With a long trail of activism behind and ahead of her, Filmmaker Sonia Lowman has realized her purpose in fighting for social justice through film and storytelling. We venture into restructuring the education system, marginalizing populations and grassroots activism as we discuss Lowman’s journey through her documentary film career.
Blindfold Magazine: When would you say was your initial involvement in activism?
Sonia Lowman: In high school, I started an animal rights club, which was my first outlet into trying to organize people around a cause. The club itself wasn’t very successful, but I did it anyway. I remember growing up, I had a lot of awareness around activism. My parents came of age during the civil rights movement so a lot of the stories I overheard were about participating in civil rights marches and events. I think the consciousness came from wanting to rebel against conservative mindsets.
When September 11th happened during my senior year of high school that changed… everything for my generation and the ones to follow. I was at a critical age during September 11th because that age is when you’re developing your political consciousness anyway and you’re starting to think about your place in the world. That event really just shook us awake and because of that heightened political awareness, my life just went in this activism direction.
BM: I noticed you worked at the Milken Family Foundation. What did you learn during your time there, and how did you initially get involved?
SL: My background was in international relations. That’s what I studied and what I did in my early career. My work had a global context to it. When I started at the Milken Family Foundation, it was actually my first introduction, in many ways, to the education system in our country and the inequalities that happen in our schools that I believe lead to many other challenges in our society. I got that awareness while there, and that passion for education… education as part of civil rights and also through lessons of history. The initiative I worked on was focused on history, and role models from history.
We don’t teach history well in this country, so I learned a lot of things that I wasn’t taught efficiently growing up in our school system… I was being reminded the lesson of why history is so important. The combination of the historical lessons, role models in history and then the educational inequalities that still exist today, as well as the importance of teachers on the frontlines of social change… these are the things that really were driven home for me during my time there at Milken Family Foundation and what lead to Teach Us All and my passion for that film.
BM: Speaking of Teach Us All, your documentary film Teach Us All calls attention to issues within our primary education system in the United States. What can someone who wants to get involved do to push for change in education?
SL: Education is a difficult issue to tackle. You’re only really affected by it, perceivably, if your kids are in school, or if you’re a student. The general population really needs to remember how critical our schools are. Education seems intractable in many ways and it feels like a hard system to come up against. For parents who have their children in the school system, they’re either fighting for what little bit they can get for their own kid, or they’re too busy trying to make ends meet to be showing up at every school meeting. It’s not that they don’t care about their child’s education, it’s that they trust the system, not knowing how many deficiencies are in it, or that they feel intimidated to speak out against the system that doesn’t work for their kids. Or, it may be that they just don’t know how to advocate for their children.
I think the thing that’s really necessary to drive home for people who care about change in education, and there are a lot of us, is the point of how central it is to everything else. I have a metaphor for this with the healthcare system in America. We put a lot of money into dealing with the consequences of diseases and we don’t spend a lot of money on prevention and not getting sick in the first place, such as with obesity and cancer and heart attacks. It’s similar with education: we’re constantly dealing with the consequences of poverty, unemployment, racism… which I believe all starts in the schools. If we can shift the dialogue, shift the resources and shift the energy to the schools, I think we’d find that a lot of those issues we’re trying to catch up with down the line would be mitigated.
I really believe that our schools marginalize students for their entire lives. It’s making second and third class citizens out of students of color and low-income students. Without massive intervention by external forces, or maybe in the rare exception of a student being able to rise above their circumstances, the schools are really setting kids on trajectories that they’re going to live their whole lives marginalized, making less money and trying to find work… repeating cycles. We’re just funneling students through this because we won’t think long-term enough to look at how the system needs to be changed. In my opinion, this is because on one hand it moves very slowly, and on the other hand, if your child is in it and moving so quickly you sort of lose the focus once they’ve moved on to another grade or to another school. You lose the will.
There are a lot of ways to advocate, though. We need to get more young people going into teaching positions, but we also need to make it more attractive to those people. It is not a high paying job. It often can be a low-reward job since teachers are not given much support or resources. A lot of teachers don’t go into for money, but they still need professional development. They still need to feel appreciated. They still need to feel supported.
That said, I think teachers should be paid a lot more. That would help get more young people into the teaching profession. This would allow for teenagers and young adults to see teaching as an attractive profession and a real way to make a difference, not only on their students’ lives but on our society. If you’re not in the teaching profession, there are lots of ways to advocate, but again, it starts with recognizing that it really is the most fundamental civil rights issue of our time. It’s easy to get distracted by other things, or more attracted to other issues, but it’s impossible to extract them from education.
BM: How did your upbringing influence your trajectory post-college?
SL: In retrospect, it’s largely why I was motivated to make my film Teach Us All, even before I realized the connection. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles that was white, middle class. Very pleasantville. On one hand, it felt very insulated and one dimensional. On the other, I had parents who had exposed me to a lot of information keeping my intellectual mind very dynamic so when I left that environment, I went with a curiosity about the world that has never really been satiated because of having a very safe childhood. I have the benefit of seeing both sides of the spectrum, wanting to learn about a world that I wasn’t confronted with growing up. That’s maybe why I’m so idealistic sometimes.
BM: What hurdles did you encounter while making your documentary? What motivated you to push through the production?
SL: I had never made a documentary before. I never went to film school. I sort of just jumped in fairly blindly just trying to create something out of sheer conviction about the subject matter and wanting to tell this story. As every filmmaker knows, it’s very hard work and it takes a little magic and lot of perseverance. For me, the biggest challenge was much more emotional and personal. Making the transition between being a shy, private person who can write to putting something out into the world and having your voice heard was very scary. Sitting with the idea that people who I’ve never met seeing something I created and something that has a point of view that not everyone agrees with involved letting go of fear of being seen and heard and not having everyone agree with you.
There were strong reactions and even people who were very heavily involved with the film had strong, negative reactions to certain aspects of the film. That was upsetting for someone who wants to please everyone. I just had to recognize that to do social justice work with conviction and have your voice heard, it may be scary at first and you’ll just have to be ready to take the leap. It’s hard. It isn’t going to be comfortable.
BM: I often juggle between the benefits of grassroots promoting for awareness vs. social and digital media methods. Which one do you prefer, and why?
SL: I think there’s nothing more powerful than storytelling. I think the work needs to be done more at the grassroots level, meaning it can’t stop at putting out opinions on social media and not following that up with action. From that standpoint, I prefer grassroots engagement, but the work that I’m doing with the film is engaging on the social and digital level. I’m trying to navigate how to use that for good. A lot of social media feels distracting.
We’re in a world right now where there are lots of distractions and it makes it harder to build movements and enact change. Being very intentional about our engagement on social media can end up being powerful but I think we need to focus. How do you minimize the distractions, while maximizing the power of these tools? I’m navigating through that question now. The grassroots movement now is a way of focusing and creating something tangible. Social media can be used for incredible good, if it’s used right.
BM: Why did you feel storytelling through film would be effective in removing the blindfold and pushing for change?
SL: Story is what connects us to our common humanity and where we find resonance in our shared experiences. It’s how we feel less alone… understood. A story in any medium can be profound and transformative. Film, in particular, maybe because it’s a combination of the senses makes it feel more impactful. It can change your mind about something, or touch your heart. For too long, stories across all formats have been told through a narrow lens.
What we’re starting to feel collectively, is the dissonance between stories we’ve been told and what we feel in our core is the truth. We’re at a point in time where many people feel we are being told who we are… and then there is a growing population who are standing up and redefining who they are. Everybody has to be part of that storytelling, whether you pick up a camera, or blogging or just talking to people in your own community. So as I reflect on where I am going to go as a storyteller next, and what I hope through Blindfold Magazine and Array, and these other institutions that are seeking to give people a voice to people who haven’t had an opportunity to have their voices heard is really to broaden the spectrum of our experience collectively… to see ourselves resonating with new kinds of truth that are going to feel more harmonious to who we are rather than what we’ve had to accept as truth for so long as defined by a tiny part of the population.
BM: How do you manage to identify and explore the injustices around us without compromising your own personal happiness?
SL: I’ve never been happier in my life. I think it is because a lot of happiness comes from having purpose and when you find your purpose, at least there you’ll find fulfillment. We have a choice in every moment and every day to really decide how we filter information. Going back to social media, there is a barrage of information being put out that is very negative, but I feel personally hopeful because I recognize that we are all creators and every moment we are creating the future by how we filter, how we analyze and how we receive this information and then how communicate back about who we are and what we stand for.
It is very hard to have your heartbroken everyday, sometimes a thousand times a day by what you see or when you talk to somebody who’s in deep pain. When you see this world treating people unfairly and the violence and destruction, it’s heartbreaking. But with an open heart you can find people to connect with and love and just have moments where you’re sharing and communicating about your experiences. Living with that open heart, even if it risks being broken, is better than shutting ourselves off and keeping ourselves separate. There’s a lot of joy in finding your community of brave and bold and open hearted social justice warriors.
BM: How did you get involved with Array?
SL: They thought Teach Us All would complement the documentary film 13th. That’s how Ava DuVernay, Director of 13th and Founder of Array, spoke about it. Criminal justice and education are very connected. Both of our films focused on things being taken for granted; hers was about slavery being abolished and mine focused on school segregation being unconstitutional. We happen to be living through both those things again in new forms. Her reverence for The Little Rock Nine, wanting to honor them, and Teach Us All being a campaign built around the 60th anniversary of The Little Rock Nine were harmonious with that vision of being grassroots… grassroots ownership over these issues. I had also built a social campaign to go along with my film and so that became an infrastructure for educational outreach and student activism.
BM: Amazing. Looking back, if you could give advice to yourself early on in your career, what would it be?
SL: I would have told myself to trust in myself more. You know what you’re meant to be when you’re young. Some just people take more time to find their way, or maybe they have many incarnations. When I was little, I liked to get lost in the world of books and stories. Writing was very easy to me and I loved film. I knew what I loved. Then, you go out into the world as an adult and you do what you think you’re supposed to do.
It took me many years to pick off the layers of the expectations I had placed on myself. I downplayed the child within me who was extremely imaginative and creative and who wanted to live in the world of film, stories and books. That didn’t feel serious enough. I should have just followed the child in me who knew what I truly loved and what my calling was, rather than spending years trying to fit myself into a box that wasn’t right for me.
Sonia is now working on a follow up documentary called BLACK BOYS, produced by Never Whisper Justice in partnership with Listen Up Media, about young black males in America at the intersection of education and the sports industry. This film connects the threads between itself, Teach Us All and 13th for young black males around identity, opportunity and voice. To learn more of the film head to www.blackboysfilm.com, and to find out how to watch Teach Us All, head to www.teachusallfilm.org.