Engaging People: Stories About Citizens Revitalizing Democracy
The launch of the Engaging People Series: Citizens Revitalizing Democracy took place this month with an official trailer for the series and 3-minute entry into a national online competition entitled Looking@Democracy.
The documentary web series is focused on ordinary citizens who come together to transform their communities. They see problems in their neighborhoods and take charge to do something about it. As a media activist, I'm passionate about what empowers people to make change from the ground up. I found people from all over New Jersey doing extraordinary work to revitalize our democracy. In ways as unique as they are—artists, hair stylists, civil servants, citizen journalists, faith-based leaders, executives, and everyone in between. The short trailer for the series is an introduction to civic engagement and shows groups of people taking responsibility to uplift their communities.
I also had the privilege to witness and document how people have come together in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. I heard more than once that although it was the worst thing to hit New Jersey, it was also the best. On my journey I met many "Jersey Strong" citizens and also found people who traveled across the country with compassion to help on the northeast coast.
One story in the series is about Circus Maximus, a cook by trade who flew into Philadelphia from Seattle with his partner to serve up hot meals and entertainment in the U-Hungry Cafe. I asked him, “Why don’t more people get involved?” With a red clown nose and all seriousness, he replied, “Because there are professional organizations and that’s all people know. They start to think, ‘Ok well, I don’t need to actually do anything,’” he said. “It sort of creates a barrier between ordinary people doing what’s right.” Circus left NJ shortly after Thanksgiving, but in true form he taught others how to operate a well-oiled moral boosting machine and the "U-Hungry Cafe Too" team continued the good public work.
Next up in the Series
In Trenton, I met Will "Kasso" Condry who with his team of fellow artists at S.A.G.E. Coalition are literally changing the face of Trenton. For over five years they've been working to transform abandoned buildings and city blight into creative artworks and projects with messages of hope and positive representations of African Americans. Will told me, "The great thing is the elected officials support what we're doing, and they don't tell us how to do it, we have a lot of freedom, and we really respect that." Will's story exemplifies the importance of citizens having civic agency—the ability to call the shots themselves, yet working collaboratively with their elected officials, an important aspect of civic engagement.
Upcoming stories include longtime social change activist Bonnie Kerness who learned from the best at the Highlander School in Tennessee during the civil rights era where Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were also taught community organizing. Bonnie points to the foundation of what active participatory democracy means, "I made myself a promise and I chose a way of life. I decided to keep that promise, whether or not I had children, whether or not I had to do food shopping—no matter what else, that was a focus."
The Fair Haven Fire Company, the second oldest in the state with over 100 members will show how people can put aside their differences and pull together whether they're organizing a large summertime fair or fighting fires.
Rosemary Ryan couldn't just sit back and watch the devastation from Hurricane Sandy unfold in Highlands. Newly bald and still feeling weak from chemotherapy, Rosemary worked day and night with other active citizens to organize a Hope for Highlands concert which has become the impetus for a nonprofit organization. Along with food pantry organizers Dan and Trish Curtain and Principal, Melissa Wisk, they've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help rebuild people's lives, but more importantly are on the front lines daily with their solid citizen support system.
Creating a media space about our 'civic fiber' has long been a passion of mine, and I intend to broaden the opportunities to show and deliver these stories, not only online but also on the road for public screenings and dialogue.
Read more about the launch:
A story ran in The Patch in Monmouth and Ocean Counties.
Voices of Hope Productions Correspondence: