The TH Interview: Ralf Schmerberg of Dropping Knowledge
Ralf Schmerberg is one of the founders of Dropping Knowledge, which we recently reported on here. Dropping Knowledge is a pioneering multi-media project aimed at bringing important questions about social, environmental and economic issues into the focus of mainstream society. Ralf recently undertook a global journey with a number of film makers to Beijing, Mumbai, Caracas, San Francisco, post-Katrina New Orleans which resulted in Global Warning, the first in a series of online ‘magazines’. During 15 years as a commercial filmmaker, Ralf created over 50 music-videos and over 200 advertisements for television and cinema, including a pioneering AIDS awareness campaign for the United Nations.
Treehugger: What is the core goal of Dropping Knowledge?
Ralf Schmerberg: The core goal is to give social change around the world the attention it deserves. We realized how much we get over exposed to the wrong stuff in public life, on TV, and even all over the web. We thought when we started that it is necessary to give social change-related themes more visibility, more networks, more space. Social change needs to come into the middle of society. The big issues have to move out from the corner. So, we do what we can to increase the level of consciousness and awareness. We try to give inspiration for action. But we do not tell people for what; we keep that open to them, so they can make their own choices.
TH: Why the focus on questions?
RS: The Red Cross needs blood, we want your questions. Why? Simple. When you ask, you start to think, you free yourself, you become critical. You start to search for answers and solutions. So we see it as the start of a domino-effect. People give us their questions and we post them back in the public. We let the people on the platform answer them, and so on. Questions allow us to become a jester of a global society.
TH: How did Dropping Knowledge first come about?
RS: It started with the three founders Cindy Gantz, Jackie Wallace and myself. We met in 2003 in New York, meanwhile the US was marching towards Iraq. We felt helpless and screwed up. The peace movement in the US was behaving much too friendly for my tastes. It felt like we could only do what they wanted; our voice did not count at all. And the media made me want to throw my TV out of the hotel window. I had never seen such a level of manipulation. That all made us really angry, and we started to discuss and discuss until we found our release in starting Dropping Knowledge.
TH: You have recently undertaken a major re-launch of your site. What are the most exciting features of your new format and why?
RS: Well, our site is an ongoing re-launch as we learn and realize what to do better. What we do there is also connected to our finances and resources. As a non-profit it is hard to explain people why to donate to a website. With the work of a lot of volunteers we have been able to create some more features. For example, "NGO Action" from now on will feature another NGO every week, and make more people aware of them. Secondly, "Daily Q+A" is a feature that highlights a question every week and we get people to respond to it on the platform. It allows us to put focus and pressure on issues. Thirdly, we optimized the design and navigation.
TH: The first issue of your web magazine features a journey you took from Munich to Beijing, Mumbai, Caracas, San Francisco and post-Katrina New Orleans, focussing largely on the issue climate change. Does climate change pose the biggest questions of our time?
RS: For sure it is a top-ten issue but, as we see it, everything that is going wrong is related to our human behavior. We should care about much more than just global warming if we want to rebalance a world that is overtaken by human misbehavior.
TH: On your journey you visited activists, residents, meteorologists, artists and industry polluters, collecting both questions and answers. How did you choose the people and organizations you visited, and why?
RS: Well, we did some research and that is what came out of it. We already knew some of the people (like Sebastiao Salgado or Oscar Oliviera) and were in contact with them; others got recommended to us on the trip. Once you focus on something, it all appears out of the fog and you just need to do it. We knew there would be many more places to go and people to talk to, but we only had a limited amount of cash and time to do this.
TH: Where do you see Dropping Knowledge in 10 years time?
RS: Honestly, I don't think about this very much. Each step of what I do defines what to do next. It’s like free-climbing a mountain. Dropping Knowledge will change and grow by the people doing it.
TH: What's your question for Treehugger readers?
RS: One of my favorites is a question from Julia Butterfly Hill which she gave to Dropping Knowledge when I met her on South Central Farm in Los Angeles, where she was on a hunger-strike:
"What is your tree? What is it in your life that calls you to be bigger than what you think is possible?"