Interview: Nyla Rodgers of Mama Hope

Nyla Rodgers founded Mama Hope after traveling to Kenya to meet a young man her late mom had sponsored. Since then, Nyla has built California-based Mama Hope into an NGO that partners with local organizations across Africa, raising funds for health, education, agriculture and water projects identified by local communities. Mama Hope recently received media attention for its “Stop the Pity, Unlock the Potential” video campaign, which strives to change perceptions about Africans and Africa. Nyla hopes to turn the campaign into a movement even as Mama Hope expands into training development workers.

Created by Joe Sabia  |  Shot by Bryce Yukio Adolphson

NGOS: Your three "Stop the Pity, Unlock the Potential" videos have gone viral and started many conversations about African stereotypes. Describe how the campaign came about and why.

Nyla: From the very beginning when we decided to start this organization, I thought hard about the marketing and I realized that I did not want to show any kinds of flies in eyes. I didn’t want to show any swollen bellies. The whole entire point of this organization is to inspire people to give instead of making them feel guilty or using pity as a ploy.

We really believe that in order to really eliminate poverty, you can’t keep putting out that image of poverty over and over again like nothing is changing and not showing progress. I think when nonprofits look at their marketing, they leave out a lot of the progress and a lot of the potential because they’re trying to get donations. What we want to do is trust that our donors are inspired and they want to see people flourish.

NGOS: Where do you find the people for your videos?

Nyla: Every single person who is in our videos is someone that we work with. Alex is a student at one of our schools that we built. He was just talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger because he knew the he was our (California’s) governor at the time. And he launched into this 20-minute diatribe about his favorite movie. I used to run summer camp here in the United States and the kids were all just like Alex. They loved to tell me about their favorite things and I hoped that anyone that would watch it would just see a nine-year-old boy anywhere in the world talking about something that he loved.

“Call Me Hope” was a lot more premeditated. Every single person in that film is someone that we work with. We call it the family album of Mama Hope. The Americans (in the film) are our donors. They all were really excited. We shot all the scenes in Africa first and when we came back to the United States we matched the people. We wanted to show the connection between the donors and the people we help and how similar they are to each other.

Directed by Joe Sabia and Bryce Yukio Adolphson  |  Shot and edited by Bryce Yukio Adolphson

NGOS: Your videos are not like many typical NGO videos. This is participatory storytelling.

Nyla: We decided that the way you really stop the pity is you don’t have the white person in front of all the Africans talking about them. Instead you have people tell their own stories. And so, we want our videos to have participants, not subjects.

With this most recent video, which is the closest to my heart, we were showing “Alex” to boys who I have known – Bernard is the original orphan my mom sponsored, and this was him and his friends. They saw “Alex presents: Commando” and they loved it and they said they wanted to make their own, and we asked them, “Well, what do you want to make a video about?” And they said, “We want to make it about African men.” And so we worked with them to kind of figure out something that we felt would appeal to an audience but also would tell their story.

Created by Joe Sabia and Bryce Yukio Adolphson  |  Written by Benard, Brian, Derrick, Gabriel and the Mama Hope Team

NGOS: How did you obtain copyright to the movie clips for the Alex video, the African men video and the Paul Simon music for the "Call Me Hope" video?

Nyla: We did not obtain the rights and felt that if anyone was going to come after us it would be great publicity.

NGOS: What was the response – if any – from Schwarzenegger or Paul Simon?

Nyla: We did not get any response from these men. I hope some day we will.

NGOS: What do the people who are in the videos think about the videos?

Nyla: Oh, they’re so excited. When we told Alex I don’t think he really understood it. We said, “Alex, half a million people have seen you tell the story about 'Commando.'” And you know, I don’t think he can really comprehend that. The boys in the last video ("African Men. Hollywood Stereotypes."), you know, they’re so excited. They’re very excited to connect with people.

NGOS: Your videos are all high-production quality. About how much money and time do you spend on each one from conception to completion?

Nyla: So what’s wonderful is people are donating their time. We haven’t had to really pay anything besides the trips to Africa. “Call Me Hope” took about 2 months. The Alex video took at least 3 months to do. And then this most recent video, the editor looked through 80 hours of film. So that was 7 months.

NGOS: How did you find these volunteers? Quality work usually costs money.

Nyla: You really get people to believe in what you’re doing. Joe (Sabia) – who is the editor – he knew what would really appeal to audiences. We shot the video of Alex, and Joe had never seen "Commando" before, but I showed him the footage and I was like, you have to watch "Commando" and then watch the footage again. Because he was like, “I don’t know what we have here.” And then he watched "Commando" and he was like, “That kid said every single thing like word for word.” He just loved it so much that he donated his time.

NGOS: You just said to Joe, “Take a look at this and tell me what you think.”

Nyla: What we actually wanted to do at the time was a day in the life series, where we just showed day in the life videos in Africa. And we just couldn’t get it together while we were there. So we came back and we made that video.

NGOS: It sounds like the Alex video wasn’t a planned part of the “Stop the Pity” campaign.

Nyla: The Alex video is what spurred the campaign. We wanted to kind of like hit people in the gut and give them something totally different where they didn’t know where this was going. And so, when we got the footage all put together, we were like, what is the message here? What are people going to think when they’re watching it? And then we decided on “Stop the Pity, Unlock the Potential.”

NGOS: Did you come up with that tagline yourself?

Nyla: It was definitely an in-house thing. We’ve always said we don’t want a pity ploy. That’s always something we said in the office.

NGOS: Why did you decide on video versus audio or picture or word stories?

Nyla: Mainly because I really don’t like to write. I just don’t have the time or energy to sit down and do that. I’d much rather put it in someone else’s hands and do it in a medium that can get everywhere.

What’s been amazing is we have found our videos all over the world. One of my favorite things is that we heard that the Alex video was being used in Kenya – there’s a lot of prejudice against Tanzanians in Kenya. They believe they can’t speak English. So this Kenyan organization was using it to show that Tanzanians know how to speak English.

NGOS: Do you know what the organization is?

Nyla: I do not know. Someone random sent it to me, sent me a message about it. So even in Africa they’re using this video to stop stereotypes. So it is resonating with people and it’s exciting.

NGOS: What other video campaigns are you planning and what are your plans for the organization?

Nyla: Right now what we really want to do is create a movement around this. We really want “Stop the Pity” to be at the heart of everything we do. I want other nonprofits to jump on board. I believe they already have the footage. They just chose not to use it.

We’re getting ready to expand our organization into an institute to train development workers. We want to make kind of like a modern-day Peace Corps, like Peace Corps 2.0. Every single person who goes through our program will raise $20,000 – $50,000 for a project that is requested by a community. They will go and live in that community and work alongside them in the way that we do. We’ve been piloting it for the last year-and-a-half. We have two projects that are completely functioning and two being built. We’re accepting applications for July and then launching the program in October.

NGOS: How long do people have to fundraise and then how long are they out in the field?

Nyla: They have three months to raise the bulk of the amount that they need, so we’re going to have a 3-month training period. And then they will do a fundraising campaign and go live in the community for the next 3 months. They work alongside that community. Then for the third 3 months they come back and they mentor someone else to do the same. Our vision is that it’s going to be people straight out of college or in Masters programs. But there are also people that are wanting to switch careers and do something in the nonprofit world.

What’s so amazing is that through our videos people have seen the words “global advocate” on our website and we’ve had hundreds of people write us about the global advocates program.

NGOS: These advocates – are you teaching them how to push out stories and content, too?

Nyla: That’s going to be a huge part of it. We’re going to be saying, again, we do not want flies in eyes, we do not want distended bellies. We want you to go out there and find stories that people can relate to. And that’s going to be a huge part of their responsibility.

NGOS: So how do you think NGOs can get away from telling clichéd stories?

Nyla: They have to make the choice to do it. We have not raised a lot of money from this campaign. We haven’t. Probably in total we’ve raised maybe about $12,000 from all three videos and we’ve had over one million views with all of them together. I really think it starts with the nonprofits and unfortunately it’s in the hands of donors first and foremost. So, if they start giving more to organizations that are really trying to show a different side, then that will be good.

NGOS: What has been the response from your donors?

Nyla: Our donors love it. They knew what they were getting into at the beginning when they decided to be part of this organization. We’re secure in the fact that we know the work that we’re doing is really impactful.

NGOS: How many more videos do you have in this campaign?

Nyla: I think this is going to be an indefinite campaign. I want to see if we can create community around this. I’d like to have a bunch of people with a “Stop the Pity” outcry. I’ve had really interesting people come to me to get advice about how to make their own "Stop the Pity" video but I haven’t seen them take that risk. A lot of people are starting to get a lot more creative and so I’m looking forward to seeing that.

The Art of Editing: "The Ground We Lived On" by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Storytelling: MSF Blog by Trish Newport