After almost 25 years of wandering through the desert of male dominated media, my soul thirsted for an alternative. The mirage of alternative media – i.e. cable access television proved to be another bastion of right wing rhetoric and male masturbatory media. When it appeared that all hope was lost, Genevieve Vaughan and the Foundation for a Compassionate Society quenched my dry spirits with WATER (Women’s Access to Electronic Resources).
During the early sixties, in Austin, Texas I was part of a group of students who organized around a federal mandate to have community access to cable. We wanted to give voice to the “voiceless.” This was a place where people were actually served and not sold to advertisers as commercial television often does. It was meant to reflect the community it was in, however, as corporate interest grew in public access it began to look more like mainstream media – it had to be “slick, white and right.” I would come back to Austin – as you will see after taking some time out to do other work and travel.
After being the only woman in film school most of the Time there were no women staff and few to no women students. I went to work in Europe. I worked as audio visuals coordinator for schools for Air Force families. Part of my job as coordinator was to coordinate with the BBC and that included working with its Open University. I learned about militarism through contact with English working-class women and got my socialist and feminist consciousness during that time. I also joined a consciousness-raising group in London. I took a leave from my work with the schools, and went to film school hoping to get a job and stay in England. Film school was great, there were two women instructors there, there were lots of women in the school, I got my certificate and got my consciousness raised. I got a lover. I didn’t get a job nor the English version of a green card.
It was a cold and rainy night when I left the white cliffs of Dover for the parched landscape of cable television in the mid-70s. I returned to the bosom of Austin Community television and suckled out a living videotaping community happenings for the Lyndon Johnson-owned cable monopoly in Austin. Public access was very grassroots. I had to do a “bake sale” every time I wanted to do a program. I was seduced away to the “gold rush” era of satellite-driven cable television on the East Coast. The line was “little girl, if you come and work for us, we’ll give you a full color television studio, ten channels of access television to manage and a mobile production van to cruise the streets of Boston in.” I did it.
I was regional program director for Adams Russell Cable and eventually the first access director for the city of Boston. There were little centers all over the city and we trained community people to do cable television. BECUASE Boston is a city divided along cultural and racial lines, people who normally wouldn’t associate with each other in person, “came into” each other’s living rooms through cable. After a number of changes at the Boston Community Access and Programming Foundation, management decided to put the bulk of moneys were re-directed away from the community’s self-expression.
That’s when I came back to Austin and to Austin’s Community Access Television. I came back as the executive director. I found that you can never go home again. ACTV, although now with money and ample equipment from the new cable franchise, was increasingly a place where the’ Ku Klux Klan and other reactionary forces and their more lucrative funding sources took advantage of our early activism for free speech and used it against us. They have more time and money and we can’t keep them off because of the first amendment.
I struggle with this. This is why WATER is so important. It does give access. Maybe some of us are an endangered species – women and people of color – and WATER is a preserve for the thoughts, feelings and ideas, of those feelings and sensitivities of people who have been run out of public access by those who have more financial wherewithal. It’s almost not about the money; it’s a certain mind set. Women don’t come in and assume that they’re supposed to be in control of equipment that’s maybe even less complicated than a home appliance.
WATER is a home environment – just that physical thing rather than a studio – it is a place where we are, where we’re quite comfortable and quite frankly, a place where we want to be.
The first group of women to actually partake of WATER were a group of twelve women from Central and South America. These women had a cool experience running around with video cameras during the record heat of the summer of ’93.
Even before the summer of ’93, groups took the plunge. Other groups dabbled in puddle projects. As early as 1988, the “Peace House,” yet another project of FCS nestled video projects among its other learning activities.
My eye still waters at the memory of one summer workshop for elementary kids held at the now evaporated Peace House. Ten year olds and younger with equal deftness picked up crayons and microphones. The camera angles obtained by someone who pans the world from a height of four feet or under reveals to the viewer a world of knees, stomachs and crouches forgotten to those of us who tend to tilt up as we grow older.
The toast of any WATER experience has to be a trip to paradise, better known as Stonehaven ranch. Editing usually will dry up any group’s stress reserves. Stonehaven, however, has the best hot tub in the entire universe. The idea of having a relaxed place to contradict the stresses of minds mared out by multi-media floated into my consciousness pool side at Stonehaven. I was editing a documentary with a group of women gathered at Stonehaven for that purpose. When the process didn’t flow, we’d strip off our clothes and trip out to the pool to await the muse nude. The materialization of a hot tub at WATER us definitely an item on my manifestation list.
An international group of women gathered at Stonehaven in 1991 to tackle the complex issues around the distribution of women’s film and video productions. The group was a collection of mostly women like myself. Stressed and burned out by swimming against the current of mainstream media, the group held most of their brainstorming sessions in the pool or hot tub. Thus, this ongoing project, now going on to its fourth year, was dubbed “The Women’s Pool.” Women have continued to use this annual meeting to pool their resources. The mission of the group has grown to add training and production to the established goal of distribution.
WATER houses the training for the video pool in addition to hostessing training projects for the local community. A recent workshop held at WATER introduced participants to video production and editing, radio production, and on-line computer networking. The workshop drew a diverse group of women with various levels of media experience and community interests ranging from Communities in Schools, to the Women’s Collective of Co-op Radio, to the Lesbian Avengers. The enthusiasm and excitement of these women confirmed the need for a space in which women can comfortably and safely obtain the skills they need to communicate their own thoughts, concerns, and images to the world.
Telemanitas is a sister center to WATER. Located in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the center is equipped with video production and editing equipment. Women who trained at WATER now do a WATER-like service for women not only in Mexico but also Central and South America.
The idea of women having the communications skills to document their lives is one that the women of WATER and Telemanitas hope will spring a flood of like efforts internationally. An international conference is planned for late February or early March in which women can come together and plan for appropriate ways to use media for the U.N. sponsored Conference on Women meeting in Beijing in August of 1995. Titled Women in the Americas: Beijing and Beyond, it is the hope that the dialogues and experiences that are started at this conference will encourage women to think about how they, in their own communities, might use emerging communications technologies to link them as a community of women.