How this filmmaker uses superheroes to teach media misrepresentation

 

About a year ago, my co-worker Jon tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’ve got to show you something.” It was a short film that depicted what it’s like to be Black in America through the lens of a Grand Theft Auto game with spoken word poetry. As Camelback’s Director of Creative & Marketing, social impact + storytelling work is literally my working life, but Tony’s work didn’t just make a tear-jerking impression on me and Jon -- the same week I interviewed him for this, Tony was recognized as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education and also became the youngest award recipient ever of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. Oh, and he just piloted his media literacy curriculum at fellow Fellow Hattie’s school.

In this interview, 2017 Camelback Fellow Tony Weaver, Jr. shares how he overcame his inhibitions about creating short films, finding his creative identity, and his creation process for a nonprofit that now teaches an award-winning media literacy curriculum. 

- Amanda

Amanda / Camelback Ventures (CBV): Tony, congratulations! Seriously, I don’t even know what to hype up first. Give me a quick update on where you’re at right now!

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Tony Weaver, Jr. (TWJ): Thank you! It’s been a crazy few weeks, with Forbes and Kaplan. School districts are setting up their budgets now, so we’ll find out soon if we’re on the books for the next academic year. It’s scary, and I’m seriously not saying this as a form of flattery, but Camelback prepared us for this moment. I feel like everything I learned about pitch readiness prepared me to able to adjust my message for any audience -- not just investors, but also with students and with district leaders who have different priorities in different parts of the nation. I feel ready.

CBV: Let’s rewind to before Camelback, before college -- I’ve heard you talk about yourself growing up as “just weird enough.” Tell me about your interests as a kid, and how this evolved as you grew.

TWJ: As a child, the thing that intrigued me was the idea of being a hero. I watched these animated shows called “shōnen” -- all shōnen shows have the same underlying plot structure: the main character is a person who has this big dream or idea, but they are woefully unequipped to get there. For example, someone who wants to be on a superhero team, but has no powers. It’s this sense of “I have something in my heart that I need to explore, but it seems impossible.” So, these stories are all about ingenuity and continually moving forward, even when you don’t feel like it’s fundamentally possible to get there. I also liked alternative music, the bass guitar, video games -- these were things that me and all my nerdy friends would enjoy together.

CBV: Pokemon all day.

TWJ: Yes, exactly! When I was a kid, all my friends and I were on the same level and watching the same shows. But as we got to high school, it seemed like everyone else grew out of these things -- but I didn’t stop enjoying those things. I had this expectation that when I got to college, I would change, that I would be interested in “mature” things, or whatever I was expected to like.

As a society, we have this monolithic view of “maturity,” and what is for kids and what is for adults, and what defines adulthood.

But instead, the opposite happened. Instead, I found a community of genuine people who were into the same things as me, and who appreciated what I appreciated about them. As a society, we have this monolithic view of “maturity,” and what is for kids and what is for adults, and what defines adulthood. In my opinion, though, the only thing that defines adults versus kids is that adults get to decide what they want to do. I get to choose to watch the shows that I like to watch, the books I like to read, the hobbies I like. And I started having this sense that the work I wanted to do wasn’t too weird, but just weird enough.

CBV: Yes, you started making short film in college under the title Weird Enough Productions -- how did you get started?

TWJ: I actually felt like I got forced into production, and honestly, I was very salty about it. I had a bunch of story ideas. I would go to stores and get bulk purchases of spiral notebooks, and just fill them up. I would walk around the School of Communications, looking for someone to help me film it. I didn’t want to do production, I just wanted to write. Everyone there though also had their own scripts, or people didn’t think their audiences would like what I was writing.  

So my reality was either 1. Make the films myself, or 2. They won’t get made. And that was my shōnen moment: I want to make films, but I had never picked up a camera before in my life.

When it comes to picking up a camera, or really any form of art or activity that involves creating, there’s a lot of fear there. It’s intimidating. There’s nobody there to grab your shoulder or tell you if you’re doing it right or not. Acknowledging that reality of not knowing, is very scary. But when I finally got started, I thought, why haven’t I always been doing this?

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Tony at the 2017 Camelback Showcase -- half way through his pitch, he pulled of his blazer to reveal this cape. The crowd erupted into cheers. 

CBV: Which one of your short films is your favorite, and why?

TWJ: My favorite short film is one that isn’t out yet -- we’re releasing it next year. It’s my favorite for a couple reasons: (1) I think it’s the best one we’ve ever made. It’s called Purple Pants, and it’s about embracing yourself regardless of societal norms. In particular, this film addresses toxic masculinity and dealing with that as a young Black man. Reason (2): It almost didn’t happen. We filmed it the week before I graduated college. I knew we weren’t going to have access to all this great university equipment anymore, and I was anxious to film as much as we could. And I’ve been stressing about it, because we got super busy, and this footage was just sitting on the shelf. We took it back to the editing room, more than a year after filming it. And the thing is, this time that we’re in with the country now, where we’re at as a country, where I’m at as a founder and a person -- it was the perfect time to deal with this subject and craft it in the editing room. If I had tried to edit this piece earlier, it wouldn’t be the same. I had to be here, at this moment.

Continue is my second favorite.

CBV: Oh man, I love that one! That was the first one I ever saw.

TJW: That’s great. I think it’s my second favorite partially just because we shot it in a day. It was a gauntlet. We did it really early, ended really late, and it really felt like a war of attrition to get it done. It was 18 degrees that day! But we did it. And I think that exhaustion of filming is reflected in the tone of the film -- there’s an exhaustion of that cycle of race and death.  

CBV: In that vein, your videos tackles varied, thoughtful subject matters, including ideas of female beauty. How did you know it was time to create Weird Enough as an organization, one that was bigger than just making (already very impressive) short films?

TWJ: During a program in college, I was mentoring a 4th grader. I asked him what he was going to be for Halloween, and he told me how excited he was to be Superman. But then, a few days later, he told me had changed his costume -- to be CJ, the lead character in Grand Theft Auto 5. And it was just this crazy intense realization of how deeply media representation impacts people, and who it makes us think we’re allowed to be. That meeting with him planted the initial seeds for Weird Enough in my mind.

When it’s a young Black man at the center of a controversy, much less one that was the victim and not the perpetrator of violence in that instance — we RARELY get thoughtful coverage.

In 2014, when we officially started Weird Enough, the thing that really made me move towards something more serious was the news coverage around Ferguson and Michael Brown. Not long before, coverage around Trayvon Martin. There was this total lack of nuance in the coverage. For example, just a few months ago, there was that terrible shooting in Las Vegas -- but there were all these news stories of people describing this shooter as a calm sensitive man, neighbors talking about what a nice guy he was. But when it’s a young Black man at the center of a controversy, much less one that was the victim and not the perpetrator of violence in that instance -- we RARELY get thoughtful coverage. With the growth of conversations around #blacklivesmatter, it made me think a lot about how I would add my voice.

I knew something had to change at a system-wide level, and I knew I needed to create an organization, one that had some kind of financial (and therefore theological independence) that would give me the liberty to make the impact we wanted to in the world.

CBV: Have you had an experience where you felt that Weird Enough is making that impact already?

TWJ: In early November, it was National Media Literacy Week. We went to partner schools around our country to unveil our new program, Get Media Lit. It’s all about superheroes and using those to teach media literacy themes. One school we visited was Crete Academy in Inglewood -- 2017 Camelback Fellow Hattie Mitchell’s school. I did an introduction, and then the kids got a recess break while we set up the projector and put the superheroes up on the screen. While we’re waiting for the kids to come back, I’m afraid -- I start thinking, Oh man, what if kids just think this is really lame? What if we’re too weird???

But then the kids came back to the classroom, and they instantly ran up to the projector screen, touching the characters on it. They started shouting, “I’m the red one! I’m the green one!” I was especially hyped that there were guys going, “I’m the blue one! She’s so cool!” The blue one is a female character, and it meant we were already creating unique, interesting characters where kids weren’t immediately thinking about gender. We saw that kids were identifying with the characters, and as we went through the media literacy principle that each character represents, the kids were just on board every step and wanted to learn more because of it. They would say, “Oh, this character looks for the message behind everything and what people are really saying? Cool, I want to be like her and look at who’s in charge of the news.”

It was amazing.

CBV: That’s so incredible! When you first applied to Camelback, the media literacy curriculum was on your mind but you hadn’t really built it out. Can you tell me what that process was like to recognize that need and then build this additional layer of work?

TWJ: Yeah, it was actually at the first Camelback Summit --  we did a design sprint, and I took it really seriously. I realized, that if we were going to build a curriculum, it would have to deal with three things: 1) be curriculum that engages kids on topics they actually like;  2) have an interface or delivery that is easy to use by a teacher, because if a teacher can’t or won’t use it, then what does it matter? 3) be something that districts can purchase as a unit.

Districts were one of the bigger knowledge gaps for me. One mentor told me that as an entrepreneur, you have to think, what could I do to make their lives easier? What are their pain points? I saw that districts spent tons of money on common core, college readiness, and improving standardized test scores. Around the country, there is a lot of focus on schools and students that are deemed as “underperforming.” And instead of defining the systemic factors that lead to that, the system says, “Ok, we’ll change the school leader or take money away from this school.” There are district leaders who believe their students are worth the money to invest in projects, but they don’t know what to do.

Teachers want something that works but they still want autonomy. We heard from teachers that they wanted something, but couldn’t give up an hour of class time. So one of the things we built into our early prototypes was a curriculum that only needed to be delivered for 10 minutes, 3 times a week. That affected the entire design of the program; you could see it as as a limitation, but it was really a guideline.

Back to factor number one: kids. Our team is really young -- I’m 23, and I’m the oldest one.That’s intentional. It’s very easy to relate to our students because we were just there, like them, in minority classrooms. All I have to do is think, what was in high school or college that angered me? What would’ve made me engage with it a little more? And we know lots of people, our siblings, our cousins, our friends, who are in school.

 
 

CBV: What do you wish more people knew about this work?

TWJ: When I think of media literacy, I see it as a mix of creativity and critical thinking. When we teach media literacy, it’s not just, oh they’re going to learn how to decode fake news, but we give them tools to decode bias itself, structure and how they work. That kind of critical thinking applies not just to media, but to government, to commerce, to the health sector; and that will empower them to be productive and successful both in and out of the classroom.

CBV: It definitely spoke to me, and it was awesome to see throughout the 2017 Fellowship. How has the Camelback Fellowship program most impacted your progress?

TWJ: First, Camelback’s curriculum shaped me as a founder and smart operational business training for day to day life. There’s some programs that give you money and disappear. But no one except Camelback sits down with you and says, “When you walk into the office, what happens? You’re in the office by yourself, you need a team, how you gonna find people? Do you even know what kind of role you need?” A lot of people pay money to fix it later, but Camelback has helped me know how to get it right from the beginning. My team loves working together and we’ve been really deliberate about that. Camelback’s curriculum helped in many other ways, but this one sticks out to me.

Secondly, the network. It’s really important. A lot of the progress we’re having right now is from conferences that Camelback sent us to. Any time I got an email that said, “Hey, you’re going to go to this school leader event or this tech conference,” I would just think to myself, “Mhm you got it, gotta get my business cards, gotta get my tie.” I didn’t fight it, I really leaned into it. Those places were rooms that you only really get in if you’re invited in. So I’m really grateful to Camelback for giving us the opportunity to enter those rooms. The connections I made there is driving our impact.

CBV: That’s awesome. We're launching the Ruthless for Good manifesto, and I was wondering what it makes you think of?

TWJ: I have the poster in my office right now! Ruthless for Good as a mantra, at its core I think, is that goodness is something that’s worth being ruthless for. When we think about entrepreneurship overall, it’s primarily described as making deals. There’s stories out there about people scamming their co-founders or are ethically questionable, for the sake of profit, because they’re ruthless for themselves. And on the flip side of the coin, social good has this connotation of, “I’m doing this free of charge, donations suggested but not required” -- things like that. But ruthless for good, combined...then it’s that the issue my community is facing is something that I’m so passionate about it, that is in such dire need to be fixed, I will stop at nothing to make sure that it gets fixed. And it is work worth doing, worth making a living doing. So taking that same attitude. I’m not going to apologize or feel bad because I’m taking up too much space or time. I’m not going to be coy. This is something that needs to be done. And I’m the one to do it.

CBV: For sure. That’s awesome -- closing advice for an entrepreneur just starting out?

TWJ: Just start, and start early. I walked around campus carrying my scripts, afraid to make them, because I felt I wasn’t equipped to do it. But my attitude now is if not now, then when? If not me, then who? We teach our students that there’s power in their perspective, that they’re the only person in the world who has their perspective. They have a rare commodity that only they have. They should embrace that. I believe that’s true for entrepreneurs too, especially for social entrepreneurs. Whatever solutions, you’ve been able to derive from your community, you are uniquely equipped -- so don’t be afraid to try it.


Tony, thank you for taking the time to share your journey with us! Readers, if this story spoke to you, let us know.  Click here to learn more about Get Media Lit. Our application for the Camelback Fellowship opens in January; click the button below to learn how to apply and grow your venture just like Weird Enough. 

This piece is a part of Camelback's Ruthless for Good series, sharing different ways that individuals embody the spirit of our manifesto and what they fight for.