Jose, a parent at San Gabriel High School, takes his turn behind the camera. He hits the record button and asks Sara, another parent, in Spanish—“As an English language learner, what has your experience been interacting with the school administration?”
Sara pauses, and then she comes forth with an honest and candid answer. “For me, one of the biggest challenges was when I came to enroll my daughter in school… of all the people working in the school, there was only one Spanish speaker.” Even though she is on the other side of the room, Thanh has a surprisingly similar response in Vietnamese, “We can’t closely monitor our children… when something happens it’s too late.” Simultaneously, in two other corners of the room, parents open up to share their thoughts on camera to the same question, the room covering the scope of five languages: Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English and Vietnamese.
The San Gabriel Valley, sometimes affectionately dubbed “Far East LA”, is where the Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s (APALC) Parent Academy takes place. Demographically, it is predominately Chinese and Asian American and it’s well known for its high concentration of delicious varieties of Asian food, most famously the Boiling Crab, as well as a diverse array of restaurants and boba tea shops.
There is also a growing Latino population in the San Gabriel Valley, which composes a large chunk of the school population. With such a predominant immigrant population, SGV parents frequently deal with language access issues, as well as a generational gap between parents and students.
The goals of the Parent Academy were threefold:
1. To facilitate parents’ understanding of how decision-making in the K-12 system works;
2. To encourage and facilitate common understanding, working relationships and organizing skills among participants; and
3. To introduce and apply parent empowerment principles and practices– self-awareness, personal empowerment and self-directed growth.
Jessica Viramontes, Director of the Parent Academy, designed and facilitated the Parent Academy curriculum in partnership with Mandla Kayise, Education and Community Planning Consultant. Jessica invited me to participate in designing a strategy to document the academy on video. The purpose of incorporating video was not only to document the journey of parents as they went through the academy, but also to build community and understanding between parents from different ethnic groups and to identify common issues for the group to work on.
I decided to experiment with a participatory method of incorporating video into the academy. A traditional documentary approach would select key subjects and then trained filmmakers would shoot interviews and b-roll of the academy. Instead, we attempted to incorporate video into the activities already planned for the group and to facilitate affected people telling their own stories.
At the end of each session in the eight-week course, we set up camera stations around the room with the question of the day written in five languages—Spanish, English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese. Parents lined up at each camera and took turns interviewing each other and giving short responses, under one minute each.
Parallel to this, we trained parent alumni, who had gone through the course the previous year, in basic video shooting and they filmed all the sessions.
We used the resulting video in a couple of different ways. First, after each week, I cut together a handful of parent responses back to back to share each week with the group and stimulate discussion. For example, we played back responses to the question on language barriers in the school system for parents to stimulate discussion on language access in the Alhambra school system.
At the end of the eight-week session, we edited camera station footage with alumni footage to create two short video pieces on the journey of parents throughout the academy. One of the pieces was a teaser, which used no additional footage, and another was a longer video (below) that included migration stories from sit down interviews with four different parents.
We screened these pieces in conjunction with youth-created videos in Alhambra, to the overwhelming excitement of both parents and youth to share their experiences with each other. Parents shared stories with each other, and some of our youth approached the parents to ask them about their experiences. The room was live with energy. It turned out to be a forum for parents to share their transformation through the workshop– with media making playing a supporting role in this transformation.
In comparison to typical documentary production, this methodology is a relatively simple to implement, and brings community members’ voices to the forefront. Since the Parent Academy, I have used a similar participatory video methodology in two client-based courses in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning—the Lawrence Practicum and the Cartagena Practicum. If you are interested in using this methodology in your work, feel free to brainstorm in the comments or contact me directly. Another great resource for participatory video, with more of a focus on the international context is Insight whose downloadable handbook is a useful reference.
Photos by Stefanie Ritoper
Stefanie Ritoper is a Masters in City Planning Candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. With a background in community-based research and film, she is interested in increasing economic opportunities for diverse low-income communities and using multimedia tools to engage people in public processes. She has long distance love for her hometown of Los Angeles. This post is part of her summer series, What Makes People Listen?