Sawhney was born in India and grew up in Iran and Bahrain. He did his undergraduate work at Georgia Tech. In 2000, Sawhney was pursuing his Ph.D. at the MIT Media Lab when intense violence broke out in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Sawhney was increasingly drawn to the conflict as he tried to come to terms with the needless loss of life and suffering in the region. He found himself regularly attending and organizing many events on campus to make students better informed about the conflict, including dialogue sessions, film screenings, exhibits and a large public lecture on the topic by Noam Chomsky. “The students and faculty at MIT have been incredible about helping me understand and come to grips with these issues,” he says. “For all its technical legacy, I found the MIT community far more socio-politically engaged and open-minded than many other such academic environments.”
After graduating from MIT, Sawhney founded a startup company that developed open source software to support publicly funded biomedical research. But the Middle East conflict continued to weigh upon him. In 2006 he decided he had to stop thinking and do something. That summer, he took an unpaid leave from his firm and traveled to the West Bank with little more than a laptop and some video cameras in a backpack. His plan: develop a youth media program as a pilot project on the ground. Voices Beyond Walls was born out of a collaboration with local community centers in the refugee camps he visited. Through an international and local volunteer team of artists, filmmakers and educators, the program has been expanded to seven refugee camps in the West Bank, with over 60 video shorts produced in the past four years. Many are posted on the Voices Beyond Walls YouTube channel.
This summer, Sawhney and colleagues conducted the program in parallel in the Al Aroub camp in the West Bank and the Jabaliya camp in Gaza. They first trained 50 young Palestinian adults in a three-day training workshop on digital media and storytelling techniques. This is a short film produced during one of these workshops:
Many of these young adults then facilitated month-long workshops with kids aged 10 to 16 at community centers in the refugee camps. The kids learned photography, neighborhood mapping, script-writing, storyboarding, acting, filming, and video editing. Sawhney regularly blogged about his experiences running the program in Gaza, and the kids interviewed each other as the program came to an end. (“How did you handle the editing software?” one student asked another. “I had some difficulties at first," came the answer, "but now I feel like a professional.”)
Earlier this month, the kids capped off their program with photo exhibitions, film screenings, and diploma ceremonies. At the end of the final screening in Gaza, Sawhney says, “The young girls on stage were so confident responding to questions from the audience about their films; I can imagine many of them doing the same at an international film festival in a few years."
Sawhney plans to follow the workshop participants and their families in Gaza this year, collecting data for a pilot study on the role of creative media expression among young children in areas of conflict. He wants to see if the kids regularly engaged in producing their own media-based narratives are coping better than their peers living in the refugee camp without such a creative outlet—Sawhney calls it “participatory media”—to work through the challenges they are confronted with on a regular basis.
Here in Cambridge, Sawhney is working with MIT researchers and local community organizations to jointly develop better ways to empower youth with digital media, as part of an initiative he co-founded called the Department of Play at the Center for Future Civic Media. In the fall semester, Sawhney will teach Networked Cultures and Participatory Media, incorporating many of his experiences and research into the newly-developed curricula. And in late October, he plans to host an exhibition and screening of the youth photography and films from the Re-imagining Gaza program at MIT. Later this year he is also helping to organize a symposium on Gaza with the Center for International Studies and Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative.
In a way, he’s come full circle back to his own struggles with the violence in the Middle East as an MIT student 10 years ago. “Over the years I have realized it’s a far bigger challenge helping Americans understand why the conflict continues,” Sawhney says. “So I feel we should find ways to leverage participatory media both for civic engagement and global awarness. Young voices in the Palestinian Territories are rarely heard but are far more authentic in revealing the context and humanizing the conflict.”