Seeking Truth and Justice: A Photo Essay from the 6th Annual International Tribunal

A Santa Marta resident holds a candle at a candlelight vigil.

Since 2009, survivors of human rights violations committed during El Salvador’s civil war have gathered each year to share their stories and demand justice for the crimes committed against them and their loved ones. This year, the Tribunal was celebrated in the community of Santa Marta in the department of Cabañas, target of a series of brutal scorched earth operations by the military of El Salvador during the 1980s, including the massacre of Santa Cruz, in which some 200 fleeing civilians were killed.

Organized by the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University and the Network of Committees of War Victims, and presided by a panel of international jurists and human rights advocates, the International Restorative Justice Tribunal closed with a resolution delivering symbolic verdicts in response to each testimony, as well as recommendations calling on national and international authorities to ensure justice and reparations for grave human rights abuses.

Photo essay by Alex Montalvo. Translations by Ursula Mosqueira. A project for the Unfinished Sentences campaign.


Day in the Life of an EarthCorps Corps Member

EarthCorps is a non-profit organization founded in 1993 with a mission to build a global community of leaders through local environmental service. EarthCorps provides a year-long intensive program for young adults from the US and 80 other countries to learn best practices in community-based environmental restoration and develop their leadership skills as they supervise more than 10,000 volunteers each year.

In December 2012 I spent the work day with Aidos Toibayev, from Kazakstan, and his crew to document a “Day in the Life” of a corps member working on one of their environmental service projects. ‘Twas a fun day out near the Cascades planting trees along side a creek, throwing earthworms at each other in a game of WORM! and making timelapses in the rain. Thanks Aidos and EarthCorps for the good times!

To learn more about EarthCorps visit

Human Rights, On Story, Personal

Navigating Complex Messaging and Content Plans for Issue-oriented Campaigns

For The University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program, I recently completed an extensive transmedia content plan for our Leadership through Communities and Networks course final project.  The project parameters were seemingly quite broad, asking participants to “create, and present an original work that reflects your professional ambitions and relates to a field within Communications.” The intentionally broad parameters were set to help us define our creative voice within the context of a professional community, an important aspect of success within a creative field. After overcoming creative agoraphobia (in itself a worthy exercise), I found direction in the desire to merge past and present, melding my prior experience in working for non-profits with the current impetus to harness digital media strategies in the shaping of a non-profit communication strategy.

I currently work as a media producer for the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, and chose to create a transmedia content plan for the international justice work we’re conducting at the Center.  Although the Center’s work in El Salvador began several years ago, in November we launched the public-facing Unfinished Sentences component of the project. The work of the Center supports recent momentum around Salvadoran efforts for justice following the atrocities of the armed conflict from 1980-1992, while the campaign aims “ encourage public participation in support of human rights in El Salvador.”

Essentially the problem we’re trying to solve in this case is: how do we engage a wider audience in an important issue that seems far away in time and place? One step further, how can current communication technology be utilized to best explain a complex issue and encourage public participation?

Due to the recent launch and current lack of resources, we’ve taken a relatively uni-platform approach to the work since November. The Leadership and Communities class provided the perfect opportunity for me to test newly-learned techniques to craft, and potentially execute, a comprehensive multi-platform content strategy.

The complexity of El Salvador’s history and current efforts toward justice is reason enough to deter people from engaging in the campaign, and/or consuming content. As a result, experimenting (ethically) with storytelling techniques becomes of paramount importance. Constructing the content strategy for this campaign did reveal a significant amount of insight in the process, so I’m including a list of five developing principles the effort has helped form toward navigating issue-advocacy in a networked world.

1) Accessibility: unfortunately not everyone cares about your mission or thinks it’s important.

In my close to ten years in working with non-profits, I’ve spoken with many passionate and wonderful individuals who focus on issue advocacy. Through this work I’ve noticed many people, over time, begin to communicate the details of their work in a way that reduces accessibility to the issue. The combination of passion, experience, and proximity to the issue creates a sense of urgency and nuanced knowledge that serves to segment the individual or organization from the general public. While this serves to advance the work—refinement and nuance are welcomed natural developments to any field—communicators in their respective fields interested in growing a community of action-takers must constantly re-evaluate message through the lens of someone who doesn’t think your mission is very important.

2) Simplicity, then drillability.

Only tell one story at a time, and provide multiple channels of accessibility so media consumers who are interested can choose their level of complexity. Providing a simplified, accessible, version of a complex narrative is important in drawing a larger audience into the issue; however, it’s important that this simplified narrative offers channels to fully understand the issue’s complexity of the issue, or run the risk discrediting the effort.  Sam Gregory from the acclaimed human rights media organization WITNESS, in his assessment of the successes and failures of the Kony 2012 campaign, refers to this important aspect of the issue representation as “moving to drillability alongside spreadability” (Kony 2012 through a Prism Advocacy Practices and Trends). The Kony 2012 campaign was highly effective in spreadability, though it lacked sufficient ways for viewers to dig deeper into the issue, or properly represent Ugandan voices, to name a few. In the current case of the Unfinished Sentences campaign, restructuring the complex front messaging to follow this principle could result in greater mass appeal.

3) Use content more strategically instead of producing more content.

A wealth of perspectives exists within singular subjects in combination with the abundance of social platforms, provides a natural way to seek out and divide “drillable” areas of content over various platforms.  Instead of trying to over-produce new content, think about how a story could unfold utilizing the strengths of a specific platform (Flickr vs Soundcloud vs. Pinterest, for example).

4) Provide concrete actions that strongly correlate to the narrative advocated by the campaign.

Human rights videos should provide a way for viewers to take action on the campaign. Gregory argues that “[the viewer’ s] realistic option to exercise agency should not just be an add-on action at the end of a video but a response that makes sense based on the narrative journey they’ve gone through while engaging with the media.” (2012)

One of the reasons why the Kony 2012 campaign was so successful was the actionable component of the campaign was closely tied to the narrative journey in which the film took viewers. In other words, asking viewers to share a video was directly tied to the filmmaker’s narrative of the Internet’s potential in effecting change (Gregory 2012). This notion had me examining gaps between the messaging and “Take Action” components of the Unfinished Sentences campaign, and re-envisioning how we could best create an effective space for action.

5) Not everything is an emergency. When an issue demands long-term engagement, consider supplementary content and a change in visual and communication style to coincide with narrative arcs.

About once or week, I receive a notice from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that comes off as some sort of crisis—Special interests are taking over! Debilitating defeats require immediate action! The Republicans are turning into flesh eating bacteria!  I find a similar style of messaging in emails I receive from SumofUs, CARE, the National Resources Defense Council and many others. Communicating urgency and crisis might work for short-term actions, but extending this style to long-term engagement results in issue-fatigue. Campaigns could benefit in taking cues from storytelling techniques and thinking about their issue-advocacy as a narrative arc with peaks and valleys, cautiously and respectfully including supplementary content. In the Unfinished Sentences example, oral histories about human rights violations distributed one-month, supplemented by cultural offerings, such as stories about community traditions or regional music, could reduce issue-fatigue and maintain an audience’s attention long-term. Fostering an emotional connection with a wider audience will require content that speaks to dynamism and diversity of an audience’s interests, plus that more authentically represents the spectrum led by the community we represent through our storytelling.

The influence of mass communication on activism is age-old, however the intersection of digital media technologies with activism is relatively new, and constantly being re-defined. The debate around the terminology alone—Storytelling for change, Transmedia Storytelling for Good, Digital Activism, Cyberactivism, Online Activism, Transmedia Activism—hints at the level of ambiguity found in this work: I hope continued work on this project will lead to additional discoveries.

Have any stories or issue-campaigns inspired you to take action in some form, no matter how simple? What about the messaging motivated you? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.


Experimenting with Timelapse: Network and Community Map

For an exercise in examining social networks and communities, I shied away from using visualization software and opted instead go analog with dye-filled cups. I love digital media, but practicing the craft means I often work at my computer until I see blurry. Manipulating the cups (relationships) provided a much needed return to 3D physical visualization. This physicality was again revealed in an interesting statistic I found while analyzing my Facebook and Linked In connections: 97% of my social networks began with a face-to face interaction. This timelapse was my first take on the exploration of shifting relationships and the variables of physicality, proximity, relevance, and size. The attempt truly makes me want to geek out on data visualization.

By the way, if you do want to analyze your networks and make some techno-maps using digital tools, I’ve been hearing good things about the open source data visualization software Gelphi.

Take a macro look at your communities and social networks, digitally or analog, and share with me if you find any interesting themes.

Books, Personal

Be the Change We Want to See… in Our Networks?

In continuation of a discussion on the intersection of leadership and communication, our class at UW is reading Adam Grant’s popular Give and Take, a critique on how our individual actions influence our success. Grant places individuals within three categories, “givers, takers, or matchers,” describing them by the way each interacts with others in personal and professional relationships, while challenging common behavioral patterns around reciprocity and competition that guide our social interactions. As a whole, Grant’s text creates compelling reasons to ditch societal tropes like the Golden Rule for new ways of operating that focus primarily on giving.

I found, on the individual level, one of Grant’s strongest arguments for a “giver” is the “norm of added value” their unbounded giving can manifest: each time an individual engages in an act of giving within their network, that individual therefore encourages a culture of greater giving within their network. I found Grant’s words to place Gandhi’s omnipresent “Be the change you want to see in the world,” within the context of business-oriented professionals and their associated networks. Who wouldn’t want to help create a culture of giving?

One test I often put forward for sweeping ethical principals, and to those that proselytize them, is the accessibility test: how much of the advocated theory applies to individuals in a variety of situations, locations, industries, and financial situations? Many of Grant’s suggestions and case studies are geared toward giving in a networked professional world, even citing examples of Adam Rifkin’s writing of 256 recommendations on LinkedIn as giver behavior (and it is). Even though Grant strongly advocates “creating value for others” as essential to giver mechanics, which has wide applicability across many segments of society, Grant’s case studies and examples lose broader applicability. In other words, the text often comes across as very white-man person business “professional” while his principles do not.

Despite some drawbacks, I fundamentally enjoyed the thought-provoking and reflective read. I found Grant to blend core philosophies of Buddhism, such as the importance of giving without any expectation of reward, within language of the corporate world and its incessant emphasis on success. Although here again the blend felt a little disheartening at times (Do we need to think about our giving as having tangible benefit that manifest themselves in material gains for everyone, even if it’s not self-motivated?), overall Grant created a text for a business-driven society that defines success on some tangible material progress; any movement toward collectivism is progress in my mind.

Would you define yourself as a giver, taker, or matcher (or other) in the workplace? How does your perspective apply to your daily communication?


On Creative Process

I was recently asked to reflect on my creative process in an exercise called a “scratching” (a la Twyla Tharp’s recommendation in The Creative Habit).  My take on scratching, and not the type requiring vinyl and Technics is: what you to do clear your mind so interesting ideas fill the void. Something you fall back on when you’re forced to be creative, need to be creative.

Somewhat elusive, I find setting the stage for “spontaneous creativity” results from several processes in succession.  First, the tried and true, I clear my head. A more inviting mind provides the mental space to start part II, behaviors that fire me up to feel creative. Lastly, I get started with the making. A great mass of inertia from the weight of our daily lives requires much energy and focus to overcome, so the process of movement takes dedication. What these actions look like,of course, will be different for everyone.

As part of the first step I need to set a disciplined slot of free time. Disciplined and free, under normal human circumstances, don’t belong together, but in juggling work, grad school, babies,.and kittens, scheduled free time is part of the creative package, or it rarely happens. I’ll say to myself, “No matter what comes up you will not miss that dance class on Tuesday.” And this leads me to the activity that clears my head the most…

Movement. Jogging works a little, as does yoga, but what works the best by far is dance. (I’m suddenly remembering the iconic line from Dazed and Confused while writing this) Give me a salsa class, an uncomfortable improv where I’m forced to stare someone in the eye for five minutes while dancing Riverdance, african, pole dancing (haven’t tried it yet, but want to), or hip hop class–any movement where I feel simultaneously old and spinally-liberated and my mind will clear. I’m way too busy trying to move 175 lbs. of flesh weighted down by Pho and IPAs to care about anything else in the world for 90 minutes.

Lately I’ve been dancing at Velocity Dance Center, a studio in Seattle upon which I can’t heap enough praises. Their instructors are phenomenal, and their classes strike a perfect balance between challenging and emancipating. As part of this scratching exercise, I went to Velocity’s Bottom Heavy Funk class last Tuesday where I tried to dance like one of Beyonce’s back up dancers to Partition, a bass heavy track off of her December digital release.  I pray no one actually recorded me, but the video of the talented Yanis Marshall and his crew teaching a class in the Ukraine sums up my intention:

This usually leaves me feeling pretty (and?) creative.

The next step I take to encourage visual thinking is not nearly as eventful, but just as insightful. I browse photography and graphic design magazines at bookstores and look at the minute details of a piece or technique that catch my eye. Also, browsing Asian grocery stores tends to leave the same graphic impression: with cute seaweed, taro bun, and soy milk packages abound, I’m ready to go home and create something round and happy.

Like most people, I’m assuming, the part that most often holds me up is the actual act of starting a project. The lesson that has been long in the making, the one I still need to remind myself of often is: just start. It seems simple, but it’s rather profound. Stop thinking and start working. If you’re working on a writing project, sit down and start writing or typing, even if it’s I can’t think of anything to say right now. If it’s a portfolio, start placing a few of your favorite images into a spread. For a video, shoot something outside of your apartment. Start with some concept, or a basic building block, no matter how silly it might seem, as your project will quickly evolve.

More than anything, I find the most inspiration and excitement in the moments above, or others, when I’m not judging myself, allowing ridiculousness and lightheartedness to take over, even if just for a moment. This is difficult practice. And that’s where I see these types of activities to be most effective. Go scratch yourself some Beyonce in your bedroom, paint a still life, put on that bright kitty print shirt on a grey day, or emulate your favorite graf stencil with a can of spray paint out on the sidewalk (on a piece of paper, of course…outside for the fresh air). Just be more fearless with your badass self. Let the creativity follow.

How do you feel inspired on a time crunch?

Articles, Technology

Avant-garde or Autocrat? Navigating Creative Leadership and Change

Recently, in the Communication Leadership program at the University of Washington, our cohort discussed the intersection of Creative Leadership in the context of the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) controversy over the hiring of John Maeda as the prestigious design university president in 2008. The series of curated articles painted an interesting trajectory of a creative leader hired with great anticipation for change, denigrated for acting dictatorial in his process (which led to a vote of no-confidence in 2011), then _______? In March 2012, the RISD’s board of directors renewed Maeda’s contract until 2015. But then this past December Maeda left for a position in silicon valley.In light of his 2011 release of a book on leadership, aptly entitled Redesigning Leadership, Maeda’s bumpy path of the past few years leaves me questioning whether time will prove him a long-term leader, or a temporary motivator.

Maeda was intent on modernizing the operations of the university, instituting sweeping changes to communication, and radically adapting RISD’s stead curriculum. Maeda was a known twitterphile, and desired to usher in a new era of transparency and open communication across university operations. Upon first review of Maeda’s detractors, Maeda’s plans appeared to fall into two themes common: his vision and language failed to match his most visible behavior; and he attempted to execute his agenda without respecting and building necessary relationships. Classic politics, it seems, plays an important role even within the climate of a university internationally renowned for it’s avant-garde graduates and cutting-edge creative work.

Maeda’s trajectory lends itself to generalizing this tension between the evolving and The Establishment, raising many questions pertinent to those poised for creative leadership: How does a leader separate true vision from self-driven interest? In times of disruptive change, how much of our old system does one preserve in the design of a new approach? Or more appropriately, how closely do we listen to the voices of the requisite resistance?

If successful leadership is classically defined as the ability to build and maintain relationships, these questions, and Maeda’s first “failures” become even more interesting upon RISD’s board of directors three-year renewal of his contract in March 2012. Was Maeda successful in blending old and new dynamics, merging physical connections with digital relationships?

With Maeda’s recent departure, the success of his leadership will hopefully be vindicated by the staying power of his technology-driven values, defining his leadership experiment more as leadership entrepreneurship.

What have you learned about navigating relationships and change in our current communication landscape?


Seeking Truth, Justice, and Reparations in El Salvador

A mini-documentary highlighting the collaborative work between the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights and partners in El Salvador for truth, justice and reparations in El Salvador. By Alex Montalvo, Revelriter Media.

Excerpted from The Center For Human Rights at the University of Washington

“Today, democratic governance in El Salvador is threatened by crises of crime and violence, driven by the longstanding problems of poverty and social exclusion but rendered a potent threat to governability by the widespread perception that the institutions of justice are inoperable. In a sad commentary on the dividends of purported peace, many Salvadorans report that things are worse today than they were during the 12-year civil war that claimed over 75,000 lives.

Despite the signing of peace accords that called for fundamental social and political reforms, no systematic reform of the justice sector has been undertaken, and those in power continue to enjoy the ability to intercede in justice proceedings in the interests of preserving their impunity. There has been no justice for the victims of crimes against humanity committed in the context of the Salvadoran civil war, nor any extensive investigation to establish truth or accountability in such cases. In this sense, the country’s fragile democracy is built on an untenable silence; until Salvadoran society addresses the systematic violations of human rights that rent asunder the social fabric for so many years, the country’s justice system will remain unable to confront the crimes of the past or present.

Now is a pivotal moment for a concerted push for truth, justice, and reparations in El Salvador, involving strategic coordination between Salvadoran victims’ organizations and international actors. The CHR, in collaboration with the Instituto de Derechos Humanos at the Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA), is developing a project to apply important international justice precedents to the Salvadoran context, through the concerted application of national and international pressures for justice and a strengthening of grassroots movements within the country.”


Seattle-ites Renew Fight for Justice in El Salvador’s Dirty Wars

The associated video (below) was produced in collaboration with Dacia Saenz for International Human Rights Day. Originally published in The Seattle Globalist on December 10, 2013.

A man pauses from constructing a poster of family victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador from 1980-1992.

A man pauses from constructing a poster of family victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador for the annual Victim’s Meeting (Encuentro de Victimas). Photo by Alex Montalvo

The solidarity that distinguished Seattle’s relationship to El Salvador in the 1980’s is reigniting once again. Last Thursday, representatives from 10 organizations met at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Seattle in support of a renewed movement for justice in El Salvador.

The event, La Voz de la Justicia: Human Rights at a Critical Juncture in El Salvador, was organized through the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights (UWCHR)and the Social Justice Committee of St. Patrick’s Church. It brought together groups with a long history of supporting human rights throughout the region.

So why now, more than 20 years after the end of official hostilities in El Salvador?

In early September, the Attorney General’s office in El Salvador announced that for the first time in the country’s history, investigations would be opened into the massacre at El Mozote and as many as 32 other wartime atrocities. A few weeks later, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court accepted a challenge to the constitutionality of the amnesty law.

A decision on the amnesty law is now expected literally any day,” says Angelina Godoy, Director of UWCHR. “These are things victims have been struggling to achieve for decades. There’s a sense of real possibility now, one that didn’t exist before.”

Photo of a man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reading a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador.

A man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reads a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador. The sombrero on the placard was worn by the son during his death. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)

From 1980 to 1992, over 75,000 civilians died in the bloody armed conflict in El Salvador. Thousands more were brutally tortured or “disappeared.” Hostilities officially came to an end with peace accords in 1992, and as part of the peace process, a UN-sponsored Truth Commission was tasked with investigating wartime atrocities. Their investigation found approximately 85% of the violence occurred at the hands of the Salvadoran government.

But just five days after the release of the Truth Commission’s report in March, 1993, the Salvadoran legislature passed an Amnesty Law that has since been used to effectively shield people in positions of power from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many Salvadorans have been fighting for justice and reparations ever since.

The sad truth for Americans is that the armed conflict was heavily funded by our government. In an attempt to make El Salvador a leading example of Cold War policy, the U.S. provided the Salvadoran government upwards of $5 billion, despite awareness of government involvement in egregious human rights abuses.

But concerned citizens across the globe reacted strongly to these abuses and the subsequent involvement of the U.S. government.

Seattle, in particular, was front and center in the movement to stop the war. In 1983 voters passed the “Peace in Central America Initiative” which declared opposition to the United States support of the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and established a Citizens’ Commission on Central America that included over twenty local organizations like El Centro de La Raza, the Catholic Archdiocese, and the University of Washington. Many Seattle parishes participated in the sanctuary movement, providing shelter to refugees from the Central American conflicts.

Today, the University of Washington is back to supporting human rights in the region. Since 2011, UWCHR and The Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) in San Salvador have been collaborating on activities aimed at addressing core challenges to the rule of law in El Salvador.

Though there have been a lot of positive developments in El Salvador recently, there are also strong signs that those who oppose the justice movement are still willing to resort to criminality to protect themselves. At the end of September, 2013, the Catholic Church closed down one of the country’s main human rights organizations, leaving the victims in cases like the massacre at El Mozote suddenly without access to legal representation, and even without access to their own case files.

Even groups who search for missing children are being targeted. During a recent trip to El Salvador, we documented the emotional return of Marina Lopez (adopted name Marina Llewelyn) to Arcatao, El Salvador, for the first time since her childhood.

Marina had been taken from her family by the Salvadoran military, but was reunited through the human rights organization Pro-Búsqueda, who work to discover the whereabouts of disappeared children and reunite them with surviving family members. Pro-Búsqueda conducted research for over two decades to find Marina.

Sadly, just three days after Marina’s reunion, Pro-Búsqueda was attacked and its offices firebombed, destroying some three-quarters of their files. These recent attacks are what prompted the recent “La Voz” event held at St. Patricks.

The City of Seattle is taking notice of local efforts for justice in El Salvador once again.Today, on International Human Rights Day, The UW Center for Human Rights is set to receive an award from the City. Godoy says she sees the award as recognition not just of the UWCHR, but of all the UW students, and the many people in El Salvador who have been involved in the effort.

“What makes our work so powerful is the way it’s rooted in partnerships with those on the front lines of human rights struggles, folks like the committee of survivors we just met with in Arcatao, El Salvador,” Godoy said. “I wish those women and men could also step up to the podium and be recognized, for they’re really the ones who are teaching us about what human rights mean.”

For more information about human rights in El Salvador, and to demand a full investigation into the attack on Pro-Búsqueda, please visit

Books, On Story

On Creative Habit(s)

Recently I read The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, the prolific Emmy Award-winning choreographer of Moving Out (2002-04), Singing in the Rain (1985), and Baryshnikov by Tharp 1984-85) fame. With hundreds of original works to her credit, Twyla is certainly no stranger to the creative process.

 A picture of TwylaTharp's book, "The Creative Habit."

My nicely used copy of The Creative Habit

After reading the intro and the first chapter, I thought to myself, “Here goes another book telling me how creative genius isn’t born, it’s just sweat and tears.” To date these oft-repeated prophecies haven’t done much to spur my inspiration, or rather perspiration, to buckle down into any creative process. They’ve always come across as pleasantries meant to superficially satiate the frustrations of a challenging process, like those proffered by acquaintances upon hearing the sufferings of a rocky relationship, “Relationships are A LOT of work. They’re worth it in the end, but they’re not all butterflies…”

But about 15 pages further in I found Twyla’s words to offer much more than pleasantries; she invites us into her own process of self discovery, and to the “life infrastructure” that has supported her overwhelming success.

In Rituals of Preparation (Chapter 2), Twyla talks about the simple daily routines she performs that prime the mind for work, for creative endeavors. She details her all-important routine of beginning each day at 5:30am to hail a taxi to the gym.In describing her mundane tasks as ritualistic, or even sublime, Twyla comes across as asking us to seek deeper meaning in our daily urban lives, to find the connections between the repetitive and the regal. The Tantric-like approach provides a much stronger impetus to staying disciplined with our routines than simply shouting stay disciplined.

Overall Twyla’s voice comes across as vulnerable, personable, strong and experienced. It’s a powerful combination that inspires trust in storytelling, and one that makes me want to continue the relationship, even without the butterflies and….whatever makes you happy.