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MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

“Criminal justice is the biggest human rights issue in the U.S.,” Carroll Bogert, president of the non-profit criminal justice news platform The Marshall Project, declared from the stage Friday at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Humanitarian Symposium. “Why do we think civil rights happened here, and human rights happen somewhere else?”

That was the question at the center of a wide-ranging conversation between Bogert and E. Tendayi Achiume, assistant professor of law at UCLA Law School and the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, and Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Los Angeles is a City for CEDAW, even though the U.S. has yet to ratify the treaty calling for worldwide gender equality. “That can be applied to criminal justice reform,” Achiume noted, “and that is a global issue where the U.S. is far behind.” Building criminal justice reform efforts around a “shared language” of human rights, she added, can help “race activists connect with the movement outside.”

That’s the language Cullors speaks with her organizing efforts. “When we started Black Lives Matter, we were very clear that we wanted an international frame,” she explained, adding that the BLM Global Network now extends to places like Brazil and the United Kingdom. “Black Lives Matter wasn’t go to be African American Lives Matter.”

Cullors is also founder and chairperson of the Reform LA Jails movement, which has seen recent success in a city where, according to the activist leader, 17,000 people are in prison daily because they can’t afford to post cash bail. The coalition fought the construction of new jails in Los Angeles County for 15 years—and officially, just this year, put a halt to a $35B jail expansion plan.

But the campaign to stop cash from flowing into the construction of new prisons in LA was “never about jail facilities,” Cullors explained. Instead, it was “always about the investment.” Halting budget expansions for prisons, she noted, is one way of “reversing the [city’s] divestment from people of color.” That’s why the big fight now ahead of the Reform coalition is a ballot measure campaign moving money away from jails and passing it on, instead, to mental health care services.

“Someone imagined a jail cell,” Cullors reminded the room. “Someone imagine a siren. And then they came to be, and we came to think that they had always existed.”

Cullors, of course, is interested in imagining a new way forward that looks entirely different—and she talked to Ms. after walking off the stage Friday about what comes next in the work of making it possible.

We’re coming up on 2020, and there’s all these conversations right now about what’s a political agenda that serves people in the right way. What’s a local agenda? What do you think a political framework that does center black lives and black liberation would look like in this current moment?

Well, I think, you know, this conversation around abolition and reparations is critical for how we are talking about what’s needed for black liberation. You know, Black Lives Matter Global Network launched a campaign called What Matters in 2020—really calling on, I would say, not just the presidential candidates, but also, you know, elected officials, appointed officials across the country to really look at, um, what it would take to consider a black agenda. In 2016, when Black Lives Matter really took, you know, an a aggressive approach to challenging the presidential candidates about discussing Black Lives Matter; this is sort of the evolution of that.

We’ve really identified, you know, what are some key issues that black people are thinking about? Obviously police brutality, criminal justice reform, issues around maternal mortality and morbidity, economic justice, queer and trans rights is the kind of the center of what black people are thinking about around how we get free. It’s not, I don’t think, hyperbolic to say what you’ve been saying for the last six years—which is, when black people get free, everybody else gets free. The work of changing the very fabric of this country is going to take really looking at the history of the oppression of black people and the divestment from black communities and what it would look like to reinvest into these communities.

I also really loved the idea of applying a human rights framework here and also even at that local level, like in our communities. From your experience, having done all this organizing that you’ve done, what does it look like in practice to have that human rights framework at the center of an organization or a campaign that might be really hyper-locally focused or you know, a county campaign, or absolutely presidential campaign?

I think for us here in Los Angeles, as we’re leading a much of the work around changing the criminal justice system—is being brave enough to have a conversation about what does it mean that our system here in Los Angeles is the largest jailer in the world, that it has really been the blueprint and a lot of ways for other jail facilities across the country, that our Sheriff’s department, you know, is a Sheriff’s department that is riddled with corruption and a culture of violence. And that isn’t an anomaly, right? That is the culture at most law enforcement agencies.

It really begs a question around the use of jailing and the use of policing if these sort of two apparatuses weren’t really created, you know, to rehabilitate—which we know they weren’t, jails and prisons were created after the emancipation of slavery and police were created during slavery to patrol black people—and so we have to have a historical conversation. I think when we have that historical conversation, both at the local level, it gives us an opportunity to talk about what’s happening across the country, and also what’s happening across the globe.

I think a lot of people are talking about disruption and disrupting systems and, you know, you talked a lot, too, about imagining new systems. What does a political system look like that would serve people?

Well, I think it’s twofold. You have to think about infrastructure and institutions as what creates systems, but the infrastructure institution also creates culture. So we got rid of Jim Crow, but we didn’t get rid of Jim Crow hate, right? We got rid of slavery, but we didn’t get rid of the idea that black people shouldn’t be still be subjugated, still be in chains, still be controlled.

We have to change the culture—and as we create every new system, we should be created in a way that is based off of the dignity and the humanity of individuals, and the collectives and the people they come from. When we’re thinking about institutions: the institution of imprisonment is not an institution that is about dignity, not an institution that is about freedom. It is literally about control and subjugation and punishment. We need to imagine a new system, one that is about healing and that it’s about dignity, but it’s about reconnection. It’s not going to come inside of caging a human being.

Much of what we talked about on the panel is like there’s other places that are doing it. We can learn from those other places. There was a time when this country wasn’t inhabited by white colonizers. There was a time when the idea of policing or caging human being was not on the table. They’re there. We have context for being able to change what we have right now in the U.S. and in LA in particular, but we also have present context. We have places and countries and people that are doing it.

As you’ve built Black Lives Matter into this global network, what would you say are some of the greatest takeaways about how to build transnational movements? How can folks in one place support folks at another and how do they come together?

I think every time we’re doing local work, it has to have an international implications. The local work that I’m doing, I’m never thinking—oh, this is just going to help the people of Los Angeles. I know that the people of Los Angeles are from around the world, so it’s going to help people from around the world. I know that what Los Angeles does has national and international implications.

The work we’re doing here—and I’m going to use this term that I’ve talked about, I didn’t coin it, but I’ve talked about in a lot of my writings—is we have to create a non-reformist reformance. We are reform movement until revolution, but a non-reformance reform is the idea that you are going to reform an institution by not making it stronger. Non-reformance reform is something like, you know, take a half of the police budget and give it towards schools—not reform that would actually enhance the police. It’s like body cameras, right?

We’re not interested in giving more money to law enforcement to do a job that is about harming and violated communities. We’re interested in taking away that power so that we can put power into places that will empower our communities.

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MS. MAGAZINE: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Warning for Humanitarians

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

“To give people the opportunity to tell their stories in their own language,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told the crowd Friday at the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Symposium and Prize Ceremony, “is to give them their dignity.”

The award-winning author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah, We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions spoke at the Hilton Foundation’s annual event in Los Angeles about the topic of her viral TED Talk: the danger of a single story.

Adichie is familiar with many of them as the Nigerian-born daughter of refugees—someone who, as a young girl, remembers sitting in the car while it drove past neighborhoods and feeling a distinct “ache” for all of the stories she could never tell.

In one that she recounted for the audience, an American professor told her that her work wasn’t “authentically African” because she depicted middle-class life in Africa. “This is how to create a single story,” she explained from the stage. “Show people as just one thing, over and over again, until they become that thing.”

In another, her well-intentioned male friend boasted about giving Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, to his female friends—but resisted the notion of reading it himself. “We know statistically that men read men and women read men and women,” Adichie reminded the room. “It is time to change that and move to higher ground.”

Adichie was a fitting speaker for the afternoon, in which the Greek refugee services organization METAdrasi—Action for Migration and Development, founded in 2009 by Lora Poppa to help provide basic humanitarian services to the estimated 80,000 refugees and migrants currently living on the shores of Greece, received the 2019 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

“Nobody is ever just a refugee,” Adichie told the symposium attendees. “Nobody is ever just anything. Nobody has a single story.” No movement does, either, which Adichie opened up to Ms. about backstage after her address.

“I was talking to a young woman who said to me that she doesn’t like to participate in Twitter debates about feminism,” Adichie remembered, “because she feels that she might say the wrong thing and she’s afraid to be ostracized—and it just broke my heart because she’s, you know, she’s young, early twenties, she’s sort of trying to figure things out and she feels like she can’t talk.”

That conversation with a young Nigerian woman, who was living in the UK at the time, brought to the fore some of the disconnects Adichie has felt in the feminist movement herself. “I think maybe it’s just a question of hearing one another,” Adichie observed. “We don’t really hear one another. I sometimes feel a little alienated from a certain kind of modern ‘woke’ feminism, because I think a it’s almost become a ‘gotcha’ feminism, and I feel like we don’t really hear one another. I feel that there is a lot about the movement that has become, I don’t know, that almost lacks compassion.”

Adichie also called for even more #MeToo stories, especially from working-class women. “I’d like to see more stories of working class women and sexual harassment,” she declared backstage, “because it’s rampant, and it happens, but I feel as though it’s not yet taken the position that it needs to in the #MeToo movement. But it’s not to say that the stories of middle class and upper middle class women don’t matter, because they do. It’s simply to say that I think we need to broaden it out more, particularly in terms of class. I just really think that we need to hear the #MeToo stories of women who are not privileged.”

To make that possible, Adichie called on feminists organizing events around #MeToo and issues of workplace harassment and discrimination to specifically encourage working-class women to tell their stories—and to put them at the center of organizing efforts. “If there’s a panel on #MeToo,” she said, “whoever is organizing that panel, I think there is a moral responsibility to not only find the sort of usual suspects, but to find the less predictable.”

Of course, encouraging the most vulnerable women to speak up also means encouraging women to break free from the cultural baggage that has silenced their stories for centuries. Adichie offered up a succinct explanation of her own courageous acts of speaking out to speed along the process: “As you get older,” she assured, “you’re looking at your bag of fucks to give, and it’s empty, so you just say what she would say.”

Adichie, who grew up climbing trees with her brother, remembers vividly that when she began developing and got her period, at just age 11, her socialization as a girl was presented as a series of limitations. “Everything changed,” she confessed. “Suddenly I couldn’t, you know, I was ashamed of myself, I didn’t know what this whole thing was about, and then I got my period, and my mother was like, you’re now a woman. I was 11. I didn’t even know what that means. Everything that was fun was no longer allowed. And this is also what I was being told: You need to go to the kitchen and be there when the cooking is done so you can learn to cook because you’re going to cook for your husband.”

Those moments set Adichie’s own feminism into motion. “I did experience femaleness very early on as as just limitations,” she remembered, “and all the things that you were told you could not do.” But she also has come now to a new place—one in which she is defying norms for herself and as an act of service to other women around the world. Adichie is resisting the notion of a single story by telling her own as loudly as possible.

“I’m 42, and I do think it gets easier for women as we get older,” she said, thinking back on her bag of fucks. “That’s for me. That’s been my discovery, that you become more comfortable in your own skin and you just didn’t have it. Your story more, you genuinely really, that bag is empty, you do not have any more fucks to give—but when you’re in your early twenties, it’s harder. You’re trying to figure things out. People’s opinions matter more to you. It’s harder. I do worry about the emotional health of young women, the mental and emotional health of young women. But I’m at a place where I can take it.”

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MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Take the Lead Founder and Author Gloria Feldt

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Gloria Feldt’s vision for the future is clear: more women in power, period.

It’s the mission defines Feldt’s career as the bestselling author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, professor of “Women, Power and Leadership” at Arizona State University and cofounder and president of Take The Lead—an organization intent on preparing, developing, inspiring and otherwise propelling women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025.

Feldt been named one of “America’s Top 200 Women Leaders, Legends and Trailblazers” by Vanity Fair and was once Glamour’s “Woman of the Year,” but her own journey to power—and empowerment—had unexpected beginnings.

Feldt grew up in a small town in rural Texas; she was a teen mom and a high school dropout. But her own journey has made her certain that all women can claim their own seat at the table—once they surrender their learned resistance to embracing their own power.

That’s where Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can program comes in. The new initiative cultivates community among women leaders in difference sectors, bringing together cohorts of fearless and powerful women to help them forge pathways to parity together. 

Feldt talked to Ms. via email about the 50 Women Can program and the results she’s already seeing—and even handed down some advice for activists looking to leverage their voices to accelerate change.

Tell me about the 50 Women Can program you wrapped earlier this year for female journalists. What led you to launch the program, and what was it like in the rooms where it happened? Would love a glimpse into the experiences of these female journalists who participated.

Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can Change the World provides women with the intention and skills to achieve greater leadership roles and embrace their power to lead change in the culture of their professions. We’ve had programs or are planning programs for cohorts in journalism, finance, healthcare, nonprofit, media and entertainment and human resources. 

Take The Lead’s mission is to prepare, develop, inspire and propel women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025. That’s a tall order—and 70 to 150 years sooner than current projections. We developed the 50 Women Can Change the World program to fast-track cohorts of emerging leaders and women already in executive leadership roles to accelerate gender parity in leadership. 

Our 50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism program was an incredible experience. Many of these super-talented and ambitious women have felt isolated and seen opportunities in the field of traditional journalism contract. Women now make up almost two-thirds of journalism graduates, but they remain at one-third of newsroom leadership roles. 

The women benefited from virtual and in-person sessions, along with individualized coaching. The program’s curriculum, which I developed, focused on enabling them to elevate their career intentions, provided them with immediately usable tools and skills and required them to create individual and cohort Strategic Leadership Action Plans to activate what they learned.

Here are a few voices of women in the room.

Eva Pearlman, co-founder of Spaceship Media: “I just feel this incredible sense of gratitude for this program, for the structure of it, for the ways you’ve gotten us thinking, because there’s so much beauty and so much power and so much talent and so many ways to go about working on the problems in journalism…so I’m very thankful.”

Antonia Hylton, correspondent and producer at Vice News Tonight: “Now I have new words and dreams, and things that I’ve put on paper, I have an actual 10-step plan, of everything that’s in my grasp, resources I realized I already have at my disposal, and while I’ve been in this space of rethinking, what a blessing that has been, to know there are things I can do, people I can call now, many of them in this room, to take my career to its next phase.”

Claritza Jimenez, senior producer of Politico Live: “It’s been really reaffirming to see women still dreaming big, no matter what stage of their life they’re in and knowing they can always reinvent themselves and reinvent themselves and I think that’s so important.”

Jayati Vora, managing editor of The Investigative Fund: “It’s really rare to be able to step out and re-examine your life …to just take stock, to take that space for yourself is really rare, so thank you for making me do it.”

Tell me, too, about the 50 Women Can campaigns and programs you’re launching across sectors more broadly. What unites all of them? What makes them special and unique?

Many women’s leadership programs measure success by numbers reached. We’re different. We measure success by impact.

You can go to a big conference every day, get inspired, maybe learn one new thing. But that hasn’t been moving the dial toward parity for women fast enough for any of us to see it in our lifetimes. In fact, I think women spend way too much time and money going to puffy fluffy conferences that are like cotton candy—pretty but lacking in nutrition.

I realized that we can have a greater effect—go farther faster—by creating mutually supportive cohorts of women who are emerging leaders within an industry, providing high impact, immersive training and coaching. Each highly accomplished group practices the nine Leadership Power Tools—which hone leadership skills—and creates Strategic Leadership Action Plans with high intention goals. All that we provide and enable is unique and uniquely effective. And we don’t stop there. Once the program is complete, we measure progress in three- and six-month intervals. 

The power of the cohort is also inestimable. I see the women continuing to support, sponsor and elevate each other years after the program. Together, these highly intentional women can drive progress for all women in their sector. It’s really movement-building on a personal and organizational level to create sustainable change.

What’s really fun right now is that the various cohorts want to know the other cohorts. So, we’re experimenting with ways to enable them to communicate and share strategies to leverage the impact exponentially.

You’re a former Planned Parenthood CEO, advisor to the ERA coalition and a prolific writer and author on myriad feminist causes. Why did you kick off these 50 Women Can programs with media, entertainment and journalism focuses? How do you think media parity, and trainings and programs like this, connect to the larger fight for women’s equality and gender parity?

Everything I have ever done has sprung from my passion for social justice. And I am a very practical person. I don’t just want to talk about gender parity and social justice—I want to foster real results.

I realized that as important as reproductive rights are, if women don’t get equality in power, leadership positions and pay, we’ll keep fighting the same old battles over and over. I think achieving gender equality in leadership is today’s most important women’s movement.

The first 50 Women program was for emerging female leaders in nonprofits and we have done three of those cohorts now. We’ve also done one for women in healthcare and have two more on the drawing board. Those are two fields where women are 75 to 80 percent of the employees and 20 to 30 percent of the top leadership positions, especially of the larger organizations in their sector. In planning stages are finance, law and tech. We’re determined to change that.

Every sector is important. The curriculum applies to and can be customized to any sector. That said, the reason for focusing on media, entertainment and journalism is that whoever decides what stories will be told, who will tell them and through whose lens shapes the entire culture. Therefore, we believe that achieving gender parity in these fields will have outsized positive influence on how people think and act on the social and economic issues that are especially relevant to women.

What have some of the participants in 50 Women Can gone on to do? What do the reverberations of the program show us about the power of this kind of model?

Many of the women in the 50 Women Can Change the World program have been inspired to pursue promotions or raises, think more strategically about their careers and put their names out there, and have forged deep, lasting connections with other cohort members.

The power and impact of individual learning and the cohort are very clear. For example, one participant reported that she used the 50 Women Can planning process and coaching to create a pitch for a leadership position – an important first step in her career growth. Another shared an exciting new role at a major broadcast network. And yet another made sure her team got credit for the work they did for network news coverage of Hurricane Florence by speaking to HR management. 

There are many more stories like this. Overall, the women have shared how enthusiastic they are about all they took away from the program, how they’re already putting it into action and their victories.

The program has made a difference in women’s professional lives. For example, Valerie Brown Grant, who attended one of my first workshops, said: “A year ago at your workshop I set my personal action plan goal to become a vice president at my firm. I used the Use What You’ve Got Power Tool to differentiate myself and demonstrate my value to the company. Today, I was informed I am being promoted to vice president.” 

And Anne Parmley, SVP at Pearson and a Take The Lead executive leadership program graduate, said: “The Take The Lead programs provide a safe and supportive environment for women climbing in their careers to have thoughtful and productive conversations about where they are and where they are going in their leadership journeys. You walk away with a plan and intent to take yourself to the next level, professionally and personally.” 

These are such natural extensions of your work around women’s leadership—you’re the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, and you teach “Women, Power and Leadership” at ASU. And it comes at a time when women’s voices seem as powerful as ever—in the midst of #MeToo and the powerful Women’s March movement.

What can the feminists reading this do right now to start stepping into their own power, and leveraging it to advance equality?

This is the moment we have been building to for centuries, you could say, but certainly for the last two centuries. I want everyone reading this to know you have the power in your hands right this minute to achieve gender parity in position and pay, in law and in daily life. For good: our own good, the good of the world and forever.

This is a rare strategic inflection moment when the justice case and the business case converge. But such moments pass quickly if we fail to take them “at the flood” as Shakespeare or perhaps his sister said. Power unused is power useless.

This is not a time to congratulate ourselves. It is the time to press forward with eyes on the overarching goal of full equality for all women. All humans, for that matter.

Go win elections. Give money or time to candidates you support or run yourself. Start companies that build wealth at the Apple level or run them. Raise feminist kids. Give to social justice causes. Invest in women-led businesses and buy from companies with female-friendly policies. Find the cure for cancer, solve climate change. Do one small thing every day to help another woman succeed. Use your power to lead men and women together to a healthier, more just world. Nobody has to do everything, but everybody can do something.

And know that when you go forth to change the world, some people won’t like you. There will be pushback, sometimes violent. Don’t let it deter you. Listen to your own clarion call. Ignore the naysayers. You are doing the most important work for the future of humanity. That to me is what feminism is all about.

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MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Documentary Filmmaker Ursula Macfarlane

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Ursula Macfarlane is a UK-based filmmaker whose candid documentaries have gained multiple wins and nominations for the BAFTA, Grierson and Royal Television Society Awards—including One Deadly Weekend in America, a feature documentary tracking gun violence over one July weekend; Captive, for Netflix, Charlie Hebdo: Three Days That Shook Paris; and Breaking Up With The Joneses, a feature documentary about a couple going through a divorce.

Macfarlane’s latest is a documentary that rewinds the clock on the #MeToo movement’s viral explosion—exposing the institutions and individuals who enabled Harvey Weinstein’s career of sexual misconduct, and mapping its impact on women’s lives.

Untouchable: The Inside Story of the Harvey Weinstein Scandal, now streaming on Hulu, weaves the harrowing stories of Weinstein’s victims into a larger narrative about corruption, misogyny and the women who toppled one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Macfarlane talked to Ms. about what it took to tell this urgent story—and what she learned as a filmmaker and a feminist in the process.

Where does Untouchable begin? Where does the process of making this film start, and how did it take shape from there?

As soon as the Weinstein expose appeared in the New York Times and New Yorker, it ignited a conversation between me and my friends. Not a single one of us hadn’t experienced a #MeToo encounter, some more traumatic than others. So the story felt very personal to me, and as the avalanche of accusations continued, it felt to me that this was a story of our times that had to be documented. So when producer Simon Chinn—Searching For Sugar ManMan On Wire–called me to ask if I would collaborate with him on a feature documentary, I immediately said yes. How could I not?  

It felt like such a privilege to be able to tell the story, which was still in its infancy, the ending not yet written. Was it a watershed marking huge cultural change?  A reckoning? What was the extent of the collateral damage wrought on women by these allegations? How did he get away with it for so long? And what was the culture of complicity that allowed him to hide in plain sight for so many decades?

We wanted to make a timeless, universal film, widely viewed even by people who don’t know or particularly care who Harvey Weinstein is, but who care deeply about the prevalence of abuse in our culture. So we decided to put the accusations of abuse in the context of a man’s rise to power, his fatal flaw and his spectacular fall—almost like a Greek tragedy.

In the end, this is a film about the abuse of power, a story as old as time, abuse which reverberates through all cultures, industries and communities.

After the high-profile accusations against Weinstein came to light, the firestorm that followed was chased by a widespread call for an inclusive fight—for a culture that values all survivors, and that refuses to privilege famous or notable survivors over other victims.

This documentary was lauded for giving equitable screen time to some of Weinstein’s most prominent accusers, as well as some of the lesser-known women who have come forward. Why did that decision matter for you as a filmmaker, and what other intentions did you bring to this process as a storyteller? 

It was very important to us to tell a wide of stories which demonstrated Weinstein’s modus operandi amongst both the famous and the unknown. We were thrilled when Rosanna Arquette and Paz De La Huerta agreed to take part, but we treated their interviews and stories in exactly the same way as the other women’s. That is to say, spending time before the interviews to gain their trust, and giving them plenty of time to recount their experiences. We wove the stories together in such a way that, I hope, the audience doesn’t really notice who’s telling the story—it’s the content of the story that matters. Clearly, all the women have subtly different experiences throughout the decades, but a pattern emerges which binds them all together.

The accusations against Weinstein, and the sheer volume of how many there were, cracked something open—not just in Hollywood, but across sectors and around the world. The #MeToo movement’s viral explosion that followed the New York Times exposé on Weinstein has launched a renewed fight against rape culture. What did examining the “conspiracy” of Harvey Weinstein show you about what it will take for us to win that fight? 

I feel that rape and sexual violence is so embedded in our culture that it will take much more than the expose of a Weinstein to begin the process of stamping it out.  We know that the percentage of convictions for rape and sexual assault is very low.  The complicity of the Hollywood community, which allowed Weinstein to act with impunity, is echoed throughout our culture: look at the Catholic Church, sports and many other industries.  So until we can start to call out and dismantle complicity, predators will continue to stalk their victims.  Speaking out is the first step, but it will take a long time.  

You’re an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and you’ve watched the reverberations that storytelling can have unfold. What impact do you hope this film has—on viewers, on the culture-at-large, for survivors—now that it’s widely available?

My hope is that everyone watching this film is inspired to speak out—either about their own trauma, or on behalf of other survivors. Speaking out, being listened to and most importantly, being believed, is the first step to outing predators and making them pariahs. I know that people watching the film are very moved, if not devastated, by the testimonies, and I hope that will act as a call to arms.

Watch it, be shocked, but also be inspired by their courage. And adopt their bravery into our own lives.  

For you personally, what was the impact of making Untouchable? Was there a shift for you—as a filmmaker, as a feminist—that came from directing the doc?

I was humbled every time I sat in that chair and interviewed a new survivor.  To be honest, I and other crew members were often brought to tears, hearing about what the women had suffered.  One of the press reviews in the UK described the film as “quietly furious,” and I think that’s a good appraisal. I’m not a particularly loud person, and my films convey their ideas and emotions in a subtle way, but this has taught me the power of personally speaking out, loud and clear.

In a way, I think I’ve found my voice too.

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RECAP: Carmen On-Stage and On-Screen at the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference

This recap was published by Ms. magazine.

Last week, over 1,700 advocates, practitioners and public figures working to end sexual violence came together in Philadelphia—now re-dubbed “the city of consensual brotherly love”—to forge a new path forward in their movement.

In the wake of #MeToo, speakers and workshop leaders agreed, it is time to push beyond the breakthrough, and leverage this current moment for long-term change. Attendees alike also agreed that the moment is ripe for trying something new—for taking stock of what worked and what didn’t and being honest about what changes are in order to end sexual violence in a generation.

Ms. was the proud media sponsor of the conference, live-streaming sessions and sitting down with experts in the exhibition hall to envision the next steps for a renewed fight to end violence. Below, I’ll recap all we learned—and what comes next.

Wednesday, August 21

The 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference kicked off with a plenary session focused on the crux of the #MeToo movement’s viral moment in 2017: how rape culture takes shape in the workplace, and how corporate leaders can challenge it. Tina Tchen, former Director of the White House Council on Women & Girls and a co-founder of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, joined Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West, also an Obama administration alum from the Department of Justice, and Monika Jones Hostler, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault and founding RALIANCE partner, for a wide-ranging conversation about corporate accountability and changing workplace culture.

Tchen, West and Hostler joined me afterward to continue the conversation with a live interview—in which they laid out some concrete steps advocates and non-profits can take to foster partnerships with corporations invested in doing better.

That first plenary also featured a performance from feminist poet Ursula Rucker, who read her piece L.O.V.E. on stage. She opened up to Ms. before the conference about what it meant for her to be in the room—but after she’d had the chance to take the stage, she also made time to catch up with me in the exhibition hall and envision a world where love and compassion were more powerful than violence.

That kicked off a full day of live interviews between me and advocates, experts and educators focused not just on changing corporate rape culture, but on shifting their own movement to end violence—and demanding better from every institution that protects perpetrators and excuses sexual violence.


Ignacio Rivera—activist, writer, educator, sex(ual) healer, filmmaker, performance artist, mother and abueli—took some time to talk to me about their organization, The HEAL Project, and how holistic sexuality information could be a major tool for preventing, interrupting and ending child sexual abuse. 

Devin Rojas, the Capacity Building Specialist at the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, took a minute with me to break down the findings of their recent statewide hotline audit—and boast about the action that advocates in the Garden State are taking to improve these pivotal resources.

Holly Rider Milkovich, who spoke to me last year about her work as Senior Prevention Director at EVERFI, came back for a second go this year—and brought with her Elizabeth Billie, whose work there focuses on programs to disrupt and end campus sexual violence specifically. Together, they shared strategies about ending harassment and violence in different workplaces—including on campus and in corporate suites.

Tara Graham from Just Detention International came by next—and talked to me about what survivors in confinement face and what the movement to end violence can and should do to advance the baseline standards in place to protect them.

Terri Poore, who has worked with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence on federal policy and appropriations related to sexual assault for almost 15 years, first as a board member and now as the Policy Director, and previously worked at the National Sexual Assault Coalition Resource Sharing Project and the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence for 13 years, provided me next with an insight into the difference between “feel good” sexual assault prevention policies and the kinds of laws that make a real impact—and what activists can do to tell the difference and fight for tangible change.

Christina Presenti and Diane Daiber from the International Association of Forensic Nurses also made time on Wednesday to sit down with meand expanded on the ways in which forensic nurses can make a huge difference in shifting culture as well as improving the individual experiences of survivors across the country. (Diane talked a bit during our interview about going “beyond the rape kit”—which she also wrote about for Ms. before NSAC.)

I ended the day with a conversation with Fiona Oliphant and Jessica Li from Healing Equity United—who laid out some radical self-care strategies and challenged all of us in the movement to do better by ourselves and each other. (Jessica wrote about radical self-care for Ms. before the conference, and Fiona wrote about the basics of cultural humility.)

Thursday, August 22

Thursday got off to an early and education start when Julie Germann, a former prosecutor who now works through Finding the Right to train law enforcement officials on how to seek justice for survivors, explained to me what going beyond the breakthrough required from folks who work in the courtroom and the criminal justice system.

That conversation continued when Jessica Mindlin, the National Director of Training and Technical Assistance at the Victim Rights Law Center, broke down the work she does to train folks who engage with survivors—including law enforcement officials, prosecutors, advocates and health care workers—in an interview with me.

I explored a different conversation about accountability when filmmaker, lecturer and writer Aishah Shahidah Simmons sat down for a Q&A about her new anthology, Love With Accountability, and her upcoming #FromNoToLove conference—both efforts that center a black feminist framework for addressing sexual violence.

Tricia Banks Russell, Executive Director of From Fear to Freedom, sat down with me next—and talked about their model of providing survivor resources and engaging campus communities against violence at the same time.

The topic swung back to conversations about policy and law when District Attorney Kevin Steele and two attorneys from the case he prosecuted against Bill Cosby joined me next. Steele, Stewart Ryan and Kristen Feden all opened up about the power of holding the powerful accountable—and how they make it possible.

Luz Marquez Benbow then sat down to tell her own stories from the frontlines—and stress the importance of survivor leadership from the intersections in the fight to end violence.

To that end, Nina Jusuf joined me next, sitting down to talk about co-founding the National Organization of Asian Pacific Islanders Ending Sexual Violence, the first organization centered on API survivors in the country.

Victoria Dickman-Burnett, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati and a youth educator, helped connect all of these conversations when she broke down the basics of action research to me, and the difference it makes in the movement when advocates let survivors speak for themselves.

I took a pause then for the afternoon plenary—in which NPR reporter Joe Shapiro took the stage with advocates Debra Robinson and Carolyn Morgan to talk about sexual violence against folks with intellectual disabilities and the urgency of their own leadership in this space.

Joe also joined me afterward, offstage, for a follow-up conversation about his work covering people with disabilities, and his groundbreaking series of reports on sexual violence on campus and in the disability community. (He wrote about that experience, too, for the Ms. Beyond the Breakthrough series.)

I closed off the day with an informal self-defense lesson from Lauren Taylor, founder and director of Defend Yourself, an empowerment self-defense organization teaching people of all identities to raise their voices and reclaim their power. (She’s written about her work before for Ms.—check it out!)

Friday, August 23

On the last day of the Conference, I took to that plenary stage myself—and talked to “Surviving R. Kelly” producer and showrunner, dream hampton, about community accountability, black feminism in the fight to end violence and the impact of her groundbreaking Lifetime series.

That plenary kicked off with a performance by LaTreice Branson, who proudly Drums Like a Lady. Afterward, she opened up to me about the incredible opportunity to take that stage, and how it’s already impacting her work.

That marked the end of the Conference—but not the end of this fight, or of these conversations. You can explore more in the Beyond the Breakthrough archives at Ms.

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MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with “Roll Red Roll” Filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman

You can view the original version of this post on the Ms. website.

I first met Nancy Schwartzman in 2009, when she was designing the impact campaign around her short film “Where Is Your Line.” That documentary leveraged her own experience as a survivor to spark conversation around consent and sexual boundaries back in the era of Yes Means Yes, and a groundswell of new activism that demanded a sex-positive movement to end violence.

Ten years later, Schwartzman’s groundbreaking anti-violence work is back on bigger screens. Roll Red Roll, her feature-length true-crime documentary thriller, takes viewers to the frontline of the infamous Steubenville rape case, in which heinous accusations of rape against football players in a small town made national headlines—and put rape culture on the map.

Schwartzman’s film is now on Netflix following theatrical releases across the country and a debut TV release with PBS’ POV series. Before the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference, where Roll Red Roll will screen and be followed by a discussion, she talked to Ms. about what that case—just as disturbing, jarring and shocking all these years later—can teach us about the roots of rape culture and what it will take to shift it.

Tell me about the moment you realized you were going to make this documentary. What led you to Steubenville, and what kept you there?

I’ve been an activist in the anti-violence movement for many years, leveraging film and interactive media and tech to do this work—I made a short film, “Where Is Your Line,” that explored consent, and developed the White House 2011 Apps Against Abuse Winner Circle of 6. When the Steubenville story broke, people started sending me information and urging me to do something.

I first heard about the story when it broke in the New York Times. But blogger Alexandria Goddard already captured social media, found deleted evidence and kicked it up to a larger audience. Rachel Dissell, an investigative reporter at the Plain Dealer had been reporting on it, too. Then Anonymous came in, after Alex was sued by a local family trying to silence her blogging about the case, and blew it onto the New York Times home page.  

Ultimately, it was the public nature of the crime, the social media documentation and the rare ability to tell a story about rape that focused on the perpetrators and the larger culture that drew me to the story. 

When we were in conversation at the Laemmle Theater in L.A. you said something that stuck with me—that you wanted to make a rape documentary where the survivor’s story was not at the center. Where, instead, cultural forces and circumstances were under the spotlight. Can you talk a little bit about that decision, and how it shaped your process as a filmmaker?

What made this story different were the elements that were not explored in film before—rape culture laid bare, published in hundreds of social media posts, hackers, an amateur crime blogger, the ability to look into perpetrator behavior and the context that enabled it. Without scrutinizing the victim, we can look at the language these boys are using, the seeming acceptance of folks in town.

Which begged the larger questions: Why did no one stop it? What was happening in that community that made it “ok” to joke so publicly about rape? 

We crafted the film to engage men and boys—we worked in the true crime genre, a popular genre that usually fetishizes victimhood, flipped that trope, and put the spotlight on the behavior; we used football imagery, football energy and music to echo the energy of the young men during the night of the assault and afterwards. But set in this context and laid bare, the “excitement” or celebration is horrifying.

Context is everything. I wanted to make a film that no one could watch and still minimize what occurred or blame the victim.

I remember Steubenville not only because it was such a defining moment in my own activism, but because I was convinced, I think, on some level, that it was an outlier, and I was wrong. In what ways is Steubenville—and when I say that word I mean the town, and also the crime that’s come to define it—a lasting case study in rape culture? 

To quote Jimmie Briggs: “Rape culture is American culture.” We live in a culture that dehumanizes women and queer people – that objectifies and shames, and ultimately laughs at and makes light of sexual violence. In many ways, Steubenville was the horror story that brought the term “rape culture” into mainstream conversation. And in the process, Steubenville has become synonymous with the ugly realities of that culture. 

I’m wondering if you had “a-ha” moments while you were making the film. What lessons can advocates and activists take away from this film? What did you learn making it?

I traveled back and forth to town quite a bit, and got to know folks from all corners. What I learned was that everybody was impacted by the rape, the effects were so far reaching, everyone felt close to it and hurt by it. It really solidified my understanding that rape is not just a crime between victim and perpetrator, it reaches and ripples out to en entire community. 

But we are truly in a transformational moment. Finally people are listening, are enraged. We are seeing more men stepping up as allies, calling out the behavior as unacceptable. Can we harness that for change?

The epidemic of sexual violence needs multiple solutions, strategies and stories. It can be tempting to see legal and policy changes as a “fix,” but these are left vulnerable and unsustainable without long-term cultural engagement. We want to stress the importance of the anecdotal feedback we have received from our audiences about how Roll Red Roll has changed the way they think about sexual violence and has inspired them to be a part of positive change. These attitude shifts lay important groundwork for sustainable cultural impact.

In the midst of #MeToo, what happened in Steubenville also doesn’t feel like it was nearly a decade ago, not anymore—yet it was a groundbreaking moment for digital activism, for anti-rape activism, for survivors speaking out. What conversation are you trying to spark with Roll Red Roll—and what impact are you hoping to make with this story in the current moment?

I hope we are creating pathways for men to challenge toxic masculinity and harmful tropes that create the context for gender-based violence and harassment. I think we’ve deepened audiences understanding of rape culture, from the subtle to the extreme.

I also know the work doesn’t end here, and it hasn’t for you, either. You’ve already released a short film follow-up with The Guardian. What are your next steps—as an activist, as a filmmaker, as a feminist?

Roll Red Roll just went live on Netflix in 138 countries, so we are connecting with a global audience with tweets pouring in—in Spanish, French, Norwegian—and our impact team is really working hard to meet the demands for resources. We are continuing to bring the film and our impact campaign to communities around the world, including implementing the free and available Roll Red Roll interdisciplinary high school lesson plan in schools around the U.S.

I am also developing new film projects continuing to explore the intersections of gender and technology, and I’ve joined the APB Speaker’s Bureau—so I’ll hopefully come chat in more schools and communities moving forward, too!

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MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Documentary Filmmaker Greta Schiller

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

It’s been 50 years this June since three days of rioting outside of New York City’s Stonewall Inn launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement—and 35 since documentary director Greta Schiller uncovered the histories of queer and trans Americans in the decades prior.

“When we set out to make this film,” Schiller has said, “I had no inkling of the meaning it would have around the world.” Indeed, she likely couldn’t have predicted what would come next: funding and support from PBS, which meant broadcasting the film nationwide into the living rooms of everyday Americans, and even an Emmy award. But Schiller’s acclaim has only grown in the years since Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community came out.

After co-founding production company Jezebel Productions, Schiller produced a slate of notable documentaries, including the Teddy Award-winning The Man Who Drove With Mandela and Paris Was a Woman, which was broadcast around the world. She was awarded the City College of New York Townsend Harris Medal for Outstanding Contributions to her Field and a Rachel Carson Fellowship, was the first person to receive a UK/US Fulbright Arts Fellowship in Film and is currently producing a new documentary series as part of her Global Fulbright Award.

First Run Features is now re-releasing Before Stonewall—narrated by author Rita Mae Brown and featuring interviews with activists including Audre Lorde and Barbara Gittings—to mark the current historic moment. But the personal and profound stories of LGBT Americans that populate Schiller’s Emmy award-winning film remain timeless, and so does its urgent reminder of the personal and political battles facing the LGBTQ community.

In advance of the film’s theatrical re-release in New York City on June 21 and Los Angeles on June 28, Schiller opened up to Ms. about what happened before Before Stonewall—and what lessons she has carried with her since.

I always begin with an inception story. Tell us how this movie came to be—why did you decide to make it, and what did it take to make it happen?

The project began when Robert Rosenberg, who became the co-director, approached me with the idea to make a film based on the unpublished work of historian John D’Emilio—which chronicled the early, pre-Stonewall, homophile movement. Early funding came from the New York Council on the Humanities and the NY State Council on the Arts. 

It became clear pretty quickly that I needed to expand the original concept to trace the formation of the mostly hidden lesbian and gay subculture across the country, not just the few homophile organizations.  I decided to tell this story chronologically, decade by decade—from the turn of the century when homosexuality began to be seen as a distinctive identity, rather than simply a sex act, up to the Stonewall Riots, when marginalized gay and lesbian youth fought back against police raids and the modern LGBT movement was born.  

But as the lives of homosexuals pre-Stonewall had been so marginalized, we had a big problem: How could we tell this tale in a visual and engaging way? Even when gay life spilled onto the streets of Greenwich Village—over 5 nights, hundreds of people protested—the news media gave very little coverage to the riots, and there was almost no visual documentation of gay life before then.

Rosenberg, Research Director Andrea Weiss and I were on the project from its inception. Executive Producer John Scagliotti was brought on by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; he was a condition of our funding. Yet they did not give full funding, and in order to match their award, we all worked organizing benefits across the country.

As this was the first GLBT history feature film, we had tremendous support from the burgeoning gay and lesbian community. By drawing attention to the project, these events also helped us locate potential interviewees. Andrea organized research teams to find people who may be willing to share their personal scrapbooks. This was the first time anyone saw their personal artifacts as history. It was difficult to convince many of them that their photos, home movies and love letters were in fact worthy of being considered historical. Today, in our age of instant celebrity, people think even their pets are worthy of such. 

I was inspired by UNION MAIDS, a film by Julia Reichart and Jim Klein—the first filmmakers who used oral history as history in film. The weaving of personal eyewitness testimony into the historical narrative provided a way for me to begin thinking about how to approach my task.  At her retrospective screening last week at MOMA, I saw one parallel I had not seen on first viewing, and that was that communists were also closeted. Even union leaders kept their party membership secret from the public, despite the fact that their entire lives—work, love, family, play—all revolved around party membership.  

We were what would now be called “artisanal” or “boutique”—most of us were doing our jobs for the first time. The sound woman J.T. Tagaki’s first sound job was interviewing Allen Ginsberg! I would film the stills on a 16mm camera while at people’s homes. I drove to Virginia with a sound recordist and had Rita Mae Brown read the narration in her living room.  We carried 16mm prints to festivals to save on shipping. 

It reminds me of this comment of yours—it struck me. “I was a young woman director in the early 1980’s, setting out to tell the ‘History 101’ version of a people systematically ignored and erased from the historical record,” you said. “Perhaps if I had been older, I would not have taken on the task with such naïve zeal.”

But this film ended up having an outsized impact: being the first movie on LGBTQ lives shown on public television, and winning awards for how it shaped our cultural narratives and understandings around gay life. How did that zeal shape your process, and what did it teach you as a filmmaker? What from this process have you carried into your other work?

Today I spend a fair amount of time mentoring young filmmakers. Not all of them are women or gay, but they are talented and marginalized by the media landscape. I had no real mentors; there were literally five or six women and maybe two lesbians who had made feature documentaries.  Emile d’Antonio looked at some edits and gave me valuable feedback.  Filmmaker Artie Bressan was super supportive, and film historian and activist Vito Russo was a good friend and invaluable guide to GLBT representations in cinema.

I grew up at a time when we actually believed we may make a revolution in this country: when women would be equal to men; when workers were paid a living wage; where health care would be universal. My friends were gay, straight, black and white, and I believe this is what gave me that zeal. My co-producers gave feedback, but Andrea Weiss was the most crucial support and critic, and she can be seriously critical in the most demanding way. When I faced obstacles from within the production team itself, she helped me maintain my zeal.

Trusting myself, the importance of holding close my vision for a film’s narrative, listening to collaborators while being confident in my directing, was a process I learned on the making of my first feature documentary. I also learned that when a film is successful, then those who had doubts and drifted from supporting my efforts come back with a roar to stake their claim—so I learned to take much stronger legal protections. When we began this process of making the film, I thought lawyers were only for when problems arise; now I know they can prevent problems down the road. 

It was also a time of collectivism, so some people were given roles beyond their capacity, while others were not given the credit they deserved. My sister Tina Schiller was our San Francisco Production Manager—she organized a benefit screening of an Andy Warhol film, Edie, at the legendary Castro Cinema, and has been amazingly supportive throughout my life and career. Today, I choose my collaborators with much greater care! Making an independent film can be either a dysfunctional family unit or functional one. Coming from a dysfunctional family, I had no idea back then that there was another way. After much work on healing that original family, and having good relationships with my extended families, and being married for 35 years—legally married for one—and raising a daughter and making 15-plus films, I can look back and see that it is a sort of miracle that we pulled the film off at all!

As a director, the film gave me enormous confidence to bring stories hidden from history into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that respected my subjects. To be trusted by African American women, some of them lesbians, was and is a great honor. To collaborate in a deep, productive way with researchers, producers, writers—all of this I learned and grew better at over the years.

I have maintained friendships and in many cases professional relationships with virtually everyone who helped bring Before Stonewall to fruition. My lifelong creative partnership with Andrea began on Before Stonewall. I learned from Before Stonewall that a film has many filmmakers, but one Director, except in very exceptional cases. I co-directed The International Sweethearts of Rhythm with Andrea, but after that we each developed projects as Director, producing one another’s films through our production company. I believe we are the longest-running women’s film production company, at least in the U.S.

My sense of irony, use of music, intimate interview style, writing those who had been written out back into the historical narrative, looking at newsreels and other dominant media through a different lens, reading the subtext, drawing out a narrative that gives a fresh look at history— from the South African liberation struggle to women artists in Paris between the world wars to many other films set in other eras and cultures—this all grew from my first feature documentary. Today I am finishing a film about humans and our relationship to the earth, about ecological restoration—and even in this film, respecting the people, animals, landscapes, wanting to tell their story, comes from the same place.

What do you hope comes of the film’s re-release?

My goals are the same: to bring the story of the making of the LGBT community from a scattered, closeted people into full members of society and do it in a way that engages everyone. Gay, straight, young, old—I hope that everyone enjoys the film.

Even though the LGBTQ movement itself has evolved so much in the last 50 years, and especially since many of the moments in history you touch on that go even further back, so much in this film still resonates—the schisms within the LGBTQ community, for one, and the challenges people at the intersections face in making themselves heard—and we’re still setting records straight, even about Stonewall. What lessons from our history do you think are most critical to remember in this current moment?

One of the most important lessons is to embrace diversity.

I would like to note that we did not really want bi people in the movement back then—we considered them to be confused! Trans rights were not a political issue yet. I fought with my co-producers about opening the film with drag queens, which they saw as too controversial. 

I have always adored a good drag butch or queen; the early homophile movements tried to silence drag queens. Butch women, working class lesbians and gay men and people of color were largely absent from pre-Stonewall organizations. One of our regrets is that when researcher Andrea met Marsha P. Johnson at her home in New Jersey, we did not then interview her.

What fights ahead do you feel are most pivotal?

I anticipate fights around the right to adopt or to marry—these are victories that can be reversed. Violence and homelessness, sexual abuse and suicide among GLBT youth are great concerns. A far-right religious group, Project Blitz, has begun a campaign to discriminate under the auspices of religious freedom—they want to pass bills banning government entities from penalizing people or businesses who’ve donated to or are affiliated with a religious organization, even if those groups are known to have discriminatory practices, and they have already made inroads in the Texas legislature, but for the first time an LGBT caucus exists in the Texas legislature and they have fought to keep and expand protections. Voting really matters, who sits in government matters. The bans on trans people in the military and elsewhere is the easiest and first attack.

History is not linear. While societal attitudes have shifted enormously, there will always be homophobia, and we need to stay vigilant. So much depends on where you live, if the family you grew up in accepts you, if you can get a job. Social service agencies need to provide services for the marginal members of our community.

I’m fascinated, as a queer woman myself, with the urgency and importance we have toward and reverence we owe our elders—and the relationships we have to them. So often, we don’t know who they are. Too often, we never have the chance to witness them. This film introduces us to them. How do you think LGBTQ activists and allies today can best honor them?

I think respect for seniors is a problem everywhere. Cross-generational interaction is nearly non-existent. People push past older people on sidewalks, trains, buses—and many of them are no doubt members of the GLBT community. SAGE hosts intergenerational dinners and events designed to encourage more exchange of ideas and perspectives.

It is very hard for a young person to imagine anything outside of their own experience as valuable, impossible to imagine that simply loving someone of the same sex until the 1970’s was a brave act, punishable under the law of the land in counties ways. I hope seeing my film will help with this, at least a little. 

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