June 15, 2021 by Debra Gittler

Expose Not Exploit

Last Saturday, the documentary All These Sons premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, highlighting the power of the ConTextos’ Authors journey.

And this Friday, June 18, it’s premiering here in Chicago at the Doc10 film festival.

The film, which I’ve been lucky to see a few times in the evolution of editing–and was even more lucky to see in the process of it being filmed as it followed Authors (and Authors Circle with ConTextos’ team) over the course of months– captures the variety of stories that we hear every day in Circles.

The complexity of the balance between systemic injustice and personal accountability. 

The challenge of resisting prevailing narratives about the South and West Sides, Blackness, Masculinity, Success, Opportunity.

The intricacies of changing trajectories.

The unbearably limited resources and opportunities; the intolerably low expectations for (young) Black men.

Background on ConTextos and the film

I met Bing Liu, the film’s Director, nearly four years ago when he was capturing b-roll in a church basement in Roseland, when we were facilitating our first community-based Authors Circle in Chicago with the Youth Peace Center. The funder, Chicago CRED (who didn’t even have a name, yet, when we started the collaboration) hired us to provide additional programming to their first cohort who were receiving CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), workforce skills (street cleaning and deconstruction) and team building. 

Bing wasn’t yet well-known as a young, local Oscar-nominee for the film he was working on, Minding the Gap, which would be nominated for an Academy Award two years later. But his skills were clear as he bled into the woodwork while I facilitated, barely noticeable as the Authors built trust and started to develop their memoirs, navigating their pasts to structure the stories they needed, and wanted, to tell. 

You can read all of those Youth Peace Center / CRED Cohort 1 Stories here… this pioneer cohort that didn’t much trust the process as it was explained, but learned to trust the process as they ventured through it. 

And so many of these Authors are still a vital part of our alumni network– Kalil Warner and Jeremy Berry have published multiple times with us, Vincent Glover one of our more loyal ambassadors. Not one of those Authors didn’t push back at some point during the process, the pain of retelling and excavating the past so visceral. Authors Circle allows us to explore that pain without being (re)triggered, which is what transforms breakdowns into breakthroughs.

Maybe it’s supposed to be a secret that the original pitch for All These Sons was a film called Until the Lion Speaks, which would highlight Authors’ Stories and journeys. That was back when Jeremy Berry was being filmed and interviewed based on his tragic and sensational experiences as a survivor of violence, guns, poverty…

It’s been almost five years since we brought Authors Circle to Chicago from El Salvador. And in that time, I’ve seen so many young mostly men’s stories lifted up as a rallying cry for us as a City to DO SOMETHING to stop the violence. And I’ve seen just as many young mostly men get dropped along the way when their sensational story can be replaced by another.

Expose versus Exploit

When we were first approached about participating in a documentary, my team pushed back hard. In the non-profit world, it’s an on-going juggle to balance doing good work with getting the money. On the one-hand, as a non-profit leader, I’m told to spend 90% of our budget on programs not publicity/overhead (a belief system that’s fading). On the other hand, my industry keeps us on starvation wages, based on funder-driven programs and priorities, and in a state of surviving instead of thriving.

A documentary, media, exposure, we are told, is the opportunity for exposure and with exposure could come money!

My team and I, however, bristled at that idea. How could we ask those who have experienced severe and repeated grief, loss and trauma to open up and share with a camera in the room? And based on so much media experience about violence (amidst young and/or Black men), the tendencies to tell sensational stories rather than the full complexity of human experience, to other and perpetuate is so real.

Plus, ConTextos has not been a brick and mortar institution. We PARTNER. We blend into other organizations and efforts, lifting up their missions by providing critical support and powerful, impactful programming. At our culminating Publication Events, we don’t sell books and we don’t ask for donations– these are not our stories to profit from. The stories belong to the Authors!

Our goal is to expose, not exploit. For the Authors, to allow them to expose their vulnerabilities and their complex humanity. For their communities, to hold space for that vulnerability in support and love.

Whenever we start a Circle, in Cook County Jail or workforce development on the South and West sides, or Chicago Public High Schools around the City, the first questions are often an expression of the incredulous: “why you trying to get to my shit?” Another program coming in and snooping, asking the worst parts of a person. At ConTextos, that’s not who we are.

And it’s not who we are going to be.

Zay, an Author highlighted in All These Sons, who is also ConTextos’ Author in Residence. Zay worked for us before COVID and started working for us again about a year ago, co-facilitating Circles and supporting our work. And to support Charles, another Author who has worked with ConTextos as one of the founding Producers of the Complicate the Narrative podcast and later as Producer in Residence, including his important OpEd last summer First Feel Me, Then Heal Us which garnered much support and additional media. I hosted folks in my home, worked with Sheriff Tom Dart’s team to allow it to be shown in the Jail, watched as I screen-shared to those who couldn’t watch on their own, negotiated so lawyers and moms could see it before the world did.

Bing and his co-Director Josh have become friends. While planning and filming and later editing, they were frequent guests to my home and Circles. We have brainstormed together and I’ve made introductions when possible– particularly around the Jail. And I’ve begged them not to tell a false story about Programs that Work, Programs that fix the problem… Programs that–that make grandiose promises but fail those they make promises to. I say that because even the most powerful Programs, even the Program I run, cannot FIX the complicated weave of tragedy, trauma and triumph that happens everyday for those experiencing gun violence, the legal system, Racism, in Chicago. So I’m proud that their film (spoiler alert!) makes clear that Programs can’t fix everything.

And in candor– this has been a challenging time to work in violence-prevention and reduction. Look at our City. Look at our Authors. The call for Reckoning is loud. The evidence of change feels fleeting… especially as I read the daily homicides and shootings.

So to see the film, to watch the heroes journey of Zay and Charles, to observe Billy Moore wrestle with questions of morality in spaces where survival trumps all. To watch this film as I grow my professional friendship and alliances, talking with Marshall Hatch, Jr. also featured in the film, or Emmanuel Andre, attorney extraordinaire to so many of our Authors, trying to navigate my white leadership in this space at this time, trying to be an advocate for mostly young, mostly Black, mostly men we serve… I’ve had a lot of doubts over the course of the last months, year, years. The fundraising game is brutal– having to explain over and over why we should invest in these communities and individuals that have experienced so much. Why reading, writing, dialogue, HEALING, storytelling isn’t extra, isn’t additional to workforce or solving the economic problem of violence. Why we should be human and HUMANE. That these aren’t people to be FIXED, but journeys to accompany. THAT is what we do in Circle– and with our alum– we ACCOMPANY along a journey that is not linear, not easy, not always sensational or sexy, and certainly not well-funded.

To watch the POWER of ConTextos work was moving. So many moments of vulnerability, difficult conversation, breakdowns and breakthroughs, were moments of Circle. Moments of intensity and incredulity, self- and collective-exploration, triumphs and tears, were the Authors’ journey. To be recognized as a partner, as a player, without having to be the star– that is the essence of our work at ConTextos. We aim to lift up our Authors’ stories so they can tell them for themselves. We aim to create exposure– so that Authors who arrive (as my colleague Johnny Page explains) bundled up and protected in ski gear build trust to slowly shed those protective layers until they’re sitting in their bathing suits, letting it all out… exposed. And the exposure for audiences of folks like me– privilege, caring but distant allies– can understand more through proximity. This film helped us with exposure, instead of exploitation, to both Authors and ConTextos. 

See You this Weekend!

I will be at The ChiTown Drive In on Friday, June 18th @ 8:30pm for the Chicago premier of All These Sons. I will be there to celebrate and support my friends during the Live Q+A in-person with Directors Bing Liu and Josh Altman, moderated by Amara Enyia. I will be in attendance with some Authors, who will represent so many more Authors, carrying the spirit of the thousands of Authors’ stories that are being told through a handful of captured narratives in the film.

And I hope to see you there, or that you will stream the film, and that you will consider not just the stories that we lift up, but the stories that we let go of. That you will remember that the struggle to do the work isn’t just the hardship of the challenges faced by those we serve, but the complicated nature of the balance between service to and taking from. That you will remember that even in a film as excellent as All These Sons, there are many stories that aren’t captured, aren’t told, and are still essential to making sense of the problems, people and possibilities.

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