In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams author Tahir Shah notes, “stories are the communal currency of humanity.” Each of us has a story to tell: our story. And yet, access to platforms to have these stories heard and the agency to tell them are not equitably distributed. Far too often, stories of people on the margins are overlooked or ignored. If the stories of marginalized people do make it to broader audiences, they are often mediated through the lens of privileged interpretations that lead to exploitative accounts about them, not by or for them. Their voices become muted, the story’s authenticity diminished. It is therefore critical in the IDEAS space to consider the ethics of telling other people’s stories so that leaders across sectors, geographies, and cultures can honor all our stories and use them with integrity for social change.
This month, Inclusion NextWork was honored to be joined by documentarian Pita S. Juarez for a community conversation about her work as a film-maker and social justice activist. Her recent film “You Racist, Sexist, Bigot” garnered widespread critical acclaim and represents just one of many noteworthy achievements in her dynamic career at the intersection of politics, storytelling, media, and advocacy. Her reflections on the ethics of telling other people’s stories in making “You Racist, Sexist, Bigot” offer the Inclusion NextWork community a number of important considerations as we lift up our voices and those around us in our respective contexts.
Begin by asking, ‘who’s not being represented?’
Many of today’s most pressing movements have correctly identified critical areas for social change; however, the voices leading those conversations often neglect many of the people most directly impacted by the issue at hand. For example, the Climate Justice movement has too often failed to raise up the experiences of people of color and folks in low-income communities, who are disproportionately exposed to environmental pollutants and injustices.[i] Pita’s work begins by identifying whose voice is not reflected in the mainstream debate and moves to pinpointing opportunities to empower those voices through partnership and collaboration.
Get consent and be explicit about your intentions
Consent in storytelling is paramount. At the beginning of every engagement, Pita shares the overall context of her project so that potential storytellers have a clear understanding of how their experience will be framed and shared. The most impactful storytellers can answer for themselves ‘why are we doing this interview?’ By linking their individual narratives to the larger project, Pita gains buy-in from those willing to share their personal experience to further the conversation. In preliminary discussions, she will ask folks what they believe is the most important part of their story to highlight, rather than dictate the answer to that question to them.
For people to tell their stories there needs to be trust. One way Pita establishes trust is by providing training on how to tell one’s story rather than force interviewees to participate without preparation. By modeling how to tell stories using her own experience, Pita creates trust and offers a helpful framework for others to feel comfortable in sharing theirs.
Provide real opportunities for feedback
In prior experiences with broadcast journalism, Pita witnessed time and again how important parts of a story were cut out of the final product without the consent of the interviewee. Given that much of her work centers around the experience of vulnerable populations, Pita is particularly attuned to the importance of not creating a transactional interview experience. She ensures that each participant is comfortable with the end product by sharing a draft and asking, “Does this sound like something you want to put out there?” When the answer is no, as is sometimes the case, she and her team go back and rework the content until all parties feel comfortable with the final outcome.
Draw on the universality of the human experience without minimizing the nuances amongst individual perspectives
A truly powerful and vulnerable story enables the audience to relate, even if the characters or plot aren’t a part of our lived experience. The title of “You Racist, Sexist, Bigot” is purposefully eyebrow-raising. It is purposefully designed marketing tool to elicit a strong response. In actuality, the goal of the film is to raise consciousness and kickstart conversations with those who are different from us, even if doing so requires the hard work of moving past our own discomfort. Pita’s film showcases how people truly are in their own words in order to step away from racial, gender, and other stereotypes. The people who share their story in this film do so to humanize the experience of groups and individuals too often labeled as ‘others.’ It centers the experience of those on the receiving end of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry so that we can all better understand their marginalization, reflect on our own, and in so doing, become better allies and community members.
Pita Juarez is a filmmaker, journalist, and political communications strategist in Arizona. Pita Juarez is a queer immigrant woman from Guatemala who works to uplift the story of marginalized people through effective and compelling storytelling.
Pita received critical acclaim as the director and producer of the award-winning documentary “You Racist, Sexist Bigot”. The documentary tackles the complex identity issues of race, sexuality, and feminism in a patriarchal world from the perspective of marginalized people who harness their power by telling their story and upending stereotypes.
Pita uses dynamic storytelling to uplift voices that often aren’t captured in mainstream media. She has challenged traditional and political communications in Arizona to include the untold stories of youth, people of color, and other communities whose voices aren’t heard.
Her work ranges from political advocacy to investigative journalism that has been featured in the National Geographic, CNN Latino, Remezcla, NPR and Univision. Pita’s artistry and insight has successfully built bridges with the people on the frontlines to capture authentic conversations, and shift the culture of storytelling.