Ferguson, MO USA

The Truth Telling Project &
Michael Brown Chosen for Change Foundation

In Ferguson, Palika collaborated with The Truth Telling Project – a community-led and grassroots organization utilizing truth-telling and storytelling processes to share local voices, to educate America, and to support reconciliation for the purposes of eliminating structural violence and systemic racism against Black people in the United States.

Palika also had the honor of working with The Chosen for Change Foundation, run by Mike Brown Sr. (father of Mike Brown Jr.) and his wife. Chosen for Change is a community organization that runs programs, activities and events that are responsive, reflective, and holistic for families who have lost (or are at risk of losing) a child due to systemic issues.

Situation

I originally intended to only partner with The Truth Telling Project, but as it often happens with movement work, coalitions form between organizations in order to share resources and best achieve a shared vision for justice. The dual collaboration with The Truth Telling Project and Chosen for Change helped me to build trust within the Ferguson movement community, making my work stronger and helping me to create a larger impact. As both organizations are in their beginning stages, it was important for me strategize with co founders and directors to create a strong and sustainable media advocacy plan that would help them to effectively document injustice and advocate for change moving forward (even after I left).

Action

I ran a month long media advocacy workshop with five young women (15-16 years old) who have been affected by police violence – as protesters and/or family members of someone killed by the police. We worked every day in the hot St. Louis sun – thinking deeply about how the story of Ferguson has been told by the media thus far and how they could help nuance that one dimensional (and often racist) viewpoint. We watched documentary films, practiced creative ways of storytelling (from team building exercises to portrait drawing and free writing activities), and refined interview and basic camera skills – focusing on shot composition and story building. Finally, students worked with me and another Babel Project filmmaker, Nick Castle to produce a short documentary that told the story of Ferguson from their perspective. For the sisters of Mike Brown Jr., it was especially important to include funny and happy stories about their brother whose character was brutalized by the media after his murder. The young activists scouted locations, created shot lists, conducted interviews, and directed Nick – who wasn’t allowed to film anything unless they told him to. They reviewed footage at the end of each day, providing me and Nick with detailed notes about what to include and what to cut, and ultimately how to build their story.

The final film – Youth Speak Truth – premiered on August 9, 2016 at an event commemorating the two years that have passed since Mike Brown Jr. was killed. Organized in collaboration with The Truth Telling Project and Chosen for Change, we invited the families of people around the country who have lost loved ones to police violence – focusing on the voices of their youngest (and often least heard) members – to share their stories with the Ferguson community. Because we were working with people as young as 12-years-old, it was important for us to make them feel comfortable and safe. To help achieve this, we partnered with Storycorps Justice Project facilitators, who ran a storytelling workshop for the young participants and their families – helping them to refine their storytelling skills and practice what they would say on stage the next day. Family members also recorded audio conversations with Storycorps, which are now archived in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

We filmed the stories shared at the event, and I’m now in the process of leading a team of radical educators in creating an educational resource with those stories. The resource – It’s Time to Listen – creates links between police violence and other systemic issues we identified (mass incarceration, housing inequality, etc.), helping to dispel the notion that police violence is only the result of “a few racist cops” or people being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” The curricula, which focuses on deep listening and building empathy, encourages people outside of communities targeted by systemic and racialized violence to become more informed and thoughtful allies, always centering the work around the voices of those most affected.

I will be spending the remainder of 2017 leading distribution for the resource, presenting to conferences and running workshops with community groups and organizations interested in deepening their knowledge of racial issues in America.

In addition to my work listed, I also ran a day long grant writing session with Chosen for Change, and produced a template for them to apply to their first foundation grants.

Challenges

As an outsider entering a closely knit movement and activist community, it was of the utmost importance for me to navigate my role in an ethical and productive way. I had to understand that there would be many occasions where my input would NOT be necessary, and my voice did NOT need to be heard. I had to be incredibly thoughtful of my privilege entering a community I was not a part of, always negotiating how to be the best ally while actively organizing.

A challenge that I hadn’t planned for was that none of the parents or guardians of the young activists were able to transport them to the workshop, nor did the activists have access to public transportation. Many of the parents were busy caring for other family members, holding down multiple jobs, and still being active community members. I had to rent a larger and more expensive car, and pick up and drop off all five young people every single day, adding almost 1.5 hours of driving time to each day’s schedule. This was challenging logistically, but our extra time spent in the car every day building trust and opening our hearts to each other was priceless.

Additionally, because both organizations were in their beginning stages, everyone involved had to play multiple roles – as is often the case with grassroots organizing work. It was instinctual for me to put the needs of the organizations first and any fellowship research work I wanted to engage in, last, but this was a challenge I had to negotiate.

Reflections

One of my goals coming into this fellowship was to delve deeper into media activism and organizing work outside of the “youth media” space. Sometimes when I work with youth contingencies within an organization, it’s easy to become isolated from other areas of the work because of conflicting workshop schedules, etc., which I believe ultimately harms the end product. In Ferguson, I was able to engage directly with organizing and strategizing beyond the workshop I ran with the young activists, helping to apply storytelling and media skills to the larger movement landscape. This has been an incredible turning point in my media activism career. I truly believe that narrative changing and visual documentation are critical to shaping public opinion and creating policy change, and my experience in Ferguson gave me the opportunity to engage in that work. Thus far in my career, I’ve had more opportunities to work in the youth media space because those are the populations who tend to best understand creative approaches to activism and media literacy. But as movement spaces evolve and grow in the U.S., I believe everyone is starting to understand the importance of media in activism work, and I’m both excited and humbled to be a part of this moment.

I’m now an Advisory Board Member and the Media Director of The Truth Telling Project, participating in weekly strategy meetings, leading development and distribution of our educational resource, fundraising, and helping to organize more truth-telling events.

The Ferguson workshop was my first time using the “filmmaker partnership model” where the young activists played the role of producers and partnered with a professional filmmaker to create the final product. I was eager to try this model in Ferguson because there was such an emphasis on final product for this workshop. I had also wanted to work with the model because I believe that “soft skills” like interviewing, media literacy, and story production are more easily transferrable and applicable to activism work than “hard skills” such as camera operating, filming, editing, etc. Of course we did engage in some hard skills, but concentrated mainly on camera basics. The end result was a beautiful and polished film with a story completely constructed by the activists. They also walked away from the workshop with improved storytelling, interviewing and media literacy skills that will be beneficial to their activism work moving forward.

This was also my first experience creating an educational resource as the final impact product from a partnership or workshop, and I’m thankful to have this new skillset.

Results

Organizational Development Activity
Led grant writing session with Chosen for Change Foundation

grant writing

grant writing

grant writing

Activist Produced Video

Youth Speak Truth Event

Flier

Educational Toolkit Website

grant writing

Testimonies

Young Humans of the Movement

Displayed at the Youth Speak Truth event where we premiered the film and
invited other young people from around the country to share their stories of police violence.

Behind the Scenes

grant writing
grant writing
grant writing
grant writing