The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly difficult for young people. As schools moved online and students had to stay home, they were forced to put their plans on hold and navigate the challenges of the crisis in isolation.
To keep young filmmakers engaged throughout the pandemic, the youth media organization Big Picture Alliance created the COmmunity VIDeo Resiliency Project, which supported filmmakers exploring how the pandemic was affecting their communities.
“We throw this word resiliency around and it can mean so many different things. The best example of resilience I’ve seen is youth leaders. This has gone from being a program to a legitimate production team,” said Big Picture Alliance Executive Director Aleks Martray. “Young people are a huge part of the process of community journalism.”
I spoke with Martay and other members of the BPA team to learn more about the project.
Here is a lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation:
Kyra Miller: Give me an overview of the project and thinking behind it:
Aleks Martray, Big Picture Alliance executive director: The COmmunity VIDeo Resiliency Project was really our response to how we keep our youth filmmakers really engaged and connected through COVID. In March of 2020 we were ready to launch two big narrative film productions that we had to put on hold, so we had a couple months where we were just trying to figure out what to do. I think at first no one really wanted to make work about COVID and its impact because it was so new, but by June there was a real interest among our youth leadership team to explore how COVID was impacting our communities in a lot of different facets. We had transitioned to being all virtual, and our idea was to create a project that all of our different youth filmmakers could contribute to that was accessible through virtual means. It was created as a virtual space for young people to connect, give information and resources, and just share their stories. For us, Instagram was the place to be. That is where our young people are at. The idea came to create episodic short documentaries on how COVID is impacting communities in a broad sense including arts and culture, health and wellness, and, of course, social justice since a lot of this was intersecting together.
Our teen media collective really led the project but all of our students from other programs contributed as well. From September through January we were releasing biweekly episodes on Instagram and YouTube and monthly TV broadcasts through PhillyCam and PSTV (Philadelphia School District Television). We wanted to uplift youth voices and keep people connected.
There was a series of seven core films that we premiered and screened in February that were key pieces that are now being broadcast by WHYY. That is the overarching idea of the project.
Nasya Jenkins, Big Picture Alliance social media manager: One of the films I worked on was called From Digital Divide to Digital Equity, which was really a game-changer for me as far as production, getting to know people, and talking to so many great organizations that are available here in the city. This project was so personal. I had just moved and was trying to figure out internet myself, and in the midst of that I got all of this information on how I can fix that for myself. It was a really beautiful process.
Jose Quintana, Big Picture Alliance tech supervisor and media manager: The piece I worked on, co-directed and edited, was centered around Vote That Jawn, titled This Choice is Your Voice. The whole piece was to not only empower young people to register to vote, but everyone. It was to send out the message that the people can choose the outcome of the election and to show the power that your everyday person has to impact the world. It was a really cool project to work on collaboratively because we have made a whole bunch of films together, but not in this way. We learned a lot in terms of being able to communicate with each other more clearly because there were just so many different people contributing to the project. There were multiple editors, writers, and directors. I felt like we were able to grow a lot from this experience and take what we learned to new projects.
Miller: It must have been really challenging to try and create films during COVID and being mostly virtual. Can you all tell me a little bit about that?
Jenkins: Our best component was also our worst. Being online was super draining for me. We overcame a lot of hurdles. We were so used to seeing everyone and bouncing ideas off of each other in person and then we had to convert completely online. There was an adjustment period but now we have an office at home and made community for ourselves. Nothing actually really changed, we just had to make it what it could be.
Martray: So much of filmmaking is collaboration and being in the same space, but we figured out how to branch out and collaborate not only with each other but also with so many other organizations. We’ve done much more of that than ever before. We partnered with over a dozen organizations in this project alone. A lot of them we already know, but because of this virtual space it flattens everything and everyone is accessible. The goal became to highlight and uplift not only youth stories, but stories of the organizations on the ground floor really doing the work in terms of the pandemic and racial justice. Building those relationships has been huge.
Our screening was a huge part of that. We had over 100 people attend, along with city council members and organizational representatives. It helped cultivate a really rich conversation around everything we’ve been through and what is coming up over the next year as we transition into a post-COVID world.
Miller: What are some specific challenges facing youth during the pandemic that maybe people don’t commonly know or think about?
Jenkins: The two biggest things that people know about, but not the severity of it, was a lot of the social justice movement, and things that were happening within communities who are less fortunate. Specifically with the digital divide, many weren’t even aware that people had to go out and find internet. People with kids would sometimes be running the risk of getting sick just to get their children internet. Then there are some people comfortably working from home with no issue with their internet. This was a real eye-opener for a lot of people.
We have done a lot of programming around social justice with another partner, Youth Set the Stage. People didn’t really put two and two together with youth, education, and social justice, how they affect each other, and why teaching them all together is really important.
That is something that people should start thinking about more, specifically along the lines of education, so that we don’t exclude anyone’s experience or certain parts of history that are really important to know.
Martray: A really common phrase that came up a lot is how the pandemic really amplified a lot of social inequities that already existed. There is this illusion that digital equity, education equity, and housing are all issues that the pandemic suddenly created. This is our society revealed. If you are not going to be radical and work together to create change, when are you going to? That’s language I’ve heard with all of our partners. It’s the refrain that this project really helped to uplift. A lot of these movements that are going on right now have been going on for a long time and now they are getting a platform, which is really important. The key now, I think, is how do we keep this work and momentum going when we are not in “unprecedented times.”
Miller: This grant program was launched with a focus on COVID, and now we have seen a dual pandemic with the social justice movement and civil unrest. How did you all grapple with these both?
Jenkins: Working in this program saves my life every single day. I live close to 52nd Street, and the riot that broke out at 52nd Street started in front of my house. Experiencing that and everything else that happened this summer was a lot, and BPA really brought it all to light. Those people aren’t out there doing these things just to do it, they want to be heard. They want to be seen. I’m fortunate enough to have a platform and am able to speak about how I feel about my experience. BPA amplifies and secures that for me, and doesn’t make me feel like I’m less than or not important. The biggest part of BPA is that they make everybody who’s anybody feel super important, heard, and special. That is something that everyone deserves.
Martray: This is what media making is all about. You are looking at the world through a lens and are able to tell not only your personal experience from your perspective but you’re able to work with others from your community to uplift and amplify that to share challenges and solutions. Young people should be a part of crafting the solutions that impact them. Media is a good way to have a seat at the table. There is a feeling of helplessness which is valid for everyone. There is so much less that we have control over. Being able to create media is a way to take some of that control back and have a voice in how things pan out during and after this pandemic.
Miller: In what ways did you try to empower filmmakers to continue this work through such an odd time in our history?
Bettina Escauriza, Big Picture Alliance teaching artist and mentor: I always encourage my students to pay attention. A lot of the time in nonprofit storytelling, engaging with people of color there is this push towards “telling your personal story.” I’m not 100% sure that is good. I understand where it is coming from, but I think, for me, it’s important for young people to feel like they are part of an international community, that they are full members of society, and that they are allowed to engage in that as storytellers and thinkers. There isn’t some corner of the world that belongs to them and that they need to stay in that corner. Empowering young filmmakers is about making sure we are helping to expand the spaces in which our kids feel like they can occupy, and ensure that their perspectives belong in all spaces.
Our program is really diverse, so we have this space in which people with different perspectives can work alongside each other with their different interests. Filmmaking is one of those things that when you do it you gain skills in every aspect of your life because it requires so much organization, communication, and collaboration. You have this idea that lives in your mind and you have to figure out how to make it in the world. It is a really immense skill-building project. That is something we encourage our students to do. You have to be creative, wild, and out there in the world. But you may want to also study chemistry, and that’s fine! Chemistry is amazing, you are going to get skills from filmmaking that translate into filmmaking. In that way, everybody is welcome.
Jenkins: One thing I will say is that Bettina is our guiding star. She encourages us to be authentically ourselves. That is one thing about this program that I completely adore. There is no cap on what creativity is here. They are always pushing us to be our best selves, our best filmmakers, our best creatives. Programs like this make us better people. It makes us more well-rounded people. It makes us more productive members of society. We know how to communicate with one another, discuss business, understand taxes and budgets. When you’re in BPA you’re not just there because they want you to work. You’re there because they want you to learn and progress. I’ve been here for quite some time, so to see what is happening with this program is really cool.
Nikki Harmon, Big PIcture Alliance teaching artist and program director: I want to reflect on the students we worked with in the Work Ready program last summer, which was part of the COmmunity VIDeo Resiliency Project. We were all transitioning to this new online life, but I never met those kids in person. I never saw them and probably never will. I’m so impressed with the way kids show up and work hard even though their circumstances are challenging. We had one student make a documentary on mask wearing at that point where everyone accepted that we should wear a mask. He was knitting masks in his basement. He was so focused and worked really hard. None of his subjects were film-savvy at all, but they all sat and did the interviews and did a great job. He just really powered through that piece. He and another student I worked with personally met a lot for one-on-one mentorships. I hope that it helped them get through the challenging time, to talk about their experiences and what they were doing to be proactive in their communities and with their families. But it certainly helped me. It was just really impressive to make something out of nothing when you’ve never done this before and with someone you’ve never met in person.
Miller: It seems like there is this really nice symbiotic relationship between you and the students where you all experienced this together, on a level playing field.
Martray: We try and think of this as a community and a pathway. I’ve known Nasya and Jose since they were sophomores in high school. Not everyone ends up wanting to do film, that’s not our ultimate goal. We want to offer a community and a pathway from middle school all the way through college. We are here as a pathway for mentoring, personal and professional development. As you are figuring out who you are and what brings you joy, you have a community of people who can help you pursue that. Figuring it out is a huge part of the process. That’s what we are all about.
Miller: I really like that because you’re sending this message that everyone is a creative. Even if your title is in the professional world, everyone is a storyteller in some way. What type of feedback are you all receiving from the community?
Martray: The screening was a big moment for that. The turnout alone gave us the sense that this work has impacted people over the last 6-8 months. We’ve had a lot more engagement on social media telling us how impactful our work has been. I think the fact that now we’re going to be putting the work out on WHYY and other regional platforms is a symbol that this work is really important and there is a space for it.
The first piece that WHYY wants to put out is called A Side of Light which was created by Michelle Wu who is one of our students. It is about how Asian American organizations in Philadelphia are supporting their communities against anti-racist initiatives and mutual aid. This film premiered at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival in the fall, but it is more relevant than ever. These films are important not only now, but their importance is timeless.
A lot of the organizations that we have partnered with have utilized these films in their movements. Nasya’s film is not only going to film festivals, but Philly Tech Justice put it on their website and used it as part of their campaign. We tried to create content that was actually useful within the movement to enact change.
Miller: You all have done such incredible work during times of COVID. How do you all envision continuing this work into the post-COVID world? What is next for you all?
Quintana: There has been a lot of collaboration even outside of Philly. Right now we are working on a project called Disinformation which is highlighting the dis-and-misinformation around the vaccine. The people that are working on it used to live in Philly but are now located in California and Arizona. We meet three times a week to make sure that we are having the right animations, script, voiceovers. The biggest thing that I learned and that we will utilize after this pandemic is the value of collaboration with different types of people.
Martray: We throw this word resiliency around and it can mean so many different things. The best example of resilience I’ve seen is youth leaders. This has gone from being a program to a legitimate production team. They are leading the meetings and running a well-oiled machine across multiple states. A big transformation I’ve seen is that we as an organization have become much more youth-led which is really the whole point. I want to get to a point where y’all don’t even need us anymore. Jose and Nasya are on staff now with BPA. That’s what we want this to be about. Something we learned from this year is that being youth-led is the path forward. But I also can’t wait to be back in the same room as all of these people.
Jenkins: The part that I’m looking forward to seeing people move up see in experience. It’s really cool to see both Jose and I in these positions, but it’s going to be even more cool when our other teammates move up. It’s really nice to see that youth has a say in what they want to do with their lives. Being in these positions will give other youth the confidence to say “I wanna do that!”
Escauriza: One of the things that happened with quarantine was that we pushed into journalism in a way that we hadn’t before. We made a Zoom narrative film right at the beginning of quarenting and we made sure we were having fun in this space. But it got to this point where we settled into the moment and realized that youth have a role and responsibility to play in the pandemic. At first there was some hesitancy to make COVID-specific work. It took some time, but eventually we really began making journalism. For me, that has been really amazing. It’s been good for me to share another aspect of the work that I do, but also see young people being engaged in journalistic storytelling. It has a really specific skill-set that they were all able to learn.
Martray: We may have been unique in this grant program being the only youth organization in this cohort. Young people are a huge part of the process of community journalism. They are often left out of grant opportunities within journalism. We advocate for more community journalism that centers youth perspectives.