THE PUSHOUTS filmmakers Katie Galloway and Dawn Valadez talk about how their project champions women filmmakers and disadvantaged youth. THE PUSHOUTS is an intimate story that illustrates the power of mentoring youth who are often left behind. The film introduces us to the life of Dr. Victor Rios who, by 15, was a high school dropout and gang member with three felony convictions and a death wish. But when a teacher's quiet persistence, a mentor's moral conviction, and his best friend's murder converge, Rios's path takes an unexpected turn. Through Rios's personal lens and its interplay with the stories of the young people of Watts, THE PUSHOUTS interrogates crucial questions of race, class, and power - and the promise and perils of education - at a particularly urgent time. Interview conducted by Barbara Olachea.
Let's start with the title. The film emphasizes the structural disadvantages in society often leading youth to dropout of high school and not continue their education. What value do you see in changing the terminology used to discuss this issue?
Dawn: Language is powerful. We know that certain language we use to talk about young people is actually an expression of how our society sees them. It’s not only how we see them, but also how we think of what they’re capable of and what they’re going to be able to do. Katie Galloway decided to make THE PUSHOUTS after making a number of brilliant films on the criminal (in)justice system. We met at a Film Fatales meeting but I had read Victor’s books and knew about the powerful message he was sharing. I was excited to work on this special film with Katie.
As a person who has worked in the youth development field since I was a youth myself, I have engaged in conversations, direct service work, and fundraising efforts to address how young people get pushed out of school and opportunities - they’re not dropouts. This is not a new concept, in the film Martin was using this language at a rally in the ‘90s and many of us in the field had used the concept in our work to reframe how society sees youth on the margins. But amongst ourselves and our partners we’ve been asking if that is even the right language. Namely, THE PUSHOUTS is about the systemic forces of institutionalized racism and classism and the way in which we think about low-income youth of color and what they/we are capable of - it is about those systems. The idea of capability and potential connects to and extends this systemic view. Some of the other language in the field right now refers to young people as “opportunity youth” and is really moving away from the deficit model.
Katie: Moving away from the deficit to the asset model means thinking not just about what these kids are up against or what help they need but actually what they have to offer and how short-sighted we are as a society in not understanding their inherent value and investing in them.
Dawn: In the film we see that at sixteen, Victor has this amazing potential - but if there weren’t people who saw him that way, he would have been written off as this kid who would end up in jail or dead on the street, as he says in the film.
Katie: And, not only that, but he - like all kids - has this potential. There’s this scene in the film where Mrs. Russ says, “You know, these kids have a lot of potential and they just haven’t realized it yet.” And this other teacher says, in a somewhat ironic way, “Potential to do what?” And Russ, frustrated, says, “The potential to finish their education, to go on to more education.” And Victor says, “Really, I don’t like to see myself and I don’t want people to see me as some magical special man because it takes away from all of the millions of youth who have all this potential and they just are not getting the kind of support they need to realize it.” He’s an example not of someone special to be plucked out from the masses and valorized but an example of what any of these kids can do.
You’ve mentioned that after addressing the criminal justice system in the U.S. in previous films, THE PUSHOUTS allowed you to tell a different story. How did your experience covering something more hopeful differ compared to your other films?
Katie: I really did want to tell a story that would inspire and give hope as opposed to one that just pointed out what was wrong. THE PUSHOUTS has some of that social critique baked in, but it also clearly inspires people. We’ve had a number of screenings and people across the board really say this is different in that it tells a story of a population that is held up as people who are victims rather than people who have agency and capacity with answers that can come from within their communities. The main characters are mostly young poor kids of color with this superhuman capacity to create these networks of support because of their deep empathy and motivation to help the people whom they identify with. They become role models and that begets more. I look at Victor, he’s younger than me by six or seven years, he gives me hope. I look at Martin, and Love, and Raj- they give me hope- and what’s even more important is that they give hope to young people and inspire people from all walks. So far so good, I think people are being motivated from within those communities and people are understanding the need to support the kind of work that Victor and his peers, mentors and mentees are doing.
You’ve worked with predominantly female filmmakers in your past projects. In your opinion, how has the landscape changed for women in the field since you began working on films?
Katie: We’ve seen the rise of strong female associations in the media and filmmaking spaces. Dawn and I met through a San Francisco organization called Film Fatales. This rise preceded Me Too, but I think it’s a piece of the next wave of women and feminism- exploring how to create power, mutual support, and collective advancement in the industries, which is similar to how Victor and his networks think. Not looking for handouts but hand-ups is one expression. So generating these networks of female filmmakers and people in the industry who are really looking out for and are really conscious of the institutional and systemic bias against women and correcting for that in some ways is an important piece of it all.
Dawn: I’m also part of an organization called the Brown Girls Doc Mafia, which is another one of those networks. I was a Women’s Studies major and I was resistant to making films, to being an artist. I wanted to be an activist on the ground which is pretty much how I’ve done most of my work. I’ve been an activist, a social worker, and have worked directly with children, families, and youth. But I feel that while there’s always been women in the doc world, there’s been very little space for women as filmmakers at least for the past thirty years or so, maybe even longer.
Katie: If you think about how once docs especially were a male-dominated space: Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, these new brothers who are doing everything. Males have always dominated spaces where there is influence, power and money -- and that extends to the doc world. And also in being the host, the male driven- there’s so few women who do that, are there any that are the narrator who takes you through the voice?
Dawn: Yeah, Judith Helfand, is that person, right? I mean you look at her films, most of them- she’s a central character in most of her films.
Katie: I think that’s something we have to take up consciously and ask ourselves to do.
Dawn: Absolutely. It’s uncomfortable though, because I think a lot of women who are documentary filmmakers don’t necessarily want to be in front of the camera, right?
Katie: Right. It is still a huge problem. The doc world is much more male driven and the fiction film world has more of a space for women, but I think that’s largely been about the identity of docs relative to feature films, less central.
Some of the students featured in the film are personally affected by violence across borders. How do you see the forced separation of immigrant families influencing students in the school system?
Katie: It’s such a pointed and extreme example of what undocumented immigrants and people of color who are under-resourced are up against, in addition to the daily trauma and challenges that burdens these vulnerable groups. One of the issues explored in THE PUSHOUTS is how many of these kids become, for one reason or another, the primary earner in their household or someone who really has to contribute- the hierarchy of needs contrasting with what American society demands. The schools, a symptom of American society as a whole, are out of the touch with the reality of kids’ lives, they’re out of sync. In the film Victor essentially says that you can’t come to school ready to learn when you haven’t eaten or have other problems at home. If those basic needs are not met, you can’t be well-rested, well-fed, on-time, or emotionally settled and prepared to ingest whatever it is they’re teaching you when you’ve just been ripped from your mom at the border. Victor is setting this perspective that really allows people to empathize with what it’s like for these kids to grow up with trauma and poverty, and then are just expected to walk in the door on time and sit down ready to learn.
Dawn: I think it’s the basics of working with families and young people, right? You really have to have your basic needs met in order to be expected to exceed in school. If you put on top of that the trauma of poverty and racism, and perhaps family challenges, that young people have experienced, either coming from other countries or within their families, the institutional legacy trauma where you have multiple generations who’ve experienced- it makes it a difficult world to navigate in. Under the best of conditions growing up is tough! Add these challenges and we know how much our youth need solid adults in their lives.
Katie: -and the lack of education too, Victor’s mom had a third-grade education. That’s another kind of resource that kids are denied because it’s all in a historical, international context of relative deprivation. What do you do when your mom has a third grade education and is working until two in the morning and you’re supposed to be getting help at home with your work? It’s just the ways in which the odds are stacked against you and recognizing that. And not divorce that from all the potential, resilience and strength from kids who come from relatively difficult day to day backgrounds. That’s what’s so powerful about this. We’re working against normative expectations about what people are capable of versus the inclination of dominant society to see people who are doing well who are from traditionally under-resourced groups as being exceptional. We’re saying something else here. We’re saying that if you give someone a few strong mentors, a strong sense of hope, and investment, then all kinds of things are possible.
In the telling of stories of youth-at-risk, we often see themes of grit and resilience encouraged. To what extent is this positive or detrimental in terms of the labor and responsibility for getting ahead?
Dawn: Yeah. That’s one of the things we struggled with in the making of the film and also in conversations with people about it. Again, it goes back to the case of exceptionalism, like ‘pulling yourself up by the bootstraps’ or having any of these sorts of things that isolate and put the onus or the responsibility on the individual person. We want to highlight the fact that there is this potential in all of our young people, to do whatever it is that they want to do. If they have access to certain resources or support, they can envision that they can do it.
Katie: But only if they have access.
Dawn: There are the real barriers of access like money, housing and quality schools. some of our public schools, for instance, in California, but I’m sure it’s true of other places- students go without their algebra teachers, calculus teachers and AP classes- they literally don’t have teachers to teach those subjects. The hallways are dirty and the bathrooms are disgusting. Public schools don’t have the most basic things, even just teachers. we have to as a society make a commitment to invest in this. It’s not just about having resilience or having grit. Obviously humans have been on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years, we have grit. All of us, we have resilience and grit. That is important in terms of respect and appreciating our young people but that’s not the point of what is needed right now. We need to have an investment in our public education system. And we need to have people see the value of high quality teachers and mentors as well as after-school youth programs and access to employment and internships for young people. Getting real life experience, getting to explore what it is that they want to do is so important.
Katie: I hope that we really don’t reinforce problematic aspects of that narrative because you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The fact that these kids have more grit and resilience than a lot of upper-middle class white kids -- and they do --does not mean that poverty and structural barriers and trauma is what we should provide all kids. Does it mean that we should provide these kids the same type of opportunities as all other kids and we can bank on them doing amazing things when we invest in them? Yes. And so you don’t lead with that kind of social critique in the movie because it can turn people off. If you come off the gate saying, society get your s**t together, then that’s gonna make people tune out. But if you come into it with something a little less challenging to the culture’s perception of itself and say, “Look at these kids, how amazing,” and at the end, have Victor say you know it really isn’t about these kids getting themselves together -- that’s not the whole story. The story is about us taking a look at ourselves as a society and asking what can we do to change - and taking collective responsibility for children. Sort of being true to- or truer to -the American ideals of equity, justice and fairness, the way that many people think about themselves and our culture where the truth doesn’t often live up to the ideal.
Was there anything else you wanted to add?
Dawn: One of the things we’re excited about with the film is really taking it out with the community, to make it accessible to the people that need it, and who want it. We did a test screening- our San Francisco film festival screening was at Berkeley High- there were six hundred kids in the audience. There was a very powerful response to the film, not just because they got to see their high school from twenty years ago but also because the story rings true to them. We had teachers in that school who also watched it who had a really powerful response. We were able to take it up to juvenile hall, the juvenile justice center in Alameda county, and have probation officers and guidance counselors who work with the young people inside who get arrested and they told us that this film needs to be seen by every judge in this country who are putting sentences for young people at that transitional age. We see that this film can have -- with the conversation and the dialogue that will go along with it -- some power in changing these systems or at least pushing these systems in a direction that’s more youth-centered. Really seeing young people at the center and these youths’ potential which will hopefully get the resources there. Katie and I are really excited about what’s happening, what can be happening with the film and what the next steps are. It’s one of the reasons why we’re excited to be working with GOOD DOCS.