ReelAbilities Film Festival
I met Megan Mitchell for the first time one morning when I had stopped by their newsroom earlier this year to talk about the 2017 ReelAbilities Film Festival. I had asked for suggestions of news staff who may be interested in helping to emcee our screenings, and was pointed in the direction of their newest news anchor.
They say first impressions are so telling when it comes to making judgements about people. And I will always remember how that first conversation began Megan and myself. She was sitting at her desk, turning her attention to me as soon as I sat down. She had this incredible enthusiasm about herself that infectiously made my energy soar. As I spoke about the Festival, her eyes seemed to have a sparkle. “Oh, I know her. I LOVE that show! Wow, I saw her on Broadway!,” where among her comments when the names of our VIP guests came up.
Megan not only emceed a screening for us this year, she also co-hosted our Kick Off Party, and arrived early at the Festival to conduct Red Carpet interviews with two of the stars she admired most.
Having her in your presence just makes that moment and that day so much fun. And that attitude about life is so very genuine. Clearly Megan has a huge heart. a huge appreciation for her relationships, and a deep passion for telling the stories of those whose stories need to be told with dignity and respect.
It is all those qualities that have made her a such a popular news anchor. Originally from Brookfield, Connecticut, Megan interned at MSNBC and MTV in New York City during college. She is a proud alum of Emerson College where she received an AP Award for Best Documentary for a half-hour show she executive produced on the Primetime Emmy Awards, and an EVVY Award for Best Television Personality. From there she has gone on to win numerous other awards, and her most recent (and probably most proud) award was First Place our of every local news station in the country (major markets included) by the National Association of LGBTQ journalists for a documentary she made with Cliff Naylor on Two Spirit and/or LGBTQ Native Americans. She and Cliff also received 1st place in the Eric Sevareid Awards and the Associated Press – Great Plains Awards for that documentary, which, is important to mention, they created on their OWN time, without compensation because they felt so strongly that the story needed to be told.
“Two Spirits” is a documentary that examines how a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage did not settle the contentious subject for sovereign nations. Tribal courts are not affected by the ruling. Eleven Native American tribes, including the two largest, the Navajo and Cherokee Nations, still prohibit gay marriage. Only a dozen of the 566 recognized Indian nations recognize same-sex marriage. None of the four tribes in North Dakota issue same-sex marriage licenses. “Two Spirits” examines how Native American attitudes on marriage have evolved, how the topic continues to divide reservations, and the tragic consequences, such as suicide, that result because the issue is still unresolved for Native people.
(You can watch the documentary here: https://youtu.be/eaIWR27sg1c).
When I asked Megan what makes her the most proud of her work on that documentary, she told me, “I feel proud of the Two Spirit documentary because it was a true showcase of why I got into the news business and the work I want to do through storytelling. I always hope I can give a platform to the subjects and allow them to tell their own story, as opposed to me taking their voice from them. And I feel the documentary does that well.”
Let’s get to know a little more about Megan.
Lisa: That documentary was so important to you, and giving a platform to difference. Why is that important to you?
Megan: It is great to celebrate difference. I love being different, it makes me, me. We don’t all think alike but that is the beauty of it. Being different provides a bit of empathy because you learn that things are not just one way, and your heart grows as you learn you can love and be loves as truly you.
Lisa: And this is what makes you such a real journalist.
Megan: My favorite part of my job is being able to strip away the layers to see everyone as human beings. I feel like the best way to tell a story is by providing a voice for each side. If there is one that is not as heard or not as privileged, it is important to raise those voices and be heard equally. We tend to dehumanize people we see as different from ourselves so that human connection can make you see someone as you see yourself. When I talk to people, I get to hear a side that not everyone does, which is so valuable.
Lisa: You are someone with such a positive outlook. Where does that come from?
Megan: My parents. My mom was literally a cheerleader growing up. All she wants to do is look at everything in the best light. Whenever something bad happened to us, she would tell us, “This too shall pass. We’ll laugh about this someday.” You know, she was right.
My dad too was always like, “keep moving forward.” I look back at baby videos of myself and my parents were so animated. They sounded like they were talking to a baby puppy. That is why I am an animated person because they were so excited they had a kid.
Lisa: I love this photo of you. Please tell me why this is so special to you.
Megan: I was traveling the California coast on the Pacific Coast Highway and was in Big Sur for this photo. I find so much beauty in nature. I think all of us want to feel like we’re a part of something bigger and greater, and I feel at home when I am reminded I am an inhabitant of this Earth. I even believe I said to my best friend in this photo “I feel so comfy and cozy right now.” Beautiful scenes like this remind me how we are all connected to our planet and each other. That’s why I love to travel. To remind myself with all the bad news out there, there is always something greater that connects us all and we’re living in it.
I joined the Toast of the Town Toastmasters Club earlier this summer and have been loving the experience. It is such a positive, supportive group that I hate to miss our Tuesday meetings. This week I gave my first speech. I have so appreciated the positive support I received from my friends on Facebook too. I thought I’d share my speech here. I deleted some personal information but the rest of it is pretty much what I said. (Well, not exactly, as I memorized it and adlibed a bit.)
Power is a Beautiful Thing
Have you ever stopped to think about the power that you have to affect lives? To empower, strengthen and ignite in people – in ourselves – a fire to want to do more, be more, achieve more.
To fill chasms in communication wells, break down stereotypes. We all have it you know.
Let me tell you a story…
One day many years ago, I was working in my garden when two young girls, about 7, were suddenly standing on the other side of my fence. I had never seen or met them before. They were inquisitive and persistent. And, in the moment, as I stood holding a carton of pansies, I decided I could do with two less. From that one simple act, our lives became intertwined. Minutes later they reappeared around the fence and spent the remainder of the afternoon weeding, playing, laughing, talking. They came back often after that day, for the next year (until they moved away). Both from homes with personal challenges (to protect the girls, I am leaving out additional information), one became withdrawn when questions were asked and the other had a tendency to not always telling the truth.
At any other time these girls who were prone for trouble, but they always want to help me. And I always found projects for them to do. They watered my plants, sanded my backdoor, weeded my garden, helped me clean bird cages, all the while we talked and shared.
I think what they really wanted was my presence and a positive place where they were encouraged to grow. And they grew so much in the moments and days that we shared.
Those girls were not the reason why my quest for information led me to my first teacher and mentor in animal behavior, Dr. Susan Friedman, who pioneered the use of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to captive and companion animals worldwide, or the reason I began writing about behavior but they were my first humans whose lives were strengthened as a result of my knowledge in Applied Behavior Analysis.
I mapped out a plan for how I would help them grow. I will never forget the day I came home to find a spilled can of pop on my back wooden porch. I was aggravated knowing it most likely was the little girl who had a talent for fiction. Then I remembered that she probably was there because it was a safe place to be after school. I didn’t say a word about it when she came over but the day that she told me what she had done was huge. I was so proud of her.
Yes, ABA has served me well. It has seen me go from sharing a home with an incessant screamer to an incessant talker. (That’d be my African Grey parrot, Barnaby) It has seen me strengthen my relationship with my pets, and led me down a path that has involved hundreds of hours of studying and practicing, ultimately earning the status of Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed and Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant.
And, ABA has helped me in my public relations work as well. Everyone performs better, learns better, works together better when their strengths are the focal point and their wanted behaviors are what is reinforced. It is a perspective that all managers, co-workers, and sales people can benefit from when it comes to motivating others to listen and take action.
I have always been one that has been driven to affect change. ABA is helping me to do that better but my drive to be a change agent has always been a part of me.
For more than 25 years, I have been using my communication skills to support the cause of organizations making profound impact on individuals and communities. I create messaging and strategies for raising awareness, building relationships that support individuals who are in constant pursuit of a world void of complacency and injustice. I’ve earned local and regional awards for projects and campaigns but the real reinforcement for me is in the change I am part of creating.
In 2014, I was hired for my largest project ever. I was part of a team whose shared purpose is inspiring others to look beyond differences to appreciate each other’s unique gifts that collectively strengthen us all. When I was hired by the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival 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.
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 was for me to be 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.
It exceeded beyond our wildest dreams. Events sold out. It was the talk of the region. It became a selling point for Greater Cincinnati. And its impact is continuing through inclusion in the workplace and in the community.
So, it was a Saturday night and I was rushing, preparing to go out….years after that beautiful day when I gave up two pansies in my garden. The girls’ families had long moved away, and although they were no longer present in my life, they will always have a place in my heart.
There was a knock on my back door. I opened it.
And, standing before me was a blossoming teenage girl standing before me. She remembered me. She remembered my impact.
Power is a beautiful thing.
Sara Bitter is a Cincinnati mother on a mission to change the way people perceive and welcome differences, one person at a time. The mother of a son who has a developmental disability, she is a tireless advocate working to educate young people and adults, bridging gaps where understanding and communication break down, so that everyone is ultimately included and appreciated for who they are as individuals. Sara works for the ReelAbilities Film Festival, dedicated to sharing the human experience of disability through art and film. I met her when I handled the marketing for the Cincinnati Festival.
‘Ethan the Brave’ is a film Sara originally created to use in her education outreach efforts. It is the story of an 8 year old boy, a fictitious character whose perspective and experiences are representative of so many who have one commonality…they have a disability or difference. Throughout the story, Ethan shares his interests, capabilities and strengths as well as his challenges. He shares ways he believes his fellow classmates and teachers can better include him in school.
Earlier this summer, one of my interns, Katie Reinstatler, interviewed Sara. (Please click here to read that interview.) Since then, ‘Ethan the Great’ has been uploaded to Vimeo for free public viewing and I highly encourage you to watch and share it. It’s story is a lesson for all of us.
In Sara’s words, “The inspiration for Ethan came from my own efforts to try to help students and teachers at my son’s school understand his disability. Starting in Kindergarten, and at the beginning of each school year, I go into my son’s class and do a short presentation. (An idea I got from another mom who is also a special education teacher.) It has been so positive and impactful for him, his fellow classmates and his teachers that I wanted to try to create a film for all students with disabilities and differences. I wanted it tell a personal story but not identify any particular disability or label; one that any teacher, parent, etc. could use and share with their students; and that anyone could relate to, whether they have a disability or not.
In 2013, I joined forces with the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival and with the collaboration of many people and organizations, we turned this story into a seven minute film. We also developed an accompanying classroom program which helps students with disabilities and other differences be better understood, supported and welcomed in their classrooms. My ultimate hope: raising expectations in education for people who experience disabilities. We have shown this film program to hundreds of students in the Greater Cincinnati area and had excellent feedback. (Soon this will become available too.)”
After you watch Ethan, and if you like it or find it helpful, please consider making a small donation to LADD, the host of the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival, organized by LADD or to Thunder-Sky (raymondthundersky.org), the artists at Thunder-Sky studios created the amazing artwork in this film. These artists made Ethan come alive!
Side Note: Ethan the Brave was recently also published as a book. You can purchase it on Amazon.com.