Blog: Take Action

JOBS for G.I.s: Joint Service Achievement Medal

IMG_6023I’m honored to have received a Joint Service Achievement Medal” for “Outstanding “Achievement” for my recent documentary film, JOBS for G.I.s.

The honor was a complete surprise. Given by former Air Force officer, Aneika Solomon, who is one of the five transitioning service members we follow in the film, the award reads: “Director Stephen Dorst distinguished himself by outstanding craftsmanship as Director and Producer, Z-Channel Films, Washington D.C. by creating the documentary film, G.I. JOBS. While in collaboration with DirecTV and working alongside Producer and Director Doug Gritzmacher, Director Dorst’s keen perspective was instrumental in capturing and melding the stories of five veterans from the services of the Army, Air Force, Navy and the Marines.”

IMG_6020Aneika, like the other four people we follow, was brave to share her story with us. I hope this films helps all of us to pay more attention to this transition out of the service, which is such a critical juncture in the lives of millions of people. Too often, I think, people figure they do their part by clapping for the military at a baseball game or supporting Congressional increases in defense budget spending. But that doesn’t cut it.

We have to do a better job of making the transition work for more people. We need to target resources better for education, workforce training, and other support. If you own a company, you can help out by keeping an open mind and trying to interview former military for every position, not just the ones they’re stereotyped in. If you know somebody that served overseas, try to learn more about Iraq and Afghanistan so you can better appreciate what they went through.

At the policy level, we should all encourage the DOD to share more information with veteran service organizations (VSOs) at the city level. Too often, these VSOs want to help, but don’t find out about veterans in need until they’re already jobless, homeless, or worse.

When you empower veterans, you strengthen communities.

Doug and I went to Los Angeles six times during 2015 to film JOBS for G.I.s. Working with Doug as a two-man documentary film crew was a big pleasure: he’s super talented, with a great sense for story, and a strong eye. But we couldn’t have done it without the support of many organizations that are doing great work day in and day out:
Reboot
Vet Hunters
Salvation Army Haven
JVS Los Angeles
USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families (CIR)
National Veterans Foundation
Weingart Center
Veterans in Film and TV
Silhouettes for Vets
New Directions 
Goodwill Veterans Employment Program
Operation PAVE (Paralyzed Veterans of America)
LA County Dept of Military and Vet Affairs 
Got Your 6

Doug and I are on the lookout for our next documentary topic. If you know of a great, inspiring story, let us know. If you are an Executive Producer-type, interested in funding great stories, reach out. We are always looking to expand our team.

 

 

Behind The Scenes: Epic Longboard Charity Jam

steve-jump copyThis is a behind-the-scenes post for a pro bono video I recently made. It was a total blast! All the boarders I met were really cool. And it was for a good cause. Check it out:

One of my good friends is Colin Brown. His son, Kaelen, is a junior in high school. Kaelen’s the lead singer and guitarist for the band Red Light Distraction and is an avid longboarder. When Kaelen told me he and friends Jake Muskovitz and Cole Trudo were organizing a longboard jam to raise money for charity, I was impressed and said I’d make a video for them.

I drew in Mark Devito, Executive Creative Director of local boutique agency Gigawatt Group, to produce. Mark hires me to direct commercials for some outdoor, active lifestyle, and sports accounts he has, so I knew he’d be stoked. Then we asked Rob Bellon to work second camera.

When I got there Saturday morning, the long, sloping road in front of the Czech Embassy in northwest Washington, D.C. was already swarming with teenagers. Half of them were wearing Halloween costumes – I’d forgotten that this was one of the (loosely enforced) entry requirements!

While unpacking my gear, I heard a few people mentioning “Red Bull guy.” Then a minute later, I heard it again. Soon, I realized they were talking about me! I’d mentioned to Kaelen that I was headed to Hong Kong on a shoot for the Red Bull channel — and suddenly, I’m “the Red Bull guy!” (read my post from Hong Kong. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m just an indie freelance filmmaker!)

I brought my C100 outfitted with an external ProRez Atomos Samurai Blade to capture some establishing shots. Rob had his GH4, and I asked him to float around the finish line where everybody was hanging out and capture reaction shots and cool details.  I ended up using a lot of Rob’s footage!

I was most excited to use my new Glidecam HD-4000 with my Canon 5Dm3. Having just binged on some stellar Devin Supertramp videos, I wanted to capture some fluid, moving shots where the guys were competing for longest slide.

That was my first time using the glidecam. If you want to watch another video I just made in San Diego using the glidecam for 100% of the footage, check this out:

For me the biggest question was, how would my new GoPro Hero4s perform? I’d just bought three of them for a shoot I had in Portland, Oregon, but I’d yet to take advantage of the 120 frames per second in 1080p.

As for the event, I was impressed with the organization and community. The Czech Embassy and neighbors didn’t seem to mind all the commotion. The 100+ longboarders were polite and shared the road when the odd driver or cyclist headed through.

Kaelen, Jake, and Cole ran a tight ship. They had tons of raffle prizes donated by all the big companies—Riptide, Loaded, Bustin, Muirskate, Rayne, and other companies listed at the end of the video. A bunch of the longboarders I talked with said it was the best-run jam they’d ever been to.

And the athleticism and technique were impressive—especially at the finish line, where these guys bombed down going 30 or 40 mph, then threw down into various heel side and toe side slides!

Check out this next clip: I actually jumped to avoid a slider (My bad, I got too close to the action!) But the glidecam kept the footage pretty smooth!

Thanks to Jacob Funk for the amazing photo. Nice timing, Jacob! Check out Jacob’s rad photography portfolio!

steve-jump copy

If you look close in the video above, you can see the DJI Phantom Vision flying. I’ve been doing a lot flying with the Phantom Vision 2 Plus lately, so got to talking with those guys (read my copter post here, with aerial footage from Virginia, Oregon, and Florida!).

How did the GoPros perform? I set all three of them to capture footage at 120fps 1080p, and gave them to different guys to see what we could capture. I actually mounted a flat adhesive mount flush on a board by screwing it into the housing. But that was too shaky. I also affixed the Jaws mount on the front lip of a board, but that was too shaky as well.

The positions that worked the best were the chesty mount, the tried-and-true helmet mount, the wrist mount, and my low-tech favorite . . . just having guys hold it in their hands (or with a pole) and point it at themselves.

One of the most talented boarders, J.D. Casada, captured the best footage, which worked really well at 120 fps. He’s the one featured for more than 30 seconds, from the 41-second mark. 

Kaelen, Jake, and Cole say they’re going to organize another jam soon. Check out their Facebook page for the TML Halloween Charity Jam.

And let me know what you think about the video!

Mandela, Cameroon, and me

sd-prince copyWhen I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon on September 15, 1994 for a scholarship year, His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had been President for four months. As South Africa’s first black President, Mandela finally possessed a political power on a national stage to match his outsized moral authority.

I was grappling with how to fit in a completely different culture. My French was pretty good, but there was a lot of Cameroonian slang. I’d jump in a taxi, tell the taximan “Poste Centrale,” pay my 100 CFA (18 cents), and then amble through downtown Yaoundé. I was the only white person for thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Everywhere I walked, children stared. Adults took note.

It was a shock.

Meanwhile, everybody wanted to talk about Mandela. Cameroonians had followed his story as much or more than we Americans. After 27 years in prison, would he choose vengeance and spite? Or would he work for hope, reconciliation, and nation-building?

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After a month of trying to find my feet, I felt really at home in Cameroon. I started dreaming in French. I had new friends at the University, and was taking lessons on a traditional instrument, the “mvet,” from a local master, Noah Ondongo Generaud. I was forging what would become a life-long friendship with my housemate, Jean Paul Fosso.

As minorities go, I was privileged. My US passport gave me a freedom few people around me had. My bank account distinguished me from the masses. Even the color of my skin got me invitations to parties, and seats up front, near Ambassadors and the elite.

But there was a flip side. It’s strange not to be in the majority—to be a token, different, stared at for something so superficial as the color of your skin. The psycho-social effects of being a minority left a residue.

Today when I think of Mandela, I think of my year in Cameroon. The two are linked for me. I think of how Mandela influenced a continent even as he set an example for the world.

I think of life in Cameroon, my friends, and their lives there. Their enduring challenges are like those people face in the townships of South Africa.

I think of injustice and how people confront it: how people battle for progress on issues they care deeply about . . . climate change, gun safety, and gender equality.

I think my friend Vincent Pan, who today is in his 11th day of fasting for Immigration Reform. I think of Americans like him, who work in the spirit of Mandela. I think of how much I admire them.

I think of my democracy, which is slowly failing. Can Mandela’s example inspire Congress to pass laws that will give as many people as possible a leg up?

I think of my work as a filmmaker and how I might contribute better. I set out as a documentary filmmaker not only to try and entertain people, but also to change the world for the better. Looking back, Mandela took office 20 years ago. Looking forward, I’ll be 60 years old in 20 years . . . what can I do in that timeframe to make a difference?

Most of all, I think of Mandela himself—and the echoes of MLK and Gandhi. Had he chosen vengeance, we all would have understood. But he redefined justice. He elevated a people, and inspired the world. And me.

Is [Angola] a Real Place? Do You Care?

angolaTwo years ago this month, I got a call from Neil Breslin, an old friend who’s been based in Africa for the past 10 years. “Hey Steve, can you do me a favor?”

Me: “Sure.” Neil: I need you to make me a short video that shows what typical, educated Americans know about Angola. I’m going to show it to some of my clients. Give me a good range of people.”

Sure, why not! So the next morning, I drove to the White House.

At the Starbucks at 17th & Pennsylvania, I bought $75 worth of $5 gift cards (I learned this long ago from a producer for a PR firm who hired me to make some man-on-the-street videos). Then I stood outside the Starbucks with my camera and microphone and accosted coffee-seekers: “I’ll give you a $5 Starbucks gift card if you give me 1 minute of your time . . . to answer a few questions about Africa for a news bit for YouTube.”

Lots of people ignored me like the plague. In fact, the first 10 tries, I couldn’t even finish my sentence before the person raced away.

But free coffee is a powerful motivator! And the interviews began. Dare I say—some people even looked like they were having fun!

What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?

Within 30 minutes, I did 15 interviews and gave away all the gift cards. That afternoon, I included everybody in the final edit (plus a few friends, who gave moral support). Nobody got left on the editing room floor.

The results were illuminating! Nobody knew Angola’s capital. Nobody could name any person alive or dead, from Angola. Nobody knew Angolans speak Portuguese. Only a few located it in the “south” or “southwest.”

The woman of Nigerian descent (0:56) knew more than most, but still had precious little knowledge. One woman was so at a loss, she treated the whole thing as a joke (1:12). The guy at the end summed it up well (4:12): “Is Angola a real place? I don’t think it’s in Africa.”

Is Angola a real country? Do people even care? What does it mean if the 5th richest country in Africa is invisible to educated Americans a block from the White House?

No offense to the kind people of Ouagadougou or Bujumbura, but it’s not as if Angola is some tiny, landlocked country like Burkina Faso or Burundi. There’s a few reasons it might be considered in our national interest to bone up on our Angola facts: It’s America’s 3rd most important trading partner in Africa. It’s the 15th biggest oil exporter in the world after all.

When Angolans saw the video, it seemed to strike a chord. As you can imagine, the YouTube comments lit up. So Neil hit the streets of Luanda (the capital) to make a reply video: to see if typical Angolans knew much about America:

Revealing, isn’t it! Even Angolan teenagers seem to have better cross-cultural knowledge than working professionals in the shadow of the White House.

Sure, there are explanations why. A dominant power exports its culture to the world—a logical extension of Joseph Nye’s “Soft Power” theory.

Now, soft power is a big assist for U.S. national interests and public diplomacy, but what if they learn about us, but we don’t ever learn about them? Does it really matter? So what if our Trivial Pursuit games last all night because we can’t get that last blue pie piece?

Here’s one way it matters: Next month, there’s a big meeting in Moscow to determine how much money the 82 poorest countries in the world (40 of which are in Africa) can access for grants and interest-free loans. These countries are home to 2.8 billion people. An estimated 1.8 billion of those live on less than $2 per day. These poorest countries use this “cheap” money for infrastructure, education, health, and clean water. It’s an investment. It helps them be less poor. Maybe their children can live on $4 per day.

The convening organization is IDA, or the International Development Association, which is a unit of the World Bank Group. The pot of money has averaged about $16 billion a year the last few years and  it is shared by 52 rich countries. Even though the U.S. only gives about 11% of the total (or about $1.8 billion), it plays a catalytic role in getting the rest of the world motivated. The word on the street is that the U.S. may be wavering on its commitment to the poorest of the poor.

Now, $1.8 billion per year  is not chump change—but when you consider it’s going to the 82 poorest countries in the world, it’s not that much. J.P. Morgan Stanley recently got fined $13 billion. Americans spent $7 billion on Halloween this year. The U.S. Pet Industry is estimated at $55 billion per year.

The only problem, perhaps, is that we live in a democracy. If IDA funding is rooted in the will of the American people, then we’re in trouble. That’s because we Americans are not likely to fund stuff we don’t care about. And we only care about what we know.

Is Angola [or the other 80 poorest countries] a real place?

Do we care?

Solar, Kiva, and How to Change the World

kiva copyI went to my 20th college reunion last weekend at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. It was insanely entertaining catching up with people, most of whom I hadn’t seen in two decades. Writing “two decades” just made my fingers tremor. How am I old enough to be 20 years removed from anything—much less, you know, a college graduation?

Anyway. Wandering through the hallways of Townsend with James and Courtney was particularly nostalgic. But beyond the material memories (that paintings, those couches, the still un-tuned piano) I was attentive to an existential difference—back then, I lived a blessed non-linearity, characterized by marathon debates and the expanded sense of possibilities that youth conveys.

In this very common room, I defended the existence of God in a late-night debate against a guy named Graham (he was pretty damn smart; he won). That table over there was where I studied for my favorite class, “Hunger, Plenty, and Justice.”

We knew we could change the world.

Back in DC yesterday, I found an email from Kiva telling me I had $148 in available credit. I haven’t done much on Kiva for a while and it got me thinking again about changing the world.

Kiva is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that connects people through lending to alleviate poverty. Since it was founded in 2005, more than a million people have lent almost a half billion dollars in 73 countries. They have a 99.03% repayment rate.

 

In the spirit of college-worthy debate, I challenge you, faithful reader, to name a single development innovation that, if spread worldwide, could do more than distributed solar to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor.

I joined Kiva in March 2007. Since then, I’ve deposited $672. I’ve made 121 loans to the working poor in 53 countries. When they pay back, I re-loan the money, so I’ve lent about $3,100 now.

A few years ago, I became disillusioned because I saw a lot of people lending for stupid reasons—so somebody could open a bar or the like. Nothing innovative. Nothing the local market wasn’t already supporting.

So after complaining a bit, I created a Kiva team called “Solar Explosion.” This was while I was directing a documentary about climate change, and I got really excited about the potential of distributed solar power. It could leapfrog the rural poor in the developing world out of abject poverty.

On the “Solar Explosion” team page I wrote: “1.5 billion people still lack electricity. Only a global solar explosion can change that and end poverty.”

And in the spot where you write “About us,” I put: “We know if you really want to fight poverty, you start with distributed renewable power – harnessing the sun in your own backyard! Micro-solar technology already exists that can transform people’s lives. The problem is that banks are only financing the old model: centralized power stations and expensive transmission grids. We lend to inspire awareness, so microfinance does more and more solar financing projects. Our goal is a solar explosion! Join us today!”

In summary: small-scale solar technology exists, but the financing doesn’t. It’s gonna take tailored models in different countries so poor people can do solar power in their own backyards and pay it off over time.

Some of my recent loans
Some of my recent loans

“Solar Explosion” started slow, but today, there are 51 members who’ve made 572 loans to the tune of $14,525. Still not much, but a start.

In the spirit of college-worthy debate, I challenge you, faithful reader, to name a single development innovation that, if spread worldwide, could do more than distributed solar to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor.

With electricity, children study more, get smarter, and perhaps get better jobs; family members are more productive, perhaps doing small businesses from home. And everybody is connected to the outside world, by simply plugging in a TV or charging a cell phone.

At the end of the day, there are tons of people who know way more than I do about distributed solar, about solar financing, and what the bottlenecks are. And perhaps Kiva’s not the best way to jumpstart this.

But it’s one way.

If you join Kiva, join “Solar Explosion.” Lend to green projects, especially solar.

Repairing the Shattered Sky

I wanted to share a great follow-up to my Bloomberg article last week. Policy Innovations, a publication of the Carnegie Council, ran a Q&A with me entitled Repairing the Shattered Sky. Editor Evan O’Neil asked some tough questions. I call climate negotiations “medieval trade fairs” and US politicians “cowards.” I hope you have a chance to read it!

It was good fun, particularly thinking about the film and the issues it raises through Carnegie’s lens: ethics. China came up a lot. The moral and practical responsibility of Americans to act on climate change came up as well. Hope you can read it!

Kickstarter, Bloomberg, and the Care2 petition

Pretty excited today. An article I wrote got picked up by Bloomberg. It’s in Bloomberg’s Sustainability blog, “The Grid.” It’s about my experience interviewing Jim Rogers — the CEO of America’s largest coal utility — for Shattered Sky. About the lessons of the ozone issue, through the eyes of America’s most powerful coal executive.

Today is also the second day of the Shattered Sky Kickstarter campaign. It’s been an incredible response, with $9,200 given, by 54 backers in the first day. It’s not easy launching a project to raise $35,000, but it sures allays some fears when you raise 25% in the first 24 hours. If I reach my Kickstarter goal, Shattered Sky’s distribution will be great: festivals, promotion around the PBS TV distribution, and Facebook contests and other initiatives to accompany grassroots events. Here’s my first Kickstarter update.

I’m also encouraged by the progress on the petition, which I’m conducting with Shattered Sky’s advocacy partner, Care2. More than 4,400 people have now signed it, demanding that candidates Obama and Romney pay more attention to climate and energy issues in their election runs.

 

Sign the Petition! Obama & Romney . . .

I launched a petition today calling on our Presidential candidates to talk early and often about their plans for a fair national energy policy and solutions for climate change. This year is a critical presidential election and an important time in history. Will we see big money and bad politics? Or can we inspire progress on climate and energy? My movie, Shattered Sky, which is premiering on PBS in September, tells the story of how America led the world to a solution on the ozone crisis. Let’s remind our candidates about that success story. Solving big environmental issues is not a partisan issue.

Care2 is Shattered Sky‘s advocacy partner, working together to restore a can-do attitude on energy and climate solutions. Care2 has almost 20 million members, and is the nation’s largest online community empowering people to lead a healthy and green lifestyle while taking action on important causes.

So, take a minute and sign the petition . . . Obama & Romney: What’s Your Plan to Solve Energy & Climate Change?

U.S. State Department Screening

It was a great way to celebrate Independence Day: a screening of Shattered Sky at the U.S. State Department on Tuesday. It was an honor, given the history of the institution and the role its employees played during the ozone crisis.

George C. Marshall auditorium welcomed us: the “Marshall” in “Marshall Plan.” Dan Evans and I fielded a bevy of smart and challenging questions following the show: about climate policy, the interplay between regulation and technology, the importance of citizen action.

In 1985, 20 countries signed the Vienna Convention to set up a framework for negotiating international regulations of ozone-depleting substances like CFCs. Chief U.S. Negotiator Richard Benedick (who is in our film) must have walked these State Department halls and had lively debates with his team. How would they set the tone for global cooperation on a future global treaty?

Less than two years later, following the discovery of the ozone hole, Benedick and the EPA’s Lee Thomas led the American presence at the important signing of the Montreal Protocol, where 24 countries formally committed to phasing out 50 percent of CFCs. Subsequently, the Montreal Protocol got updated seven times, and more than 190 countries eventually signed it. And they all phased out 100% of CFCs.

For me, that’s the main lesson on climate. You don’t have to get it 100% right at first. Gather up the main players, take an important first step. Then update the plan together. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary this September. Hopefully, more of us will take notice that in 1987, America led the world to a global solution on the ozone crisis.

Will we will all take inspiration to take smart action on climate? Only time will tell.

 

 

 

 

 

Perspectives on 500,000

Less than three months to go until the nationwide public TV premiere of Shattered Sky.

I’m excited about the chance to make a difference. I’m hoping enough people get wind of the film and get inspired that our country led the world during the ozone crisis. Then we can all look at the challenges posed by climate change through a new lens — why not work together? Why not set aside short-term differences? Why not unite to lead the world on renewable energy? How can this NOT be a good strategy for jobs and the economy — the rest of the world licensing our clean-tech inventions for the next century?

If Ronald Reagan’s cabinet thought that strong action on the global ozone treaty was a good thing, why can’t our politicians today find a way to work together on the issues that affect our economy and environment?

Maybe we as citizens aren’t doing enough to work together.

I aim to change that. And passing 500,000 fans on Facebook this past week reminded me that there are a lot of people out there who share this vision. Working toward the September public TV release and campaign launch, I know we can really make a difference together!