When I met my husband, Matt, I thought that activism was for other people—people with more time and more heart. On one of our first dates, he told me, “I’m working on a film project about overcrowding in the Philadelphia prison system.” I was intimidated and a little embarrassed at not being up on the topic. I think I managed to say something like “Sounds kind of heavy.” I had no idea how much I would learn in the ensuing five years, or who I might become.
That project eventually became Broken on All Sides, a 68-minute documentary film about the intersection of class, race and the prison-industrial complex. Matt shot, directed, edited and distributed it; I spent many hours watching him work and going with him to protests and conferences, ingesting the issue on a deeper level and eventually becoming a collaborator on the final cut. The critically acclaimed film has been screened in more than 50 locations since its release in 2011, including at a conference of civil rights leaders in Selma, Alabama, and a panel with Angela Davis in Berkeley, California.
The experience of working with Matt on this project opened my eyes and my heart to a deep injustice. For the first time in my life, I discovered what it means to be a real part of the struggles of others and experienced the joy and the exhaustion of the hard daily work involved in advocating for system change.
Since we started working on the film, issues of race and the criminal justice system have made their way to the forefront of America’s national consciousness. The murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida was the first of a succession of troubling deaths of young black men to come under public scrutiny. The violent death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who shot him touched off a wave of protest around the country. Subsequent controversial police shootings, as well as a horrific mass shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, have heightened the intensity of African Americans’ pain and frustration and have made it clear that racism is still alive and well in our society, despite all the gains of the last generation of the civil rights movement.
From the pain and frustration, however, a spark of hope has emerged in the form of a grassroots effort led by the young people whose lives are on the line. #BlackLivesMatter is the hashtag and the movement that’s taking on police brutality, the injustices of our criminal system and a rapidly expanding prison population—all of which have had a disproportionate impact on black and brown communities. The movement is already leading to change, and it is deeply fulfilling to feel like our movie and organizing might have had some hand in that.
I’m excited that, in the spirit of this issue’s theme, “Working Together,” Natural Awakenings can showcase the incredible people working to transform our communities and our world. The change-makers we’ve profiled in this issue are profoundly inspirational—but it’s important to note that they are not superhuman. Time and hearts have a way of opening up. Any and all of us can “be the change we want to see in the world” and transform ourselves and others in the process. I’m living proof of that. I hope that this issue helps you find the inspiration to move out of your comfort zone and into action. I’ll meet you on the other side, and I’ll be cheering you on.