Soledad O’Brien is an accomplished American broadcast journalist and documentarian. Her new film HUNGRY TO LEARN introduces the faces behind an American crisis — college students so strapped to pay tuition that they don’t have enough money to eat or a place to live. We sat down with her to explore the issue of higher education access and the impact goals of the documentary. Interview conducted by Julia Schrader.
As a broadcast journalist and executive producer, what inspired you to use your platform to produce a documentary on this specific issue of college student food insecurity?
I had heard from teachers that their biggest challenge was that their students were hungry or lacked housing. I was shocked. I knew the old stereotype that kids eat Ramen Noodles in college, but this was something severe. As I did reporting I found colleges with food pantries, kids couch surfing or living in shelters, real hunger and hardship. The students were also in deep debt and making tough decisions about whether to pay tuition or buy food.
Why have you dedicated your life to telling the stories you do?
Because I can’t just live with a world where untold stories mean that people don’t know enough to care about what’s going on for the less fortunate, the marginalized, minority groups, and others. I am dedicated to giving voice to those people and holding governments and their fellow citizens accountable for caring for them.
What was your knowledge of this issue going into this project? Do you have a personal or community connection to this issue?
I have a foundation called PowHERful that sends young women to and through college. They face incredible challenges and I’ve watched them navigate these challenges with scant resources. I know that going to college drowns them and their families in debt and leaves them unable to pay for basic needs.
What challenges did you face in the production of HUNGRY TO LEARN?
There was so much shame that it was very hard to get people to open up and talk about what was happening to them. Others also felt hesitant to include themselves in the story because they didn’t feel like their situation was that tough — they had actually gotten used to skipping meals.
What surprised you about the issue of college student food insecurity? What is the magnitude of the problem compared to the amount of attention it receives?
The surprise was that so few people were aware of what was going on. People actually diminished the students' challenges as just the complaints of spoiled kids. They are anything but. Students are working so hard for these degrees, juggling multiple jobs and falling short of funds.
The film also touches on other barriers to mobility aside from food insecurity. Can you expand on some of the other costs of living issues for students explored in HUNGRY TO LEARN?
We have students facing homelessness as well. Not all schools offer housing and it's very expensive at the ones that do. Students sometimes live in shelters that are unsafe or very very far away from school. They have trouble with strict rules that require them to be in at a certain time when they need to be at school until very late.
What were the four students featured in the film like?
I found them so typical, just like so many kids out there. They are middle and working-class and poor, have two parents and none. They were open about their struggles and willing to allow us a window into their lives. Their stories were maddening. They are working so hard, playing by the rules, applying for all necessary resources and still they are being allowed to experience hunger.
If you are comfortable answering, can you comment on Eve Brescia’s decision to stop participating in the documentary? Why did you choose to include her in the film even though the viewers do not get to see her journey through?
She actually showed up to our premiere all of a sudden. She was so brave. She stood on stage and, with emotion, told us how difficult it had become to tell her story. It was heartbreaking. We were glad we kept her in the film because she was so good at framing the problem.
What was your experience like working with director Geeta Gandbhir? How did the two of you create a relationship with each other while building rapport with the students and activists featured?
She is an amazing storyteller who really gets inside the lives of people. She knows how to follow quietly and allow events to unfold naturally. Documentaries are about relationships between the filmmakers and the subjects, within the team pursuing the project. Our entire team talked frequently about what our next steps would be, exchanging ideas. We made an effort to also introduce everyone in the film to our entire team at some point so that they were comfortable with all of us.
How has your involvement in student advocacy evolved since the completion of the film?
A lot of our advocacy is just getting the film out so people know what’s happening. This film needs to be seen by schoolchildren and college students and their teachers and administrators. It needs to be seen by civic leaders and elected officials, and by the people in government who make decisions on things like SNAP and Pell Grants and sign food service contracts.
How important is it to have an activist like Professor Sara Goldrick Rab advocate for student issues? Can you elaborate on her #RealCollege survey project?
Her project gave data to the real-life stories. Without her, it’s just anecdotes and personal tales. She is the backbone of the piece. Her survey project gives us a sense of how massive this is and her presence in the documentary gives voice to challenges AND solutions.
HUNGRY TO LEARN emphasizes the importance of community building in activism, what role did community building and outreach have in your approach to the making of this documentary?
We knew that there would be food banks and colleges who wanted a film just like this so they could advance their agenda of solving the problem. They told us they needed this film. And they generously gave us advice and data and led us to all the right people.
What can viewers and institutions moved by the film do to address the problem of food insecurity for students on both the local and national level?
They can use their awareness to advocate for answers and engage in solutions, whether it’s opening a pantry or volunteering at a pantry at their school, starting a program for students to share food program card swipes, sharing information about free food, advocating that their school start food scholarships, reaching out to public officials to advocate for changes in SNAP. There is much to be done.
What is the goal of telling these students stories? What would you like viewers and other students to take away from the film?
I want them to be moved and angry and activated. We need people to care enough to push for widespread change. It is disturbing to see tuition rise and financial aid decrease and students going hungry and homeless. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, the gateway to the American dream.
As an experienced journalist and documentary filmmaker, what is your advice to newer journalists and aspiring documentarians in regards to telling powerful stories?
Tell stories through people. Show don’t tell. Work on developing trust with your subjects by being honest. Don’t let yourself get discouraged.
What else do you want to share that we haven’t addressed?
I want students and teachers and administrators watching this film to know they are getting a reality check and that the film’s purpose doesn’t end when the credits roll. They need to ask how they can help.
Bring HUNGRY TO LEARN to your campus + community: gooddocs.net/hungry-to-learn