Niki: How are you hoping to combine your two concentrations in the future?
Drew: I definitely want to get into film, and I think documentary-making is a really good access point to do so. As a documentarian, you have to pick one subject to follow above all the other problems. You have to convince the audience as to why the problem you selected is important and why they should care. Documentaries usually have clear agendas - it’s almost impossible to make a neutral film. You’re going to have some convictions about your subject and you’re going to include some information and omit other information in efforts to push people toward what you believe.
How are you pursuing your love of documentary studies at Brown?
I’m taking a PoliSci class called “Film and Social Change.” There are two parts to it actually: a professor from the Watson Institute teaches the government side - we have readings every week that focus on a different policy problem and its potential solutions - and a film professor assigns two documentaries every week that are related to the policy topic. We watch them and talk about how the policy nuances are displayed in the documentaries. At the end of class, we take all the skills and put them together and make our own documentary about a topic we’re generally interested in.
What’s your documentary about?
I’m interested in the relationship between poverty and the law, and my documentary centers around the Lifeline Group. Lifeline consists of two parts: it’s half a community center where resources are provided and people can meet, and the other one is a free legal clinic. They do work for people who are really sick and they’re currently running a campaign against National Grid, which is the electric company for all of Rhode Island. Legally, if you’re medically exempt, National Grid can’t shut your electricity off if you can’t pay - but they still have been. So Lifeline is making a class-action suit against them and against the government for not enforcing it.
Which narratives of the people involved with the lawsuit have been most powerful?
There was a rally this fall down by the water, and I got to talk to a lot of the relatives of the people who are directly affected by National Grid.
One man’s mother has Alzheimers and epilepsy and was hooked up to a respirator. Individuals from National Grid came into their house, and he was trying to explain that she needed the electricity, but the workers just unplugged it and left and his mother ended up having a seizure right then and there. One man needed electricity for his oxygen, and he would spend all day in McDonalds and laundry mats, anywhere he could find an outlet.
Rhode Island also has a very big homeless population in proportion to the general population, and some of the people we’ve spoken to would have somewhere to live except for the fact that they can’t pay their utilities. And utilities are one of the rare commodities that aren’t dependent on income at all. The wealthiest person and the poorest person are going to be paying relatively the same amount for utilities. And the National Grid owns a monopoly, so you can’t avoid them if you want to have electricity. They’re the only ones you can go through, this is a product you need, and yet, they have the power to just cut off people who are very vulnerable.
Has this class affected how you’ve approached any other projects?
I recently worked for a nonprofit that runs a school in Haiti. My boss and I have been putting a presentation together about the importance of working in collaboration with the people who live in Haiti and not imposing work on them. For example, what happened in Haiti after the earthquake is that hundreds of NGOs came, and they would do things that they thought they were supposed to do. Like, they brought a ridiculous amount of bottled water and shirts and free clothing, but what they don’t realize is that Haiti was already a really poor country before the earthquake and by doing that, they’re shutting out the entire local economy and it’s hurting Haiti for the future.
When you’re an NGO, you need to do things that the public can get behind and donators want to give money to things that are going to show progress immediately. Like if you say, “We’re going to build houses for people whose homes were destroyed by the earthquake,” people will give money to that, but they won’t give money to create programs to develop the Haitian economy so that 20 years down the line, it will be running better. The result — a temporary housing community in the desert has turned into the newest “city” in Haiti, with millions now dependent on shelter, food, and clothing from NGOs, because these NGOs located them in a place miles away from any of those things.
We’ve been putting together a PowerPoint presentation, but I kind of feel like a short film would be the easiest way to show this. It’s complicated to show narrative on a PowerPoint, no matter how succinct and super focused it is, but I think it would click really easily visually.