How one nonprofit is helping create the next generation of Atlanta storytellers

In some parts of Atlanta nowadays, you can’t walk (or drive) too far without running into a film crew.

In recent years, Georgia’s capital has become as significant in the filmmaking scene as Los Angeles and New York, to go along with its status as a hub for Southern culture, music, and innovation. Hundreds of films and TV shows were shot there last year, and the industry employs thousands of people and generates billions in economic impact.

While Atlanta’s rise has done wonders for the city’s reputation and has served as a magnet for film professionals from other markets, the next generation of Atlantans—particularly the children of its economically disadvantaged neighborhoods—have no clear path towards contributing to the city’s continued success in media. They aren’t getting the arts education or business connections they need to tell their own stories.

To be fair, that’s an issue facing kids all over the country. And the Trump administration is calling for billions of dollars in cuts to after-school programs, arts education programs, and grants that build networks of support in needy communities.

But the issue is even more evident in a city like Atlanta, which is heavily segregated along racial lines despite its overall diversity and is often cited as the most economically stratified city in the country.

You can see the difference just by walking into the classrooms of different schools, according to Susanna Spiccia, executive director of re:imagine/ATL, a nonprofit with the mission of empowering the next generation of storytellers through film and digital media production.

“It was kind of shocking, going into these schools and realizing that we’re in the same school district, but we’re just on the north side or the south side, and the resources for audio/visual, and really just technology access, is vastly different,” says Spiccia.

And it’s not just about in-classroom resources. It’s about transportation to take field trips. It’s about connecting students with experts in A/V fields that can provide insight and advice.

Where there’s a gap like this, you need a bridge, and that’s what re:imagine/ATL is—a bridge between the smart, creative, but underserved youth of Atlanta, and the tools, knowledge, and connections needed to join that ecosystem of media production in the state of Georgia.

DSC — Volunteers and industry experts come together to teach the ropes of media production to the next generation of Atlanta creatives. Image courtesy of re:imagine/ATL.

What is re:imagine/ATL?

Spiccia, an Atlanta-area native, founded re:imagine/ATL in 2014 after realizing she wanted to help energize kids and engender empathy and understanding across all backgrounds, from poor to affluent. She found that entertainment—film, music, podcasts—could serve as that common ground.

“I grew up in an affluent part of Atlanta, and I never interacted with kids of different backgrounds. I’m finding the more I do work in different communities in Atlanta, the more see kids are not connecting with each other,” Spiccia says. “That was the original idea: How do we just bring them together? Every kid watches YouTube, everyone’s online and loves entertainment, so what if we make our own entertainment?”

Spiccia and her team began bringing together 5th through 12th graders from all around the city to learn the ropes of video, audio, and other digital media production. Since that time, they’ve served over 700 youth and aided in the creation of music videos, documentaries, short films, PSAs, podcasts and other forms of digital media—all entirely produced by the teenagers themselves.

Reaching above the line

What started as a way to connect kids from different walks of life has become something much different. It’s become a vehicle for connecting kids to actual work opportunities.

“re:imagine evolved as I started learning about the industry and the demand for jobs and economic empowerment,” says Spiccia.

“We’re also creating a much more inclusive workforce, because it’s 96 percent white male-dominated for ‘above-the-line’ jobs when it comes to film,” she adds, referring to the jobs in the creative and business side of media production. “The idea is we’re getting stories and content made by people from all different backgrounds, so it’s kind of evolved into that today.”

The pipeline for helping these kids become better storytellers, producers, and creators involves a four-week program, where a re:imagine/ATL instructor leads crews of students to produce films for a nonprofit client; free monthly workshops outside the classroom; in-school workshops where students can meet media professionals; and connections to a summer fellowship in film production as well as placement in work and job-shadowing opportunities at local studios.

In 2018, re:imagine/ATL plans to take this a step further: The nonprofit just announced an Alliance partnership program, focusing on attracting local industry leaders such as Turner, to become sponsors. These sponsors will intentionally support the nonprofit’s work through skills mentoring, office space, education fairs, marketing, and other initiatives.

“We have a list of needs, and we can’t meet all these needs. That’s where the Alliance comes in, because we can’t help every single kid get into college, so we bring in groups that can. If we put everyone behind our mission, they’ll give reimagine the resources they need to support students and teachers,” Spiccia says.

ThatsAWrap — Though re:imagine/ATL is looking to place students in internship and job opportunities, the focus is always storytelling, community, and understanding. Photo by Kelly Truitt.

But the stories come first

While re:imagine/ATL has strengthened its community connections and worked to shore up resources, Spiccia says that the most important mission of the organization remains teaching kids how to identify and tell their stories.

“First and foremost, it’s about our kids learning how to tell stories and expressing themselves,” says Spiccia. “Our short film program is centered around the teens deciding what an issue is in their community and how they want to address that on camera.”

While the workforce aspect of the mission is an outcome that re:imagine/ATL can measure, Spiccia says it’s storytelling that will serve the kids for life, regardless of what field they end up going into.

“You want to see an industry that’s reflective, but the reality is this will affect everything, all kinds of industries as they grow up. That storytelling medium is absolutely essential to what we do. If the kids walk away and they can use a camera but they can’t tell a story, that’s a problem,” she says.

Remaining focused on the storytelling is not only the most heartwarming part of re:imagine/ATL’s mission, it may be the most important—particularly in an uncertain future where automation and artificial intelligence threaten to take over many of the traditional avenues of employment. Developing storytelling skills and other uniquely human traits, such as empathy, communication, and leadership, will be crucial for the next generation.

And considering that re:imagine/ATL has seen just how lacking many school audio/visual departments are in terms of equipment and expertise, it’s clear that most Atlanta kids that go through the program wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to express themselves creatively—especially in a setting where they can use that creativity to address the issues most important to them.

Telling their stories and well as the stories of the city

The students who go through the re:imagine/ATL pipeline work on PSAs for local nonprofits, which teaches them not only how to be creative and tackle important local issues, but how to work with clients, and how marketing works, and how the city of Atlanta works.

But the kids are also using re:imagine/ATL to create their own projects. One such project is No Comment, a YouTube channel where the students can tell their own stories—through comedy sketches, ruminations on identity, or even an upcoming show called “Chasing Matthew,” which according to Spiccia is about one student’s incredible knowledge of and preoccupation with actor Matthew McConaughey.

“Right now there’s a fellowship of eight students, and they’re working on a show called ‘My Comment.’ It’s about featuring one teenager in Atlanta who intersects in different ways. ‘I’m queer, I’m a woman, I’m black.’ Or, ‘I’m a poet, a latino man, and I’m poor.’ Another show that’s all about music in Atlanta, and they’re interviewing different young artists,” she says.

In this way, not only is the organization helping to shape the future of the students who come through the program, but the students are turning around and helping re:imagine/ATL better serve the generations to come.

“They say, ‘Hey, there are a lot of other kids making content in Atlanta and we have this platform , why don’t we start finding ways to collect their content and push them out and eventually help them fund their own project?’ So our fellowship has evolved the most, and the students are still helping us create it,” says Spiccia.

They’re storytellers and problem-solvers

Spiccia hopes that Atlanta can serve as an example to other cities of how to create an ecosystem—of students, post-secondary opportunities, and employers—for their community.

“One of my personal things is how can we better connect the city to put all of our resources together, to pay attention to areas that need it, so that Atlanta, which is a powerful city nationally and internationally, can take a stand for how to do this well,” she says.

Atlanta has those resources, but like the city itself, they’re dispersed and disconnected. That re:imagine/ATL ecosystem is just one way that the city can more ably serve the needs of its emerging citizens and creators.

In the meantime, Spiccia says that she’s already seeing the students develop in ways that will pay dividends for them and their city in the long-run.

One day after shooting for No Comment, Spiccia was out with a large group of kids from the program—far too many for the organization to buy lunch for.

“We went to a nearby No Mas Cantina , and they said, ‘We’re a group of teens, we’re storytellers for Atlanta, and we’re kind of broke because we’re kids—but we collected 80 dollars, can you work something out for us?’” Spiccia recounts, her voice buoyed by pride and joy in her students. “They’re creative, and they’re storytellers and they’re going to be the problem-solvers in this city. Those stories are what help shape and express their city.”

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