Visible Evidence 18: Engaging ethics and social media

Posted October 13th, 2011 by Helen and filed in Uncategorized

The young Iranian-born media scholar, Negar Mottahedeh, stands in front of her power point slides. Showing patience and grace, she attempts to convey the political role she had adopted during the 2009 Iranian uprising. She tells the audience that social media was how she chose to tumble into the vortex of rebellion during the Green Revolution. Armed with her computer screen as both a window to see into Iranian street demonstrations and as a tool to communicate and advocate for freedom, she says that she had no doubt that this was the moment to act as a human rights activist in support of her country’s freedom fighters.

Professor Mottahedeh and I are presenting our experiences with social media at Visible Evidence 18, meeting at NYU in August 2011.  At this annual international conference of documentary film, scholars explore and debate this most exciting and malleable of media forms.

Drawn in by organizers Professor Patty Zimmermann from Ithaca College, and Sam Gregory, Program Director at WITNESS, academic participants fill our screening room. They look eager to learn more about and engage us around the situational ethics of human rights media, now rooting deeply in the participatory spaces of the internet. This is a subject that both panel organizers have been teaching and writing about for several years, while crafting a dynamic and changing set of working ethical principles.

I sense that Professor Mottahedeh is not ready yet to distance herself as scholars must, from the mounting dilemmas she’d discovered when social media meets street-level interventions and state repression and violence. She is neither speaking as a technological enthusiast nor a moralistic doomsayer, but as someone who has been profoundly changed by this experience, and is still trying to understand its implications for her own actions in the future.

While users of Facebook and Twitter signal and corral momentous change across the globe, Professor Mottahedeh tells us that she wants to identify and think about the less beneficial, if not inadvertently harmful, effects that she had been unable to mitigate while wielding and weaving a social media web of support from her home far away in the US.

There were times, she says, when the information that people were posting in real time, was no longer accurate given their intermittent internet access.

“Post a message on Monday telling people to stay away from the American Embassy because it’s closed, and later if or when the information changes, and people see the message too late, it could become very dangerous,” she says.

Pointing out the positive outpourings of user-generated media surrounding the Green Revolution, she also questions her own actions as a media advocate and citizen participant from a distance, and in this new social media space.

The video artifacts and power point slides she uses are telling one positive and hopeful story, but behind the illustrations I see her deep and mixed feelings of bewilderment, hope and judgment about this experience. She is still living with the obligation that members of the Iranian diaspora had taken on to harness these powerful new communication tools and improvise help for people dangerously vulnerable in the streets and in their family homes.

I’m able to pick up fragments of the professor’s thinking, and I’m certain they will cohere, over time, into a powerful and organized narrative. At this moment though, we’re witnessing the raw power of entering and inhabiting a land of ‘not-knowing,’ when it comes to understanding these tools.

There is great wisdom to illuminate as long as we can stay open to the ethical issues being recast for the digital age.

Opposite Attractions

When it’s my turn to present our story about the making of Lunch Love Community, I explain how I try to act as an intentional context provider with the help of media tools. By acknowledging and working around the unresolved ethical dilemmas, I notice that technology is exercising a less mysterious control over my choices.

This process that we blend into our documentary practice, includes civic engagement activities built into a new form of distribution online. The more I work with the tools of public engagement as a producer and director, the more I am divided around these issues:  losing myself in the community I’m creating the film with, and retaining the individual autonomy intentionally detached from them in order to see and shape the story more clearly.

This conflict comes from a deep desire to join and take part in the collective community – be a member, a collaborator.  However it is absolutely in my bones to create distance, and be an observer of the story being developed. To approach the truth, the work must spring from another dialogue — one that is individual to me as the creator, and internally generated.

From a Creator’s Perspective: Identifying My Ethical Issues

I point to some questions, recognizing that they’ve long haunted filmmakers and artists venturing out to work the untidy fields of public discourse. With social media tools, they loom larger, burn brighter and complicate simple resolutions.  I live with these issues every day I pick up a camera or work in the editing room.

1.    As we make films that connect with expanding stakeholder groups, what are my obligations to them and the community? To negotiating conflict that may arise? Or are we unwittingly echoing their agendas and claims?  Or the outcome desires of the funders?  Neutrality is not always an option – loyalties shift over time.

2.    What and where are the limits to the filmmaker’s freedom to express a truth she sees? Especially without a large media organization behind you supporting your work?  Another angle on this would be how does the filmmaker negotiate autonomy within the community frame?

3.    How do we create a safe space for open dialogue about conflict and misunderstanding that is neither absolute (“you are with us or you are not”) nor completely relative (“everyone has a right to eat Hot Cheetos whenever they want”).

During our panel, professors, media makers and students comment and question, obviously energized for ongoing conversation in this area. People are sparked — every comment yields more questions than there is time to discuss.

The scholar is trained to observe, study and make conclusions. The filmmaker also watches closely to see in new ways and shape this mess of life into meaning-rich stories.  And now, we discover the opportunity to be significant actors on an online stage where roles are permeable, and can switch with a click of the mouse.  In the framework of the documentary or social media video clip, Patty Zimmermann sees an expansion outward from an ethics of the cinematic image, to the ethics of the distributed network.

The issues we face while making social media cross all types of boundaries – disciplines, political, urgency, close, distance, global and community-based. Decisions to make while engaging with social media — from working in the midst of war to doing a community or neighborhood project — share many similarities. Building (and often rebuilding) relationships around trust, honesty and confidence in the process turn out to be the most important and critical factor for the good of the project and the change it wishes to inspire.

This quickly evolving participatory media culture pressures us to face and struggle with difficult ethical questions that are no longer abstract — but grounded in real world circumstances that have implications now absolutely necessary to visualize, voice and to try and make sense around.

This space is not values-neutral. Prevailing free market thinking around gadgets and wizardry cannot not be the only marker for success when people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.


Helen De Michiel

September 29, 2011


Here are some provisional working ethical principles drafted by Sam Gregory and Patty Zimmermann to frame the dialogue in our panel:

1.    An image uploaded, bluetoothed, or shared is an image that can circulate and move and be reshaped. All ethical assumptions should be based on this mobility.

2.    Consent is central. It emerged from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics and social science research.  It is grounded in a recognition of real dangers on the ground. Yet it needs to be re-grounded in new communities of practice that exist in spaces like YouTube.

3.    Respect for human dignity is mandatory. It emanates from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics. It is grounded in a culture of empathy.

4.    Preservation of agency is a balancing act between the storyteller and the remixer/re-user. It relies on internalized and externalized context.

5.    Aggregation offers an alternative to singular emblematic stories or paradigmatic stories that fit preconceived ideas. Yet new frameworks of aggregative ethics must be developed, including around how to generate ‘responsibility to act.’

6.    The technological operators of online services, as well as the creators of software and hardware, will condition and frame ethical issues in human rights social media.  Practitioners, theorists, scholars, and advocacy workers will need to engage not only these technologies, but these providers and their infrastructures.


Posted October 13th, 2011 by Helen and filed in Uncategorized

On a foggy, summer day in San Francisco, I meet my friend, filmmaker and professor Brook Hinton for coffee at the Acme Café in the lower Mission District. We haven’t gotten together for a year, and I’m looking forward to sharing news, stories and ideas with him.  After an hour or so I’m sure I’ll be going home to Berkeley a little less anxious and more connected to the buzz of activity around the city’s more adventurous or fringe-y filmmakers and musicians.

We’re able to unlock our masks of bright self-confidence around one another.  At the moment, it doesn’t matter to us that our problems as creators may not seem as shattering as all the other worsening social and environmental problems in a time of recession, shrinkage and slow deflation of dreams.

We’re good at recognizing this state of urgency, and measuring its effects on our friends and colleagues trying to make a living and continue their work in the arts. The Café is full and bustling in the late morning with people like us – reading and working on their laptops, scanning their devices, and even talking face to face with one another.

We do a quick and honest scan across our work worlds. What are artists coping with? Neither of us can report on big success stories – either our own, or about people we know. We trade small success stories of artists we know being able to hang on and persist, experimenting in private or with small groups of friends with shareable skills.  Brook’s friends who work in art-related jobs are scraping by project to project.

The old ways of earning a living will no longer work, since only a few name-branded artists will land college teaching jobs that are now paying by the course, and which offer scant reliability and barely modest incomes. Earning a living making media products to sell in the cultural marketplace?  For us as filmmakers we know that’s over, yet the reality penetrates slowly.

We exchange news about our own ongoing projects. We’re scrambling to keep in the game and not let the boundary lines that vibrate around technology change get us down or disable our drive to work through them.

I think of the phrase I’ve been noticing lately — that technology has led us into a state of “permanent change.” When I want to remember it I bring up the image of a red Sharpie marker pen bleeding its indelible ink through my pocket full of pennies.

Out loud, we worry together about using social networking tools to stand out and get attention. I admit I lose sleep ruminating on the next new technology and online tool to learn.  We wonder to each other if it’s what we want, or need to do anyway — or maybe just do it carelessly without much thought of doing it perfectly.

I say that I’m trying to understand how global economic flows are creating pressures that ripple throughout the cultural ecology. I’m feeling the impact in ways that seem both intimate yet remote. My projects and the ability to pay for their production is moving slowly and cautiously. No one wants to get anything new started.

By sensing the big picture expanding and contracting, I respond through my work — making it more honest and sharp, and not let feelings of inferiority get the better of my energies. I also confess that I feel alienated and distant from the contemporary art world — like a lifelong friend I’ll never stop loving, but who is too busy with business to stay in touch with me.

Brook and I might begin these occasional meetings with disappointment and headache-inducing shock at the harsh state of affairs we find ourselves spinning out to consider.  Inevitably though, through talking and talking, we gain control over the mess. Our conversation takes a turn with some good music in the cafe, and the darkness lifts like the fog does by mid- afternoon.

We laugh at the absurdity of our complaints, because no matter what, creativity continues. It thrives, a life force not to be controlled or given up. And neither of us will stop learning, challenging assumptions, or working through our processes — because whether we recognize it or not, this is the way we measure our success.

+ + +

Both of us continue to make film even though we see the news that the IRS does not want to allow business deductions for documentary filmmaking, because it is, in their new definition, a “hobby,” and not a “for profit” business activity or profession. Does this attack prove that documentary is a cultural force at this moment?

It takes a determined lawyer and several arts organizations to prepare an amicus brief proving that documentary filmmaking is a profit-making profession and not a weekend activity. It also shows how the structures holding artists and creators within a skill-based profession (worthy of being considered a tax-paying or deducting business and not just an activity that anyone can “do”) are fading as the 21st century emerges succinctly as the digital age where what makes a professional creator in the eyes of the law will be redefined and fought over.

+ + +

We circle around the image of “taking refuge.” And how important it is to be giving refuge to the young by telling them the truth as we see it in our own lives and work. When students ask for answers from experience, we say, “The system has to be rebuilt.  By you.  Don’t let the opportunity pass you by.” I say that we have no time to be dishonest or vague with students.  When they ask about how they can earn a living in the arts, we must tell the truth: don’t think about selling stuff, think about how does your work contribute to waking people up in this state of urgency we find ourselves in?

For now, the refuge we reach for remains partially hidden online in the fragile, still free and open internet – this wild, enticing ocean full of noise and distraction. Yet, for now it remains the only alternative emerging where we can imagine and present a remixed, expansive, even hopeful reality connection.

I admit to Brook that I’m immersed working in this economy of gifts, where I still do not know how to be paid for what I do as a media maker. What Richard Nash, the founder of the new publishing site Red Lemonade writes about literature is true for the arts and media:

The book is now something more of yourself, something you exchange with others, more like a talk, a conversation, a class, an event, than a lampshade or a hammer.

This is the flux of permanent change:  our cultural expressions are emerging to be dialogues freely shared, and not physical objects only to be purchased.

Brook tells me that I appear much more grounded when I talk about the Lunch Love Community project. “I have no other choice,” I say. ” I’ve pinched, kneaded, pounded and beaten myself into this shape. I’m building my own state of urgency and making it as stylish as I can.”

+ + +

All of this leads to the 2011 Maker Faire at the San Mateo County Fair Grounds.  Is it fair, I ask Brook, to compare international art fairs like the Venice Biennale to the Maker Faire?  At an international art world fair, I would only be a detached observer, a pretend consumer and compulsive evaluator.

A piece of my heart now belongs to the Maker Faire and the DIY adventure it conjures up. Whatever we make of the visual arts in the 21st century, as religion or business, the seeds of its future live in the tremendous creative energy at the Makers Faire. Everyone there “makes” and “shares.”

I saw Stanford scientists meeting down home crafters; Silicon Valley engineers meeting Oakland art collectives; kids and adults putting together Lego cities and robots.  You can build, network, exchange, and buy what you would need to make something you can use or play with – from coffee roasters to machines and electronics to backyard bio-tech and all-purpose circuits called ‘Arduinos.’

Wonder and excitement is palpable because in this temporary space, hierarchies around science, art and technology disappear for a weekend, and everyone is just into the festival groove together. I left the Maker Faire smarter and more energized, with a few solar electronics kits to put together with my son.

In this moment now, as stories of gloom and disaster sit in our lives like heavy bleak furniture we can’t move or get rid of, I keep in mind a bit of advice from The Maker’s Checklist:    “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”

Brook and I leave the coffee shop promising to meet again next year -at a refuge called the Makers Faire.

Making a Living: Helen De Michiel Responds

Posted May 3rd, 2011 by Helen and filed in Uncategorized

Written for Fresh at FLEFF blog.

Why Gena Mangiaratti Kept Me Thinking

The Ithaca College FLEFF student interns watched my powerpoint and video clip presentation of the Lunch Love Community project with polite interest and asked thoughtful questions.

When I read the perceptively intuitive Live Blogs on the FLEFF Interns Voices blog later, I noticed one major question that I did not answer well enough in person. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

FLEFF intern and blogger Gena Mangiaratti articulated the undercurrent in the room that I could feel, yet did not satisfactorily address:

“How can someone make a living — earn money — when you are not profiting off the sale of your films? That was what  I had been wondering about. With the shift toward internet technology, how will new independent filmmakers who have a fantastic message to spread, such as De Michiel, be recompensed for their work?”

During my talk I did not discuss many of the nuances facing media makers forging ahead in the emerging digital era. I did mention that it would not be possible to earn a living from creating a media series like Lunch Love Community, which, while it is now testing a set of hypotheses, still may prove sustainable in ways we have yet to discover.

The challenges I was thinking and working with, and how students were hearing my answers were coming from different issues, different generations, and different points along the creative career path.

Observations and Advice from the Frontlines of the Public Media Field

Here are some further observations from my experiences working in the field and evolving within my own practice. I acknowledge that the lines between corporate and independent media spaces are blurring, and that there is little use now in worrying about whether you will choose poorly and be stuck where you do not want to be. The situation is far too fluid and dynamic – so, happy surfing.

There is no doubt you can earn a living in the emerging new media economy while not having to make a hard and fast distinction between indie and commercial, entertainment and “nutritional” (like documentary, installation, experimental) media flows. No matter where you land, you will find yourself in some type of cultural economy. With many of you facing enormous college bills and debt for years to come, it is crucial to understand how to function in these art-media-design industries. Your education should lead you towards satisfying projects and jobs using 21st century conceptual frameworks and technical skills.

Neither one package of skills or one focused pathway will ensure success or stability in the new media world now emerging. Creative adaptability to a variety of situations or opportunities will, though, lead to success and stability over time.

As an independent filmmaker for more than two decades after my own MFA from UC San Diego, I’ve adapted to take on various work opportunities that I either was curious about or offered me a challenge. When they were good, they involved working with smart people I could learn from. I’ve worked as a media and television producer, a professor and an arts organization executive. And all along I nurtured and completed my own projects, all of which were deeply affected by the work worlds and people I was interacting with in that phase.

What You REALLY Need to Possess for the 21st Media Ecology

When Rodrigo Brandão, Director of Publicity at Kino Lorber, gave his talk to FLEFF fellows, a comment he made struck me as the truth: He said, “there are three areas to know well if you want to get a job in the film industry today – be fluent in other languages besides English; know how to program code and build online sites; and know your film and media history really well.”

These three aspects of your profile will signal to a media employer that you can communicate across a global context, and that an international scope interests you as an activity you take seriously. Technical skills like coding and managing an organization’s web presence are always valuable and attractive. You’ll be able to achieve common ground with other media and film professionals you are dealing with when you can demonstrate a strong knowledge of and appreciation for the history of your chosen field and art form.

Leadership, Leadership, Leadership

Another kind of knowledge and experience that will help you as you move into the new media economy — especially in these early stages of digital development — is continuing to sharpen your leadership skills across several areas. Leadership abilities are critical in the creative industries – leading and managing teams and collaborators, motivating groups, and looking for new ways to do business.

As young adults entering a volatile and shapeshifting communications sphere, you will be wise to build confidence in your ability to manage and mentor older people who may not understand the digital environment the way you do. You may get involved in digital infrastructure and media policy issues, and need to speak out publically to your peers about the importance of an open internet.

You may want to start your own company or nonprofit – utilizing ideas and facilitative leadership methods developed over the last decade to make the workplace a more humane and satisfying environment.

And you may have to raise money, either from investors, government or foundations. Leadership training gives you an anchor in how to move gracefully in a variety of sectors that feed the arts directly. In Leading Creatively, a free publication you can download from the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, you can find stories of arts leaders from three generations reflecting on the role that effective leadership has played in their careers.

Moving in Other Directions

In the creative economy, people may start in one place, discover a strength or a passion, and move in another direction.

When Donna Choi became our Digital Arts Service Corps member at NAMAC in 2009-10, she had graduated from UC Berkeley with an undergraduate degree in Ethnic Studies. We offered her this VISTA position because she was a strong writer, web designer and coder, and online community manager who could apply an intellectual rigor to the job. We also valued her ability to work independently along with focus and persistence to solve problems.

When she came to our organization, Donna wanted to work in social change organizations and politics. Art and design were side interests for her. We invested in her professional development to advance her technology skills. When her yearlong VISTA assignment was completed with us, she found a job teaching new media in the San Francisco schools system and was preparing to go to graduate school for illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. That was not where she had started off two years earlier.

There are many markers along the creative career path that allowed and encouraged me to produce a project like Lunch Love Community, and to be actually executed and distributed. That we are not charging for this cultural gift may be a problem worth investigating further, or it may prove to be a blessing still unfolding.


How you enter into the new media ecology, what you intentionally want to do in it, and how you treat it as a space open for telling truth, is wide open, spiraling and expansive.

The future is yours to shape.

You will need to chip away at old distinctions that could keep you from doing what we wanted when we left college back in the last century:


Blending An Emulsion: Part Two

Posted March 21st, 2011 by Helen and filed in Uncategorized

When reporter Sarah Henry’s Berkeleyside article appeared and was reposted and retweeted the morning after the Sunday PFA screening, the dialogue we had started about school food moved online. Among the many comments about the Berkeley school lunch program – complaining, attacking, defending and explaining ­- a few commentators just said thanks to the chefs for making this program work each day for their kids.

To my surprise, these online discussions spread and kept on going for another three days. The flow of commentary was intense and partisan, giving me new story ideas for the long form film still to be completed. As author Sara Miles said, “Anywhere there’s food, spirit and matter intersect.”

Now that Lunch Love Community is let loose online, Sophie and I as independent filmmakers and artists hold no power over the way in which the webisodes can be used or repurposed. Their status as precious objects, to be sold, bought, or controlled has vanished. On the Internet, we’ve traded ownership for free-ranging access to dialogue and action. My reality is that my documentary work grows now in the context of an expansive conversation that knows no limits, and where the distinction between process and product is continuously dissolving.

Yet, the webisodes have become more valuable than I’d thought possible, inviting real life involvement beyond a click: from reading a blog, to watching a short film, going to a meeting, signing on to a committee, and creating a new local policy that could affect thousands of students. Sophie calls the webisodes “tools” for anyone to use as they wish. In this evolving media economy, documentary is becoming a downloadable app to sharpen focus and provoke change.

The movement of media online will be in flux for a long time to come. As collaborator and best friend forever, the Internet comes with a price, one whose mercurial and startling needs and desires demand constant attention, exploration, and energy.

Designer Bruce Mau, author of An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, said that now  “it’s our job to jump fences and cross fields.”  Digital culture, with its openings and obstacles, has obliged me to make radical changes in how I create my media work. I make mistakes faster and correct them even faster, and I connect my work to forces way outside the screen, the theater, and narrow assumptions.

After the Pacific Film Archive screening I saw how Lunch Love Community reflects its subject both in process and spirit. The physicality, the drama and the fragility of the real, and to many, imperfect Berkeley School Lunch Program – an institutional service fighting to exist within a system of precarious and uncertain resources draws me back to the intersection of food, matter and spirit.  Its magic comes from its “wabi,” the flaws that reveal the human touch and the striving to do good.

Conflict is no longer only constructed in the narrative of a documentary’s structure.  It now spills out way beyond the screen.  How we engage with critics, blogger journalists, commentators and passionate participants will reveal new relationships to non-fiction filmmaking and its transformation emerging now on the Internet.

In my experience, it is every documentary filmmaker’s aspiration to transform consciousness by presenting alternative ways of seeing or doing things in life as it is actually lived and struggled over.  When there is an audience to speaks its mind to you, around you, and beyond you, that emulsion you have worked so hard to blend together will hold, lose its delicate fragility, and become more potent than you had ever imagined it to be.

Blending an Emulsion: Part One

Posted March 21st, 2011 by Helen and filed in Uncategorized

Why were we screening short web documentaries for an audience in a traditional university museum film theater if they could easily see them on the Internet any time?  This was the question I wanted to answer honestly for the Lunch Love Documentary Project as my co-producer Sophie Constantinou and I were laying out the elements to design a two-hour event for our Pacific Film Archive screening in February 2011.

Steve Seid, video curator at the PFA and clever wordsmith, called this screening and community gathering a “Media Social.” We set up the event as a public expression of stories and issues that now surround food reform, and in particular, how these topics have played out in Berkeley, where I live, and have been making the Lunch Love Community documentary project since 2009.  Sophie and I wanted this first public screening-event to be inviting and familiar to the community, but also slip into the mix a few, riskier and unpredictable combinations with a Berkeley flavor in which film, performance, and town hall meeting could spark something exciting and memorable.

Lunch Love Communitya series of short webisodes that we’ve been giving away online since December 2010 to anyone who could use, post or burn them to a DVD — has been an emulsion made up of separate and distinct elements. Like oil and vinegar, movies and the Internet, collaboration and creative autonomy, we are working with materials and processes that don’t naturally combine smoothly. Emulsions can be fragile and unstable, or they can cohere, with a lot of rapid whisking, into a thick and rich new substances.

For the people who came out to sit together in a dark theater on a sunny and warm mid-February afternoon, I wanted to offer a more expansive, live community experience than could be had on a small digital screen. Ever since we’d been making, showing and using documentary film in new spaces, combining both the virtual and real, I’ve tried to retain a connection to familiar ways of approaching, watching, and considering the film experience — no matter how far and wide our web films travelled online. Bodies and minds together in a dark theater for a couple of hours is still one of the most powerful ways to connect and imagine alternative realities.

Around 150 people showed up to see the short films, ranging from 3 to 10 minutes in length, and listen to four speakers we invited from our community:  Joy Moore, community food activist; Stephen Rutherford, elementary school teacher; Bonnie Christensen, Executive Chef for the School Lunch Program; and Charlotte Biltekoff, Professor of American and Food Studies at UC Davis. In the intervals between films, each of the speakers would briefly comment on one of four framing questions that linked them individually through their work, to one of the themes around food, education and school lunch reform that got its start here in Berkeley.

I was curious to explore how, in our super social-mediated world, people are now interacting and engaging with one another and the films in different environments. What would happen when individuals came together in a dark room to enter the magical world of film, and after, break away and interact with experts about real social issues and problems?

How then, to capture that energy, and move those conversations on to the Internet, where the films could be watched again in a completely different space and framed in a completely different context where they were just beginning to generate attention?  This was the transmedia experience I was looking for as a filmmaker — one that was solid, grounded in real people’s lives and work, and where form follows function.

The structure we had designed for the PFA screening could not contain our speakers’ needs to digress, question, or defend the school lunch transformation in Berkeley.  Following the first webisode The Parent Factor, and commenting on the question, “What are You Up Against?” Stephen Rutherford used his ten minutes to point out, in a heartfelt, digressive monologue, how the promises of the lunch program, while being touted and celebrated, were not actually being realized effectively at his elementary school.

Chef Bonnie Christensen watched and listened to him. Her anger was visible as she took notes on what she was hearing as an exaggerated, public misrepresentation of the facts.  After the next short film, The Labor of Lunch, Chef Christensen spoke to her framing question, “What is the Future?” in a way we hadn’t expected — by delivering a blazing, improvisational rebuttal to Rutherford’s comments. Berkeley schoolteachers in the audience then took the mike to add their pointed responses, both pro and con, to a debate we hadn’t anticipated.

Real life experiences, strong feelings, and unpredicted controversy erupted out of the containers we had designed to hold these passionate voices. I wished I could have pulled out my video camera (which I did not have with me) to capture this exchange — individuals in the audience getting excited and engaged as they asserted their thoughts, and brought their experiences to bare in front of others. This was Berkeley in action – a city of fearless idealists and opinion makers with the drive and courage to examine and try to fix the flaws they had uncovered. An alive and present force of real life concerns and conflict flooded over the films, and came together in an inadvertent demonstration of the confusing and messy processes it takes to make change on a community level.

Here was what we had hoped to stimulate- “citizen participation.”  The films encouraged people to imagine new possibilities for children, for education, for beautiful food that awakens their kid’s appetites and senses.  The event led us to revisit the assumptions and ideals of the school lunch reform movement, which in turn opened onto a larger, more free-ranging conversation about how little time children get to eat and play at school, how pressured teachers feel now with disappearing resources, and in this time of shrinking resources, how to work on educational equity in racially and class-divided neighborhoods.