Women Dive into WATERTechnology Gainer

An elemental force, water has an immutable and transformational property that makes it a necessary part of life. Given the ambitious aims of Women's Access to Electronic Resources (WATER), it serves also as a fitting acronym.

WATER, a project of the progressive feminist Foundation for a Compassionate Society, seeks to educate and empower women artists and activists in the use of audio, visual, and electronic media. Housed in a residence just off of South Congress, the outfit provides training and production in two audio studios, a video room, and e-mail and World Wide Web connections. The facility also lends equipment such as video cameras and audio recorders to any woman (or woman-led project) who expresses a vision in line with the Foundation's goal of social and environmental justice. While most of the projects assisted by WATER are one-time arrangements, there are ongoing projects as well. These include off-the-air production by the Women's Collective of KOOP (91.7FM) and two projects by Frieda Werden -- the syndicated radio service WINGS (Women's International News Gathering Service) and the public access television program "Women's News Hour" (see accompanying story).

It was Foundation director Genevieve Vaughan who co-established WATER House with these sorts of projects -- those opening avenues for women's voices -- in mind. "Media are very important for women because, historically, women and their points of view have been excluded from mainstream media," Vaughan says.

WATER volunteers offer a variety of classes for women who possess little or no media experience. For instance, audio training covers field recording, telephone interface recording, microphone and interviewing techniques, and audio editing; video training focuses on camera techniques, editing and use of a character generator. Women with demonstrable technical experience, on the other hand, need only complete a project proposal form, which is reviewed by WATER director Fern Hill and two staff members before they are given the go-ahead to use the facilities. And all it takes for a woman to get involved is a phone call or an e-mail message.

Just who are these women getting their feet wet (and giving swimming lessons) in technology? Amanda Johnston, who is completing a master's degree at UT, came to the group in 1994 after attending a presentation given by director Fern Hill. Johnson's interest in feminist media led her to an internship at WATER, and she has since become responsible for one of the organization's most recent major-growth areas, WATER's Web presence. Not only has Johnson created the organization's site at http://www.monsterbit.com/water/, but has also made herself invaluable as the chief Internet trainer, offering individual instruction in e-mail and Net access, and this month will begin conducting small group classes in introductory Net access and development of Web sites using HTML language. "There's been a lot of variety as far as age, ethnicity, and occupation," Johnston says of her students. "They tend to be women with activist inclinations, women with not very much computer experience."

Other women who have used the group's facilities express a delighted comradeship with WATER. K. Bradford, whose documentary White-Out: The Outing of Whiteness recently screened at the Dobie Theatre, says WATER's video editing suite provided double support for her film. "I don't know how much longer it would have taken, but it would definitely have taken longer" to finish, had she used other, for-cost services. As important, however, is the fact that WATER's services were constituted as "in-kind," making Bradford eligible for the city's Cultural Contracts program. "I could say, look, I have all this backup in-kind support for the project, and that helps get additional funding," she explains. "I couldn't have gotten funding from the City of Austin without support from other places." The documentary, about the legacy of white dominance in Namibia, was shot in Namibia and the United States and features two Austinites -- poet Sharon Bridgforth and Reagan High student Brian Hoyt. Bradford's film will have a special screening at the school of communication at American University in Washington, D.C. on September 24.

Moreover, Bradford has started a new project that she believes will bring a whole new crew of women to WATER House. Her "video arts training and production program" plans to attract women and girls from community organizations and schools, who will then learn documentary and narrative filmmaking skills. Teams of participants will produce short films to be aired during an International Women's Day. "They're providing editing and training at WATER, and once the women and girls break into teams, they'll edit the productions at WATER," Bradford says. Bradford became WATER's video trainer while interning at the facility and editing her film a year ago, and has trained hundreds of women with twice-weekly classes since.

Jessica Bega's Worthy Mothers, a video about multicultural lesbian parenting, is another local production being screened at festivals nationwide. She says her project, which employed WATER's videotape editing facilities, "originated at WATER, as far as having the facilities and a place for me to go. There were other facilities I was using, but WATER was tremendously useful to me; I was able to complete it in two to three months." In fact, Bega's documentary was just awarded a $1,500 grant from the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund, to be used toward distribution efforts.

Tammy Gomez, a member of KOOP's Women's Collective, explains that her group uses WATER for feature interviews, which constitute from 10 to 15 percent of the collective's programming. It's the facility's "warm and congenial" atmosphere, Gomez emphasizes, that really adds fluidity to the group's programming. "It takes a lot of pressure off of people who don't like to do live radio," she said. While KOOP recently acquired in-house recording and editing facilities, Gomez said the collective will stay at WATER House.

WATER also recognizes that products go nowhere without distribution. While the organization does not distribute any material itself, it directs interested women to such media outlets as public access televison and the Net. Women may also use WATER's duplication facilities for limited self-distribution, as did Bega in sending her video to festivals. "It's easy to train people to do it; it's not that hard to get people enthusiastic," Hill says. "But once they get something made, the main problem is distribution. The cable system and computer are other ways in which people can really be in control of their own communications." Noting that she was one of the first people involved in public access in Austin, she continues, "My dream was to always have community access to all media, and cable has been the only place we've been able to make inroads." KOOP and KAZI have since added a broadcast element to community media.

WATER was hatched in 1993, when Hill and Vaughan discovered that a house next to the foundation's headquarters was about to go on the market. "We had talked about the issue of women not being visible, of women being able to tell their own stories, of women overcoming societally induced technophobia," Hill says. "It would be a combined guest house and a place where women could come not only from Austin, but all over the world, and be in a comfortable environment to learn the skills useful in carrying out whatever social change issues they were working on." Early participants included a group of Native American women working to preserve the stories of their tribal elders, and a group of women from Central and South America, some of whom have gone on to establish sister media centers in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.

Aside from WATER, the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, founded in 1987, has also sponsored projects including Stonehaven Ranch, a women's retreat, and the Austin Peace House. This past May, the Foundation sponsored the Feminist Family Values conference, which brought to town such luminaries as Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem (who received a tour of WATER House). Two months before in March, WATER was a main component of a 24-hour media celebration of International Women's Day. KOOP and KAZI devoted their entire broadcast days to women's issues, while ACTV simulcast various segments of the radio programming, adding visual text to women's issues and activities. Some of the broadcasting, such as a party that capped the celebration, was conducted by remote from WATER House itself. Noting that the city, various media outlets, and the Foundation all worked together on this event, Hill says, "It just goes to show that if you have something of community concern, the community will come together on a higher ground to improve communications on an issue such as this."

The future flows for the feminist media forum with ongoing projects both inside and outside the facility. One is to install ISDN lines, which would digitally compress material created at the facility, for possible rebroadcast to radio distributors such as The Pacifica Network. The facility is also looking to add to its Web site RealAudio, which digitally transmits audio to ordinary computers. These electronics will also allow WATER to add a multimedia dimension to next year's International Women's Day festival via a live Net broadcast; Johnston notes that anyone is welcome at the initial early planning meeting September 30. Another goal is to encourage the city's cable service provider to add a cable radio channel to its public access services. "My sense is that people are open to the idea of cable radio," says Johnston, "but things haven't been put in writing, so we're still actively lobbying and encouraging people to voice their opinion about that." She feels that WATER would most likely work as part of a consortium of community media groups interested in specialized radio programming.

Hill envisions something beyond WATER House itself: a constellation of neighborhood media centers. "One of the things the city is looking at is that instead of one big access center everyone comes to, is to have community centers. So if you want more and different kinds of people in access, you have to put access where the people are," she says. Noting that Sue Beckwith of the local Net provider Free-Net is looking to put computers in housing projects, Hill adds, "I would love to see those be multimedia computers, and that we have things like WATER for geographical communities, as well as communities of special need." n

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