Media in the Mix is produced by Grace Ibrahim and The School of Communication's Communication and Outreach Office.
Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary Film
Laura Waters Hinson serves as the division’s social impact coordinator and director of the Community Voice Lab. Laura’s films focus on personal journeys, especially among women in Africa, exploring themes of reconciliation, human resilience and entrepreneurship. Her first feature documentary, As We Forgive, about Rwanda’s reconciliation movement, won the 2008 student Academy Award for best documentary and the Cinema for Peace Award in Berlin.
Since 2009, Laura’s films have been screened at the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art and at dozens of international film festivals such as the Santa Barbara International Film Fest, Austin Film Fest, and many others. Her latest documentary, Mama Rwanda, is about the new generation of women entrepreneurs in Rwanda transforming their nation after genocide and was supported by the National Geographic All Roads Film Project. She partnered with the Akilah Institute for Women, using the film to promote women's education in East Africa and beyond.
Most recently, Laura directed her first narrative short called Moving Violation, which starred Milana Vayntrub and won Best Narrative Short at the DC Independent Film Festival. During the Spring of 2019, Laura served as the director's shadow on the set of Showtime's Homeland. Prior to this, she served as Filmmaker-in-Residence within SOC where she re-launched the Community Voice Project (CVP), which partners American University student filmmakers with DC-based non-profits to produce a short film series capturing voices of marginalized DC community residents.
[0:00:01] Grace Ibrahim: Welcome to Media in the Mix. The only podcast produced and hosted by the School of Communication at American University. Join us as we create a safe space to explore topics and communication at the intersection of social justice, tech, innovation, and pop culture. To give you more background on our guest today, Laura serves as the division social impact coordinator and director of the community voice lab, which partners American University student filmmakers with DC based nonprofits to produce a short film series capturing voices of marginalized DC community residents. Laura's films focus on personal journeys, especially among women, exploring themes of reconciliation, human resilience, and entrepreneurship. Her first feature documentary, As We Forgive, about Rwanda's reconciliation movement, won the 2008 Student Academy Award for Best Documentary, the Cinema for Peace Award in Berlin, and was broadcasted nationally on public television. Since 2009, Laura's films have been screened at the US Congress, the United Nations, The Smithsonian National Gallery of Art, and at dozens of international film festivals such as the Big Sky Documentary Film Fest, Santa Barbara International Film Fest, Palm Springs International Short Fest, Heartland Film Fest, among many others. Her most recent documentary, Street Reporter, won the Jury Award for Best Short Documentary at the Annapolis Film Festival 2022, The Social Impacts Media Award for Creative Activism, and the Audience Choice Award at the 2021 Austin Film Festival. Her forthcoming feature documentary, Project Home, will be released in the summer of 2023, and explores the question of whether 3D printed housing technology can help solve the global housing crisis. Thank you so much for being here on the podcast!
[0:02:00] Laura Waters Hinson: Thank you so much for having me.
[0:02:02] Grace Ibrahim: I had a Professor Jen Aswell on before this, and I told her it's always very full circle to me when I'm sitting down with my old professors, and we're talking about things I learned from you all not too long ago.
[0:02:14] Laura Waters Hinson: I'm so proud of you Grace.
[0:02:15] Grace Ibrahim: Thank you! It's very cool. Alright, so let's just get right into it. A lot of exciting things happening lately. But first, I kind of want to get into your career of documentary filmmaking. So, it seems like and I'm just assuming, but correct me if I'm wrong, it seems like storytelling is really what keeps you passionate and motivated. Is that kind of your why behind going into documentary filmmaking?
[0:02:39] Laura Waters Hinson: Yeah, I think that story has always been the driving factor behind why I create the films that I create, you know, and I often talk to my students about how story helps us to make sense out of the chaos of the world, right, the chaos of our lives. You put it together in a narrative and there's a meaning at the end. And I think we all sort of crave that meaning out of the chaos. So, for sure, I think that it's story. And it's often, I don't exclusively tell
stories about women, but I'm often interested in the journeys of women, the journeys of mothers, and how they kind of overcome circumstances or stories of resilience, you know, that kind of thing.
[0:03:20] Grace Ibrahim: I love that. And just a kind of related question. So, I feel like our final projects that we put out, always tend to have like our most touching or moving moments. But is there ever a moment you've had off camera that really moved you, something that we haven't seen in your work that kind of stands out to you?
[0:03:40] Laura Waters Hinson: Oh, that's such a good question. Let me let me think about it. I think what it is, is that you don't see on camera all the relationship building that goes on between the filmmaker and the participant in the film. And I think there are a lot of off camera moments where you're building those bridges, where you're learning about their family, a lot of times they don't want you to cover or film their family members. So, I've had a lot of great experiences, seeing people in their context, and seeing the love that they have or really seeing their isolation or their sadness, or, you know, there's things that I think I'm moved by in somebody's story, but I don't choose to show it on screen out of wanting to maintain their dignity. And I think that it's easy with documentary film to just show something that could cast that person in a negative light or cast them in a light that seems like you're pitying them, and I don't ever want to pity anyone just because they're in a difficult situation in their lives. So, there's definitely things that move me emotionally about the stories that I tell that I choose not to put in because I want for my subjects to feel that their honor and dignity are maintained and that we're not unnecessarily trying to exploit something very, very difficult in their lives.
[0:05:05] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. I actually, I feel like having watched your documentaries, of course, we had you in class, and we went through so many of them in detail. And I feel like you really did create a sense of trust, just vulnerability, transparency with whoever it is you're, you know, the focus of your documentary, whoever it may be. I remember, actually, my entire academic career, I don't really talk about where I'm from, because third world country and my experience here versus there is so different. But I remember the first time I ever talked about it was in your class, because we were watching a documentary and you had talked to us about just kind of the vulnerability that people may not see and kind of not assuming things about people. Just kind of going through all the lessons of how we create relationships with them. But with that said, you know, of course, like you just said, difference between film and documentaries is, of course, sometimes you're dealing with real things, real people, sensitive subjects, really vulnerable topics. So can you give us a look into how you create those relationships with people. And I mean, a really good example is documentary As We Forgive, because I remember feeling extremely conflicted when we were talking about that, because I felt empathy for the other side of it, not the side that you think you'd have empathy for. So yeah, how were you able to kind of establish that
trust of, you know, coming in with a camera and entering someone's life and, and letting them know that it's a safe space to tell your story?
[0:06:29] Laura Waters Hinson: So yeah, As We Forgive. That's a good question. And for the listeners, I'll give a little background on As We Forgive. So, As We Forgive was actually my thesis film, when I was an MFA student here at American University, and to this day is still probably the most, I would say, important story that I've ever told. And the film was about the reconciliation process in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, and focused on the journeys of two different women who were confronting the men who killed their families. So, it doesn't get more like sensitive and traumatic than this story in my experience. And, you know, at the time, I was in my 20s, I did not know a lot of, of what I was doing, right, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. But I look back. And I'm so grateful that one of the ways that we built trust with people who had gone through such an intense trauma, and that we were, you know, I've never experienced genocide, you know, I can't speak from a perspective of somebody whose lost a family member due to violent crime. And so, I was so thankful that we were able, in the early days of planning the film, to connect with a genocide survivor, named Emanuel, who had lost a number of family members himself, but he was himself personally committed to seeing his country be reconciled and to heal. And he understood the point of what we were trying to do was to tell the stories of people who were trying to figure out how to live side by side with these people who'd killed their families. And so really, it was about building that relationship with Emanuel. And then he went in, he was the person who would be the first person into these people's homes, and he could share his own personal story of the loss of his own family members, and his own journey of reconciliation. And really, he kind of ran those interviews, and built, I have to give him so much of the credit because he was the bridge. But what's interesting is, we've been back so many times, back to Rwanda, back to show it to the people who were involved. We showed it to them first, before we showed it anywhere in the country. And then it did go around Rwanda, and was shown to like hundreds of 1000s of people, but with the blessing of the folks who were in the film. And so, we have been able to maintain relationships with those participants over the years, particularly the two women. And even now, one of the daughters still reaches out to me. She was six years old when I filmed it. Now she's married, and I think maybe she's had a baby by now. I mean, it's pretty amazing. But I think there's a key to having a member of the community be with you, with the film crew, and to be that intermediary who can explain, build bridges, can ask the questions in a sensitive way, can tell you, hey, don't ask that question that's not appropriate. Or hey, this person, because there was a big language barrier. We did not speak Kinyarwanda and he was able to say, no, this is going to re-traumatize, we can't go to here. So, it helped us to be much more careful I think in the way that we approached it. We still made a lot of mistakes, I'm sure. Because you stumble around and you stumble into a situation and you don't always know how to ask the question in a sensitive way. You don't know the landmines, you don't know the things that might make somebody upset, but having Emanuel help was absolutely key to the success of kind of that relational component.
[0:10:05] Grace Ibrahim: And that makes sense, because I always kind of forget, sometimes you really are going into a completely different culture, a completely different world and just kind of being respectful of that and remembering that is super important. Is there a difference you feel having done films and documentaries, where there's, you know, differences, you got to look out for, you know, tips or tricks to keep in mind when kind of going into the documentary world versus fiction?
[0:10:27] Laura Waters Hinson: Oh, my goodness, there's so many differences, and yet so many similarities. So, I think that the basic overall way that you construct the story is always going to work best if you understand the core principles of storytelling. If you understand three act structure, and you understand how to present the stakes of your character, and to follow them on a journey that makes sense, in a documentary, or that works in documentaries, and that works in fiction, filmmaking. The big difference is, in my experience, at least I primarily a documentary filmmaker, I have directed one narrative Short, or fiction short. And in docs, you gather all this information, right? You gather hours and hours, sometimes dozens, maybe hundreds of hours of footage, and then you take it back to the edit, and you have to put together this enormous jigsaw puzzle. But I always say, there's no cover to the puzzle box to show you what the picture should look like. So, it's a huge brain teaser to put a documentary together in post. So that's why if you have a great understanding of the fundamental principles of cinema, then you will be more efficient in the way that you shoot your doc. Because you'll know exactly where it's going to go in the edit. I think when I was younger, and less experienced, I would just scattershot, right, I would film everything and then I'd be so overwhelmed in the edit, because I didn't know how those pieces would fit together. I'm much more efficient now. I shoot something and I know the purpose of it, and I know how it will function and where it will function in the film. But when you are doing a fictional piece, it's almost like the reverse. You start with the story, you create the picture from the beginning in the form of a script. And maybe the hardest work actually is your ideas on paper. Making sense it having a satisfying beginning, a satisfying conclusion, characters that you can connect to. All of that is in your control during the writing phase. And by the time you get to the shoot, if you have not nailed the story, it's going to be hard to fix it in the shoot. But the wonderful thing about postproduction and what surprised me so much when I was in post on my fiction piece was just how much faster it was, because I had a script, whereas the docs, I don't always have a script. So, they're really similar and really different and fun and satisfying, and really different ways, both of them. And I would love to go back to fiction. I mean, that’s one of the things that I want to do in the next few years is to develop a feature fiction piece. Fictions harder to get off the ground. Like it's more expensive, you have to have a bigger crew. The beautiful thing about documentary is you can go out by yourself with a camera and film the world. If you have access to a story, you can run out there by yourself or with one other person and tell that story. With fiction, it takes a lot more, typically a lot more to get it off the ground and put together a team to get actors, locations, etc.
[0:13:30] Grace Ibrahim: That's interesting. I'm not gonna lie. That's the first time I've kind of heard it as it's similar because you still have to have that character arc and that just like clicked in my head. That is something I've never really thought about before. Because you're right, it is you kind of have to follow that same character has got to go somewhere, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. And then in the postproduction process, are you usually involved in that? Or is that something where you can choose to be involved. Or as a documentary filmmaker, is it important to kind of see where that's going? Especially, I guess, if you're the one creating the project, of course.
[0:14:00] Laura Waters Hinson: You know, it's funny, I think probably a lot of documentary directors wish that they could just hand all their footage to an editor and have it magically turn into an amazing film. And that's not ever really true. In my experience, at least typically, you have to communicate the vision of your film to your editor, and it could be in the form of an outline, it can be in the form of creating your own rough assembly. I tend to write pretty detailed scripts where I have pulled from the transcript. I will do the old fashioned you know left, right column of audio and visual, and I will pull all my favorite parts. I will go and listen to all the footage and find the right bytes. I will look through the scenes that we've captured in the camera and explain like if I haven't created a script for something if it's just very scene based and not more like vo based, I will go in and I will write out what's the point of that scene that needs to be communicated? What's the fear of that character? What's the tension that's present? What's the kind of central question of that scene that needs to come through? And how does it end? Does it end on a cliffhanger? Does it end on a resolution? So, I'll kind of create the scaffolding for it. And then allow the editor to pull and then add their you know, because they come in, if you give them a strong idea, then that gives them a scaffolding to start building stuff on and then to bring their new creative juices to it and make it better. So that's been my experience is like, bring my vision, explain it very clearly, precisely, and then see what the editor brings. And it becomes this kind of collaboration of handing it back and forth. They'll send me a scene, I'll watch it, I'll give notes. But it is a very hands-on process in post.
[0:15:49] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. Admittedly, I've been on both sides of it. So, I've been the person that's like, I really don't want to do that. You know, and then I've also been the person though, to be fair, that's gotten a project where I'm like, I don't know what, you know, is this creative freedom? Or is this like, do you have a vision for this? Because I feel like sometimes you end up delivering final project, and then it's like, wait, hold on I had a vision. So that's a very good point. I love the detail of it. Because I think it is very collaborative towards the end of a project as well. And then B-roll. So I love that you said you, you just know what the purpose of a shot is going to be. But do you have any advice for the B-roll process? Because I feel like sometimes people are like, I'm just gonna, you know, B-roll we think is just like, go get whatever you want, and then you'll see what you're gonna do with it. But can you give a little more wisdom onto B-roll. Because even for me, personally, this is very beneficial.
[0:16:41] Laura Waters Hinson: I have a lot of thoughts about B-roll. So, I try with our students to move them out of even thinking about the concept of B-roll and into the concept of scene building. Typically, what we think of is we think of, okay, I've got my voice, I've got my dialogue, and I need a wallpaper over the interview that I have with B-roll. And I need to just hide the joints, right between pieces of audio. And that's how I used to think about it. And that's what comes when you do it that way. It's sufficient, right, you can tell a story. And people can see some lovely visuals. But typically, it ends up landing in more of the promo video feel, right? When you're doing independent film, you're taking people on this journey with stakes and kind of universal themes, right? So, you need to immerse people in the life of your character. And that is, in my experience, or my perspective, best done if you can pinpoint a scene in their lives that you can film from beginning to end. And it might be something, for example, this was a this is a small example. So, I was doing a film about 3D printed housing. And this woman who had bought a 3D printed house, and NBC News was coming to her house that morning. And at first, I was like, oh no, they're coming in, I need to interview her. NBC News wants to come and interview her. And they're going to take up all my time. And I realized, no, this is actually a scene. So, I was like, I'm gonna get there beforehand, I'm gonna get there as early as possible. And I'm going to build a scene around my character and how nervous she feels about having national news arrive on her doorstep to talk about her new home, right? And so, what it became was a scene of her straightening her house, her fixing her hair, putting her earrings on, looking out the window, and building the tension of how she is and asking her how do you feel. She's like, I don't know what I'm gonna say, you know, and then following her into the interview with this really nationally known TV journalist. And that was the way that we were able to talk about how it feels to have a new 3d printed home. What we could have done is I could have sat her down, how's it feel to have your 3d printed home? And then we'll just show shots of the house. Instead, it got so much more interesting because we could feel this moment. How would you feel if you had bought one of the first 3d printed homes and all these people from the news wanted to know about it? And so, we constructed a scene. And that was really different than just papering over with shots of her house. And you can imagine that in any scenario of a film, that you're following a set of characters, right? Where's the inherent tension to something that they're going through in their life? And how can that scene have a beginning, middle and end? Just like the overarching structure of your film has a beginning, middle and end? And can that scene then leave your audience in a place where they want to watch the next scene? Right? So, you're hooking people into your character story and you're making them want to see what happens next. And that's in scene building rather than B-Roll.
[0:19:58] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah, maybe we should just call it scene building. Because sometimes I'm just like, what can we cut to? But you're right. I mean, it has to make sense. And if you think about a film, all of a sudden, you're having a dialogue between two characters, and then it cuts to something random and then comes back. That is absolutely in no way helping the scene. So yeah, I learned a lot. I just want to touch a little bit on, for the sake of our students, and anybody out there who kind of wants to dive into the documentary world, can you just kind of explain number one,
the difference between crowdfunding and grants? And maybe not just to be intimidated by those at all? I know, we've had that conversation a lot with students being like, I don't know what to do, I don't know who to reach out to, I just don't know anything about it. So just give a little intro into kind of like, what that's like. Crowdfunding and grants and all that.
[0:20:48] Laura Waters Hinson: Sure, yeah, funding for independent documentary film is not for the faint of heart. But it's also not something to fear. And it's not something to avoid, because otherwise, you're not going to get to make your film. And if you really want to make your film, then you have to just get comfortable with these modes of funding. So crowdfunding is I think it's a really wonderful tool, particularly when you're just starting out, because you have friends, you have family who have neighbors who want to see you succeed. And so, it's a great time, when you're early in your career, to literally capitalize on that goodwill that you have with all your friends and family and supporters. They know that you've come to film school, for example, they know that you are studying film, and that this is your dream, and a lot of folks will come through with 25 bucks or whatever, to help you make that vision become a reality. The other thing that crowdfunding does is it helps you to create a roster of sort of true believers in you as a filmmaker. So, on one level crowdfunding is about raising your $5,000 for your first film, okay? That's one benefit of crowdfunding as you actually get the money. The other benefit is that, that $5,000 might have come from 150 people, and you now have their email, you now have their actual buy in to your film, and they care. And they're gonna probably care about the next film that you make and the next film that you make. So, it's about also gathering those true believers that are going to hopefully follow you in your career, and be interested in the work that you're doing in the future. So, on the other side, though, crowdfunding, like you cannot just set up a Kickstarter to fund your film and just expect it to kind of run itself. Crowdfunding is super hands on, it's something that let's say you set up a 30-day campaign, and you need to raise $5,000 in 30 days, or else you don't get any of it right. You have to maintain everyday connection with the people who are giving to you, giving them shoutouts and social media, thanking them personally, you got to make sure you send them the rewards that you've promised them. It's a lot of work. But I think it's definitely worth it, particularly in the early phase of your career. Like at this point in my career, I would not do a crowdfunding campaign. Because I've done one, it was successful, you can't keep doing that again and again and again, at least in my experience. It's also pretty oversaturated. Now, like when I first started with Kickstarter years ago, 10, 15 years ago, it wasn't as ubiquitous as it is now. Now, there's GoFundMe, and there's like, tons of platforms. So, it's a little less unique. I still think that in smaller amounts of money, it's a good thing to think about. I wouldn't go out and try to raise 50,000 right now through crowdfunding. Grants on the other hand, grant writing is a lot of work. But if you find a foundation, a family foundation, a nonprofit, like a Humanities DC, for example, or there's any number of nonprofits that fund films, and, you know, it's amazing if you write a grant proposal, they're really hard. They ask a lot of you. But the end result is if you get that grant, that's money that you do not have to pay back, right. It's not an investment in your film that you have to pay back. It's money that is free for you to use for the purposes of your film. That
film is accomplishing the purposes of the grant funder. So that's why they want to give you the money because your film connects to their mission. So, I have had a lot of you know, I've gotten denied by Grantmakers plenty of times, not gotten the grant. But I've also many of times gotten the grant. And it's incredible, you're able to go out, you've got the money that you finally need to make the film you want to make, and you're not stressed about like paying back an investor which I think is much more the way that a lot of like fictional films get made. That's typically it's through investment and then there's a lot of pressure to monetize it, to sell it, to get it to theatrical or sell to a streamer and make that money back for your investors. Most of the time with documentary, it's a mission-based film. It's a social impact-based film, that the impact is not always monetary, it's often social impact. And that's why grant writing can be so helpful for a doc that you want to make.
[0:25:18] Grace Ibrahim: And do you have the, like, process, the budget breakdown already to go? Even if, you know, I don't know if I'm gonna get this grant, maybe I do. Is that all ready to go? So that you're like, okay, this amount is going to go to this crew, at travel, all of that. Do you recommend having that ready to go so that it's less stressful process?
[0:23:37] Laura Waters Hinson: Definitely. I mean, any grants gonna ask you for a budget. I mean, any foundation is going to ask for a budget. I mean, if you're asking for a really big grant, sometimes they will ask you to write essentially, like a letter of inquiry. That is a much lighter lift than a full grant proposal. They can filter out a lot of the proposals they know they're not interested in, I always really appreciate when they asked for a letter of inquiry first, because at that point, you just have to have a basic budget. And if you get invited to do a much bigger proposal than you know you're already in a better position with the funder. But a lot of them don't do it that way. A lot of them just make it wide open to anybody. You have to write many pages, you have to submit a full budget, and it is a lot of work.
[0:26:26] Grace Ibrahim: I think we can move on to our last topic, which is street reporter. So I know, at the end, we didn't get the news we wanted ,and I just think that aside, it's just such an amazing accomplishment and congratulations. How did that moment feel?
[0:26:43] Laura Waters Hinson: Well, okay, so for the listeners, Street Reporter is my short documentary that's on the film festival circuit right now. It tells the story of Sheila White, who is a reporter for Street Sense Media, which is a homeless led and run media organization that puts out a weekly newspaper here in DC. Many people have probably seen Street Sense vendors selling the paper. Many of the people who write, and photograph for the paper have experienced homelessness, including Sheila, who's our protagonist. And so, the film tells the story of Sheila's journey out of homelessness, and sort of growing into her own voice as a reporter as a journalist as a photographer. It's a very hopeful story, and we filmed it through COVID. It had lots of iterations, it was actually really hard to edit. And so yeah, we were really surprised by the kind of
reception that the film received on the festival circuit. It was a longer doc, it's 27 minutes, that's actually harder to program at a film festival, because when they're programming shorts, they typically want like 10-minute, 12-minute shorts. So, if you have an over 20-minute film, it's much harder to program. So, we were really delighted that a lot of festivals took it. We got into Palm Springs, we got into Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Austin Film. A lot of great fests. And won some awards. And so, we were pretty pumped when like last month Variety Magazine had this big Oscar prediction that they put out, and they put us on the list. And so, it got us all pumped about it. We ultimately did not make the shortlist. But what it did is that kind of exposure, that recognition, got us so much press attention, and ended up helping us to connect with our distributor, which we've just signed with, which is Network Ireland Television. They're kind of a UK based, you know, shorts distributor. They're fantastic. And so, it's been amazing for the film. It's helped us to get a much wider exposure than we had before.
[0:28:44] Grace Ibrahim: And am I correct in saying when Variety named it as the top five prediction on lists, that it didn't have a distributor at the time?
[0:28:52] Laura Waters Hinson: No, we were kind of in talks at that point. But they, you know, all the kind of press that we were getting. And even though Yeah, I was gonna say even though of the films that they put on the prediction list, we were the only ones at that point who did not have distribution. So, all the rest were like HBO, New Yorker.
[0:29:13] Grace Ibrahim: That is so cool.
[0:29:15] Laura Waters Hinson: How did they even learn about our film? All the others had been on TV, right? They've been on these big kind of platforms. So, we were really, we were delighted.
[0:29:25] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah, that's amazing. Um, but you mentioned you filmed it through COVID. How was that?
[0:29:29] Laura Waters Hinson: It was very hard. I mean, I didn't know what we're gonna do. We were sort of halfway through filming. And we kind of just had to shut down and we were filming with a number of folks from the Street Sense reporting team. And for people experiencing homelessness and COVID, it was very terrifying because they could not socially distance. There's people living in shelters and particular, they're living in a room with like, Sheila was living in a room with like 12 ladies in a bunk room. And so social distancing was very, very difficult. So, she was extremely nervous. Thankfully, she was able to get permanent housing shortly thereafter. But the film really changed as a result of COVID. Her story changed. And we ended up continuing the film because of the way her life began to transform as she received permanent housing, as she went back to college in her late 50s. And so, at first, I thought COVID was going to end the film, essentially. And then now I look at it as a blessing because the story transformed in really
powerful ways that made it what it is. And Sheila survived COVID, thankfully, like she was really nervous about getting it and she came out okay. So, we managed to figure it out. It was really hard, though, it was hard to film. It was scary to film. We had to just shut it down for a while. But looking back at it, we kind of flexed and change the storyline because of it.
[0:30:59] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. I read also somewhere that this kind of started out as like a meta project, but then you knew you had to kind of tell Sheila's story. And what was it about Sheila's story that kind of stood out to you, where you knew it's like, maybe we should put the spotlight here?
[0:31:13] Laura Waters Hinson: Yeah, I mean, we have a whole version of the film that really centers on three different protagonists. And as COVID went on, and I followed up with Sheila, I started to realize that her stakes were probably the highest stakes of anyone in the film. She was a woman living in a shelter during COVID. And yet she was on this journey, talking about this active journey, which any kind of strong subject of your film needs to have that goal. She had the strong goal not just to get permanent housing but to become a photojournalist, to go back to school and she was making progress towards that in a way that my other characters had either already achieved their goals, or they weren't as proactive about their goals. And so all of a sudden, I crystallized all the things that I teach my students about. How to keep your protagonist active, right? I realize Sheila was embodying that and that her story was unfolding in a way that I realized, I think people are going to really resonate with Sheila as this person who's on a journey to overcome her circumstances. And you don't know with documentary how your characters’ lives are going to turn out. But I think we just need to keep filming and just filming with her. And let's see where that story leads. And how does she change as she gets housing? How does she change as she succeeds in her goals? And that ended up I think, making all the difference, because I doubled down on the stuff I know I know about filmmaking, I finally was like, oh, I'm gonna have to cut these things I love. We had wonderful, beautiful scenes with other subjects in the film. But they weren't resonating. When you put it in a film form, they just weren't. The conclusion wasn't one that I thought that an audience would universally resonate with. And it was Sheila. She just ended up being the person who resonated. When we started filming with her, she was incredibly shy. She was incredibly closed. And I didn't think she was going to be the protagonist, right. And then through the relationship building, we filmed for a year and a half. So, we became so tight, and we built trust. And she began to open up and reveal more and let me in more. And that made a big, big difference. And still to this day, like she goes out and she speaks on behalf of the film. She's always on panels. She goes out without me and just she's the person talking about the film. And she's become so like, confident. And so, it's been a really beautiful kind of unfolding. But it started out very rocky. We didn't know what the film was going to be at the beginning.
[0:34:00] Grace Ibrahim: I love that. I love that the episode has kind of come full circle, because you know, it's that two-way street. It's that trust that you have to build with your subjects. And
they also have to build with you as well. That's amazing. Can we close out the podcast by talking a little bit about Community Voice Lab at American University. So, am I correct in saying Street Reporter is under the umbrella of Community Voice Lab? Can you just give us a little background about that in case anybody listening doesn't know what Community Voice Lab does on campus?
[0:34:29] Laura Waters Hinson: Sure. Yeah. So, Community Voice Lab has been around for a number of years. It was originally called the Community Voice Project, but the idea behind the lab is that my heart is to connect our students who are film students and a lot of it is my MFA and MA students with storytellers from the DC community, and to engage in a practice of collaborative co-creation in filmmaking, which means that we are partnering with people in the community to tell their story. Rather than coming in parachuting in and extracting a story and coming back and never having a relationship with that community. Again, there's a lot of negative things that have happened as a result of that type of extractive filmmaking. The heart behind Community Voice Lab is to give people tools to build those relationships. And to integrate the storytellers that we're connecting with into the process of the filmmaking, and to give them a voice in the storytelling itself to give them a voice and the edit, and to ultimately make the final product, whatever film comes about, make it something that they can also use for their purposes. So, it's not a promo video, we're not in the business of creating promo videos for nonprofits, for example. But what we are doing is trying to move towards more ethical practices of documentary filmmaking. So, the lab, one of the main center points of the lab, is a course that I teach called Community Documentary. And I'm teaching it this semester. It's one of my favorite things to teach. And the students first make a film about their own lives. So, they have to put themselves in the hot seat. And we talk about like, the vulnerability of interrogating your own life, a story from your own life. Then we partner students with a community partner. So, Street Sense Media would be one. We've worked with Latin American Youth Center, Career Academy, we've worked with different charter schools, we've worked with just different nonprofits across DC. And they partner with a storyteller who wants to tell a story from their life. And they engage in this kind of co-creative, collaborative filmmaking endeavor. And there's ups and downs. Sometimes it works better in certain contexts than others. But it's a really meaningful experience for the students and also for the storytellers. And we do a big, like, at the end of the semester, we do a big premiere, where we do it in the theater, and we have the community partners come and talk about that experience. And then they use the films themselves. These are films that need to follow the standards of, of cinematic technique. And they're learning also how to tell a story in an effective way, not just as an overview, not just wallpapering B-roll, voiceover right, trying to find scenes that they can follow in this storyteller’s life. So, I also put some of my own work under the umbrella of Community Voice Lab. So, Street Reporter is sort of born out of that approach to filmmaking. And a lot of the grad students that work with me as my teaching assistants, or as fellows in the lab, have worked with, I've probably had eight or 10 grad students for the past couple of years, work with me on my personal work as well. And then the third way that the lab operates is that we, so if there are MFA or MA students doing their thesis film that is a community-based film, they'll work with me as an
advisor, and under the kind of auspices of the lab, to put together their film, to build that partnership. And it's a lot of just mentoring and advising that goes on as a result.
[0:38:13] Grace Ibrahim: Amazing. My one regret is I didn't do my third year so that I could do my thesis film.
[0:38:19] Laura Waters Hinson: You want to come back?
[0:38:20] Grace Ibrahim: I'm really considering it.
[0:38:23] Laura Waters Hinson: You should, please!
[0:38:24] Grace Ibrahim: I don't know I really, it's been a thought in my head.
[0:38:27] Laura Waters Hinson: I love Capstone. I mean, so other thing is I teach Community Documentary, and then I teach capstone for our MA and MFA students. And I teach that year-round summer, spring fall. And I love that process of like working over a long period of time with our grad students to produce what should be their best work at the end of their master's program. I love it.
[0:38:51] Grace Ibrahim: So many ideas for that. Maybe just off the record, AU benefits like, you know. But anyways, this is so great. Is there anything that we haven't covered that you want to cover?
[0:39:07] Laura Waters Hinson: I think I'll just say that, like if folks are interested in learning more about Street Reporter, they can go to Streetreporterfilm.com. And we're allowing nonprofits to show the film for free in their communities or their schools or whatever. We really want it to go out and be used to start conversations around housing and homelessness and housing affordability. Community Voice Lab also has a site on AUs site. So, if you just Google Community Voice Lab, you can learn more. I'm happy to talk to students if they're interested in, you know, coming into the program as a Master Student. Undergraduate students are also totally welcome to take the Community Documentary Class. I love having undergrads. It's typically juniors or seniors. And so, I also want to put a plug in for people to take that course. It's an elective for undergrads, but it's such a rich experience. And so, I want to plug the course as well.
[0:40:05] Grace Ibrahim: Absolutely. And all of the things that Laura just mentioned, I'll include all the links in the descriptions of this episode, so everyone can get to those easily as well. And I think that's it. Thank you, Laura, for joining us on the podcast. Today was such a pleasure.
[0:40:19] Laura Waters Hinson: Thank you for having me.
[0:40:20] Grace Ibrahim: Of course, anytime. And for anyone listening, check out our bi-weekly episodes. They drop on Wednesdays on Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your podcast. Click that subscribe button and if you'd like to support this podcast and the School of Communication, go to giving.american.edu to donate now. And that's a wrap. Awesome!
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Meet the Founder of Anacostia Youth Media Festival ft. Brigid Maher
Brigid Maher is a tenured associate professor in the School of Communication at American University, a Senior Fellow of the Community Voice Lab at American University, and an award-winning filmmaker focusing on women, from women’s issues in the Middle East to women’s health and beyond. Maher’s latest film is Experimental Curator: The Sally Dixon Story, about a little-known pioneer in the male-dominated art world who transformed experimental cinema by helping film artists make it and the public see and understand it. The film has won numerous awards and is currently screening on the festival circuit.
Maher is also the founder and Creative Director of the first-ever Anacostia Youth Media Festival, a groundbreaking initiative producing an arts education event led by youth in historically disadvantaged wards of Washington, DC, while also involving our AUSOC students, faculty and staff!
See how you can get involved by visiting the AYMF website HERE!
[0:00:01] Grace Ibrahim: Hey, welcome back to Media in the Mix. Today I'm joined by Brigid Maher, and today we're going to be talking about everything Anacostia Youth Film Festival, a little bit about Brigid. So, can you just give us a little bit of an intro into how you got to AU and what you do now at AUSOC, which is the American University School of Communication?
[00:00:20] Brigid Maher: Sure. Thank you so much for having me.
[00:00:22] Grace Ibrahim: Absolutely.
[00:00:23] Brigid Maher: I'm a professor in the Film and Media Arts Division and the School of Communication at American University and I joined AU from Columbia College Chicago as a professor in 2004. So, I have been here for 18 years.
[00:00:37] Grace Ibrahim: That is a long time. That's awesome. And have you always been a professor here? Have you, you know, dipped your toe in a lot of different things in AUSOC?
[00:00:45] Brigid Maher: So, I've always been a full-time professor here. You know, the remarkable thing about being a professor is that you have the ability to teach various subjects within a specific area. And there's always different opportunities to do various research. So, in my time here, I've done anything from co-director of the Center for Media and Social Impact to being Interim Director for Community Voice Lab, division director for Film and Media Arts. So, it's really varied. I'm super excited. Next semester, I'll be teaching a class on Aristotle and Film so that's cool. Really a lot of remarkable opportunities at AU.
[00:01:25] Grace Ibrahim: Can you just give a little sneak peek into what that'll be? Sneak peek on Aristotle? Aristotle in Film.
[00:01:27] Brigid Maher: It is actually part of a new class called A Good Life using Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. And so, I'm going to look at how Aristotle defines a good life. And you know, juxtapose it with the current challenges that we have in the United States and internationally, and also explore through the genre of storytelling and film.
[00:01:57] Grace Ibrahim: Well, that’s very cool. All right. So, you heard it here first. That's awesome. I want to get right into the Anacostia Youth Media Festival and what you're doing with that, how is AUSOC getting involved in making it happen? And what can people look forward to with that?
[00:02:13] Brigid Maher: So we're thrilled to be creating the Anacostia Youth Media Festival which will take place in downtown Anacostia, May 19 and 20th. This is really significant because as of July 2022, Mayor Bowser issued the dictate that the Anacostia neighborhood will be the arts
and cultural district for Washington. And what is exciting about that is that there's going to be infrastructure and opportunities around the arts specifically in that neighborhood. Now, I became very interested in founding a Youth Media Festival in Anacostia after I spent the last year volunteering and working with youth at Kramer Middle School, and at the neighborhood of Anacostia. And I really wanted to expand the reach of having our students in School of Communication, and specifically the Film and Media Arts division, work with youth in ward seven and eight that are traditionally disenfranchised through systemic discrimination. Through the work of Professor Natalie Hopkinson, we know that the arts funding for ward seven and eight is significantly less than the other wards and that's been proven historically. So it's really important that youth have an opportunity to express themselves artistically which is why we have it as a Media Festival where students can submit anything from photographs to games, digital games, to short film and videos, whether they're fiction documentary, as well as podcasts.
[00:04:02] Grace Ibrahim: That's so cool. Okay, that's fun. So they get to like create their own podcast and submit an episode or they submit the whole podcast?
[00:04:09] Brigid Maher: Absolutely. If you are under 18, you could submit this podcast.
[00:04:12] Grace Ibrahim: I wish. I miss those days. That's awesome. Very cool. Who are some other key partners not related to SOC that you're working with that are also helping and making this happen? Is it a collaborative effort?
[00:04:26] Brigid Maher: It's a very collaborative effort. I've lived in Washington DC for 18 years and much of it was in the neighborhood of Brookland in the Northeast. However, two years ago, kind of post COVID, I moved to Southeast DC and I live in a neighborhood that's actually on the border of Maryland and DC called Fort Davis. But I really wanted to get to know my area because I didn't want to be perceived as somebody who was gentrifying or somebody who was just coming in and not part of the neighborhood itself. So I felt that the best way that I could engage would be to share in my profession, sharing my skill set. So I knew Principal Shelby from Kramer Middle School from her work as an assistant principal at Balou, a few years ago. So when I moved, I contacted her and I said, you know, what? Would you be open to having me build out the media infrastructure for your students, because I had a real concern about building up parity for youth, especially post COVID, because we heard a lot of stories about how families were really challenged. I know, personally, my family had a lot of challenges with education during COVID. I have two children with disabilities and, you know, trying to balance work, and at the same time, educating them from home was really difficult. And I'm a University professor, I am the definition of privilege. So in thinking about the community that I live in, I thought, you know, if there is such inequality in terms of access to technology, what was it like for the youth in my community to study online for those two years? What are those implications? What is it going to be like for them
to transition back? After two years being online? And so I felt really a calling to see if I could in some way, help this next generation.
[00:04:32] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. And I guess a good follow up question to that, especially with some public schools here in DC, what are some resources that you feel public schools are missing, and maybe that can aid in kind of expanding their creativity?
[00:06:50] Brigid Maher: So I can only really speak as a volunteer observer as a parent who has a child in DCPS. And, you know, like, in so many situations, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, right? So if you're looking at a school, like Jackson Reed, you know, they have parents who come from higher income and have more access to opportunities. And so therefore, they have far more resources. But then you look at a middle school such as Kramer, where the parents don't have the same form of economic privilege, they very much, you know, are struggling to provide for their families, they're not going to be able to advocate on the same level as somebody who income wise makes three times, four times the amount that they do. And so I really believe strongly that as a community member then, I want to work in ally ship with those schools. Now, I kind of provide a roundabout context to answering your question, because the fact of the matter is that when parents are busy making a living, and they don't have the space to advocate for their children and advocate for resources, then the schools suffer, and they don't have as much. And it's just obvious. And I think what's really critical is this experience as an educator and as a professor, to take my students from American University, and have them go and volunteer and work with the youth. And it has several, I think, critical outcomes. First off, you know, we are storytellers, and we want to teach our students to be storytellers, they have to have vast exposure to the human experience, they have to recognize that some people have more, some people have less. And also we tend to, at American University, maybe be a little bit siloed on this side of the city. When, you know, if you go across the Anacostia River, that's almost a third of Washington, DC, that many students never ever get exposed to. So I think it's really critical that we still take our students across the river, they work with the youth. When you are able to teach what you know, it really amplifies and solidifies your knowledge. And also, it gives you an exposure to people that you wouldn't ordinarily come across in Tenleytown. For instance, I think it's critical in a University that's dedicated towards public service and making an impact, that we make an impact and we support our communities locally. And that means, you know, creating infrastructures where our students can then teach middle school students and work in collaboration with a professor that can explain you know, certain contexts and situations to both the middle schoolers but then also the college students as well. So it was really that collaboration going into Kramer Middle School, working with a number of graduate students and undergrads. We did a summer camp last summer, which had undergraduate AU film students and graduate AU film students working with middle schoolers. And we also had AU alum come in, and we shot a professional music video.
[00:08:29] Grace Ibrahim: Oh, that's fun.
[00:10:18] Brigid Maher: And I think it was such a great experience for the youth to actually see that this is possible, and see what it takes. But I think it was an equal, if not more of an education for our American University students because I think the inequity and the systemic inequity was really shocking. You know, we have all this equipment, and yet, the elevator isn't working, right? Why is the elevator not working? Well, you have to put in a request to the DC government. Well, how are those requests made? Who gets service first? So it's a lot of questions that I think students start to explore that can promote their own sense of what they want to achieve and the story that they want to tell. Now you ask the question, who's involved as part of this Youth Media Festival in the community, and I have really made a point of listening. And I think that anytime you take on a new position and leadership, or you take on a new program, you really should spend the first six months to a year just learning about the environment that you're in, right. And so I really just listened. I had the opportunity last year to come in and work with a co-teacher while working with the kids getting to know what their stories were, what their challenges were, what brought them hope and that was such an enriching opportunity. So I really was working with Kramer Middle School and the incredible teachers and staff that work there. I also had the opportunity to get to know Ron Moulton, who is the founder of the DC Gogo Museum and Cafe and Don't Mute DC along with Professor Natalie Hopkinson. I've been working with our new Director of Youth Outreach Lalainya Abner, who has been really, really instrumental in introducing me to a number of different people who are really on the ground, right? Because, you know, it's easy for us to make snap judgments if we see that something is inequitable, but you really have to kind of be in the presence and talk to a lot of different people to start to understand, well, what are the conditions that have created this systemic inequity for youth in that particular area? And how can we be of assistance in supporting the community that's there?
[00:12:44] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah. How can we give back really? And you kind of answered this a little bit. But if you can expand on any thing, feel free to. But basically, how has including the students, and I know some staff members, we have PhD students, we have students from really just all walks of education, which is awesome. But how do you think it has aided in their experiential learning, combining their educational experience here at AU with real world experiences?
[00:13:16] Brigid Maher: Well, I think that film itself lends itself to project based learning or experiential learning. And I think it's also really important that because film students are going to be working in the professional world with a wide variety of people and telling a wide variety of stories, we need to know how to be on the ground. And again, listen, and be present and be active, and working with diverse communities. And so I think by providing the opportunity for them to, you know, go in and teach workshops as part of the Anacostia Youth Media Festival, mentor students there, they'll gain a better understanding of what role they want to take on as storytellers when they graduate and the type of work that they want to do understanding that media really is
and film really is the 21st century art form and way in which we communicate. You know, we look at all the Tik Tok videos and all the social media. And so how do you want to go with it? Because one of the challenges that happens in today's society is that, you know, youth are on Instagram, and if somebody unfriends you, that automatically implies they're not your friend in real life. You know, or if you have an argument on social media, sometimes the youth take it to the street. So we know that media can have impact for good or bad depending on I always say, depending on how it's wielded, and having this experience of working with youth that may have similar, may have different backgrounds, will really help students have a better understanding of how they want to use media to create a social impact. And what stories they want to tell.
[00:15:08] Grace Ibrahim: That's awesome. And kind of a follow up to that. So I noticed you mentioned two things, which was the mentorship program and kind of workshops that you may do. And I know one that stood out to our office, honestly, was the game design workshop, because we don't really talk a lot about game design. So can you kind of elaborate a little bit on that, so everyone can just get a sense of, of kind of what happens in these workshops?
[00:15:27] Brigid Maher: Absolutely. So I have the privilege of being able to teach in the game program, as well as a film and video program. I originated with an interest in fiction filmmaking, when I went to film school at Northwestern for my MFA, but it was in the mid 90s, when we were really shifting technology that had been really prohibitively expensive, to more consumer brand computers, etc, such as, you know, interactive narratives, and, you know, even CD ROM authoring, everything like that. So I was exposed to interactive narratives fairly early on. What is exciting about this is that the fact of the matter is, and the game faculty will tell you, games actually market wise, as well as viewers or users or players, is a much larger industry than motion pictures. Us motion pictures professors don't necessarily always talk about this but the game professors often remind us. But that's the case. And so the fact of the matter is that kids these days, you know, they watch short format content. They don't necessarily watch television shows or movies. Definitely the Alpha generation is the Tik Tok, YouTube generation. And what they do, how they do interact with media is through games, whether it's through you know, mobile gaming, or utilizing, you know, for the more kind of hardcore the PC gamer or console gamers, this really is where it's like we are that the 21st century language is a visual language of filmmaking, definitely the way in which we interact with the world is through games. I think what's remarkable about the Film Media Arts Division, is that we are very interdisciplinary by nature, because we're always telling stories about something. It's not just the camera, the camera is used as an instrument. Vertov called the keynoe eye, the film, the eye of the camera. And so as part of that, exploring games and game development, is a natural exploration and evolution of linear storytelling. And because we have such a fabulous Game Center, and I have the opportunity teach in the games program, it made sense that we should offer, you know, as part of our workshops, on May 20, for the Youth Media Festival, an intro to gaming and so as a way of recruiting students to get excited about the Youth Media Festival, and also for students who want to submit but may not have the skill sets,
we've been offering workshops. So we've been offering smartphone filmmaking workshops and intro to gaming workshops. We did an intro to game workshop, in person, but also online. And I will say hands down, that's by far the most popular workshop, and we're also holding another workshop for the festival itself on the 20th.
[00:18:28] Grace Ibrahim: That doesn't surprise me though. We're kind of starting to just work with the world that the new generation lives in. And it's a very short attention span, and you kinda have to get the important information out, you know. I could definitely see how visually media is definitely changing. And even games, I noticed that there's a lot more immersive options now. And it's kind of mixing that world of like real and immersive and people can get involved. So it's a real interesting time for game design.
[00:18:56] Brigid Maher: I think it's exciting because you have the challenge of game mechanics versus the narrative. And it's not so much that they're in opposition with one another. But you have to, you know, make the how to of how the game works in the rules and everything like that. Support the narrative, support the storytelling. And so it's very much related to storytelling, but then also, in a way takes away the control that the storyteller has, because you put it in the hands of the player. And that's pretty exciting. And that's in line with, I think, what a lot of youth are used to, especially when you think of the two years that they spent online. They're inherently doing interactive work through the computer. And so you know, this is just another evolution of that. I would say that youth definitely got exposed to media in a way that was very concentrated and during COVID and so it's going to be interesting to see what the outcomes could be of all that exposure in 5, 10, 15 years. We know from the industry perspective, that there is a focus on much shorter content, shorter narratives for sure. And that there's a loosening of what streaming means and how the youth get access to their media.
[00:20:19] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah. And distribution now is like, there's so many avenues versus what was kind of your traditional distribution path back in the day, you know, there's a lot more that you can get involved in nowadays.
[00:20:31] Brigid Maher: Yeah, absolutely. And at the same time, I think if you look at the independent film world, which was a discussion for another podcast, it's also very troubling, because it's difficult now. We had a moment where there's a lessening of gatekeepers, when people began to cut the cord and now we see the increase of gatekeepers. And so I think that also is why it's so critical for students to get early exposure to media literacy and hands on experience and understand hands on experience with filmmaking equipment, but then also understanding the impact that it can have. And how messages can be deeply influential. I mean, if we just look at the January 6 riots, that's an example right there of how narratives can be spun into an insurrection. And, you know, these things are playing out in much smaller, but just as impactful ways with, you know, youth using social media to extend bullying that happens in the classroom. So I think that,
you know, having the opportunity for youth to express themselves through media, and then be able to make it a public act and a public celebration, is really critical. Because I think that we know post COVID that we're all perfectly happy watching film from the comfort of our home, whether it's in bed or in the living room, or whatnot. But we have to rethink then what's the significance of having a public screening? And I think it's for discussion. And it's for creating connection because that connection is something that we really lost during COVID. And when I was working with the Youth of Kramer Middle School, who really inspired me to do more and really inspired me to want to do a Youth Media Festival in conjunction with the youth where I'm just there to like, provide the skill set, but they're driving it, it made it really, again, a calling for me to support the students, the youth to tell their own stories as a way of helping them process what has been happening in this world the last few years. Storytellings around trauma, you go on, you know, I don't want to sound like an old lady at this point. But we are really at a precipice right now in terms of questioning who we are as communities. Because we're so divisive. People were feeling really disenfranchised and not heard. So I think that having festivals and having gatherings are more critical than ever in order to create a sense of connection. And so I really hope that an outgrowth of this festival is that youth who have never heard of Anacostia or perhaps have never driven through Anacostia, are exposed to this rich and beautiful, historical neighborhood. They get to celebrate with other youth that may come from different backgrounds, but share this common language, and that they can learn from one another. And even furthermore, I think it's important to have intergenerational learning. And so whether that is learning from a college student who's five years older or grad student who's 10 years older or a professor who's 30 years older, being able to be exposed to different people's stories and different experiences is only going to help them grow and also see what is possible. Yeah. And the learning happens on both sides of it, too, which is very cool. I think there's always room to grow and to learn no matter if you're teaching or learning in the moment. So that's very cool. I feel like it aids everybody. I always feel that as a professor I'm always learning more than my students. I mean, that's the real privilege to have. My position is that I'm constantly in the position of learning.
[00:24:32] Grace Ibrahim: That's awesome. Brigid, thank you so much for joining us today. Can you just let everyone know where to go if they want to learn more about the Anacostia Youth Media Festival?
[00:24:41] Brigid Maher: Yes, they can just go to Anacostiayouthmedia.org.
[00:24:45] Grace Ibrahim: Okay, and we'll include any important links you'd like us to include in the description as well.
[00:24:49] Brigid Maher: Thank you so much. It's great. I'm grateful to be here.
[00:24:52] Grace Ibrahim: Thank you so much. And if you'd like to check out this episode and other episodes of Media in the Mix, go to Apple podcast, Google podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We are now video podcasts on Spotify so that's very exciting. And if you'd like to donate to SOC go to giving.american.edu And that's a wrap.
Democracy with Dean Sam Fulwood III
On this BONUS episode of Media in the Mix, host Grace Ibrahim is joined by none other than Dean Sam Fulwood III!
Sam Fulwood III is dean of American University’s School of Communication and also a prominent journalist, public policy analyst and author, whose work addresses key issues of media influences on American life. He has written and lectured extensively across the United States and internationally on U.S. race relations, data-driven journalism, and the intersections of media, technology and democracy.
Earlier in his career, Fulwood was a metro columnist at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, the last stop in a nearly three-decade journalism career that featured posts at several metropolitan newspapers. During the 1990s, he was a national correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Los Angeles Times, where he contributed to the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
He has also worked as a business editor and state political editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution; as an assistant city editor, business reporter, editorial writer, and Johannesburg, South Africa, bureau correspondent for the Baltimore Sun; and as a police, business, and sports reporter at The Charlotte Observer. Fulwood earned a Bachelor's in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Grace Ibrahim: Welcome to Media in the Mix, the only podcast produced and hosted by the School of Communication at American University. Join us as we create a safe space to explore topics and communication at the intersection of social justice, tech, innovation, and pop culture.
[00:00:01] Grace Ibrahim:Welcome, Dean Fulwood to a bonus episode of Media in the Mix. Thank you so much for being here. I'm really excited to talk to you about SOC, our students, media, what they're up to, and the changes that we'd like to see this year. [00:00:12]
[00:00:13] Grace Ibrahim: So first off, How's your year been going? Anything you're excited about in 2023? [00:00:17]
[00:00:18] Dean Fulwood: Grace, I am excited. I'm happy to be here with you in the Media in the Mix. This is a wonderful product. And I'm so grateful for your work on this. So thank you for doing it. [00:00:26]
[00:00:27] Grace Ibrahim: Thank you, I appreciate you. It's been very fun. We've had a chance to talk about a lot of different things, a lot of different issues, and topics. Last episode, we had our first student episode, which was great and got a chance to hear from our students themselves. Can you just give us a little background on yourself and kind of how you got to this position of Dean of SOC for someone that may not know or, or may not heard. [00:00:48]
[00:00:49] Dean Fulwood: I sort of would credit the year 2020 and all of the things that were going on in our society as putting sort of the bee in my bonnet for wanting to be getting at SOC. Prior to 2020, I had worked for about 30 years as a newspaper journalist at a number of newspapers, probably most notably the Los Angeles Times, Washington bureau here in Washington, and the newspaper industry was changing. [00:01:22]
[00:01:23] Dean Fulwood: I sort of left the newspaper industry and worked for a decade. In a think tank, the Center for American Progress, where I studied the intersection of media, popular culture, and public policy and that work sort of was a perfect transition from practical journalism, to the academy. [00:01:46]
[00:01:47] Dean Fulwood: So in 2020, it was George Floyd. It was a global pandemic. And it was what I perceived to be a threat to our democracy, right in our own government. And I thought, wow, I've written about the government, I studied it in a think tank. How can I put that into the employ of helping the next generation? [00:02:11]
[00:02:12] Dean Fulwood: And it was at that point, that I was reached out by the university saying, Hey, would you consider being the dean of SOC. And it is just sort of perfect convergence. It's almost like that vanishing point where everything is lined up, just to be for the perfect person. [00:02:27]
[00:02:28] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. So journalism and democracy hold a real personal. [00:02:31]
[00:02:32] Dean Fulwood: Absolutely, I became a journalist. I sort of consider myself a part of the Watergate baby boom. So I went into the newsroom, as a college student, having studied for years, all about Woodward and Bernstein in the Washington Post, and Watergate and Richard Nixon. I really believed that journalists played a role in helping the public understand at that time of crisis to our democracy. And I've been inspired by journalists from that point on, to want to do this kind of work. [00:03:09]
[00:03:10] Grace Ibrahim: Let's dive right into it. So I want to ask you first, What does democracy mean to you? Do you feel that? [00:03:16]
[00:03:17] Dean Fulwood: That's really important to me. Democracy is what our country is, it's foundational to our country. The forefathers, when they were creating independence from England, they enshrined in the Constitution, First Amendment protections, because they understood that the public is a part of the democracy, the public has to be informed in order to be able to be self governing. [00:03:51]
[00:03:52] Dean Fulwood: That's really the role that journalists play in our democracy. They are keeping the population informed so they can make decisions that work for the good of the society. Democracy is just really foundational to everything that we want to do. Part of the overarching theme of what I want to see us do in SOC, just to give students two things, two things in particular. [00:04:17]
[00:04:18] Dean Fulwood: One is that they have experience that they'll be able to over the four years that they're here, be able to take those experiences directly from the classroom into the workplace. That's really important. That's critical. Because let's face it, a college education is very expensive. And you have to be able to show a return on that investment. And that return is the work that they'll be able to do when they get out of school. [00:04:47]
[00:04:48] Dean Fulwood: The second thing that I think is important is to be able to go out and get a job, but for What? What's the point? If you're not working for the good of our society for the good of humanity, making a lot of money isn't very good. And that's where the democracy piece comes into it. I think it's just essential that students have an understanding that they're working for the common good to be able to protect our democracy. And that's really the role of journalism in our society. [00:05:19]
[00:05:20] Grace Ibrahim: So before we get into our students and kind of what they do at SOC. Do you think that media, and especially media today, since we know that the world of media and digital media has grown tremendously in terms of the resources that we have? But do you think that that can influence and support democracy? And can it even endanger democracy in a way? [00:05:40]
[00:05:41] Dean Fulwood: In a word? Yes, I think our society today is really being driven in large part by technological advances. They're happening so fast, sometimes it's hard for people to keep up with them. If you go back and look at it, sort of, in a historical perspective, technology has always driven the way in which Americans or humans see the world. [00:06:11]
[00:06:12] Dean Fulwood: Fire was a technology. The automobile was a technology that transformed America. The telephone, and in our lifetime the communications that people can hold in your hand with a phone and to be able to use computers, and to be able to communicate with each other at lightning speed. So fast. And that creates an opportunity for greater democracy. [00:06:43]
[00:06:44] Dean Fulwood: That is the greater ability of the average person to be able to be a player in our society. But it also creates a problem in terms of misinformation, and deceit and distrust, because you have so much information. People don't know how to filter that. [00:07:02]
[00:07:03] Dean Fulwood: It's almost dickinsonian. And it's the best of times, and it's the worst of times, what I'm hoping for our students is that they'll be able to learn enough about how all of these systems work, so that they can discern what is good, what is bad, and then carry that forward in their work. [00:07:22]
[00:07:23] Grace Ibrahim: We see so much misinformation nowadays, as a journalist yourself, How do you feel that we can combat misinformation? [00:07:29]
[00:07:30] Dean Fulwood: The only way you can combat misinformation is with good information, and to be a critical consumer of news and information. And to understand that there is a purpose that everybody puts out for the information, so that not just accepting the information. It's being able to understand Why did that person say that? Why was that written? What would be the real message that they were trying to impart? [00:07:58]
[00:07:59] Dean Fulwood: It takes work. It's hard. But I think to be an informed citizen, you have to understand the subtext to all of the messaging, as well as just a message. You can't be a passive consumer. Because then you can be taken advantage of and that's just not healthy for our democracy. [00:08:20]
[00:08:21] Grace Ibrahim: So How do you feel with the classes we offer? With the experiential learning programs? How do you feel our SOC students take what they learn, and then apply it to democracy? [00:08:32]
[00:08:33] Dean Fulwood: The whole notion of being well educated, is having almost a cafeteria of options for learning. I think we have that in SOC. Fundamental to that almost every class has some opportunity for students to get out of the classroom, to go up on Capitol Hill or go to the White House, or go to work in an agency or to work in a homeless shelter, where they can put what they're learning in the classroom into real practice. [00:09:07]
[00:09:08] Dean Fulwood: That is the strength of what we do in an SOC. I'm told somewhere on the order of about 95% of our students have internships. That's amazing. That gives them the experience so that when they leave here, they can tell an employer, I know how to do something, and an employer will be able to recognize that. I almost get calls every day from somebody wanting one of our students to come and work for them. Can't have them until they graduate. But you hear it all the time. [00:09:40]
[00:09:41] Grace Ibrahim: Because they know they're getting prepared. [00:09:41]
[00:09:42] Dean Fulwood: They know that they're getting prepared. That's really important. We are finding ways to create opportunities to even enhance what they're getting in the classroom. Professor Pallavi Kumar has created SOC three which is a business in the school, it is an agency that allows students to be able to do public communications for a client, and to produce a product for that client. And it's going gangbusters, we're getting more and more clients, the students are learning, they're excited about it. That's an example of it. [00:10:22]
[00:10:23] Dean Fulwood: We have opportunities for students to go to the Los Angeles intensive and a New York intensive, where they get to go and meet with industry leaders, alumni who have come through the school and are now working in fields that they want to go in Los Angeles, in the film industry, in New York, in the communications industry. Those are the kinds of things that get students out of the classroom and into the real world. [00:10:49]
[00:10:50] Dean Fulwood: I'm really excited about a project that we're going to be doing this coming fall, where five AU graduate students will go to Bergen, and be a part of the bridge program with the University of Bergen in Norway. And then five of the students there are going to come here. And they're going to do that in concurrent weeks, so that they'll have an opportunity to learn about investigative journalism across the Atlantic. [00:11:21]
[00:11:22] Dean Fulwood: I was in Norway and met with some of the students and the faculty at the University of Bergen, and was completely blown away by the fact that they take investigative journalism very seriously. We think of investigative journalism very seriously here with our investigative journalism workshop. So that's an example of the kinds of things that we do. [00:11:43]
[00:11:44] Dean Fulwood: And then on the more scholarly side, we have Caty Borum sooner from the media for social impact fits perfectly without a notion about democracy, because she is studying and producing real life examples of how you change public perception about social issues, through comedy, through television, through media. Those are the kinds of things that our students are a part of. And it's just so exciting to see all that. [00:12:14]
[00:12:15] Grace Ibrahim: We actually will have Pallavi on the podcast. So stay tuned for that. We should be talking about SOC three. I actually got to film them doing their thing behind the scenes with DC kitchen, which was their last client last semester. And when I tell you, they created a whole PR plan, a whole marketing plan. And it was so impressive. [00:12:31]
[00:12:32] Grace Ibrahim: These students are really applying what they're learning in the classroom out there. And it's very exciting. I also did LA intensive in 2018. So I can vouch for that. [00:12:41]
[00:12:42] Dean Fulwood: You know about that. [00:12:42]
[00:12:42] Grace Ibrahim: Yes, I do. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. And you're right, you get so exposed to a network of people that you wouldn't normally have been exposed to, to be honest. [00:12:53]
[00:12:54] Dean Fulwood: I think a lot of people who don't understand what goes on a college think that it's sort of an old fashioned Paper Chase kind of setting where you're sitting in rows and rows, and there's a musty old professor standing there, shouting at people. That's not what we do. That's an outdated notion of what education is today. Today, students are not exclusively in the classroom. We have classrooms, but they're learning by doing. And that's what they want. And that's what we're delivering for them.[00:13:28]
[00:13:29] Grace Ibrahim: And I noticed a lot more there's more collaboration in the classroom. [00:13:31]
[00:13:32] Dead Fulwood: Collaboration is a keyword. I mean, collaboration goes with democracy, collaboration goes with learning. It's not one way where you know someone who's very learned, and it's just sort of feeding students if that doesn't work anymore. SOC is a school of communication. Journalism is one of four units that we have, while I come from a journalism background, and I'm very proud of what we do with journalism. [00:13:59]
[00:14:00] Dean Fulwood: We do some fantastic things in other areas as well. Filming media arts and public communications, and communication studies are the other academic areas. Then there are centers that I mentioned, the Center for Media Studies, and then the Center for Environmental filmmaking. I mean, those all contribute to giving students options for a career in communications fields. Journalism is close to my heart but there's more to it. [00:14:32]
[00:14:33] Dean Fulwood: The quantity of jobs in journalism, to be perfectly honest, are not as great as they were when I came out of college. So we have to have options for students to be able to find their way with a communications degree. [00:14:47]
[00:14:48] Grace Ibrahim: Actually that’s unique in SOC that we have to do a minor because I feel like that does give you the option of not really being an absolute pigeon holding yourself to one thing. [00:14:56]
[00:14:57] Dean Fulwood: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. [00:14:58]
[00:14:59] Grace Ibrahim: That's great. I want to move on to our kinda last two questions. So I'll ask first, whether you're in a position of leadership or not. How do you feel you can foster things like diversity and inclusion, in a workplace in a classroom? [00:15:13]
[00:15:14] Dean Fulwood: Our society is changing. I mentioned that earlier. And in many ways we are becoming, we already are a multicultural society. I think by just showing up, I represent that on one level. I am an African American man, who has lived through a very interesting period in our nation's history. I think I understand and I personally identify with the needs and the challenges that we have for a multicultural society. [00:15:46]
[00:15:47] Dean Fulwood: One other thing that I think is very true about AU is that there is a recognition of that need that in order for our students to be successful in the real world, beyond just Washington or the United States, but globally, they have to be able to deal and interact with all different kinds of people. [00:16:08]
[00:16:09] Dean Fulwood: And that's a critical piece of our inclusive excellence strategy on the campus and embedded in everything that we do in SOC. I take this extremely seriously. I talk about it endlessly. I'm very aggressive about seeing that we have a more diverse student body, a more diverse faculty, and more diverse staff. And I live that every day. And I really, really push it for everybody that we talk about. [00:16:38]
[00:16:39] Grace Ibrahim: And in terms of being dean, we can end on this note, Dean Fullwood. What's your mission statement for 2023? And What are the things that you'd like to see change? [00:16:49]
[00:16:50] Dean Fulwood: People ask about mission statements. And that's a really difficult and complex thing to talk about. I came on board here in 2021, in the midst of a global pandemic. So for the first 20 months of being dean, I have been primarily focused on making sure that we are safe and healthy. And that our operations are working that that classes have gotten back to, I won't say normal, but functional. We now operate in a hybrid system, which I think is going to be here forever. That's a change. And it requires us to sort of adapt. [00:17:40]
[00:17:41] Dean Fulwood: So in terms of a mission, we've talked about wanting to foster democracy, and wanting to give students an experience that they'll be able to take out. That is our primary mission, those two goals. [00:17:53]
[00:17:54] Dean Fulwood: In 2023, I want us to build on reopening our campus. But more importantly, I want to re-imagine what a campus community would be. I mean, I think we saw some disruption during the COVID years, where everything shut down. It has had some tremendous impact on us students' well-being and health. Thriving is a really important retention of students to keep them engaged here and having our faculty and staff wanting to be here and to create a community of caring and support for all of us. [00:18:38]
[00:18:39] Dean Fulwood: Those are things that I think are the big challenges that we have in 2023. And going beyond money. I want to see us raise money. We have a capital campaign. We're doing very well at it at this point. But we've got another year and a half to go. And I think that's a critical need. [00:18:59]
[00:19:00] Dean Fulwood: Our faculty needs support. Many of our students need support. So, we need to find supporters, donors, contributors, to help us do all of those things that we were talking about the LA intensive, the New York intensive, SOC three, all of those things, take money. And so I'm very intent on identifying supporters, trying to find new supporters telling our story. [00:19:30]
[00:19:31] Dean Fulwood: And I think finally that maybe I'll end there when I took this job. I knew that AU and SOC was great. I don't think other people knew how great we are. And I think that's the job I think the Dean has, that's the mission one. Being able to get people to know what we're doing to tell our story in a way that 's compelling, and to bring other people on board. [00:20:02]
[00:20:03] Dean Fulwood: Some of those people are inside the school, but a lot of them are outside the school. And we want to sort of create this community where people say, Wow, I want to be a part of that. [00:20:12]
[00:20:13] Grace Ibrahim: I think you're doing a great job.[00:20:13]
[00:20:14] Dean Fulwood: Well, I appreciate that grace, I think you're doing a great job. [00:20:15]
[00:20:16] Grace Ibrahim: Thank you. I appreciate it. Yeah, I've only been here for six months. But I am an AU SOC alum, both undergrad and grad. So it's very interesting to be on the other side of things, and finally be able to give back. So it's very exciting. [00:20:29]
[00:20:30] Dean Fulwood: We appreciate that. [00:20:30]
[00:20:31] Grace Ibrahim: Thank you and thank you for joining me today to talk all about democracy, journalism, what else SOC has to offer, not just journalism, but it's very cool. I actually came growing up with a monarchy. So learning about democracy is another angle that I've been very invested in. [00:20:44]
[00:20:45] Grace Ibrahim: And now that I'm living here in the US, it's a complete 180. So it's very interesting. Thank you so much for joining us on Media in the Mix. We look forward to having you on another episode. [00:20:54]
[00:20:55] Dean Fulwood: Thank you. [00:20:55]
[00:20:56] Grace Ibrahim: Of course. Everyone have a good one. Thanks. Thank you. That was great. Good that we touched on that or anything we didn't touch on rather than you know. [00:21:07]
[00:21:08] Dean Fulwood: I think we've covered the landscape. [00:21:09]
[00:21:10] Grace Ibrahim: Beautiful. Yeah. That should be a nice little bonus episode, and we'll make sure to send it to you. [00:21:13]
[00:21:14] Dean Fulwood: I can't wait to see what you're doing. [00:21:15]
[00:21:16] Grace Ibrahim: Yeah. Awesome. If you'd like to check out our bi-weekly episodes dropping on Wednesdays on Anchor, Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever you listen to your podcast. Go give us a listen. Click that subscribe button. And if you'd like to support this podcast and the School of Communication, go to giving.american.edu to donate now. And that's a wrap.
AU SOC's Media in the Mix podcast speaks with faculty director and professor Pallavi Kumar and its creative strategist Isis Amusa, a fourth-year student at American University.