Before Michael Brown was killed, I had only been to Ferguson once even though I had lived in St. Louis for over 25 years. As his death and the subsequent community response became an international story, I wondered if I should be a part of documenting what was happening in Ferguson. I had made documentaries in Kenya, Malawi and Nicaragua, and now there was a story to be told in my own backyard. I went out to an organized protest, and there were so many cameras there. I quickly realized this wasn’t my story to tell. Two months later we heard a series of gunshots just blocks from our apartment.
Vonderrit Myers, a young man who the police say was armed, was shot and killed in a confrontation with an off duty police officer just blocks from our house. This was a young man I had probably driven past nearly every day on my way home. A day later, right outside our front door, we heard drumming and protesters chanting “Out of Your Homes and Into the Streets! Out of Your Homes and Into the Streets!” I went out with my camera into the streets and started filming. For the first few weeks, I didn’t know why I was filming or what might come of it, but literally every day there were people protesting right by my house.
A few weeks later I had a meeting with Faith Sandler, the executive director of the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis (where I had been a student receiving funds years before). She told me, “We’re doing this unorthodox, advocacy internship program,.” I asked, “When does this program start?” And she said, “In an hour.” I ran home, got my film gear, and that was the day the story started to come together revolving around the Active Advocacy Internship program.
One of the biggest personal drivers for this film is that for two years prior, I had been mentoring students from Roosevelt High School, a local high school in St. Louis city with an organization called Young Life. I had worked with students with similar backgrounds and life experiences to Mike Brown. These students are very close to my heart and they’re friends of mine and I felt in a lot of ways, I was making this movie for them.
The story quickly evolved to be about a lot more than Ferguson as an event or a place or a movement, but about how inequity shows itself most in education systems. Our vision was to connect what was happening in Ferguson with police-community relations with the history of systematic injustice in St. Louis specifically in terms of education.
As a white male originally from a more affluent part of the city (though I experienced financial hardship too), I think my privilege offered me an interesting perspective. Living in the city, being married to a social worker, and volunteering in our city’s public schools gave me some insight on inequality. Growing up white in well-funded school districts in the suburbs, I also understood what the majority was thinking about the Ferguson protests. One of my biggest realizations was that when we were talking about Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, people are often talking in code about very different things. Often when white people from the suburbs heard about protests in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, they imagined burning buildings, overturned cars, hate directed at police officers, or things like that. When my black friends were involved in or talked about the protests, they saw those events as fighting for justice, fighting for “US.” This is what you will see in the film: struggling schools; lack of quality housing; lack of opportunity; as well as personal experiences with police profiling. In the film, you’ll hear individuals thinking about their friends who have been shot by the police and about structural inequality that’s been in place for hundreds of years. Among us, we are often using the same words while talking about different things. As a community, we’ve been having two different conversations.
My hope is that the film challenges audiences to consider the way they view the Ferguson Movement and the underlying issues of race, poverty, undocumented students, our current educational system and most importantly, what role individuals can play in our messy democracy. As Brittany says, “Every person has a role to play.” Your voice is a gift and a chance to make sure the idea of “nothing about, without me” rings true in your community as well. Engagement in democracy is as important now as it has ever been.
Since the film ended, the Active Advocacy program received funding to grow the program to 100 students statewide and each of the policy interns has gone on to further their education or start new jobs, but all of them continue to speak up on the issues they care about. Each of them are fighting the issues that break their heart by doing what makes them come alive. I hope this film inspires others to do the same.
Dan Parris, Director of Show Me Democracy
A Speak Up Productions film