social challenge. He uses every opportunity to make change and teach his students.  Even after coming out of surgery, I would see him around the corner talking to nurses about ‘stop, drop and roll’.  He is in the process of building a new hospital in Kathmandu, which he intends to make a teaching hospital.  There will be a ward devoted entirely to burn victims.  He is turning the cafeteria into a social business where he can hire his patients who are in need of a job.  The hospital will run off of biofuel, and there will be an organic garden in the back.  His efforts are endless, and it was truly an honor to document his work.

I also had the pleasure of traveling with Sara Anderson, the chief advocacy and communications officer for ReSurge International.  On several occasions we accompanied Dr. Shankar to hospitals outside of Kathmandu.  We were in the doctor’s office one evening when a young woman in her early twenties arrived for her consultation with Dr. Shankar.  Sara was asking Dr. Shankar about her story, as Phil, Catherine (photography intern) and I were filming.  Her story was awful, and she was badly burned.  Unlike many of the people we met, the pain inflicted on her was intentional.  Where was she supposed to go?  How is she supposed to find work to support her children?  Her family did this to her and now she is shunned by her community. I looked up at Sara.  “Welcome to our world,” she said with a compassionate demeanor.  This is challenge that ReSurge faces.  Surgeries only address a portion of the problem.  Preventative care and social outreach are what the future holds for this organization.

Sara Anderson of Resurge (left) with Production Assistant Catherine Cussaguet

Sara, like Phil and Dr. Shankar, gives herself completely to her work.  She is truly a leader who is fighting (as she’s smiling) to make great changes.  “This is a problem we can solve.”  I think that’s where Sara finds her greatest joy.  This health crisis is so preventable and the positive change we can make is astounding, if we can rally enough support. She is truly an activist and a champion for the cause.

Phil Borges is a photographer whose work and integrity I continuously admire.   Going on this trip with him has opened up a new realm of possibilities for me as a social photographer.  “Don’t replace technique for the story.  The story is the most important part.”  Although I learned a great deal about audio, capturing stills and video, the power was always in the story.  When the woman in front of the lens would forget about the camera and lose herself in emotion; that is storytelling. Phil taught me that it’s really about making a connection and honoring a person’s struggles and successes.  What I appreciate about Phil more than anything is his kindness towards people.  In Kathmandu I remember one man walked by asking us for money.  One of us gave him a couple rupees.  The man turns to Phil who extends his arm out, placing it next to his.  He rolls up his sleeve, two contrasting human colors. ‘Our arms are the same size’ he exclaims and smiles up at the guy.  He smiles back.  Now you tell me what’s better?  Throwing money at someone, or honoring a human life? Phil is an extraordinary teacher.  I learned more from him than I did in my entire college career (where I studied photography).  Emerging social photographers like myself have a lot to learn from Phil Borges.  He uses every opportunity to teach his students, spends time with his subjects, and gets amazing footage.

“Few are those who see with their own eyes, and feel with their own hearts” (Albert Einstein).  I encourage and strongly recommend this program to college students or recent graduates.  If you are an artist or a journalist and you want to make social change, interning with Phil will give you direction.  He has devoted his life to this work for the past twenty years, and will teach you everything he knows (if you are up for the challenge!).



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Photos by Nancy Barnhart of Barnhart Photography

Laura Pavlou, Founder of WWISH

What is Women’s Wellness and Integrated Social Health?

WWISH is an organization I founded in 2008 that offers support to women, who are  or have been incarcerated, and who are facing adversity, crisis and transition.  Through workshops and my workbook, I help women understand their own power to create lives they can thrive in.

Why women in prison?

Ninety-five percent of the women I meet share stories of poverty, incest, molestation,  rape, drug addiction, and alcoholism. The dysfunctional patterns learned as children continue into adult hood because there is often no self-awareness or life skill for the possibility of change. In less than two decades, the population of incarcerated women has increased by 400 percent, (Women, Prisons and Change.) At the end of 2006 there were more than 1.3 million women inmates, parolees, and probationers in the United States.

Four years ago, I was invited to do a workshop at a women’s prison. In one day, I reached two hundred women. They showed me that they wanted to change and were hungry for the information to do that.  My passion is that every woman knows her value. My goal is to reduce recidivism. My commitment is that WWISH workshops and the WWISH workbook is in every women’s prison in the United States.

How did your story lead you to do this work?

I had spent years in abusive relationships, and sixteen years ago, I finally got the courage to leave my very last one. I was uneducated, poor, had mental health issues, a substance abuser, and I was a parent to two small children who lived with me. Through resources and support I transformed my life .

Laura with Women who attended her workshop

When we first met a few years ago, WWISH was in transition from being an online women’s forum to a for profit business that works with women in prisons.  At what point did you realize that the focus had to change and how did you embrace that change? 

Honestly, I took advantage of any and all opportunities that had to do with making a positive difference in women’s lives. At first I thought that a forum all women could use for support would be of value, and I still do, but through networking like crazy in hopes to get the word out about my approach to helping women transform their lives for the better, I was led to this niche of working with women in prison. I am grateful and always open to the next step towards women’s empowerment. And I also know that I have to do what is in front of me. I still have lots of room to grow in helping women in prison.  Then, who knows…

Change and fear often go hand-in-hand as we want to know we made the right choice.  After the program’s transition, at what point did you realize that, yes, this is what you’re supposed to be doing?

On my first visit to a woman’s prison I knew that this is what I am supposed to do. Watching women transform in front of my eyes by listening and offering information is what I like to call a miracle. Most of these women have never been seen or heard.  They have all been abused. They desperately want to feel loved and accepted. I give them that and I believe in their transformation that will lead to success in all areas of their lives.

Workshop participants

How have you seen the women transform as they share their story and realize that people are hearing them?  What transformation story stands out?

There are so many stories and moments of transformation, and what is always prevalent is their desire to forgive those people who hurt them. One woman told me that she finally felt free because she could forgive her step-father for molesting her for 10 years while she was growing up. She said that by forgiving him she could finally forgive and accept herself. This is just one of so many powerful stories of transformation. What I know is true is that we all want to feel free and we can.

What has been the highlight of WWISH so far?

My workbook. When I made the commitment to write it the words flew out of me. It felt so right. And what gives me much joy is to give the women in prison this book that was written just for them. The workbook is filled with photo’s and stories of them. They love it.

When it comes to educating, a lot of teachers say that they feel like they learn more from their students than they teach.  What have you learned from the women you work with?

I have learned that every woman wants to get better they just need someone to believe in them. I have seen incredible courage and determination from these women. What they have to face about themselves takes guts. They are powerful, and I feel privileged to get to know them and support their journey to discover who they really are

Laura leading a workshop

How has doing this work helped you to embrace your story? 

I believe that all our stories are just that–stories. What we did in our past does not have to define our futures. When we let go of the shame and guilt around our pasts we become free to create our futures. My own story as a survivor of abuse has helped me feel empowered because I am not a victim any more. I transformed.

If you met another abuse survivor who was trying to rebuild her life, what would you tell her?  

First, that she is not alone and that she deserves a life where she can thrive in. I tell her that the only thing that matters is what we do now and in the future–not our past. Every day that we make choices that lead to our own transformation we become survivors not victims. We have that power.




If you would like to learn more about WWISH, please contact her at 







One Response to “Interview with Laura Pavlou of WWISH”

  1. […] (Previously Seen on Stirring the Fire) […]

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