Face Plants: Changing the Lens from Which We See 

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By Kareem Alston 

Communications Manager, New York Foundation 

Editor’s Note: This post is part of an occasional series exploring funder failures and mistakes. We call it ‘Face Plants.’ You can find earlier posts in the series on our main blog page. Today we are pleased to feature a guest contributor, Kareem Alston of the New York Foundation. Kareem’s post was originally published as a Regional Vignette in Change Agent, the Journal of the Communications Network.You can view the original post here. 

What is our responsibility as storytellers? As a filmmaker and the Communications Manager at the New York Foundation, it is my job to create content that moves people. I often engage with communities of color that have endured historical injustices and have dealt with the repercussions of structural oppression. Growing up in New York City, I have been a part of these communities my entire life. Now, as a representative of a foundation, my relationship with these communities has evolved. 

Last year, I had the opportunity to interview a community member at a Brooklyn soup kitchen that offers people opportunities to advocate for themselves in front of policymakers. His positivity and vulnerability inspired me. Having been formerly homeless, he talked through moments in his life that were particularly hard on his body and mind. Through laughter and tears, his sense of humor shone through expressions of pain.

I worked hard to splice together those poignant moments in a way that challenged anyone not to feel. I wanted this story to reach people emotionally and stay with them. 

I was excited to share the first draft with the soup kitchen staff. Upon viewing it, they responded with constructive feedback, asking that I take a more nuanced and critical perspective. They told me that to people who know the subject and work with him every day, the video wasn’t an accurate representation. They challenged me: Why take an upbeat and enthusiastic leader and expose his vulnerability, rather than amplify his strength? 

That was a pivotal moment in my career. It forced me to realize that as a storyteller, I have a choice. And in this case, I made the wrong one. I had exploited his suffering for clicks and views. 

This advocate was a person to celebrate, not pity. As communicators, we can choose to uplift voices, strengths, and experiences, while not contributing to the passive consumption of the suffering of those who endure injustice. It’s up to us to change the lens from which we see. 

The New York Foundation is a steadfast supporter of community organizing and advocacy in New York City. For over a century, our grants have supported community-initiated solutions to solve local problems and inspire people to become informed and engaged in the struggle for a more just and inclusive city.

Kareem Alston