Think and listen before you speak — Speaking before knowing a topic, issue or area of focus can create a setback. It is important that we educate ourselves before creating biased ideas of how our society should work and putting them out into the universe. Understanding the impact of our words can teach us how to speak out and show respect simultaneously. We’ll learn to become the next generation of social justice leaders.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Raelene Holmes.
Raelene Holmes is an aspiring actress, playwright, youth activist, and filmmaker. After completing 3 full semesters as a student filmmaker at the Educational Video Center, she went on to collect awards for her films including the Media for a Just Society award and the NYCLU Freedom of expression contest. As the Youth Documentary Workshop Teaching Assistant, Raelene has chosen to give back to her community by teaching young people the art of documentary filmmaking around the greater New York City area. She holds an Associate’s in Social Sciences and Humanities from LaGuardia Community College and a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre from Herbert H. Lehman College.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I am the third generation of my family to live in the same apartment in public housing in Harlem and I have been navigating systemic inequities since a very young age. Thisincluded school systems where fights would happen every day and the school lunch would practically walk off your tray. Middle school was a blur. I learned nothing there and was suspended for defending myself from bullies. It was so hard for me to focus that I decided at the age of 14 to give up on furthering my education. I did nothing with my life for two and a half years.
One day, I thought to myself “What exactly do you want to do in life? Knowing that you aren’t in school and you don’t have any work experience, where do you see yourself in 10 years?” This was all the peptalk that I needed to regain the motivation to be productive. I signed up for an alternative education program. It was there that I met an advisor who wouldn’t stop pestering me about my life, my goals, and my interests. I wasn’t thinking about life after school yet, I just wanted to graduate. I figured, I could at least tell him that I was interested in film and theatre. I did. He had no theatre connections, but had a close relationship with EVC, the Educational Video Center.
I promised him (and myself) that I would go to school and intern at EVC at the same time. How could someone who just spent two and a half years doing nothing, juggle school and an internship at the drop of a hat? I’m not sure either, but it was done. I completed three full semesters at EVC starting in 2012, creating three documentaries about three totally different social issues that affect a wide variety of people: Life Under Suspicion, a film that explores the stop and frisk policy that the NYPD administered and its unfairness in treatment toward the black and brown communities in New York City. Breathing Easy: Environmental Hazards in Public Housing examines the hazardous living conditions that New Yorkers face within the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) properties. Lastly, Beyond Bullying, a documentary that delves into bullying from the bullies’ perspective and how it may transition from middle school through adulthood. Upon completion of my third documentary, I was passionate about being an advocate for social change!
I now work at EVC as a Teaching Assistant in their Youth Documentary Workshop program supporting the next generation of youth producers!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
At every EVC Youth Documentary Premiere screening, the youth take over the stage. Before we do that, we always set some ground rules: no gum chewing, pass the microphone, and answer in complete sentences. Lately, we’ve had to add an extra component, “Raelene’s mother will ask the first question of the night.” This statement is usually challenged by the students. That challenge falls through every time! My mother is very vocal and has gained the confidence to speak up at every screening — she even likes to shout how much she loves me in the audience. This does trigger facepalm moments for me. Her loud, thought-provoking sensible comments and questions always tend to upstage me at EVC events. She even gained a nickname amongst EVC staff and newcomers. Mama Holmes has done it again! I mean, I thought I was the only actress in the family!
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
The most interesting person whom I’ve interacted with thus far would be Ryan Coogler, director of the blockbuster movie Black Panther. We both won the 2014 Media for a Just Society award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in California. I was representing EVC as one of the youth producers who made the Life Under Suspicion documentary and he won for Fruitvale Station. As a 20 year old high school student, not only was this my first trip to the West Coast but it was my first time flying anywhere on a plane! At the reception of the event, we were able to chat for a few minutes. I was so nervous. I didn’t know who Ryan Coogler was at the time because this was before he became really famous, but he was one of the very few people at the entire event organized by a national entity on crime who looked like me — the lack of diversity was stark. Ryan greeted me like we had known each other for years. It was all love!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am combining my love of performing and filmmaking by hosting virtual screenings at EVC right now. Docs & Dialogue is a monthly documentary and discussion series where we screen timely youth-produced films from the EVC archives and I host the virtual events. We have screened films on police brutality, inequity in health care, homelessness and our next screening will focus on voting rights. You can register here: bit.ly/ddVOTE The screenings are free and open to the public and we have great discussions with some of the young people that worked on the film and other guests that join too. I get to poll audiences at these events and share the results in real time which has been fascinating for everyone to see. Docs and Dialogue usually happens on the last Thursday of each month but please check out www.evc.org for further details and I hope to see some of you there!
I am also working on building my personal brand as an actress/performing artist and I am creating on my own website. So I am putting my reels together and having endless photoshoots! I am working on two plays in collaboration with some of my colleagues from Lehman College. And once they are complete we look forward to submitting them to playwright festivals. I may even perform in some songs too!
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
These ladies inspire me collectively and individually too. Collectively they have done inspirational work addressing the struggles that African Americans face in not only in specific industries but also in life. Shirley Chisolm opened the door for African Americans politically. She helped create legislation to improve our lives, fought during and after Jim Crow and was a role model to millions of African American females. Diahann Carroll was a pioneer who opened the doors wider for budding actresses of all nationalities. She was the first African American actress in a lead role of her own series in 1968. This excites me most, since I just obtained my B.A. in Theatre! This was at a time when women weren’t shown as breadwinners or decision makers. Her series, entitled “Julia”, centered on a single African American mother who was a Registered Nurse. She juggled many of the same issues that we juggle today. Presently, Jane Elliott expresses not only her opinions but also facts, clear and concise, regarding racism. She’s been out on the front lines since the sixties and inspires me with powerful statements, observations and historical information.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
As a Teaching Assistant at Educational Video Center, I have the opportunity to mentor young people who are at high risk of dropping out of high school or aging out of the NYC public school system like I once was. By sharing my own experiences about how I have been able to become successful I am able to connect with students on a much more personal level. I know what it’s like to walk in their shoes because I have been there and that makes me a credible role model for them. As an EVC alumnus, I have walked in the shoes of our current students. Since many of us share similar socioeconomic backgrounds, my role as teaching assistant shows them that they can overcome anything with hard work, determination, and goal setting.
In addition, something I am really excited about is hosting EVC’s monthly virtual screening series called, Docs & Dialogue. We create social impact through screening youth-produced documentaries about social justice issues from the perspective of young people and their communities. We facilitate discussions around structural racism and systemic inequities with audiences that might not otherwise be exposed to these perspectives. These screenings also help to amplify youth voices.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
Before coming to Educational Video Center, I didn’t know I had a voice that people cared to hear. Through producing documentaries as a student of EVC’s Youth Documentary Workshop program I was given the chance to tell my story and re-write my own life’s narrative. After my first day at EVC, I actually wanted to come back. It was the first time I was learning by doing. Once I got the hang of video editing, that’s all I wanted to do all day. At EVC I was told that I could become a professional editor. Having someone believe in me changed my whole perspective on my future. I wanted to stay at EVC and continue co-producing films that amplified the voices of me and my peers. I wanted to stay in school, graduate, and work. EVC made me crave education. I graduated and obtained my General Education Diploma. And let’s be clear, that’s all 4 years of high school in one 8-hour test.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
About 4 years ago at EVC, we had a partnership with three different organizations: Neighborhood Opportunity Network (NeON), Department of Probation, and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. We met weekly with students who were on probation to teach them how to create a documentary on a topic of their choice. I was working with this particular group and chose to focus on gang violence, but wanted to explore the issue through a different perspective: why do people join gangs? Through their work, they highlighted how gangs began, what their main purpose is, and how the community reacts to society’s portrayal of gangs. One student in particular was always motivated to succeed and stay productive. He had been feeling upset because of his actions and his involvement with ‘the wrong crowd’ which led him to an arrest and subsequently probation. After completing his film with us, giving his perspective on camera, screening the documentary, and following up with his probation officer, a judge reviewed his work and lifted his probation sentence early. It was clear to me that our work matters. We are constantly changing lives, by doing.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Three things that I would recommend individuals, society, or the government should do to help support me in the effort to make a social impact would be to
Understand Biases — there are way too many problematic messages within the media from colorism to body image and it needs to stop.
Teach young people how to think critically — Many of them don’t feel like their voices matter or that they have any power to change policies. They don’t know that they can talk to their local leaders to implement change in their communities. They aren’t aware of the powers that they have and sometimes that contributes to their level of motivation being on the decline.
Be loving and accepting of life! — You are different. You are unique. There is nothing wrong with standing out and owning your beauty and talent. If we as a society can get together and erase the beliefs that Black and Brown communities are dangerous, poor people are a threat to humanity, young people should be seen and not heard, — if we can erase these beliefs and recondition how we think, we can achieve great things as one.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Think and listen before you speak
Speaking before knowing a topic, issue or area of focus can create a setback. It is important that we educate ourselves before creating biased ideas of how our society should work and putting them out into the universe. Understanding the impact of our words can teach us how to speak out and show respect simultaneously. We’ll learn to become the next generation of social justice leaders.
2. You have a lot more to learn
No one knows it all, especially if you are a beginner at filmmaking. Seeing so many other films and how they were created showed me that my limited experiences will be broadened constantly.
3. You are not alone
Remember there are many beginning in the same role as you. When entering EVC’s program for the first time, I thought I would be the only young Black woman and/or the only low-income student in the classroom because of where EVC was initially located. On the first day, that thought quickly left my mind, since the classroom was highly diversified with my peers who came from all over New York City, from all different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. This made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the fight against social injustice.
4. Greatness takes time to create
People look at the final finished award winning product and they rave about it. However, as it’s creator, you realize the hard work, pitfalls, mistakes, time and efforts that went into making the film. In 2012 during the production of Life Under Suspicion I was introduced to the entire film/documentary creation process. I learned that it is not as easy as watching the finished product! It was exciting, tiring, fun and most of all hard work, however it paid off, since our work did not go unnoticed. If I could, I would do it all over again!
5. Learn to listen and listen to learn
The only way to begin is learning how to listen to direction. Make listening part of the steps needed to create an awesome film. I began this process realizing that this was new to me. I had to listen carefully to all directions that were given. Listening was part of my learning process. When I began the filmmaking process I wanted to just go ahead and edit though I didn’t know how to do it. For post-production editing, I learned you must pay attention and carefully evaluate every decision that you make.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would encourage young people to consider enrolling in Educational Video Center’s youth media arts programs. I believe young people have the power and talent to make a positive change in our society, and EVC had an incredible impact shifting the path of my life, and I am sure it can change the next generations as well.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I love this question! I have two people in mind, Taraji P. Henson and Seth MacFarlane. Yes, these are two very different people with two very different styles, but I admire both of them so much! I admire Henson for her choices when it comes to acting for the camera. This means a lot to me as I emerge into the theatre world. I study her work in hopes to make better decisions within my own brand. Normally, my characteristics are along the lines of when a sassy stern aunt meets ditzy overprotective sister, so there’s a lot of natural comedic instincts that I often channel. Henson’s work helps me to understand how to get more in tune with the serious side of myself and my character. I observe her and take notes often! As for Seth MacFarlane, I crave comedy!!! Aforementioned, I’m naturally comedic and I always look for comedy in serious situations, while bringing forth an underlying message relating to social injustices. MacFarlane does this in all of his productions which keeps me on the edge of my seat!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Our students have solid thoughts and ideas of what their futures should hold. They’re often vocal about it too. At the end of our Fall semester, I told my students at the Youth Documentary Premiere to “Be like NIKE and Just Do It.” I always share with students, I believe they can do great things and the NIKE slogan really resonates with our students. I also like to remind them that self-love can heal many wounds. This is where I channel my inner RuPaul, “If you can’t love yourself how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Know your worth, measure it, and remind yourself everyday that you matter!
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow me on Instagram at @rae_aleese.
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!