Courage on Fire

Steven Sawalich (’99) shines a light on organizations around the world through philanthropic docuseries Operation Change.

December 5, 2014  | 4 min read

On a wall that surrounds the main exit of an industrial neighborhood in northeastern Beirut, Lebanon, is the city’s largest display of graffiti art—a 50-meter stenciled mural that reads, “COURAGE IS CONTAGIOUS.”

In a country that still displays daily reminders of a divisive civil war, and for those citizens who live with the threat of spontaneous uprisings, the message is an ever-present reminder of the continuous impact of a single act.

Operation Change executive producer Steven Sawalich (’99) felt the life-changing effects of this mantra firsthand when he met a local college student named Ameena while on location near the Karantina region of Lebanon’s capital. The spunky teen rued the pressures that society places on women and found her escape through skateboarding, an activity deemed unacceptable for women by Middle Eastern standards.

“Apart from the fact that it’s dangerous, [women] won’t feel comfortable,” explains Ameena in the “Lebanon” episode of the 10-part documentary series that debuted on the OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network on June 23. “They’re constantly being looked at, and skateboarding is seen as something that is aggressive and something that only street boys do.”

Through Operation Change, Sawalich and his team partnered with the Lebanese Skateboarding Association and joined local activists, including Ameena, to build a skate park and save an endangered community outlet on the brink of being shut down. The cameras not only captured the efforts of the crew helping to restore the park, but also some of the pervasive issues plaguing a country caught at the crossroads of Eastern tradition and Western progress.

“I was really impressed with the youth movement that’s emerging in Beirut, and the culture and arts that are coming to fruition there,” says Sawalich. “While everyone else is focusing on the bombed-out, bullet-ridden structures and the war that’s going on around them, we’re focusing on the inspiration and the creativity that is happening there that will change everything for their people.”

The episode’s theme of civic activism also followed the team to Haiti, where Sawalich and his team came to the aid of the victims of a devastating earthquake, and Colombia, where the crew worked with local organizations to help communities displaced by violent local militias.

A telecommunications major with an emphasis in TV production at Pepperdine, Sawalich caught the travel bug while studying abroad in the London program. “Pepperdine got me hooked on wanting to learn about different cultures and people from around the world,” he says. “It really helped play into what I’m doing today. Experiencing new things and being abroad and out of my comfort zone allowed my eyes to open up to what the rest of the world was like.”

courage-on-fire-2Sawalich has spent most of his life traveling the world to help people in need. Aside from his role as executive producer of Operation Change, Sawalich is the senior director of global media and philanthropy for Starkey Hearing Technologies, the top supporter of Starkey Hearing Foundation. The foundation, founded over 30 years ago by Bill Austin and Sawalich’s mother Tani, is dedicated to providing free hearing devices and hearing education to people around the world struggling with hearing loss.

His first overseas trip with the foundation was during his junior year at Pepperdine. The journey sent him to Ecuador during Christmastime, when the foundation outfitted 600 locals with hearing aids over the course of a few days.

“I remember one family that lived in a 10-foot square room with a curtain down the middle,” he says. “They had a tiny Christmas tree, but they were healthy and they were all together and that was all they needed. Seeing how happy they were helped me appreciate everything I was able to do and have.”

When the time came to take his philanthropy to the next level with Operation Change, Sawalich opted not to pitch the idea to networks. “Because we were actively out in the world doing this work with the foundation, we decided to formalize bringing a crew along with us to focus on the efforts that we were making in those communities,” he explains. “I never took it to networks until we were actually done shooting. We did it a little in reverse.”

While the foundation has provided invaluable opportunities to establish relationships with  organizations and local heroes that serve daily within their communities, the show is not based on the foundation, but its philosophy that, “Alone you can’t do much, but together you can change the world.”

“It was really about bringing the cameras along with us to show these stories of hope and inspiration and positivity in such negatively perceived areas,” says Sawalich.

Operation Change also aims to bring attention to the transformative work being done by organizations worldwide and support them in their endeavors.

“We wanted to work with philanthropists who were engaged in their organizations and foundations and wanted to be part of the solution and help find the answers,” he explains. “Everyone that we’ve worked or partnered with shares our same values and goals, which is trying to make the world as better a place as we can.”

The show counts special guests Sir Elton John, Sir Richard Branson, the Dalai Lama, and former president Bill Clinton as supporters of the Operation Change mission. Sawalich considers the latter as one of his mentors and somebody who challenged the foundation to triple their efforts in three years. It was one particular conversation with Clinton that Sawalich refers to for inspiration—invaluable advice given during a two-hour conversation that transpired at a cafe in Zanzibar, when the plane they were supposed to take to the next country broke down.

“He just encouraged me to do more,” says Sawalich. “When you think you’re at your capacity and doing all that you can do, you must find that drive to be better. What I’ve learned from him is to keep obtaining knowledge, to keep reading, and if you don’t know something, to try to learn it.”

Beyond showing the outcomes of civic activism, Operation Change and its complementary web platform (operationchange.com) encourage viewers to engage in service and provide opportunities

to learn more about the regions visited in the series. While the series was on the air, viewers and website visitors were able to enter to win a chance to join the team on a future humanitarian adventure. To date, two of the 11 winners have traveled with the Operation Change team. As a way to help continue to spread the series message and engage young people, web platform visitors can currently accrue points for viewing and sharing featured content.

“Don’t hesitate,” encourages Sawalich. “Whether you want to volunteer at an organization or if you want to go out by yourself and do something, we’re trying to educate people about the many different ways philanthropy can make a difference.”

“We hope that viewers can learn about the different communities around the world and see what other people are doing to make a difference. Hopefully, that will inspire them to be a part of it.”