Good Profiles feature members of our Good Generation who are either out there in the field doing interesting work or still in the trenches of schools and institutions waiting to make their mark on the world. Have your own story to tell? Know someone who would be great to be profiled? Please sign-up or leave a note here!
What do you do for a living nowadays?
I am Co-Founder (along with my husband) and Production Manager of Actuality Media, a service learning documentary production company. We coordinate study-abroad experiences for individuals interested in media and we teach them how to create short documentary films about nonprofit organizations, social entrepreneurs and other change makers around the world. Within the organization I am responsible for overseeing all aspects of our production process (research, prep, shooting and editing), instructing the students while on location, and developing current and new programs. I am also about to undertake a speaking and screening tour, traveling to University campuses in the US and Europe and talking to media students about the importance of telling stories that matter. Actuality Media is a for-profit LLC based in the USA, that was recently certified as a Benefit Corporation. All our media is available here.
Is “doing good” a key reason why you chose this job?
Yes. There are countless grassroots low/no budget projects and organizations around the world that are making a sustainable impact on chronic social and environmental problems in innovative ways – but nobody knows about them. Media, and particularly storytelling, is the best way to raise awareness and gain exposure. However, the cost of hiring a film crew is prohibitively expensive for most NGOs and social entrepreneurs so they aren’t able to get their story out there. With increased awareness, not only will the organization in question get more support and resources, but there will also be a higher chance that the good ideas – the ideas that work – will spread around the globe. In addition, the more people that know and talk about the idea of social entrepreneurship, the more the field becomes legitimized, and the more likely that our best and brightest will turn to social entrepreneurship for a career.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the moments of teaching where the light bulb goes ‘on’ for the students. Once, we were getting ready to start editing after a week of shooting, and the story was kind of a mess. Shooting didn’t go exactly as planned (it never does) and there were several scenes missing from our original outline, plus scenes we captured that were unexpected and the students didn’t know where to begin in terms of organizing the order. I led them in this exercise where we wrote out all the scenes on index cards and taped them to the wall – discussing story arcs and rearranging the cards. This is a very standard activity in documentary film, but the students had never visualized a story this way. You could see the wheels turning, making connections for themselves and imagining how the film was going to come together in a great way. It renewed their excitement for the often tedious process of editing. They kept saying, “Oh I like the story so much better now!” I know that this lesson, at the very least, will be remembered and repeated in their future projects. This is both teaching and problem solving.
I love that kind of continual problem solving. Making movies is wrought with problems and when you try to do it in a developing country it can be even worse. Difficulties arise with access, locations, language, characters, story, equipment – that you cannot anticipate. Since we operate on a shoestring budget, we have to solve these problems as creatively as possible – and that keeps things exciting. Even the problem solving in terms of marketing and awareness – how can we share our message with as many students as possible – for no money? Who are the connectors and evangelists for our target demographic and how do we engage them? How do we make people care? These are all problems that I need to solve.
What would you wish were different about your job?
Right now, the job can be lonely. With the constant traveling, I miss out on being a part of a community. I miss out on a lot of weddings, birthdays and holidays with my family. I have lots of friends in places around the world, but it is very difficult to maintain meaningful relationships. The experiences I have with our partners, students, other travelers and locals are amazing – but they are fleeting. I wish that I could also make memories with people that will be part of my life for years to come.
What were some of the most important experiences that you’ve had that led you to where you are today?
I was home-schooled for most of my education. What most students spent an entire school day covering in class, I was able to complete in 2 or 3 hours. Therefore I had A LOT of time to devote to supplementary, extra-curricular activities. It was what I learned outside of the classroom, interacting with the real world, that has been the most important as an adult and as a business owner. Unlike a lot of students in traditional education, I learned how to be curious, how to be a leader, and how to not waste time but be efficient. Maybe the most valuable thing I learned was that there was more than one way to do things. I grew up believing that I could really, truly do anything that I wanted if I could just figure it out on my own.
I also spent a lot of time on film sets. My father is a cinematographer and when I was a teenager I often went with him to work. A lot of the other department heads liked me, so I got to help out in wardrobe, or script supervision or craft service. First, it ignited my love for filmmaking. There is a special kind of energy on a film set, a kind of focused collaboration that is unlike anything else I have been a part of. It is what is so seductive about making movies – it is like a summer camp community for the length of the project.
However, all the ideas of big volatile personalities amongst producers, directors and stars is also true. These are essentially the leaders and the managers of the movie set. They set the tone. There is a such huge difference between working for someone who is appreciative and empathetic, and someone who intimidates into submission. Both individuals may be equally manipulative, but the former has the crew’s devotion that pays off in those long nights and ridiculous hours. I saw this as a kid and into my own career. It has significantly affected my own behavior as a leader and a manager as I try to start a movement that I hope people will become devoted to.
How did you get this job?
I started Actuality Media so that I could create this job for myself. I wanted do something where I could travel, manage short term projects around the world, and get a real sense of satisfaction at the end of my day. The fact that I can take advantage of my passion for storytelling makes it even better.
I was introduced to the idea of social entrepreneurship in 2009 when I read “How To Change The World,” by David Bornstein. I was always turned off to the idea of blanket charity as unsustainable, so I was enchanted by this melding of business, innovation and measurable impact. I wanted to become an social entrepreneur. A mentor recommended that if there was not a particular social or environmental problem that I had any good ideas about solving, what if I focused on supporting the social entrepreneurial movement as a whole. I realized that if I was just learning about social entrepreneurs, and I considered myself curious, educated and well-traveled, then most people must not know about it. So, I set out to change that.
I contacted several organizations who were advertising for media help on Idealist.org and offered to consult for free. I wanted to find out what grassroots social change agents need in terms of raising awareness and how I could give it to them. After many conference calls and brainstorming sessions, obviously being shaped by my background in filmmaking, I saw an opportunity to create short films in order to tell stories about these interesting, passionate people and the work they do. By opportunity I mean that it was a need that was not being filled on the large scale.
I initially started working with organizations within the United States. I had this idea of creating a volunteer corps of emerging filmmakers, who would donate their time and expertise for good, creating films for organizations with a story deficit, and they would get fodder for their reel. The problem with that idea was that there was no business model. The last thing I wanted to start was an organization dependent on donations. However, there was always a long term plan to organize international volunteering trips as part of this larger organization. One of my mentors, who happens to be a business professor, was looking for an interesting international project for some of her students and had the funding to go along with it. Eventually, she offered to let me organize a trip for her students, which became the pilot of the study abroad documentary program.
We traveled to Guatemala with 5 students from Oregon State University and researched and shot a short documentary about a nonprofit organization working near Antigua. The program was not without hiccups, but it was an overall success. I knew that we could take inexperienced students into a foreign country and in a matter of weeks create a film that wasn’t half bad. And these were business students – imagine what I could do with kids in film school!
Once the project was over, and I did some more research, I also realized that there was a huge deficit in meaningful study abroad programs for film and media students. In other words: an opportunity. So we got started on making Actuality Media a reality. I built a embarrassingly simple website on WordPress, on my own. We chose three locations in Central America for our first summer programs, based on our recent travels in the region. Then we put together a flyer and started contacting as many film schools as we could asking them to distribute our flyer to their students. Many universities ignored us, but several dozen did send it out. They thought a service learning documentary production program was as good of an idea as we did. The first year we had 60 applications, and 18 media students traveled with us. Since then, I’ve been dedicated to Actuality Media full time.
The trade off is that, although almost all of my expenses are paid for, I don’t make any money (yet) and I have no home. My husband and I are location independent, not so much because we want to be, but because success of the organization requires it. When we aren’t traveling to conduct our production programs, we are traveling to promote them. We love to travel, but it can become exhausting at times.
If you had to make trade-offs, do you think they were justified or should it be different for others in the same situation going forward?
A wise man once told me that any job is worth it if it allows you to do at least one of three things: learn something; make a lot of money; or do your heart’s desire. If you get one, it is a good job. If you get two, it is a great job. If you get three – never leave. I get to spend my days doing my heart’s desire and I am constantly learning. I feel like that it is worth a lot in trade. As for the money – I am housed, fed and I already travel for a living. The only thing I have to get creative about is how to pay my student loans.
If you had to do it all over again, knowing what you know today, what past choices would you have made differently with regards to your career?
I would not have gone into debt for my education. I chose to go to a private school that my family could not afford to pay for. Both myself and my family were inexperienced at navigating the student loan arena and believed that it was a good idea to “invest in my education.” Being 20 years old with $60,000 USD owed to anyone is not a good idea and it is criminal that such an industry is allowed to run basically unregulated. At first, it limited my choices of what I thought I could do for work – because there was so much debt hanging over my head. Eventually I got over that and decided to live for myself, not my students loans. The reality is that most college students don’t end up doing whatever it is they studied. I have more than one friend who went to law school, then lost the desire to be a lawyer, all the while forced to make the paychecks to pay off the money owed. However, I would not be who I am and where I am if it weren’t for the relationships that I made at my university, and I don’t regret the education, so it is yet another trade off.
If you did not have this job and time/money were not a constraint, what would you ideally like to do?
I already do exactly what I want to do. Several years ago I sat down and made a list of how I would ideally like to spend my days, in any time of employment. My life resembles that list pretty closely. I do wish I had a permanent place to call home where I could grow a vegetable garden, but that will come in time.
Finally, what advice would you have for others in the Good Generation who are interested in your job or career path?
If you are wallowing in the middle of your quarter-life crisis desperate for a job that you can wake up each day excited about, my best advice is to start something of your own. Whatever it is that you are passionate about – start producing. If you are an artist, create. If you are an inventor, solve problems. If you are a planner, connect people. The more you can aim these activities at addressing our chronic social or environmental concerns, the more satisfaction you will have.
If you need inspiration, it is out there. Consume the media of people you admire: books, blogs, photos, videos, seminars, interviews. Whenever I feel stuck or discouraged, I start reading one of the business books on my long to do list and ideas start pouring out of my head before the end of the first chapter. Many of them are not good ones, but the wheels are greased and I am thinking like a producer again. The ideas don’t even necessary come from the content of the book, but are inspired by the spirit in which the book is written.
Don’t wait. Start now. We need you to join us.