The following is a conversation between Holly Carter, founder and Executive Director of BYkids, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WMYN in New York City.
Denver: We occupy a world where people who are living a problem are rarely if ever heard, and when they are, it’s typically through the voice of some adult. But what about the children who have grown up in these circumstances? What does the world look like and feel like from their perspective? The organization that is bringing us the personal stories of these young people in a very creative way, so we can better understand the world around us, is BYkids. And it is a delight to have with us this evening their founder and executive director, Holly Carter. Good evening, Holly, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Holly: Thank you, Denver, for having me here. It’s an honor.
Denver: The concept of BYkids is so interesting. What was the genesis of this idea, Holly?
Holly: It probably goes back to my childhood, but I think my background was as a print journalist at the New York Times, and I saw some aspects in that world of global issues being covered very superficially, and very often by people who would fly from one country to another, often without the language or without cultural bearings. And I felt that was a real disservice to our democracy– that if we want to live in a democracy, we all have it on our shoulders to be informed citizens, and if the news media was not allowing us to hear really impactful, wide stories from the perspective of the people for whom these policies or these disasters or these joys actually affected them, we might have a disconnect.
Then I had kids, and my kids were growing up. My thing is, if you get annoyed and get really outraged by something, you had better stop complaining and start taking action. Do something, for heaven’s sakes! So, the best I could do was to say… at that point, I’d left print journalism and had gotten into documentary filmmaking. I saw the power of film in a very tangible way. It allows people to learn something that could otherwise… in print or through the voice of a, sorry to say, an old white man… seem pedantic.
And film allows you to learn about something through your heart. So, my thing is, really I’m wired as a social activist. I want to make change. I want to do it effectively and painlessly. Documentary film had, until I got into it, felt a little bit like medicine, and somehow this alchemy of giving a kid a voice, often from places where we don’t hear from anybody, let alone through the innocence of a child, seemed a miraculous way to start really equalizing the news diet of Americans, who I think were being cut off, not just for philosophical reasons, but real economic reasons. Having been at the New York Times or watching the networks close their offices in foreign countries because they couldn’t afford it, I felt like if we want to be global citizens, which I think we…many people want to be… we have to prepare our kids for that kind of role, and we were losing the ability to make informed choices as a citizenry. So, it was that alchemy that made BYkids possible.
…journalism is a very solitary endeavor. You write alone. Somebody edits alone. It goes out to the millions of people that read your stuff, but you’re never connected with these people. And man, the messiness and the community of documentary filmmaking for me meant the world.
Denver: I still think we are so self-absorbed as a culture. I watch the nightly news on a regular basis and almost have to go to BBC at the end of it just to find out what’s happening in the rest of the world because we’re so focused on ourselves.
Have you always liked documentary films, or was this an acquired taste for you?
Holly: You know, interesting. I’m all about the adage that real life is often more dramatic and crazy than fake. I’ve always been driven by story sharing. So, my crazy Uncle Lou would tell a fabulous story. Those memories and those lessons always stuck with me. I think I grew up in a family of storytellers. Children certainly as I was, my husband and I were raising our kids here in New York… nobody needs a morality play. They need to hear: when I was a kid, and I did X, Y, and Z… That’s how people learn.
The reality is I am a really bad writer. Writing is wickedly painful and laborious for me. Writer’s block, I’ve redefined what that means, literally. The first thing I wrote for New York Times was on the big business of bird watching. It took me three months. I had to research every last thing. I got to a point in my career where I said it might be nice to get paid for doing things that are fun and easy, and writing is not that. I sat down. I just took a really hard look at my own lifestyle and likes and realized that I spent all my free time either at galleries looking at photography… like Salgado’s work that’s documenting these Diasporas. That’s real. That’s documentary. Or at films, and I started a documentary film festival, and I began to meet people in that field. And what I loved about it, about filmmaking in general… and documentaries, just because these people are so passionate… was that journalism is a very solitary endeavor. You write alone. Somebody edits alone. It goes out to the millions of people that read your stuff, but you’re never connected with these people. And man, the messiness and the community of documentary filmmaking for me meant the world. So I started this film festival, so I could meet people like Ric Burns and Albert Maysles and I’m like: “Oh, if they can do it, I should do it!”
…storytelling is finding the human kernel in an anecdotal way that’s personal and emotional, and sharing it. It’s as simple as saying, “My name’s Holly. What’s your name? What’s your story?” The story is what makes you different and the same all in one… in your little nugget.
Denver: The rest is history.
Let’s talk a little bit about storytelling because it has become one of the more overused words… sort of like innovation and collaboration, and I know in the nonprofit sector, everything I go to, storytelling, storytelling. How would you define or describe storytelling?
Holly: That’s a great question and something really potent to think about, about these overused words. Our mantra is that we teach empathy through storytelling. Those are two of those words that to me also are very over—empathy is overused. Here’s how we define it. We define it as the human act of being in community – and in our case, sometimes it’s connecting people in different countries and different classrooms. It’s connecting them in the experience of a shared anecdote. It’s finding the humanity, not statistics. I don’t think any of us – maybe there are a few of us out there, not me – who respond to statistics. We made this film about an AIDS orphan in Mozambique, and to hear the statistic of there are 500,000 AIDS orphans, you shut down. It’s overwhelming. So to me, storytelling is finding the human kernel in an anecdotal way that’s personal and emotional, and sharing it. It’s as simple as saying, “My name’s Holly. What’s your name? What’s your story?” The story is what makes you different and the same all in one… in your little nugget.
They are so amazing. They see the world, and they have a nose for BS. They don’t care about your ego or your politics. They report the way they see things totally authentically…unfiltered. And it’s so refreshing, and I think on some level, we live in a world that’s very divisive, very siloed. I think at the core of what we’re trying to do with these stories is reconnect viewers, and particularly students, with the shared humanity. What do we all have in common? Not our religion, not our race, not where we live, but we were all kids.
Denver: You have said that you believe kids make the best reporters. Why do you think that’s the case?
Holly: They are so amazing. They see the world, and they have a nose for BS. They don’t care about your ego or your politics. They report the way they see things totally authentically…unfiltered. And it’s so refreshing, and I think on some level, we live in a world that’s very divisive, very siloed. I think at the core of what we’re trying to do with these stories is reconnect viewers, and particularly students, with the shared humanity. What do we all have in common? Not our religion, not our race, not where we live, but we were all kids. Really simple.
Denver: Absolutely. Share with us the process of going about making one of these films.
Holly: So, your listeners can’t tell that I’m gray-haired, and I went gray-haired because the process is long, but I will explain it. Basically, we start in New York with the board, and we pick a theme that we call a globally relevant story. I’ll use a very specific example. We knew we wanted to do a film about displacement. We sat at a board table in New York talking about where we should do that. George Clooney was flying to Darfur. Every Bar Mitzvah kid was raising money for Save Darfur. That was not the displacement story we wanted to tell – I’m dating myself. It goes back a while. BYkids has been around for 11 years now.
We had a Colombian board member who raised his hand and said how interesting it might be for us to look at displacement through a Colombian child. Like… oh, tell us more. He said, “Well, Colombia has got at that point the second largest displaced population in the world,” and he explained why. Forty years of civil war, drug trade, the Europeans and the Americans were driving that drug trade. He said, How interesting that we could tell a story that – some of these foreign stories that we tell, you might be able to say, AIDS in Africa is far, far away. This one, for the first time in our repertoire, was actually a subject that was: an American kid could see: Oh man, if I snorted a line of coke, that kid Maria, who is now in Malala’s new book, Maria, who lives in a displaced area in Cali was affected by my action, and that ability to connect.
So, we picked the globally relevant story`in theory. We then partner with a nonprofit, in this case in Colombia… wherever we are working… to help us identify a cohort of children from which we can pick our one filmmaker. We then pick from our stable of miraculous, amazing, talented film mentors somebody who’s interested, available, excited, maybe language-literate to go to said chosen child and they work together for a month. They get a camera and the guidance of the mentor, and the child is the one who is able to tell their story with the help of the mentor to shape the story. They shoot everything except the B roll, and they narrate these short, 27-minute films. As I’ve often said, I remember going to CNN Convenient Truth, and the lights came up almost, and there was a long list of things you could do.
The mandate of these Films BYkids is that the film itself, sharing the story of this particular child– whether it’s dealing with displacement or the ravages of AIDS or climate change or whatever– is that you could actually know enough and care enough to do something about it. So our methodology really includes the film being the cornerstone of what starts sometimes very hard conversations we like in classrooms with teachers, guided somewhat by our educational materials so that kids can learn how to have hard conversations about race and poverty and all kinds of other things that they are not typically exposed to, particularly these global stories.
Denver: You mentioned those marvelous filmmakers who serve as mentors. How have you been able to engage them? And who have some of them been?
Holly: Oh God, I love these people so much. Everybody from Neal Baer, who I happen to be on the board of Colorado College with. We met, and he mentored our first film. He was at that time a showrunner for Law & Order SVU; Joyce Chopra, who is in the permanent collection of MOMA for her amazing, groundbreaking film, Joyce at 34, where she brought a camera into the labor room when she had her daughter; Albert Maysles who made his last film, mentored a young Muslim girl here in New York. What a remarkable thing to have! I think he was 86 at that time – this old Jewish legend with a young Muslim girl whose family was willing to have them work together. It was miraculous in many ways. Anja Baron has just finished a film for us done by a Syrian refugee in Berlin, and is now starting work on a film about anti-Semitism in Germany. They are big-named people, but more importantly, they are really, really big-hearted.
Denver: Films BYkids returns for Season 2 on public television, which premiered nationwide on January 29th and will air in New York on channel 13 starting on Sunday, March 3rd. You have four new films by these young filmmakers. Say a word about each starting with Michael Martin from Harlem.
Holly: Mike Martin is a 19-year-old who at 17 was sent to Rikers, and we knew that we wanted to do a film around juvenile justice, criminal justice reform– the closing of Rikers, the raising of the age, not just in New York but in North Carolina. I don’t know if your listeners know that until very recently, children were treated as an adult; and my two times visiting Rikers is a rude awakening to what that actually means. We’ve got a film about real societal change happening in one generation. In Senegal, we have a young girl who made a film about how had she been born 20 years ago, she would have been forced to be married probably at 10 or 11. She would have been cut genitally. She now is a happy kid, free to go to school, choose the spouse of her choice, and go on about a great life.
Holly: We have another film that was shot in Nicaragua, done by a young girl who talks about climate change ravaging coffee growing, which her family has relied on for generations and very proudly. Last but not least, we have Out of Aleppo which is made by Mohammed Shasho, who is a young Syrian refugee in Berlin who talks very poignantly about his family’s readjustment to life in Germany and his hopes and dreams.
Denver: You have a narrator for this series, don’t you?
Holly: We have a great narrator for the second season. Ashley Judd is doing it again. She, too, is magnificent. With the first season, we were so lucky and grateful, and there were a few people in my circle who said, “Oh, Ashley Judd, that name sounds vaguely familiar.” I think now with the Time Magazine cover, there’s probably not anybody in the world who doesn’t know Ashley, and she’s spectacular. She takes this very seriously and is just a real asset to us.
…these kind of heartfelt translations of personal stories can open other people to be able to tell their story. … I think we have seen that in the Me Too Movement. It took one brave person to say, “This is what happened to me,” and the flood happens.
Denver: Absolutely. A wonderful glue to hold the whole thing together for viewers.
So, Holly, what’s the impact on an audience of hearing these stories about these very complex situations you just described… in the voice of children?
Holly: I think I will answer it anecdotally. We can proudly say when we digest all the platforms that we have put in place to distribute these films with the educational material; we have public television that reaches 84 million households with films and curriculum. We have an amazing partnership with Discovery Education that reaches into half the schools in America. We have CBS News; we have a nice partnership with them that reaches millions of people. Public Television, PBS Learning Media, does a great job getting it out to teachers. When we digest all of that, we have the reach of 246 million students and viewers. That, as I say, when statistics come at people like big-whoopee-deal, right? But I will tell you, I have been in the room. When the lights come up, and we can have a conversation about something like juvenile justice, the questions that come out prove that these kids can digest things at a very sophisticated, high level.
There were, I think we had a couple of middle school kids at the premier screening of I Could Tell You About My Life which is Mike Martin’s film; these kids were able to digest something… this is a film about what it means to be a young, black male in America. There are deep and potent elements of what it means to be black, what it means to be poor, what it means to be incarcerated, and these children were asking questions of Mike that were just – “Why did you go to jail?” And Mike said something that hushed everybody in the room. He didn’t say, “It’s because I’m poor or black.” He took some time. He said, “That’s a very good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that.” He said, “The reason I went to Rikers is because I was bored in middle school.”
And I’m like, this little kid got elicited what could be the biggest solution of the criminal justice problem that we have in America. Don’t let kids get bored in middle school or elementary school, or they’re going to turn… Mike talked at length about not only was it not having a classroom of support…. The bad behavior of the other kids. He was probably the smartest kid in the middle school class. The teacher was so busy dealing with behavioral stuff. And then he said, “I’d be done with eight hours of having to put up with that, not learning anything. I’d walk five blocks to the basketball court, and the city didn’t have resources; that was locked, so we’d walked 20 blocks to another basketball court; that was locked too. Those kinds of conversations are the things that prove that this is invaluable.
Another example is we’ve been very lucky to have Poet Against Prejudice, which is our young Yemeni filmmaker who moved to Brooklyn when she was 15, mentored by Albert Maysles. And we have done a lot of dog and pony shows with this spectacular film, both with Faiza, the filmmaker– her brother-in-law who’s the highest ranking Muslim in the New York City Police Force. Just a magnificent family. We’ve taken this film out a lot. Did it recently in Bergen County that invites us during Anti-Violence week, and it’s interesting that they equate Islamophobia and the kind of torture that Faiza was put through for being Islamic in post-9/11 New York. It’s also really a film about bullying and about emigration, and I will tell you: There have been opportunities for this film that have blown me away.
I sat on a panel next to the guidance counselor in one of these Bergen County high schools. He says to the 2,000 high school students for whom he works, and there’s an element of keeping the demeanor. He says, “I saw this film a few days ago, so I was prepared for this. I had tears streaming down my face, “ He said. “I’ll tell you why. I’ve never told any of you guys this. I came from the Dominican Republic. See this scar on my lip? I got beaten up because I didn’t speak English. I didn’t look like all my classmates, and I watched this film of a young Muslim woman, and I saw myself in it.” And then the woman on this side who ran the anti-bullying program said, “I’ve never shared that I came…” I think she came from Morocco. “I was bullied horribly, and I’ve held that. It was a shameful thing, I’ve held it in.” I think my point is that these kind of heartfelt translations of personal stories can open other people to be able to tell their story. And then in that… I think we have seen that in the Me Too Movement. It took one brave person to say, “This is what happened to me,” and the flood happens.
People that have seen it, heard it, experienced it, can’t get to helping fast enough. So, I think it’s the power of the idea. Nobody was doing this.
…Teachers will see one of these nine films, fall in love because there’s nothing like this that in 27 minutes, you can be talking about what it means to be a black young man in America in a way that their kids would relate to. Nobody is successfully teaching empathy in our classroom…
Denver: Great example, that really is. Very, very powerful. You know you reeled off those partnerships a moment ago. But I know how difficult it is to forge those partnerships with public television and Discovery and CBS. What’s the key you think to making those partnerships work?
Holly: It was an idea that had to happen. People that have seen it, heard it, experienced it, can’t get to helping fast enough. So, I think it’s the power of the idea. Nobody was doing this. There are a lot of people that give film cameras to disadvantaged kids. We have a few amazing programs here in New York. But it was really something different to be saying: We Americans need to be hearing about the world in a way that we can digest, and it was filling… maybe the CBS deal is because they really understood that this was something they weren’t doing. I think teachers are – I have a secret weapon, I have a few secret weapons… one of them is Seth Godin who is a beloved advisor to us. And he said, “Your audience are teachers. Teachers will see one of these nine films, fall in love because there’s nothing like this that in 27 minutes, you can be talking about what it means to be a black young man in America in a way that their kids will relate to.”
Nobody is successfully teaching empathy in our classroom, and certainly, global citizenry is not – we don’t teach ethics. We don’t teach civics anymore. This fills a void. I think we’ve been really smart in being in front of the right people, so we’ve made a real purpose out of getting to the NAIS Conference which is for all private school heads. Went to that once and presented. Have been to the World View Conference at UNC. We go to South by Southwest EDU. Getting in front of the teachers, who not only can learn to like one and say that they want all eight of the others. They also come back to it every year. So, if they’re teaching, who knew? Who knew that teachers could relate to what we do for their kids that are learning English? All of our films are subtitled. We didn’t set out to say – We’re going to be an ESL tool, but there you go.
So I think it’s the idea. I often say I got into this… as I say, I found writing so laborious. I love film. I was raising my own kids, and I saw a lack around how to teach them empathy other than being a kind parent myself sometimes, if not always. The reality is community service is a flawed model in this country. I think schools, we often say, schools don’t teach in the right way, so our kids are not only learning through moving image because they’re on their phones all the time, and YouTube is like 12 times more used video than non-video. Our kids are absorbing their entire world through moving image, and they are learning to express themselves through moving image. Just like me, they don’t like to write either. To me, I want to get to the people out there who are really trying to forge educational revolution. Emerson Collective with Laurene Jobs, there are people really trying to blow up the model of school, and I think we fit really nicely into this idea.
Denver: I would agree. You have to meet these kids where they are, not where we would like them to be, maybe… or not where we were ourselves. And that’s what this does. Yet despite this embrace, sometimes fundraising can be difficult for projects like this. Have you found that to be the case?
Holly: We’re here. Eleven years later, we are here. We’ve very lucky to have founding funding from the Ford Foundation which gave us a real imprimatur. Funders like to not be the first ones in, and I’m very grateful to the Ford Foundation. We have a few large foundations like the Henry Nias Foundation that has been with us from the beginning, and we have 6,000 supporters who – I’ve had my nephew give me tooth fairy money. We had a lot of luck with CharityBuzz. They’re wonderful friends of mine, have donated a lunch or a dinner with themselves.
Bill Ackman was very generous recently and gave a one-hour lunch, and somebody was willing to pay $57,000 for that. We were very grateful to Bill. I think people just get this. I think when we live in this frantic news cycle; we live in a divided country; we live in a frightening world. When BYkids comes along in whatever way people have been introduced to us, the idea that we can strengthen our children and their capacity to participate successfully in the world is a really magic bullet. We’re lean and mean. We are tiny. It took us – just so your listeners understand – it took us 8 & 1/2 years to make Season 1. It’s taken us two years to make Season 2, and the goal is that we can make Season 3 in one year. So, we’ve sped it all up.
Denver: Describe a little bit the corporate culture of BYkids. And what do you think makes it a very special place in which to work?
Holly: You’d have to ask people that work for BYkids, but what they tell me is that having purpose is really important. The purpose is very clear on this. It’s simple. People get really motivated by that. We’ve got a team of part-time workers. I’m the only full-time member of the staff. We have a board that is incredibly engaged, so they’ll do events for us. They’ll do fund production for us. I think when you have the ability to put time and/or money into something that has such tangible impact; we’re really out there. We’re not…this is not a little thing. This is the Mighty Engine That Could whose reach is remarkable… and when people who have come into the fold and chosen to support us have amazing ways to engage with their own children.
The best emails I get are when we have a screening and a conversation, and i’ll get an email from a parent on the way home or on the train or whatever saying: ”I haven’t had a significant conversation with my kid in as long as I can remember; it’s always: ‘Did you do your homework? Did you study for the SAT?’ Suddenly we’re talking about how lucky they are to be able to go to school.” And I think that is DNA of the corporate culture. It allows people to connect with each other in a way that they don’t get otherwise.
Denver: Let me close with this, Holly. Aside from speeding up one season to the next, what’s your vision for the future of BYkids? And where would you like to see the organization, let’s say, five years from now?
Holly: Five-year goal is an annual budget of $1.5 million that allows us to… we basically begged and borrowed to get us to this point. We have final cut; post-production house donates all of their post-production work. There are lots of people that are doing pro bono work in order to deliver professional national television at the quality we like, and do it on time, and we need real money to pay people. So, the goal is simply five new films, Season 3 for 2020, and every year beyond that. And we need some strategic partners.. and not even just the fundraising sphere, but people that can really understand how the more our American classrooms have this kind of content, the better off we all are.
Denver: For sure.
Holly Carter, the founder and executive director of BYkids, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Where can people learn more about the organization, the films, the kids, and help support this work if they are so inclined?
Holly: Thank you so much, it’s www.BYkids.org.
Denver: Thanks, Holly. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.