The Art of Building a Road: Working Films' New Organizational Structure and a Future of Shared Power
We’re in a moment in the world, and in the documentary field, where it’s become exceedingly clear that the dominant ways of working are not serving us well, and instead are perpetuating real harm. Current-day societal crises are mirrored in oppressive and extractive practices that have dominated the documentary industry its entire history. At Working Films, we have been asking ourselves honest and reflective questions about leadership and the ways power are held in our organization, including whether or not two white women should lead a documentary impact organization. To ensure that we don’t replicate the oppressive power structures we aim to dismantle through our programs, we’ve started to turn questions that we ask of filmmakers back on ourselves. What are we doing to share power and how are we holding ourselves accountable?
When our founding director, Robert West, passed in 2013, it was a non-traditional choice to adopt a co-directorship. Anna Lee and Molly Murphy, both long-time staff with a combined 20 years of experience, brought complementary skill sets and expertise and favored shared decision-making. Our ability to learn from one another and shift based on consideration and respect for one another’s different perspectives has been among our greatest strengths and accomplishments—personally and in our work. Skepticism of our new leadership was palpable at the time, though. Most of our longtime funders in the documentary sector either eliminated or significantly decreased their monetary support for Working Films. The depletion of resources was indicative of a perception that we couldn’t continue without the single leading figure who had been at the helm. And while Robert was a one-of-a-kind innovator and among the very first to lead an organization focused on positioning documentary films to make an impact, he never did it alone. But other staff had not been that highly visiblized before. And there was no succession plan.
It was many years before we could rebuild a solid foundation for Working Films and start to grow. That was possible because of those who volunteered their time to build our skills and advise us—namely, but not only, board members Keryl McCord, Reggie Shuford, Lisa Chanoff, co-founder Judith Helfand, and mentors Alyce Myatt and Naomi Swinton. In addition, founding members Natalie Bullock Brown and Betty Yu, whose terms had expired years prior, rejoined our board of directors. We’ve often dubbed that time period our trial by fire, but fortunately, there was a community to dampen the flames and help us rebuild. With a shared strategy, support, and love for the work, brought us to a new beginning. And we’re at the start of another one now.
Working Films' new organizational chart now includes five executive co-directors and two lead positions with autonomous power over major areas of their work. It is inverted from that of most organizations, but that’s not the most important part of the story. Rather, it's what brought us here.
We began with an examination of our internal operations to assess the ways in which white supremacy was and could proliferate and to research and consider leadership models that align with our vision of becoming a truly anti-racist, equitable and non-oppressive workplace. We’ve dug into our core values of collaboration, accountability, grassroots leadership, justice and equity—examining the way we hold and wield power, asking ourselves what must change, and doing deeply relational and challenging work to get there. We think the path we’ve walked thus far has something to offer our field.
Our new structure distributes power and leadership throughout our entire organizational team. It allows us to be adaptable and responsive to the complex systems that we work within, removing unnecessary bottlenecks that occur when only one or two people sign off on a vast array of internal and external decisions. It recognizes that people are fully capable and equipped to make decisions about the areas of work where their expertise and time are focused. The new structure also recognizes that the internal finance and administrative work of the organization are just as important as the external programs and fundraising. Andy Myers now serves as Director of Campaigns and Strategy; Anna Lee is Director of Learning and Development; Gerry Leonard is Director of Filmmaker Services and Impact; Molly Murphy is Director of Partnerships and Innovation; Stephanie Avery is Director of Finance and Organizational Resilience. Hannah Hearn is Impact Coordinator and Fellowships Lead and new to our team is Amalia Renteria, Communications Lead.
This new structure provides more autonomy to more staff, with final decisions being made by a wider cross-section section of the team. In short, it recognizes that all of our work is interconnected and requires each other and that we are better off sharing leadership and decision-making to ensure that our individual careers, our programs, and the organization thrive. While power is being more widely distributed, we are also increasing transparency, gaining more input, and reporting to one another more fully on our work.
These are some of the key elements anchoring our new structure, grounded in a real willingness to admit when we’ve got room to grow and learn from others:
Naming and Challenging White Supremacy
We started holding monthly decolonizing sessions last year, which are intentional spaces for conversation and reflection on issues of race, racism, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and Indigenous erasure. In and outside of these, we’re working to deepen our analysis and understanding of systemic racism, acknowledging that anti-racist work is an ongoing process that requires a continual examination of our proximity to privilege and power, and the accountability we owe to everyone we work in solidarity with. Decolonizing sessions are a process, not an endpoint, where ongoing personal and organizational assessments of values, beliefs, and feelings are front and center. We’ve focused many of these sessions on the ways white supremacy culture was showing up in our daily work, using Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones’ White Supremacy Culture as our guide, and determining steps to address these problems.
One of our goals is to truly reflect the communities we collaborate with and serve, which are primarily Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. While the majority of our team are People of Color, our executive leadership is still majority white. We also have no staff living with disabilities and have much work to do to be a truly accessible workplace. We do believe that as we grow, this new structure, based on a foundation that operationalizes anti-racism and anti-oppression, will help us do the work required to support leaders from all backgrounds.
Clarity of Roles and Decision-Making
One lesson central to our new structure is that tyranny lies in ambiguity. Much of our work in transitioning has been focused on clearly specifying each and every decision and who it falls to on our team, as well as those that are shared. What we recognized as our team sat around a table to look—line by line, decision by decision—at our organizational processes was that there were places where we’d convinced ourselves that decisions had been shared, even though they were not. By zooming in on who truly was holding decision-making power, we couldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we’d shared power. Now everyone knows exactly who decides what, allowing us to ensure that there is a balance of power. For group decisions, we have created meeting processes that allow for each person to have equal space to voice their perspectives and concerns, making sure no voice is louder and that shared decisions are truly shared.
Building Trust by Embracing Conflict and Feedback
Sharing decision-making power requires trusting your colleagues. In our work together, we realized that one of the primary ways that white supremacy culture showed up for our team was in conflict avoidance. This is a habit that undermines trust. Half of our staff identified as conflict-avoidant about a year ago. Since then, we have each undergone personal introspection and growth to become a team that embraces conflict as a unique tool to build trust. We have utilized Community Resource Hub’s Turning Toward Each Other: A Conflict Workbook. Many of us still feel that conflict is deeply uncomfortable, but we now see it as necessary and critical if we are ever going to live our values.
We’ve created practical structures for providing feedback to one another within and across director- and lead-level staff. Monthly feedback meetings are modeled from those provided by The Management Center, which helps leaders working for social change build and run more equitable, sustainable organizations. These meetings help us share success and discuss needs for change—for ourselves and for the colleagues with whom we are meeting.
We’re creating spaces for connection, vulnerability, and trust-building through practices such as grounding meditations at the opening of meetings and making time for significant personal check-ins during all of our meetings.
Perfectionism and a need to present a polished veneer even for works-in-progress is yet another way white supremacy culture rears its head. Throughout our process of reevaluating our organizational structure and processes, we’ve attempted to counter this by embracing experimentation. We’ve piloted and developed new approaches through a process in which anyone in the organization can propose new ways of doing work. This has led to a four-day work week, the use of Slack for internal communication, and a new program for better connecting and resourcing our community of filmmakers, called Impact Lounge.
Rather than seeking to finalize a perfect structure, we want to remain open to change. We have many unresolved issues and decisions ahead of us, but we are building the road as we go. While we have defined directorship and made adjustments to salaries and titles, we have open questions to explore about advancement and further expansion of directorship, including the possibility of building a fully flat organizational structure. Open communication and the trust mentioned earlier are what will allow us to work through these issues. To a certain extent, even the publication of this piece, at this moment, is an example of vulnerability, rather than professed perfectionism.
Humility and Learning from Others
The success of Working Films has never been reflective of its leadership alone. Naming that and then proceeding to give up power by sharing it with a broader array of people within an organization requires humility from leaders. They need to recognize they are not solely responsible for decisions that affect everyone, and neither are they the most important individual within an organization.
Every bit of what we have outlined here has been informed by our learnings from others. We held community input sessions with filmmakers and organizers with whom we work. Executive Directors Steven Renderos of Media Justice and Michele Ramos of Alternate Roots also lent their time discussing with us the ways they have worked to better distribute power and dismantle hierarchy within their organizations. The model that most influenced where we’ve landed is drawn from Sustainable Economies Law Center, a worker-self-directed nonprofit.
The by-line for this piece has seven authors—our entire Working Films team—whose tenure at the organization ranges from 20 years to less than 20 days. The story of our organization is one whose authorship should be credited to each of us—and to far more people than we can name here. And we’re not alone in this work. So many of our documentary colleagues are pushing for the democratization of our field, asking where power lies and what the implications of that are for our work. We’re energized by the depth of consideration and care of our colleagues in their work in their own collectives, networks, filmmaking practices, and institutions. We do this work, standing beside and in service of storytellers and movement leaders who share our belief that things can be different; that we have the collective power to build just, loving, and sustainable communities. It is work. And it’s joyful and fulfilling, and a salve in these times.
Working Films was founded in 1999, and the organization positions documentaries to advance social justice and environmental protection. The authors—Stephanie Avery, Hannah Hearn, Anna Lee, Gerry Leonard, Molly Murphy, Andy Myers, Amalia Renteria—are all members of its staff.
Editors' and Authors' Note: We understand the ableist implications of the previous header, "Building a Road by Walking." We have changed the text to address this oversight and better reflect our commitment and respect towards all the communities we partner with and serve.