In recent years the consolidation of small to mid-sized media outlets has left the mainstream media dominated by only a handful of large media conglomerates who control what and how stories are reported. These media corporations have their biases and tend to report the violent and sensational stories that sell.
In response to this trend, “alternative media” outlets have sprung up to provide alternate viewpoints to the mainstream. On some level, I see Shanti Pax (SP) as an alternative medium as it aims to find people with inspirational stories that we can learn from.
With that in mind, I was elated to conduct SP’s first interview with Olivier Kamanda, who had the vision and drive to launch an alternative source of news on international affairs. This is the story of Olivier’s mission to help us know the world we live in.
I first met Olivier in Washington, DC many years ago when he was a recent college grad. He was hard to miss because he was wearing a Michael Jackson glove on his right hand. About five minutes into our conversation, my intuition told me: “This kid is going places.” He was wise beyond his years, articulate, and had a look of fierce determination.
Fast forward to the present, after graduating from Princeton, Olivier earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as a defense policy committee member on the 2008 Obama campaign, an elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the Adams Morgan community in Washington, DC, a senior advisor and speechwriter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and is now an associate at White & Case, LLP – just to name a few highlights, and he’s only 31.
While in law school, Olivier launched an online magazine, called ForeignPolicyDigest.org, in order to better inform people about global issues that impact them.
We recently met at coffee shop in Washington, DC to talk about it, and sadly, he was not wearing the MJ glove. Below are some snippets from our conversation:
AS: What was the inspiration behind the Foreign Policy Digest (the Digest)?
OK: It started in late 2007 when I was helping the Obama campaign define and craft its foreign policy positions. I was trying to distinguish then-Senator Obama’s foreign policy and national security positions from those of then-Senator Clinton. It was easy to explain to Washington insiders working on foreign policy, but outside of the DC bubble, the nuance was often lost.
AS: What do you mean the nuance was lost?
OK: As I spoke to people outside of Washington, I would field questions about basic geography or about the difference between Shiite and Sunni Islam and why it matters – as well as questions of history, context and narrative. It became clear that people were not in a position to evaluate these nuanced policy distinctions without understanding the full back-story of an issue. So, the Digest was started as a way to help people fill those gaps and better understand the world they live in.
AS: Wasn’t that your tagline?
OK: Our motto was to help readers “know the world you live in.” The goal was to break down the world into six regions and take an issue like climate change and look at it through the lens of each of the regions. We wanted to expose people to a different way of looking at international affairs apart from the latest developments in the mainstream news. We learned that if you gave readers a narrative and made it compelling, they were more likely to want to learn more.
AS: Was it part of the Obama campaign?
OK: No, it was entirely separate from the campaign. And it evolved over time to reach out to anyone who had an interest in learning more about international affairs with the hope that people would better appreciate the role events outside of U.S. borders play in our daily lives, be more inspired to support better policies and candidates, and take more initiative outside of elections and campaigns.
AS: Do you consider the Digest to be alternative media?
OK: Yes, in terms of form and function. It was an all-volunteer labor of love. At our height we had six regional editors and 4-5 executive editors. We pushed to get folks with expertise in the regions or who lived in the regions we covered. We didn’t have any other interests to cater to, so we tried to pick up stories that weren’t being reported in the mainstream foreign policy news outlets.
AS: What were your biggest challenges?
OK: We wanted to make a product where the quality of writing was so high that people would be so inspired that they would have an epiphany after reading every article and it would just be a matter of reaching enough people, and at that point we’d change the world. That is one way to do it, but we learned that it’s also a really hard approach.
So we decided to expand our content and reached out to other sources that were interested in publishing on international affairs, like Good Magazine.
AS: How did you get people interested who normally weren’t interested in foreign affairs?
OK: Every article ended with an explanation as to why that topic should matter to the average American, for example, consumer safety of products produced in China that we use every day. Bringing it back home was always a challenge. But the even harder part was getting people to care enough to change either their outlook or give them a reason to lend their time and effort to a larger movement and campaign.
In time, we realized that wouldn’t happen by reading an 800-word article, but it would if you are exposed to the same issues over a period of time. We also wanted to help people be conscious consumers and generally aware of where and how things are made.
AS: Where is the Digest today?
OK: The Digest grew and grew, until we pushed the limits of the all-volunteer model. We ran the Digest until 2012 and then everyone on the staff reached a big transition point at the same time, and we didn’t have the resources to keep it together. We are now exploring other partnerships to find the Digest a good home. We’re in talks with the Truman National Security Project, who is considering taking it on and keeping it as a distinct platform from the rest of their communications [end of interview].
Tell the same story, better
I am inspired by Olivier Kamanda for his efforts to help us better know the world we live in. To use his words, he strived to “tell the same story, better.” He launched a magazine that was free to the public and free of agenda during one of the most demanding periods of his life. And because of his perseverance, the Digest had over 100,000 hits per month at its peak with 2,000 subscribers.
What we can learn from the Foreign Policy Digest is the importance of understanding the full story, which empowers and enables us to make wiser decisions as global citizens.
Our world is now intrinsically linked. The latest quinoa super-food craze in the U.S. is affecting rural farmers in the Andes and the candidates we vote for, both at the local and national level, make decisions that impact people from all corners of the globe.
I’ve experienced this ripple effect firsthand repeatedly throughout my career when working in other countries. One extreme example was when a pastor in the U.S. was threatening to burn a Koran on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. I was serving in Afghanistan at the time and knew that his hurtful actions in Gainesville, Florida could get me, young soldiers, and Afghan civilians killed in Kabul.
A key pillar of peace is being aware of how your actions affect others. And when you shift your perspective to that of being a citizen of the world – not just your town or country – you start to see and feel how connected we all are.
Of course, we already struggle with information overload on any given day and can only read so much or be so aware, but we can make an effort to look beyond what we’re being spoon fed by the major media outlets and question what doesn’t feel right.
The media conglomerates have an agenda that doesn’t always serve what’s best for humanity – but you can. And because of Herculean efforts like Olivier’s, we can be more informed global citizens and understand how our actions affect others, buy better products, and see past the agendas, which ultimately adds more peace to our lives.
My challenge for you this week is to better educate yourself on one aspect of your life. Maybe it’s the coffee you drink. Find out where your coffee comes from and which farmers planted the beans. Or maybe there is a reoccurring issue in the mainstream media that has been piquing your interest: what are other bloggers or foreign media outlets saying about it? I have some suggestions of independent news sources in the Peace-Sources section.
Now I want to hear from you! Are there alternative or independent media outlets that you read and trust? Have you ever done some investigative journalism that caused you to change your behavior? Have you ever switched products when you learned how something was made? Or did you learn anything from this week’s challenge? Post your thoughts below.
If you liked this post, please “like” it and share it with your friend. And subscribe to Shanti Pax to receive inspirational stories of peace with lessons you can apply to your life.
Remember, it’s the little changes we make in our daily life that brings greater peace to the whole.