streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

streetwise revisited: one story among the countless

I first came across this photograph in May 2015 when I learned the photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, had passed away. I felt entranced by the photograph’s irony: a child living in Seattle dressed up to look like an adult French prostitute. This costume wasn’t far off from reality.

This photo is part of a larger collection of photographs by Mary Ellen Mark for a 1983 LIFE magazine piece “Streets of the Lost,” that documented the lives of street children in Seattle who made their living as prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. Among these children was Erin Blackwell (pictured above), known as Tiny, who spent her time on the streets with her friends as a prostitute and lived with her alcoholic mother who said she thought Blackwell’s prostitution was “just a phase.” A year later, in 1984, Mary Ellen Mark and her filmmaker husband, Martin Bell, released STREETWISE, a documentary film about the same children that was nominated for an Academy Award. While at the time Seattle was credited as “America’s most livable city,” this story painted a stark contrast.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Seattle Public Library to see a collection of Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs—“Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey”—that included images from the Life feature, stills from the film STREETWISE, and new photographs that fill in the gaps in Blackwell’s story over the decades.

Thirty-three years later, it’s heartbreaking how Blackwell’s story is still relevant today. Families with children make up a quarter of King County’s (where Seattle is located) homeless population. The number of people without shelter in Seattle increased by 20 percent between this year and last. As the city continues to grow, so has the homeless population, which includes many with mental health issues. Blackwell’s is therefore just one of countless similar stories in Aggregate’s backyard.

I’ve come to learn that one story doesn’t change the world, but many iterations of the same tale told over time does. Hopefully Mary Ellen Mark and Martin Bell’s retelling of Blackwell’s story will help sway public policy in Seattle and the state of Washington to come up with effective ways to address homelessness, and the trauma, abuse, and addiction with which it is associated.

In fact, I like to think this is why Mark and Bell were relentless in sharing Blackwell’s life with us. The story must continue to be told. We must continue to listen and talk about the issues. We must be empathetic and take action to help those around us.

If you have the chance, go and see “Streetwise Revisited: A 30-year Journey” at the Central Library before it closes on November 3. Mark and her husband were working on a follow-up documentary on Blackwell’s life since STREETWISE. Despite Mark’s passing last year, the film, “Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell,” is complete and will be screened at the Central Library on October 14. Martin Bell will be present for a Q&A session following the screening. I hope you can make it. Bring a friend and keep the conversation alive.

 

Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark

worthy in your eyes

worthy in your eyes

Aggregate celebrated four years of being in business this October and today we celebrate four years of showing our gratitude by giving back. We donate approximately 10 percent of our profits each year.

Selecting the organizations to which we make donations is a collaborative process, with staff proposing their ideas for organizations that reflect Aggregate’s values as a company: committed to social justice and equity, unapologetic about their passion, and believers in storytelling – in its many forms – as a tool for social change.

Every day in our work, we must pitch ideas to clients and make effective arguments as to why they should be embraced. And we must develop and execute upon communications strategies that impel people to take actions that will help our clients achieve their missions. So these pitches are also an opportunity for staff to hone their skills. In this case, they need to convince ME to write a check.

Wait…WHAT? Subjective decision-making?

Yep.

Just as many of our “worthy” ideas never see the light of day because we have failed to convince a client to embrace them, only a few among the many that are worthy of our support ultimately make the list.

Once again I am proud of the team for their ideas. We share these organizations with you in the hopes that you will consider joining us in supporting them. But if we don’t convince you, we hope you’ll still share your good fortune with other organizations that are worthy in your eyes.

We remained loyal.
We made our fourth annual donation to the Southern Center for Human Rights. The Center provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, improves legal representation for people who are low-income, and challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails. This year was also the fourth year we made a donation to the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which provides services to homeless LGBTQ youth. And for the fourth year in a row, we made the donation in honor of Spencer Cox, who gave so much to all of us in his efforts to end the AIDS pandemic.

We did something we never did before.
We maintain a strict line between our charitable donations and our business development efforts (i.e., we’re sincere), so we’ve never made a donation to a client organization. But then we had the honor of working with the Abortion Care Network. At the end of a year during which women’s access to their constitutional right to plan their families was attacked repeatedly, we think it’s an imperative to support providers who literally risk their lives every day to provide exceptional care to their patients. The Abortion Care Network is small in size, but enormous in ambition and their value to the abortion care community. We want them to succeed.

We believe in justice – in all its manifestations.
We’re heading into an election year and we need to be prepared to ensure that those who want to go to the polls are not impeded and their votes are counted, so we made the decision to support Common Cause. We appreciate how the Campaign for Youth Justice uses storytelling in their effort to end the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system, so we made a donation to them to help them to continue to do so. We made a donation to Girls Who Code to help bridge the gender gap and inspire, educate, and equip more girls to have the computing skills they need to succeed. We donated to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit media organization focused on reporting on the American criminal justice system, because they help to make us smarter every day. We donated to Seattle’s Splash to support their efforts to provide clean water to kids around the world and, specifically, in response to the earthquake in Nepal this past April. And we made a donation to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project to better enable the organization to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence. And because we love Sylvia.

We’re good friends.
We made a donation to The Lowline in New York to support our friend Dan Barasch to build an underground park in an historic trolley terminal on the Lower East Side. We supported Kat Galasso’s Kickstarter campaign to relaunch The Floatones at La Mama. And we supported another friend to show support to HIS friend by riding in DC’s Ride to Conquer Cancer.

We (still) love filmmakers.
For the third year in a row we are supporting the True/False Pay the Artists Program to enable the festival to financially support the filmmakers who screen their films at the fest (beyond travel costs) and to encourage others to invest in independent documentary filmmaking.

We attended Good Pitch this October and made donations to two of the films presented that day: Whose Streets and Canary in a Coal Mine. Whose Streets is the Ferguson MO story as told by the activists who took to the streets when Michael Brown is murdered by the police. It is “a first-hand look at how the murder of one teenage boy became the last straw for a community under siege.” Canary in a Coal Mine brings attention to Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), which disproportionately impacts women. (And is being executive produced by our hero Debby Hoffman.)

We love Seattle.
Last year we gave money to KEXP (for the second year in a row) to help them to move into their new studio at the Seattle Center. They made that move this month. This year we’re making our third annual donation to make sure they know how grateful we are to them for helping to make Seattle a great place to call home.

Unfortunately, calling Seattle home continues to become a greater and greater challenge to too many people. For the second year in a row we have made a donation to the Tenants Union of Washington State to support their ability to advocate on behalf of tenants.

We made a donation to the International Rescue Committee in Seattle to welcome refugees who have come to our fair city and allow them to rebuild their lives by providing housing, health care, food, education, and legal and social services.

Finally, we made a donation to our local YWCA, supporting their efforts to empower women who are facing poverty, violence and discrimination in our backyard.

Thank you to everyone who makes our giving possible. Best wishes for the new year.

sharing our good fortune

sharing our good fortune

Selecting the organizations with which we share our good fortune is a group effort that includes our full time staff as well as the collaborators with whom we work. My request to them is that they share ideas that reflect who we are as a company: we want to support organizations that are unapologetic about their passion, who use storytelling as a strategy to achieve their goals, or have simply reached us with a powerful story about their work.

I’m proud of the people who have joined me in building Aggregate and of the ideas they shared this year. I hope you’ll consider joining us in supporting the following organizations.

We believe in justice.

We have now made our third annual donation to the Southern Center for Human Rights, which provides legal representation to people facing the death penalty, challenges human rights violations in prisons and jails and improves legal representation for people who are low-income. We made the donation in the name of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

After reading about Lenzi Sheible, the 20-year old founder of Fund Texas Choice in The New York Times, we felt compelled to make a donation to enable her to do her important work. Because of legislation passed in the state of Texas—as well as in a number of other states—women often must travel long distances to access abortion services and many cannot afford to do so. So our donation will support Lenzi and Fund Texas Choice to cover those costs.

In July, we paid a Detroit resident’s overdue water bill  to prevent their water from being turned off thanks to the quick organizing and deft communication skills of the Detroit Water Project. We admire them for jumping in to address a need and for ensuring others both understood what was happening and that they could do something to help.

And in September, we made a donation to the Center for Death Penalty Litigation after they successfully worked to enable the exoneration of two men—Henry McCollum and Leon Brown—who had been on death row for 30 years in North Carolina for a rape and murder they did not commit.

We love filmmakers. 

Because 1) we like working with Josh Simon, 2) because criminal justice should be just, and 3) because Josh asked, we made a donation to support the production of This Place is Dirty. This new documentary—currently in production—is about Jon Burge, a former Chicago Police detective who was convicted of torturing criminal suspects for nearly twenty years.

For the second year in a row we are supporting the True/False Film Fest‘s Pay the Artist program to enable the festival to support the filmmakers who screen their films at the Fest (beyond travel costs) and to encourage others to invest in independent documentary filmmaking. (We’ll  be announcing additional support for the festival soon, so stay tuned.)

We made additional donations to support the re-release of Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer as well as the Sarah Jacobsen Film Grant, which is a grant for young women filmmakers “whose work embodies some of the things that Sarah stood for: a fierce DIY approach to filmmaking, a radical social critique, and a thoroughly underground sensibility.”

We think young people deserve better.

This year was also the third year we made a donation to the Ali Forney Center in New York City, which provides services to LGBTQ youth. And for the third year in a row, we made the donation in the name of Spencer Cox, the great AIDS activist who died in 2012.

Closer to home, the Sanctuary Art Center in Seattle works with homeless and street youth to enable them “to experience creativity and success through art.” We supported them this year to buy a new press. They reached that goal, but they have countless additional needs, so we’re confident that would appreciate your support as well.

We also gave to the national organization, Girls on the Run, which uses running as a strategy for promoting self-esteem, teamwork and a positive body image for young girls.

We love Jay Smooth.

We made a donation to WBAI‘s hip hop show Underground Railroad, which is hosted by our favorite video blogger Jay Smooth. Jay was such an important and smart voice on race relations this year, someone to whom we looked to make sense of a series of events and a world that often made no sense at all.

We love Seattle.

We also gave money to our hometown public radio station KEXP (for the second year in a row) to support their efforts to build a new home in Seattle. As I said last year, they are a significant contributor to making Seattle the amazing place it is and we’re grateful to them for filling our office with music every day.

KEXP is building a new home at a time when the real estate market in Seattle has gone apeshit, leaving many of our lower income neighbors in situations where they are paying an unlivable percentage of their income to put a roof over their heads. It’s a heady time to live in Seattle—if you are among the privileged who can still afford it. So, we’re supporting the Tenants Union of Washington State to enable them to continue to be advocates for tenants’ rights. Thanks to the fabulous Ansel Herz at The Stranger for pointing us in their direction.

We owe it to veterans (especially Ryan).

My friend Ryan Friedrichs came home safe this year after serving for the past three years in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan. To express our gratitude for and admiration of Ryan, we made a donation to the Veteran Artist Program, which has a mission to “foster, encourage and promote veteran artists.”

We love food.

Finally, we gave to L.A. Kitchen, which “reclaims local, healthy food that would otherwise be discarded, training men and women who are unemployed for jobs and providing healthy meals.” L.A. Kitchen was founded recently by Robert Egger, who founded D.C. Kitchen 24 years ago as the first “community kitchen.”

Best wishes to everyone for the new year. Give when you can.

true/false & aggregate: a unique commitment

true/false & aggregate: a unique commitment

We love storytellers. We especially love our creative director David Wilson, his co-conspirator Paul Sturtz and their yearly documentary film festival, the True/False Film Fest.

Creating compelling, high-quality films is no small feat, and beautiful work often does not receive a wide theatrical run. True/False is working to create a sustainable ecosystem for nonfiction filmmakers to help storytellers share their work with a larger audience and support the non-fiction filmmaking community.

Now in their 11th year in Columbia, Missouri, the True/False Film Fest is one of the most well regarded documentary film festivals in the country. Aggregate has sponsored the festival in the past, and this year we are excited to announce we are founding members of the True/False Film Fest’s Pay the Artist! initiative.

Pay the Artist! will offer $450 to each feature filmmaker (or filmmaking team) attending the fest this year, in addition to all travel, lodging, and food expenses. The festival envisions this fund growing each year, eventually offering stipends of $1,000 per filmmaker. Funds are provided through three-year financial commitments from patrons like Aggregate.

Alison, our Founder/President, is flying to Columbia this week for the festival, so I took the opportunity to ask her more about her love for True/False, her favorite films, and why investing in True/False and Pay the Artist! is a reflection of our values here at Aggregate.

What inspires you most about Pay the Artist! and the values for which True/False stands?

I’ve been close friends with David Wilson, one of the festival’s two founders and our Creative Director, for more than 20 years now. I am incredibly proud of what he and Paul Sturtz have done with True/False and the integrity they have maintained. To me, despite the fact that the festival has grown larger and more well known and there are more big name filmmakers walking down 9th Street in Columbia, MO at the end of February/beginning of March every year, it is exactly the same festival that it was in the beginning. It reflects a sincere reverence for nonfiction film and filmmakers, yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. It maintains a friendly DIY flavor, while being incredibly efficient—including the best run box office of any festival out there. And, while David and Paul may travel the world in search of great non-fiction films, the festival reflects their mutual love for Columbia.

I was at the Full Frame festival last year when David—who was screening his own film, We Always Lie to Strangers—announced that True/False planned to go beyond paying for filmmakers’ travel (which most festivals don’t do) and begin to pay them a small stipend. It was a further step in True/False’s commitment to nonfiction filmmakers and the nonfiction filmmaking community and, when David asked if Aggregate wanted to be an inaugural funder, it was a no brainer. All of the money that we give away goes to people and organizations whose work inspires us, often through the stories they tell. That is precisely what True/False filmmakers do for us. We’ve committed to $10,000 per year for three years, but I am hopeful we’ll be able to give more.

Tell me a story of your most memorable True/False moment.

The best moments are always watching the director take the stage after a screening at the beautiful Missouri Theater and getting a standing ovation from the biggest crowd that will ever see their film. And it’s always that much better when Paul or David are on stage to take it in with them.

Beyond that, I remember Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips calling in to the Blue Note to speak to the audience before the screening of The Fearless Freaks over the phone in year one. I remember weeping in the alley behind the Blue Note after a screening of And Everything is Going Fine because I was so moved. I remember Peter Staley taking the stage in 2012 after the screening of How to Survive a Plague and announcing that it was “a good night to be a homo in CoMo” and I remember getting to the festival last year and seeing David France, the director of How to Survive a Plague in the first five minutes, getting a big hug and knowing it was going to be a good year.

My memories of True/False are also about seeing David’s family and the pride on their faces throughout the long weekend of the fest. This year will be the first year of the fest since David’s dad Willy passed away, and I am going to miss seeing him immensely.

Which is your favorite film from past years, and why?

I’ve been to the festival nine out of the ten years of the festival (deciding not to go year 2 may be one of the greatest regrets of my life), so it’s tough to say which was my favorite film, since I am confident I’ve seen more than 200 films at True/False. Last year my favorite film was Stories We Tell. Other great films that have stayed with me are Alex Gibney’s GonzoThe Control Room, The Imposter, Burma VJ, Murderball, Only the Young (damn, I love that film), Waltz with Bashir, Following Sean, Undefeated, The Waiting Room, Low and Clear, Buck, Computer Chess, Laura Poitras’ The Oath, Reporter, Last Train Home, Shut Up Little Man and A.J. Schnack’s Kurt Cobain About a Son. And Everything is Going Fine and How to Survive a Plague are also huge favorites.

Which films are you most looking forward to seeing this year, and why?

I’m excited to see 20,000 Days on Earth because my mentor, John Bell, is a huge Nick Cave fan and I can’t wait to tell him all about it. I’m excited to see Richard Linklater’s Boyhood because of the story behind the production of the film. I’m also excited to see Rich Hill, both because it was the big winner at Sundance, but primarily because the filmmaker is from Missouri, and will probably feel great about showing the film to a “home town” crowd. I only recently realized I could ask David to provide me with guidance in selecting my films and, although he redirected me slightly, he thinks I have a good slate of films—16 films between this Thursday and Sunday.

Follow True/False on Twitter, like it on Facebook, and check out this year’s film lineup.