Liberty Hill’s community includes quite a few donor-activists whose commitment to “change not charity” is a thread that winds through their professional or volunteer activities as well as their philanthropy. An inspiring example is the new educational film for grades 5 to ten called “Never Give Up! Ama’s Journey to Freedom on the Underground Railroad,” produced and directed by Kesa Kivel, a longtime Liberty Hill supporter and an educator-artist who is deeply engaged in social justice issues.
Kesa says that slavery is a topic that often makes students uncomfortable because of the difficult nature of the subject matter. African American and white students may feel particularly uneasy because there’s often a narrow representation of each race as either victim or oppressor. Her film provides a more wholistic view of the time of U.S. slavery than is normally taught in school classrooms. She presents many of the horrific details of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery in the film, but also the bravery, the day-to-day resistance of enslaved people and some white people against the brutal institution of slavery.
The “Never Give Up” film, based on a project Kesa developed at YWCA Santa Monica/Westside, combines live action and narrated illustration so that as you watch, you begin to feel as if you’re seeing a historical novel come to life– only you’re seeing some lucky L.A. girls of today who are getting to step into the past themselves! It is an intriguing, multi-layered discussion of resistance to injustice. ”I love interactive education,” says Kesa, who has partnered with the Santa Monica YWCA since 2003 offering workshops on race, gender and empowerment.
“The idea,” says Kesa, “stemmed from a National Women’s History Project curriculum, but the seed energy of the impulse is that I’m an incest survivor. Because of my childhood I felt I could be true to Ama’s emotions. I know something about oppression and the yearning to be free from oppression, and I think that’s why the story of Ama came to me.
“I formed focus groups to help set me straight about the content (as well as my own research).”
Aware that Black history has often been incorrectly written by white people, Kesa, who is white, formed an adult focus/advisory group composed mostly of people of color which met once a month for five months at the Y. The group continued to meet to review the film as it was being made, along with several youth focus groups. “I could not have made the film, which took two and one half years to complete, without the input from the focus groups and other members of the community including Liberty Hill supporters Julie M. Thompson, the film’s production consultant and Brogan de Paor, the film editor and director of photography.”
A former social worker, Kesa has not only supported grassroots community groups through Liberty Hill and worked for more than a decade with Families to Amend California Three Strikes (FACTS), but she has also volunteered her time teaching poetry to incarcerated youth.
“I love Liberty Hill,” she says. “My mother was involved with Liberty Hill and when I moved back to L.A. [after living in Asia, England and Northern California] in 1992, I became a supporter, too. Through the Social Entrepreneurial Funding Committee and other Liberty Hill activities, I met Suzy and Wally Marks, and my good friends Paula Litt, Celia Bernstein, and Cathy Salser.” About the late Wally Marks, in whose honor Liberty Hill’s Wally Marks Leadership Institute was established, Kesa says, “I learned about generosity and gentleness from Wally. He was a both a mentor and a good friend.”
Although Kesa funded most of “Never Give Up!” herself, she turned to her friends for help, too. “I was giving so much time and energy to the project,” she states, “that I needed some support, and money is energy. It’s called currency for a reason. And everyone I asked was so helpful! Suzy Marks wrote me a check and then immediately after said, ‘What else can I do?’ So I cast her in the film as the woman in Canada! The generosity from Suzy and others sustained me and inspired me.”
The film in its entirety can be watched for free online, and the DVD and curriculum are available for free to educators at www.nevergiveupfilm.org. There are three films altogether– with two “bonus materials” films documenting a focus group discussion on race and other behind-the-scenes aspects of the project.