Global Citizen Year alumna to share digital storytelling project at TEDxUCLA


Originally published in the Daily Bruin

Before Joan Hanawi left Ecuador for California, her host sister said she thought Hanawi would soon forget her time in Ecuador.

But her host family realized her genuine intention to help the people in Tena, Ecuador, after she returned last summer for the third time.

Hanawi, a third-year international development studies and geography/environmental studies student, will be the one of two undergraduate students to speak at TEDxUCLA on Saturday. She will discuss the digital storytelling project she launched after working to improve sustainability abroad by working with the Ecuador Ministry of Environment and the German International Cooperation. She translated entire scientific bodies of work into English that helped with conservation environment research.

The project, called Nova Narratives, is a collection of stories featuring individuals who Hanawi and other writers have encountered while volunteering abroad. The collection highlights the individuals’ struggles and successes. The five stories currently on the website encourage readers to become involved beyond reading the narratives, by donating money or volunteering themselves.

“Stories are great, but if they aren’t encouraging you to do something, what’s the point of sharing?” Hanawi said.

Margarita, Hanawi’s host sister while she lived in Ecuador, inspired her to humanize the research she was doing through the narratives of the people she met. Margarita’s story is featured on the website, and her last name has been omitted to protect her privacy.

Margarita, the oldest of eight children, didn’t pursue a career in biochemistry so she could take care of her siblings, and later, her daughter. She later developed ovarian cancer but still cared for her family while taking four-hourlong bus rides to receive treatments Hanawi said she could barely afford.

Hanawi said Margarita’s story inspired her to share the triumphs of the people she met.

“I think (volunteering in Ecuador) taught me … our actions have much bigger implications than we realize,” Hanawi said. “It made me conscious about the way I do my work and travel, and about the way I tell my stories.”

Abigail Hindson, a volunteer who traveled with Hanawi for 10 months in Ecuador, said Hanawi was good at respecting cultural boundaries while being upfront with everyone she spoke with. She added Hanawi was careful to protect the people she wanted to write about.

“I came out of (Ecuador) realizing the most important thing one can do is spread important stories, empower other people … and humanize living in a third-world country,” Hindson said.

Hanawi said she wanted to highlight the commonalities and stark differences between the people she encountered and potential readers. She also wanted to humanize international development issues, but was careful to avoid reducing people to their problems.

“Margarita’s story is not just (about) cancer,” Hanawi said.

Hanawi had experience with these differences before her international volunteerism. She said she grew up California, but the rest of her family is from Indonesia. She said her peers as a child, and even her peers now, sometimes do not understand the circumstances in the stories she shares.

“Stories are the only way you can teach people to care about something they know nothing about,” Hanawi said.

Hanawi started a blog when she returned from Ecuador in 2012 to track her experiences while she volunteered. In late 2014, she launched Nova Narratives.

Hanawi said it was difficult to receive consent from the people she featured because of distance, language and cultural barriers. She also said it’s hard to explain the purpose of her project – Hanawi aims to create an emotional change in readers that will motivate them to take action, rather than to reach a finite fundraising goal.

Hanawi said a friend encouraged her to apply to speak at TEDxUCLA.

“I really want to emphasize that everyone has a story worth sharing,” Hanawi said.

Hanawi added she thinks people forget the importance of stories because they associate them with children.

Hanawi also worked with other UCLA students to open a global development lab at UCLA. They received funding for the lab last month, and expect to open it in the fall.

David Joseph, a fourth-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student who volunteered in Uganda, worked with Hanawi to develop the lab.

“Her most valuable quality is her ability to move beyond the surface and politics (to) actually work with and understand people’s points of view,” Joseph said.

Hanawi said she wants to include translated stories written by individuals from underdeveloped nations. She also hopes Nova Narratives will progress from a website to a printed book.