Pflugerville High School Students: “Schooling” Us On Compassion

Pflugerville High School Students: “Schooling” Us On Compassion

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Pflugerville High School Students: “Schooling” Us On Compassion

STUDENTS AT PFLUGERVILLE HIGH SCHOOL CHEER FOR THEIR FRIENDS AND CLASSMATES AT A FRIDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL GAME. (CREDIT: DIXIE ROSS)

By Susan MacLaury

The 115th US Congress is the most diverse in history with nearly one in five members a racial or ethnic minority. This is a welcome step in the right direction, though its 19% minority membership compares with 38% nationally, making it more like a melting 1-qt sauce pan than an actual pot.

Still, one would hope that increased Congressional diversity would lead to genuine compassion toward all Americans. As I mentioned in my earlier blog post about the failure of our representatives and senators to unite to support the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, this does not seem to be the case. (By the way, Jimmy Kimmel made an impassioned defense of it last night on his show that’s worth watching). Assaults on affordable health care and recent moves to pass a tax bill that ultimately hurts lower and middle income Americans begs the question: To whom do we look to school us on caring for others? To our young, of course.

Enter Pflugerville High School, recently profiled in Readers Digest’s “The Nicest Places in America” series. Participating in a Readers’ Digest readers poll of the best places to live in America, staff and students from the school responded so convincingly that they were named one of the top 10 finalists. Pflugerville is a rural community near Austin, TX (and the site of the filming of the pilot for Friday Night Lights). Its high school is strikingly diverse. Two in 5 students are Hispanic, ¼ are white, nearly ¼ black, and 7% are Asian. And while the median town income is $76,000, 44% of the students at the high school are economically disadvantaged.

Pflugerville isn’t exceptional academically when compared to other Texas high schools. Though it boasts a 98% graduation rate and above average rating in college readiness, its students perform about average on state tests.

But it does seem to be a school in which students look out for one another and one teacher, Dixie Ross, is quoted as saying: “Here niceness seems to be the default mode.” One student, Sahaz Shah, described his first day in the high school after recently immigrating from Bahrain. He didn’t know anyone and a student invited him to sit with him and his friends. He comments: “I was really surprised by how inclusive everyone was. Today that guy is a very good friend.” Several students who aspire to be teachers belong to the Ready-Set-Teach program that pairs them with special needs kids. When one autistic student experienced distress at a track meet earlier this year, all of the students ran to him to give him assistance.

We “shine a light” on kids globally who struggle against difficult odds with resiliency, talent, and hope. In this troubled and troubling age, we look closely at the next generation of voters and the students at Pflugerville give us confidence that it will be a caring one.

NYC Bombing: Thank You to Several Real Americans

NYC Bombing: Thank You to Several Real Americans

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NYC Bombing: Thank You to Several Real Americans

By Susan MacLaury

I didn’t realize anything was amiss this morning until my bus driver Cliff asked if I’d heard what had happened and explained to me that there had been a bomb incident and that Port Authority was shut down.

I was alarmed by this but not frightened because I knew I was in good hands. Cliff is a consummate professional, the kind of bus driver who actually wears his cap, is unfailingly polite and just makes you feel safe. (He’s also an accomplished musician and my favorite driver).  He talked about the stress he felt on a day like today, when all that is routine suddenly isn’t.

We were apparently one of the first buses to be allowed back into Port Authority. When we got out I was struck by the number of Transit authority officials, national guardsmen and women, and police who were there calmly directing all of us out of the 9th Avenue entrance. I teared up then, looking at their faces – mostly young, very multi-cultural, and resolute – and I was so grateful for their courage.

So ahead of the tweet storm I can only imagine we’ll be subjected to today – why we need an immigration ban, how NYC should be ashamed for being a sanctuary city, etc. –  I want to say that it’s this diversity, coupled with basic human nature, that makes me so proud of NYC. It’s also what actually does make America great. It always has been. Through its films and outreach, Shine has always represented young persons of varying ethnicities and cultures. It’s an honor to acknowledge them in person as well.

*Shine’s office is one block away from where the NYC Bombing occurred on December 11th.  At the time of this writing, there were no deaths, but please check news sources for updates.

Children’s Health Insurance Plan: Who’s Watching the Kids?

Children’s Health Insurance Plan: Who’s Watching the Kids?

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Children’s Health Insurance Plan: Who’s Watching the Kids?

By Susan MacLaury

As 2017 draws to an end – finally – I find myself battling a continuous mix of incredulity and depression over American core values as expressed by our government … or the lack thereof. Every day brings unwanted headlines that trigger alarm about who’s protecting American children’s wellbeing.

It’s hard to understand how Congress can unify to pass a tax cut plan that almost surely will be counterbalanced by cuts in social services to needy families. It’s virtually impossible to fathom their inability to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, which has been supported by both sides of the aisle since its initial passage in 1997.

This stalemate is even more bewildering since both Democrats and Republicans agree it should be funded through 2022 but apparently can’t agree how. The bill proposed by Republicans was blocked by the Democrats because it contained provisions that would have cut other public health programs and health insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands more. Really? Can our elected officials truly not do better than this?

I would ask each of you to take time to research this problem on your own and take the action your conscience demands. Our children, and our grandchildren, depend on us now more than ever.

#GivingTuesday and Responsible Giving

#GivingTuesday and Responsible Giving

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#GivingTuesday and Responsible Giving

By Alexandra Blaney

The Tuesday after Thanksgiving in the United States, November 28th, is #GivingTuesday – the designated day to give to charities. Since its founding by the New York-based 92Y in 2012, along with the United Nations Foundation, #GivingTuesday has grown into a global phenomenon with similar campaigns extended in many other countries.  You probably have been inundated with emails from charities asking you to give on #GivingTuesday and have seen the social media posts.  But before you give, you should do your due diligence and make sure you are giving responsibly.

The issue of responsible giving is something that was really brought home to us in the making of our latest film The Wrong Light.  Mickey Choothesa had founded an organization in Thailand called COSA with an “upstream” prevention approach to trafficking. He promoted COSA as a sanctuary providing educational opportunities for young girls and his work drew international donors, a steady stream of western visitors, and global press attention. However, conversations with both the girls and their families contradicted Mickey’s version of their stories, and we unexpectedly uncovered both financial and marketing fraud.  As a filmmaking organization, we were already sensitive to issues of representation (and recently wrote about our thoughts on media literacy), but this experience led us to believe that narrative transparency is just as important as financial transparency for non-profits and donors.

A new survey done by the BBB (Better Business Bureau) found that millennial parents are more likely than Gen X, boomer, or Silent generation parents to research charities before making a donation and to discuss giving with their children.[i]  We should follow millenials’ lead and all do this.  To help you, we’ve developed this checklist of what you should be looking for before you give.

    1. Verify Your Charity is actually a charity. Just because they are asking for donations does not mean they are actually a registered charity. There are a number of websites that provide information on charities, including whether or not they are a 501(c)(3) public charity registered with the IRS (in the US). org, Guidestar.org, and Give.org are a couple recommendations.
    2. Check for Financial Transparency. Transparent organizations should have their financials publicly available for you to view.  You can read over the 990 tax returns but also check to see if they have annual reports that may present financials in an easier to understand format (along with impact information).
    3. Check for narrative transparency. The choices that organizations make in their use of images and messaging reflects the organization’s values and has an impact on the people they are trying to help.
      1. Does the organization have a published Images and Media Policy or is it a signatory to an existing code?
      2. If not, when you look at the organizations images and messaging, do they appear to be presenting people with dignity and respect and providing context for the images.  You can read a comprehensive images and message code of conduct developed by Dóchas here.
    4.  Follow Through. After you’ve given, does the charity follow through?
      1. You should receive a receipt for your donation, at least for tax purposes
      2. The organization should also report on their work and how they used donations to further their mission.
    5. This is just a starting point on giving responsibly and respectfully.  You are giving because you want to help make the world a better place for all people, so take steps to ensure your money is actually contributing to long-term, sustainable impact that will transform people’s lives.


      [i] http://www.give.org/news-updates/news/2017/11/new-survey-millennials-are-raising-the-next-philanthropic-superheroes/

Media Literacy Week 2017 & The Wrong Light

Media Literacy Week 2017 & The Wrong Light

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Media Literacy Week 2017 & The Wrong Light

By Alexandra Blaney

With #FakeNews trending and the current investigations into Russian propaganda revealing that an estimated third of Americans saw Russian ads during the 2016 election, media literacy has become an essential skill.

Think back to the last interesting thing you read on social media.  Do you remember the source of that post?  Did you click through to read the actual article or did you only look at it in your news feed (perhaps click share) and then move on?  With the amount of time we all spend consuming a cornucopia of media via words, images, and sounds carefully composed and targeted based on data – we need to expand our literacy skills to be able to think critically about the messages we receive – and also that we create and share. If we can develop into informed and reflective media consumers, we will be able to be better donors and activists and wiser voters.

For us, we came face to face with the issue of how media and storytelling is used to play to our own biases and interests in the making of The Wrong Light (2016).  We decided to make that film because we were drawn to (an ultimately false) story of the sex trade in Thailand and how desperate parents had to consider selling their children while one heroic activist worked to stop them.  It had all the elements of a great narrative arc and we had incredible access to the story through the purported activist Mickey Choothesa.  But as our directors Josie Swantek Heitz and Dave Adams uncovered over the course of filming, his story was completely fabricated.  He had been relying on people’s attraction to these types of stories to raise funds and gain media attention – it didn’t matter that these stories were made up by him and didn’t represent the lives of the girls at the COSA shelter at all.  It is what people wanted to hear and what they responded to and so that’s what he used.

And we were not the only ones attracted to this story: VICE published a glowing portrait of Mickey; PRI used him as one of their main sources in a multi-part piece on sex-trafficking; donors and volunteers around the world gave money and time to his organization.  This widespread support of a fraudulent organization made us reexamine our own role in creating narratives as filmmakers and also our role as donors and activists. We felt that we all – creators and activists alike – needed to be more aware of the ethics of humanitarian storytelling and how representations of other people, especially the most disenfranchised, can affect their everyday lives.  We hoped that audiences would see our film The Wrong Light and be inspired to consider the public’s desire for exaggerated and/or untrue narratives and move towards a greater demand for transparency, informed consent from subjects of stories, and due diligence in storytelling.  We faced the obstacle of trying to convince people that representation and narrative transparency actually mattered and had real world consequences. And then the 2016 presidential election happened and the topic of media transparency and media literacy has been at center stage.

A recent Stanford study showed that students at almost every grade level cannot distinguish fake news from real news and while they consume media for as many as 10-11 hours a day, they do not have the critical media literacy skills they need to judge it. To develop future citizens, future activists, future media consumers and creators, we need to ensure they have the critical media literacy skills they’ll need to navigate a minefield of content coming at them from every side.

We’ve compiled a list of resources teachers and parents can use:


[1] https://namle.net/publications/media-literacy-definitions/
[2] https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/11/17/remarks-president-obama-and-chancellor-merkel-germany-joint-press
[3] https://ed.stanford.edu/news/stanford-researchers-find-students-have-trouble-judging-credibility-information-online
[4] Rideout, Victoria J., et al. “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.” Kaiser Family Foundation, January 2010.

Shine Global Response to ending DACA

Shine Global Response to ending DACA

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Shine Global Response to Ending DACA

Inocente Izucar with Rep. Raul Grijalva (AZ) at his office in DC in Feb 2013

By Susan MacLaury

By now anyone who has read or listened to the news knows that the Trump administration is ending the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program that risks the fates of more than 800,000 young adults brought to the US as children. We have the opportunity to resist this action and we must take advantage of it.

In 2013, we visited several members of congress with Inocente Izucar, the subject of our short documentary, Inocente. We gave each a DVD of the film and took this opportunity to explain how she had been brought to America as a very small child by her father. When he was deported for domestic violence, the family lost his income and became ensnarled in homelessness, moving in and out of shelters. After the film, Inocente, her mother, and siblings all received support and green cards. We took this opportunity in DC to ask legislators support for the thousands of other children, like Inocente, who were vulnerable to deportation. Though President Obama had authorized DACA in 2012, we hoped for a permanent solution.

We believed then and continue to believe that innocent children who are brought to America are OUR children, deserving of full protection and support. The film, Inocente, puts a very human face to this issue and if any of you are thinking of sponsoring social actions on their behalf you may wish to show it as a part of your event (More info here.)

We’re all immigrants on this bus.

MORE RESOURCES
Take a few minutes to learn about the Hope Act of 2017 by clicking here.

You can also read about the original Dream Act, originally co-sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch and Dick Durbin in 2001, which itself could still be passed today at Slate.

And when you’re ready, urge your legislators to protect these children. To find your Representatives name and contact info you can call 202 224-2131 or click here to enter your zip code and find their info.

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