Alumni Spotlight: Jeanette Lam, '19

Visiting Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center with her first-year seminar "Storytelling for Social Change" and pursuing her passion for filmmaking as a journalism major set Bonner Scholar Jeanette Lam on her current path to use art to tell stories of resilience and our shared humanity.

What are you working on now?

I am still working full-time as a Digital Media Educator at Youth FX, a film production and education organization in Albany, NY. Our staff is all working from home and we are continuing to connect with our students in Albany's South End through virtual workshops and events.

I am also a part of NeXt Doc Fellowship, a collective of young non-fiction filmmakers working to decolonize documentary and create access for more storytelling by artists of color. I and three other NeXt Doc fellows are planning a virtual "Decarceration Film Festival" to take place Saturday, June 6th. We are bringing together our four films centering adult and youth incarceration in four different cities: Richmond, Chicago, LA, and NYC. We will be bringing on guests, including formerly incarcerated individuals from our films and community activists from our respective cities. Our goal is to center those who have personally been impacted by incarceration + those who have done immense work to move our broken systems towards rehabilitation. We hope audience members will walk away with a desire to learn more about the historic and modern day discriminatory American prison system and continue actively being an advocate during COVID-19 and beyond.

I am also writing a book! The current working title: A Flower in a Dark Place: Then, Now, and Beyond. The process began as me writing an article about a court hearing of one of the young men in my documentary short film, A Flower in a Dark Place. The article was about the power of storytelling and how this young man's bravery to share his heart vulnerably and honestly in our film ended up helping him in court. I having a professional relationship to him as a filmmaker was able to serve as a character witness. I provided his lawyers a letter of support and 50+ letters written to him by family and friends of mine in response to the film. The judge acknowledged it was the best defense and representation of rehabilitation he had seen in his entire career. My friend's sentence was lessened in a way that his lawyers said is unheard of, a miracle, really.

In my first draft of the article, I immediately wrote 10 pages and realized there was way too much to unpack and share in just one article. My short book A Flower in a Dark Place: Then, Now, and Beyond provides an intimate look into the beginnings of my juvenile justice youth advocacy work and discusses the pressing need for intersectional solidarity. I hope sharing my experiences can help people open their hearts and minds to the systemic injustices that affect ALL of our lives today and encourage people to do their own homework and get involved in youth advocacy. I want people to have a name, a story, a soul in their mind every time they hear the word incarceration. I want to bring people proximate to the issue, make it personal. This book is inspired by and dedicated to three beautiful boys incarcerated in Virginia's Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center I've had the privilege of building friendships with. I hope hearing their stories will remind people of their son, their brother, their friend. I hope people will pause, connect, and begin to care.

How has the current pandemic changed your work?

I am currently working from home due to COVID-19. Luckily, Youth FX was able to transition quickly and rather smoothly. Currently, I co-teach and co-facilitate Zoom workshops every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday for youth ages 14-19. Sometimes my co-workers and I teach the classes ourselves, and other times, we bring on teaching artists from our larger Albany community. These workshops include film analysis, cinepoetry, cinematography, editing, music, acting, scriptwriting, etc. These classes began as private workshops for our Youth FX students, but we have now opened them up to the public so youth ages 14-19 from anywhere can register and join.

I have also been co-hosting our weekly Friday Night Flicks, a series in which we post short films on our IGTV Friday mornings and have an IG Live Q&A Friday nights with the director or actors. So far we have screened several Youth FX throwback films, student work, as well as A Flower in a Dark Place. We are slated to screen Nikyatu's Sundance award-winning short film, Suicide by Sunlight and award-winning director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte's docu-short, Brujas. If you are interested in signing up for workshops or tuning into our growing Friday Night Flicks event, visit @youthfxfilm.

What is your advice for the Class of 2020?

Class of 2020, I'm so sorry that you guys didn't get to celebrate the end of your senior year in the traditional way. But you all are a resilient bunch and there's so much ahead of you! My advice for the Class of 2020 is - as you leave the infrastructures you have grown up in your whole lives, make sure you spend time getting to know yourself. Spend time understanding your position in the world, don't just walk through it mindlessly. What privileges do you hold? How can you acknowledge them and use your power to help educate and uplift others? What beliefs do you carry that are birthed from social and cultural constructs? Do they still serve you? How can you come deeper into your identity and utilize your skills and talents to reimagine a more just and equitable world? I ask myself these questions often. I hope as you all step into the newness that awaits you, you spend time asking yourself these questions and more. Best of luck! You got this!