Beyond Inclusion: Building Narratives of Liberation

*Reposted from Medium*

In Beyond Inclusion: Building Narratives of Liberation, I muse on how structural inequities have impacted my personal life experiences, and how they have in turn shaped not only my art practice or how I see the world but how those experiences have also required me to be accountable for my actions, conscious or not. Can we achieve personal or social transformation without interrogating our own complicity in maintaining inequitable structures we are a part of? I don’t think so. But I am also aware that I have the capacity to grow and contribute to positive change when I question my practice at every step.

What follows is an edited version of my keynote address at the 2018 International Documentary Association’s Getting Real Conference, which took place in Los Angeles California on September 29, 2018.

Art is not neutral. It either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advancing or regressing justice. Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategies

Beyond Inclusion: Building Narratives of Liberation

I am a non-fiction storyteller. Together with my filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster, we founded the Rada Film Group in Brooklyn NY. The scope of our art practice focuses less on principles of inclusion or diversity but rather we put justice and expressing our complicated existences and lives front and center of the stories we tell. That’s what drives our work.

We gradually came to see that justice in the context of documentary film always involves being aware of the power dynamics of who is telling whose stories; how emerging technology and documentary film are created and their funding distributed and; which storytellers, engineers and audiences or users do we see, support and validate?

With that framework in mind my fundamental question here today is: CanI get real around my professional peers and supporters, right here right now?

What do I stand to lose? One fear would be rejection, banishment from the community, not getting that next grant or NETFLIX deal, or never getting another speaking engagement. And you know what? Given the current social and political climate we live in today, risk to me has become a necessary part of living and taking a stand. So, I have decided to get real. But, getting real starts with getting personal, from my life’s beginnings.

Origin Story

I was born in Haiti to a Haitian father and a Panamanian mother. As a daughter of the Caribbean and Latin America, the violent legacy of genocide, colonialism, slavery and skin color privilege literally run through my veins. It has shaped my family and how I see the world and interact with others. It is my lived experience. None of us with generations on the soils of the Americas from as far north as the Hudson Bay to the southern tips of Argentina can escape that violent legacy. Its roots go far and deep.

I am also part of a family who fled into exile from Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship in the 60s. I have no memory of that flight. From Haiti to New York and then as a skeptical 9 year old child my family and I arrived as black immigrants to a bucolic, rural location in Qubec, Canada.

I grew up immersed in my father’s magical realist stories of taking over Haiti with his rebel friends. As I child I remember how he would disappear once a week to meet with his comarades and plot a return invasion to Haiti to overthrow the government. At bedtime he would weave these fantastical stories about a glorious mountainous Haiti of his childhood. How he would one day return and how we had to resist and fight injustice as well. That’s some heavy stuff for a little girl. These stories shaped my sense of self and how I processed our migration and settling to North American territory where we all faced regular racial aggressions as black latinx immigrants.

My father’s dreams of a gallant return to Haiti, like Don Quixote, never happened. His only source of control or power was over my mother and me. A brutal dictatorship reined in the heart of our home. I was afraid of him and his wrath. Back then I did not understand that global systemic forces had shaped my father’s limitations and the deep-seeded contradictions he embodied between his idealism on the one hand and his deeply flawed behavior at home. I clung with all my willpower to his idealism.

Finding Film

At 24, I was full of hope, working for the United Nations Development Programme in Cape Verde, West Africa. I was convinced I could make a difference in global development. Not all was well, I quickly found myself in the belly of the beast. I was a tool in a system that extracted more than it gave. When I ordered a tractor for a project or hired a consultant, certain conditions had to be met that benefited so-called “donor” countries. And I was benefiting from an unequal pay scale within the UN system where I, who was fresh out of college and getting trained by talented local staff, was getting paid twice their salaries. There was justifiable resentment and tension between local and international staff. It all felt like the repurposing of old colonial structures.

I felt ill at ease, and sick. Survival meant closing my eyes. It meant getting less real. But the deepest contradiction for me was how this structure was connected to the lot and suffering of my very family members spread across the Haitian and Latinx diaspora. I was part of the problem and had to get out. So, I headed to law school.

But the law didn’t do it for me either. Just as I started law school, I met my partner Joe Brewster. While I had always been involved in the arts as much as I could — mostly dance and photography — I couldn’t wrap my head around how I could marry my political convictions with art, it seemed like a far away financially unattainable possibility for me. Meeting Joe shifted that aspiration. And I went in full throttle. I went to law school, but I found film.

My Journey Through Filmmaking

The first film I was involved in was fiction. My partner’s first feature film, THE KEEPER, premiered at SUNDANCE. It tells the story of a light-skinned black prison guard who begins to question his own role in the criminal justice system. Developing the story also led to a deep dive into my own self-examination of my own responsibility and accountability to my communities. The role of story became a looking glass experience for me and I was hooked. Film became a way of both processing my frustrations and feeling like maybe I could get a step closer to personal and community liberation. I quickly moved from fiction to nonfiction storytelling to occupy a space where I could question, explore, and bear witness.

Fast forward to our third feature documentary, American Promise, a thirteen year journey where Joe and I decided to embark on one of the most challenging experiences of our lives — to make a film about our son’s educational journey. I personally started off with one idea in mind, but really ended up making a film about myself along the way. It was a deep dive that went way beyond the questions raised in The Keeper.

American Promise began as an exploration of an educational system that on the surface was embracing diversity but underneath was perpetuating inequity for black boys. But as black middle class filmmakers telling a black middle class family story certain gatekeepers needed convincing of its value. It didn’t fit that usual extractive top-down documentary model. Was there even room for black middle class stories in documentary film?

Along the way I also began to question my process, my own exceptionalism — my potential role as an overseer in a system of exploitation in the very documenting of an educational system that was rigged against our communities. More importantly on this journey of filming my family, was I practicing a version of subjugation on my child that my father had imposed upon me? Was I repeating generational trauma?

But, the rich relationship that I now have with my children and the enthusiasm for this film that spanned the nation and globally, led me to believe that we had done the right thing. Screening the film was never enough for audiences. People had questions, my own looking glass was now a mirror for others to see themselves. The debate and dialogue spilled over more than we could have ever imagined. We had touched a nerve that was raw. It sparked a revolution for parents and educators. We did it by being vulnerable and connecting systemic inequality to our own very specific racialized lived experiences that others like us immediately recognized. It was galvanizing. We were our audience.

Reckoning with the Structural Tabletop of Systemic Inequities

On tour with our American Promise Community Engagement Campaign I participated in a number of deep dive workshops on undoing racism. One workshop in particular continues to resonate for me today. It provided a space to examine how I as a person of color experienced and practiced internalized oppression on a daily basis. At the front of the room our facilitator pulled up a slide image of a tabletop with two sturdy legs. When I saw the simple graphic a light bulb instantly lit up for me. I now could better understand my purpose and the direction my artistic work and practice was taking.

The facilitator explained it like this: In order for the structural table top of white supremacy, patriarchy, and other systemic inequities to persist that table needs two strong legs. One leg is the institutions — whether it’s the criminal justice system, government, schools, foundations, IDA, the film industry, or emerging media — that keep recreating that cycle of inherited oppression by default.

Then that other leg is me and you. It is us — the individuals that make up the institutions. And more specifically, those of us who create culture. Where internalized attitudes are consciously and unconsciously replicating white dominance and other systemic inequities in all our relationships. We can’t escape it. It’s like the air we breathe.

But with storytelling and artistic expression I have a tool that I choose to use to chip away at that internalized cultural leg both within me and in my connection with others in the creative process. While I am solidly grounded in cultural work with the various communities I am a part of, I know that, however slowly, my intentional process and creative product work towards dismantling the pillars that uphold systemic injustice. As long as I stay self-aware, forgive myself when I make mistakes, I must keep doing the work.

The Problems with Inclusion and Allyship

In the work I do these days spirit often lies in challenging what we mean by words such as inclusion and allyship. They are often being used in white dominant liberal spaces. These are two terms that I personally find deeply problematic.

I reject the term ally. Because being an ally for me implies you are doing something for me, to help me or to help a group in need. When in reality we must all believe that we are doing the work — whether in storytelling or elsewhere — to save ourselves. White supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression negatively affects us all. Until we understand that we all have skin in the game — both privileged and non-privileged — we can’t expect inclusion will solve the problems of power and subjugation.

Inclusion implies there is a better, superior place that marginalized folks should be brought into. But in reality that space is often already toxic from its roots because decision-making power is not questioned. And so, if not questioned, inclusion and allyship become traps for maintaining a status quo and not getting at the root of how structural inequality perpetuates itself, and how we are involved in it, especially as creators of culture.

Listening to and reading the work and interviews of Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine have helped me unpack some of the discomfort I have been feeling around these terms and attitudes. It’s also helped ground my personal work and how I mentor and teach. Toni Morrison often talks about how the problem of American society when it comes to racialized people lies in the pathology of white identity and dominance. She rejects the white gaze on her community and rather turns that gaze on its head — suggesting white people need to look at themselves and the pathological behaviors that have emerged with privilege for the sake of maintaining white dominance.

For example, in the case of documentary storytelling we may all suffer from not truly getting enough complicated pictures of stories of southern white working-class people and life because perhaps it messes with and might too deeply question the true source of white power and domination and how it manipulates us all.

Claudia Rankine started the Racial Imaginary Institute to deeply question how our collective imaginary is framed around a lens of white dominance and supremacy. How can we create space to shift and/or interrogate that in our work? This past summer the Racial Imaginary Institute has had a number of symposia, screenings, and exhibitions provoking thought and engaging artists of all types. I cannot wait to see more. I as a storyteller work in the imaginary constantly. What kind of racial imaginary am I creating, challenging, or perpetuating in my work? I have to be open to that self-interrogation. These are indeed exciting times for questioning, shifting and disrupting the comfort of our own perceptions.

So what does this all mean from a practical standpoint as a storyteller? I am continuously trying to work that out. It is a daily routine of self-awareness and commitment to creativity and personal and community growth. How do I show up when I think about the stories I want to tell? How do I show up when I work with my partner to decide what team we would like to build for our story projects? How do I engage the subjects in our stories? What important unfiltered dialogue do I have with my editor about character development? Where and how do I check my light-skinned, cis-gendered privilege in the team building exercises we do on our various projects? The list is long and ever-present. I am a work in progress.

Some of these daily efforts were put into practice with our NYT Op-Docs Conversations on Race series. We built a collective of filmmakers, Geeta Gandbhir, Blair Foster, Perri Petlz, and Joe Brewster, where we were intentional about co-directing across our differences as a team. We challenged each other in the process. And we engaged our subjects to go deep. The series has reached over 40 million views. A testament to having touched a raw nerve again and how daily practice and intention in co-creation can resonate in limitless ways.

My current feature doc work-in-progress has taken me to the Caribbean island where I was born, forcing me to reckon with the color-caste system there. Hispaniola examines the lives of Dominicans of Haitian descent whose citizenship was ripped from them by the Dominican government. I knew that as a woman of Haitian descent, I needed to use my light-skin privilege to access certain emotionally difficult spaces with people who engaged in anti-black hatred as part of their life in order to get a deeper, more complex picture of the extent of the impact of global white supremacy on the island.

New Storyworlds through New Platforms

Looking at where my creative work lives today, I know that it would be hard for me to talk about emerging media without making sense of and tracking my own creative and personal evolution over the years that brought me to occupy this new space. There is no separating the creative from the political. On my journey I have come to understand how our stories can risk being ignored, removed, appropriated or reinterpreted by dominant culture. So, I felt a duty, a calling, to occupy the space of virtual reality — a duty to explore my creativity in that space and channel my ancestors. I also discovered that I had a community waiting for me that was ready to support, guide, and mentor me. People of color were already there doing the work, and in many cases were pioneers in the field.

In her series, Making a New Reality, Kamal Sinclair, one of our sister pioneers in the field, takes a deep dive investigating strategies for achieving equality and justice in emerging media. It is a must read for anyone wishing to enter the field and a great blueprint for doing similar research in our own documentary space. The series on multiple occasions points to how our communities are here and have been here since the beginning. In some cases, it is not a matter of inclusion but of simply seeing further than our sylos.

A host of women and men of color have pioneered the emerging media space in one form or another and have touched and supported my own work. From Shari Frilot’s New Frontiers Festival — back at the start when for me she created an immersive space of creative inspiration and respite from the stress and pressures of the Sundance Film Festival — to Jacquie Jones’ founding the New Media Institute back in 2006 with the bold beautiful ideas of turning Jackson, Mississippi into a completely wired space for black creativity.

I can go on. Nonni Delapena, the virtual reality pioneer of our day, and her taking the time to mentor both my partner, Joe and me at the Tribeca New Media Fund retreat. To Anne Bennett and her pioneering work with Thomas Allen Harris’ Digital Diaspora interactive project. Her patience to meet with me and just brainstorm ideas for how we could work on a truly interactive digital campaign for our film, American Promise. The New Media Institute founded by BLACK PUBLIC MEDIA and spearheaded by Leslie Fields Cruz and Jacquie Jones, also specifically allowed me to incubate and execute multiple web based interactive projects — from Pawn Shop Chronicles to Haiti One Day One Destiny. They had all laid a stake on the ground from way back.

Those experiments, mentorships and collaborations allowed me and our team at Rada Film Group to dig deeper on what type of emerging media was relevant to our communities. For our American Promise community engagement campaign we developed a prototype for a phone app for black parents. It was a behavior change app developed in consultation with the Stanford Behavior Design lab to assist parents in improving educational outcomes for Black boys. The PROMISE TRACKER was built using a deep community involvement model. We incubated the work thanks to the support of Wendy Levy and BAVC and the Tribeca New Media Fund under Ingrid Kopf and Opeyemi Olukemi as well as with the support from the Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

Although we did not fully realize the launch because of funding challenges for marketing and outreach, the lessons were invaluable: 1.) New technology is totally doable for us, 2.)Taking risks in the field and being OK with failure is a must, and 3.) Teamwork is an indispensable part of the process.

So fast forward to 2 years ago and the opportunity provided by Sundance and Skoll’s Stories of Change Program: the bigger idea of The Changing Same emerged. On this project I have been standing on my ancestors’ shoulders, embracing my father’s spirit, accepting him, his flaws and all. Our story cannot appeal to anyone’s sense of guilt but needs rather to inspire folks to recognize our common history and our common fate. The Changing Same is a groundbreaking immersive virtual reality room-scale installation where the user travels through time and space on a pilgrimage to visit events of our common racialized history and present-day lived experiences. Our virtual reality story world embodies the idea that slavery never ended; it has simply evolved. It uses cutting-edge reality capture techniques with profound storytelling to create an innovative, immersive documentary that is native for this medium. A first of its kind. We are currently scheduled to go into production later this Fall in collaboration with some kick-ass partners: Scatter Studios, POV Spark, MIT, Fledgling Fund, and Chicken & Egg Pictures have joined the journey.

The immersive experience places you in parallel storyworlds that span hundreds of years. And the search for light becomes a metaphor for hope and change from one storyworld to the next as we unearth buried histories and present-day realities. Magical realist time travel also allows us to lyrically move through the past, present, and future to contemplate the cycles of history and their strong influence on our lived experiences today. How much has really changed and how have experiences mutated? Through a magical realist lens we can also envision a new future where we can dream of a space or community where racial terror is acknowledged and differences are viewed through a distinct transformative lens.

Claiming Our Space

So how am I getting real in my work? How are we getting real? Carl Jung once said, “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.” But I would flip that and say that evil persists when we refuse to see that other stories exist and are being told on their own terms with their own purpose. We claim the space. Others cannot do the work for me, my people, or my communities. Getting Real for me is about seeing the power in being vulnerable; in occupying space and not letting others occupy the space for me. And also understanding the complexity of my own privileges. If we can’t reckon with these, we can’t do the work. And creativity suffers. Let’s challenge ourselves to be a community, a network, a world, in which what we’ve inherited is not what we perpetuate. That takes self-awareness, practice, patience, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.

“A Conversation With Black Women on Race”

*Repost from The New York Times*

This latest installment of our “Conversation on Race” Op-Doc video series highlights the negative emotional impact of racist attitudes on black women’s lives. Everyone we reached out to for this project was eager to tell her most intimate stories of pain and discrimination, from childhood, to work, to profiling by the police. We hope that in sharing them, we are helping to complicate the public representations of black women and girls — highlighting the unique challenges they face, as well as experiences and feelings that are universal.

From Harriet Tubman to Ida B. Wells to Dorothy Height, black women have been heavy presences in social justice movements throughout history. However, issues particular to these women are often relegated to secondary status in our collective consciousness. This seems to be changing. Recent events in Texas, Baltimore and Missouri show that black women are again in leadership roles, and are speaking out against the mistreatment they regularly experience. But in our nation’s current movement for social justice, women’s voices need a louder bullhorn. Conversations like the one we’re hoping to start with this Op-Doc are a first step to understanding, and to changing.

“A Conversation With Police on Race”

*Repost from The New York Times*

Over the past year or so, our nation has been embroiled in a difficult conversation about our history of police brutality and racial profiling. Stories of young black men shot by officers, and footage of police behavior before many of those deaths, have raised hard questions about institutional racism and misconduct within our police force. They have sparked protests, investigations and policy changes.

While our nation grapples with these issues, one voice is often conspicuously absent: that of the police themselves. Officers seem reluctant or unable to speak out about whether they perceive racism in their ranks.

As we set out to make the next installation of our Op-Doc video series about race in America, we are hoping to help break that silence. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was challenging to find individuals who were willing to speak on camera about their experiences with racism in the force. Ultimately, the former officers included in this film reflect a spectrum of opinions on this fraught topic, ranging from those who feel our nation’s police forces have only minimal issues with race, to those whose experiences have led them to adopt a more activist perspective. They speak for themselves and not for the forces they served. We hope viewers will listen to the officers’ perspectives and consider how we as a nation can help transform this institution so it serves and protects all Americans.

“American Promise” Receives 3 Emmy Nominations!



“AMERICAN PROMISE” Receives Three Emmy Nominations

July 22, 2015 – (BROOKLYN, NY) AMERICAN PROMISE, the feature documentary 14 years in the making, receives three Emmy nominations for Best Documentary, Outstanding Coverage of a Current News Story Long Form, and Outstanding Editing. Directed by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson and edited by Erin Casper, Mary Manhardt, and Andrew Siwoff (and a number of other editors who helped over the years), AMERICAN PROMISE is a co-production of Rada Film Group, ITVS and POV’s Diverse Voices Project and is a part of the American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, made possible by the Corporate for Public Broadcasting.

“An extraordinary documentary about race, family and education that’s at once epic and intimate…” – Rogerebert.com

“Not only provides illuminating insights into racial and cultural issues, but explores family dynamics common to all.” – Boston Globe

The 36th Annual News and Documentary Emmy® Awards, whose mission is to honor the documentary films, news reports, and multimedia projects that exemplify the best of broadcast journalism, will be presented on September 28, 2015 at a ceremony at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall in New York City.  All nominations are available on the National Television Academy’s website: www.emmyonline.tv.

About AMERICAN PROMISE: AMERICAN PROMISE spans 13 years as Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, middle-class African American parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., turn the cameras on their son, Idris, and his friend, Seun, after they are accepted to The Dalton School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. Chronicling the boys’ divergent paths from kindergarten through high school graduation at Manhattan’s Dalton School, this provocative, intimate documentary presents complicated truths about American society and its relationship to black male achievement while also exploring broader issues of race, class and opportunity.

Highlights from the AMERICAN PROMISE campaign: Major institutions, from United Way to the Open Society Foundations, have used AMERICAN PROMISE and associated resources to elevate their work on black male achievement, contributing to credibility for the field, and inspiring other organizations to follow suit. The film’s broadcast on POV reached over 1.5 million people, and schools, organizations, and individuals have organized thousands of community screenings to date. The campaign has also created numerous tools to contribute to increased awareness and change in the black male achievement sector, including the book, Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life (Winner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work), Promise Clubs, a national network of parenting support groups, modules and classroom discussion guides for youth, parents, and educators (in collaboration with Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center), which was a finalist for the Revere Award. In 2014, the campaign was awarded the BRITDOC-PUMA  Impact Award for a Documentary Film that has made the most Impact on Society.

AMERICAN PROMISE is available for streaming on Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes, and available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes. For more information visit the website and follow the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.

### For inquires contact: Jessica Jones, Impact Producer, Jessica@americanpromise.org ###

“A Conversation with White People about Race”

*Re-posted from NYTimes.com*

Why do so many white people find it extremely uncomfortable to talk about race? Setting out to make the next installment of our Op-Doc video series about race in America, we hoped to address that question. Because we live in New York, where there is no shortage of opinions, we didn’t think it would be too hard to find white people willing to speak publicly on this topic. We were wrong.

The people we ultimately found to start the conversation on this fraught topic were uniformly well-meaning and in favor of equality. Certainly they didn’t consider themselves racists. Racism is something that is perpetrated by other people — the ones complaining about affirmative action, refusing to take down their Confederate flags and sharing racist jokes. But if so few people identify as racist, why are racial tensions so pervasive right now? Subtle racism is harder to confront.

With this Op-Doc video, we’ve attempted to lean into that discomfort and prompt some self-reflection. We are all part of this system, and therefore we all have a responsibility to work toward dismantling it. If we’re going to have an honest conversation about race in America, that includes thinking — and talking — about what it means to be white in America. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s a conversation that must involve all of us.

Storytelling and Metrics: A Delicate Dance for Documentarians

*Reposted from The Media Impact Project*

Pushing the art of nonfiction storytelling is at front and center of our work as filmmakers. By being true to that craft and faithful to its ability to expose the core of our common humanity, we believe that deeper authentic community dialogue around particular issues can be achieved. Visual storytelling has the power to evoke reflection and even individual behavior change. Combined with a carefully designed engagement campaign, documentaries can create significant societal impact. A successful engagement strategy includes trusted partnerships, strategic messaging, and thoughtful engagement both on and offline – all to deepen the relationship with the target audience. Metrics can help us understand and convey the extent to which we can create this kind of impact with our target audience. What we have learned with our latest feature documentary, American Promise, is that the measurement of impact must itself be thoughtful, and cannot be limited by only quantitative data, as it does not always represent the most meaningful kinds of engagement. Instead metrics should be thought of as contributing to an overarching analytical narrative that examines one on one dialogue sparked by a film’s issue(s), and an analysis that sheds light on the better uses of storytelling that help push for both individual behavior and systemic change.

“Developing strategic partnerships is essential for both funding and successful engagement. WithAmerican Promise, we saw an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of organizations already building a movement to close the black male achievement gap in education.” Strategically designed focus group research and discussions supported by entities such as The Fledgling Fund and the Ford Foundation during the production of American Promise, resulted in trusting partnerships with key organizations that remain instrumental to the success of the film’s campaign, continuing to this day. By the time American Promise’s release occurred, a total of 66 national partners and 118 community organizations had mobilized to support the film. Stronger  partnerships between organizations were also forged as a result of their collaborative use of the film; for example, United Way and America’s Promise Alliance seized the opportunity to work with The Arthur M. Blank Foundation to deepen their work in Atlanta by usingAmerican Promise, and supporting our participation in a two-day long public workshop series. These types of collaborative opportunities sparked by the resonance of the film’s story and community engagement effort sparked local funding support in a number other cities: Omaha and Minneapolis to name a few..

The initial partner conversations we had in the planning phase also helped narrow our priority target constituencies – African American parents and teachers of black boys between birth and age twelve. With specific target audiences identified we focused on understanding their needs, and worked to develop specific tools for engagement, including a book, a mobile app, screening guides, and workshops. We embraced an evidence-based approach to develop the impact metrics of the campaign, such as after-screening surveys, partners’ metrics, and online data analysis (webviews, google trends, etc.). For example, the term ‘implicit bias’, a main point of discussion in our speaking engagements and workshops, was used on average 4 times daily in news headlines prior to the campaign, and is now used 20 times on average and continues to rise. Though we can not attribute this increase entirely to the American Promise campaign, we believe we have contributed to the public discourse and increased awareness around this issue. In conjunction with these metrics, we seek qualitative measurements such as interviews, quotes, personal narratives and empirical evidence gathered in person and online. Not only does this allow us to contextualize some of the data collected, it is a robust demonstration of our target audience’s personal and often deep commitment to change.

Examining the reach of our target audience is not only critical to quantitative metrics, but also valuable to our understanding of a much harder to measure metric – gauging a film’s ability to spark conversation that  affects individual behavior and attitudes. This understanding was developed over time with offline community work aimed at building trust and engaging in direct community dialogue that can at times be uncomfortable but necessary. These conversations gave us a first hand idea of  individual and community needs, and served to expand and deepen our campaign tools, such as our Promise Clubs, a national parent affinity group network, which directly benefits our target community. We continue to learn about parent groups, small community screenings, group meetings, and schools not directly related to our outreach work that have incorporated tools associated with the American Promise campaign. We can only assume many more have occurred across the country that we are unaware of. Paradoxically, a main goal of our community engagement work is precisely to push for our target communities to take ownership of the campaign tools and instigate their own smaller level engagement work. Yet, once these interactions are sparked, we in turn relinquish a certain level of control and ability to measure their impact. This direct offline community interaction combined with the personal vulnerable nature of our story continue to have a hard to measure exponential ripple effect that is deep and long-lasting. Just recently in our third trip to Atlanta, the rich conversation that occurred after a public screening at the Atlanta International School extended to well over two hours. If not for the plane, we would have stayed longer. Smaller parent and educator groups formed to continue the exchange throughout the coming months and next school year. This direct engagement highlights the potentially unquantifiable emotional impact and continued conversation a film can trigger, and is a better demonstration of impact than easily digestible numbers such as attendance, or demographics. These exchanges speak to the heart of ‘taking action’ and inform our impact metrics narrative.

The most meaningful moments of impact are often captured in conversations with our target audience and feedback from our partners. “[We wanted] to dig deeper in our work, but we needed a narrative, a human story that could serve as a catalyst to make our work happen in an inclusive way that does not point fingers” said a school district representative in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. In many cases, American Promise has provided a way to reach that pivotal point of discussion where a community can lean into a difficult conversation on the road towards change. It is crucial to demonstrate to funders an understanding of the audience, and to discuss the measures for campaign success based on the audience’s needs. When we discuss funding, metrics, and impact, we should all be asking (and many of us are), what is the intrinsic value that this analysis brings and how do we develop more comprehensive metrics that are inclusive of the entire engagement conversation.

“A Conversation About Growing Up Black”

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 2.37.13 PM

*Re-posted from NYTimes.com*

Imagine strangers crossing the street to avoid you, imagine the police arbitrarily stopping you, imagine knowing people fear you because of the color of your skin. Many of this country’s young black men and boys don’t have to imagine.

In this Op-Doc video, “A Conversation about Growing Up Black,” we ask African-American boys and young men to tell us candidly about the daily challenges they face because of these realities. They speak openly about what it means to be a young black man in a racially charged world and explain how they feel when their parents try to shelter and prepare them for a world that is too often unfair and biased.

As we debate the headlines about the deaths of young black men and police misconduct, from Baltimore to Ferguson to Staten Island, we fear our society is turning away from the painful conversations that need to be had at home, in our own communities, schools and families. Focusing our attention on the nation’s latest racial hot zone often devolves into the same old invectives about race and politics, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. Worse, it allows us to avoid the painful discussions we need to have with our young people about their concerns, and the role we each may play in them. We can be a part of the solution only if we dare to open up and have the conversation.


“A Conversation With My Black Son”

*Reposted from NYTimes.com*

For generations, parents of black boys across the United States have rehearsed, dreaded and postponed “The Conversation.” But when their boys become teenagers, parents must choose whether or not to expose their sons to what it means to be a black man here. To keep him safe, they may have to tell the child they love that he risks being targeted by the police, simply because of the color of his skin. How should parents impart this information, while maintaining their child’s pride and sense of self? How does one teach a child to face dangerous racism and ask him to emerge unscathed?

This Op-Doc video is our attempt to explore this quandary, by listening to a variety of parents and the different ways they handle these sensitive discussions. In bringing about more public awareness that these conversations exist, we hope that someday they won’t be necessary.

We intend “A Conversation With My Black Son” to be the first in a series of videos that will foster discussions about the state of race relations in America.

Hollywood: The Power of the White Gaze

All [stories] are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the [story] is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.

Ralph Ellison, The Paris Review 1955

Boyhood the beloved front-runner in Sunday’s Best Film category, written and directed by Richard Linklater, which has an uncanny similar premise to our 2013 documentary American Promise — a chronicle of a boy’s life from childhood to adulthood shot over 12 years in real time — provides for critics and audiences a safe, white middle class suburban slice of a passage of time in America. In some circles, Boyhood is hailed as universal in its feel, a story “we all can relate to.” Interestingly, too rarely is the position of whiteness and middle-classness questioned as a position or point of view with a specificity that pertains to the lived experience of a particular racial group. As the gazers, critics and creators, many of us unassumingly internalize dominant white culture as the “norm.” Whiteness unconsciously becomes the standard for cinematic excellence, achievement and creativity. Whereas, examining a longitudinal film such as American Promise, the exercise becomes a bit more complicated on so many levels – often fraught with tension and racial schisms and points of view determined by the racial gaze of the audience and critics. Racialized lenses are accepted as a must with American Promise. That is to say, there is no luxury of escaping ones racialized position when watching, critiquing or responding to it. And that’s fine with us, in fact, we embrace and lean into those uncomfortable moments both on and off the screen with audiences and friends. In some ways, it fuels our creativity and provides potential for personal transformation to those who engage in the conversation head on.

Interestingly, the type of black and brown stories that appear to be easier to digest, are more often historical in nature, like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, or documentaries like Four Little Girls. All masterful pieces of work, but no doubt a little easier for our dominant culture to accept than more immediate contemporary black films likeFruitvale Station, Beyond the Lights, and perhaps American Promise. We all at some point talk from that internalized white middle class gaze, because using another lens to interpret reality and film is painful and uncomfortable. Many of our white liberal gazers fall into the trap of using certain “norms” to judge the quality of a film — being completely unaware of their own prejudices s when they pass judgment. None of us is immune. Most importantly, we sit in pain as our white colleagues critique and define black culture from a space of authority, without the conscious knowledge of their micro-aggression, or our own hurt. Why do we allow this to continue? Because we long for acceptance? And yet that search for approval from whites in our field comes at a price — a price of submission to the humiliating forces of the matrix, false reality, or fantasy of our own exceptionalism.

In a world where many are now aware of implicit bias, it’s time to deal with those inherent preconceptions at home. We’ve dedicated our lives and art to looking at ourselves and our extended community, but for us, the most difficult thing to do is point the finger at our fellow filmmakers, our colleagues, and our white friends who create a large percentage of black-themed films coming out today. Often, their unconscious perspectives precariously reinforce a point-of-view that perpetuate stereotypes of black and brown people that in turn encourage a national and international pattern of perception. We have to work on changing that gaze with a conversation that begins locally, with our white friends about our complicated black and brown lives.

As contemporary culture creators and critics, how can we maintain a self-awareness of our own racialized realities and position in society and understand how it informs our every action, viewing experience, creative idea and interpretation of art and life, rather than assume the dominant culture’s universality in our work? While academically we may think we are beyond this debate, we are not, because our fellow filmmakers, critics, writers, and other gatekeepers in the film industry continue to rely and fall back on these same old unconscious assumptions.

It’s time to make it our duty to lean into the discomfort of unmasking those presumptions and challenging those points of view on a daily basis so that culture creators can come to the table with a more sensitive, more willing, and more realistic outlook when it comes to the experiences and realities of those different from their own. Only then can dramatic shifts happen where all our voices are heard and our creativity is appreciated and given validating platforms. We believe real change and equity will come when we are able to look into the eyes of our colleagues, critics, and filmmakers, and challenge the white gaze that strips our visibility and voice. We should not only debate the solution for injustice in Missouri and Staten Island, but also those injustices at Sony and in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.