Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Darby Ottoson (she/they) is HECUA’s student blogger for Making Media, Making Change this spring. They are student at University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, majoring in Strategic Communication, minoring in Environmental Sciences, Policy, Management, and Interdisciplinary Design. Read on for their next post!
(Note: Images were taken prior to Minnesota’s shelter-in-place executive order.)
On March 7th, a couple of my classmates and I were hanging out in the community kitchen of our home base, St. Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN), after class. We sat at the red cushioned booths eating snacks, working on homework and loosely planning what to do to prepare for the “Story of Now” group videos that we would start once we returned from spring break.
Sydnney’s and my group planned to make a video on environmental justice issues in the Twin Cities. Though we didn’t have a clear vision for it yet, we excitedly threw around ideas for all the different directions it could go. As we filed out of SPNN to catch our buses, trains, and rides, we said our goodbyes and lamented about how weird it would be to not see each other for a whole week over spring break.
A week later, our worlds shape-shifted nearly beyond the point of recognition due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it became apparent that we wouldn’t see each other for many weeks, which soon became many months. But, the span of time before what I now know was my last visit to SPNN for a long time, was full of incredible experiences in that building and the surrounding community. The weeks have admittedly blended together a bit and thinking back to February feels like a lifetime ago, but it’s also grounding to reflect on that time now.
Those weeks were centered around the power of narratives, local social change efforts, and wrapping up our “Story of Self” video projects. Viewing those final videos ended up being one of my favorite classes yet, as each had a distinct shooting style and voice that revealed whole new facets of my classmates as people. We were also gradually growing closer through windy winter walks to the train after class, icebreaker questions posed by class guests and beloved snack break conversations.
We met at CTUL’s (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha) office in Minneapolis and learned about their surprisingly simple yet effective tactics to combat wage theft and other worker rights violations. Since CTUL began 10 years ago, they’ve helped recover over $2 million in paid wages and damages for local workers.
I left after that hour spent at CTUL feeling empowered after being circled around white board diagrams and engaging in discussion. Looking back from today’s vantage point as labor markets are swiftly changing and essential workers attempt to unionize around the Twin Cities, this visit to CTUL seems even more relevant.
The time spent in my Community Productions internship at SPNN held moments of practical learning and necessary new perspectives. Looking back through my murky memory of February, one event that stands is the Black Film Showcase Panel Discussion. This was organized by local community media facilitator extraordinaire, Bianca Rhodes, who is also my internship supervisor. The broadcast event brought together and uplifted the voices of black directors, actors, producers and writers in the Twin Cities. It began with warm greetings over popcorn in the lobby, leading into a showcase of short films followed by a panel discussion with their directors; David Buchanan, Leonard Searcy, Alison Guessou, E.G. Bailey, and Toussaint Morrison. Listening to their experiences, it became clear that these directors were also well-versed in skills such as acting, lightning set-up and editing. They all emphasized the importance of learning first-hand as many roles in the filmmaking process as possible. The panel wove together advice for budding filmmakers and storied reflections on the cooperation between black filmmakers in an overwhelming white Twin Cities media landscape as well as delving into why they are both proud and at times frustrated to produce work here.
Toussaint Morrison described how being black, especially in local corporate media spaces, means navigating with a heightened awareness of others’ perceptions of you, unlike the white people in those same settings who feel welcomed to take up as much space as they please. The panel also touched on the problematic ways that some brands view diversity in their media saying, “They want us in it, but they don’t want us controlling the narrative”.
Operating one of the four large cameras filming this event in SPNN’s large studio space illuminated how little time I had spent evaluating how my privilege plays out in a studio setting like this one, and how to be actively aware of that in similar spaces moving forward. Watch the full discussion here.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend that event and other Community Productions that took place before large in-person productions became obsolete, such as Candy Fresh and Your Legislators. Each of those filmings further reinforced the value of spaces like SPNN to encourage community-strengthening conversations and events.
Come mid-March, as future plans dissolved and every gathering that wasn’t canceled moved online over spring break, SPNN and MMMC were front of mind for me. Of course, these shifts were necessary, and we all needed to come to terms with the fact that this semester wouldn’t be all that we wanted it to be. We took an additional week off class to process the ambiguous situation and grieve the confusing layers of loss that occupied everyone’s minds at that time.
In that week, we emailed back and forth to establish a new structure for class, absent of trips to local media making spaces, access to SPNN spaces or resources and any in-person meetings. But, perhaps surprisingly, the knowledge that we would continue in some form overshadowed my disappointment over what was lost. I miss my classmates’ companionship and the explorations we had planned at places like Ricardo Levins Morales’s studio or the TPT PBS building. I had been excited to start biking to SPNN when the weather warmed and gathering outside like our class dreamed of in February. But we eased into the transition acknowledging the losses and holding a hope that we’d make the best of this. We decided to meet via video chat twice a week for as long as our attention would last. Guests that are still able to will hop on those calls each week. PBS extended a non-expiring invite to tour the building when safe to do so. And our “Story of Now” group video projects transformed into individually crafted videos about how COVID-19 is affecting the community.
The wide range of topics covered in the first few months of our MMMC program have continued to spark discussions about the transformational power of intentional relationships and storytelling. This transition to virtual learning will no doubt hinder the relationships we’ve been building and severely limit our access to technical resources for telling stories from the community through video. But as this situation has clearly illuminated, relationships and stories are resilient and more essential now than ever. Seeing my classmates on zoom for the first time surprisingly felt like a breath of fresh air.