When Iyanla Vanzant said “When you stand and share your story in an empowering way, your story will heal you and your story will heal someone else” she was speaking to the heart and soul of the amazing “Our Voices Project” in Rochester, New York. Our Voices Project is a collective force of Jackie McGriff, Deborah Alvarez, Courtney Shouse, and Annalisa Rogers who with empathy and compassion are sharing the experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people through visual storytelling. I have the honor and joy to interview these four remarkable individuals who are changing lives and “dismantling destructive stereotypes of minority groups” and “inspiring lasting change” one story at a time.
“I am proud to be a role model, not because I have done so much, but to say to young people it can be.” Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown
Our Voice Project was founded by Jackie and Deb in 2020. After the murder of George Floyd Jackie was fed up. The murders of too many Black and Brown men and women like Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor hit her hard. Jackie did what she always did when she is upset and something was bothering her. She made a list. This list included items like the perception of Black, Brown, and Indegious people in the media along with the perception of how Black and Brown and Indigenous people see themselves. Being a photographer and filmmaker she knew there was a lack of representation of Black, Brown and Indigenous people in films and behind the scenes of filmmaking. Racial inequity and injustice exists in all areas of filmmaking. She also wanted to take action in classrooms to facilitate learning of racial and cultural identities. Due to the pandemic Jackie had time on her hands. She knew she wanted to do something and this sliding glass door filled with opportunity had opened so she took her next step. Jackie called her friend Deb, an aspiring cinematographer, to see if Deb would join her with “Our Voices Project.” Without hesitation Deb said yes.
“Look closely at the future you are constructing; it should look like the future you are dreaming.” Alice Walker
Jackie and Deb designed Our Voices Project to be a visual storytelling experience that is multifaceted. Their hope is for each person sharing their story to see themselves in their own life as the main character. Deb shared when filming they are sensitive to people sharing their story and try to shoot as little as possible while balancing filming everything they can. It takes one hour to edit to produce one minute of film. The first person whose story was told is Mona. Her questions were what three experiences shaped who you are today. This interview allowed Mona, a light skinned Black woman, to share her experiences of being made fun of while growing up and share her hair journey. Interviews and filming are infused with compassion, respect, and honor for the person sharing their story. While Jackie and Deb both felt strongly about moving forward with Our Voices Project, they also knew there were a multitude of challenges in doing this transformative work. After finishing edits in one of the many late night editing parties, they shared with Mona her documentary of her story. Mona called Jackie in tears of joy. For the first time Mona was given a gift of seeing herself in her life. This moment motivated Jackie to see that Our Voices Project needed to continue despite any challenges that might come their way. Mona’s story inspired Jackie and Deb to continue to bring light to the voices of others.
“Hold to what is good, even if it is a handful of dirt. Hold on to what you believe, even if it is a tree that stands by itself. Hold on to what you must do, even if it is a long way from here. Hold on to life, even if it is easier to go. Hold on to my hand, even if I have gone away from you.” Pueblo Blessing
Courtney had been aware of Our Voices Project and invited them to meet with the Mosaic Club, a group of high school students who work to dismantle and interrupt racism, at West Irondequoit High School in Irondequoit, New York. The club was working on developing a Black History month project and Courtney felt input from Our Voices Project would be helpful. A zoom call with Jackie and the Mosaic Club, prompted the Black History Month series where students wrote and scripted stories of Black Historical Figures whose contributions are not shared in classrooms. Courtney knew she wanted to be part of Our Voices Project and asked if she could join. The answer was yes.
“We can’t let people drive wedges between us…because there is only one human race.” Dolores Huerta
Annalisa knew Courtney through the Irondequoit Commission Advancing Racial Equity. As a lifelong community advocate to advance racial equity she is fierce in her fight to dismantle racism. Once she heard about Our Voices Project she knew she needed to be part of this magnificent group too help Our Voices Project to get the funding needed to support this valuable work. Annalisa asked Jackie, Deb, and Courtney if she could join the team of Our Voices Project. Once again the answer was yes.
“We honor the land we love, live, and work on.” Our Voices Project
Our Voices Project’s mission is to “to dismantle destructive stereotypes of minority groups perpetuated in the media by producing films centered on the multifaceted experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people and to help educators design and implement a student-centered learning environment that affirms racial and cultural identities, empowers students as agents of social change, and contributes to an individual’s engagement, learning, growth, achievement through cultivation of critical thinking.” Core Values include “believing in people and their stories” “making long lasting connections” “educating ourselves and others” “celebrate diversity and acknowledge and respect our differences” and “inspire lasting change.” Courtney shared it is powerful when the storytellers develop trust in her and the team to film their story.
“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Helen Keller
Our Voices Project is a committed community partner who welcomes courageous conversations that provide a safe space for healing and growing while these sacred stories are being told and being shared. As more people are learning about Our Voices Project more people and their stories are finding their way to Our Voices Project. Lives have been forever changed and soft spaces in hearts have been found from projects such as “This Is My Grandmother,” “A Dominican Dream,” “Rev. Julius Jackson, Sr.,” “Identity,” “Black History Month,” and “Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..” Their podcast focuses on representation in cinema, where representation of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in movies, is discussed with a variety of stakeholders. In each project and each podcast everyone is learning something new and being affected by it. As Annalisa said “we are always on the path of rediscovering ourselves.”
It is with honor, joy, and admiration we shine the Kindness Champion Spotlight on the magnificent Our Voices Project in Rochester New York. where Jackie McGriff, Deb Alvarez, Courtney Shouse, and Annalisa Rogers are using the power of video storytelling to dismantle destructive stereotypes of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people and empowering students to be agents of change. This team of Our Voices Project is changing lives one story at a time. We thank you for being you and bringing your awesome to the world.
To learn about the incredible Our Voices Project here is their information:
Twitter: @voices_proj https://twitter.com/voices_proj
Instagram: @voicesproj https://www.instagram.com/voicesproj/?hl=en
Facebook: @OurVoicesProject https://www.facebook.com/ourvoicesproj
YouTube: Our Voices Project https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRFyUYesHo4jhfbXatjsq2A