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Activists armed with iPhones learn to use storytelling to their advantage

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

Elsewhere, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has gradually expanded its stamp of influence on the south end of downtown — its neighborhood — and Greensboro as a whole, billing itself as an arts organization.

But the thrift store-turned-museum that houses Elsewhere doesn’t showcase objects of art in the conventional sense beyond what a visitor might subjectively experience as an accidental encounter of significance in the flotsam of constantly rearranged materials that jam the museum’s confines. Instead, the outfit is more of an experiential laboratory. Freed from conventional expectations, Elsewhere has ventured ever further into civic engagement and community organizing territory, while miraculously maintaining celebrated status rather than alienating the city’s political establishment.

Last weekend, Elsewhere took a definitive step into the realm of community organizing with a free workshop on narrative campaigns for grassroots organizations facilitated by eastern Kentucky media activist Nick Szuberla that was funded — no small thing — by the NC Council of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

After conducting interviews with passersby on the street, the workshop participants returned to a meeting space at Elsewhere armed with footage captured on iPhones. The mood was ebullient, lifted by the first day of real spring weather and an invigorating practicum.

Szuberla, a documentary filmmaker with the venerable Appalshop cultural production house in Whitesburg, Ky. whose work deals with the criminal justice system, set up an iPhone in front of a projector. The participants viewed a sequence of brief interviews focusing on where people are from and how they view the police.

One piece featured a middle-aged white man seated at a café table who told the interviewer that he was from Philadelphia. He said that fair treatment of all people is important to him, “whether you know someone [on the police force] or not.”

“I’m pro-police,” he added, “not pro all laws.” Another video featured a young African-American woman, a community organizer from Gary, Ind. – a place she said many people know as the birthplace of Michael Jackson but that she also characterized as the “murder capital of the nation.” In the South, she said, people are not accustomed to a young woman of color running things, and she has to “step on eggshells” to avoid offending people’s sensibilities.

“My experience with law enforcement has not been positive at all,” she said.

“This type of media-making is not about making a documentary,” Szuberla said. “This type of media-making is about failing quickly. Go get it, and put it up quickly.”

Neither the technical quality of the work nor the articulation of the interview subjects are likely to be perfect, which is fine.

“Don’t worry if you agree with what the person says,” Szuberla said. “You might have Ms. Jones saying, ‘The police need to clear the 16-year-olds from the street.’ Someone will see that and say, ‘I really don’t agree with that.’ It’s good to have oppositional perspectives from your own.”

Szuberla’s presentation focused on three categories of stories that each fulfill a different value for the activist trying to give people a sense of agency and empowerment to change unjust conditions: stories of “I,” “we” and “now.”

“‘I don’t’ like the criminal justice system’ — too big,” Szuberla said.

“‘I don’t like the criminal justice system in North Carolina’ — still too broad. ‘I don’t like HB whatever it might be that puts juveniles in detention with adults’ — now we’re getting closer.”

Robin Shakir, a Bennett College student who wants to create media for and about women who have experienced domestic violence, hate and sex crimes, asked Szuberla for some advice about how to stand up a journalistic enterprise.

“I’m getting too old to wait,” she said. “It has to happen today.” Szuberla answered by quoting the revered documentary filmmaker Anne Lewis, whose work has tackled union struggles in the coal fields and Southern white antiracism, among other subjects. People have often asked Lewis how she is able to complete her films.

“Start making it,” Szuberla said. “Come to a place like Elsewhere.

Show your clips. Get feedback.”

WANNA go?

Elsewhere is located at 606 S. Elm St. Participants of a related workshop, “Story Circles for Justice,” will give spoken-word presentations of their stories at Elsewhere on Friday at 7 p.m.

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