Chris Jonas and Veena Vasista
“What do you know about Capital High School?” Maya, a high school intern from the City of Dreamers media team, asked a young adult in Santa Fe Plaza. He responded, “It is a high school, and no one likes it there. I’ve never really been around that part of town, so…”
Priscilla, a high school senior, declares in a video, “I am a student from Capital High School. And if they say, ‘Oh, there?!’ I say, ‘Yeah, there! And it’s awesome, so deal with it!’”
On Mother’s Day evening, in May 2016, a cast of nearly 50 students, filmmakers, musicians and advocates presented City of Dreamers to a full house in the 830-seat Lensic Performing Arts Center. The audience was a broad representation of Santa Fe’s residents, unusual to see in any single city assembly outside of the annual Zozobra celebration. City of Dreamers presented stories from the lives of students and families living in Santa Fe’s South Side. Using film, live interviews and spoken-word performance, students and mentors spoke about their challenges and dreams, explored the current ethos and legal context of immigration, and described Santa Fe’s negative perceptions about Capital High and the residents living in that part of town.
As Santa Feans, we can choose to acknowledge, dive into and hold dear the complex beauty of our town and the people who live here. To live in Santa Fe, as is the case in many U.S. cities, is an invitation to live amidst and navigate multiple cultures. How we take up this invitation determines how we live together—economically, socially and politically. If we choose to step into the stories of one another, we are choosing to cultivate a form of kinship that potentially breaks down walls, creates bridges and sows seeds for equity and respect.
The driving forces within City of Dreamers are collaboration and the principle that to know a person’s story is to be changed by it. The members of Littleglobe, our nonprofit arts and social-equity home, feel that one of our primary jobs is holding spaces between usual and hardened perspectives and thereby providing a forum for people to ask questions and share their stories. Artistry and creativity offer up a multitude of unique ways to hold this space and to invite one another to bring forward perspectives and personal experiences from our daily lives that we might normally find hard to describe and explore.
City of Dreamers started, in fall 2014, as a project with a series of after-school filmmaking intensives with Capital High School students from the Communities in Schools program. Like all Littleglobe projects, it began by bringing together a group of multigenerational collaborators to explore a simple set of creative exercises. In this case, we began with a camera, a black backdrop and a cinema lighting set. The students investigated the wide range of effects using different approaches to lighting one another for the camera. They saw how a brightly lit, close-up face that fills the entire frame creates an overwhelming or menacing image. And how framing the same person low in the frame and dimly lit makes that person appear insignificant and weak. Catalyzed by experimenting with the lights, they discussed how complicated it is to represent somebody, the power of storytellers and the importance of humility, respect and safety in storytelling.
From this starting point, after a series of weekly intensives on personal narrative writing, peer-to-peer leadership, media literacy and film skills, students began interviewing their peers and school staff. Questions included, “Where do you get your support in life and school?” and, “Why do you wake up in the morning and go to school?” The high school filmmakers were surprised to discover that those they knew from years of associations at the school and whom they assumed were living “normal” lives—in seeming contrast to their own lives—had dreams and struggles similar to their own.
As time went by, the project incorporated a wide range of artistic mediums, including radio journalism, spoken word, youth leadership training, project management, public relations and marketing, cross-community interviews, experimental video and audio collage. This provided our collaborating students, community members and storytellers a broad range of tools and outlets for revealing and framing different perspectives. The resulting combination of artistic perspectives came together at the Lensic, creating a complex mosaic depicting how we relate to each other and to ourselves.
Interviews across Santa Fe conducted by the youth media team revealed what appeared to be deeply held negative notions of the south side of town and its residents and the fundamental inaccuracy about this predisposition. The youth producers who assembled the project’s short films and audio pieces chose to share, without comment, the perspectives they documented, allowing them to stand on their own. This invited the Lensic audience to consider City of Dreamers from their personal perspective and as the beginning of a conversation rather than a set of solutions.
The City of Dreamers project touches on issues and differing perspectives that are by no means new to Santa Fe. Dialogues about documentation, immigration, education, identity, stereotypes and inequity take place every day, although apparently only within closed circles of like-minded people. We hope that the City of Dreamers can function as a prompt for more public and nuanced conversations about these topics.
This work is an experimental way of opening up spaces to redefine our relationships to each other and to humanize social, economic and political policy making. By nature, the policy-making process simplifies the complexity of a community into patterns, trends, a statistically determined set of needs and strategies to address those needs. In contrast, artistically led storytelling reflects the complexity that is natural within all towns, neighborhoods, families and institutions. It provides a frame in which diverse perspectives are recognized as an asset that create a rich and evolving world. To use creative exchange as a means to engage complex and contentious topics in our world not only expands perspectives and understanding; it can create empathy where it is rare to experience and can complement the top-down nature of policy making and institutional culture.
The City Different, as some Santa Feans like to think of it, is also the city divided. The young media makers and Littleglobe mentors are inviting us to break down divisions within our city by starting with the idea that Santa Fe is unified by our dreams, our shared pride and the complex beauty of our town.
See Littleglobe’s first feature documentary film broadcast 2013–14 and newly rebroadcast fall 2015 to spring 2016 throughout the PBS system, as part of the CPB American Graduate Program. www.ourtimeisnowmovie.org, www.littleglobe.org
Chris Jonas, Littleglobe’s executive director, is a filmmaker, composer, performer, producer and co-founding artist team member. He has produced two PBS feature documentaries and directs media and community-engagement projects across New Mexico.
Veena Vasista, Littleglobe’s board president, is originally from Chicago. Her work has focused on mainstreaming human rights into social policy. Since 2010, she has worked as a freelance writer, facilitator and mediator. She is a trustee of the newly founded London-based education charity, Journey to Justice.