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James Whitfield not only struggled to find work after serving 18 years in prison for robbery, it was nearly impossible to get anyone to listen to why he was worth taking a chance on.

Richard Sennott • Richard.Sennott@startribune.com,

James Whitfield enjoys working with the camera to to tell the story of people who feel voiceless and want to share their stories.

Richard Sennott ,

St. Paul cable network teaches the power of documentary film

  • Article by: James Walsh
  • Star Tribune
  • July 4, 2014 - 9:51 PM

After serving 18 years in prison, James Whitfield struggled to find anyone willing to hire him. He also found few willing to listen to why he and others who served time deserved a second chance.

So he made a movie.

Whitfield, with the help of an innovative St. Paul cable access program that teaches low-income adults to make documentaries, created a 10-minute film. In the ­process, he not only got his story out, but he developed the tools to start his own nonprofit to assist other ex-cons in finding work.

“It’s very helpful,” Whitfield said of the program. “It would enable people to help get word out about meaningful issues — issues that people overlook or fail to take into consideration. I think the media program they have over there is one of the best.”

The program, called Doc U, is one of several efforts through which St. Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN) works to increase community access to television production and get more voices involved in community issues. SPNN just closed the applications for Doc U’s third year and, starting this month, will choose 12 filmmakers-in-training for the 16-week program. Their films will premiere with screenings in December.

Each filmmaker gets a $400 stipend, thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the McKnight Foundation. They also get training from SPNN staff and the use of SPNN equipment. In the process, they create a documentary on a topic of their choosing.

At a time when cable access organizations around the country are struggling to maintain financial support, a fully funded Doc U is just one example of SPNN’s ability to continue attracting support — and keep reaching new audiences, said Chad Johnston, SPNN executive director. SPNN programming is on five Comcast cable channels in St. Paul and reaches 52,000 homes.

SPNN’s role providing training and access has been a constant through the years.

“We have been contracting with the city since 1984,” Johnston said. “What we’re doing here is actually creating ­community.”

SPNN’s success comes in part from the breadth of its outreach. High school sporting events are featured, as is international news. The Community Productions Department helps members of the community create programming that covers a wide range of issues and events in St. Paul and surrounding communities.

Other SPNN training and outreach programs include shows created by city youth and immigrant communities. The Community Technology Empowerment Project places 30 full-time AmeriCorps members in the community to teach technology literacy.

Bonnie Schumacher, access manager at SPNN, said the network offers monthly classes on cameras, editing, and “anything from storytelling to interview techniques” to adults and to young people. SPNN also partnered with the nonprofit Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs for a new course called Making Media, Making Change, for which students may receive college credit.

The F.R. Bigelow Foundation, the Saint Paul Foundation and the Voqal Fund are funding Hmong Pioneers, a multiyear documentary film project to capture and preserve the story of the Hmong community in St. Paul. The project will use Hmong youth as interns.

“I don’t think anyone else is doing this,” Johnston said of Doc U and several other SPNN programs. “Our funders see that unique role we serve. Ultimately, we want people who are looking to be transformed.”

Personal stories

Doc U topics have ranged from films about the broader community, such as roller derby or food trucks, to the intensely personal.

Vangeline Ortega created a video detailing her journey from New York City to St. Paul for a better life — only to spend 27 years as a dialysis patient after lupus damaged her kidneys. A transplant lasted 10 years, but she needs dialysis once again.

Photography was Ortega’s hobby. But the Hamline University graduate wanted to branch out into other media and found out about Doc U through a fellowship. She learned that documentary is a powerful medium for spurring people to act. Her goal: to get more people to become organ donors.

“It is hard for me to share about myself,” Ortega said. “This process helped me do that, tell my story in the third person, and help others who are on dialysis who are ill.”

Ortega recommends Doc U to those seeking to “discover their creativity, maybe even a profession, that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.” The experience has inspired her to develop another documentary, she said.

For Whitfield, what began as an effort to tell his story of fruitless job searches, despite having a paralegal degree and a business degree, became the start of action.

His idea — “Bridging the Gap from Prison to Workforce” — helped him make political and employment connections. That led to forming a nonprofit, which led to helping a number of people find good, stable jobs in the north metro.

“I was trying to educate others that these kinds of problems existed in the world. I wanted to try to help others,” he said. “Guys would call me and say, ‘We heard you were the most positive dude that ever did time. What do we do, man?’ ”

Now, he can help them.

“Since the documentary was done, local businesses in Blaine and Coon Rapids are willing to hire people through my nonprofit,” he said. “And just in the past few weeks, we are putting together a coalition of groups around the world to help ex-offenders and recovering addicts.”

All this, he added, “from a documentary that was under 10 minutes long.”

James Walsh • 651-925-5041

© 2014 Star Tribune