Pass the mic: 5 life-changing lessons from SwitchPoint

Last week I had the pleasure of attending SwitchPoint, a two-day conference for global health professionals, development experts, entrepreneurs, artists, and innovators.

The word “conference” doesn’t seem to quite encapsulate the event; “experience” may be more appropriate, as demonstrated by this scene from the closing ceremony.

And this snippet of The jonDoe‘s performance during lunchtime:

The live music at @switchpoint has been insanely good. 🎶 💃🏼 @whoisthejondoe

A post shared by Open Eye Creative (@openeyecreative) on

Oh, and these sketchnotes from the on-site artist, who illustrated each talk in real-time:

switchpoint illustration

The topics were wide-ranging—technology, gender equality, healthcare for all, and the spread of fake news. Here are a few things I learned during my time at SwitchPoint:

#1: To truly know your subjects, pass the mic.

The keynote speaker, Marco Werman, host of PRI’s The World, talked about the lessons he’s learned after decades in journalism. He recalled something the photojournalist Robert Capa said: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

marco werman on stage
The World’s Marco Werman on stage at SwitchPoint 2018

For years, Werman said, he thought this meant physical closeness to your subject. Instead, he came to realize that it’s about being more involved in and with the person whose life you’re documenting. The closer you are, the better you know them, and thus, the more truthful you can be.

Passing the mic is about giving the people to power to direct the conversation and share their own stories, rather than having that power lie completely with the person holding the camera, microphone, or pen.

Which leads to my second takeaway…

#2: Storytellers have an enormous responsibility their audience.

Writers, photojournalists, and videographers are always making decisions about how to tell a story, says photojournalist Trevor Snapp. Instead of capturing an objective truth, we capture a moment, or a series of moments, and how we chose to shape and share those moments is influenced by our own perceptions.

Workshop participants in a large room
Participants in Snapp’s visual storytelling breakout session

Images are powerful things. They can change policies, create wars, influence the flow of aid money. Storytellers who cover humanitarian issues, therefore, need to be aware of their own biases and blind spots.

How to do this? Snapp has a few suggestions: Support and learn from local storytellers; embrace new visual languages and technologies; invest in creativity; and collaborate—all the time.

#3: Art matters

I wasn’t expecting to experience a puppet show, live music, or dancing at SwitchPoint. Nor was I expecting to see this performance about waste and consumption (by artists Mike Dimpfl and Ginger Wagg):

But art is where it’s at. “If we want large-scale global change,” Margarite Nathe says on IntraHealth International’s blog, “we have to engage with culture in more meaningful ways.”

If we want to connect, to collaborate, we need art to help break down silos.

#4: Never underestimate the will of humans to make the world a better place.

There was no shortage of good news from the stage: Optimism thrives at SwitchPoint.

Duke is using historical data to better care for its patients. Medical cargo drones are saving livings in remote Peruvian villages. Solar Sister is developing female entrepreneurs while ensuring that women have access to clean energy.  People are working to provide citizens of low-and middle-income countries access to safe surgery.

As one presenter, Cheri Reynolds of Assist International, said, “We have more power than any generation before us. What are we going to do with that power?”

Finally, the theme underpinning all of these takeaways was perhaps best summed up by one of the first presenters, Jessica Mack, senior director for advocacy and communications at Global Health Corps:

#5: “Health is a human right.”

It’s a principle that unified the diverse attendees and set the stage for two days of lively presentations and interactive workshops.

We’re looking forward to seeing what’s next for SwitchPoint in 2019!