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Production

Video as Activism with Black Public Media

Media and activism are irrevocably intertwined. We discuss how film, video, and social media can be used to enact real change in our world and society.

February 8, 2021

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Our guests Leslie Fields-Cruz, Denise Greene, and Sophia Clark understand the power that video content has to change the hearts and minds of our society. With their recent work on a digital campaign to educate and engage the Black community in the 2020 election, they have harnessed the power of media for social good. 

The following interview is an excerpt from our video series, Production - In Conversation. To watch the full interview and see more video content, click here. Or you can listen to the SHIFT In Conversation podcast here.

 

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Leslie Fields-Cruz - Executive Director - Black Public Media
Denise Greene - Director of Program Initiatives - Black Public Media 
Sophia Clark - Producer - “Be Heard” Campaign
Grace Amodeo - Program Manager - SHIFT

Grace:
Can you each introduce yourselves and the work that you do?

Leslie:
I'm the Executive Director of Black Public Media, and I've actually been with the company for 19 years. At Black Public Media, our focus is on the development and distribution of stories about the Black experience and making sure that we're investing in talented Black media makers.

Denise:
I'm the Director of Programs and I oversee the initiatives that support filmmakers through training and funding. We also have a series called AfroPop, so we work on acquiring films for that series.

Sophia:
I'm a freelance producer. I work with a number of production companies, Color Farm Media included. Color Farm Media is a media company that was started by Ben Arnon and Erika Alexander. They started Color Farm Media to provide multimedia opportunities for underrepresented communities to connect the streets to the mainstream. I have had the opportunity to work with them on a few projects, including this one, where we got to collaborate with Black Public Media on a topic of the utmost importance and at a really pivotal time in our lives. 

Grace:
Why is media, film, and video, such a powerful tool in our world today?

Denise:
It’s powerful from the filmmaker’s point of view because it allows stories to be told, very nuanced stories specific to communities. And from the audience’s level, it's a platform where you can see yourself. It’s powerful because it’s nourishing, and it’s a chance to be heard and be seen and get your story out there. 

Leslie:
I totally agree. When we look at the long history of film and television and radio and media in general, that has always had an impact on American lives. When you think back to Birth of a Nation and the impact that it had on the Black community, the negative impact that it had on the Black community. It also launched a lot of activism and campaigning to address the racism that was in that film. Fast forward to the Civil Rights era and the fact that you had journalists and newsrooms going out there and capturing the protestors being attacked, and the dogs, and the fire hoses, and everything else which again prompted people to respond because what they were seeing was outrageous. It was almost like we heard about it, but we didn't actually believe it until we saw it. And then fast forward to right now with what happened with George Floyd, we’ve been sharing these stories but just that young woman capturing that moment and it being broadcast out to the world. And the response, the opportunity for us to see the activism that comes from that, that really connects the power of stories. 

I think media is the great equalizer. You go in and you have a voice because you have the confidence and the bravery to put yourself out there.

Sophia:
I think media is the great equalizer. You go in and you have a voice because you have the confidence and the bravery to put yourself out there. I know for me personally, I decided to go to film school and be a part of the media community, for lack of a better word, because it was one of the few places where I felt like I could be myself and say what I needed to say. Because that wasn’t being reflected back to me in the history books, it wasn’t being reflected back to me in the institutions that I was learning in. And I just wanted to make sure that I was able to reach others, by connecting with myself. 

Grace:
What are your experiences with media as activism, or media being used by activists? 

Sophia:
I don't know how you can be an activist right now without engaging in social media. It is the cheapest, easiest way to reach a wide audience. And I mention the financial aspect because when you think about how expensive campaigns are, they are expensive, but reaching someone on social media allows people with limited means to really be heard and be seen. So just from a democratic level, that's hugely important. But because social media is so accessible, what you end up having is a bunch of noise and how do you stand out in that? I think one of the reasons why the “Be Heard” campaign was successful is because it had a really specific audience. We were able to partner up with celebrities and social media influencers that we knew our community cared about, respected, and most importantly trusted. 

Grace:
Tell me about the “Be Heard” campaign, and how it got started. 

Leslie:
It was at the Sundance Film Festival, and Whitney Dow was working with Erika Alexander and Ben Arnon at Color Farm Media on a project about reparations. At the same time I had been talking to Denise about how I wanted us to make some short content to push out in the Fall to encourage or engage people in our democracy. And so in the subsequent conversations with Whitney and Erika and Ben, we landed on them helping us produce the shorts. 

Denise:
We knew we wanted to do something around elections. The “get out the vote” campaign has always stuck, but we wanted to add an extra layer of conversation. This is our chance to have people engage and talk with each other. So the project that Color Farm Media was working on around reparations was one of the subjects that we wanted to highlight when we were talking about preparing for the election. And luckily we had the brilliance of the Color Farm Media team who has already done a digital-first campaign, which is new territory for us. 

Sophia:
So Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow were really the creative minds behind the campaign. As a creative team, we felt like we should mirror the times we are in now, with Zoom-like conversations. We partnered people like Jehmu Greene and Shermichael Singleton, two opposite ends of the spectrum in some senses, talking about what they care about. They don’t always agree, but there was a mutual understanding that the most important thing that they could do is to vote and hold our leaders accountable. And the execution of it was a mirror of the time we’re in with two people screen-to-screen, not face-to-face, talking to each other and hopefully ending up on a note that made us feel heard and unified. 

They don’t always agree, but there was a mutual understanding that the most important thing that they could do is to vote and hold our leaders accountable.

Grace:
How did you decide on this format as the best option for this campaign? 

Sophia:
We had to reach a lot of people, and people’s attention spans are about 30 seconds. So what can we synthesize? If I had the rights to put up some of the full conversations I would, because honestly I think people would listen to a whole 30 or 45 minutes of the things that we did with these people. We also knew that we had to make it in an age of fake news, and phony ads about where to vote, and all the other lies that are supported by politicians. We knew we had to say something super clear, action-oriented, that pointed to a resource that people valued. Where to go to vote, who is running in your local elections, what these large phrases like “reparations” mean for the 2020 election, the importance of local officials and things like that. That’s why they were cut down and synthesized, because we wanted people to be able to do something with all the information that they were learning. 

Grace:
How did you get the guests and celebrities involved in the campaign? 

Sophia:
There is such a wealth of smart Black people who are in media, there’s no shortage of people to talk to. I’m grateful that Black Public Media was helping us really define the goals and the topics, and the first thing was who are the people that are already engaged with Black Public Media and who are the people that that audience seems to care about? We created a list and whittled it down based on the topics we agreed upon, who we felt might work best for the platform, who had the availability, and who was willing to go on this tech journey of remote production with us.

Denise:
And to add to that, we are public media. We want to make sure that this was a conversation that didn’t lean in any particular direction. We wanted to have that range of voices, and one of our goals was to expand our community. So we were looking at, as Sophia was saying, who are the voices that appeal to different parts of the community, different parts of the country, different age ranges and all those different factors. We wanted to make sure that we have that diversity in the voices, and I think we got that. 

Grace:
How does the “Be Heard” campaign fit into the larger goals of Black Public Media, and how did you measure the success of the campaign? 

Did we want people to go to our website? Do we want them to take a certain action? We really had to spell out those goals further than just to get the word out there.

Denise:
Those were the hardest meetings in the beginning, and they were hard because we knew where we wanted the conversations to go and that we wanted people to engage around certain topics. So the goal was to engage, but then the creative team started asking questions — especially with this being a digital-first campaign. Did we want people to go to our website? Do we want them to take a certain action? We really had to spell out those goals further than just to get the word out there. Our first leaning was to get people to our website, and from there they would engage and we would get them information about polling, how to find your polling site, and things that were helpful in the voting process. There was also a strategy built in where we created different lengths of videos, and we could see how people were responding to different lengths. The goal of getting people to the website was good and I think we achieved that, but there are also certain videos where people will watch longer pieces like the reparations one. I think our goal shifted and expanded from when we first talked about it. 

Leslie:
We work in public media, so we often work with PBS, Independent Lens, POV American Documentary. The projects that we fund are picked up and they are broadcast or streamed. One of the goals that I felt we achieved was, if we’re focusing on a digital-first campaign what does that mean for public media? The way I see it, public media is everywhere. Public media is where the public resides, and if there's always a focus of trying to bring them in to watch at a certain time with only one place to watch it, then we're missing out on so much of the public. Right now public media is struggling to reach younger and more diverse audiences. So it was really, really important that if we are going to launch or distribute content that is encouraging people to participate in our democracy, then we have to make sure that we’re going to where they are. We can’t always rely on them to come to us. 

Grace:
In this new wave of video and media as activism, is video the only way forward for activists now? Will the two always be linked?

Denise:
It's never been divorced, media and activism. Never. I think Leslie touched on that when she gave a little bit of the history and the thread that we still see today. You can’t talk about activism without media as a tool. 

It's never been divorced, media and activism. Never.  You can’t talk about activism without media as a tool. 

Leslie:
I think that artists use their medium of preference in order to engage people in conversation. As media makers, as filmmakers, as content creators — this is our tool of choice. And it is one of the most powerful tools, but I do think that we have to approach it with a sense of responsibility. As we’ve seen, when it is wielded irresponsibly, it affects hundreds and thousands of people. We’re witnessing it right now. There are many people who are not with us today because the media was wielded irresponsibly in informing the public. And so I think with this powerful medium comes a lot of responsibility on our part to ensure that we are sharing content, sharing stories, that will not harm, that will inform, that will educate, and hopefully help push people to create a better world for all of us and not just for a few of us.

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Would you like to participate in a future In Conversation video interview? Email grace@shift.io for more information. 

Grace Amodeo is a program manager at SHIFT, where she oversees the annual SHIFT Creative Fund grant program. She is a graduate of Emerson College, where she studied film with a concentration in directing narrative fiction. Grace lives in Los Angeles.
Read more by Grace Amodeo