Raising awareness and encouraging discussions around Poverty – “Big Questions”

Big Questions – Syrian Refugees – Promo from Big Questions.

A few months ago, the first episode of “Big Questions,” a TV show created by Dr. Patricia Werhane, Managing Director at the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University, aired in Chicago. The series of half hour shows, also available for download, aims to raise awareness about systemic poverty and encourage lively conversation and debate around questions that most people are afraid to ask. I recently had the chance to speak with Patricia about this innovative project.

 1.     What is “Big Questions”?

“Big Questions” is a series of TV shows aired on public television in the US, which are all about how people are changing the world, one idea at time. Each episode takes you inside issues that aren’t ordinarily covered by the media. It highlights situations involving the poorest and most disenfranchised people, both globally and locally, and celebrates the best examples of effective change being implemented all over the world. We want to bring you touching stories of people in need and challenge you to get involved in creating a different future for the world. We have filmed and aired seven programmes, and our project is to develop at least 6 more.

2.     How did it come about? Why a TV show?

We developed these programmes from our initial focus on poverty alleviating projects at DePaul University. Then we got the idea that if we could visualize some problems of poverty through a TV programme,  the topic would be appealing to a broader audience.

For each episode, we spend 3-7 days filming in each location. It is then edited in our Chicago studio and prepared for broadcast use during a ½ hour TV slot. Each programme is constructed from the videos and engages experts to discuss the issues raised by the particular documentary. Each creates a context designed to raise awareness and deliver emotional impact to its viewers.

 3.     What are the big questions that are tackled in the series?

We have covered a wide range of topics so far. In Ghana we looked at a pineapple plantation that hires only local people, a school for the deaf, as well as a rural fresh-water well initiative. We also looked at a telemedicine project at a United Nations Millennium Development Village. In the United States we have looked at issues such as wage theft (people who work but don’t get fully paid as promised), “food deserts” in Chicago (neighbourhoods where there is no availability to purchase fresh food), and recidivism reform in the Benton Harbor county jail located in the most blighted community in Southern Michigan. Other “Big Questions” covered include micro lending and a small start-up school in Haiti, micro lending and family self-development projects in Bangladesh, and in The Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development health care and health access projects in Tanzania.

The current episode is focused on our conversations with Syrian refugees currently seeking sanctuary in Jordan. We spent time living in the Zataari refugee camp, which houses almost 150,000 people, of which over half are children. There we also had the chance to speak with aid workers and government officials working to alleviate the situation.

4.     What advice do you have for schools wanting to use the videos in the classroom?

Poverty is a system and people in poverty are often very bright but deeply disenfranchised. It is a system that doesn’t provide basic necessities, such as food, shelter, security, clean water, or affordable health care; there are often poor or no educational facilities, the absence of legal protections, and scarce employment opportunities. “Big Questions demonstrates that systemic poverty is best alleviated not by mere money, but we learn that people are truly helped with public-private partnerships that often engage community leaders, moms, families, and groups of individuals through self-development opportunities. The programmes are available to download on our site (www.askingbigquestions.com) and can be the basis of a very interesting debate amongst business students around not only these issues but also possible solutions. I use these videos in my applied ethics course, but they could be used in a wide range of courses.

5.     What are the next steps for the programme?

We are currently looking at putting together future episodes on a variety of topics, including on turn-around public schools in Chicago and Haiti, the day in the life of a formerly homeless drug addict gang member, the rights of indigenous people in Minnesota, a for-profit corporation that gives away all its profits, and teaching inmates how to create their own businesses. For more, visit www.askingbigquestions.com.


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