As Len Morris reminds us, it’s a sobering fact that of the 2.5 billion children in the world, one out of two lacks the basic fundamentals of a decent life — whether it’s food, clean water, housing, safety, or access to education. Morris knows these facts backward and forward because he has dedicated his life to advocacy work, leveraging his skill at telling immensely moving stories about these dangers through the Vineyard-based organization Media Voices for Children, which he and his wife Georgia co-founded.
Media Voices fights for the poor, powerless, and innocent who pay the price for our lifestyles as victims of sweatshops and climate change. They endorse the work of labor unions that help abolish child labor from coffee, rubber, and cocoa plantations, and push for adults to do the work so their children can go to school. Media Voices recognizes businesses that work to abolish child labor from their supply chains through third-party independent monitoring. They support indigenous communities in their efforts to retain control of their water, land, and precious natural resources for their own benefit.
The organization works on multiple fronts, but its five documentaries are at its core. “Stolen Childhoods” (2005) was the first global documentary about child labor ever made. Shot in eight countries and narrated by Meryl Streep, it is told by the child laborers in their own words. We see children forced to work in dumps, quarries, brick kilns, and other industries — including prostitution. The film examines the causes of child labor, what it costs the global community, how it contributes to global insecurity, and what it will take to eliminate it — as well as best practice programs that remove children from work and put them in school so that they have a chance to develop as children and an opportunity of making a living when they grow up.
The 2009 film “Rescuing Emmanuel” came out when they were trying to make another “Stolen Childhoods” in Kenya. The filmmakers were interrupted by a 13-year-old boy who, stoned on shoe glue, kept jumping in front of the camera. The young boy befriended Georgia, who later persuaded Len that they should go back to try to help Emmanuel.
“Nairobi is a city of 2 million people, and we’re looking for a Black kid who lives on the street,” Len remembers. “God was with us, and we found him. But he ran away from us because he doesn’t want to be found by anybody. He lives on the street; he’s afraid.” The documentary tells Emmanuel’s story, and Morris says, “It may be the toughest movie I made. Certainly from the standpoint of journalism, it blew any pretense of objectivity. We crossed the line. We went on the side of the subject and involved ourselves.”
Morris explains that “The Same Heart,” from 2015, “examines our pathetic international aid and development, which is basically an elaborate form of passing the hat. The average U.N. appeal for money, following a disaster du jour, gets about a 12 percent response.” The film is an examination of banks and money, and endorses the idea of taxing financial currency transactions, taking the money, and applying it to the needs of children.
“Children of Bal Ashram,” released in 2019, profiles the extraordinary Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi and his wife and partner Sumedha Kailash as they rescue and rehabilitate children who were former slaves or bonded laborers — children whose lives have literally been erased. Over time, they educate them about their rights and help them become advocates. It also covers Satyarthi’s inspiring march to end the sexual exploitation of children, which at one time involved 5,000 miles, with more than 5 million people showing up along the route.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, Morris’ daughter gave birth to a premature baby, who survived thanks to the medical care available in this country. His family’s good fortune, along with not being able to do his regular work, and his upcoming 75th birthday, put Morris in a reflective mood, which led to poring through thousands of hours of footage in the Media Voices archives. The result is “Butterfly, Butterfly,” which has its world premiere at the U.N. Association Film Festival on Oct. 23.
Originally, Morris included footage about his own family, but took it out, saying, “What’s more important is a snapshot of how we are treating children today … what we promised 30 years ago, what’s different, what’s better, what’s not. What do we need to do that hasn’t been done, and how do we get to that place? It’s an optimistic film because it puts its faith in the hands of young advocates who have emerged in the pandemic. There are more young people than ever before on the ground, doing things.”
Morris is very excited too about “Childhood Unbound,” Media Voices’ new interactive curriculum for grades eight through 12, available at learnchildrights.org. Its seven units explore children’s human rights and how to safeguard them. Its video and photographic resources, music, and classroom activities can help guide what we buy and eat, how we spend our money, and where we want to volunteer. “We want children to be able to express their ethics and their moral sense in their economic and personal behavior as it relates to children all over the world,” he says.
Another publication is Media Voices for Children’s youth quarterly magazine on children’s human rights issues, with stories by and about children and youth. There are articles by four Vineyard youth in the newest issue, which is available at Cronig’s, the Island’s libraries, and online (learnchildrights.org/read-now).
Coming up is a monthlong filming trip to visit schools and villages for Media Voices’ Kenyan Schoolhouse, which is supported by donations from the Vineyard. For 22 years, Media Voices has been helping rescue youth from child labor and off the streets, sending them to boarding school from elementary school on, including some who go to university. “These were orphans, street children, children who have no other possibility,” Morris says.
Looking at the big picture, Morris is optimistic. “In 30 years, we’ve dropped the number of child laborers from 250 million to 160 million. We’ve put 64 million girls in schools who had never set foot in one. That’s a big deal toward parity and gender equality.”
The Times asked the filmmaker and advocate about slowing down as he gets older. “I intend to do it as long as I’m on this earth,” he said.
For more information and to rent films, preview the curriculum, or download the magazine, see mediavoicesforchildren.org.