These past few weeks (and months) my blog has slowed as I’ve needed to focus much of my energy on promoting the 2017 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival organized by LADD, Inc. (and a project for the Countryside YMCA and mixing in pet training). The Festival is now a week away, March 9 to 12, and I want to share information about it. I will be back after the Festival – I’ve already got some interviews lined up!
“The Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival is a spectacle of human relationship in its purest form, generating an awareness of issues relative to us all. Awareness creates understanding, which in turn gives rise to perspective—and it is through perspective that we are able to truly appreciate and relate to others in our lives.”
-Richard Bernstein, Michigan State Supreme Court Justice
I can’t think of any words that more beautifully, more accurately explain our purpose when it comes to building a Cincinnati ReelAbilities with celebrities, parties, workshops, networking opportunities, and over 60 life changing films that showcase the art, lives and stories of people who have disabilities. Our goal with the Film Festival is to create a Hollywood-style event where our guests will have fun, meet new and enjoy the company of old friends, be moved in some way; and leave having been uplifted with a new perception of difference, appreciation and welcoming of each other.
Susan Brownknight, executive director of Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled (LADD, Inc.) – the organizing agency, has said she gets asked all the time why her nonprofit is investing such a significant amount of time and resources into building a world class film festival.
“My answer lies in the very foundation of what we do and why we do it. At LADD, we are focused and passionate about creating equal opportunities and ensuring the dignity of adulthood for all people with disabilities in our region, a community that embraces, supports and values them,” she answered, “A film festival is a powerful way for us to facilitate that and to connect with others across differences that typically lead to isolation and a hardening across arbitrary lines of thinking. Our idea with ReelAbilities is that, at the end of the day, this Film Festival is about who and what we value, and why we value it.”
Thursday, March 9 at 10:00 am: Welcome to Cincinnati: Meet the Stars Q&A Event with RJ Mitte and others
Thursday, March 9 at noon: Premiere Luncheon with keynote speaker RJ Mitte.
Thursday, March 9 at 6:30 pm: Premiere Night film reception and film screening of The Astronaut’s Secret.
Friday, March 10 at 8:00 am: Interfaith Breakfast featuring keynote speaker Richard Bernstein, the nation’s first blind Supreme Court Justice.
Friday, March 10 at 5:30: Veterans Reception with keynote speaker Michael Schlitz, retired US Army platoon sergeant, Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and Purple Heart recipient, followed with a film screening.
Saturday, March 11 at 9:30 am: Veterans Brunch with keynote speaker Bryan Anderson, a retired US Army sergeant and Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and Purple Heart recipient.
Saturday, March 11 at 5:00 pm: Cocktails & Zombies Party with the stars and screenwriters of Spring Break Zombie Massacre, Sam and Mattie; plus other Hollywood VIPs, and Cincinnati’s own Drew Lachey and Q102’s Jenn Jordan.
Sunday, March 12 at 7:00 pm: Local Films/Closing Night Party featuring game-changing films made by and about local people.
Additionally, Festival guests can learn how to act, model, tell their story, see entertainment, and create films on their smart phone in workshops. Please click here for the full list. While all workshops are free, registration is required.
Celebrities Help Us Celebrate Difference
Best known for his role of Walter ‘Flynn’ White Jr. for five riveting seasons of AMC’s Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning thriller, “Breaking Bad”, and the handsome face of GAP’s International 2014 “Lived In Summer” Campaign, RJ Mitte tops our list of Hollywood stars, dignitaries, and ReelAbilities film VIPs to join us at the Duke Energy Convention Center.
Please join us at 10:00 am on Thursday, March 9 to kick off Cincinnati ReelAbilities with a Welcome to Cincinnati: Meet the Stars Q&A Event with RJ and many of our other big name VIPs including Jamie Brewer, Lauren Potter, Kurt Yaeger, John Lawson, Nic Novicki, Bryan Anderson, Michael Schlitz, Boone Cutler, and Steve Wampler.
More VIPs will be joining us throughout the weekend’s events including Ali Stroker, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein (as the keynote speaker for our Interfaith Breakfast), Sam and Mattie, Drew Lachey, Nick Clooney, and more.
Below is a list our leading VIPs and their information.
Anderson is a retired US Army sargaent and Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and purple heart recipient.
A Disability Rights Attorney, he made history when he was sworn into office, becoming the nation’s first state Supreme Court Justice for the state of Michigan.
Known for her role of Adelaide ‘Addie” Lagdon in American Horror Story, she is also the first model with Down syndrome to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week.
Cutler is an author, columnist, music video director and Warfighter Rights leader that has become the first nationally recognized radio talkshow personality who is also a combat veteran from the current war. In 2012, Boone was diagnosed with Early-Onset Parkinson’s Disease secondary to a blast-injury in Iraq and is the national spokesperson for the Warfighter Rights’ Movement.
Lawson is a television, film and commercial PWD actor with past roles in the long running television crime dramas, “Law and Order,” “Law and Order: SVU and FX AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW.
Known for his role in AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’, he was also the face of the GAP’s International 2014 “Lived in Summer” Campaign.
Nic has toured around the country as a standup comedian. Included in his acting credits are tv shows: The Sopranos, Private Practice, and Austin and Ally. He is also a producer and founder/director of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.
As an actress, Lauren is best known for her popular role as Becky Jackson in the popular television show, Glee. However, she also devotes much time to advocating and raising awareness for disability related causes..and against bullying.
Schlitz is a retired US Army platoon seargeant, Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and purple Heart recipient.
An actress known for her role in Glee, in 2015 Stroker made history by becoming the first Broadway actress in a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage
Sam Suchmann and Mattie Zufelt
These two best friends from Rhode Island met in Special Olympics and are filmmakers of the wildly popular, kick ass movie, Spring Break Zombie Massacre.
A former BMX rider turned actor, Yaeger is a below the knee amputee. His most recent TV credit s include the fan favorite character on FX’s hit show Sons Of Anarchy, the new Cinemax show Quarry and a new major recurring role on CBS’ hit NCIS: Los Angeles.
As the world and his family watched, Steve Wampler who was born with a severe form of cerebral palsy, pulled himself with one hand 20,000 times in six days to conquer the world’s biggest rock, El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The documentary of his journey was one of the 2015 Cincinnati ReelAbilities films.
In my shared quotes, I have talked a lot of how, to bring out the best in others, to give them wings that will raise them to their greatest potential, you need to focus on their strengths. You need to believe in them enough to be able to step back and allow them to grow through experience. You need to lead with integrity and resolve. You need to have passion for your cause.
Susan Brownknight, executive director of Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled (LADD), is one of those leaders and I am one of the fortunate ones who has been given wings while working with her.
Susan first hired me as the contracted role of director of communications and media for the 2015 Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival. (Then, she was director of development and public relations for LADD, the managing organization of ReelAbilities.) I was charged with the developing and implementing a vast communication plan that would raise the relatively unknown event into a massive success that would catapult it into one of the region’s gem attractions. That campaign (with help from lots of volunteers, partners and staff) was a massive success and will always be one I look back on with huge pride.
In a recommendation afterwards, Susan said of me, “Lisa was a key reason why we were so successful, selling out the majority of our events and creating an organic “buzz” that proved invaluable.”
BUT, I have to say, I was able to achieve what I did because of the leadership for which I was working. Susan has all those leadership skills I described above and more. She believes in people and their abilities. She gives them wings. She is also a real pioneer, an organizer, an energizer and a doer.
LADD is a Cincinnati nonprofit organization that is recognized as a leader in helping adults who experience a developmental disability to live independently and reach their aspirations. They do that through housing, education and other support services to more than 500 individuals and their families.
I believe wholeheartedly in their mission. Wanting to help people see and reach for their greatest potential is our shared passion.
And, while circumstances caused me to not be able to serve in my role with the next upcoming Film Festival, I am thrilled to be back working with Susan and the team of LADD to tell the organization’s story.
Please take a few minutes and learn more about Susan, and where her inspiration for leadership comes from.
Lisa: Prior to joining LADD, your resume includes having worked at the Cincinnati Nature Center (in development and marketing) and for the Sierra Club. Why did you shift your focus into the disability field?
Susan: Really, in all of my jobs, my focus has always been on people and communities. While at the Nature Center, I really wanted to return to more direct connections. I have always felt I was called to do that. At LADD, what I do is on that same theme of giving voices to individuals and communities. There is so much work needed to be done around affordable housing, giving people a voice, and equal opportunities. LADD touches on all of the issues I have grappled with.
When you have an opportunity to work with incredible people, you have so much gratitude on a daily basis. The employees at LADD are truly exceptional people and as I have matured, I value them more. They challenge me and I hope they say I challenge them to be their best.
Lisa: You volunteered for the Homeless Coalition years back. What lessons did you learn from that experience?
Susan: There are so many people who have unbelievable tragedy in their lives who are inspired by love. I moved to Over-the-Rhine in 1997 and volunteered at Drop Inn Center. A month into volunteer time, Buddy Grey (a tireless advocate for those who are homeless) was murdered. I was thrown into the deep end. Buddy was such a force. Andy Hutzel was my boss and I took a lot of guidance from him. At such a young age himself, despite his devastating loss, all Andy cared about was supporting those around him.
I was still in college at the time. I had so much anger, fear and frustration; and I had a boss who could have gone a lot of ways but chose to focus on those who worked with him. I joined their staff in 1999 for a few years, lived in OTR for many years, and was a board member longer than that. I learned so much from that whole experience.
Lisa: You are one of the most encouraging, energizing people I have ever met. Where did that come from?
Susan: For a good portion of career, I struggled with people who are mean. They have been a source of immense confusion because I truly love people inside and out.
One of reasons is that I grew up with a group of friends from first grade who, to this day, are my great supporters. We have all remained so tight. They are incredible and they buffered me from negativity early on. We are all strong women who love and are there for each other unconditionally. It has been a process in life to realize that not everyone is that supportive and kind. I give them all credit, and blame, for me failing to understand how anyone can go to a place of fear and anger. I have developed a skill set to facilitate effectively when I do interact with people who have gone to that place.
Lisa: What are some of your goals as the new leader for LADD?
Susan: It is a cultural shift for communities to respect difference. People need to recognize that society has played a role in defining disability. Stairs disable someone in a wheelchair. A person in a wheelchair should not be defined by disability because their built environment is not for them. People on the autism spectrum process things differently. Why can’t we take advantage of the unique perspective a person brings? There is so much opportunity to focus on ability vs. disability. We are not there yet, but moving in the right direction.
On Susan’s email signature, she reminds us of one of her favorite Nelson Mandela quotes. “Vision without action is only a dream. Action without vision is merely passing time. But vision with action can change the world.”
And that is how Susan is going to get things done.
When I was hired by the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival (organized by Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled and presented by Macy’s) late summer of 2014, much of Greater Cincinnati had never heard of it; and few people who I reached out to had any idea of the scope of the event or its value to our community – including me, admittedly. Even those who worked for the nonprofit host agencies did not realize the magnitude of what was to unfold.
People experiencing a disability or cognitive, genetic, physical and behavioral difference are often misunderstood. They are portrayed in photos and sometimes news stories as ‘less than’ normal or super human just by virtue of their own being. They are often not included, or at least not to the extent that they are people first with interests, hopes, dreams, talents, and even bad days, just like everybody else. Yet ‘they’ are about 20% of our population. And ‘they’ are the only minority population in which all people will be counted among them at some point in their lives.
The overarching goal of LADD and ReelAbilities in hiring me to serve as the director of public relations and communications was for me to support the unrelenting drive of determined volunteers and staff organizing the events by being a catalyst for change – to bring the community together in support of not only an event but a cause so powerful as to have impact on each and every one of us in a direct or indirect way. I wanted to get people in this region talking to each other and realizing that inclusion and togetherness is not about ‘other people’, it is about themselves and each other. I wanted to get people excited about ReelAbilities as a world class film festival, and come out to support and learn from it. The challenge was to do all of this with a very limited budget including for my own time, but I was up for the challenge as the cause is something very important to me.
For eight days beginning February 27, Greater Cincinnati was transformed into a film screening mecca with out-of-town celebrities helping Cincinnati explore our differences, and our shared humanity. Internationally acclaimed photographer Rick Guidotti; Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein; Project Runway fan favorite Justin LeBlanc; Cincinnati icons Ted Kremer, Drew Lachey, Nick and Nina Clooney, Dave Parker and Ken Anderson; former snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce; and actors Danny Woodburn, Kurt Yaeger, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell, John Lawson, David DeSanctis (from Where Hope Grows), Jesus Sanchez-Velez (from Stand Clear of the Closing Doors); veterans SSG Travis Mills and Michael Schlitz; and Steve Wampler, who climbed El Capitan, where just some of the big name personalities who came to Cincinnati to be part of ReelAbilities. Academy Award Winning Actress Marlee Matlin was our keynote speaker for our Kick Off Celebration Luncheon that hosted hundreds.
The films of ReelAbilities were selected from some 500 plus submitted for jurying, many of them with wide international acclaim and awards to their name. Their common thread was that they celebrated the lives and stories of people experiencing disability. Many were shown with the film actors/subjects as special guests; and all screenings included a thought provoking discussion at the end.
I saw and still do see ReelAbilities as an opportunity to open dialogue and doors about topics that, for the most part, have been barricaded from our conversations – or at least in productive ways out of discomfort or lack of interest or personal connection.
There were so many strategies that I put into place (with help from wonderful volunteers and staff) to reach out to our community and pull people in through their personal stories and connections – their differences, and their shared humanity. And, in the end, it all came together to create a community that supported the film festival beyond our wildest dreams in classrooms, board rooms, businesses, entertainment venues, stores, nonprofits, and universities. Nearly 4500 people attended our events, with numerous film screenings having sold out.
The honest questions that were asked, the open answers that were shared, and the comments afterward from film goers told all of us that others grew from it too with expanded and even new perspectives.
There were so many people whose words and actions touched me in meaningful ways that it has been difficult to find the right words to capture its impact on me.
There was Kevin Pearce who took us into his life and shared his family tradition with all of us, ringing a Tibetan singing bowl to facilitate awareness of the moment – even at our formal Mingle with the Stars Gala. And, speaking of the Gala, anytime you have comedian actors in a room together and give them center stage to improvise, laughter is bound to follow. That was the genius idea (and somewhat brave too) of Festival Managing Director Susan Brownknight.
I remember the first time I met Richard Bernstein. He was so filled with genuine flattery of everyone he met. That, I came to learn quickly, is just his way. It is a gift and something I came to treasure about being around him.
We brought our VIPs to the Seacrest Studios at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center where kids could interact with them. It is there where I saw the infectious laughter of Danny Woodburn, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell and John Lawson banter between each other; and again when Steve and Elizabeth Wampler sat side-by-side. Steve shared this message with hospital patients, “Don’t let anyone tell you, no, you can’t do that. Anything is possible.”
Justin LeBlanc promoted literacy by reading a book about inclusion to an entire gymnasium filled with school children; promoted creativity by helping students who are deaf to design and show fashions; and promoted abilities by speaking about his own personal story. Young students at Ohio Valley Voices also got to ask Justin lots of questions – like ‘When is your birthday?’, ‘What is your favorite color?’ and ‘Do you have a dog?’
While here, SSG Travis Mills , one of five surviving quadruple amputee veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, met for the very first time a critical care doctor who provided medical care after his 2012 injury during his air care transport from Kandahar to Bagram. Together we took them to tour UC Health’s Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness or C-STARS where Major Dr. Laurae Rettig was trained. I’ll always remember Travis’ wicked sense of humor…and his rotating hand that he can make go round and round and round.
I always welcome Rick Guidotti’s bear hug. The lens from which he sees the world has opened eye across the globe to see the gift of each individual and the beauty in difference.
I treasured all of the time I got to spend with my friends, Danny Woodburn, and his wife, Amy Buchwald. They are two incredible people who I look up to as examples of role models when it comes to integrity and perseverance. Equaled with their talent is their fearlessness when it comes to standing up for what they believe in.
ReelAbilities gave me the opportunity to get to know and admire John Lawson, an encourager and leader, with a gift for bringing out the best in others.
Then there is the Festival Chair Kathleen Cail, Co-Chairs Sara Bitter and Kara Ayers; Managing Director Susan Brownknight; staff team – Jesse, Hannah, Molly, and Jen; and all of the committee volunteers for whom I have so much respect. They are such an awesome group of passionate, hard working, and dedicated people without whom this would not have been possible.
The Festival was about people coming together, standing up for and embracing eachother. It was about opening eyes and minds to see beyond people’s differences to what we all share – our humanity. I celebrate LADD for having the vision, foresight, courage and strength to create and organize such a community changing event. I am especially in awe of Susan Brownknight as our leader.
In her luncheon speech, Marlee Matlin looked out into the audience and shared, “We need to keep opening doors when people want them shut. We need to shine the light on ignorance when people want to keep us in the dark. And we need to make noise when they want to keep us quiet. But most of all, we need to keep on being ourselves, follow your heart and in the end accommodation will happen. We are the ones who can make it happen.”
Yes, Marlee, you are right we are. Let’s make our voices be heard!
I was reminded the other day of how great it has been knowing that my public relations career has been focused on bringing awareness and relationships to some truly impactful causes and organization.
And a client about which I was so passionate and miss the most was an organization called the Inclusion Network. For eight years I worked with them year round promoting the message that everyone has gifts and abilities, and that bringing those unique gifts together we strengthen each other. We strengthen our community.
I was one of the lead producers of the Inclusion Leadership Awards Event responsible for the strategic messaging including hiring and working with speakers to keep their speech on target, writing the script and the videos, working on all facets of the program portion, coordinating the media relations and more. And I saw that event grow to where it was hosting more than 900 people at the end.
Business and community leaders, professionals, housewives, students, volunteers, people who walk and people who use wheelchairs, people who benefit from large print programs and open captioned video screens, sign language interpreters or cups with handles instead of glassware all came together for a two and a half hour event that was designed to somehow change the world as they knew it. They heard about stories of organizations that instinctively know how to uncover talent, and of people, whose abilities are no longer obscurities. Acceptance was no longer an abstract. Inclusion, they learned, was not about THEM, but about ME.
Actor Danny Woodburn continues to stand out to me as the speaker whose message I will always remember. Danny shared his story of an actor, comedian and activist whose talents were born in the hardships of a world unaccepting of a medical condition known as dwarfism. All too well, he knows the sting of rejection and ridicule because he has lived it his entire life. But Danny told our vast audience that through his work, he has had the ability to influence attitudes. Offensive words, he has found, are generally rooted in misunderstanding and he openly corrects producers, directors and other actors.
At the end of Danny’s speech I remember he told us, “Even though every script is a battle to see how much I will comprise, it is worth it as long as there is dialogue.” Then he looked into the audience and added, “It is inspiring to me as I look out at all of your faces and see that there are comrades in this battlefield.”
To this day, Danny’s words and character continue to impact me. Sure, I love the fact that every time we talk he can always make me laugh but what I love even more is Danny’s true depth of humanity. He is truly one of those unique gifts and someone who I feel so blessed to be able to call a friend.
And the reason I am bringing this all up is because it is all leading up to a new client that is allowing me to continue this path of bringing communities together through the differences that make people uniquely great.
Organized by Cincinnati nonprofit LADD (Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled), the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival is our region’s largest film festival that explores the world as experienced by people with disabilities. It will include a a star studded awards premiere luncheon, gala, and 30 film and speaking events throughout Greater Cincinnati. All of the film screenings benefit local nonprofit organizations that enhance the lives of people with disabilities.
The Festival will be February 27 to March 7, 2015 and next week I invite you to join us at our big red carpet unveiling party at the eloquent Obscura cocktail lounge in downtown Cincinnati from 7 to 9 pm. The films and venues will be announced before hundreds of guests by actor John Lawson and Q102’s Jenn Jordan.
Here is a link to register for the free event.
The ReelAbilities Film Festival was founded in 2007 in New York City by the Manhattan JCC and has grown to become the largest film festival in the country dedicated to sharing the stories, lives and art of people who experience disability. It is now headquartered in Cincinnati and is a division of LADD. It includes a total of 13 Festivals across the country. Cincinnati holds the second largest one.
Danny, who most recently plays the voice of Splinter in the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, was recently interviewed in Soapbox Media about ReelAbilities.
“Actors with disabilities are 90 percent less likely to be seen, and many characters with disabilities aren’t actually played by actors with disabilities,” he said. “It’s important for work like this to be done, and if I have the chance to speak out and be heard because I’m recognizable from being in the public eye, then I feel it’s my responsibility to do so.”
“But this isn’t just about actors getting work,” Woodburn continues. “Two-thirds of people with disabilities are unemployed; we need to raise awareness of that fact. If we want that to change, we as a society have to create an environment for change.”