Thursday, October 28, 2010

DC Office of the Chief of Technology Officer Digital Literacy Meeting

What Does it Mean for the Humanities?

The District of Columbia is poised to offer increased broadband internet access to underserved areas of the city. The infrastructure is largely in place, but so is the legislation that prevents the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) from turning on the juice. At a digital literacy summit in Deanwood yesterday, the agency sought to encourage conversations between stakeholders in an effort to rollback these roadblocks and level the information technology playing field in DC. What does this mean for the humanities?

The humanities disciplines can give a voice to overlooked populations, but an idea without a medium for transmission is often extinguished before it has a chance to make a difference. Inexpensive broadband connections in underprivileged communities will allow a new segment of the population to send and receive creativity, intellect, and experience. The humanities can help people understand one another. Training Grounds Inc, a non-profit based in Southeast DC, seeks to connect economically disadvantaged young people with mentors via distance learning technology. The organization's founder Tom Brown believes that broadband technology used in this way can help people with bridge generational and socioeconomic gaps, improving the lives of youth participants and mentors alike. The humanities disciplines can help people take ownership of their history, heritage, and culture – a major goal of the Humanities Council of Washington, DC as exemplified in the DC Community Heritage Project and DC Digital Museum.

The DC Community Heritage Project, a partnership between the Humanities Council, the DC Historic Preservation Office, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, provides grants to grassroots history and heritage preservation groups in the District. These small organizations have taken relatively small awards and done impressive work in the three years since the funds were first offered. Some have made professional quality documentary films, others have published neighborhood cultural guides, a few have staged moving oral history projects, but the projects rarely take the leap into the digital age. The DC Digital Museum, an evolution of the Humanities Council's Humanities Resource Center, is an effort to digitize as many of these grantee projects as possible, organize them in an online catalog, and use them to curate digital exhibitions. The ultimate goal is to allow former grantees, community historians, and others interested in DC culture to organize their own exhibitions and contribute to the collection digitally.

This ambitious project is already underway; the catalog, based on the George Mason University Center for History and New Media's Omeka program, is available at The DC Digital Museum's beta exhibit is based on the life of Flaxie Pinkett, a noted pillar of the DC community and pioneering business woman who advocated for improved housing conditions and education reform.

The city currently offers WIFI hotspots at all public buildings including schools, libraries, recreation centers, and fire stations, while the mobile technology lab (pictured at left) roams the District offering free computer and internet access. OCTO's efforts to improve broadband availability in all areas of the city are absolutely vital to the success of digital humanities projects like the DC Digital Museum. Perhaps the humanities can provide some of the compelling content that will maintain interest and motivation for the city's efforts to make IT universal.

Monday, October 25, 2010

30 Years of Women Making Films in Washington, DC

A Review of Women in Film and Video's New Oral History Project

Women in Film and Video (WIFV) is an organization that supports and networks women filmmakers in the DC area. Its membership features high profile documentary filmmakers, producers who have worked on Hollywood films, and young women just starting out in the business. Like the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, WIFV is celebrating over 30 years of service to their constituency. WIFV received one of the Council’s 30th Anniversary Grants earlier this year to help document their history through oral histories of some of their founders and notable members.  
Aviva Kempner
Many of the narrators for WIFV's oral history project are instantly recognizable to anyone interested in documentary film. Aviva Kempner, a Washington-area filmmaker known for her pieces on under-represented Jewish heroes, discussed her early life, and her circuitous path to the world of independent film. The daughter of a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, it is clear that Kempner’s family had a strong influence on her career and creative path. She arrived in DC from Detroit as a young woman dedicated to studying law, but soon realized that filmmaking was more important to her than passing a grueling bar exam.

Pat Aufderhide
Each narrator addressed the challenges women face in the film industry including sexist discrimination, balancing family and work life, and finding mentors or sympathetic colleagues. Some like independent filmmaker, Marilyn Weiner and American University communications professor, Pat Aufderhide believe that the field has changed for the better, and that one is much more likely to see women in roles once reserved solely for men. Women directors and executive producers are no longer uncommon. Aufderhide credits the feminist movement and early affirmative action initiatives with some of her early success, but her impressive resume and extensive list of achievements suggest that her career has been based on the solid advice she now offers young filmmakers starting out in the business. She tells the future generation to approach everyone with a legitimate sense of self-confidence, and never go into a situation where you have to “wing-it.”

Marilyn Weiner
Weiner, unlike several of the other women interviewed, regularly brought her children with her on location while shooting films. She claimed that the key to balancing work and family life is to avoid being a perfectionist; one must accept that things will not always be ideal, but must make them work anyway. Another independent filmmaker, Judy Hallet, remembered benefiting from a supportive family structure. Her mother-in-law was often available to take care of her son while Hallet and her husband were away shooting films. In retrospect however, Hallet believes recognized her dedication to making time for family. “If you know what you need, and you know what makes you sane, usually you can work it out.” Before accepting major positions at a PBS network in Utah and National Geographic TV in Washington, Hallet insisted on 6 weeks off each Summer to spend with her family.

Ginny Durrin
Several of the project narrators discussed the foundation of WIFV either because they were founders, early members, or because they benefited from the group’s network when they arrived in DC. Founder Ginny Durrin remembered having no grand visions when she called the first meetings; she was motivated by a simple desire for companions who could relate to her professional life. She was amazed at the rapid growth of the organization, and remembers how roles began to slowly develop among the members, and soon it became more than just a regular meeting of friends. Phylis Geller, who has been involved in WIFV in both LA and DC noted the organization’s strong efforts to encourage professional development within the field, build mentoring relationships, and conduct statistical studies to determine how many women are entering the film industry and what jobs they are taking. Geller was a former president of WIFV, and helped start the companion organization The WIFV Foundation which aims to help people outside the core organization’s membership.

Phylis Geller
This first round of oral history interviews is a wealth of information and collective memory about women making film in Washington, DC. Changes in the industry and the difficulties of being a woman in an often male dominated field are common themes discussed by all of the narrators, but each interview is unique, and offers narratives likely as vibrant as the subjects’ films. Students of the history of film and video, labor history, or women’s studies will assuredly find the archive of interviews held by Women in Film and Video, a remarkable resource not only for first-hand accounts of some extraordinary events, but also for records of the way real people remember their life works, and how they hope that information can best benefit the future of their industry.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Impressions From "Los Treinta"

HCWDC Intern Ashley Portillo Reports on a Remarkable Performance

Standing in front of a sold-out crowd on a Sunday night, Quique Aviles did something I have never seen done in my life. He performed a history lesson pouring out poetry from his heart and soul, acted out five “characters,” and infused his show with history – all the while, using musical cues to shift the show from one decade to the next. His compelling one-man performance called Los Treinta is the result of months of oral history research and a lifetime of personal experience. The project, directed by B. Stanley of the DC Community Arts Center was funded, in part, by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC.

Quique performed his bilingual show as if there were seven actors and a translator - but there was just Quique, on the stage by himself. In the corner, one light beam shining down on him, he flows through poetry, narration, drama and music. At center-stage he played the role of a pupusera, an older woman he interviewed so he could share her story. Quique is always interpreting.  Interpreting every monologue from Spanish to English and at times infusing both languages. His command of the spoken word in Spanish and English was solid and powerful even for the non-Spanish speakers in the diverse audience. But let me be clear: he did not translate his monologues; he interpreted them - a much harder task, but one which he did with great success. He interpreted the stories of those who directly experienced the changes that occurred in DC when many Salvadorans found refuge here in 1980.

Then there was the story of the young American man who had to help his Salvadoran mother sell salsa music cassette tapes at a local market’s parking lot. He didn’t understand the popularity behind those sappy love songs nor did he care for the “stupid lyrics” about el gato volador (the flying cat) or la vaca, la misma vaca (the cow, the same cow). He just knew those cassettes were selling like hot buns out of the oven in his Salvadoran community.

Finally, Aviles performed the story of another oral history narrator named Jumbo. This person wasn’t Salvadoran or Salvadoran-American; he was African.  Aviles acted out Jumbo’s persona and told the story of a couple that believed love has no color. Jumbo, an immigrant from Africa, married his Salvadoran girlfriend and they had children together at a time when tensions between blacks and latinos ran high in DC. The constant clash between the two groups has significantly died down and Aviles wanted to ensure his performance included a piece from an outside perspective.

 Upon arriving at the District of Columbia Arts Center, I was not sure what to expect. Yet, what I witnessed that evening was a compelling, and at times humorous, series of vignettes on the history of El Salvadoran migration to our nation’s capital, spanning the 30 years (Los Treinta) between 1980 and the present. Most in the audience were anxious to hear why so many from El Salvador chose DC as their destination of choice in the United States, but by the end of the performance the answer was seemingly even more elusive despite the simplicity of the apparent motives. During the question and answer period following the show, a woman asked Aviles to clarify why this massive influx of guanacos came to Washington, DC. She was still unsure, and frankly, so was I. A Salvadoran immigrant from the audience fielded the question stating that word-of-mouth was the primary reason. When a few people fled to D.C. because of the United States backed military violence in El Salvador, she added, they sent financial remittances to their families in El Salvador; others quickly followed suit and soon everyone was immigrating to D.C.

Quique agreed with this version of events. In fact, according to his performance, la pupusera left for DC to reunite with her mother who had already settled there to create a better life for her family. Soon, she founded her own catering business tailored for her Salvadoran community, and earned enough money to bring her children from El Salvador. Those Salvadoran-born children, but American-raised adults, then started their own families - American families.

As the lights came back on and Marc Anthony’s I Need to Know played in the background, I could not keep myself from smiling. In just one hour and fifteen minutes, I connected with real people I do not even know, but who I felt I understood. Quique Aviles- the poet, artist, interpreter, story-teller, and activist who tirelessly conducted extensive oral histories with the help of University of Maryland students gave us an illuminated glimpse at that research. In doing so, he also shed light on a slice of Latino history, integral to understanding Washington, DC.

(Above Image: Quique Aviles promotes Los Treinta on Youtube.)