Coal Ash Stories continues to travel to impacted and concerned communities throughout the state.
Coal Ash Stories is a compilation of four short films that illustrate the public health concerns, policy issues, and ways communities are responding to a toxic pollution. Working Films curated the collection in response to a massive coal ash spill in the Dan River in North Carolina last February. In June, we partnered with Appalachian Voices, Earthjustice, the North Carolina Conservation Network, NC WARN, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and nineteen local organizations to bring the series of shorts across North Carolina to catalyze conversation and action. The 30-minutes of media was paired with issue experts leading the charge for strong protections. We are now continuing the tour to directly impacted and concerned communities throughout the state.
Below are the upcoming events that are FREE and open to the public. Please join us if you are in one of these areas.
Stokes County is one of fourteen sites in North Carolina, and one of hundreds across the country, where toxic coal ash is being stored. What is the impact on the communities that live next to these facilities? Watch this video to find out.
Together the four films make up Coal Ash Stories. The series explores the public health concerns, policy issues, and ways communities are responding to the toxic threat of coal ash. Request your FREE Coal Ash Stories DVD today, and show it in your home or community.
The timing is critical:
December 19th is the EPA’s court-ordered deadline to finalize the first-ever federal safeguards for coal ash. North Carolina policymakers’ and regulators’ weak response to the Dan River spill is evidence that strong federal regulations are needed to protect our air and water. This toxic waste must be cleaned up, and power companies have to take steps to ensure that their waste pits are safe.
Screenings will be free and open to the public and will be shown in: Nashville (Citizen Koch), Memphis (The Hand That Feeds), Knoxville (American Teacher), Chattanooga (Inequality for All), Jackson (Freedom Summer), and Johnson City (Blood on the Mountain). The participatory film tour will educate communities on the impacts of money in politics, an unfair tax system that burdens the poor, and on cuts to the state budget that are eliminating social safety nets and defunding public education. These issues will be spotlighted in the films and discussed in interactive post-screening programs designed to offer a forum for community members to share their perspectives, identify common ground, discuss potential solutions to the problems at hand, and become involved with the organizations leading the charge for change.
Below is a list of screenings and clips of the films that will featured, organized by city.
Johnson City: Blood on the Mountain: Tuesday October 14th 2014, 7pm.
Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, 136 Bob Jobe Rd, Gray, TN 37615
Blood on the Mountain focuses on the environmental and economic injustice and corporate control in West Virginia and its rippling effect on all American workers. This film tells the story of a hard-working people who have historically had limited choices and have never benefited fairly from the rich natural resources of their land. This is a works in progress screening.
Memphis: The Hand That Feeds: Wednesday October 15th 2014, 6pm.
The University of Memphis, 3720 Alumni Ave, Memphis, TN 38152
Shy sandwich-maker Mahoma and his undocumented immigrant coworkers set out to end abusive conditions at a New York restaurant chain. This epic power struggle turns a single city block into a battlefield in America’s new wage wars.
Nashville: Citizen Koch: Thursday October 16th 2014, 7pm.
United Auto Workers Headquarters, 6207 Centennial Blvd, Nashville, TN 37209
Set against the rise of the Tea Party in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, a citizen uprising to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker collides with the Tea Party-aligned “Americans for Prosperity,” a group founded and lavishly financed by two of the world’s richest men —David and Charles Koch. As Republican working class voters find themselves in the crosshairs of their own party and its billionaire backers, they are forced to choose sides.
Jackson: Freedom Summer: Thursday October 16th 2014, 6pm.
Tennessee NAACP Headquarters: 118 N Church St, Jackson, TN 38301
A look back at the summer of 1964, when more than 700 student activists took segregated Mississippi by storm, registering voters, creating freedom schools and establishing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Chattanooga: Inequality for All: Friday October 17th 2014, 7pm.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, University Center Auditorium, 642 E 5th St., Chattanooga, TN 37403
Inequality for All is an intimate portrait of a man whose lifelong goal has been “protecting those who are unable to protect themselves.” Reich suggests that the massive consolidation of wealth by a precious few threatens the viability of the American workforce and the foundation of democracy itself.
Knoxville: American Teacher: Monday October 20th 2014, 5:30pm.
Weaving interviews of policy experts and startling facts with the lives and careers of four teachers, American Teacher tells the collective story by and about those closest to the issues in our educational system — the 3.2 million teachers who spend every day in classrooms across our country.
Last month, we gathered with a cross section of organizations from across Tennessee to make plans for using documentaries to advance social, economic and environmental justice and sustainability in the state. A day long summit held at the United Steel Workers Union Hall in Nashville, was aimed at better connecting progressive groups in Tennessee to each other, and at increasing their skills and capacity to use media, popular education, and creative actions to reach their goals.
The summit included a training component on best practices for leveraging documentary film and creative action to advance grassroots organizing. A case study of MORAL MOVIES and discussion of how individual film and interactive projects like Inequality for All, Freedom Summer, and Hollow could be used in the state helped lead us into planning for the fall and next year.
Since the summit we’ve been solidifying parterships with participants, including the Tennessee NAACP, Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, the Tennessee Education Association, Common Cause, and the Coalition for the Organizational Protection of People and Equal Rights.We now have an initial statewide series in the works that will engage communities on economic issues impacting Tennessee, in particular the threat of a permanent ban on income tax in the state’s constitution.
We’ll continue to work with leaders over the next 1 – 2 years to position documentaries within their work and throughout the state to raise awareness, strengthen connections, and advance progress towards a Tennessee that serves all!
This June, Working Films partnered with Appalachian Voices, Earthjustice, the North Carolina Conservation Network, NC WARN, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and nineteen local organizations to bring four short films, conversation, and action on coal ash across North Carolina. You can see our recap in photos and tweets.
In February 2014, a storm water pipe below a massive Duke Energy coal ash impoundment failed, spilling 39,000 tons of coal ash into North Carolina’s Dan River. With the Dan River coal ash spill fresh on the minds of North Carolinians, and as controversy grew around Duke Energy’s ties to the NC Governor and state regulators, clean water had become a top concern of residents across the state. In quick response, Working Films initiated partnerships with leading state and national organizations to put together a program that could answer questions about coal ash in NC. We worked through spring to co-develop Coal Ash Stories, identifying media, developing shared goals and resources, and coordinating the local efforts.
Four short films were used in eight cities around the state to educate citizens and draw public and political attention to the toxic impact of the disaster. The films include An Ill Wind, At What Cost?, Coal Ash Chronicles (work-in-progress), Downwind and Downstream.
Events took place in Asheville, Belews Creek, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Winston-Salem. In each location, one or more local groups co-hosted the event, tailoring the program and goals to the local communities, especially where coal ash ponds are threatening the local drinking water supply.
Local host organizations included 350 Triangle, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, The Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, Charlotte Environmental Action, Cape Fear River Watch, Clean Water for NC, Durham People’s Alliance, Frack Free NC Alliance, Fund for Democratic Communities, Greenpeace NC, League of Conservation Voters NC, Mountain People’s Assembly, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, New Hanover County NAACP, Sierra Club Cape Fear Group, Sierra Club Capital Group, Sierra Club Foothills Group, Sierra Club Headwaters Group and Triangle Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Below are some highlights.
Appalachian Voices hosted the event in Belews Creek, a rural community near Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station. The goal of the event was to help community members realize that they’re a part of a larger fight and are not alone in the struggle. Organizer Sarah Kellogg stated, “There was a woman who is the daughter of one of our most outspoken community members who has never wanted to be involved, but after the movie showing she was ready to speak out.”
The Durham event was co-hosted by Durham People’s Alliance, NC WARN, and Sierra Club Headwaters Group. County Commissioner Frances Blalock attended as a viewer, and let the organizers know that just the night before, the Person County commissioners voted 5-0 to pass a moratorium on coal ash that includes both the transport and disposal of the material. The organizers welcomed her to give the update to the audience and say a few words before the screening.
In Raleigh, the Q&A included Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices; John Wagner, Frack Free NC and Haw River Assembly; State Representative Pricey Harrison from Greensboro; and was facilitated by main organizer Karen Bearden, 350 Triangle. Karen met folks that heard about the program on The State of Things radio show the day before and had missed the earlier program in Durham, so they drove to Raleigh to attend. State Representative Pricey Harrison, who appears in Downwind and Downstream, gave context to the legislative situation and how she has been trying to get a coal ash bill passed since 2008. She emphasized how corporations’ money and influence makes it hard for legislators to get strong bills passed and urged the audience to make their voices heard.
Each event was strong and well attended, with each location meeting, and three locations exceeding, the hosts’ expectations for turn out. In just a week and a half, the events reached 400 people. According to our audience surveys, 98% of attendees are now willing to speak out on coal ash. 90% better understand the issues and have an increased interest in being involved. There are some indications that we were able to reach beyond the choir, with ¾ of audiences not already affiliated with a group or organization, as indicated on sign in sheets. Also, a high number of zip codes outside the immediate vicinity of screening locations on sign in sheets indicated that audience members were willing to travel to learn more and participate.
Our state and local partners loved the event format– with 30 minutes of media, there was ample time for an interactive discussion and a call to action. All of our local hosts reported being very pleased with the help from Working Films and felt very well supported.
The Coal Ash Stories events were co-hosted by several groups whom we’ve partnered with on Moral Movies, including NAACP branches as well as Durham People’s Alliance and the Fund for Democratic Communities. This gives some indication that we are fostering cross-issue support from organizations that have not traditionally worked on coal ash or related environmental issues. This will be an emphasis of our efforts going forward, building on the many state and local partnerships we’ve established through our Moral Movies series.
Coal Ash Stories received broad press coverage, including the radio show WUNC’s The State of Things. The show spent two-thirds of their program on coal ash, talking with Filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn of Coal Ash Chronicles as well as WUNC’s capital reporter Jorge Valencia about the details of the event, controversy around the regulatory response and the latest on the coal ash legislation. The screenings happened to coincide with the short legislative session, further raising the attention of the issues. Other press articles included Asheville’s Mountain Xpress, Durham’s Herald Sun, and Wrightsville Beach’s Lumina News.
We are eager to build on the momentum of the initial tour in NC, as are our partners, who see screening events as a unique opportunity through which they can reach beyond their typical constituencies, raise awareness of the impacts of the spill and spur people to action. Coal ash will continue to be a major threat to public health and clean water in the state. As Amy Adams explained in an op-ed, “If the General Assembly really wanted to eliminate the threat posed by Duke Energy’s coal-ash storage ponds, it would have ordered an assessment of all 33 of the ponds and come up with specific instructions for the cleanup. Instead, lawmakers made cleanup mandatory for only four of them (all curiously close to the homes of powerful legislators) and left the details for the other 29 to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke Energy – whose relationship over the years has been altogether too cordial.” In response to the still pending, yet insufficient coal ash bill, the Southern Environmental Law Center is continuing to take action for some of the communities under the Clean Water Act, though more is needed. We are now working with our partner groups to develop plans to continue the work with Coal Ash Stories to support the communities impacted by the spill and engage citizens across the state in addressing this important issue. Through the remainder of the year we will build on and extend the use of the films across North Carolina, as well as in new states, to raise awareness of coal ash threats and impacts and inspire greater engagement around these issues.
The North Carolina Moral Movies Film Series draws to a close this month with screenings of the acclaimed documentary, Inequality for All. The film features Robert Reich – professor, best-selling author, and Clinton cabinet member – as he demonstrates how the widening income gap has a devastating impact on the American economy. As Alexandra Sirota, Director of the NC Budget and Tax Center explains, “North Carolina, like the nation, is seeing increased barriers for too many to get ahead. Inequality for All provides the important context for this experience and makes it clear that policy choices have built these barriers rather than a smoother path to a strong middle class.”
Screenings in nine cities across the state will begin on July 22nd. These interactive events will spotlight the threat of income inequality on the viability of the workforce in North Carolina and will involve audiences in dialogue and action to address economic inequality.
Join us for Inequality for All this month or tell your friends in North Carolina!
Winston Salem: Tuesday July 22nd, 6pm
Green Street United Methodist Church, 639 S Green St, Winston-Salem, NC 27101
Local hosts: Scholars for NC’s Future, Forsyth County Association of Educators, The Ministers Conference of Winston Salem.
Fayetteville: Tuesday July 22nd, 6pm
The Main Library, 300 Maiden Lane, Fayetteville, NC, 28301.
Local hosts: Fayetteville NAACP, FAyetteville N.O.W, Cumberland County Progressives, Fayetteville A. Philip Randolph Institute, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fayetteville, Fayetteville-Cumberland Black Leadership Caucus, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1208.
Today organizations across North Carolina are launching Coal Ash Stories, a statewide screening tour featuring four short documentary films focused on coal ash, related public health concerns, and policy.
This February, a storm water pipe below a massive Duke Energy coal ash impoundment failed, spilling 140,000 tons of toxic-laden coal ash and contaminated wastewater into North Carolina’s Dan River. This coal ash sludge now coats the Dan for 70 miles downstream, and the full public health and economic impacts for this spill are still unknown. Dozens more coal ash impoundments across North Carolina and the Southeast are at risk of failure.
The films and post-screening programs will provide an opportunity for the public to learn about the health environmental impacts of coal ash in communities across the country, talk with community members, and get involved in efforts to hold utilities accountable for their waste.
“Coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in America, though it is less regulated than your household garbage,” states Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices, one of over 20 organizations partnering to present the tour.
The four films featured in Coal Ash Stories – An Ill Wind, At What Cost?, Coal Ash Chronicles, and Downwind and Downstream – paint a grim picture of what life looks like when coal ash pollutes a community. People are unable to drink their own water, take a bath, fish, or farm without worrying about long-term health effects. Similar fears are now facing communities located near other coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. Filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn, creator of Coal Ash Chronicles, states, “It is important to elevate conversations about pollution of all kinds in our country for the sake of our health and the health and viability of future generations. My hope is that films like mine will galvanize citizens who have the power to push for positive change.”
Bridget Whelan of the North Carolina Conservation Network says, “The stories we’re hearing in these films and from North Carolinians living near currently leaking coal ash ponds remind us that real people are suffering real affects from coal ash pollution. For their sake, it’s imperative that North Carolina immediately move all coal ash to safer storage, away from our water and from threatened communities.”
Ulla Reeves of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says, “The Dan River is a tragic reminder of the dangers associated with storing coal ash in outdated, leaking impoundments next to our rivers. However, it’s not an isolated incident and communities across our region and country are living with coal ash impacts and threats on a daily basis.”
Working Films, a national nonprofit and nonpartisan organization based in Wilmington, NC, is coordinating the statewide screening tour. Working Films builds partnerships between nonfiction media-makers, nonprofit organizations, businesses, educators and advocates to advance community-based and policy solutions to social, economic, and environmental challenges. Coal Ash Stories is a new initiative using issue-specific media to support allied organizations and is part of Reel Power, a larger campaign among filmmakers and organizations working to address the negative impacts of climate change and natural resource extraction.
The NC screening tour is co-presented by Appalachian Voices, Earthjustice, North Carolina Conservation Network, NC WARN, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Working Films. Additional collaborators include 350 Triangle, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Cape Fear River Watch, Clean Water for North Carolina, Durham People’s Alliance, Fund for Democratic Communities, League of Conservation Voters, Mountain People’s Assembly, Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, New Hanover County NAACP, Sierra Club Cape Fear Group, Sierra Club Capital Group, Sierra Club Foothills Group, and Sierra Club Headwaters Group.
Contact Kristin Henry, email@example.com, with any questions.
Today marks one year since the passing of our beloved co-founder Robert West. We are continuing to honor him today by posting more tributes from his friends, family, and colleagues. Below you’ll find the eulogy given by Judith Helfand, Robert’s dear friend and the co-founder of Working Films, who reflects on their longtime friendship and pioneering work together. We’re also sharing reflections from Robert’s twin sister, Jane Bench, and Robert’s childhood friend Ted Winfield that were given at Robert’s memorial service last year. If these stories and tributes inspire you to share your own memories of Robert, please post in the comments here or on our Facebook page.
Judith and her daughter Theodora, who Robert would have loved to have met!
Tribute for Robert West
by Judith Helfand
Hi. I am Judith. I co-founded Working Films with Robert West.
How do you write a memorial for your best friend who also doubled as your best editor? The one who under normal circumstances would be on the receiving end of this prose…and who, at the eleventh hour… would be the one I could count on to give me frank, stark, commentary, inspiration, a concrete applied lesson in “Less is More,” and when necessary – a hatchet job?
You see Robert was my “Less is More” man.
Many of you might not know this.. but Robert’s favorite tool (in Microsoft Word) was strike-through: RED, BOLD, and FEARLESS – even when afraid.
And what remained – was the heart of our brainstorming sessions, the EKHT (in Yiddish) — the IKAR (in Hebrew) the ESSENCE of the essence of our vision and our ideas.
We fought about “less is more” for many years and in many contexts… If we were doing a residency, I wanted five nights for the filmmakers and he wanted three. If we were doing a workshop, he wanted to end at three, and I wanted to end at six and take everyone out for drinks. I demanded we had to have more protein at breakfast (hard boiled eggs) and fewer pastries. What ever the back and forth, the resulting compromise was our secret sauce.
We met in spring 1994. I followed a lead, “Call the film curator at the Mint – Robert West – he’ll lend you a video projector” for a work in progress screening of a risqué documentary about the radical labor/union history of southern textile workers in the 1930’s and the impact of keeping that history – and legacy – a secret and silenced. That film, and that screening in the basement of the First United Methodist Church would inspire meaningful discussion, interest and a dialogue about respect and workers rights… vs. shame, retribution and shunning. That’s why we needed an emergency video projector at the First United Methodist Church in Charlotte. That’s what I told Robert. “When is the screening,” he asked? “Tonight,” I told him. And, with what I would come to know and expect – an intake of breath, a voice that goes up with a bit of exasperation – we began what has been, and will be, the most important, pivotal, cathartic, kinetic, transformative, and exponentially life-changing working relationship of my life. (You see this is what I am like without him. I use run on adjectives. He would have made me choose one).
That film and that night turned into a “Labor to Neighbor” screening project which then turned into “From Farm to Fast Food, On the Job in North Carolina” – a classroom curriculum project in which we figured out how to use clips from award winning independent documentaries to teach economics and workers rights — to 8th, 9th and 11th and 12th graders in NC, as part of their standard curriculum (It was subversive).
But the thing that led us to found Working Films – the thing above all others – was a moment when everything he cared about and was passionate about all happened in one room.
It was at a screening of the film It’s Elementary, when the Charlotte Mecklenburg County Commission threatened to defund community based organizations and institutions they believed were supporting a gay and lesbian lifestyle.
It was the beginning of a moment when a few very frightened, angry, complicated people with power were promoting censorship against organizations that were creating a civil and inclusive society (Arts groups, social service organizations, etc.), and his film festival and his position at the museum were both in question
They were asking the Mint Museum, which housed the Charlotte Film and Video Festival, “Just how many LGBT films were/are you screening?”
So Robert screened It’s Elementary by Debra Chasnoff, a story about how to teach about gay families in the classroom. By that point he’d been running the Charlotte Film and Video Festival for many successful years. A festival known for Robert personally working hard to bring out a large engaged audience and to make the filmmaker feel very cared for. Each one – by the way – was paid a fee for their time. This was a priority for him.
He also ALWAYS seized the opportunity to really use the moment. He was thinking about those moments more as a curator than an activist (oh we should have these people and those people, fill up the audience), but on some level with that particular screening and a little bit of ego involved (the room needs to be packed and full) he made the shift from curator to activist.
Something happened in that screening of It’s Elementary that became elemental to his thinking. In this moment of self-censorship and gay baiting, public school teachers were at risk of losing their jobs. So you can imagine how much courage it took for a middle school teacher to stand up, essentially out himself, and say that he was gay, his students came to him, with anguished questions, pain – some very likely related to their sexual orientation. ” And I,”the teacher said, “can’t refer them to services, support, or even talk about my life, for fear of losing my job. But honestly I am afraid that we will lose some of these kids.”
Robert said to me later – “We were lucky the right people were in the room.” But it was both luck and strategy that enabled Robert to use that moment to say to the school chancellor (who was in the theater), “You have to spend time and meet with this teacher and talk about the kids who are at risk for suicide. Really – whom are they supposed to talk with other than adults at these institutions?”
Robert said, “You need to make time and open up your office.” He pushed him for a YES… “Tell me you’re going to do that this week.”
Robert told me: “Judith, that combination, the right people in the room at the right time, the passion of the storytelling, the pressure, and the urgency of the moment all swirled together in this one instance. I was willing to risk my position at the film festival for that. And that’s what I want to do with my life.”
It was soon after that we created and founded Working Films. He was inspired by the catharsis, the one he personally felt and the one that took place in the room. The idea that you never have to leave “change” for chance. The idea that you can marry synergy, strategy and storytelling and come out on the other end with the core elements for social change and transformation. Sometimes you’d be able to measure it and sometimes you wouldn’t, but either/or, it would be there in the community. We wanted to bottle that feeling linked to strategy and it became Working Films.
Robert West… was and will always be, my “LESS IS MORE” man.
You have artfully, consciously and mindfully enlarged the definition of “life partner” — (beyond the beloved, committed live-in spouse or co-parent) to mean someone you co-create with, dream big with, take risks with, be your whole complete vulnerable self with.
Someone you go to the farmers market every Saturday with, play ritual games of scrabble with, take fearless Cape Fear river runs in a kayak with…
You have made many life partners in your all too short lifetime. Some you have known for years, and some for much less. But your less – is MORE.
You defied societies focus on finding “the one” to embracing and emboldening many to forge an utterly unique FRIENDSHIP, PARTNERSHIP, WORKSHIP, and FELLOWSHIP, with you.
None of them bound or determined by the amount of time, just the quality of it.
Which is why I can look around the room and see so many of your different life partners — who loved you Robert for, “being exactly who you are.”
On his behalf I have to thank and call out to Molly, Anna, Andy, Kristin, Cassie, and The Working Films Board of Directors, for your tireless selfless work to keep Working Films moving, strategic and working in this most painful of time. And to our long time comrades Shelia Leddy and Dianna Barrett from the Fledgling Fund who came all the way here to join us today – thank you.
AS FOR ME…
You, MY BELOVED FRIEND Robert West
You were, are
& ALWAYS WILL BE
MY partner AND GUIDE in all things engagement,
Be it REAL or R-E-E-L,
Always striving to be
Respectful, mindful optimistic and timely…
WAS and will always be
My “LESS IS MORE” MAN
WILL just have to be ENOUGH.
Tribute for Robert West
by Jane Bench
Hello, I am Jane Bench, and it’s my privilege to be Robert’s twin sister. It’s like winning the lottery. Robert is a “cheerful giver.” This is giving that reaches the core of others. Robert and I often joked that I trained him to be a giver because I always asked him for things. I saw and felt him giving all our lives. I saw it was not always easy for him to give like this, but it started at such a young age. It is just who he is. One of many example: I cried a lot in elementary school over little things. Robert never told me there was no reason for such tears. I looked over at him, and he always had his head turned to the wall, crying along with me.
We had grown apart in our adult years, as many people do. I am eternally grateful that my son, Jordan, transferred to UNC-Wilmington. On a visit to check out the school, Robert entertained Jordan and me all weekend, telling hilarious stories, providing lots of home cooking and introducing us to some of his wonderful friends. Afterwards, Jordan and I rode silently in the car until Jordan said simply, “I like Uncle Robert.” From a young man of few words, this was quite a compliment. That was the start of a great friendship between Jordan and his Uncle Robert. My relationship with Robert was renewed and flourished. Robert told me he loved his life, his work, his friends and family. I certainly understand as I had the privilege of meeting many of you over the past year. Robert summed it up by stating, “I am the luckiest man in the world.”
Last fall, it was time for Jordan to go to UNCW. My husband, Bruce and oldest son, Robert, drove 3000 miles from Seattle to Wilmington with Jordan-much too fast, but arrived safely in late August. Just a week later, Robert was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I asked Robert, “What can I do?” As always, Robert had the answer and said he would tell me exactly what to do, when to do it and that he had an excellent care team in Wilmington. I reminded him he was a man who loved his life more than most and loved others with the ability to show it more than most. He told me as he was on this journey, “Jane, remember that you said and did everything just right.” He was still taking care of me!
I know Robert is in heaven, or whatever each of us wishes to call it. I feel his love shining down on me every day. That’s why I say he is still a cheerful giver because he is still giving. I hope you all feel his love shining down on you.
Thank you, Robert
Tribute for Robert West
by Ted Winfield
I’m here today for myself of course, but I am also here as a representative of those friends that Robert made in Richmond. Those who knew Bob – when he called himself Bob – and have continued to know and care for him and about him. We always looked forward to his trips to Richmond; usually they were made to visit his Mother and his Brother Fred and the rest of his family. David Stover and Caryl Burtner are here I know from Richmond. The four of us would nearly always get together for dinner when Robert was in town.
In the months before Robert’s death, as you all know, he invited everyone to “be present.” He said it often, and he said it in a number of different ways. But of course he simply wanted everyone to come clean – to tell the truth, to share something that mattered, and to give him something “engaging” to think about – or more usually – to talk about.
In that spirit and, I think , to “set an example” for me as I’m sure he did for others, Robert told me a little bit more about his experience growing up – importantly, he did this in a way that I could relate to. He was superb at taking into consideration to his audience – whomever he was speaking to.
He said, for instance, that when we were growing up, that he would come over to my house, in-part to play, but also to receive the lavish attention that was given to him by my Mother.
Bob explained that boys, at his home, were an ever-present-commodity and that because I was the only son in my family (with three girls) that I received all the attention – and that he wanted some of it. He even went so far as to point out that I was so spoiled – so much so that I didn’t even notice that he had “taken my spot” – usurped the throne. He would sit and chat with Mom, and she in turn would feed him.
He told me this story as he always told a story – with one eye toward clarity and the other toward making the story interesting. But he also told me this, I think, because he knew that my mother was dying, just as he was. And he wanted to shine the light of attention back toward someone else – in this case – my mother and me – and away from him.
Shortly before my mother died, Robert wrote in one of his emails about a visit from a friend. He wrote:
“On Friday one of my best friends from Charlotte came and spent the day here. We worked together in Charlotte and we were close buds for 15 years. He moved and I have not seen him in about five years. We talked and laughed some about the past but mostly we talked about his Mom’s death a few months ago. Bob went on to write – “I share this, Ted, because he talked a lot about how helpful Hospice was in the last three weeks. He said they should have come in sooner, but once they were a part of the team – they were incredible. Is your mom taking advantage of Hospice?”
This remarkable attention toward other people – even as he was within the last few months of his life – was typical. And with this I can say that Robert was the quintessential giver.
Bob was a giver and that large part of his personality “THE GIVING” defined his relationships – his relationship to his family and with his friends:
It of course was the cornerstone of the work that he did at Working Films. It was the whole point of Working Films, as it will continue to be, and it was the “great thing” that, I think, that made his life worthwhile to him – this giving back.
Second, In addition to giving – he was an opportunist of the best sort.
The second piece that was so fascinating about Robert was his innate ability to “see” the fruits that could be got from a particular circumstance and to then hammer out, in a very practical way, a positive result. He was a giver, but he was a problem solver as well.
Once again, even, as he lay in bed, he found a way to turn that time and situation into a sublime opportunity to make positive things happen – to make his family members closer to one another (something very important to him), to make his friends comfortable with his imminent death, to make his brain-child, Working Films viable – as they were to go on about their mission without him.
Robert was a kind and giving man who had the tools to turn his goodness into a way of life. And this, I think, is what he was most proud of – his ability to enjoy his life and live it on his own terms while, at the same time, giving back to the world – and make a living by doing it.
David Stover (here today) and I went to high school with Bob. We played at the river a great deal, got in to trouble now and again. We were in what seems like an endless number of accidents. We shared one or two car accidents together and a boating accident as well. Robert stayed in Richmond after High school and went to VCU while I was in the army. After coming home we shared an apartment for a year or so. Robert managed a book store downtown. Eventually he took a job in North Carolina with a publisher. That move eventually lead him to Charlotte and to the Mint Museum. I had moved to Charlottesville and then to Seattle. It was during this early time in Seattle – when Robert was 25 – that he told me and others that he was gay.
I think that this was the beginning of Robert’s new and “real” happiness which of course fueled his desire to “come clean,” to “tell the truth” and to “be of good cheer.” He found, in Charlotte, a community that understood him and allowed him to flourish. He had found a new “second” home.
This new openness allowed him to breathe fresh air – to act in good faith, you could say – across the board. His friends in Wilmington and Charlotte can speak of this better than I can, but I think this honesty directed toward himself gave him all that was needed to feed and direct his incredible talents – his artistic abilities, his love for just-causes, even his organizational skills – and his incredible desire to give back to the world. I think that Bob become the happy, confident, totally engaged Robert when he was 25.
Robert very artfully wove together the things that he loved. He did this in a way that gave him enough time to enjoy his life – to travel, to enjoy the water as he always had, to kayak, to paint – and to simply “play,” however he wanted to play. He was very proud of how he allocated the time in his private world. He was a very rich man in this way. He did in fact fulfill the requirements of his imagination. He was, by his estimation, a success. And he was proud of his accomplishments. Just as he was proud of his family, his work, his friends. In short he did what he had set out to do.
To close, I will miss my friend, Bob. I will miss seeing him and calling him. I’ll miss arguing with him for long periods of time – over extraordinary minor things. I will miss him telling me how to set the table, for example. I will miss going fishing with him on the bay with Freddy and David. But I think mostly I will miss his laugh. Robert was a great deal of fun – especially when he chose to be silly. Mostly when he went into “Story Mode.” Mostly, after a glass of wine or two.
And I do hope that he is in a happier place. Partially because it always gave me joy when he was wrong (not often) – but also because Robert West is certainly one of the few who deserve to be pleasantly surprised.
I’d like to thank friends and family for helping me to be a part of Robert’s last months. It has meant a great deal to have met many of you for the first time and many of Robert’s family after many years – and I hope, in the future, to see more of all of you.
Robert lived a life that should be paid attention to. He was both happy and giving. The knowledge of his own death and how he approached it, only reaffirmed all that he did and believed in while he lived. In Hollywood cemetery, where Robert’s mother and his older brother Jay are buried, where we took countless walks and countless pictures, he has asked that his epitaph read “Constant Joy.” I think he, in his own mind, met that goal by giving to others while listening carefully to the things inside himself that made life rich and full.
I would like to thank Betsy, Julie, David Bill and Tom for taking such good care of Robert.
And my heart goes out to Fred, Jane, and Johnny and their families. Thank you for sharing your brother.
Please share your own memories and reflections about Robert with us. If you would like to honor him by contributing to the Robert West Reel Engagement Fund, which we set up with his blessing and encouragement last spring as a way to memorialize his role in founding the organization and his vision for our work, you can do so atwww.workingfilms.org/donate. Thank you!
It has been a year since our co-founder Robert West passed away. We’re honoring him this week by posting tributes to him from his friends, family, and colleagues. Today we’ve shared the words of Reggie Shuford, Robert’s friend and the Working Films board chair, and Robert’s niece, Emily West. If you feel inspired to share your own memories of Robert after reading, please post in the comments here or on our Facebook page.
For Robert West By Emily West
Thank you for letting me speak about Robert today. I am so happy to be here. And thank you to all of you who have loved him so well.
I have been lucky to have loved Robert without complications. And he was definitely a complicated person. But I have loved him without the complications of misunderstandings, perceived slights, petty alienation as well as any catastrophic offenses. I have loved him, simply, as long as I can remember. As I have grown older and my awareness of myself and the world has grown, it has only shored up my respect for him and our friendship. Our friendship has been an anchor in my life.
Robert has brought profound respect to his relationships. He has seen people and has allowed people to see him. How did he know how to do this? Where did he learn it? In a book of photographs he gave me the Christmas before I turned 18, he wrote, “To Emily, a creative woman.” That certainly gave me a new perspective – I wanted to be creative, but who knew I was a woman???!
Later, when I was in college in New York City, we would go out for these marathon dinners – just the two of us. I don’t know how many of you have had the experience of being in public with Robert- but probably not as teenagers. When I was a self conscious teenager it could be so embarrassing to be in public with Robert. He would laugh so loudly and everyone would look! Mortifying! Then I got older, and when I was out with Robert and he would laugh and every head would turn, it wasn’t embarrassing. It was awesome. We were having more fun than everyone else!
That laugh combined with his knack for telling stories was a force of nature. Robert had the ability to turn something sad or painful into something amusing and take the sting out of it. My mother has said all we Wests have a sense of humor that’s a little sick, or French as I like to think of it. My favorite story – and I’m not sure who originally told it to me – maybe Robert’s sister Jane actually – happened when they were kids growing up in Philadelphia. (I’m no longer sure which parts, if any, of this story are true). Jane was told to go out and find Robert; dinner was ready. She walked around the block yelling ROBERT! ROBERT! DINNER! She found him lying in the neighbor’s yard with croquet hoops around his neck, wrists and ankles. She looked at him and said, “Robert! Dinner! Come On!” He replied quietly, “Jane. I can’t get up.”
Every time we would double over laughing and scream “Tell it again!” Finally, after years of this, on some holiday in Richmond, probably lounging on the rug yelling at us about the horrible TV we watched, he rolled his eyes and said in his soft, calm voice, “You know Emily, that’s not a happy memory for me.”
Where did Robert get his awareness? How did he love and accept himself and others so honestly? I think it’s because he had no fear. I asked Robert why he didn’t fear death. He said, “It’s not unfamiliar to me.” He said he had been with a number of people he loved dearly at their deaths and what he saw wasn’t fear, but acceptance.
He talked about being with Uncle Charlie when he died and what a gift that was. Robert and Charlie (my great uncle) were cut from the same cloth. This is from a letter Robert shared with me written by a priest at the time of Charlie’s death: “Charlie died a long time ago to the vulgar success of money and material luxury….So, Charlie (and Robert) your quiet quest for life has not been in vain. May you have life in abundance. May your heart, which always sought peace for the people, be filled with its fullness.”
My mother found a excerpt from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt and we both felt that it describes Robert.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, fails while daring greatly.”
Robert’s fearlessness in accepting and loving himself allowed him to do the same for all of us. I love the quiet welcome in his voice when he would say ”Hey.” I love the intense passion he had for social justice and change and fairness. His was a life of bravery and compassion. A rare life lived with power and honesty.
I’m reminded of my favorite part of church growing up – the painted words behind the altar at St. James’ in Richmond. And although there is no churchiness today at all, I think he would agree with the sentiment:
“Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.”
Robert West Memorial By Reggie Shuford
Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Reggie Shuford, and I have been Chair of the Working Films board for the past three or so years. I was vice chair for 2 years before that. I am honored to be here with you today and to be a part of today’s service. I would like to talk about Robert’s generosity.
I grew up here in Wilmington, in Creekwood, a housing project quite literally on the other side of the tracks. I was the first African-American to graduate Cape Fear Academy, a local private school, in the mid-80s. Most of my schoolmates were the children of the most well-off people in town. Many had been sent there specifically to avoid integrated public schools. For many reasons, I felt very confined here in Wilmington, like a plant that was not being sufficiently watered or a caged bird – a la Maya Angelou. So, when I left for college, I couldn’t leave fast enough.
In an earlier tribute to Robert, Judith mentioned that Robert had curated his home, filled it with art, old family photos, cool furniture, cut flowers, delicious food, warmth and great friends. The same can be said of his life writ large — from his lifelong work towards making the world a more equal and just place, to founding Working Films with Judith when his position as curator of Film and Video at the Mint Museum of Charlotte didn’t work out, to creating family and community and a safe space, filled with fun, good food and cheer, for those he cared about.
That Robert chose Wilmington, my hometown, to do all of this in was the first of many gifts to me. Literally, after I joined the Working Films board, I was able to visit my family, friends and hometown from New York, the Bay Area and now Philadelphia, on a more frequent and regular basis. Robert’s gift to me, vis-a-vis Working Films, was the gift of reconceptualizing Wilmington, to experience it differently than my childhood. This new vision and experience are broader, more progressive, inclusive, diverse, integrated, humane. Wilmington is not perfect – no place is. But I am grateful to be able to see it much differently than when I left it.
Another gift was Robert’s approach to living and dying. I was with Robert when we discovered there might be a problem. Last August, I flew to Wilmington to meet with Robert in lieu of a full board meeting. It was too hard to get everyone’s summer schedules to work. The plan was for the two of us to meet and then report back to the full board. So, it was just the two of us meeting at the firehouse. During our conversation, Robert lost the ability to complete sentences, no matter how hard he tried. This lasted just a few minutes but felt like an eternity. When the episode passed, Robert promised me he would get it checked out, which led to his diagnosis. So, I felt especially close to his diagnosis and this situation from day one. From then on, Robert’s approach was matter-of-fact, gracious, generous and inspiring. He cared about how we felt — that we allow ourselves to experience the full range of emotions, but that we also be of good cheer. Robert curated his death, just as he had his life. He went out on his own terms. He wanted his final months and days to reflect quality over quantity, so no extraordinary measures or interventions to prolong his life. He chose dignity instead. To die in his own bed, surrounded by – or at least in touch with – the people and things he loved most.
A curator til the very end, he curated every inch of this memorial service. From the music, to the order of speakers, to the length of time we should speak.
In closing, I would say that Robert gave all of us another gift: the inspiration and example of how to curate your life. To fill it with the people, causes, and things you love, to take occasional breaks from technology.
Robert certainly gave material gifts, but his most important gifts were less tangible and more enduring. They were about friendship, community, living one’s life and helping others live lives in full bloom, tearing down walls, and spreading one’s wings and soaring.
50 years have passed since Freedom Summer, when more than 700 local organizers and students took segregated Mississippi by storm, registering voters, and creating freedom schools. Freedom Summer put a national spotlight on the violent voter suppression facing Black Americans in the deep south and ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Half a century later, voting rights are under attack again.
That’s why Working Films, the NC NAACP, Democracy NC, and many allies are bringing screenings of Freedom Summer to cities across North Carolina this month as part of the Moral Movies film series.
With the dismantling of voting rights in North Carolina, the themes in this film resonate all too well. After the screenings representatives from Democracy NC will draw the connection between the fight to end voter suppression on screen and the struggle playing out right here and now in North Carolina. If you’re in Wilmington, Durham, Raleigh, Greenville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Fayetteville, or Asheville come join to find out what is being done to defend voting rights and how you can get involved! If you know people in these locations, spread the word! Dates and Locations for all screenings below.
Winston Salem: Monday, June 16th, 6pm
The Central Library Auditorium, 660 West Fifth St. Winston Salem, NC 27101
Greensboro: Tuesday, June 24th, 6:30pm
International Civil Rights Center and Museum, 134 S Elm St. Greensboro, NC 27401
Greenville: Tuesday June 24th, 7pm
Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 131 Oakmont Dr. Greenville, NC 27858