Changemakers Series Ep1: Confronting Information Poverty

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Changemakers Series: Confronting Information Poverty

A Rights-Based Approach to Communication, with Lorenzo Vargas

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John Monahan

Hello. My name is John Monahan and I’m the warden of Hart House, and your host for the Changemakers Series. Today, I’m thrilled to bring you a conversation with Lorenzo Vargas. Let’s begin. 

John Monahan  01:56

Most of us wish we lived in a more just and equitable world. And many have given careful thought to what constructive change might look like. But those who both think about, and then actively devote their lives and careers to effecting meaningful and sustainable change in the interests of justice and equity are relatively few and far between. They don’t do it for fame or fortune. They do it because they see a need for change, and they respond to it. They are Changemakers, and that’s what we’ve called our series. Changemakers is a series of fireside style chats with some of these rare birds, inspiring folks whose discontent with the status quo propels them to be the change that they want to see in the world.

Now, before we begin this evening’s conversation with our special guest, I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that we are gathered here for this conversation on land that is the traditional territory of the Huron Wendat and the Seneca, and both the traditional and treaty territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. This land is still the home to many Indigenous people from all across Turtle Island, and we are grateful to live, work, gather and create community together on this land. In addition, inspired by the example in the words of a colleague here at the University of Toronto, Professor Jill Carter, I’m also mindful that Zoom, the technology that brings us together this evening, has directed its corporate headquarters in San Jose, California. As Professor Carter has reminded us, that is the traditional territory of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Nation. And we who are able to connect with each other via Zoom are deeply indebted to the Muwekma Ohlone people as the lands and waters that they continue to steward now support the people, pipelines and technologies that carry our breaths, images and words across vast distances to others. And we are grateful. 

The title of tonight’s topic is Information Poverty or Rights-Based Approach to Communication, and I am thrilled to welcome Lorenzo Vargas to Changemakers. Tonight’s conversation will explore issues amount- around democratizing access to media resources, and other sources of information as fundamental to creating societies where citizen engagement, economic prosperity, and systems of justice can thrive simultaneously, particularly in the global south. Lorenzo will be sharing his insights tonight from his work to ensure that those from marginalized and poor and excluded communities around the world have access to the technologies, and the means to make informed decisions about their own lives and communities. We’ll also be touching on the global media landscape and how it can either support or hinder the attainment of those goals. First, let me tell you a little bit more about Lorenzo Vargas. He is a Communication for Development Specialist and a researcher on Citizens’ Media. A Colombian Canadian, he directs the Global Communication for Social Change Program for WACC, the World Association for Christian Communications, which supports grassroots sustainable development initiatives in several countries of the global south. WACC is a global NGO that builds on communications rights to promote social justice. Prior to his time at the WACC, Lorenzo worked with Mosaic Institute, an organization that I know something about as well. And there Lorenzo coordinated a series of campus based dialogues all across Canada that were focused on transnational conflict and diaspora led peacebuilding efforts. He holds degrees in International Development and Communication from York University and McGill University, and is currently pursuing his PhD in Communication and Culture at X University, which some of you may remember is Ryerson University. And there, Lorenzo is affiliated with the Global Communication Governance Lab. Lorenzo has written a number of publications, including Citizens Media as a Tool for the Local Construction of Peace in Columbia, Indigenous Community Media Aid Reconciliation in Canada, and his most recent publication, entitled, Expanding Shrinking Communication Spaces, which he edited with Phillip Lee. 

Lorenzo Vargas 6:06


John Monahan 6:32

Lorenzo, let’s start at the beginning, with the title of tonight’s event, Information Poverty. Can you explain what that term means to you, and why do you think it’s something that we should all pay attention to?

Lorenzo Vargas 07:47

Thank you. Well, first of all, I’d like to thank you and thank Hart House for the invitation, as well as to also echo your, your Land Acknowledgement. I think that’s something that’s really important as we in Canada move towards meaningful reconciliation. Now, your question around what communication information poverty is, to me, it’s all about power. It’s about in society who has the power to shape public agendas, who has the power to determine what issues are paid attention to, what issues are ignored, whose voices are heard, whose voices are not heard. And for real people in the real world, you know, if you ask many poor people, there’s many studies have, who have looked at, that have looked at this- the manifestation of poverty is often yeah, you don’t have enough money or you don’t have proper housing or you don’t have proper employment. But a lot of it actually is about having no voice, having a sense of not being heard, of feeling voiceless, or feeling powerless, or feeling like you have no space or avenue to share your concerns, like your voice doesn’t count, as well as feeling like you don’t have access to information about what’s happening in the world. You know, its a complex world out there, you’re trying to get by, but you can’t access media, you don’t, you’re not represented in the media. There’s, you know, the things that they’re talking about on the news are not really what, you know, matter to you, where you live in your everyday life. So to me, that’s, that’s an essential element of human dignity- feeling heard, feeling seen. And if I look at an example, because I always like thinking about examples, I think of the, Mexico for example, which is a country in which the organization that I worked for, WACC, is heavily involved. And it’s a country where there’s, you know, high rate of media concentration, there’s a few media houses, most of which are owned by a few wealthy families, many of which are connected to the political class and to business interests. 

John Monahan


Lorenzo Vargas

So there’s really not that much space for grassroots communities to express their views to be seen, to be heard. And those groups that are in power use media to shape public agendas, to shape public debate. And also you don’t have spaces for Indigenous languages, for example, to be you know, everything’s in Spanish. So if you’re an Indigenous person, let’s say in the State of Chiapas, Mexico, your voice is not heard. Of course, there’s a lot of issues around sexism in Mexico and, and the violence against women, as well as violence against journalists. So all of these issues combined, lead to a context in which, for the everyday person that’s experiencing marginalization or social justice issues in Mexico, it’s really hard for them to have their voice heard.

John Monahan  10:23

So it goes way beyond just representation. It goes way beyond just seeing people in the media, whether social or mass media that look like you, or come from your background, it goes to the actual means of creating messages, emitting messages. An actual infrastructure issue as opposed to a representative-representation issue. Is that, is that right?

Lorenzo Vargas 10:50

Precisely. Yeah. If the way I think about it is, I think about the communication information system as a public good. And much in the, in the way we think about natural resources or, you know, things that are considered public commons, that we will have to protect, but that actually, because of the way the world works, is driven by profit, and is driven by power. But really, if you think about telecommunications infrastructure, electromagnetic infrastructure, which is what allows us to communicate, to share, to send radio waves, that’s actually a public good, much like water. So it’s about who really controls the means of communication, the means to create meaning to create knowledge and, and to ultimately shape public agendas, which of course, has a clear impact on policy making.

John Monahan  11:41

And having heard you say that, I’m better understanding the subtitle of tonight’s topic, which is one that you chose, which is a rights-based approach to communication. So I infer that what you’re saying is that having access to these means of communication and media, that’s not a privilege.

Lorenzo Vargas 12:04

Precisely, yeah. So when we look at the, the rights based approach to communication, of course, we have to start with Article 19, of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which is, of course, the right that speaks about freedom of expression and access to information. And of course, that is the starting point. But then there’s other issues like media representation, right. Like is, for example, your particular community, or your gender community represented fairly in a balanced way on the media, in the media. Do you have access to, you know, is the media transparent and pluralistic, you know, is it governed in a way that that you can actually engage with. Is it democratically controlled, is it all controlled by the state or the army. Like, there’s countries for example like Egypt, where a lot of the media is actually controlled by the army, which is really the state. So the starting point, of course, is freedom of expression. But what we’re really saying is that there’s a number of other rights that we have to look at, in order to enable that freedom of expression to be meaningful, otherwise, you end up having people who are really powerful, and whose right to freedom of expression is, ends up being way louder, so to speak, than the right to freedom of expression of a poor, marginalized Indigenous person, for example, who has no platforms. So it really is about power.

John Monahan  13:18

So in the midst of, of that nest of issues, what does most of your work look like? What is the actual work that you do in, in Mexico or in Jordan or Burkina Faso? What does that work look like? What do you actually contribute to this issue area?

Lorenzo Vargas 13:42

Yeah, I mean, I think for me, the starting point is to understand that there’s people out there who are already doing a lot of work in, the in the area of media and communication, and democratization of, of the systems. So my role in particular at WACC entails providing technical support, and helping to mobilize financial support, so that these initiatives can actually take place in the global south. And of course, these are issues that are connected to democracy, participation, and therefore, are sometimes highly sensitive in those particular countries. So also for example, there’s situations where activists are being targeted and attacked and so on, so it’s also sort of providing that overall support to many of these organizations trying to build networks of solidarity among them. And we do work in different, under different themes. So for example, we have a whole program on migration and communication rights, which is all about how migrants. 

Lorenzo Vargas 14:57

Experiences and so on. We are also now doing work on climate change and communication, as well as, in well, select digital rights, digital justice, you know, the democratization of data, which, of course, is what drives the systems nowadays. As well as, we have a program on Indigenous rights as well, and a big one on gender justice, which is about a woman being represented in a balanced and equitable way on, in news media.

John Monahan  15:24

So we’re gonna, we have some pictures that we’re gonna look at in a few minutes, that give us an idea in a few countries of the kinds of projects that you’re involved in. But just backing up for a second, this series is called Changemakers because we are interested both in the change that needs to happen, but also in the people that have taken up the challenge to actually try to affect that change. People that often have options, I know you have options. You could be working in an investment bank, or, or I don’t know, a travel agency, I have no idea. You could be a translator, but yet you choose to do the work that you do with WACC, and pursue the studies that you’re pursuing for your PhD. What is about this set of issues that has attracted you? Is there something personal about it, that compels you to this work?

Lorenzo Vargas 16:30

Yeah, so I guess my own personal journey is that I grew up in Colombia, moved to Canada as a teenager, and was always keenly aware of the fact that, you know, there were really two main media organizations in the country. And they were both basically saying the same thing

John Monahan 16:47

Within which country?

Lorenzo Vargas 16:48

In Colombia, in Colombia growing up. And really the, the, the social issues in the country were not really being resolved, and I saw clearly that, you know, and later on, I came to Canada, I had a chance to reflect about this, that, you know, this media groups are really just representing the interests of people who are in power, of business elites. And that, really, it’s quite difficult for everyday people to have their voice or their concerns heard, whether it was around access to health, or access to education, and so on. And it made me realize that when, cause when I was studying International Development, you know, you can look at education systems for healthcare systems or institutions. But actually in Development, there’s a lot of immaterial and cultural elements that are reproduced through media that  actually contribute to under development, or poverty or exclusion or undemocratic practices. So I was interested in the immaterial side of development, you know, it’s easy to think about, you know, let’s build schools or let’s build hospitals. But how about we reform the, the system that enables us to choose what we focus on or what we don’t focus on? What, what policy issues are important, and what policy issues aren’t? So that’s really what, what made me think about development from a media and communication point of view.

John Monahan  18:10

And I know that in your current role with WACC, you have global responsibility for your program, right? 

Lorenzo Vargas 18:16

That’s right. Yeah.

John Monahan 18:18

That’s a, that’s a big territory.

Lorenzo Vargas 18:21

Indeed, yes.

John Monahan 18:22

It’s a big, big sales territory, if I can call it that. But it also gives you a really interesting perspective to presumably be able to, to study and analyze and compare and contrast how different countries, different regions are doing with respect to the democratize-democratization of access to information, and the means of communication. So I’m curious to know, from where you said, are there particular countries of the world that are doing this better than others, places where you think there is something really interesting for other countries to observe and to learn from?

Lorenzo Vargas 19:06

So maybe I’ll give an example from a developed country, and an example from the global south. So I’ll begin with the example from the developed countries. So for example, one of the things that is happening in Australia now, and it’s still, it’s an ongoing conversation, is around the regulation of social media platforms and the ways in which the government of Australia is trying to redirect some of the ad revenue that social media platforms generate, such as Facebook and Google, towards public service journalism. As we all know, the media and journalism sector has been decimated over the past 20-25 years as a result of the rise of digital communications, because a lot of the advertising revenue that used to go to media houses now goes to tech giants. So there’s a need to regulate all that process, you know, those funds, to find a way to redirect those funds to media organizations that are doing public service journalism in the interest of the public good. And I think that’s something that Canada should also, should also be considering in order to ensure the viability of our media sector. And then an example, perhaps from the global south- there’s many countries in Latin America, for example, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, that actually enshrined the right to communication in their constitution. So over the past 20 years, and have moved to reform the telecommunications laws. For example, in the broadcasting sector, what they’ve done is that, you know, let’s take a country like Argentina. You know, it used to be controlled, I think 80% of it was controlled by the private sector, and the state would highly politicized process. But essentially, what happened is that they said, okay, we’re going to redistribute this, the telecommunications infrastructure and the spectrum, so that 33% of it goes to the private sector, 33% goes to the public sector- so public broadcasting, much like we have the CBC here or the BBC in the UK, and then 33% would go to the community sector, to citizen led efforts. And a percentage of that within the citizen led efforts would go to Indigenous communities. Of course, that is fraught with issues, and it’s not an easy thing to do, of course, because many of these organizations that were private media did not want their, the government to basically take away they’re, they’re 

John Monahan 21:27

Invested in,

Lorenzo Vargas 21:27


John Monahan 21:28


Lorenzo Vargas 21:28

So it’s, and of course, there were interests in parts of governments to keep getting re-elected, to get some citizen groups to support this initiative. So of course, this was a, this was a highly politicized process. But the overall objective of equitably distributing media resources, particularly broadcasting spectrum was, to me, quite revolutionary.

John Monahan  21:49

And so you said, those frameworks have been in place for a couple of decades.

Lorenzo Vargas 21:55

They’ve been in place for about 10 years, not even 10 years, yeah. 

John Monahan  21:58

So, have they taken root? Are they now part of the communications culture in those countries? So clearly, there are private interests, perhaps also government interests that would maybe like to, to turn back the clock? But is, is it working? More than it’s not working?

Lorenzo Vargas 22:20

It’s a good question. I think it changes from country to country. This country is where, for example, Argentina, in 2015- 2016, there was a government that was like, that was more right leaning, so they sort of dismantled some of these things. And I think last year, there was a government that was elected that was more left leaning, so then reinstated some of these things. So it, it  sort of goes, and it’s like a pendulum, it goes back and forth. And one of the issues with this is, of course, funding, you know, like, if you’re gonna have a citizen led media sector or community media, community radio stations, community television stations. You need funding. But then you need to create an avenue for that funding to, to come to be, and so it’s either going to come from the state, which means that mistake can end up using that funding to manipulate that sector.

John Monahan 20:04

Of course. 

Lorenzo Vargas 23:04

Or its gonna come from advertising. But then you end up running through the same issues where you have advertising revenue that’s controlling the agenda of this media organization. So it’s still an experiment. But for sure, it’s interesting, because it’s an issue that managed to mobilize a lot of civil society organizations in, in Argentina and places like Ecuador, places like Uruguay. So I’d say it’s a process that the activists down there are still struggling towards.

John Monahan  23:30

Okay, so you’ve talked about Australia, you’ve talked about Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia. Didn’t hear you mention Canada. But I’m curious to know how Canada is doing in your assessment. I know that you work primarily in the global south, but how is Canada doing with respect to communications democracy, if I can call it that?

Lorenzo Vargas 23:54

Right. I mean, it’s not, I mean, it could be better, but could be worse. So I mean, we have great things, we have a public broadcasting system that, of course, has been underfunded, and then of course, again, with political changes in Canada- so there’s more funding going to things like the CBC or APTN, or, or TVO, and what have you, so. But to me, there’s a few issues in Canada, the first one being media concentration. If you, if you look at news media, in Canada, there’s really a few corporations like Bell, Rogers or Capricor that control a lot of the media and the news that we consume. So there’s not a lot of diversity, I would say in, in with the exception, of course, of the CBC in news media content in Canada, so that’s something that perhaps should be, anyway. Activists, I’m sure in Canada are working on that. But also to me is the issue, again, of media viability. You know, it’s the same thing that I mentioned about Australia. You know, you have institutions that are essential for democracy, media and journalism, but that are basically not viable financially. The financial model that under, that for many, many years, allowed journalism and public service journalism to, like the New York Times or The Guardian, to exist, is being undermined by digital technology that, as I said, takes away ad revenue and funding from this, this organizations and gives it to tech giants. And one of the consequences of that, of course, is the disappearance of many local media outlets. You know, across Canada, you see that, of course, in the big cities, we have the Global and Mail, the Toronto Star, the


John Monahan  25:34

But community newspaper has virtually disappeared


Lorenzo Vargas 25:37

Exactly, exactly. So we have this news deserts, where at the local level, it’s really hard to know what is happening. And all you have is content that’s being sent in from Toronto or from Montreal or from Calgary, and so on. So, to me, that’s, that’s a big issue. And it’s an issue that over the next few years, I think we’ll continue to as, as we struggle with, you know, the impact of, of digital technologies on democracy and elections and so on, that I think is going to continue to grow.

John Monahan  26:07

How fundamental a problem do you think that is for a country like Canada? As we speak tonight, we’re now in day two of a new session of parliament, we’re reminded that, you know, democracy is ever marching, ever forward in this country. Do you think that the communications landscape in Canada is supportive of enhancement to Canadian democracy? Or does it create more challenges than it does support?

Lorenzo Vargas 26:44

I mean, what I can say is that, in Canada, like in many other countries, there’s a high degree of concentration of media of digital power in the hands of just a few corporate actors. So you have actors, most of which are actually not in Canada, but there are a lot of them, are American corporations that actually have a lot of influence on, on, on-or digital infrastructure, digital, on data in Canada. So, I mean, I think that, as I said, maybe into the future, that’s something that Canada, like the US, was thinking of doing. We need to find ways to, to break up monopolies of tech giants, to also foster a domestic, domestic alternatives to some of these organizations, some of these private companies, as well as to foster public alternatives to tech giants. For example, we have Facebook and Twitter, which are, you know, big corporations, and, you know, have played important roles in many, in many countries, in terms of democracy and so on. But they’re not transparently managed. We have all these issues with fake news, misinformation, disinformation online. So we need to find a way to perhaps think about a public alternative, you know. Can we think of a Canadian public Facebook or public Instagram, much like we have, you know, public broadcaster, like the CBC? That’s a policy innovation that could be, you know, and, or a system that pays people for their data. Because right now, we’re paying for all the services, through our data and compromising our privacy. So I think as time goes by, and a civil society becomes more aware of some of the perils of having too much power in the hands of corporate actors, when it comes to digital technologies, we’ll begin to see some evolution in that, in that regard.

John Monahan  28:29

And is that advocacy happening here in Canada? Are there actors that are advocating for those sorts of public decisions to be made? 

Lorenzo Vargas 28:39

Yeah, there’s groups like Open Media, for example, out of Vancouver that’s doing a lot of this work. And there’s groups in Quebec as well that are, that are pushing this forward. I would say it’s probably not an issue that’s made the Canadian mainstream, you know, we’re, that’s one of the challenges with this kind of work, that it’s a bit for some people might seem a bit esoteric, or a bit abstract

John Monahan 28:59

Kind of a little bit surface, right? 

Lorenzo Vargas 29:00

Yeah, exactly. But it’s hard to mobilize people who are interested in health or reconciliation, and so on, to think about media structures, because it’s sort of, it’s like a superstructure, you know, we don’t really think about it, we just sort of go about our days.

John Monahah 29:15


Lorenzo Vargas 29:15

But it really does affect policy, you know. Whatever is being covered in the media, whatever is being, being, being, whatever is receiving attention, in many ways is what ends up being responded to by politicians and policymakers. So

John Monahan  29:31

And whoever controls the levers, whoever is,is writing the copy or issuing the, the messages that is going to largely determine how the conversation is being held.

Lorenzo Vargas 29:46

Precisely. Precisely. Yeah.

John Monahan  29:50

Yeah. So you, do you think that during a time like the one we’re living in now, you know, a year and a half or more into a, an existential global crisis, the COVID 19 pandemic- or you might also talk about the climate crisis and other existential crisis-  so existential crises squared. Is this an easier time? Or a more difficult time to raise awareness about the, the challenge of information poverty?

Lorenzo Vargas 30:29

Right. Well, we can talk about climate change and COP in a second. But thinking about the pandemic, you know, we saw just how absolutely critical media infrastructure was to get the messages out there about, you know, how to not get infected with COVID, You know, how coverage is transmitted, and so on. And of course, how many people who, who, people who were excluded or who were left behind- so Indigenous communities, people who speak minority languages who could not access this information. As well as how absolutely dangerous, unchecked, if left unchecked, the internet can be when it comes to misinformation and disinformation around vaccines, around you know, this idea that COVID is a hoax, the Chinese Hoax, all these nonsense that is spreading like wildfire, often by malicious actors that have an interest in this. And also, we saw how absolutely critical for our mental health, for our belonging, for our connection to society’s media and communication are, right? Like, because of Zoom, because of social media, because of media, we were able to see what was happening, we were able to see, connect with, with loved ones. So I think, it really, I mean, in the work that we were doing, we really saw this organizations on the ground, or a lot of community radio stations, for example, that were like doing really hard work to translate public health messages into local languages to really reach the people who are in remote communities with the message around COVID-19. So in a sense, it became more tangible during the pandemic. But to me, the critical issue here is, continues, to be misinformation, and just how complicated the digital space is becoming.

John Monahan  32:15

So let me play devil’s advocate for a second, I’d love you to push back at this. So you talked about disinformation/ misinformation. One might imagine that the more people that are able to create their own messages, the more likely that there will be a cacophony of messages in the marketplace, if I can call it that, marketplace of ideas. And it will be even harder to ascertain what the actual truth capital T is. So is that an argument for the centralization of media resources, perhaps, by the state or one or two deeply trusted corporate actors, rather than spreading access to the means of communication?

Lorenzo Vargas  33:09

I think it’s a great question. It’s a question that all of us, who are in the space of media scholarship and media activism, ask ourselves. Cause you know, 10 years ago, when the Arab Spring took place, everybody was praising social media, Facebook, how the Egyptian revolution was sort of organized by these, all these activists online. So I think, from the point of view of social organizing, and communities coming together, there’s a lot to be said, for, for digital technology that decentralize that power. But the downside to that, and it’s almost, it’s hard to reconcile the two, is how do you then handle things around truth, facts, which is something that we need, and it’s one of the reasons why we need public service journalism?  It’s one of the reasons why we need institutions to play this role to, to check facts and non facts. So it goes back to the role of journalists in this, in this role, in this you know, as people who are, have this responsibility, or moral responsibility with society to, to advance truthfulness, to advance inclusion, to look at different opinions, different, different voices. But it’s an issue that I think is not resolved- that balance between a fully open communication system- which of course I advocate for, but also one that doesn’t perpetuate lies, or, and so on, and I think a lot of that is related to creating more transparent systems. So on the one hand, it entails you know, holding corporations to account, like we’re seeing all these things that we’re seeing with Facebook, who’s the company that’s being said, well, that’s being told, “well, you have to really up your game when it comes to detecting fake news”. Not just in English speaking countries, but because that’s actually one of the main issues. They have a lot of factual fact checkers in English speaking, in the English speaking world. But there was a case study about Ethiopia, how there was rampant misinformation around civil war that’s happening there now. And this, Facebook, simply didn’t have enough fact checkers, or enough people were able to see what was true or what wasn’t true. So we have to hold those corporations to account. But we also have to empower civil society to play a more active role in being a watchdog. 

John Monahan 35:22


Lorenzo Vargas 35:23

So that we’re able to keep power in check.

John Monahan  35:27

Right. And, and just because media resources might be concentrated in, in certain countries in the hands of a state actor, that is no, certainly no guarantee that you’re going to be receiving truth. 

Lorenzo Vargas 35:35

Oh yeah.

John Monahan 35:46

That you’re going to be hearing facts, right? Because that’s, you know, you’re just creating a scenario where people will be applying their own agendas to the distortion of that information. And, you know, governments are not inherently more honest than some actors. 

Lorenzo Vargas 36:04

Absolutely, absolutely not, yeah. 

John Monahan 36:06

You mentioned climate, or I mentioned climate, we’re gonna get back to it. So, COP26 is now in the rearview mirror. You know, the world’s leaders came together with civil society for, what some argue, is a last ditch effort to affect substantive progress on the climate emergency. What would you say is the specific relevance of your approach to media democracy to that climate emergency?

Lorenzo Vargas 36:33

I mean, it’s great that you asked me this question, because that’s actually what my PhD dissertation will be about. But in essence, what we see with climate change and climate injustice really, is that the communities that are most affected by climate change are the communities that have contributed, contributed the least to this crisis. They are often rural communities in the global south whose emissions are far, far lower than, let’s say, your emissions are, my emissions here in the, in the global north. And those are the people who are going to be most affected by natural disasters by,

Lorenzo Vargas 37:05

Who haven’t really contributed much to this crisis more. So there’s two things in that regard. The first one is visibility. You know, we need those voices to be seen to be heard, we need those narratives to be to be seen in, in global spaces, you know. One of the complaints with COP is that it’s state actors and there’s private actors, private sector actors, and there’s some space for civil society. But really, the voices of people who are affected by climate change are not there. And also the people, the voices of people who are at the forefront of the struggles to keep oil in the ground, to fight back against extractivism, which, in my opinion, are actually the most effective struggles at this point, given the ongoing failure of corporations and government to actually tackle emissions. These corp, these comp, these communities, often Indigenous communities, grassroots communities that are fighting to keep extractive industries out, are actually, those voices are not being heard, you know, in the global media. And those communities are already experiencing communication information poverty, you know, they’re often already marginalized, already living in rural areas, already having, already have limited access to technology, or disconnected. So that’s one element. 

John Monahan  38:32

It’s kind of a condescension towards those voices when the, when they do emerge, when you do hear from grassroots or communities or Indigenous actors talking about extractive industries, you’ll often hear some condescension 

Lorenzo Vargas 38:48


John Monahan 38:39

That tries to drown out their voices saying, “well, they just don’t get it. They don’t understand progress”. And I, is that, is that part of what you’re talking about?

Lorenzo Vargas 38:58

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, in, in many countries around the world, let’s say Indigenous communities, are often represented as people who are backward, who are holding back development, who are holding back progress, when really, like, Indigenous communities are actually protecting protecting forests, protecting water resources, protecting ancestral lands, and crucially, hold critical, traditional and Indigenous ecological knowledge

John Monahan 39:25


Leonardo Vargas 39:25

That could be used for adaptation at the local level. So, in fact, that’s one of my main interests these days, is the notion of traditional ecological knowledge, knowledge that is sort of not accepted by western science as one, but that is still valid for those communities and can complement western approaches, or more, more traditional approaches to combating climate change.

John Monahan  39:49

Okay, we have some pictures, I think, from some of the projects that you’ve worked on. So I just wanna, for the sake of our viewers, I just wanna give them an opportunity to see some of the, the images that you’ve shared, and give you just a minute to tell us what the work entailed in each of those places. Do we have those slides on the screen? Okay, so looking first, I think this is in Mexico, is that right? So this is a project where you work with a network of Indigenous broadcasters to set up a new radio station. Tell us a little bit about that work.

Lorenzo Vargas 40:33

Right. So in Mexico, we’re quite involved with the Indigenous Communication Movement. And that entails in practice, really, two things. First, enabling Indigenous broadcasting, that it’s actually, especially that the community broadcasts, and that’s controlled by the community themselves. And also to advance this idea of what’s now called Community Telecommunication Networks. So there’s communities that are too far,  too remote, or maybe just not profitable enough for big telecoms to go in and provide internet connectivity. So there’s all these Indigenous communities that are creating their own community managed telecommunication infrastructure, which is fascinating. 

John Monahan 41:11

That’s amazing.

Lorenzo Vargas 41:11

And this particular project is a group that’s based in Mexico City but that’s connected to other groups, especially in the southern states of Mexico. And what they did is that they came up with their own ade in Mexico transmitter for their radio stations, so that these communities don’t have to pay, you know, $10,000 to import transmitters and antennas from China, or from the US or from Europe or from Germany, but they can actually use Made in Mexico transmitter, which, transmitters, which reduces the price for them to actually be able to set up their own radio station.

John Monahan  41:46

Amazing. Alright, let’s move on. We have a picture from Burkina Faso. And I understand that in Burkina Faso, WACC partnered with Zoo Africa Volonterre on a project to mobilize local traditional ecological knowledge, your area of research, as an adaptation mechanism to address climate change. Tell us what this project entailed and what your role was.

Lorenzo Vargas 42:11

Right. So this is a project that just started. We just done negotiating a contract with them a few months ago, a couple months ago. But it’s a very innovative project because it’s around enabling people who are peasants, or people who are working in the fields, rural communities really, to capture systematized, traditional ecological knowledge. You know, how are they adapted to climate change? What, how are they, you know, innovating in the ways, the way they plant their crops? How are they innovating in the, in the ways they store their grains? How are they using that knowledge to adapt to climate change? So this is a project that is seeking to set up a network of citizen journalists, people who are working in their own community to, A, highlight environmental degradation issues, and, B, raise awareness about traditional ecological knowledge and mobilize it so that other communities can also benefit.

John Monahan  43:10

Amazing. We’re gonna put one more picture up on the slide up on the screen. This one is from Jordan. And if I’m not mistaken, this is a project that took place last year, in the midst of the pandemic, and had to do with creating space for the voices of Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Tell us about that work.

Lorenzo Vargas 43:34

Yes, so Jordan has a, an interesting media system, cause over the past few years, they have moving, they have been moving more and more towards allowing community broadcasting, or citizen efforts, citizen led communication efforts. So WACC has been involved for many, many years now. There’s, I think, three or four grassroots community radio stations in Jordan. Most of them are in Amman, but of course, there’s other, others, in other, in other parts of the country. And since 2015, of course, 2014, there’s been a lot of migration of people from Syria to Jordan. And this, as is sadly often the case, there’s been discrimination against them. So this was a project that sought to create a platform for the Syrian community to, A, see itself represented  and connect to you know, it’s a platform for them to be engaged in dialogue with each other, but also to begin to shape public perception around what it means to be Syrian and Jordan.

John Monahan  44:34

Amazing. Lorenzo, we want to take some questions from our, our viewers. Before we do that, just to wrap up, now you’re the first Changemaker, you’re making history tonight. We thought it would be interesting for, for folks, and hopefully fun as well, If we always kind of wrap up our conversations with some, what we call a speed round of questions. So don’t spend too much time thinking about them, because then that wouldn’t be speedy. But we just kind of wanna get your first thoughts that reply to a few questions. And as we do that, I just want to encourage anyone that is viewing, if you have any questions that you’d like to ask, put them in the chat. And we’ll be, we’ll take them as we can, as we have time. We’d love to broaden this conversation beyond the music room at Hart House to include everybody who was watching us in real time. So ready for the speed round? 

Lorenzo Vargas 45:35

Let’s do it.

John Monahan 45:36 

Okay. So we talk about Changemakers, we use the term “Leaders by Example”. What do you think makes a good leader?

Lorenzo Vargas 45:46

I think a good leader is somebody who understands that change is collective. You know, it’s not about individuals creating change, but is about collective- people collectively creating change. So, a good leader to me is somebody who leads from behind, who supports others, who’s able to enable others to shine. To me, that’s true leadership.

John Monahan  46:03

Okay. Give us an example of a leader like that, that you admire or who has been influential in your life. I’m not eligible, but give an example of someone that you, for you defines leadership.

Lorenzo Vargas 46:16

Right, right, well, excluding John Monahan, of course, I would say, many of the peace activists in Colombia who were instrumental in the signing of the, of the peace agreement that was signed in 2016. So it’s been five years, that includes former President Santos in Columbia, and ultimately, of the peace activists that were pushing for this agreement.

John Monahan 46:37 

Do you consider yourself a leader?

Lorenzo Vargas 46:40 

In some ways, I think that in the space of Media, and Communication Rights, and so on, perhaps, perhaps a little bit, but I think I still have a lot to learn in many other spaces, especially the space of social movements, and so on, there’s many people that I have a lot to learn from.

John Monahan 46:57 

So speaking of learning, I tend to think that some of the best learning that I’ve done in my life comes from the failures, not from the successes so much. And I’m wondering if you’re able to share a failure from your life that you have learned from? And if so, what did you learn? And how did it help to propel you forward?

Lorenzo Vargas 47:22

Yeah, I mean, I think a challenging time I had was when I was doing my, my research for my master’s degree, which was, would focus on citizen engagement among internally displaced youth in Colombia. So I was at McGill, and I had a chance to go down to Colombia to do interviews and so on. And I realized that I was so out of my depth, you know, like, you know, first of all, I had grown up in Bogota, so, in a sort of a bubble from the rest of the country. And then I had, you know, I also grew up in Canada, and I thought it was going to be so easy for me to go there and navigate the local context, and so on. And it really wasn’t. A, like, people locally saw me as a foreigner, or some extra source of funding. And also, I realized that I have so much to learn from grassroots activists, people who are there everyday. Like, it’s so easy for me to fly in from Canada, you know, be there for a few weeks, do some interviews, and get a master’s degree and get recognized, but the, really, people who are there every day, you know, working with grassroots communities, organizers- those were the people who I admire, and were the real learning for me was. So I think it was about learning what my role might be.

John Monahan  48:34

And you’re barely, I mean, this question is really about going, if you could go back and talk to your 18 year old self, about how to grow into being a Changemaker, what advice would you offer? Now you’re barely 18.

Lorenzo Vargas 48:52


John Monahan 48:52

So it seems like a, like an almost irrelevant question. But you know, entertain me. So, if you could go back and talk to yourself as an 18 year old and talk about how to be a Changemaker, someone who leads by example, what would you tell yourself?

Lorenzo Vargas 49:08

I mean, first of all, when I was 18 I was probably not interested in, in being a Changemaker. I was probably interested in playing soccer all the time, which I used to do here at Hart House, the back campus field at UofT. 

John Monahan 49:18

You still can.

Lorenzo Vargas 49:20

I still do.

John Monahan 49:21

You still can.

Lorenzo Vargas 49:23

But I would say maybe look at your assets as opposed to what you’re lacking. And this goes back to the experience I just shared doing my, my research in Colombia. I realize that maybe some of the assets that I have is that you know, I’m globally connected, that I speak English or speak French, that I’m, that I can translate, culturally translate or so, translate what’s happening in Latin America or in the global south to donors, or policymakers, for people who have influence in the global north. So realizing that actually is my role, instead of maybe I don’t have to be a grassroots activist. There’s people who are better qualified or really doing it. So maybe pick, look at your assets, see what you can build on, as opposed to maybe focus on what you don’t have.

John Monahan  50:11

Okay. Now I wanna see, do we have any questions in our, unless somebody else’s computer, so let’s just see how smoothly I can do this. Alright, here’s a good question. This is asked in the first person, so understand that as I read it, “ if I were interested in volunteering, or getting involved, or even knowing more, would you take interns or volunteers?” So it’s a question about how someone who has been inspired by what you’ve talked about tonight, maybe they already were interested in the issue. Presumably they were or they wouldn’t be tuning in. But they’ve been inspired by you tonight. And they wanna know what they can do to be involved. Does WACC have opportunities for internships or volunteers? Or are there other organizations, perhaps, that you know or work with, where they might go for that kind of opportunity?

Lorenzo Vargas 51:11

Absolutely. We take interns all the time. You know, actually, many of them come from UofT.  We have a partnership with the PCJ  Program, the Peace, Conflict and Justice Program, as well as with the Munk School, the MGA program, the Masters 

John Monahan 51:23

Masters of Global Affairs, yup.

Lorenzo Vargas 51:23

We’ve had one intern from there. We’ve had interns from McGill University, we’ve had interns from Queen’s as well. So of course, and we have every year, opportunities to get involved to volunteer. So yeah, by all means, get in touch.

John Monahan  51:40

And I know that a lot of students that we, that we work with at Hart House will want to know what kind of work they might find themselves doing if they were to pursue an internship with, with you at WACC. What would that look like? Would they be licking envelopes? Would they be doing research? What kind of work do interns typically do?

Lorenzo Vargas 52:04

Well, I’ll give you an example, we’re about to start a new internship partnership with the PCJ program. It’s one of the courses, I forget what the number of courses, but it’s a course that enables, that will enable us at WACC to benefit from the expertise of three high achieving students to tackle one particular issue, and the issue that we’ll be looking at in the winter term will be the representation of Indigenous issues and indigenous Peoples in Canadian news media. So this will be, cause we at WACC have a methodology to monitor media content, which we have used for gender issues and migration issues. But given the critical importance of Indigenous Rights in Canada, we would like to use that methodology to look at how those issues are represented in Canadian news media, so that eventually, some change could be made at the editorial level and so on. So that is perhaps an example of what could be, but could be any number of things.

John Monahan  53:01

Okay. If you had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the Federal Minister of Communications, in the new federal cabinet, what message would you want to leave with the minister?

Lorenzo Vargas 53:20

I would say that, at the domestic level, we need to find a way to support a more vibrant journalism sector that works for the public service, for the public good, I apologize. And that entails tackling the concentration of power in the hands of a few corporate actors, particularly in regards to digital power. And at the international level, candidates will be playing an important role in promoting media freedom. In fact, we hosted a major conference last year with the UK, also this year, Major International Conference on Media Freedom. So Canada is already engaging at that level, but of course that requires more funding and financing to enable, to support media workers around the world and journalists in particular.

John Monahan  54:09

Interesting so we are, we are putting our, some of our money where our mouth is when it comes to access to media. We still have our own problem with, with overconcentration

Lorenzo Vargas 54:20


John Monahan 54:21

Of media in too few hands, but we are active internationally at promoting media freedom.

Lorenzo Vargas 54:27

Exactly, yes. 

John Monahan  54:30

Okay. Lorenzo in our, in our last few minutes, is there anything that you would wanna to say to our audience that you haven’t said, any final thoughts you would want to share? Maybe something that is giving you hope right now when it comes to the issue of information poverty. Something that is, that might give our audience hope as they think about these issues in new ways after tonight.

Lorenzo Vargas 54:59

Well, I think that there’s more critical, there’s a more critical take on the tech world and, and digital giants. I think for, as I said earlier, for many years, we were idealizing these, these big corporations, you know. Say they’re innovative, they’re, you know, moving fast, breaking things and so on, is something that was maybe a good thing. But I think now, more and more people are beginning to ask questions. And for an example of that, here in Toronto was the whole issue with Sidewalk Labs, which was gonna be this, this neighborhood that was gonna be developed by one of the companies that Google is connected to. And that ended up not happening. But to me, the main thing was like, people were actually asking some questions, you know. Torontonians were asking, you know, who’s going to govern that data? Where’s the data going to be stored? How is it, how are we gonna know that it’s not being just harvested to make money for Google? Can we think of an alternative that is, you know, run by the City of Toronto? Right. So I think there’s more awareness of the critical importance of, of taking some of that power back from corporations into our own hands as citizens.

John Monahan  56:06

So yes, are, so the citizenry of Toronto and, arguably, other parts of Canada as well, although I don’t know those parts as well as I know Toronto, you’re seeing a level of engagement and sophistication when it comes to kind of holding the feet of media players to the fire? 

Lorenzo Vargas 56:30


John Monahan 56:30

To ensure that they are abiding by code of ethics, that they’re not impeding access to free information, that they are inserting the integrity of information that’s being disseminated. Do you think Canadians, when it comes to these sorts of issues, are they better as consumers or better as voters?

Lorenzo Vargas 56:57

Ahhaa, good question. I mean, I think it’s hard to answer because this is not an issue that regularly comes up, in during a federal election. 

John Monahan 57:05

You think it should?

Lorenzo Vargas 57:05

I think it should. I think it should, because ultimately, it’s about Canadian, I mean, you know, Canadian media theory and Canadian identity was built on wrestling back that power from the US in terms of media. That’s why we have the CBC, right, to create Canadian narratives, Canadian content? So that actually is pretty important. I think it’s an essential element of Canadian democracy to see how much we can govern our own data and how much we can push for more democratic approach to the whole thing.

John Monahan  57:38

Lorenzo, thank you for being a Changemaker. Thank you for the work that you do for the example that you set. Thank you for being our, I don’t want to say guinea pig, that sounds so manipulative. But thank you for working with us to iron out the bugs and the challenges of this environment. Thank you for taking off your mask and sitting behind plexiglass for the last hour. We’re very grateful to everyone that has joined us live this evening for our event of the 21-22 academic year here at Hart House. I want to thank my guests Lorenzo Vargas. There are more Changemaker conversations coming. The next one speaking of democracy, resilient democracies, we’re gonna be having a conversation with Sabreena Delhon , who is the Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy, on how to build resilient democracies, and we’ll be sure to ask her about access to communication in that conversation. And then in March, we will wrap up this year’s series with a conversation featuring Lorin MacDonald, who is an amazing human rights lawyer, and CEO and founder of an organization called Peer Review, and you won’t wanna miss either of those conversations. Once again, thank you for joining us this evening, and I look forward to seeing you in the New Year. In the meantime, Happy Holidays.

Lorenzo Vargas 59:09

Thank you.

John Monahan

Thank you so much to Lorenzo Vargas for joining me in conversation. To learn more about Lorenzo and his work, you can follow WACC @waccglobal on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Today’s episode of Changemakers was produced by a great team of colleagues at Hart House, including Jennifer, Michelle, Amy and Lena. And it has been edited by Janine Alhadidi. Original music by Recap, they can be found on SoundCloud. To learn more about Changemakers, please visit, or follow us on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or Facebook. Our handle is @harthouseuoft. I’m John Monahan. Thank you for listening.

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