On May 8, I spent an evening with a woman who is changing the world. I don’t usually employ dramatic statements, but some people demand hyperbole.
Seven years ago, Cristi Hegranes founded the Global Press Institute, an award-winning organization that educates, empowers and employs women around the world to publish stories about their communities. As the executive director of GPI, Cristi has seen to the training and hiring of 130 journalists from underrepresented, underprivileged communities in 26 countries. Thanks to GPI, these women’s stories have been marketed to more than 50 news outlets around the world. More than five million readers in 160 countries see their work every month, often leading to tangible change.
After her talk at the University of New England’s art gallery in Portland, Cristi answered questions with the kind of ease born of total immersion in one’s subject. Not only does Cristi personally know every one of her journalists, she also knows every detail about every aspect of GPI, top to bottom. Even more impressive is the disarming simplicity with which she delivers her expertise and passion. Cristi is as genuine and approachable as an old friend at your kitchen table.
Some of that may be due to her open, youthful demeanor. Cristi founded GPI when she was only 25 years old.
While we sat in a restaurant with one of GPI’s board members (Maine resident Sibyl Masquelier, who generously put both of us up for the night) I was repeatedly caught short by the realization that this highly accomplished woman, who travels the world constantly and sleeps about four hours a night, has only been out of college for 10 years. Her passion for investigative reporting, however, has been with her for decades.
“My mom swears that I was six when I first told her I wanted to be a journalist. I was so curious about everything – ‘Why? Why? Why?’ My parents had to set a limit, only 10 questions a day.”
Cristi started her first newspaper in sixth grade. In high school she revamped the student newspaper and gave it new life. At Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles she went from reporter to editor-in-chief of the school paper. After a run-in with censorship at Loyola, she initiated First Amendment Education Week, an event that recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary at the school. Her passion undiminished, Cristi completed her master’s degree in journalism at New York University, little knowing how brief her career as a journalist would be.
At age 24, Cristi was “living her dream job.” She was on assignment as a foreign correspondent covering the civil war in Nepal, but something was nagging her — a disconnect between herself and the Nepalese. It was not only a language barrier, but a barrier of culture and life experience. In one interview with an articulate village woman named Pratima, Cristi became frustrated with their halting communications and suggested that Pratima write the story herself.
The result, Cristi said, was more powerful than anything she could have written as a western reporter. How important Pratima’s writing could be to her community, if only she got some professional journalism training and a global platform.
“Man, I wish someone would do that,” Cristi remembers thinking.
A year later, Cristi decided to be that someone. She left her job as a writer to start the Global Press Institute. I asked about that decision, which must have been a tough one. Some people thought she was crazy to give up a paying job. Others put their full support behind her, starting with her parents, who were her first two donors.
“I do miss writing deeply, but the volume of stories that GPI puts out surpasses anything I could possibly produce by myself.”
It is far more than quantity, however, that makes Cristi’s work so important. GPI’s coveted journalist jobs (in Cameroon more than a thousand women applied for four positions) change the lives of the women who achieve them. Their GPI income often provides them with education, a home, or a livelihood for entire families. With six-months of GPI’s training and subsequent support systems behind them, these women gain unprecedented confidence and standing in their communities. Their status grows from the uncompromising vision of Cristi Hegranes.
“I’m considered a hardass,” Cristi told me. She demands meticulous fact-checking; GPI has printed only two corrections in seven years. “Accuracy is king. In many of these countries, credibility in print hardly exists. But people seek out my writers because they believe them.” Too often, foreign correspondents descend upon a region, broadcast a speculative sound bite, and leave. Cristi’s journalists live there. They have time to get the full story before it goes to press.
The world will be a better place as GPI’s model catches on. Not only will we gain more accurate representations of global news, we will contribute to education, empowerment and hope. Consider this statement from a Rwandan GPI journalist after she was invited to speak to parliament about her work:
“Yes, I was scared, but I remembered what we learned about in our training: Stand tall and look them in the eye, and they’ll have to listen.”
To learn more and access GPI’s news site, go to globalpressinstitute.org.
Robin welcomes feedback at email@example.com.