Sonya Childress: Active Voice Pioneer

To celebrate our 20th anniversary, we’ve asked three brilliant women to reflect on their early, indelible contributions to Active Voice. First up: Sonya Childress who joined our team in 2000 when we were transitioning from the Television Race Initiative. We could not have imagined how her previous work as a diversity trainer, program manager, and youth mentor would bring a clear focus to our early endeavors. 

By the time she moved on (to Firelight Media in 2006) Sonya was featured on stages from Sundance to the National Conference of State Legislators, helping Active Voice break new ground for filmmakers, activists, thought leaders, and funders. We recently asked ARRAY’s Mercedes Cooper to catch up with Sonya as her leadership and influence continues to expand.

OK, so social justice and social impact all seem to be very strong buzz words right now. So can you just break down what you mean by social justice in relation to social impact work?

I agree that that language like “social impact media” gets used really broadly, even for marketing for social issue films, or framing, or “audience engagement.”  When I think about social impact media, I think about art media that is leveraged to inform or engage audiences around a particular social issue.  The emphasis here is media as a tool to amplify and educate audiences. I differentiate that from social justice media, which I think of as strategies to ignite social change using a piece of media or art. These strategies are typically grounded in a social justice movement and informed by theories of change that move audiences from passive consumption into action. It’s a step beyond the amplification of an issue. It’s a step beyond the marketing of a piece of art. It is the justice facing arm of an art project.

Thanks, that is a very important distinction. You’ve been utilizing film for work around racial equity, immigration, domestic violence; you know, issues related to marginalized communities. Those aren’t exactly light issues to tackle! Let’s look back 20 years, when technology and our landscape and the ways we communicated and thought about social impact plans were quite different. Can you talk about The New Americans documentary series, and maybe some of the tools that you used as part of that campaign?

Sure, that was a really interesting and important campaign for me. I started before Active Voice was Active Voice, on the Television Race Initiative. It was a three-year project that Ellen Schneider put together that focused on domestic race relations issues through films coming out of PBS. Active Voice evolved from that, taking on new projects that were looking at issues of immigration and changing demographics in the United States. The New Americans was a seven-part series produced by Kartemquin Films with a diverse set of filmmakers. It was longitudinal, because it covered seven different storylines from five countries, and included immigrants and refugees. It followed their last year in their home country to their first two years in the United States. 

You know, at Active Voice we would spend typically a year building partnerships, building an appetite, teasing out clips of a film prior to the national broadcast (this was before the rise of commercial streamers.) By then our partners could frame the conversation around this film for a national audience. The broadcast was a midpoint of the campaign. And then we would take another year post-broadcast to engage the nation in a conversation around these issues.

But The New Americans was a challenge because it was six hours long, and really difficult for communities and organizers to integrate into their work. Seven hours of beautiful storytelling and stories that were woven into each other. And organizers would tell us, We just want the Nigerian refugee story, pull that one out. It’s huge. No one’s told that story. Give that to us.”

The filmmakers were amenable to us recutting it into shorter versions, which I took the lead on. I know that it’s difficult for a filmmaker to see their baby pulled apart in that way. So I worked with the film team, immigrant rights organizations, and an editor. We’d watch the entire series to identify particular story threads that were useful for our partners. Once we had a recut version, I’d work with them to develop trigger discussion prompts and questions and background materials and resources, all influenced by their work on the ground and by their thinking. Those are evergreen resources that sectors across the country could use.

I think that that process was really instructive to me because the power of that storytelling in moments like those is so critical for organizers. And that both of those things can happen at the same time. We could both serve the desire of artists to expand the reach of their work, and also serve organizations and movements with versions that they could use. And we could do it well and respectfully. That’s what I learned from The New Americans.

[More broadly] this kind of work was really at the cutting edge of that very early field that wasn’t even quite a field yet (and back then, the language was community engagement, not “impact”.) 

“The idea that “films can make change” is sexy. And it makes things look really easy and it makes us feel excited about the potential of art. But we [at Active Voice] didn’t position a film as a silver bullet, but as a catalyst for change. Art doesn’t organize people. People organize people.”

And it does it even better in the hands of folks who are already trying to make change within that culture, in an ecosystem of change.

Do you feel that watching these types of campaigns 20 years ago that you were able to kind of qualify the success rate or the impact? And if so, what were some of the ways that that was done? 

I don’t think anyone wants to sit and do a lot of reporting on their work when they are feeling like they’re in the midst of some important organizing. And I think artists in particular often bristle at this idea of evaluating the success of their art in moving a needle on a particular issue, outside of just using easily quantifiable impacts, like how many people watch the film or how many people are downloading the materials or how many people are attending screenings. You know, those numbers tell a very small part of the story and can be misleading around what the impact actually is. So for example, if your strategy is around a legislative change it doesn’t matter that there were two thousand screenings. It only matters that you got it in front of the one legislator that can actually shift legislation, for example. 

But if you’re talking about engaging in some cultural change around entrenched systemic issues like racism, like gender violence, then, you know, you are engaging yourself in a long term culture change fight. And that means that you are only going to be able to show how you moved a needle. I learned a lot about this from Ellen: culture change is long-term work. 

If you’re engaged in this long-term culture change effort, you have to be really responsive and nimble; changing strategies based on what you’re learning on the ground in real-time. Is that module working or not working? Is that language that we’re using to frame the film working? Or is it not working? That means setting up mechanisms to get constant feedback because we’re working within a political and cultural environment that’s changing all the time as well. And so I think Ellen had that sort of sensibility leaning into evaluation and evaluation as a way to improve our work, not just as a way to show the value of our work to a funder. I think that helped me get really excited about figuring out ways to bring a little bit more rigor beyond some benevolent idea around humanizing people who are not thought of as human.

You’ve written about the need to go beyond relying on empathy to propel change; that style of documentary storytelling with a goal [for audiences] to empathize with these characters as they’re moving through their journeys. Right?

My critique wasn’t with the idea of empathy; it was around using this language of empathy to implicitly “other” the subject matter. 

“Nonfiction is possibly the only art form whose history began with and has been largely focused on white filmmakers looking at communities of color.”

When you think about the non-fiction film industry in this country, the history of fiction film in this country, the history of the visual arts of this country, or music, the argument that “by looking at this film, you are going to treat this community better” is a flawed argument. It implies the only people watching documentaries are white. It implies white people don’t think other people of color are human. It implies a film is going to change that [while] not addressing racism at its core.

“Artists of color want to talk to our own communities, want to talk across communities of color. Communities of color want to see themselves on screen, being framed by people who have a similar experience, not translated from someone else’s.”

You know, I think what art does so well is to transport us into the lives of people who are very different from us. I think art is equally valuable when it transports us into lives that look exactly like us. Artists of color want to talk to our own communities, want to talk across communities of color. Communities of color want to see themselves on screen, being framed by people who have a similar experience, not translated from someone else’s.

[So, yes] Films can do more than just create empathy. This is an art form that needs to ask itself some really hard questions about who’s telling these stories and who are the audiences for this work.

This piece drills down further into questions of community accountability in filmmaking.

Ava and ARRAY have realized that, for the films that we acquire and the ones that she directs and produces, social impact campaigns can [take us] deeper into the issues. Maybe they’re as important as the actual film experience is. Think of 13th; there’s still so much to understand about that issue. 

was so important. So many films were coming out at the time looking at the criminal justice system or mass incarceration through the eyes simply of people who were caught up in the system. And there were no films yet that looked at the policies and the way that these issues are crafted and framed in media and how that influences a voting population and how that influences elected officials and how that influences laws that overly criminalized people of color. 

And my wish is that more nonfiction filmmakers who are interested in social justice lean into projects that look at structures and not simply look at actors within the structures.  [That] leads us to feel bad for just that person and try to help just that person, or interrogate whether or not that person was at fault in some way or have us debate that person’s personal experience — and never pull back the lens to expose the root causes or structures that maintain unequal power dynamics. 

And it’s also interesting just to see these cultural impact strategies translate to other artistic mediums. What does it look like when you’re translating this to a fiction film, or to a television series, or VR, or to a book release? I think that’s where we are right now. So that’s exciting. 

What else is on the horizon for you? You live this. You have your pulse on this. 

This two-year fellowship [with Perspective Fund] was meant essentially to take me out of full-time impact campaigning, which I’ve been doing the last 20 years. I’m taking a look at where the documentary field is, and taking stock of where the impact work is right now as it’s moving into fiction spaces and into commercial entertainment. 

I’m also thinking about what interventions might be useful right now around the sustainability of impact producers around issues of accountability and authorship within nonfiction, and around building power among filmmakers of color, in particular, developing core values and ethical principles for documentary filmmaking. 

I will be helping to launch a new project that does kind of help build some infrastructure for BIPOC led or BIPOC serving film groups and organizations that are doing amazing culture shift work.  

I want to make sure that that work is aligned. 

Sonya Childress has positioned film as a tool to shift narratives and support social justice movement building for over 20 years. Sonya currently serves as a Senior Fellow with the Perspective Fund, a philanthropic resource for documentary film and impact campaigns, where she conducts field-building research, writing, and convenings. A veteran cultural strategist, Sonya served as the Director of Partnerships and Engagement for Firelight Media, where she led impact campaigns for MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Stanley Nelson’s films, including Freedom Summer, Freedom Riders, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. She has led impact campaigns and advised countless filmmakers on their impact and theatrical strategies, including Yance Ford (Strong Island), Peter Bratt (Dolores), Steve James (The Interrupters), Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera (The Infiltrators), Byron Hurt (Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes) and Jeff Zimbalist (Favela Rising). Sonya held staff and consulting positions at Active Voice, California Newsreel, Kartemquin Films, ITVS, and Working Films. She founded Firelight’s Impact Producer Fellowship, a yearlong mentorship and training program for impact producers of color. A graduate of UC Berkeley, she is a frequent speaker, funding panelist, and was an inaugural 2015 Rockwood JustFilms fellow. Sonya is a trustee of The Whitman Institute, which advances social, political, and economic equity through Trust-Based Philanthropy.

Mercedes Cooper is the Director of Programming at ARRAY, an LA-based media collective dedicated to the amplification of work by black artists, filmmakers of color, and women creators of all kinds founded by filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Mercedes has worked for ARRAY for over 9 years previously as the Director of Marketing and in her current role, she oversees all of the organization’s public programming initiatives such as the 6-weekend film series ARRAY 360, ARRAY Drive-In community movie pop-ups, ARRAY’s Filmmaker Tweet-A-Thon, as well as ARRAY’s newest initiative the Law Enforcement Accountability Project, LEAP. She received her M.F.A. in Film and Video Production from Columbia College Chicago and a B.A. in Economics from the University of Maryland College Park.

Center photo in header: from left rear, Elaine Shen, Sonya Childress, Beth O’Brien, Ibukun Olude, Ellen Schneider, Rachel Antell. Front: Nam Kim. The Active Voice team in 2002.