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Beyond Inclusion: Building Narratives of Liberation

By Michele Stephenson


Editor’s Note: Michèle Stephenson is co-founding member of the Rada Film Group. Her work draws from her Panamanian and Haitian roots and international experience as a human rights attorney to tell compelling, deeply personal stories in a variety of media that are created by, for and about communities of color. What follows is an edited version of Stephenson’s  keynote address at the 2018 Getting Real conference.


Art is not neutral. It either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advancing or regressing justice.
- Adrienne Maree Brown,  Emergent Strategy

I am a nonfiction storyteller. Together with my filmmaking partner, Joe Brewster, we founded the Rada Film Group in Brooklyn, New York. The scope of our work focuses less on principles of inclusion or diversity, and more on putting justice and expressing our complicated lives front and center of the stories we tell. That’s what drives our work.

We gradually came to see that justice in the context of documentary film always involves being aware of the power dynamics of who is telling whose stories; how emerging technology and documentary film are created and how their funding is distributed; and which storytellers, engineers and audiences or users we see and validate.

With that framework in mind, my fundamental question here today is, Am I going to get real at Getting Real, right here right now?

What do I stand to lose? One fear would be rejection, banishment from the community, not getting that next grant or Netflix deal, or never getting another speaking engagement. And you know what? Given the current social and political climate we live in today, risk to me has become necessary. So, I have decided to get real. But, getting real starts with getting personal, from my life’s beginnings.

Origin Story

I was born in Haiti to a Haitian father and a Panamanian mother. As a daughter of the Caribbean and Latin America, the violent legacy of genocide, colonialism, slavery and skin-color privilege literally runs through my veins. It has shaped my family and how I see the world and interact with others. It is my lived experience. None of us with generations on the soils of the Americas, from as far north as the Hudson Bay to the southern tips of Argentina, can escape that violent legacy. Its roots go far and deep.

I am also part of a family who fled into exile from Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship in the ’60s. I have no memory of that flight. From Haiti to New York, my family and I—a skeptical 9-year-old child—arrived as black immigrants to a bucolic, rural location in Quebec, Canada. 

I grew up immersed in my father’s magical realist stories of taking over Haiti with his rebel friends. As I child I remember how he would disappear once a week to meet with his comrades and plot a return invasion to Haiti to overthrow the government. At bedtime he would weave these fantastical stories about the glorious, mountainous Haiti of his childhood, how he would one day return and how we had to resist and fight injustice as well. That’s some heavy stuff for a little girl. These stories shaped my sense of self and how I processed our migration and settling to North American territory, where we all faced regular racial aggressions as black Latinx immigrants.

My father’s dreams of a gallant return to Haiti, like Don Quixote, never happened. His only source of control or power was over my mother and me. A brutal dictatorship reigned in the heart of our home. I was afraid of him and his wrath. Back then I did not understand that global systemic forces had shaped my father’s limitations and the deep-seeded contradictions he embodied between his idealism and his deeply flawed behavior at home. I clung with all my willpower to his idealism.

Finding Film

At 24, I was full of hope, working for the United Nations Development Programme in Cape Verde, West Africa. I was convinced I could make a difference in global development. Not all was well; I quickly found myself in the belly of the beast. I was a tool in a system that extracted more than it gave. When I ordered a tractor for a project or hired a consultant, certain conditions had to be met that benefited so-called “donor” countries. And I was benefiting from an unequal pay scale within the UN system where I, fresh out of college and getting trained by talented local staff, was getting paid twice their salaries. There was justifiable resentment and tension between local and international staff. It all felt like the repurposing of old colonial structures.

I felt ill at ease, and sick. Survival meant closing my eyes. It meant getting less real. But the deepest contradiction for me was how this structure was connected to the lot and suffering of my very family members spread across the Haitian and Latinx diaspora. I was part of the problem and I had to get out. So, I headed to law school.

But the law didn’t do it for me either. Just as I started law school, I met my partner, Joe Brewster. While I had always been involved in the arts as much as I could—mostly dance and photography—I couldn’t wrap my head around how I could marry my political convictions with art. It seemed like a far-away, financially unattainable possibility for me. Meeting Joe shifted that aspiration. And I went in full throttle. I went to law school, but I found film.

Recording a keynote session at Getting Real '18. Photo by Mark Hayes.

My Journey through Filmmaking

The first film I was involved in was fiction. My partner’s first feature film, The Keeper, premiered at Sundance. It tells the story of a light-skinned black prison guard who begins to question his own role in the criminal justice system. Developing the story also led to a deep dive into my own self-examination of my own responsibility and accountability to my communities. The role of story became a looking-glass experience for me; I was hooked. Film became a way of both processing my frustrations and feeling like maybe I could get a step closer to personal and community liberation. I quickly moved from fiction to nonfiction storytelling to occupy a space where I could question, explore and bear witness.

Fast-forward to our third feature documentary, American Promise, a 13-year journey, where Joe and I decided to embark on one of the most challenging experiences of our lives—making a film about our son’s educational journey. I personally started off with one idea in mind, but really ended up making a film about myself along the way. It was a deep dive that went way beyond the questions raised in The Keeper.

American Promise began as an exploration of an educational system that on the surface was embracing diversity but underneath was perpetuating inequity for black boys. But as black middle-class filmmakers telling a black middle-class family story, certain gatekeepers needed convincing of its value. It didn’t fit that usual extractive, top-down documentary model. Was there even room for black middle-class stories in documentary film? 

Along the way I also began to question my process, my own exceptionalism—my potential role as an overseer in a system of exploitation in the very documenting of an educational system that was rigged against our communities. More importantly on this journey of filming my family, was I practicing a version of subjugation on my child that my father had imposed upon me? Was I repeating generational trauma? 

But, the rich relationship that I now have with my children and the national and global enthusiasm for this film led me to believe that we had done the right thing. Screening the film was never enough for audiences. People had questions, my own looking glass was now a mirror for others to see themselves. The debate and dialogue spilled over more than we could have ever imagined. We had touched a raw nerve. Our film sparked a revolution for parents and educators. We did it by being vulnerable and connecting systemic inequality to our own very specific, racialized, lived experiences that others like us immediately recognized. It was galvanizing. We were our audience.

Reckoning with the Structural tabletop of Systemic Inequities

On tour with our American Promise Community Engagement Campaign, I participated in a number of deep-dive workshops on undoing racism. One workshop in particular continues to resonate for me today. It provided a space to examine how I as a person of color experienced and practiced internalized oppression on a daily basis. At the front of the room, our facilitator pulled up a slide image of a tabletop with two sturdy legs. When I saw the simple graphic, a light bulb instantly lit up for me. I now could better understand my purpose and the direction my artistic work and practice was taking.

The facilitator explained it like this: In order for the structural tabletop of white supremacy, patriarchy and other systemic inequities to persist, that table needs two strong legs. One leg is the institutions—whether it's the criminal justice system, government, schools, foundations, IDA, the film industry or emerging media—that keep recreating that cycle of inherited oppression by default. 

Then that other leg is me and you. It is us—the individuals that make up the institutions. And more specifically, those of us who create culture, where internalized attitudes are consciously and unconsciously replicating white dominance and other systemic inequities in all our relationships. We can’t escape it. It’s like the air we breathe. 

But with storytelling and artistic expression, I have a tool that I choose to use to chip away at that internalized cultural leg both within me and in my connection with others in the creative process. While I am solidly grounded in cultural work with the various communities I am a part of, I know that, however slowly, my intentional process and creative product work towards dismantling the pillars that uphold systemic injustice. As long as I stay self-aware and forgive myself when I make mistakes, I must keep doing the work.

Photo by Todd Williamson for International Documentary Association.

The Problems with Inclusion and Allyship

In the work I do these days, spirit often lies in challenging what we mean by words such as “inclusion” and “allyship.” They are often being used in white-dominant liberal spaces. These are two terms that I personally find deeply problematic. 

I reject the term “ally.” Being an ally for me implies you are doing something for me, to help me or to help a group in need, when in reality we must all believe that we are doing the work—whether in storytelling or elsewhere—to save ourselves. White supremacy, patriarchy and other forms of oppression negatively affects us all. Until we understand that we all have skin in the game—both privileged and non-privileged—we can’t expect inclusion will solve the problems of power and subjugation.

Inclusion implies there is a better, superior place that marginalized folks should be brought into. But in reality that space is often already toxic from its roots because decision-making power is not questioned. And so, if not questioned, inclusion and allyship become traps for maintaining a status quo and not getting at the root of how structural inequality perpetuates itself, and how we are involved in it, especially as creators of culture.

Listening to and reading the work and interviews of Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine have helped me unpack some of the discomfort I have been feeling around these terms and attitudes. It’s also helped ground my personal work and how I mentor and teach. Toni Morrison often talks about how the problem of American society when it comes to racialized people lies in the pathology of white identity and dominance. She rejects the white gaze on her community and rather turns that gaze on its head—suggesting white people need to look at themselves and the pathological behaviors that have emerged with privilege for the sake of maintaining white dominance. 

For example, in the case of documentary storytelling, we may all suffer from not truly getting enough complicated pictures of stories of southern white working-class people and life because perhaps it messes with and might too deeply question the true source of white power and domination and how it manipulates us all.

Claudia Rankine started the Racial Imaginary Institute to deeply question how our collective imaginary is framed around a lens of white dominance and supremacy. How can we create space to shift and/or interrogate that in our work? This past summer the Racial Imaginary Institute has had a number of symposia, screenings and exhibitions provoking thought and engaging artists of all types. I cannot wait to see more. As a storyteller I work in the imaginary constantly. What kind of racial imaginary am I creating, challenging or perpetuating in my work? I have to be open to that self-interrogation. These are indeed exciting times for questioning, shifting and disrupting the comfort of our own perceptions.

So what does this all mean from a practical standpoint as a storyteller? I am continuously trying to work that out. It is a daily routine of self-awareness and commitment to creativity and personal and community growth. How do I show up when I think about the stories I want to tell? How do I show up when I work with my partner to decide what team we would like to build for our story projects? How do I engage the subjects in our stories? What important unfiltered dialogue do I have with my editor about character development? Where and how do I check my light-skinned, cis-gendered privilege in the team-building exercises we do on our various projects? The list is long and ever-present. I am a work in progress.

Some of these daily efforts were put into practice with our New York Times Op-Docs Conversations on Race series. We built a collective of filmmakers—Geeta Gandbhir, Blair Foster, Perri Petlz and Joe Brewster—where we were intentional about co-directing across our differences as a team. We challenged each other in the process. And we engaged our subjects to go deep. The series has reached over 40 million views—a testament to having touched a raw nerve again and how daily practice and intention in co-creation can resonate in limitless ways.

My current feature doc work-in-progress has taken me to the island where I was born, forcing me to reckon with the color-caste system there. Hispaniola examines the lives of Dominicans of Haitian descent whose citizenship was ripped from them by the Dominican government. I knew that as a woman of Haitian descent, I needed to use my light-skin privilege to access certain emotionally difficult spaces with people who engaged in anti-black hatred as part of their life in order to get a deeper, more complex picture of the extent of the impact of global white supremacy on the island. 

Photo by Todd Williamson for International Documentary Association.
New Storyworlds through New Platforms

Looking at where my creative work lives today, I know that it would be hard for me to talk about emerging media without making sense of and tracking my own creative and personal evolution over the years that brought me to occupy this new space. There is no separating the creative from the political. On my journey I have come to understand how our stories can risk being ignored, removed, appropriated or reinterpreted by dominant culture. So, I felt a duty, a calling, to occupy the space of virtual reality—a duty to explore my creativity in that space and channel my ancestors. I also discovered that I had a community waiting for me that was ready to support, guide and mentor me. People of color were already there doing the work, and in many cases were pioneers in the field.

In her series Making a New Reality, Kamal Sinclair, one of our sister pioneers in the field, takes a deep dive investigating strategies for achieving equality and justice in emerging media. It is a must-read for anyone wishing to enter the field and a great blueprint for doing similar research in our own documentary space. The series on multiple occasions points to how our communities are here and have been here since the beginning. In some cases, it is not a matter of inclusion but of simply seeing further than our silos.

A host of women and men of color have pioneered the emerging media space in one form or another and have touched and supported my own work: from Shari Frilot’s producing the New Frontier section at the Sundance Film Festival, an immersive space of creative inspiration and respite from the stress and pressures of the festival, to Jacquie Jones’ founding the New Media Institute back in 2006 with the bold beautiful ideas of turning Jackson, Mississippi into a completely wired space for black creativity.

I can go on: From Nonny de la Peña, the virtual reality pioneer of our day, and her taking the time to mentor both my partner, Joe, and me at the Tribeca New Media Fund retreat, to Anne Bennett and her pioneering work with Thomas Allen Harris’ Digital Diaspora interactive project and her patience to meet with me and just brainstorm ideas for how we could work on a truly interactive digital campaign for American Promise. The New Media Institute, founded by Black Public Media and spearheaded by Leslie Fields Cruz and Jacquie Jones, also specifically allowed me to incubate and execute multiple Web-based interactive projects—from Pawn Shop Chronicles to Haiti One Day One Destiny. They had all laid a stake in the ground from way back.

Those experiments, mentorships and collaborations allowed me and our team at Rada Film Group to dig deeper on what type of emerging media was relevant to our communities. For our American Promise community engagement campaign, we developed a prototype for a phone app for black parents. It was a behavior change app developed in consultation with the Stanford Behavior Design lab to assist parents in improving educational outcomes for black boys. The Promise Tracker was built using a deep community involvement model. We incubated the work thanks to the support of Wendy Levy and Bay Area Video Coalition and the Tribeca New Media Fund under Ingrid Kopp and Opeyemi Olukemi, as well as the Campaign for Black Male Achievement

Although we did not fully realize the launch because of funding challenges for marketing and outreach, the lessons were invaluable: 1) new technology is totally doable for us; 2) taking risks in the field and being OK with failure is a must; and 3) teamwork is an indispensable part of the process.

So fast-forward to two years ago and the opportunity provided by Sundance and Jeff Skoll’s Stories of Change program: the bigger idea of The Changing Same emerged. On this project I have been standing on my ancestors’ shoulders, embracing my father’s spirit and accepting him, flaws and all. Our story cannot appeal to anyone’s sense of guilt but, rather, it needs to inspire folks to recognize our common history and our common fate. The Changing Same is a groundbreaking, immersive virtual reality room-scale installation where the user travels through time and space on a pilgrimage to visit events of our common racialized history and present-day lived experiences. Our virtual reality story world embodies the idea that slavery never ended; it has simply evolved. The project uses cutting-edge reality-capture techniques with profound storytelling to create an innovative, immersive documentary that is native for this medium—a first of its kind. We are currently scheduled to go into production later this fall in collaboration with some kick-ass partners: Scatter Studios, POV Spark, MIT, Fledgling Fund and Chicken & Egg Pictures have joined the journey. 

The immersive experience places you in parallel storyworlds that span hundreds of years. And the search for light becomes a metaphor for hope and change from one storyworld to the next as we unearth buried histories and present-day realities. Magical realist time-travel also allows us to lyrically move through the past, present and future to contemplate the cycles of history and their strong influence on our lived experiences today. How much has really changed and how have experiences mutated? Through a magical realist lens we can also envision a new future where we can dream of a space or community where racial terror is acknowledged and differences are viewed through a distinct transformative lens.

Claiming Our Space

So how am I getting real in my work? How are we getting real? Carl Jung once said, “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.” But I would flip that and say that evil persists when we refuse to see that other stories exist and are being told on their own terms with their own purpose. We claim the space. Others cannot do the work for me, my people or my communities. Getting real for me is about seeing the power in being vulnerable and in occupying space and not letting others occupy the space for me. And also understanding the complexity of my own privileges. If we can’t reckon with these, we can’t do the work. And creativity suffers. Let’s challenge ourselves to be a community, a network, a world, in which what we’ve inherited is not what we perpetuate. That takes self-awareness, practice, patience and a willingness to be uncomfortable.