Reporting Writing

Children of Farmworkers in California’s Central Valley Face Annual Academic Disruptions

Originally published 

April 26, 2019

In the summer of his junior year, Luis Miguel was struggling to stay in high school. He and his family of four – who work various agricultural jobs from picking blueberries and cherries to pruning grapes and canning tomatoes – live in one of California’s 24 migrant family housing centers.

As a documentary filmmaker, I have been studying these housing centers and the rhythms of life for families who reside in them since I first arrived in a center in 2014 during fieldwork for an oral history project with former bracero farmworkers.

Tucked in the shadows of county jails and water treatment plants, these centers provide tile-floored apartments at subsidized rents to migratory farmworkers and their families during peak harvest season. The centers house as many as 1,890 farmworking families, mostly from Mexico.

Given California’s affordable housing shortage, these housing centers are a coveted option for farmworking families. Outside the housing centers, migrant farmworkers might reside in less-favorable conditions – sleeping in cars, garages, old motels or under tarps in the fields.

But while the centers resolve the affordable housing problem, they create another: second-class citizenship.

State-mandated annual move

A 2016 survey of the housing centers noted that more than half the families residing in centers across the state – 1,037 families to be exact – have school-aged children, many of whom, like Luis Miguel’s sister, are natural-born U.S. citizens.

In late fall or early winter when harvest season ends, families must vacate their apartments and move at least 50 miles away for three to six months. The rationale behind this rule is to ensure that the housing serves families who are truly migratory.

Most families cannot afford unsubsidized housing in California and thus spend the off-season months in their Mexican hometowns. While in Mexico, the youth either miss school or attend inconsistently. “It all depends where the students live,” Migrant Education Program counselor Laura Aguayo says. “Some students don’t have a chance because they live too far away from a school. Others can’t go because the schools don’t take them in.” This is because they will only be enrolled for a couple of months before they return to the U.S., she says.

This means that each year, school-aged children living with their families in California’s migrant family housing centers, many of whom are U.S. citizens, miss between three to six months of schooling.

A housing center for migrant farmworker families in French Camp, California.
(Photo by Noam Eshel) CC BY

‘Moving makes things complicated’

Migrant education counselors, administrators and teachers try to help migrant students make up whatever academic credits they’re missing. But “moving makes things complicated,” says Luis Miguel. “We lose a lot of time, and it’s hard to concentrate.”

The summer of his junior year, Luis Miguel got so discouraged by the routine of moves and having to make up credits that he lost motivation and began to veer off the path to graduation. To help students like Luis Miguel make up credits, California has developed an online program called Cyber High.

But Cyber High has its own issues. “There are a lot of internet problems,” Aguayo explains. “All the schools in California are using Cyber High so the system slows down. Students can be taking a test and it kicks them out.”

Impact of annual migration on student achievement

The move also makes it hard for students to succeed in the kinds of extracurricular activities that can make students more attractive to colleges.

While in high school, Luis Miguel had joined cross-country to work with the coach, Rick Cuevas, who is himself Mexican-born and the child of a farmworker. Coach Cuevas understands the students better than almost anyone, calls them “mihija” or “mihijo,” Spanish terms for “my daughter” or “my son,” respectively.

“Running changed my life,” Luis Miguel says. “Before running, I never thought about my future. And now that I run, I take things more seriously.” But he ruminates on losing his conditioning. “I wanted to be the best, but moving makes it complicated because I can’t go to all the practices,” Luis Miguel adds.

Luis Miguel takes a break during a cross-country practice. Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, CC BY

It’s not hard to see how missing a few months of school each year disadvantages students. The Modesto Bee reports 74% of migrant students “were not meeting English language standards and 80% were not up to par in math” in the 2016-17 academic year.

Parent interviews across migrant family housing centers also speak to the impact of the moves. For instance, in a 2014 survey of migrant farmworkers conducted at Buena Vista, Ochoa, Parlier and Williams migrant housing centers by the advocacy group Human Agenda, 91.4% of farmworkers answered “yes” to “Does the 50-mile rule affect your children’s education?”

“What gets farmworkers out of bed in the morning, six days a week at 5 a.m. to work in the fields for 10 hours a day is the dream that their children will have a better life,” Ann López of the Center for Farmworker Families says. “But the 50-mile regulation impedes that possibility.”

López is a leading member of Apoyo Campesino, a collective within Human Agenda comprised of researchers, lawyers and organizers who have for years advocated to end the 50-mile regulation.

This group’s efforts got the ear of the California legislature, and in June 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a provision in the state budget exempting up to 50% of the farmworking families living in each center from the 50-mile regulation.

Under this new provision, families must still vacate their apartments each year and search for short-term affordable housing. But “immediate family members of the migratory agricultural worker” are exempted from the 50-mile rule. This means that Luis Miguel and his family will continue to be required to move out of the housing center annually, but he and his sister can stay within their school districts with one parent, while the other parent must live at least 50 miles away for three months.

Crafting a sense of belonging

In May 2018, driving Luis Miguel to graduation rehearsal, I asked him how he got out of that junior year funk. Without hesitation, he smiled and said, “Coach Cuevas.”

Coach Rich Cuevas often drives students home to the migrant family housing centers after practice on days their parents work long hours in the fields.Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, CC BY

Luis Miguel now studies at Modesto Community College, though he’s had to stop running so he can focus on his studies. He continues to live at one of the housing centers with his family during the harvest season. This year, thanks to the new regulations, he and his sister are spending the off-season in an RV in the backyard of an extended family member.

Luis Miguel’s story demonstrates that despite their many challenges, some students living in these housing centers are graduating from high schools and even colleges.

Such successes can be made easier when housing authorities foster partnerships with local schools. The high school that Luis Miguel attended, East Union in Manteca Unified School District, for example, accommodates the migration schedules of students by offering an earlier final exam in December. According to the school, in the 2016-17 academic year, 100 percent of migrant students graduated. While such institutional supports have a positive impact, East Union President Raul Mora, who himself is Chicano, worries they might also send an unhealthy message to students that “they don’t quite fit the mold.”

For Mora, nurturing achievement among migrant students requires fostering a sense of belonging. Since starting as principal at East Union in 2015, Mora has placed at least one Spanish-speaking administrator in each of the school’s three main offices. “It’s about creating a belief system and a culture,” Mora says. “It’s making sure that when the students come back and see our registrar, that she welcomes them in their language.”

Despite these efforts at cultural sensitivity and holistic education, students in migratory conditions are still called “camp kids” or terms even more derogatory by their peers – potentially fueling the belief that they don’t belong.

But inside a two-bedroom apartment at the migrant family housing center, Luis Miguel and two friends craft their own sense of belonging. Together, they formed a hip-hop trio, 95231 Productions.

Luis Miguel and 95231 Productions record in a room in a migrant family housing center apartment. Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, CC BY

The group reflects on their experiences growing up as the children of farmworking parents, their struggles against racism, and their work to craft an identity that reflects their heritage. In a page in his lyrics notebook, the front cover adorned with a colorful calavera, Luis Miguel writes: “Soy de piel moreno. Orgulloso Mexicano, y brown pride de corazon, y en el corazon llevo al inmigrante trabajador” – “I am Brown, proud Mexicano, brown pride of the heart, and in my heart I carry the immigrant laborer.”

Theorizing Practice Writing

Article for UPenn’s Center on Digital Culture and Society: “Toward Critical Reflexivity in Non-fiction VR”

by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz & Liz Miller

Originally published in The Digital Radical, a publication of the Center on Digital Culture and Society at The University of Pennsylvania


As documentary filmmakers, the concept of power is essential to how we think about shaping and telling stories.

We consider ourselves digital radicals because we both proceed from a commitment to critical reflexivity as a means of leveraging documentary forms, techniques, and processes toward exposing and challenging power. We recently expanded our documentary practices to include 360-degree Virtual Reality (VR) documentary filmmaking.

In How to Tell a True Immigrant Story (2019), Aggie and her collaborators in the United States use experimental, aesthetic approaches to invoke self-reflective practices in members of dominant culture with regard to discourses of immigration and how those inscribe or reinforce power. In SwampScapes (2018), Liz and her collaborators in the United States and Canada are rethinking pedagogical uses of VR within an environmental justice framework and supporting a movement towards narrative sovereignty[i].

Our projects are quite different in form and theme but resonate with each other in their emphasis on collaboration and a desire to use the work for social change. We proceed from questions like: Who has access to 360 VR? What are the histories of VR and the values or aspirations that have accompanied each technological advance? What are the ethical frameworks in VR? How might immersive storytelling subvert rather than re-inscribe power inequities? What are the environmental considerations of the tools we are using, and how can we foster awareness about the infrastructures they come from and the waste they produce? What new forms and visual tropes might we discover through collaborative endeavors? What can VR do to liberate documented peoples (conventionally called “documentary subjects”) from the form’s “tradition of the victim” while addressing our most intractable social problems? Our process and our questions are ongoing.

Here in these reflections, we (Liz and Aggie) each describe our various production processes, collaborations, and theoretical foundations for documentary projects we produced in 360-degree VR. We describe our processes separately but within the shared space of this article. Separately, we demonstrate how techniques in documentary VR must be responsive to each project’s specific sociopolitical contexts and the nature of the social problems each project confronts (e.g. visibility and immersion mean different things in different contexts). And together, our overlapping approaches illustrate our conviction that, through community-informed projects that apply decolonizing models and critical scholarship to documentary work in 360 VR, we and our project partners might avoid a hyper-realized ethnographic gaze within documentary VR and instead optimize the radical potential of this immersive tool.

Read entirety of article here at The Digital Radical

Film Reviews Writing

Review of Video Series, “The Fruit of Our Labour” for Reorient Mag

Originally published

July 8, 2013

A new series of short documentaries by emerging Afghan filmmakers

It starts, as many great films do, with a black screen; then, a flicker. Through snatches of light, a woman is revealed, a headscarf tied at her neck, her body leaning over a table to light a kerosene lantern. Just as light escapes the match, The Road Above emits in small and elegant portions the life of Mona, the film’s protagonist; Mona, who, through an involuntary smile tells us about the husband she’s lost to heroin, the financial straits her family struggles against, and her hopes for a stable life. Simply and softly, through intentional, cinematic language, we spend time with Mona and her enduring mother.

Their country is one we’ve seen countless times over in news reports – a dust-strewn land where women seem to bend from the onerous weight of the chador (not, of course, the onerous weight of infrastructural instability brought on by decades of invasion and war), and where wisened faces peer into cameras, prayer beads moving steadily through their fingers; a country embedded among the terms ‘war-torn’, ‘conflict’, ‘Taliban’, ‘terrorist’, ‘wounded’, ‘dead’.

This time, though, in The Road Above and the other nine short documentaries comprising the Fruit of Our Labour collection, we see Afghanistan through more nuanced eyes, in images that may strike as familiar to some Iranians and unfamiliar to most Americans. In this Afghanistan, mothers and daughters eat breakfast together. They sit cross-legged on hand-woven rugs, tear at lavash or taftoon bread, and sip from tea in tall glass mugs. They speak about the day to come – a day in which even here, in a place we are told not to expect the stirrings of life, trips to the seamstress will be made; bazaars will hum with a thousand brilliant colours; fruit vendors will mix smoothies to lure new customers; cosmetologists will line the almond eyes of young beauties, and culture, quite simply, will continue to function amidst the turmoil.

The films in The Fruit of Our Labour were produced during a five-week intensive documentary training session held in Kabul, designed and conducted by Community Supported Film, a Boston-based nonprofit training local storytellers in the documentary format. ‘The way we learn about other people’s worlds is really through our own eyes’, explains Michael Sheridan, CSFilm’s founder. ‘It became an interest of mine to figure out how to implement a program … to create compelling stories that could be used locally and internationally to help people … understand what’s going on.’

Through a partnership with the Killid Media Group, CSFilm received 80 applications for its inaugural training programme. From that pool, an ethnically diverse group of ten storytellers were selected to work together for up to ten hours a day, six days a week for five weeks, to learn the skills required to make character-driven, scene-based documentaries. The filmmakers were chosen after a rigorous application process that gauged their storytelling fluencies, their commitment to social and economic development, and their plans for employing their training towards nurturing their professional growth, in addition to forgoing traditional ethnic and gender divisions.

This commitment to diversity is crucial in a nation wherein so many different ethnic groups reside. In a recent online conversation, Jamal Aram, a translator and project coordinator for the CSFilm programme noted that one of the issues Afghanistan faces is the fact that ethnic groups are often isolated from one another, and as such, are not able to overcome historical divisions. ‘I’ve always thought,’ says Jamal, ‘there should be something, some common ground that [could bring] different ethnicities … together [to] sit around a table and really start discussing their feelings and what they think of all these situations’.

This is a new way of seeing Afghanistan – one in which the camera’s gaze does not simply reinforce power inequities, but acts as a tool through which power and politics can be debated. And recreated.

We see exactly this kind of cross-cultural conversation taking place in Death to the Camera, directed by Sayed Qasem Hossaini. Like Iranian New Wave films, Death to the Camera relies on a deceptive simplicity to broach complex topics, and explores the relationship between the artifice of filmmaking and the truth of human experience. The film takes place during the span of a day on a worksite, where a group of female day labourers scoop dirt and rocks into small bags that they then gather into wheelbarrows and push off-screen. It is the women’s last day working under their contract. Throughout the day, their anxieties about finding the next job underline every conversation. They snap at one another. They complain. They work slowly, their steps dragging them reluctantly to the completion of this last day of pay. Despite these challenges, the women are neither depicted as victims, nor as subjects of the film; they are instead active agents whose conversations are often directed expressly towards the camera. ‘I wish your filming could help us get some aid’, says one woman. Later, another asks her co-workers: ‘Have you told all your problems to the camera? Can it leave now?’

More than just speaking to, and being aware of the camera, the women are actively negotiating their personal and cultural relationships to it. While in the US the camera tends to be trusted as a communication medium, many cultures are fiercely protective of privacy, and thus the documentary ‘eye’ can feel invasive and insidious. Social taboos, by discouraging people from revealing too much of their private lives or selves, preserve the camera’s status as a vehicle for delivering entertainment rather than truth.

In Death to the Camera, in factone of the women on the site is accused by her manager of making herself too ‘available’ to the camera and sullying her reputation. Sitting among her female coworkers, working steadily, she eyes the manager, stands up, and walks  away to confront him. Harkening the style of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, we hear the woman arguing with her manager off-screen, while we watch her co-workers on-screen, scooping dirt one moment, and attempting to turn their heads inconspicuously towards the tense conversation the next.

When the accused woman returns to her coworkers, she reiterates her frustration with her manager’s accusations. A sensitive coworker, not wanting to make the crew feel guilty for their presence, whispers: ‘Don’t say that. [The cameraman] will mind’. ‘No he won’t,’ the woman responds, ‘he knows the issues very well … he’s a filmmaker. He’s not after prostitutes and bad things’. In this conversation, we see the two women developing their own unique relationships to the camera. One sees the camera as a valued guest, and another sees it as an ally, another medium through which she can prove her case. In so doing, they carve a new space for documentary filmmaking in a society that has a relatively recent history with the form.

For the camera’s part, it does not shy away from these ‘negotiations’. It does not stop rolling, nor does it ask the women to stop referring to the camera. It allows itself to be integrated and even implicated. When the women start to discuss the inequities they face as day labourers, the conversation turns towards ethnic differences and the trouble Hazara women have in getting hired. The conversation becomes heated. We don’t see the conversation in full, but we do see that a Hazara woman has become especially affected by recalling the situation she faces. Immediately thereafter, the camera crew retreats. It’s unclear whether they were asked to leave by the women, or whether the conversation was simply becoming too tense; nonetheless, the camera’s gaze suddenly spins to the ground and haphazardly captures the feet of the crew leaving the scene.

This is more than a retreat. It is a deliberate turning of the gaze away from the women, and onto the crew. The arbitrary and contested territory between the photographer and the photographed dissolves, as does the vast expanse between those who study conflict and those who live it. The crew becomes another extension of the inter-ethnic conflict. Exasperated, they throw down their gear, and ask themselves how this conversation started in the first place. They ferociously squirt compressed air into the camera’s lens – almost as if trying to dust it for fingerprints – and debate their choices. Though they experience the conflict in different ways than some of the women themselves, they do not position themselves as objective documenters apart from the eruption, but as fellow country-persons affected by it – involved, somehow, in this ‘ecosystem’.  As the boom operator suggests, they are even in some ways complicit. ‘Actually, you started the ethnic conflict discussion’, he remarks.

This is a new way of seeing Afghanistan – one in which the camera’s gaze does not simply reinforce power inequities, but acts as a tool through which power and politics can be debated. And recreated. In the eyes and likeness of the labouring men and women who themselves are too often the terrain upon which power is played out.

Co-Creative Writing

Border Crossing and Genre Bending: A Conversation with Jesikah Maria Ross

Originally published

Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Vol. 41 No. 3, November/December 2013; (pp. 19-25

There may be no image better equipped to illustrate Jesikah Maria Ross’s body of work than that of a bridge. In an era of constant flux in which once-stable disciplinary borders are shifting, a bridge might be exactly the technology we need for treading unstable ground.

jesikah’s work pulls from the Challenge for Change model to bridge communities, causes, and creative approaches. Read about jesikah’s work in this thought-provoking interview below.

Non-Profit Writing

Op-Ed: “Stronger Together: Why We Need a National Youth Media Network”

Originally published:

January 09, 2014 

Since its inception three decades ago, the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) serves as a facilitator of, and supporting mechanism for the work of the independent media arts. Through collaboration and dialogue with our national community of members, we design programming that fosters and fortifies the field and provides space for independent voices and diverse perspectives to flourish.

We serve our members and the media arts field through: a) conducting and disseminating field-specific research and analysis; b) convening the field in-person and online; c) offering leadership development and other opportunities for professional growth; d) advocating on behalf of the field in Congress and in partnership with leading advocacy organizations.

NAMAC’s Strategic Plan for the next three years calls for increased attention to supporting our youth media members. Over the past year, we have had the great pleasure and privilege of working with a committed – and growing! – group of youth media leaders around the country. We’ve been actively supporting this group’s efforts to lay the foundation for a strong national network that is designed by, and responsive to, youth media’s needs and principles.

Our collaboration with this emerging network builds on NAMAC’s history of involvement with youth media organizations, from the early days of publishing the Youth Media Directory in the 1990s, to the Youth Media Initiative we spearheaded that provided professional development and capacity support to leaders and organizations in the sector. This Initiative helped spur a survey of youth media organizations nationwide, for which we continue to gather data in an effort to draw longitudinal conclusions. The last iteration of this Mapping the Youth Media Field survey was administered in June 2013 by Kathleen Tyner, Associate Professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. 1 A preliminary overview of the results from this data can be found on the NAMAC website. 2 and Professor Tyner will release a more detailed analysis over the coming months.

Why A National Network?

When NAMAC, as a field-service organization, scans and surveys the youth media sector, in many ways the field looks as it did in 2009 when representatives from youth media organizations gathered at the National Youth Media Summit, a dynamic conversation that led to the influential report, State of the Youth Media Field. 3

As both the 2009 report and the 2013 Mapping the Youth Media Field survey demonstrate, youth media organizations around the country teach an impressive array of media production skills – video, mobile apps, graphic design, audio / music, social media, games, and more – and as in 2009, youth media organizations continue to provide unique services and learning that students may not otherwise have access to in formal school settings.

While the youth media community and its supporters clearly appreciate the indispensable work happening in the sector, the question yet remains as to how youth media can make more visible – to parents, funders, and stakeholders– its educational, social, and professional impact on young people’s lives, and by extension, on a participatory, democratic society.

This is not, of course, to say that youth media is invisible. In fact, the 2009 Summit and State of the Field report, as well as more recent developments, demonstrate that the field is a waking giant. In 2012, The Chicago Youth Voices Network, a collaborative of youth media professionals embarked on an evaluation process funded by The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, and supported by the Social IMPACT Research Center. Their study will assess the degree to which hands-on education in media production and distribution contributes to developing productive, independent, and engaged citizens. Then, in 2013, The Wallace Foundation released two extensive publications that lauded the educational gains made in interest-driven and effective after school programs. Featured in these reports were youth media groups such as Spy Hop Productions (Salt Lake City, Utah), Educational Video Center (New York City), the Bay Area Video Coalition (San Francisco, CA), Youth Radio (Oakland, CA), and the Intel Computer Clubhouse Network (National and International).

We can and should also look to the fact that this brief article will be among the body of work that will re-launch Youth Media Reporter as a catalytic voice for the field. As such, Youth Media Reporter will be primed to both discover and share innovative and important developments gleaned from an ever-expanding community of youth media practitioners, educators, researchers, administrators and youth. At the same time, Youth Media Reporter can be a space for thinking through how to share the field’s essential work with new audiences and potential allies across a variety of disciplines.

Unfortunately, while these great steps are being taken, the role of the educator / teaching artist as vehicle for the transmission of media education is increasingly under fire. In an October 2013 Slate article, Lisa Guernsey, the director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, describes Hear Me, a Pittsburg-based digital media project that places storytelling kiosks throughout the city so that young people can share their voices and stories. Hear Me, Guenrsey says, “has all the ingredients of a feel-good activity for our time: using digital recorders to capture moments and rebroadcast them; linking technology to physical, face-to-face spaces; and giving students a chance to use new tools for self-expression.” 4

The project organizers had imagined that they would simply set up a website to collect stories for the storybooths, and because the online platform existed, they would see “kids jumping online and creating audio and video stories about issues in their lives.” It soon became clear that this vision would not come to pass. Young people were not eagerly signing up to contribute content on their own. In regrouping and trying new approaches to generate stories, the researchers learned that “people and kids valued having us, or a third party who has legitimacy and skills to work with kids in the way that we do, visit and bring technology, programming, and ideas to them.” The researchers began partnering with nonprofits, schools, and interviewers to build relationships with young people and gradually acclimate them to the storytelling process. “Under this strategy,” Guernsey writes, “the project has recorded more than 3,700 stories.” 5

In some corners of the funding world, among portions of the general public, even among some researchers and educators, there is an underlying and insidious assumption that just because (some) young people have access to media technologies by way of cell phones and video games, that this access somehow nullifies the need for a trained educator to guide critical, socially conscious, and transformative use of these technologies. In youth media organizations across the country, we see over and over that not only does an educator serve as a gateway into a rich understanding of the scope, impact, and implications of media technologies, but that a youth media educator is also a professional mentor, a friend, a counselor, and a youth media center itself is a space for community to be built and nurtured. In short, the youth media center and the supportive mechanisms it provides are instrumental to personal, as well as professional, development.

Because unfounded assumptions do exist that equate media access with media literacy, it’s imperative that youth media – and the independent media sector at large – work hard at demonstrating the value of the work we do. While each youth media organization is responsible for sharing their work with their communities, we argue that there is also strength in numbers. In 2009, the field established that the work of youth media can best be strengthened via collaboration, the establishment of federations and/or collectives that provide space for resource sharing, information exchange, and for making visible the work of the sector. In short, youth media’s impact is amplified when organizations across the country connect and fortify a sustainable national network.

For the last decade, youth media has sensed the need for active community building among the manifold organizations that comprise the field. Regional youth media networks have been thriving in various parts of the country: Philadelphia, Twin Cities, Chicago, and recently, the San Francisco Bay Area. These regional groups are able to provide outstanding and unprecedented services to the young people in their communities because the network enables resource sharing, partnering on programming, knowledge exchange, and other practical services that magnify the capacity, visibility, and impact that any one organization could have alone.

Due to geographic constraints, of course, there are some organizations that cannot be served by these regional networks. This is where a national youth media body – whether that be a loose confederation of independent organizations, or a formal nonprofit intermediary with its own funding supply – comes in. This national body could provide a space for organizations and regional networks around the country to connect and readily access each other’s work, innovations, and concerns. It would be a body with many brilliant heads that can amplify the field’s capacity for sharing its work and demonstrating its value. And in this interconnected community, the learners served by youth media could powerfully experience their creative expressions as part of a broader, country-wide effort to develop youth leadership and bolster civic dialogue.

A National Network Emerges

In October 2012, following on the heels of the NAMAC 2012 Leading Creatively conference panel, “Youth Media Networks: How We’re Connected,” a handful of committed youth media leaders, recognizing “the diversity of practices, approaches and experiences of those in [the] field,” started a Google Group email listserv to build upon the conversations they started at the Conference. “We see the opportunity to strengthen our work by creating stronger connections among us,” they wrote in their first public announcement on the listserv.

NAMAC offered to help promote the efforts of this emerging National Youth Media Network by providing field building, coordination, and administrative support where needed. After some initial surveying of the field, the organizers decided to launch a series of bi-monthly Connector Sessions: online conversations intended to a) explore topics of relevance to youth media practice, such as assessment, curriculum development, STEM funding, etc.; and to b) initiate an incremental community building and brainstorming process to help elucidate what a national network might look like and in what ways it could serve the field. 6

As a testament to how the pragmatic conversations in the Connector Sessions can lend field-building insight, consider this sampling of questions raised in the first Connector Session on “Emerging Media Arts Standards,” hosted in March 2013. 7 In this Connector, the Chair of the Media Arts Standards Writing Committee of the National Coalition of Core Arts Standards, Dain Olsen, explained the significance of developing educational standards written specifically to meet “learners’ growing needs in the emerging digital media context.” Questions raised by participants included:

  • What do you think the development of assessment tools, will look like [under the Media Arts Standards]? And how can those assessment tools be used with lesson plans and curriculum?
  • Could you talk briefly about how you see the standards and framework that you’re evolving, make space for or articulate or sustain the enduring commitment within youth media to its abiding youth-drivenness?
  • To what extent are media literacy and media analysis a part of the standards here, from an analytical perspective?

In these questions alone, we catch a glimpse of the diversity of perspectives, modalities, and needs in youth media practices across the country. By bringing diverse voices into regular conversation, we can collectively and specifically imagine a national network that is responsive to many, if not all, of these multi-faceted needs.

As the Connector Sessions continue to serve as an interesting and sustainable model for convening the field, the Google Group email listserv has grown incrementally, as has the core group of National Youth Media Network organizers. Currently, we number twelve organizers and over one hundred Google Group members. We have proposed and presented at two conferences: the Alliance for Community Media Conference (ACM) conference and the National Association for Media Literacy Education Conference  (NAMLE). Representatives from ACM and NAMLE, involved as they are in supporting youth media and media education, have in fact joined the organizing committee.

From the great strides taken by the committed group behind the National Youth Media Network, we’ve seen that the question before the field is not whether there will be a national networking body, but when and how. What will that national network look like? Who will lead it? What services would this national network provide? Will it need funding? If so, what sources would honor “youth media’s youth-drivenness” as well as its commitment to critical pedagogy? What cross-sector alliances could it forge to benefit the field? And what will be the role of the national intermediaries, NAMAC, NAMLE, ACM, and of Youth Media Reporter in this ongoing field-building work?

While organizations like NAMAC exist to create spaces in which such questions can be raised, ultimately only youth media organizations, students, and educators themselves will be able to provide the answers. We look forward to witnessing – and supporting – the field’s continued evolution.  


Ingrid Dahl,State of the Youth Media Field Report,” Youth Media Reporter, November 2009,

Lisa Guernsey, “Voices Carry: A Kids’ Tech Project Gets Real,” Slate, October 2013,


Theorizing Practice Writing

Community and Self-Care in Documentary Work

Originally published

January 17, 2017

Around 4am on the morning of December 12, 2016, nearly 30 men, women and children were swaddling themselves in their warmest winter shawls, preparing hot beans and hot cocoa, and scooping up candles, toddlers, and guitars to step out into the Central Valley pre-dawn frost to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A few miles north, at a hotel in the center of Stockton, two filmmakers had traveled a distance to line up their batteries and SD cards, slip on their coats, and map their way in the dark to the Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center to record this ritual. For me.

And I, 3,000 miles away, was marking my own procession, pacing in the jaundiced glow of a hospital hallway, thinking about my brother, my mother holding her vigil, Our Mother who art in heaven, and how the whole damn world was starting to feel like a terrible ward for the ailing. The kind of place that could really use a virgin spirit.

Three days before this, I had been mindlessly chewing on almonds in the penultimate meeting of the BAVC Mediamaker Fellowship when I received a text telling me that after sustaining severe injuries in a car accident, my brother’s blood pressure had dropped and he was being moved back to ICU.  I could think only two thoughts: “I have to go home,” and “What does this mean for the film?”

In 2013, while working on a project to record oral histories with former Bracero farmworkers, my filmmaking partner and I were led by Luis Magaña, immigrant rights advocate and director of Proyecto Voz to a gated community of small homes nestled between the San Joaquin County Juvenile Detention Center and the County Jail. 

We were there to interview former Bracero, Sr. Jesus Ochoa, but once the interview was over, I found myself moving across the manicured grass with my camera, stunned by the symmetries, peering into the tended gardens, mystified by the colliding sounds of children giggling and shots firing from the shooting range next door.

The Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center is one of 24 residential complexes in California. Operated by the Office of Migrant Services (OMS), these complexes offer agricultural families subsidized housing during the harvest season. In order to be eligible to live in these Centers, families must demonstrate that they are migratory, which OMS defines as having lived “at least 50 miles away from the Center for at least 3 months each year.” This means that every year, families move into the Centers, build a life, and then move out of the Centers for three months in order to comply by this “50 Mile Rule.”

From the moment Artesi found me those years ago, I became creatively obsessed with articulating this space in all its richness and rhythms. I wanted to create something hypnotic, a crystalline window into a world that is not only sensually captivating, but that reflects something of our values, that poses questions about the distance between being and belonging, that interrogates how (or whether) our society creates space for those who dedicate their careers to ensuring our sustenance. In the words of Mediamaker coordinator Carrie Lozano, it was intended to be “an artful treatment” designed for public television audiences. The freneticism of 45365 aspiring to the elegance of El Velador as told through the journeyman’s arc of Sweetgrass about experiences like those in East of Salinas. And I gave myself to this work with abandon.

Documentary is no linear journey. Like the human body, its strengths and sensitivities are case-specific. It responds well to some treatments and not to others. It aspires to precision and control, but in the end, it confronts just how beholden it is to chance.

My winter was such a confrontation with chance. I intended for it to be my last winter shooting in Artesi. I had plans to move into post-production in the summer of 2017. I had tickets to travel with families from Artesi to their hometowns in Mexico. So when I got the call to go home, it felt quite literally that I had lost my footing.

And by chance, I was in a meeting with the Mediamaker fellows when this erupted. A room full of brilliant people who have committed their lives to pursuing those stories that urgently call on them to be realized. When I looked teary-eyed around the room and asked, “What do I do?” these fellow seekers and storytellers immediately sprang into action. Rob Rooy, a filmmaker based in Maryland, remarkably offered to reschedule his flight back to the east coast in order to help shoot two significant, time-sensitive events for me. Jethro Patalinghug, a full-time, professional videographer deeply mired in his own film’s production, offered to shoot alongside Rob. Nicole and Erika offered equipment, Kevin contacts, Bridgette, Carrie and Alcee perspective and deep reserves of love, reminding me that this is the ongoing work of fitting the story into the mess of our lives. It was not unexpected that after a year of fostering community, we would behave as a community. But this degree of kindness, compassion, and extension felt nothing short of family.

The ever-incisive Marj Safinian, Board Chair of the Int’l Documentary Association, writes in the summer 2016 issue of Documentary magazine that documentary is an act of empathy. And empathy, to borrow from Leonard Cohen, offers itself “at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate.”  Empathy goes where it is called.

It was empathy, I believe, that drove two filmmakers out onto unfamiliar Central Valley roads that night, empathy that held their freezing hands tight to borrowed gear, and empathy that invited two relative strangers into a sacred sunrise circle so that while my brother struggled to breathe and my family stoked the embers of life thousands of miles away, a hymn could ring out across the valley and find its way to me. And one day, find its way to you.

Reporting Writing

In a City Where 15 Percent of Voters Elected the Mayor, Downtown Is Claiming Power

Originally published in Next City.

NOVEMBER 6, 2017


POWER Northeast organizers get out the vote in a still from an upcoming documentary about the group’s work in Allentown. (Photo by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz)

In 1984, Sydney ‘Trek’ Mckenzie’s middle school class assembled to listen to Geraldine Ferraro, a vice presidential candidate, speak to a crowd in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This simple class trip, organized by Mckenzie’s teacher, was a moment that changed his life. It was the moment that he realized the power in politics.

Mckenzie still lives in the same Allentown neighborhood he grew up in and refers to himself as a political enthusiast who is heavily interested in local politics. But the first time he ever found himself casting a ballot at a voting booth was in 2008 when he voted for Obama. “I was registered to vote since high school,” says Mckenzie, “and it was such an easy process to register that I almost didn’t think it would work when I went to vote for Obama. I thought there was no way I was still able to vote, that it could be so easy.”Confusion, Potential Delays as Florida Prepares to Restore Voting Rights to Felons

Registering voters has long been a tactic of organizations seeking to improve voter turnouts, especially in local elections. In downtown Allentown, the League of Women Voters sets up voter registration tables at the art museum, the community college and at the homeless shelter. According to Timothy Benyo, Lehigh County Elections Deputy Chief Clerk, it may be easier to register to vote in the city compared to the suburbs due to targeted registration drives downtown and alternate language requirements that provide materials in Spanish and access to translators.

But while putting voters on the rolls may be easy, getting them to show up at the polls is an entirely different matter. POWER Northeast (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild), a grassroots community organization that aims to disrupt racial inequities in the Lehigh Valley, also focuses on voter registration and voter engagement efforts — during the recent presidential election, they hired people, most of them formerly incarcerated, to knock on doors across Allentown registering people to vote. They knocked on close to 15,000 doors and ended up registering over 1,000 people. However, the organization acknowledges that voter registration is just one small part of the process. For POWER Northeast, the difference between a registered voter and someone who votes is whether that person feels connected to their individual power and their community. On Nov. 7, Mckenzie and his fellow Allentown citizens will either re-elect a mayor — Ed Pawlowski — who is currently under indictment for 54 counts of fraud, bribery and extortion, or put into office one of 4 other candidates hoping to capitalize on the controversy. And if history is any indication, the election will likely be decided by less than 15 percent of Allentown’s 72,000 registered voters. In fact, Pawlowski was able to secure his position as the Democratic candidate for mayor of Allentown with only 1,682 votes last May. Some precincts in the 50 percent low-income and 50 percent low-income city saw fewer than 100 voters well into the primary day.

With support from Solutions Journalism Network, the Reentry Coalition has supported the development of a documentary film about Power Northeast. 


Hamilton Street is the main drag that brings you from the more suburban west side of Allentown into the heart of the city, Pennsylvania’s third largest. The wide commercial boulevard once served as a shopping district for white middle-class residents of Allentown who flocked to center city to shop at Hess’s upscale department store, attend concerts at the beaux arts symphony hall or view paintings at the city art museum. But when shopping malls started to spring up in the outskirts of the city in the 1970s, white shoppers were lured away from downtown Allentown and Hamilton Street’s storefronts slowly emptied. The last few decades have been a tale of two cities. As white residents and their spending power fled the city, Puerto Rican and Dominican families, some of whom were priced out of New York, began to fill vacancies in the downtown district but remained economically segregated as the wealth of the white middle-class was diverted to other parts of town.

The residential sections of downtown Allentown, predominantly Latinx neighborhoods. (Photo by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz)

But 2014 saw a renewed interest in Hamilton Street when a massive new tax-subsidized hockey arena opened, followed by an attendant orbit of bars and restaurants targeting those game-day crowds. Today, white middle-class families now park their cars on Hamilton street and wander around the fledgling city center, exploring the fountains at PP&L Plaza or peeking at the giant vats of beer in the windows of Fegley’s Brew Works. But travel a little further down Hamilton Street, past the new Starbucks and the Moravian bookstore, and you eventually reach the Lehigh County courthouse, the county jail, the social security office and beyond that, the homeless shelter. Visitors to the newly aestheticized downtown don’t tend to venture to the neighborhoods that exist just beyond its boundaries.

The city is a microcosm of the raw identity politics exposed by the Trump presidency. There is a large Latinx population that lives downtown in majority-minority rowhome neighborhoods that once housed working-class white people, many of whom worked in manufacturing industries like the now defunct Bethlehem Steel (and the inspiration for Billy Joel’s famous song that pays homage to that time period). White homeowners tend to live on the city’s 86 percent-white west side. The city’s racial and economic divide neatly predicts voting patterns — the closer one lives to the heart of the city, the less likely one is to vote.

POWER Northeast dates back to 1998 when it operated as CUNA (Congregations United for Neighborhood Action). In 2015, then-newly hired Executive Director Jude-Laure Denis, moved POWER Northeast into an office within the city center, where communities most affected by Allentown’s economic depression reside. Here, the organization noticed another geographic pattern: The closer you were to downtown, the more likely you were to meet people who had been in jail. “Within those particular zip codes,” explains Denis, “it is rarer to meet someone who hasn’t been touched in some way by the system.” And there is a distinct connection between mass incarceration and voter disengagement. “You are talking about people who are so busy meeting their basic needs that they’re not thriving,” says Denis. “You are talking about people who experience educational failures. You are talking about people who feed the school to prison pipeline. Pretty much that describes Allentown.”

The ways in which mass incarceration disassociates people from their communities are deeply embedded in larger systemic issues of racism. Spending time in the prison system creates a feedback loop that your life doesn’t matter, that you aren’t important. Hasshan Batts, a healthcare and community development consultant in Allentown who along with Denis, co-founded POWER Northeast’s efforts to engage the formerly incarcerated, described his own experience in the prison system as demoralizing. “As a prison survivor,” says Batts, “I can tell you that prison is a traumatic experience, but the difference between prison and other forms of trauma is that it’s perceived in our society as earned trauma.”

For Allentown, the prison system and mass incarceration are imbedded in the racialized history of the commonwealth. “The prison system started in Pennsylvania, and the world watches us in many ways,” explained Batts. “Pennsylvania recently passed a law for predictive sentencing by zip code and it’s the only place in the country that does this. It’s an actuarial tool.” That means you might earn additional time during sentencing not because of your crime, but because of where you live. Such criminal risk assessments that factor variables that are beyond an individual’s control, such as age, gender and zip code are rife with problems, according to a recent report by the Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight. Writers Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Ben Casselman and Dana Goldstein warn that Pennsylvania’s algorithm will “in some cases, penalize residents of urban areas, who are far more likely to be black.” And an analysis by ProPublica of algorithmic forecasting for violent crime in Florida found that algorithms were “particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants.”

Compounding the difficulties in returning home after incarceration is feeling unwelcomed by communities that don’t acknowledge the impact of that trauma. “The current power structure relies on the cycle of disenfranchisement, hopelessness and isolation of communities with historically low voter turnout” explains Pastor Greg Edwards. Edwards was board chair of POWER Northeast during the 2016 re-entry campaign. Inspired by witnessing these efforts, Edwards in September announced his candidacy to replace Charlie Dent’s soon to be vacant seat in Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District, which includes Allentown. “The Democratic party continues to ignore” the populations that need most to be reached, Edwards says. POWER Northeast’s 2016 campaign offered Edwards a glimpse of an organizing model that could reach and galvanize communities who might vote “if there were a candidate worthy of their vote.” His campaign aims to build from this tradition to bring reluctant citizens to the polls and shift the “existing political paradigm on its head.”


POWER Northeast’s political mobilization did not stop at the presidential election; the national election was a means for POWER Northeast to engage people in the larger, more pressing fight in local politics. “You want to impact mass incarceration?” Denis says. “Talk about the local district attorney.” On Nov. 8, 2016, as POWER Northeast canvassers were knocking on doors to remind residents across downtown Allentown to vote, they were also leaving pamphlets inviting residents to a series of three town halls to interact with the candidates being considered for the superintendent position at the school district.

In these town halls, canvassers who only a week prior had been knocking on doors throughout the city, were now posing questions to the superintendent candidates about racial equity, jobs training, and culturally sensitive education. POWER Northeast paid canvassers a fair minimum wage of $15 per hour to attend the forums and pose questions. For the roughly two dozen formerly incarcerated individuals who were hired by POWER Northeast during the recent election, this work is more than just a $15 an hour job; it’s a lifeline to a community that they may not have realized had a space for them. “It sends that message to those that are incarcerated that you do have a place. That we will fight for you to create a space in Allentown,” says Batts.

On Sept. 6, Mckenzie and a group from POWER Northeast decided to occupy Congressman Dent’s office to protest DACA. The next day, Dent announced he wasn’t going to seek reelection. A few days later, Edwards announced his run for the seat. When Senator Toomey spent the summer avoiding his constituents who were concerned about his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, POWER Northeast was part of a coalition that held “Town Hall without Toomey,” a direct action that brought the community together to express their concerns, with a suit on a hanger as a stand-in for the senator. A video of the stunt made it onto garnering national attention. In fact, you can see Mckenzie in the video, manning his own camera as he documents the town hall for his youtube channel. “POWER Northeast helps cut through all that crap so you know who the players are,” explains Mckenzie. “It put me on ground zero meeting politicians and seeing how they act. POWER Northeast says we got to keep calling politicians to hold them accountable. If I stop calling, who’s gonna make that phone call?” Mckenzie’s political engagement has grown exponentially since the initial fire was lit at that Ferraro rally in 1984. Since finding his community at POWER Northeast, Mckenzie’s passion for politics has found expression in ways that have brought him closer to seats of power than ever before.

Sydney ‘Trek’ Mckenzie (Photo by Emmia Newman)

So how do you start to forge meaningful connection in communities where the trust is broken? “You keep showing up,” says Denis. “You are a member of the community, and they keep seeing you as a credible partner, and you continue to bring issues of justice to the front and you continue to be honest about where you have power and where you don’t.” Over time, people buy in, she says.


Perhaps the ultimate proof of the power of a single vote is in the very restrictions that the government attempts to use to deter voting. “Voting scares the hell out of people,” says Batts. Consider the Trump administration’s newly formed Election Integrity Commission which seems positioned specifically to restrict access to the ballot among people of color. In an interview last spring with NPR, author Ari Berman explained how the history of voter suppression is rooted in “white segregationists who were not going to give up power or not going to do anything on civil rights as long as so many black voters were disenfranchised.” But Allentown’s voter disengagements can also be a secret weapon for those looking to get their foot in the door. A race that may be decided by a few hundred people means every vote does count. And the key to getting people engaged may be as simple as showing up.

When Mckenzie registered to vote in high school, it was so easy he barely realized that anything significant had occurred. “There’s a huge difference between getting people to register to vote and getting them to vote,” says Batts. “There’s a lot of voter intimidation. We have to pick people up and give them rides, to deal with systemic barriers, police harassing our workers.” For example, Pennsylvania is one of only three states that has over 1,000 municipal governments. “The voter ID rule is confusing and we have legislative districts that are gerrymandered and oddly shaped and so many municipalities,” says Jan Little, president of the League of Women Voters of Lehigh County. “People who move around don’t necessarily know where to go to vote.” In fact, POWER Northeast found that using phone banks to reach people in Allentown was a practice in futility — the transitory nature of the population meant that phone numbers were dead ends in trying to reach those living downtown. Engaging the community meant resorting to the old standards, a door knock and a face-to-face conversation.

For Faiz Shakir, national political director of the ACLU, it boils down to one fundamental question: Do you think we should make it easier to vote? “The long lines, the cumbersome restrictions, the lack of knowledge about the process are just ridiculous in a democracy like ours,” he says. “So hearts and minds need to evolve to understand that the big problem with voting rights in America is not that fraud is too easy but rather that voting is too hard. We need a nationwide grassroots movement to expand voting rights.” In Pennsylvania, the ACLU is working with Keystone Votes to make voting more convenient by advocating for same-day voter registration, optional voting by mail and in-person early voting, ideas that have been successfully implemented in other states.

POWER Northeast combats the misinformation and confusion around voting with a strategy of nurturing what it calls “credible messengers.” When Batts asks people living downtown to identify the role of a school board member, city council or county commissioner, he tends to get blank stares. “It’s a secret society in their mind. White middle-class families understand what the school board does.” Credible messengers, according to Denis, are people whose lives are directly impacted by the issues and who “feel brave enough to actually engage with the issues, from a real place, and in talking to each other, come up with a stronger way forward than anyone of us could have done separately.” It’s a seemingly simple idea — help the disaffected feel the power of their voice and they will exercise their power to vote and to advocate. They also aim to foster a sense of agency among staffers, with a program they refer to as “power analysis.” Power analysis teaches staffers how government works at both the local and national level to “help people identify and recognize the structural issues that exist in their lives,” according to Batts.

Informed by these power analyses, it was not uncommon for POWER Northeast canvassers to cite the numbers of people who had voted in the last mayoral race, or to debate the candidates in the active superintendent search taking place in Allentown. On the Monday before the 2016 presidential election. Michelle Collazo, a POWER Northeast canvasser, spent half a day in the parking lot of C-Town, a grocery store serving a Spanish-speaking population in downtown Allentown, speaking to reluctant interlocutors who each had their own reasons for not voting. At one point, an elderly woman puffing on a cigarette while holding a POWER flyer proclaimed that she had no intention to vote. She seemed, as did many others, skeptical, presuming that POWER Northeast was merely a vehicle for a particular political candidate or party. Michelle spent several minutes explaining in Spanish that POWER Northeast is nonpartisan: “It’s not important who you vote for, just that you vote.” Michelle also explained that she was formerly incarcerated and that POWER Northeast not only hired her when other places wouldn’t, but taught her how she can be part of the solution to community issues. Regardless of whether or not she convinced the woman to vote, Michelle found the conversation energizing.

“Candidates have not done a good job of explaining why politics matters to people, nor have they connected the dots between everyday pain and politics,” explains Edwards “When communities are empowered to vote for someone who is close to their struggle, someone who can see their full humanity, and someone who will truly represent them, we will see a shift in our current political paradigm. Once that happens, and people who have been made invisible realize the power in their vote, civic engagement, and being heard, we will see stronger and more connected communities.”

For Batts, surrounding himself with people that believed in him gave him the push he needed to realize his power within his community to affect change and advocate. Batts voted for the first time in 2008 after meeting Denis, who helped him realize that his incarceration and parole didn’t prevent him from exercising his power at the ballot. “After speaking with our staff in the aftermath of the work they did during the election, I can see that they are really aware of how much it mattered,” says Denis. “And a lot of them registered for the first time only because they were working for us.” POWER Northeast, which is part of the PICO National Network, aims to build on their 2016 initiative and develop a year-long paid community organizing fellowship to nurture formerly incarcerated and re-entering community members as “credible messengers,” the “go-to people who can point their community toward information and resources,” says Denis.

“We’re really trying to build a village. And we don’t build it overnight, we don’t have huge machines; it’s like manual labor. One brick at a time. And ultimately that’s what it will take: one relationship at a time.”

Additional reporting by Emmia Newman and Sydney “Trek” Mckenzie. POWER Northeast’s work will be featured in an upcoming documentary film produced with support by the Solutions Journalism Network’s Reentry Project, a collaborative news initiative about solutions to the challenges facing people returning from prison. This piece was also made possible with support from The Reentry Project.

Co-Creative Theorizing Practice Writing

The Making of “How to Tell A True Immigrant Story”

Originally published in The Tilt.

Oct 12, 2018

“There is no them. There is only us.” 

— Luis Alberto Urrera

Saratoga Springs, according to long-time busker and city dweller Thomas Nosal, is a magical, mysterious, bubbling spring of activity. People travel from miles away to luxuriate in a Saratoga summer with its lush greens and its mineral springs and its thoroughbred, racing horses.

“Yeah, it’s good here,” says Cristina (name changed). “But it’s also dangerous.” Cristina works a farm on the outskirts of town. She’s been there about 17 years, happily. But in the last two years, she’s felt afraid to leave her house. “We can’t just pick up and go to the cinema, to the beach, to the store,” she says. “Because of the immigration authorities. You never know where they’re gonna be.”

These are the voices of two very different Saratogas — one that twirls in red-and-white gingham, and another more labyrinthine, a series of walls obscuring safe passage.

Saratoga Springs and surrounding communities are predominately white and affluent while its workforce is mostly communities of color who are not originally from the U.S. These two constituencies are geographically sequestered — those who emigrate annually on H2B visas to work the horses, for example, live at the stables where the horses themselves are housed — as well as segregated by an unabashed racial hierarchy. Over the last year, Saratoga County has been a hotbed of ICE activity. The town is so racially homogenous that from restaurants to parked cars and ice cream shops, anyone who is not of the white, upper-middle class elite is an obvious target for profiling, for questioning and paper-checking.

In the summer of 2016, while an artist-in-residence at the Skidmore College MDOCS Storytellers Institute, I began an ongoing, co-creative documentary engagement with a community of artists and organizers who like myself, are immigrants to the United States.

Contemplative walk and pop-up install as part of our 2016 collaboration

This year, responding to increased ICE activity, racial profiling, and xenophobia across Saratoga County after the 2016 election, our collaborative partnered with the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council and the Skidmore MDOCS Documentary Studies Collaborative to participate in Brookline Interactive Group (BIG’s) first-ever national cohort, “Immigration in Full Frame.” This project brings together filmmakers, activists, and media arts organizations from around the country to produce a collection of 360-degree shorts that document an array of experiences pertaining to immigration in the United States.

We believed that 360 as a medium might uniquely create space for authentic encounters between two communities who are entwined, but who know each other only from a distance. We also believed that such contact is essential for fostering critical, compassionate dialogue about the issues urgently facing immigrant communities in Saratoga and beyond.

To begin, we held listening sessions with Saratoga County residents who work in agriculture and horseracing and who are labeled, if only implicitly, as “immigrant other.” We asked the routine documentary questions: How long have you been here? Why did you come? What do you do for work?

I myself have been asked these questions in countless immigration interviews, sitting next to my tireless mother as she fought for nearly two decades to secure our permission to live and work here in the United States. I know the feeling of coming from somewhere else and being reminded of it, made to answer for it. How then were our questions offering something different from the immigration interview space if central to both is: “Who are you and why are you here?”

Certainly the context of the documentary interview intends to be more generous than the boundary-erecting immigration interview. But as Trinh T. Minh-ha writes, the knowledge-making face of documentary works to “make accessible” those who are seen as alien. “Without their [documentary] benefactors,” Minh-ha writes, such communities are “bound to remain non-admitted, non-incorporated.” Here, the language of documentary is adjacent to customs control, both seeking admissions, incorporation; both reducing a full personhood to the sum of its borders crossed.

With its panopticon eye, 360 video can, if unchecked, reinforce some of documentary’s most damaging inclinations, its tendency toward what Godmilow describes as the “titillation of difference.” At the same time, with every shot pre-visualized, pre-planned, and directed, 360 is dressed in its own constructedness, calling our attention to the act of looking. The viewer is both invited and implicated. As such, it can be a space for deconstructing discourse, for interrogating realism, as well as for privileging experience over exposition.

Inspired by artist Nicky Tavares’ experiments with collage in the VR space, we shifted our 360 project away from the expository documentary toward a performative tapestry of felt experience sewn together in critical analysis.Through a combination of emotion, abstraction, and texture, we hoped to quiet the categorizing mind and leverage the sensory dislocations of 360 video to impel viewers’ bodies upon the gears of incorporation. The poetic as radical.

To begin, we returned to our interview recordings and wrote a script adapting or borrowing lines directly from community members. But in this script, rather than seek to convey “immigrant” data, we sought shared visions, collective voice, poetry.

first page of script with name of non-actor redacted

We fashioned the piece as a metanarrative that could implicate documentary’s unintentional slippages toward the dehumanizing and instead illuminate the lives of complex, multi-dimensional, and creative people who have traversed rivers and skyways and the rugged hills of being.

“The Interrogation Room,” one site of dialogue within the film

The structure of the piece became an interrogation room in which the nature of the interrogation is left intentionally ambiguous. It could be either a customs interview or a documentary one. In this room, a (non-actor) member of the community is met with questions drawn from the greatest hits of doc interviews. And while each question begins as something information-gathering, it launches the scene into a more meditative contemplation.

In the Freirian tradition of “carrying out transformation with the people affected by oppressive systems, rather than for them,” we worked with community members throughout the process.

Most of the participants were students in this year’s Estamos Aquí (We’re Here) photography workshop — a space for Saratoga Springs’ Latinx immigrants to document and share their experiences of living and working in the area. Given the overlaps in people and goals between Estamos Aquí and the 360 video, conversations about the 360 video project would organically surface in the workshop. In these conversations, we could offer context, answer questions, schedule interviews, hear ideas and leads, and foster a climate of participation and collective visioning. In this workshop and outside of it, community members helped rewrite lines, performed in the film, helped produce particular scenes, and offered their spaces and stories to enrich the immersive potential of the piece.

The narration for the film, like the film and the process of its making, aims to be a tapestry of voices and experiences. The voice-over narration, for example, is interwoven with verse written by Roga ’74, a poet, artist, organizer, and dear friend of this collaboration. And every conversation with community members was something that might inform or infuse the script. Speaking casually with the son of a photography workshop participant, he told us that his Spanish name meets with a plethora of reinterpretations in the U.S. “People call me by different names,” he told us. Arresting in its intersections with identity, power, and incorporation, this statement became one of the foundational lines of the film’s contemplative narration. The line is narrated, in fact, by the same young man who first spoke it to us.

Upon completion — a finishing process which will include design collaborations with artists Nile Livingston and Adam Tinkle — we have plans to share the film widely. Our first audience (among the many audiences with whom we wish to share this piece) are the community members themselves who courageously shared their stories with us, even if anonymously. Not only do we want to make sure that the community members approve of our choices (given the risks of exposure), we also believe that the project is first and foremost for them. The project existed as a deeply meaningful process before it was ever product, and film is in this way an archive, an illustration of what transpired among us. Watching it together can be an opportunity to reflect on our process, discover new “revolutionary wisdom,” and dream next steps, including ways to share the film and possibilities for future collaborations.

But the film is also an intentionally structured, reflective statement meant to intervene in local, regional, and even national discourse. 360 video also offers opportunity to experience one’s self and one’s space anew, a perceptual reshuffling which can expand how Saratoga Springs sees itself while also asking all of us to think about ways our own practices might reinforce othering. We plan to work with our partners in Saratoga to plan exhibitions that bring together diverse (and even distanced) constituencies to experience the piece, discuss its implications, and plant seeds for a more inclusive sense of collective identity and shared outcomes. We will work in a similar fashion with our national partners and collaborators including BIG, New Media Advocacy Project, and Groundswell to share the film and its process widely.

I don’t mean in this reflection to enshrine a series of “best practices” for 360 video. Every project calls for different approaches, different formal concerns. What I do hope can resonate here is the notion that our methods matter. If our methods towards justice reify the exact social relations that uphold the structures we wish to change, we are no step closer to liberation. This film, I hope, is less about “immigrants” and more about the ways we are all implicated in constructing “the immigrant,” about what could come to light beyond the shadow of this construct which is at once ever-expanding and constricting.

I’d like to thank our invaluable project collaborators, including but not limited to: media artist Emily Rizzo; multimedia artist Nicky Tavares; storyteller Ele Martinez; poet Roga ’74; Ana Cruz; EOC staff Krystle Nowhitney Hernandez, Joan Odess, Irma Rivera, and Ana Zaragoza; actor Matt Bagley; and the entire staff and community of the Skidmore MDOCS Storytellers Institute including Jordana Dym, Jesse O’Connell, Adam Tinkle, and Sarah Friedland.Many thanks also to the Brookline Interactive Group, New Media Advocacy Project & NMAP editor Michael Braithwaite.