With fellowships, organizations can foster the work of up and coming leaders while building a robust network of collaborators and communities. Here’s how fellowships work, what they can do for your organization, and how to create one.
In 2019, we set out to contribute to the mandate of Colombia's Truth Commission, the institution in charge of explaining the causes of the State and the FARC-EP guerrilla group after a peace agreement ended a 60-year long conflict. Our purpose was to foster community storytelling projects about peacebuilding efforts throughout the country. The question was how to engage with storytellers in an impactful way.
Thanks to the advice of Darío Colmenares, our colleague at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, we decided on a fellowship model. Fellowships foster individuals' professional development over the course of a few months or, in some cases, years by providing a stipend for individual support, funds for a project, training opportunities and/or networking opportunities.
We convened four cohorts of between six and ten fellows. Each one opened with a one-week intensive training period. The fellows where provided a monthly stipend for four months, equipment and technical support during the realization of their narrative projects.
In total, 213 people participated in our calls for applications. The grantees who were selected for the four cohorts produced 28 short documentaries and 15 podcasts and disseminated them through community radio stations and national media outlets. Fellows in the final cohort produced over 200 TikTok videos on the final report of the truth commission. Our hashtag has more than 6.3 million views.
After our experience in the Viva Voz Program, we are certain fellowships are a great model for organizations that want to foster innovation and new leaders in areas such as human rights, memory projects and community storytelling.
What are the virtues of a fellowship?
They are a fantastic way to create a powerful network
When done right, a fellowship finds people who are already doing work that is aligned with the organization's purpose and proposes an exchange: the organization offers the indivuduals an oportunity to advance in their carreers –the support can be financial, technical or in terms of networking–, and the fellows agree on certain deliverables over the course of the program, which, in our case, where narrative projects. This match has multiple benefits: it leverages the fellow's knowledge and experience, it ensures that the fellow is going to be deeply interested in the work they are doing, and it increases the likelihood that the work will continue after the fellowship because it was not a task imposed by the organization but a personal and community project.
After all of these stories where produced and disseminated, we ended up with a network of fellows who are connected with each other and the organization. The Viva Voz fellowship is made up of 32 people from 13 departments in Colombia. If we want to design other programs, reach out to communities, disseminate stories or other calls for applications, we can easily reach out to our colleagues, which in turn are connected to dozens of local organizations. These connections can then turn into new projects. We collaborated with Mili Pardo in the creation of Miní Chitiá, an afrofeminist communications collective. Carolina Valencia and David Dicué, two fellows from the third cohort, joined forces to seek funds to produce a podcast. These connections began in Viva Voz.
You get to promote work that is deeply rooted in and benefits communities
We chose fellows with ongoing projects and interests within the context of their communities, so, instead of pulling them away for unrelated tasks, we encouraged them to go deeper into their territories. All the budget for fieldwork was spent in the territories. All the material the fellows collected for their pieces is theirs for future projects in the community.
The grantees met new people from their areas, listened to the stories of many people who had never been asked about their experiences of the armed conflict. There is a huge lack of mental health services in Colombia. Few of the people who have suffered from the armed conflict have had the opportunity to recount their experiences. From feedback from the grantees themselves, we know that the listening spaces they provided made a difference.
This is an alternative model to that of the traditional media, which operate under a more extractive logic: they travel to the regions, collect testimonies and return to the big cities to publish their articles. In this model of fostering creators through a scholarship, the program bets on the production of stories by and for the community.
Four key actions to create a successful fellowship
Define what you can offer fellows
It all depends on your budget, but every organization has something to offer potential fellows. If you have a sizable budget, you can offer equipment, stipends and per diems for field work during the project. But even if the organization cannot provide these benefits, it probably has two very valuable things: knowledge that can enrich the fellows' work and a network of contacts that can help them advance their careers. An organization with a small budget might consider organizing a mentoring program connecting fellows with experienced leaders, or it might design a training program with a certificate of participation. Whatever the budget, the organization needs to think about giving fellows resources that will make a difference in their careers.
Define the objectives of the program and the criteria to select the fellows
Our objectives were to foster spaces for dialogue and disseminate stories about peacebuilding, so we chose fellows who had a knack for communications and storytelling in their communities. In each cohort we selected leaders with different levels of experience in storytelling. Some were expert producers and others were just starting out in the communications field, but all were in a position to go around their communities interviewing people, shooting, recording and producing impactful content. We never required a certain level of education, but that criterion can be important in research-oriented fellowships or methodologies that require experience.
Design and disseminate a good call for applications.
First, think about what kind of fellows you want to have in your cohort. What skills should they have? Should they be proficient in a specific kind of research topic or audiovisual language? Based on these questions, design a call for applications that will allow you to identify the best applicants. For the final cohort of Viva Voz, we wanted to work with people who could make good content for TikTok, so we asked applicants to apply with three short videos about themselves, their communities and a prominent person in a peacebuilding effort.
To disseminate the calls, reach out to the organizations who are in contact with the people you would like to work with. They can be universities, human rights organizations, community centers. etc. We mainly used a mailing list of partners and WhatsApp to circulate a brief description of the program with a link to our website, where potential applicants had access to a detailed explanation -objectives, duration, key dates, resources and deliverables, and the application process. Once you start disseminating the call, you should be available to answer questions through the same channels you used.
Think about the training period and other teambuilding opportunities.
To reap the benefits of a fellowship model, it is necessary to think through the
The training period is one of the most important moments of the fellowship. It is the inauguration of the cohort and a period of focused work to establish the principles and objectives of the program. At Memria, we always strived to have training periods that had both a theoretical and a practical component. The theoretical component served to set the program in the framework of transitional justice. The fellows began by understanding the objectives of the truth commission and explored fundamental issues such as social transformation through narratives. In the practical sections, they learned about video and audio story production, platforms like TikTok, and tools for dialogue and listening.
Including the fellows as facilitators of the training period. The fellows in the two final cohorts of Viva Voz were professional storytellers and were able to contribute to each other's projects, make suggestions, and propose a timeline for the program. The fellows in the final cohort were experts in TikTok, so they were instrumental in our process of understanding the platform. Depending on their level of expertise, their knowledge is also useful when establishing the structure, timeline and deliverables of the program.
The training period is also one of the most important opportunities for teambuilding. One of the measures of success of a fellowship is that its members become friends and collaborators. Ideally, the training period should in person so that fellows have opportunities to get acquainted during the sessions and extracurricular activities. If it is not possible to meet, find ways to foster casual gatherings.