Originally published in 10/20/21 issues of Austin Weekly News and Wednesday Journal newspapers

Taking every opportunity to lift up and inspire each other is how we can make a true difference. So when the pandemic prevented Austin Coming Together (ACT) and local leaders from convening hundreds at their annual summit celebrating the previous year’s progress towards their shared vision, they chose a new method that has already proven to reach even more people than past in-person events.

Austin’s first-ever quality-of-life plan Austin Forward. Together. (AFT) documentary was released August 18, 2021, and gained over 1,000 views within the first month.

The 15-minute film lets viewers hear directly from those carrying out the plan, a set of goals created by and for the community designed to address 23 strategies with 84 total actions across 7 Issue Areas between the years 2019 and 2023: Community Narrative, Education, Housing, Youth Empowerment, Economic Development, Public Safety, and Civic Engagement.

ACT and AFT leaders created a Request For Proposals to create the documentary that generated significant interest with seventeen responses. Each proposal was carefully reviewed based on criteria that included the company’s familiarity with Austin and ideas for how to offer local youth the chance to learn during the film creation and editing process. Two rounds of assessment resulted in Digifé being hired for the project. Digifé is a black-owned and led production company whose vision, experience, and willingness to mentor a handful of participants from the Austin Has The Mic program earned them the two-month contract. According to BUILD’s website, “Austin Has The Mic is a media partnership between BUILD and Westside Health Authority that uses digital media platforms and podcasting to reclaim the narrative of the west side and tell the positive stories that larger news outlets too often neglect.”

A handful of young adults from Austin Has The Mic got to interview prominent local leaders while also contributing their own ideas and perspectives in front of the camera. After more than 280 hours on the project, the final product showcased the history and challenges Austin is facing as well as the successes made toward completing the plan’s 84 actions.

Part of the documentary premiere included JaKayla Rogers sharing her experience working with other young adults and the nonprofit Territory to create a youth quality-of-life plan, a project inspired by Austin Forward. Together.

Not only did youth receive hands-on instruction of the basics in operating video equipment, composing a shot, crafting an effective interview, and setting up proper lighting, but they were inspired by seeing professionals that look like them.

In fact, being part of the AFT documentary inspired Austin Has The Mic instructor and Co-Chair of the Youth Empowerment AFT Task Force, D’elegance Lane, to ask Digifé if they would be up for teaching her students a little more so they could create their own mini-documentaries on the topics of their choosing.

Programs like Austin Has The Mic and opportunities like working with Digifé are prime examples of how we can empower and give hope to our youth while leveraging their gifts and talents to build a brighter future for us all.

“For twenty years I wasn’t truly aware of where I lived or who was around me. [Recently] I came to discover this isn’t a lonely race against the dismantling of the harmful system our people have felt trapped by. We’re all joining together day by day to make incremental changes that will outlast us.” said Ziolet Nellum, Austin Has The Mic podcast Host, writer, self-proclaimed imaginest, and one of the students mentored by Digifé during the AFT documentary and the youth-made films that followed.

Another youth involved was college sophomore and Austinite Tobias Bell, who was grateful for the chance to take away skills that are transferable in other roles, hobbies, or potential career paths. Bell said it is extremely important for young people to express their creativity but also to speak up about the ways conditions are improving. In the film, Bell describes the Austin Has The Mic program as “a way to give the mic back to Austin,” and the documentary serves the same purpose.

As a community convening organization working with numerous partners, ACT recognizes that meaningful change through youth leadership takes time and ongoing investment.

This project is a storytelling tool showing the authentic Austin: a community that is empowering itself.

Alicia, who has lived in nearby Oak Park for over half her life, graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Journalism and Media Management. She's been with Wednesday Journal Publications...