Video: instrument of systemic change
Nearly 30 years ago as documentary filmmakers, we were asked by Nobel Peace Prize winner and author Elie Wiesel to develop a program on the anatomy of Hate. We were beyond thrilled that Bill Moyers, and Public Affairs Television, agreed to co-produce what became a multi-part primetime series on Public Television. As we raced to finish editing the program, Rodney King was brutally beaten by police in Los Angeles. The video of his assault made news around the world. We immediately interrupted our work to edit in a piece of that iconic video just before the airing of Beyond Hate, the first broadcast of the series.
Video. Evidence-based documentation. It mattered then, and it matters now.
As we have all remained glued to our televisions night after night, two things have become clear to us: Video remains our view to the world, an indisputable fact captured for eternity. And voting – that most inalienable of American rights – is critical to effect change.
President Barack Obama, a community organizer in his previous life, stated of the protests: “There is a change in mindset that’s taking place. A greater recognition that we can do better. And that is not a consequence of speeches by politicians… That’s a direct result of the activities and organizing and mobilization and engagement of so many young people.”
We started the Civic Life Project in 2010 to do exactly what President Obama has advocated: To empower youth, specifically those young citizens under the age of 25, to become actively engaged in their local communities and change “systems” from the way they are to the way they want them to be.
The Civic Life Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization whose mission is to use the power of digital storytelling to empower the civic voice of young adults and engage them in local and national events. Through public and private grants, we provide students with the skills and resources to develop videos and social media posts that address issues of greatest importance to them.
Here’s what we’ve learned over the past 10 years:
Listen, really listen. Young people want to be heard. We have been astounded by the projects that have interested our participants. Among them: an examination of how racism went unseen in a Midwest college town, an exploration of transgender youth rights, mental health disparities in our prison system, the interaction between dairy farming and groundwater quality. The videos developed by our participants have been profoundly moving and have raised community awareness of complex, complicated issues.
Visual storytelling is a powerful communications tool. We have gone into schools nationwide to provide video equipment; to teach students how to develop an interview format; how to interview expert subjects, ensuring a balance on all sides of an issue; how to maximize its distribution for greatest impact. Even a simple smart phone can empower kids. Students in underserved communities have shared with us that their productive engagement in expressing their point of view has helped to “keep them out of trouble.”
Passion, energy, skills, and positively channeled action can have a profound impact. In the town of Stamford, Connecticut, students set out to determine why there was a breakdown in trust between youth and local police. In the process of interviewing, police developed a greater awareness of how hard it is to be a kid in America these days, especially a child of color. And students learned the challenges that their police face and how most – but not all – were motivated to serve their communities well. As perceptions change, behavior changes.
This year, the Civic Life Project has launched the Democracy 2020 Youth Film Challenge, a national film competition in which students produce short videos about issues that affect their lives and communities. The goal is to create a groundswell grassroots movement to engage young Americans in our democracy – and to drive them to register and vote, and have a voice in choosing our elected leaders. The Challenge is open to anyone 25 and under. We’ll provide the equipment, resources and skills. Young filmmakers provide the vision. A panel of nationally known filmmakers, journalists and educators will judge the submissions, and we will offer cash prizes as a reward. The best reward, however, is a lifetime’s worth of communications skills and the ability to effectively create a narrative of your own experiences. Visit us at www.civiclifeproject.org. If you are an educator, ask us how to bring our Civic Life Project to your school. If you are a young adult, join us, channel your energy, exercise your rights, vote. And if you can possibly contribute to our crowdfunding campaign, you can do so at www.northwestcornergives.org/campaigns/civic-life-project/
Together, we can indeed make a difference.
Catherine Tatge and Dominique Lasseur, co-founders of The Civic Life Project, are internationally recognized, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmakers.