One of our favorite things about our work is learning how Social Citizens are using their creativity, idealism, and digital fluency to support their causes every day. To share some of these great stories, we're starting a new series called "Social Citizen Sightings." If you see a Social Citizen, we would love to hear about what they're doing too. Just fill out this quick form with their name, affiliation and 150 words or less on what makes them a Social Citizen.
Call+Response is a film that uses music and prominent cultural and political figures to draw attention to the reality that there are more slaves today than ever before. The film’s director, Justin Dillon, is now focusing on using the film to promote community-based activism to abolish slavery. Justin, the subject of our first Social Citizen Sighting, spent a few minutes talking with me about his background, his work, and his vision for Call+Response.
Name: Justin Dillon
If you had to describe yourself in one tweet, what would it be? @justindillon social justice anarchist//change flows from the bottom up
Most recent ipod playlist: Jeff Buckley, Delta Spirit, the Ting Tings…and a few guilty pleasures from Lady Gaga
What are you reading: Muhammad Yunus’s Creating A World Without Poverty
You’ve said you never intended to make a film, so how did you end up creating a documentary to respond to modern-day slavery?
I don’t tend to think in purely linear forms, and that’s found its way into the way we work at Fair Trade Pictures and Fairtrade Fund. We very seldom look for permission and then move. I tend to move forward and then look for the resources to make it work. I’m not saying that’s the way everyone should be, but when you’re trying to do something as audacious as making a film, or more important, making a difference, it’s really hard to find permission, approval and resources right off the bat.
I think that style of working comes from being a songwriter. You know you want to create something that says a certain thing or creates a certain feeling, so you sit down with your piano or guitar and work it. But once you bring it to the band, it’s always something different than what you started with, and that’s what happened with the film. I knew I needed to point a large part of my life to this injustice because I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was flabbergasted that this was going on and that the general public knew nothing about it. To me, this issue just seemed solvable. It’s an issue of focus, and if enough people focus on it, it will change.
I started with what I know, which is music. I believe in its power not just to amuse and entertain, but to inspire and create aspiration in other. The goal early on was to get the music community/business to start focusing on this, which initially led to filming some artists. Then I realized we needed more than just music, we should explain the issue, which led to some undercover work. It just kept building on itself, and about a year into the project, I realized this was a film. It’s never been my goal to be a filmmaker, but a theater was the most obvious connecting point and place for people to experience something like this.
We put the film out in 31 theaters, and it became one of the top documentaries last year. And we did it all with volunteers. That’s an unbelievable feat, but the part of the story that I like is that we were all focused on one thing. We weren’t just focused on simply expressing ourselves or pursuing a career in film. It was about needing to tell a story and needing this to become bigger than us or our efforts. And that’s what drove the making of the film and what drove the hundreds, no thousands, of people who got behind promoting the film – that was as much the story as the making of the film.
Your interactive website makes it easy for individuals to join your cause in dozens of different ways. What do you think is the most impactful thing people can do to end modern-day slavery?
Everyone would give a different answer, so I will qualify this as my answer today, tomorrow could be something different. I don’t fault anyone when they see the film or become aware of the issue for feeling like they want to stab someone with scissors. It’s natural to be so enraged that you want to boycott and take some grand action to wipe it out. But we believe in responding, not reacting. Reacting is fine too, but to create the end that we all want, we have to respond in a way that is thoughtful, strategic, practical and small – but lots of small things. Big, grand, flashpoint gestures, which is what we do best in America, is activism 1.0 – one huge concert, one event, one big thing.
Slavery is a massive issue that will probably take a generation to make a reasonable dent in. There are 27 million people who need us not to forget about this and remain committed. Are we in for that? You have to set the pace, remain engaged and create an activist metabolism that allows you to participate over and over with the same gusto and intensity. We are trying to engage people where most of them are everyday everyday, which is online. We believe that by creating strategic platforms online that people can visit on a scalable level. This means you can visit once and it makes an impact, or you can visit 10 times, and it makes 10 times the impact – so you aren’t duplicating your efforts.
What’s been the response to your online platforms?
Corporations know how to deal with issues fought by activists, but they don’t know how to deal with consumers. When the people who already own the companies products become collective activists and say we need to work together on this, or it’s going to affect our relationship – our consumer/producer relationship, that’s when things are really going to get serious. Whether it’s Chain Store Reaction.com, Slavefree.com or the forthcoming tagyourefree.com, all of these are using the consumer/producer relationship that already exists to push on companies. They are the ones that really hold the keys to change in the supply chains.
When you get 600 emails from your consumers saying you need to deal with this issue, and anyone can see online that you’ve gotten 600 emails and whether or not you’ve responded, that brings corporations into the conversation. It might be uncomfortable, but part of our job is to steer the conversation away from boycotting and towards an open source conversation. I call this open source activism, which is another one of our platforms (opensourceactivism.com). The strategic way forward is to encourage corporations to step out into this space, and show them how they can spend a small amount of time and money and affect people’s lives massively. We want to partner as consumers – no one ever talks that way and it’s not a very powerful voice unless it’s loud and wide, which is why mobile and online technology are useful for hearing and seeing a lot of voices at once. I love the idea of using people’s discretionary time and money because it fits a perfect gap in our lives. Rather than go to some summit or conference, I can be in line at the grocery store, I’m thinking about slavery and I can open up my
You sound like you know a lot about promoting activism, did that come from your background?
I grew up in a suburban life without any real concept of the world around me – I knew I had my BMX bike here and the tennis courts over there. I had my bologna sandwich for lunch, I was into Star Wars, and that was life. But I remember thinking at a very young age that this isn’t the way it is everywhere. Even in the fact that I had a safe place with two parents who loved me, I knew I had been blessed and had been given so much, and much would be required of me because of this. I knew then that I’d always be wrestling with how to leverage the foundation built in me to make the world a better place.
I remember hearing a tape of Martin Luther King, Jr. speak once, and he said, “I’m not who I’m supposed to be until you are who you’re supposed to be.” You find your identity by giving yourself away. That’s always been a theme in my life, to try to remember that I’m not really human unless I’m giving myself away, and that’s really the core of activism. True activism is loving the people around you first and then being able to extend that to other people.
Call+Response will be screening in cities all over the country this fall and going to DVD later this year. For more information about screening dates, visit the Call+Response web site www.callandresponse.com or email email@example.com. In the meantime, check out their newest activist platforms: Tag You’re Free.com, Chain Store Reaction.com, and Slave Free.com.