"If you trust young people to tell their stories, they always will with truth and courage and immense creativity."
John C. Williams, 40, of Brooklyn, NY, heads a teen filmmaking program in which the students create documentaries about their own lives, some of which have won awards and have been broadcast on several networks. Additionally, each student is mentored by a professional filmmaker.
What kind of philanthropic or volunteer work did/do you do?
John: I am the Executive Director of Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, a youth media program in Brooklyn. I founded it in 2001 with my wife, Stephanie Walter Williams, and our workshop, The Lab, is supported by HBO and is the only teen filmmaking program in the country that matches each youth participant with a professional filmmaker mentor who guides him or her through the challenges of producing a short documentary film about his or her life. Our films have won four honorable mention student Emmys and have been broadcast on HBO Family, WNET/Thirteen and MSNBC.
What is the name and location of the organization?
John: Reel Works Teen Filmmaking is based at and is in partnership with the Prospect Park YMCA in Park Slope, Brooklyn. We serve teens from all over the Borough.
Tell us about the project, especially who benefited from this work.
John: We work with a broad diversity of youth, including at-risk teens. The stories they tell say a lot about what teens are dealing with today: parents lost to drugs or illness, eating disorders, racism, pressure to have sex or join gangs, depression….Through the process of filmmaking, teens are able to make sense of the issues that most trouble them, and often discover that they are not alone, that they have passionate and important things to say and that the world wants to hear them. We say to kids, You have a voice! Use it!
What inspired you to get involved?
John: Our students inspire us. We began working with the YMCA on a very different type of project an intergenerational documentary project about retired sailors living at the Y and we wanted to know what the young people would say if they could make films about their own lives.
How did you first get involved? Give us some details.
John: The Y called us up and asked if we wanted to teach a class with teenagers and old sailors. Who could say no to that?
What is/was the best thing about your experience?
John: Watching their faces when they stand up on stage at HBO after screening their films and hearing the thunderous applause. To hear them express their sense of accomplishment and pride in telling it like it is.
What is/was the hardest part?
John: As we have grown, it's been difficult to give each student the personal attention they deserve. The mentors do a great job, but it's difficult when we have to write a grant proposal when really, we want to sit with a kid and help with his or her film!
What was the biggest surprise?
John: If you trust young people to tell their stories, they always will with truth and courage and immense creativity.
What new things have you learned as a result of your experience and how have you changed as a result?
John: Teaching young people has made me a better filmmaker. They have no rules in their heads, only an intuitive understanding of the medium.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of getting involved in philanthropy or volunteering?
John: Surrender. It's about our youth, which means, of course, our future.
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