Pull Focus: Patrice O’Neill

Pull Focus: Patrice O’Neill

by Erin Finicane and Echo Xie

Co-founder of the nationally esteemed outreach organization, The Working Group, Patrice O’Neill is a pioneer in multi-platform citizen engagement. Also an award winning filmmaker, Ms. O’Neill uses the combined impact of visual storytelling and social networking to inspire action among her audiences. Among her success stories is Light in the Darkness, latest in the Not in Our Town series, which chronicles the response of Patchogue residents to the violent hate crime against one of their own, Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero. Keeping with the tradition of past Not in Our Town films, O’Neill introduces us to an empowered community that comes together in the face of adversity to prevent future hate crimes and foster an environment of safety and respect. The Center for Social Media interviewed Ms. O’Neill before her screening at the 2011 Human Rights Film Series.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into filmmaking? How did you become involved in social documentary making?

O’Neill: I studied journalism in school and I knew I wanted to make films at some point but I really saw myself as a journalist. And then luckily when I was young I got into a CEDA training program in documentary video. I think that’s a unique experience and I wish that it would happen more for young people. So I learned how to make documentary films basically by doing them, and that was an interesting challenge because you have to develop your own methods so I never went to film school. I wish I had, but I have been an independent filmmaker all my life and it’s something that’s incredibly fulfilling.

For many years, I would tell young people, “don’t do this. It’s too scary, the financial risks are tremendous, you’ll never make any money.” But I think there’s a whole new landscape for documentary filmmakers for young people now in this field, so it’s really exciting. I’m really happy that I remained an independent through most of my life and have learned from so many other documentary filmmakers and watched the field grow and develop. But it was an interesting life in the early years and actually quite difficult.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Working Group?

O’Neill :Sure. The Working Group was formed as a company that would tell the stories of working people and would highlight labor issues. When we formed over twenty-five years ago now, there were very few stories about working people on television, about labor. It just wasn’t a popular topic and we found it to be an exciting area of exploration. There were so many stories about ordinary people that were dramatic and exciting. And we did a whole series for public television called “We Do the Work.”  We then did another series called “Livelihood” for PBS. And in the middle of that we found a story about people in Billings, Montana, who stood up when their neighbors were under attack because of hate crimes. And we found that story because members of the labor’s union, members of the painter’s union, were very much involved in this. Originally, it was a short story for a Labor Day special for “We Do the Work,” our series on public television. We then knew that the story had so much resonance. We turned it into a half hour film for PBS in 1995 and that story, that short film helped launch a national movement.

So you just randomly came across the story?

O’Neill: Yes. The story of Billings is quite compelling in its simplicity. And we did sort of fall into it and we found it to be a story about ordinary people, working people taking action in their community. It then became much more and has influence. “Not in Our Town” (NIOT) has really influenced the work of our company The Working Group tremendously. It has changed the way we make films.

How did that first Not in Our Town (NIOT) grassroots campaign take hold? 

O’Neill: It was 1995. It was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing. And we started by showing this film in a small town, Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California. And we wanted to see what happened when people in a community unlike Billings saw the film. There were schoolteachers, students, rabbis, priests, city council members and when the film ended, they didn’t want to talk about Billings, they wanted to talk about their town. They wanted to talk specifically about how people were treated in their community. What do I do when I hear someone harass an immigrant who is walking across the town square. What do I do? That was really exciting to us and we thought, what if we could do ten town hall meetings around the country, like this one to see if people could open up a conversation, not just about hate crimes but about how we treat each other. How we deal with each other in our everyday lives. So that experiment with ten town hall meetings around the country turned into a hundred. It was tremendous. Around the NIOT broadcast on PBS that year, we held a NIOT action week and over a hundred screenings took place. And then those hundreds of screenings turned into groups that exist to this day. So there are NIOT groups, there are groups that were formed from that original screening that are still around and still active in communities across the country.

And what was the nation-wide impact of the campaign?

O’Neill: I think that the story of Billings opened up a conversation about how we deal with hate crimes. I think the police chief played a tremendous role. He said that the issue of hate crimes is not just a law enforcement issue, it’s a community issue. I think the community had developed some really dynamic tools for dealing with response. I think the basic message was that the responsibility for dealing with intolerance lies with all of us. And that’s a very simple, straightforward message. But some of the things that people did in Billings unlocked a way for communities to take action. I think that was a really significant push. I think the Billings story created an opening for many, many communities to grapple with this issue which had been either under the surface, under-reported, surfacing but not being dealt with. And Billings gave people a kind of roadmap for how they could not just open the conversation but figure out how they could take action.

 So what was the ultimate social goal of these films?

O’Neill: I think that  what we’re trying to do with NIOT is tell the stories of people who are trying new methods, not just to fight hate crimes but to build more inclusive communities in our country and in our world. And as NIOT has spread, new methods have developed, new means of dealing with hate. New forms of hate have morphed and changed and people have had to respond to them. And so we have been not inventing these solutions as filmmakers but following them as they emerge in local communities. And that has been really exciting to see. I’m really proud of the role that we have been able to play because there is tremendous innovation at the local level. And very often if it doesn’t happen in Washington, New York or San Francisco, or Los Angeles. News coverage fails to highlight it, and what we’ve been able to do is go into those local communities where there is tremendous change taking place, where there are new ideas, where there are new methods and put them on film and put them on our site at niot.org and have people share them. And with the launch of niot.org, our new social media site, we’ve seen ideas spread like wildfire. They spread very quickly and that’s been tremendously exciting. So what is the potential for this movement? It is endless. This problem of hate is not going away, but the solutions keep getting better and better and I hope that we can continue to highlight them and share them so that people are strengthened by stories from others.

How did the idea for launching the website come about?

O’Neill: In 2006, we gathered about 150 people who had been active in NIOT across the country. We had interacted with them on the phone or we met them as we were making films about them. But we wanted them to meet each other because we thought there was tremendous knowledge that could be shared. And what was clear is that there had to be an ongoing mechanism for them to interact with each other. And so the next year, Bay Area Video Coalition had a Producers Institute where they helped people –filmmakers—prototype new media applications, and we prototyped niot.org, our new social media site because we wanted a way for people to understand the problem of hate, so if you go into our site, you see a map where there are red dots where you see where there are hate crimes happening. But NIOT is not just about hate crimes, it’s about solutions, its about innovations, it’s about what people can do about it. So over the map, you see green dots, and those are where people are taking action. Those include the stories, the videos, the actions that people are taking nation-wide. And then there are group sites for communities around the country to talk about how they’re formed, what they’re doing and that group of a hundred and fifty people who were just the tip of the iceberg really made us understand how important it was, how vital it was for people to be able to connect with each other and share stories and innovation.

Can you share with us one such story that has been shared this way? 

O’Neill: Sure, and there are quite a few, but this is a really good one. There’s a hate group called Westboro Baptist Church out of Topeka, Kansas. And they go and protest at funerals of soldiers. They started protesting at the funerals of AIDS victims and they go to communities and they cause great disruption. And the dominant view in the anti-hate movement has been ignore them. Don’t give them publicity. But they came to California and they said we’re going to some high schools, we’re going to some Jewish institutions, and we’re going to be outside. And there were a group of young people at Gunn High School that had been involved in Not in Our School, and it was the GSA at Gunn High school that went to their teacher and said, “Look, this group is really coming after us. They want to speak to us, and we feel that we need to have a response.” And the school was very unsure about what to do, but they finally were convinced that these young people were committed. They were going to be positive, so they had a singing protest. This incredibly powerful singing protest when Westboro Baptist was there. And the parents were there and the teachers were there and the community came out to support them. We posted a very short video called “Gunn Sings Away the Hate.” We posted it on our site and it spread across the country. Within a week, a hundred thousand people had seen it, and then over 250,000 people have watched it all over the country. It has spread maniacally. It is amazing.

So people saw that and they started to use it to think about what they would do in their community. So there’s another group in Charleston, West Virginia where the Westboro Baptist Group was going to protest where minors had been killed. They were going to the funerals of minors and the group that is attached to NIOT.org said, “Okay. We see that the singing worked, so we’re going to do dancing flash mobs when the Westboro Baptist Group comes.” They did dancing flash mobs. The Chamber of Commerce did anti-hate posters that people put on their lawns. So these ideas were then posted on niot.org and they have been used over and over and over again. There’s a whole section on the site, what to do when a hate group comes to town. And so these ideas spread. There were incredible stories of HeleL groups doing a response when this group goes to a campus. So the ideas have spread and it’s really exciting for people to go in and say, “What do I do? This crisis is happening in my town.” They can see a video, they can see a story of positive action that has worked in another community. That’s why we built it.

Can you walk us through step by step what goes into the campaign planning around the film?

O’Neill: I think, over the years, it’s been really exciting to watch the independent film community really develop extensive engagement campaigns. And we’ve been part of that process. Many people see NIOT as one of the originators, the original films, that helped launch this movement of film being used in social engagement activities in communities. I think the most important thing for us is finding the right partners. Who are the national organizations or the local organizations that will work to get out a film, to get out a story that will help them in their work. How can the message of one of our films, one of our NIOT films help national groups that are doing their own work reach out to people and open people up emotionally to some of the issues that are raised in the film. Our most recent film, “Not in Our Town: Light in the Darkness” is about the murder of an Ecuadorian immigrant. Seven young people, seven high school students, were involved in the attack, and one of them was charged with murder. So it’s a story about how the town responded and what people in a community can do in the face of hate and particularly in the face of anti-immigrant violence. So we started looking, in this campaign, for people who cared about the issue of the rising tide of anti-immigrant violence, about these divisions, and about stakeholders in these communities who could help organize a response. So we went to police departments who were vital in this. We went to the National League of Cities. We went to librarians. And in this story, the library plays a central role. So where the civic institutions and who were the community leaders and civic leaders like teachers, the AFT was very much involved in this. Who are the key players in communities that can draw on their local activist to see the film and spark a conversation about how to create a better atmosphere for everyone in local communities? So national partners were crucial.

We work with public media, and we’re very excited to have public media engaged in this campaign.  Obviously this is a PBS film and it aired nationally on PBS, but then we engaged stations in seventeen local markets to look at the story from a local angle, so many of them did local stories. What are the issues that are facing us. What are the divisions in our community and how do we address them. They did town meetings, they did local coverage, they did local radio. They ask people, “How are you dealing with intolerance?” There were mobile campaigns. So it was really tremendous. We engage the NIOT community, we engaged national partners, we engaged national partners who could reach on at a local level. And we engaged public media. And we think that this combination of forces has been incredibly powerful in having this film, which was just launched, already have a tremendous reach in local communities.

What role did public media play in your outreach?

I think that public media plays a vital role, particularly at this moment, as media’s fracturing, as the media landscape is changing and we have fewer and fewer local news organizations who are covering our civic life – public media plays a vital role in this fractured space. I can’t imagine where else NIOT would go. I mean, obviously we have our own space on niot.org as well as on pbs.org, but public media and public media stations in local communities are a civil life force and at a time when there are dwindling resources, I think we need to support them more than ever. We’ve had incredible working with local public media, with radio and television, and new media. I think it is a place we have to be. I think that these conversations are difficult and I don’t see them happening on many other channels. I don’t see this kind of civic discourse being spread on many of the other channels that are doing “documentaries” – but they’re documentaries that are maybe more about neutral topics like nature, or science, or biographies on famous people. This is a conversation. Not In Our Town sparks a conversation about how we treat each other in communities. It sparks a difficult and challenging conversation about how we’re going to deal with the difficult issue of hate and how we as a community are going to build a safer place for everyone to live. Public media plays a vital role in this conversation. I hope that we can help be part of the effort to expand the audience and to bring even more diverse viewers to public television, even more a cross-section of people – younger people – into conversation. But I do think this is the place, NIOT. Public media is a vital space for NIOT.

 How do you reach out to your audience?  

O’Neill: Social media, through our national partners. I think social media has allowed us to reach a much broader cross-section of people. I think we reach more young people through Facebook. Some of the work we do is on the ground, with people that are not engaged in social media, so we try to get that cross-section. But I think that’s been a vital new resource for building movements and we’ve certainly felt that at NIOT.

With all of your screenings and outreach activities, what have been you’re biggest success stories?

O’Neill: I think the biggest success is that there’s still a movement. There’s a NIOT movement after 16 years; sixteen years after a public television special, a movement continues in communities across the country to resist hate crimes and to build safer, more inclusive communities. I’m also really proud of the spread of Not In Our School, which is another section of NIOT that emerged as the other facets of the movement emerged. It emerged from people taking the story and making it their own. So, like NIOT, which is really fashioned and developed in local communities, Not In Our School is fashioned and developed by young people with the guidance of their teachers. So we’ve seen tremendous success with that. New ways to deal with bullying, cyberbullying, how to deal with Facebook attacks to each other. So, I’m really proud that it still exists and that we continue to be able to document these stories.

How do you think a film adds to an outreach campaign? In other words, what’s the importance of a film?

O’Neill: I think film is essential to the NIOT movement. It is our core strength as a company. Film opens people up, emotionally, to a story and to hearing each other, to looking at a story in a new way. I think that documentary film, and film in general, is playing an essential role in social change in our country and our world and I think we’re going to see an increase in that. We need story. In order to create change, in order to understand each other in a new way, we need stories to help us do that. And I think that’s one of the things that we’ve tried to do. We don’t create the action. We don’t create the innovation. But we go searching for stories that we think can help people navigate through very difficult issues. In this particular case, with “Not In Our Town: Light in the Darkness,” we had seen a dramatic rise in anti-immigrant violence. We heard from people around the country how this was becoming an increasing problem in their communities. What do we do about it? Where’s the NIOT story? they’d ask us. And we would take our cameras and we would go to communities where this violence was taking place.

But there had to a story, there had to be some convening of a community that would unlock a path for people in other parts of the country. We finally found that in Patchogue, New York, shortly after Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant who lived in this community for 13 years, was killing on the streets of Patchogue. We started seeing signs that there was possibility, when 500 people gathered at the train station where he was killed. And we heard his brother Joselo Lucero speak and say he was going to be an advocate for the immigrant community. And we heard the mayor of the town speak and say :Yes, we want justice in our community. We started to see the signs that this community might be a place where some kind of solution, some way through this divide, this deep divide in our country over immigration. Where there might be some way for people to see, how do we stop the violence. Because I think the divide continues about immigration in this country. I think what this town has unlocked is a way to say: how do we see the humanity in each other so everyone can feel safe to walk the streets; no matter who we are, we need to feel safe and we need to feel that we are not “the other.” None of us are “the other;” that we are all human and that our rights as human being to live together have to be protected.

Are there other stories that stand out that you would have liked to develop or explore?

O’Neill: I think that one of the exciting things about NIOT and one that we see on our facebook site, on niot.org, is that NIOT is a place where we can address hate crimes and intolerance across constituencies, because what often happens and what we see in the anti-hate movement is that when there is an attack against gay people, the LGBT community gathers and lends support. When there is an attack against an African American, the African American community takes the lead and launches the response to that. And it has been the case when there’s an attack against immigrants, the immigrant community responds. I think NIOT is a place for all of us to respond, across the board, no matter who the victim is. And I think those kinds of stories are stories that we’ve tried to foster. That in our communities no matter who is the target, no matter who is responsible, no matter who is experiencing that day to day pressure, that day to day separation and intolerance, our response needs to be the same and I think by being a place where we aggregate stories, where we gather stories of response and action by people across the board that I think we’re starting to see a way for people to cross the divide, get out of our silos and see that the responsibility for building inclusive communities belongs to all of us.

How do you pick which story to make into a film?

O’Neill: With NIOT, we can’t just film hate crimes, because if we did, we’d be launching a film every hour. There’s a reported hate crime every hour in this country and those are just the reported hate crimes, because there are many more that take place that no one ever reports. We are looking for stories of communities taking action. What can people do in the face of hate? What can they do to support the victims of hate? What can they do to create a safer atmosphere? What can they do to open up a conversation about why this is happening and what people in a town can do to change it, what people on a campus can do to change it, what people in a school can do to change the atmosphere of bullying or harassment? So we’re looking for those super charged stories of people in movement, people doing something about this. That’s what we want to do and I think that’s what people are seeking when they come to niot.org and when they come to our films.

In “NIOT, Light in the Darkness” there is very little coverage from the perspective of the defendants. Did you do this deliberately or were there access issues?

O’Neill: We spent over two years filming “Light in the Darkness” and this story of a community trying to grapple with a horrific hate crime. First of all, it’s very hard to distill that into an hour, and it was very clear that PBS wanted only an hour and that we wanted to make an hour long film that would be accessible to people and that could screen in community settings. And NIOT is about community response to hate. That is the organizing principle of our films. What is a community doing? How can we share the story of the victims, people in the community who feel vulnerable, and people who are in action, so that is the essential part of the story. So it was essentially a choice not to spend a lot of time on the perpetrators, on the people who were charged with the crime. It wasn’t part of the organizing principle of the film. I wish we would have had more. I think it was very difficult as these young people were on trial to get access to them when they were, you know, on trial. It was hard to talk to the cameras as  it was for their families. I would have liked to have some of that in the film, but it really wasn’t the essential part of our story. Our story was about community in action in response to hate and moving forward to create a safer town for immigrants and everyone who lives in the community.

What has the emotional impact been on you, doing this kind of work over the years?

O’Neill: There are moments when it is really incredibly painful and difficult. I’ll never forget interviewing the Lucero family on that couch. It was a snowy evening and everybody had to come up in the snow. And I remember them walking up the driveway and how vulnerable they felt because they had just gone to Marcelo’s house and were cleaning up his things and gathering his things. And I could tell that Marcelo Lucero’s mother, Rosario, was in such deep pain and talking to them and seeing her grief and feeling her grief is something that I will never ever forget. And seeing Joselo and his sister Isabel trying mentally to console their mother…it’s just something that I’ll never forget. That happens. It is part of this story. Understanding and feeling the pain of people who are vulnerable and people who have been harmed is part of our work, it’s part of the story. Sharing that story with people so that we can understand what this feels like, so all of us can understand what this feels like. So it is a very difficult part of this work. But 90% of the time, I am also dealing with people who want to do something, people who want to create change. That is so utterly positive. That is so empowering, that is so exciting that it makes that really difficult part so worth it. I feel that most of the time, I am dealing with people who are ready to make change in our country, who want to make their communities better.  It’s exciting. Every single day, I get to go into my office and get a message from some community about exciting work that’s being done. So it’s both. It can be incredibly sad. It’s scary. It’s really scary when you hear about these crimes, when you hear about what’s happening to people. When you know. We google hate crimes, so you’ll only see some of the films. We see what happens every day, and I’m telling you, it’s frightening that as I said a hate crime is reported every hour in this country. But again, we’re looking at the other side, we’re looking at the power that we have. There are so many more good people who want to take action. People who are ready to do something  and that’s essential message of NIOT.

So you believe that change has taken place as a result?

O’Neill: I do, but I think there’s much more work to be done. I think this is a very volatile moment in this country, and if we don’t get a handle on this, it could become even more frightening. The divide about immigration is becoming fierce. I think we all felt the urgency when we made this film. It really doesn’t matter how you feel about the immigration debate. I think this story really shows the need to see each other as humans, regardless of our political stance on some issue.  People need to be able to walk the streets of this country without fear of violence. I think that’s an essential part of our democracy and we’re hoping that this film will open up an essential conversation between people who really disagree maybe politically about some of these issues, but maybe agree on our common humanity.

Do you have any parting advice for young filmmakers trying to get into this space of social issue documentary and building outreach campaigns around them?

O’Neill: One of the things that I’ve learned from NIOT is that you always have to think about your audience. Not about what’s in your own head, but what’s in their head, what will move them? What do they need? What do they need from a story. What kind of story will move an audience? Because I think there’s a real gap between — and I’m not saying that…some documentaries should be artistic expressions and simply that…from the head of the director or producer — but if you’re really serious about film and film having an impact and thinking about what it can do to open up a discussion in our community, in our country, in our world, then you have to think about your audience. You have to think about that as you choose your stories, you have to think about that as you choose your characters, you have to think about that in terms of what you leave out, and what you leave in. And we’ve really fostered a method in thinking about this, and it always is audience focused. What’s going to help people see this story in a new way? What’s going to help the audience? And I think that’s something that young filmmakers struggle with at first, and so, think about who’s on the other end of the screen.


 Any last thing you wanted to add?

O’Neill: Can I just say this? I want to thank the Center for Social Media for the tremendous support you show to documentary filmmakers and to those of us who are working to have an impact with our films. This is an essential space for us and resource, and we really appreciate the support and what you do to gather us and to highlight our work. So thank you.