• Maria Schechter

Facebook: Shaping Social Geometry in the Asia of Tomorrow: An Interview with Cambodia

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Sarus programs promote peace between neighboring countries with a history of conflict by bringing together an equal number of university students from both countries for a month of physically and mentally demanding service. Students learn to reflect, work as a team, share insights, and negotiate conflict productively.

Maria Medina-Schechter is the founder of Cultured Social Co. which is an art marketing group that believes in the mission and purpose of non-profits’ global contributions. We want to hear from change makers from around the world and collect their visions, stories, and opinions. Our goal is to assist non-profits in using social media to showcase their work in remote locations. We want non-profits to explain how their work is important and show that these efforts and successes should be seen as part of a larger picture of economic empowerment and cultural stability. Wesley Hedden, executive director of the Sarus Program (, has agreed to partner with Cultural Social for the month of May 2014. The Sarus Program promotes mutual understanding and friendship between Cambodian and Vietnamese K-12 students. The students interact through group travel, learning, and volunteering.

Below you will find our interview. Although a bit lengthy, the takeaways are priceless.

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Maria: Thank you for joining us. Wesley, would you first tell us about your organization. Why should people know about your organization?

Wesley: Thank you very much for inviting me to this interview. It's an honor to have Sarus featured on your blog. I’d first like to share a bit about the context in which we work. Strategically located between India and China, culturally and religiously diverse, rich in natural resources, and with a population of over 600 million people -- 50% of whom are under 30 years of age -- Southeast Asia is a region of critical global importance in the 21st Century. Although the region holds tremendous promise, conflict between nations and within nations has halted development in much of the region until recent years. While hope and optimism are high, especially amongst the massive youth population, long-term peace and prosperity are not yet guaranteed. Sarus is unique in its focus on forging a deep and authentic community of the most promising young leaders of different Southeast Asian countries -- a safe, supportive community in which members can express their true selves and challenge each other to learn, grow, and thrive. We build this community through our carefully designed empowerment programs founded on the pillars of leadership, communication, service, and inquiry. Our hallmark program, the Sarus Exchange Program, has sent over 60 young leaders abroad for the first time. Participants of the program report a transformational impact on their lives, including positive changes in their confidence levels; empathy for others; interpretive and evaluative thinking skills; ability to identify and resolve misunderstandings; and their courage to take calculated risks.

Maria: How is your organization making the world a better place?

Wesley: Sarus is building a passionate and authentic community of global citizens; those equipped with the communication, leadership, and critical thinking skills, as well the empathy, courage, and drive essential to solving the most complex and challenging issues of the twenty first century. In short, we're building a community today that is prepared to lead in the Asia of tomorrow. A few indicators of our impact to date include the following: 45 Sarus participants have left their country for the first time, 10,800 international service hours completed by Sarus participants, 2,135 community members reached through community education projects, 61 independent research projects completed by Sarus participants,1 documentary about ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia currently under production.

Maria: One of the primary challenges in Egypt, which was the country we last interviewed, is the fact that women do not receive much advanced education, thus making use of and accessing social media very challenging. Is this true in your part of Southeast Asia?

Wesley: Yes, unfortunately, this is true. Throughout most of the region, women have less opportunities to access higher education than men. The situation is especially acute in Cambodia where only around one third of students enrolled in university programs are women. The gap between men and women increases as students ascend the educational latter. According to the Cambodian Ministry of Education, in the 2012-2013 academic year, only 21% of masters candidates in Cambodia were women, and an even lower 6% of PhD candidates were women. Developing young women leaders is a major goal of Sarus. Three-quarters of our staff and two-thirds of our alumni have been women. In Cambodia, we've recruited young women leaders through Alan Lightman's well-known women's residential leadership program, the Harpswell Academy, as well as the SALT Academy, which develops girls' leadership and access to higher education through football. In 2013, we launched two new programs specifically focused on women’s empowerment. The first was in collaboration with Volunteers in Asia, Tra Vinh University, and the SALT Academy, in which we brought together university students from Cambodia, Vietnam, and the United States to run soccer camps in rural Cambodia and Vietnam for girls at risk of human trafficking. The second program brought eight young women leaders from Japan, Indonesia, China, Jordan, the Philippines, and the United States to Cambodia to learn about youth engagement in civil society as part of Hiroshima Jogakuin University’s Peace, Global Studies, and Leadership Summer Seminar. We also have a partnership with the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh in which their students undertake summer internships at Sarus. Finally, we're in the process of developing the first-ever two-way exchange program between Bangladesh and Myanmar that would bring together young women leaders from the two countries to explore ethnic and religious conflict in the region through the design and implementation of collaborative service projects with grassroots organizations in the two countries.

Maria: How is your organization using social media, and do you feel that it has helped in developing a supportive community? If so, how would you define support in this context?

Wesley: Because we work in multiple countries and have stakeholders all over in the world, social media is an essential tool and medium for sharing and collaborating remotely, as well as building and sustaining the Sarus community. We like to think of our approach to social media in terms of two concentric circles. The inner circle consists of staff, participants, alumni, board members, volunteers and interns, current and former project partners, and other friends of Sarus. This inner circle is situated in private social media spaces, at the center of which is our Facebook group, the Sarus Family. Core community members use these spaces to share ideas, collaborate, and cultivate a greater sense of authenticity and shared purpose with each other. It is in this inner circle that our ideas are first developed before being tested in the world. Our outer circle of social media influence is manifested in our public social media presence including our organizational Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and crowdfunding campaigns, as well as the social media accounts of those in our inner circle. The constituents of the outer circle include our actual and prospective fans, followers, partners, donors, and other stakeholders, as well as all those connected by social media to the individuals in our inner circle. Our goal with respect to the outer circle is to present our work and our cause in a compelling and relatable way so that people can engage with Sarus and become a part of our movement. Though our core community is relatively small, the shared life-changing experience of our programs inspires them to share our message in a personal and powerful way with their connections, thus broadening the impact of our work beyond those directly involved in our programs. An example of the manner in which these two concentric circles of social media interact is our crowdfunding campaigns on Indiegogo. The inner circle serves as a safe space to gather ideas, encourage each other, and build the strength and resilience necessary to make it through a challenging and exhilarating campaign. Members of our inner circle create and offer their own perks to those who donate to our campaign and pitch our campaign in evocative, personal terms through social media. As a result of this interplay between our inner and outer circles of influence on social media, we’ve been able to raise over $25,000 in our last two annual campaigns and are poised to raise an additional $20,000 in 2014. It’s hard to imagine our community even existing, let alone thriving as such, without the power of social media at our disposal.

Maria: Do you have a social media manager supporting your strategy? Here in the U.S. we have been flooded with business owners requesting volunteer support around social media initiatives. Your last fundraising campaign was a great success! How did you manage this?

Wesley: For us, it's been a lot of trial-by-error and learning-on-the-job by our talented and hard working staff and volunteers. We watch what other organizations do and try to read as much as we can online about best practices. As such, we're always looking for new volunteers to help us and advise us in our efforts. We've found our biggest challenge to be figuring out how we can best present our work in a clear and concise way to our diverse audience. We have program participants from more than nearly ten countries and donors from more than twenty. Different audiences read and hear things differently. Finding a way of messaging our work in a way that is understandable, clear, and relatable to our diverse audience has been an ongoing lesson in humility for me personally. I often think to myself: I started this organization over four years ago, yet I still struggle to find the words to explain our work.

Maria: Is the use of social media accessible in Southeast Asia?

Wesley: According to the recent report released by We Are Social, a bit more than a quarter of Southeast Asia’s 630 million plus population are active social network users. Put into global perspective, this is significantly less than East Asia, Western Europe, and North America, but significantly more than Africa or South Asia. Within the region, there is significant variation, with Singapore at the top with 59% social media penetration and Myanmar at the bottom at 2%. Cambodia and Vietnam, where most of Sarus’ programming is focused, stand at 8% and 22%, respectively. However, it’s interesting to note that both Cambodia and Vietnam have extremely high mobile subscription penetration rates of 126% and 149% respectively. By comparison, the global average of 89%. These numbers suggest a high potential for social media growth in Cambodia and Vietnam as data service coverage expands in the two countries. These trends are relevant to our work at Sarus because we use social media extensively to raise awareness about regional issues, as well as to promote communication and collaboration between our program participants and alumni. Our participants and alumni are extremely active on most social media platforms, especially Facebook. This is good news because one of our goals at Sarus is to promote the use of social media as a means of promoting education, collaboration, and mutual understanding throughout Southeast Asia.

Maria: In regards to the organization, what do you feel people really care about when engaging through social media?

Wesley: Ownership. People don't just want to observe, they want to be active participants. The key is to find ways that people can actually engage through social media in such a way that each interaction brings them increasingly into the fold of our community. For a successful social media campaign, the deeper meaning of our work and our identity as an organization must infuse what we share through social media. We approach social media as a long-term process of engagement. We're not interested in gimmicks to get clicks, likes, or even one-time donations. Rather, we're focused on developing real relationships with people through social media that can improve and expand our community and the reach of our movement. I believe that social media, in certain cases these days, has become an end in itself. At Sarus, we make sincere and concerted efforts to use social media as a vehicle for mobilizing people behind our cause.

Maria: I felt while living in Bangkok the use of social was mostly used via mobile and used primarily for entertainment. Is it the same in Cambodia and Vietnam?

Wesley: It’s interesting you ask this question because it touches on a major theme of an alumni workshop we held last month. While I don’t have hard data about this, my sense from observing social media use in the region is that it is primarily being used for entertainment and diversion, as well as for sharing personal information with friends. However, in recent months, especially in Cambodia and Myanmar, I’ve observed increased use of social media as a means of presenting people’s ideas on national and regional issues. The alumni at our workshop expressed concern that social media is being used to misrepresent current events, and that this could be dangerous to society, especially when the posts pertain to race, ethnicity, and other emotionally charged issues. Our alumni have been making concerted efforts since our workshop to raise the conversation to a higher level, so to speak, by using social media as a platform for promoting intelligent, civil discussion and as a space for exploring controversial issues with an open mind and critical lense. I tend to be an optimist at heart and am hopeful that social media will increasingly be used as a positive force towards the promotion of education, collaboration, and mutual understanding throughout the region.

Maria: What would you like readers to have as a take-away about your organization?

Wesley: Sarus isn’t your run-of-the-mill exchange program. We have an exceptional commitment to each and every young leader who joins our programs, and, as such, we are having a transformational impact on these young stars' approach to leadership, conflict, innovation, and sustainability. We have a well-defined organizational culture that lends itself to growth and learning as an organization and community. We're not afraid to try to new things and we're not afraid to fail. We are resilient and have a singular focus on building a peaceful and sustainable Asia. Expect big things from us. If you’re interested in learning more about our work, please visit our website. Also, considering joining our movement by contributing to our new Indiegogo campaign.

(this article and the Indiegogo campaign affiliated with their initiatives took place in 2014.

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