During the Girls Not Brides’ 2023 Secretariat Retreat Week, we were honoured to be joined by our Board Member Georgia Arnold. Having recently stepped down from her roles as the Executive Director of the MTV Staying Alive Foundation, Georgia Arnold brings with her a wealth of experience acquired during her impressive 30-year tenure at MTV and Paramount. In a candid and compelling conversation, we had the privilege of delving into her inspiring career and the impact she has made on social norms change, health education and youth empowerment through storytelling.
Storytelling for behavioural change
Among her many accomplishments, Georgia played a pivotal role in the creation of the influential series, MTV Shuga.
The inception of the MTV Shuga series serves as a powerful testament to the idea that “passion can lead change”. In a time where HIV was a silent global menace and was claiming countless lives around the world, Georgia embarked on a mission to shift the narrative around HIV. She envisioned a ground-breaking series that challenged, questioned and confronted the deeply ingrained societal and behavioural norms prevalent in many countries.
I really wanted to tell the message from a behaviour change perspective to prevent HIV, looking at behavioural options and choices. I wanted it to show generations’ new choices, e.g. contraception options, and as the work has developed, there’s also an opportunity to look at the influence of social norms and how the series can collaborate with norm holders e.g. faith leaders, parents.
Diversity of Voices
From the outset of MTV Shuga, Georgia very quickly realised the vital element often missing from this sort of storytelling: relatability. This realisation struck home when she engaged with communities to get a better understanding of what stories they should be amplifying. In response to Georgia’s enquiry on narrative, one young girl simply answered:
Young girl: "Someone needs to die."
Georgia: "How do they die?"
Young girl: "It’s your job to figure out how."
Georgia: "Why do they have to die?"
Young girl: "Someone always dies in our lives."
It was at this moment that Georgia really understood the need for stories to be relatable and to resonate with the experiences of young people. It was clear that these narratives needed to reflect the realities, challenges and everyday lives of the young people that served as the audience.
The stories start in the communities where we are filming. We work with local production teams and researchers so young people feel their lives are being represented in what they are seeing.
While producing these stories, Georgia grappled with the challenges of addressing taboo topics. All the content produced is rights-cleared and cost free, freely available to anyone who wants to use them, including in countries and regions where they might be considered contentious or controversial. This poses a unique challenge: they needed to figure out how to craft these narratives and raise awareness without compromising the relatability of the stories with diverse audiences.
In one (version), the character comes out, in the other they don’t, but the character is always gay. And only ever on YouTube do we have the original. Initially, homophobia was very apparent in the comments section, and we started to moderate, but now they (the audience) moderate it for us.
Effective storytelling is also not always about a direct call to action or the organisational want or need. Instead, it revolves around working closely with communities and really understanding who the audience is and their needs. This principle highlights the transformative power of putting the audience at the heart of the storytelling process, and that transformational impact extends far beyond the immediate actions of individuals.
Creating a seat at the table
Georgia’s understanding of centring communities in storytelling was just the beginning of her journey. She also stressed the importance of communities being able to identify with individuals in positions of influence. Georgia strongly advocates for inclusivity and the practice of active listening, believing that everyone deserves a seat at the table. These principles ultimately guided her decision to step down from her role as Executive Director of MTV Staying Alive Foundation.
I wanted to be able to build up our country teams and ensure that the power, space and voices to lead came from these offices. But ultimately I knew that I needed to leave in order to truly embrace this change. I’m very proud that MTV Staying Alive is now led by a new Executive Director who’s based in Botswana.
Georgia regarded this decision as a pivotal moment, driven by her realisation that most senior positions with decision-making power were based in a country where the series and production were not being created. She explained how this move was the culmination of a lengthy and contemplative process, involving many uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Despite the challenges, she hopes it will set the precedent for other organisations, ushering in a more equitable and inclusive approach to leadership and decision-making.
This film was created by MTV Staying Alive Foundation to mark 25 years of storytelling and highlight their ethos of #ASeatAtTheTable
Georgia’s narrative was nothing short of inspiring, a testament to the profound impact of storytelling from a multitude of diverse voices. Her journey is a shining example of the importance of fostering genuine collaborations and amplifying authentic narratives. It prompts us to reflect on our own roles in the narrative-making process.
It’s a journey that not only led to personal growth but also ignited transformative change within communities. This is exemplified by the inspiring story of a grant recipient who once battled HIV and now leads others in their own battles. Georgia’s story reminds us to embrace diversity and the transformative power of stories that truly reflect the world we live in.
In the time it has taken to read this article 59 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds