Elizabeth Atalay is the passionate voice behind DocuMama, a blog that shares stories from all around the globe to raise awareness and inspire action and understanding. Her work as a multimedia producer has taken her to six continents and over 55 different countries. Her experiences abroad also gave her a firsthand look at extreme poverty and its effects. Today, she’s on a mission to help those in need, investing her time in charities working to promote maternal health, fight malnutrition and ensure access to clean water, vaccines and sanitary conditions everywhere. We sat down with her to discuss her passion for giving back.
1. How and when did your passion for advocacy begin, particularly surrounding global development, eradicating health issues and extreme poverty in third world countries?
For me, it began with travel. I had an international cast of friends in high school. Starting with the summer we graduated when I was 17, I spent summers traveling with them to visit with their relatives. The first countries I spent time in were in the Middle East and South America. These were places so different from where I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, that they blew my world wide open. I had seen poverty in South America, but it was the six-month overland trip that I took across the African continent that was the point of no return for me.
I met a child who might have died from a simple infected mosquito bite gone septic because they had no access to antibiotics. We had no choice but to drink cloudy river water knowing it was the same river people defecated into up stream (I had iodine tablets, but the locals drank it regularly without). We shopped at local markets (potato sacks laid out with goods piled on top). In some areas, there was barely any food and, for the first time in my life, I truly experienced real hunger.
Once I’d traveled and seen firsthand of how others lived around the world, I knew there was no way that I could return to my comfortable life with plenty of food and clean water without feeling the need to give back.
2. How long have you been traveling and advocating for these issues and what has been your proudest moment so far?
In my mid-twenties, I had traveled to 40 countries around the world and worked in the film industry for nearly a decade. I loved working in film production but knew by then I wanted my work to effect change in some meaningful way, so I went back to school to get my master’s degree in documentary film. My goal was to raise awareness on global health by bringing the issues to a new audience.
My proudest moment was being selected as a New Media Fellow for The International Reporting Project #EthiopiaNewborns trip. It was such an honor. I had taken a decade off to stay home with my four kids and was never sure how I would resume my work as a documentarian. So, finding that I could use my blog and new media to still achieve my original goal has been incredibly fulfilling. The International Reporting Project New Media Fellowship was an amazing opportunity to further develop my work towards that goal. Having one of my posts from the trip re-tweeted by Melinda Gates was pretty cool, too!
3. What is your favorite part about advocating for global development?
The best part of advocating for global development is watching true progress unfold. It may be on a small scale, but in just seven weeks, you can see a severely malnourished child who is given a course of the nutritional supplement Plumpy’Nut return to full health. That is one less child who will unnecessarily starve to death and one less heartbroken mother in the world. On a large scale, knowing that my voice was part of the advocacy campaign that encouraged Congress to continue funding for global vaccines that save millions of children from preventable diseases like diarrhea, measles and pneumonia. It doesn’t matter whether big or small; it makes me feel globally connected with others to be aware of what’s happening around the world and to use my voice for those who may not have the opportunity to use theirs. It gives me a sense of purpose.
4. Can you tell me a bit about being an IRP Ethiopia Fellow, the work you’ve done with the organization and your favorite part about it?
The International Reporting Project Fellowship was an amazing experience. They took great care of us journalists and set up fantastic opportunities to get an in depth look at newborn health in Ethiopia. The trip really reminded me the importance of getting out in the field to effectively explore a topic. There is nothing like it. I write for a number of digital media organizations and the fellowship gave me the opportunity to share the stories of the people and the places that we visited with our readers. Being given a comprehensive overview of newborn health in the variety of locations we visited was critical in developing a full picture for those stories.
5. Advocating for a cause can be daunting, especially around global issues with many hurdles to overcome. How do you keep yourself motivated when you face challenges?
I think about how far we have come globally in reducing maternal and child mortality in just the past decade of concerted effort. In fact, since 1990, child mortality has been cut in half. These successes prove that, with intellectual and financial resources dedicated to solving a problem, it can be done. We have the knowledge of what needs to be done, but remembering where we came from reminds me that it can be done and it will happen in developing countries with the right efforts.
6. How do you use social media to get the word out about the cause and how do you think others can use the various social platforms to give their causes voices?
I use social media as a medium for the documentarian in me. I love to tell stories about the human condition. Hopefully, my stories about people around the world living different lives or doing inspiring things elicit an emotional response. Stories are the core of human understanding and empathy.
Social media allows for a global dialogue that would never have been previously possible.
8. What are your top tips for people who want to get involved and raise awareness for global development/health or another important cause?
If you are passionate about a cause, social media makes it easy to get involved right away. Don’t be afraid to jump in! Start by following the people who are tweeting and posting about your topic of interest. Tweet back to them, attend Twitter parties, leave your comments on their posts and create your own content on your topic. With digital media, anyone can be a media producer these days. Just start with what drives you and build on that. You will be amazed at where it can take you.