The Discomfort of Change (Erika Dilday GR '22 keynote)
This keynote talk was delivered at Getting Real '22 and was published as part of Documentary's Winter 2023 issue. To view the video recording, which includes a brief Q&A between Erika Dilday and IDA's Director of Artist Programs, Abby Sun, click here.
Anyone who wants to make change does not have the luxury of being comfortable. Documentary filmmakers know this better than anyone. Filmmakers go to difficult places, ask difficult questions and even put their lives on the line to deliver to audiences the truths that inform us, enlighten us, and hopefully lead us toward real change. But what else can we do to create real change? And what should that real change be? These are questions I find myself constantly contemplating. I think most questions worth asking should be asked regularly and probed vigorously. The short answer for me to both of these questions is that we can make use of our public airwaves to challenge and engage audiences everywhere. The longer answer means examining our individual and collective duty to make sure all stories are told honestly and authentically and that we include with the purpose of building something better, not simply breaking what is in place.
I was raised by a man who showed me what it took to make change happen. In 1972, my father, Bill Dilday, became the first Black general manager of a TV station in the country, at WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi. This happened in Mississippi not because it was uniquely progressive, but because in a landmark case, the FCC mandated that the station be transferred to Black ownership due to racist practices. So, we moved down from Boston to Jackson. Certainly my father’s new position was an enormous accomplishment and broke all kinds of barriers, but our family’s time in Jackson was far from easy. The FBI followed us around for several years and we weren’t sure whether it was to protect or watch us.
At my predominantly white school in Mississippi, I was involved in a number of different activities, from playing basketball to eventually becoming student body president. I received a good education and made many lifelong friends. Throughout my time there, I also regularly encountered overt and covert racism. My experiences made me stronger. I realized that many people would doubt me and my abilities, and that if I looked to the outside world for validation, I would not find it. I know what it is like to have racial slurs yelled at you and your friends from a car by a group of grinning teenagers. I know what it is like to have an elementary school friend sadly and politely tell you that she must uninvite you to her birthday party because it is at her grandmother’s house and she won’t allow Black people to come. I also learned about bravery from the many change-makers and civil rights leaders, both Black and white, who shaped my youth and my journey.
Believing in yourself and what you do and what you have to say can be very difficult at times, especially when you have been conditioned to believe that your voice should not be heard. If you don’t make your voice heard, though, how will things change?
In 1980, there was a six-hour network TV miniseries (with fairly big stars) called Beulah Land that portrayed slavery as a benign institution, with its Black characters docile and even content with being enslaved. My father simply refused to show the series at his station. It was, to put it mildly, an incredibly unpopular decision among the power base of Mississippi.
This made an enormous impression on me. I was very proud that my father wouldn’t let anyone push him around, that he had the integrity to stand up when public opinion was against him. I also remember having some people ask me angrily why my father would do something like that. It was then that I really started to understand what was at stake.
Being a person of color in a position of power—in a sense, an educator and gatekeeper—in my view, is absolutely essential to the broader project of diversity, inclusion and solidarity.
I left Mississippi to go to college, and those four years opened my eyes in ways that were both positive and negative. For one, I’d never lived among such a diverse group of people before. It was an experience that helped me understand how little some of our lines cross. One of my biggest revelations was that there are many people who don’t think of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” as the quintessential holiday song. In fact, many of them hadn’t even heard it. I also did learn and love the multicultural tapestry of my fellow students. While white people were the majority, I also met people from many different countries of many different hues and learned to appreciate different histories and traditions not through books, but through people I called friends. I also learned how many prejudices and biases we carry with us simply through ignorance.
I later attended Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where I studied long-form broadcast, as there was no doc program at the time. What really inspired me and propelled me toward documentary was seeing the film Hoop Dreams. It changed my mind about what nonfiction film can be. Director Steve James gave protagonists Arthur Agee and William Gates the opportunity to share the multidimensional nature of their difficulties, and show how precarious the idea of the American dream is for Black Americans. One scene that stayed with me was when William struggled to pass the SATs to qualify for his college scholarship. This young man might not have been studious, but he did what he was supposed to at school—and could not get the modest score he needed. Our system failed him because he was poor and Black. The moment makes you more angry than sad, eliciting more empathy than sympathy because you’re with the protagonist and not looking down on them. I am still in awe of Steve James and what he accomplished with that film at that time. He did it by looking at Agee and Gates not as “subjects” but as people with agency and dignity. This year on POV, we are showing Let the Little Light Shine, a powerful story about saving a predominantly Black elementary school. The film is produced and directed by Kevin Shaw, a young, gifted Black filmmaker who is also a Firelight Media alum; Steve James is executive producer. This, to me, is how as a film community we support filmmakers and evolve in the telling of our stories.
Building Community through Nonfiction Storytelling
My passion for not just nonfiction storytelling, but exhibition, grew with the Maysles Documentary Center, where I was inspired to engage by Albert Maysles and his wife Gillian Walker’s desire to move to a marginalized community in New York City: Harlem. I didn’t come to Maysles expecting to lead the organization, but I really admired the way they used their influence to bring resources to a neighborhood in need of a cinema and a documentary program. They came into the community with this endeavor, knowing it was best to let it be run by someone from the community. As documentarians who had achieved an incredible level of success, they also realized the playing field wasn’t equal. We were lucky enough to have strong organizations of color, such as Firelight Media, doing exemplary work and mentoring countless people of color, but the Maysles family realized that creating spaces for inclusion and equity wasn’t just the burden of [Firelight Founders] Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith, but the responsibility of everyone in the field.
At Maysles, I oversaw community cinema and filmmaking programs, and I produced Albert Maysles’ final film, the award-winning In Transit. In my time there, I really wanted the Maysles Center to be a place for everyone. Harlem and its population would always be our primary community, but appreciation for the arts doesn’t have to be redlined. While we programmed for Harlem, I felt that our offerings should be as universally attractive as anything on Museum Mile.
My career has been focused on making authentic and diverse narratives part of the current media landscape, to create an honest and accurate reflection of our country and the world we want to make. I was drawn to my current role at American Documentary precisely because of our mission to amplify underheard voices and new narratives for public media—a space intended for all. And I believe that it is our collective responsibility to make sure that it is truly a space for all by providing diverse, interesting and accessible content to a public that needs and demands it.
Where We Are and Where We Need To Be
Today, gatekeepers as a group are a lot more diverse than they used to be, bringing more perspectives to what we see and who represents it. Especially in public media, we’re seeing the audience change, with young people and people of color being the fastest-growing audiences we serve.
But I don’t want to just count numbers. I want us to dig deeper. I want us to try harder.
This is an excerpt from the Kerner Commission Report, drafted by a coalition established by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the cause of so-called “urban riots.” The report was released in 1968, on the heels of the uprisings in Newark and Detroit:
The causes of recent racial disorders are embedded in a tangle of issues and circumstances—social, economic, political and psychological which arise out of the historic pattern of [Black]-white relations in America.
…virtually every major episode of violence was foreshadowed by an accumulation of unresolved grievances and by widespread dissatisfaction among [Black people] with the unwillingness or inability of local government to respond.
This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one [B]lack, one white–separate and unequal.
I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission—it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland—with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction. These words come to our minds as we conclude this report.
Doesn’t this sound like it could have been written today?
So the question is, Why do we keep failing?
Across the nonfiction field, there have been many honest attempts to create opportunities for BIPOC and underserved communities to tell their stories and take their rightful place, from the world of public broadcasting to the broader cultural landscape. So why are we here? Why are we still fighting to get airtime, funding and authentic representation?
I think the answer is pretty simple. In this country, those in power are not willing to make themselves truly uncomfortable to achieve the goals they claim to support. In times of unrest and anger, there is a mix of fear and virtue that leads the “haves,” to insist we “do something” about access. We tend to focus more on the lack of sustained action, but need to think more about accountability. Accountability is more than just an apology, or wanting to say the “right thing” to avoid an angry backlash. Accountability means staying and looking at what you’ve done and how you’ve done it and if you need to do it better. It’s asking the questions again and again.
I’m not against anger. We should all be angry for so many reasons, but I want to know what we can do with anger to make change. My anger comes from a belief that we can do better, but that history keeps repeating itself and we don’t. From our little corner of anger, we can make sure that nonfiction film isn’t just passively viewed. We need to make sure it is a tool for engagement.
Good documentaries teach us to listen and really hear the stories of others without getting defensive and attempting to respond. Rather, they are a catalyst for protagonists to tell their own stories, and in the process help us consider our responsibilities to others.
I want us to be better informed and engaged with each other and the world around us, despite our distance and differences. When documentaries are made available to all, viewers can bridge these divides and meaningfully connect with the perspectives they present. This is essential to inspiring audiences into action.
But that takes trust—trust that an audience puts in us to deliver information and ideas that they might not normally get to bring them something that really reflects what’s going on in this country, informed by voices that they might never otherwise hear.
In order to build trust with our audiences, we have to be willing to get uncomfortable along the way. It’s not just about making good films, it’s ensuring that access is possible for everyone because all audiences deserve to see and contend with these films.
One example of an environment built in trust is the Maysles Center’s Congo in Harlem Festival. While it presented marquee films you’d see at the most prestigious festivals, we also prioritized films by Congolese students that only Maysles could bring to US audiences. Most of these films wouldn’t have ordinarily been seen outside of their country of origin, but the festival ensured these stories reached a new, broader audience. And by experiencing this festival at the Maysles Center in Harlem, our audiences trusted the way programmers selected and framed these films and came to expect being exposed to works that expanded their point of view.
For trust to thrive among audiences, one must have faith in the audience’s ability to absorb, reflect, create dialogue, and take action in ways that our country and this world needs. And frankly, this is also about audiences experiencing some discomfort along the journey.
That discomfort might take place on both sides of the camera. When I was working on the film Civil War, director Rachel Boynton explored how history is taught in our classrooms, from President Obama’s final year in office through 2020. A crucial goal for the film was to bring people from different sides of the debate together to talk. We learned that it was very difficult to get people to trust each other, or be willing to watch and discuss this film with others who think differently.
Our willingness to “go there” resulted in a subtle but determined approach, forcing our team to get vulnerable even in front of the camera themselves. The film went on to a wide release, streaming on Peacock and sparking uncomfortable but essential dialogue everywhere we screened. Civil War also gave an early glimpse of the polarization of our country’s classrooms we see on display today, from national debates on critical race theory to local book bans.
Nowhere have I seen the potential for documentaries to make material change than in the world of public media. Earlier this year, POV premiered On the Divide, a story about the last abortion clinic on the US-Mexico border. We worked with partners across the country, including local stations across Texas, to make sure the film was available to millions of viewers in red states, blue states and everywhere in between. Two months later, we learned that Roe v. Wade was overturned. We quickly worked with the filmmakers to extend the free streaming window, making it accessible to community groups like Trust Women in Wichita. They used the film to educate the community about a state ballot measure on abortion rights in Kansas—and their grassroots efforts helped spark a voter turnout to protect reproductive care in the state constitution.
The Power and Responsibility of Public Media
This is what public media can be: an authentic and accessible way to bring documentaries, ideas and understanding to viewers like us, from filmmakers like us.
Public media is part of a broader constellation of documentary spaces we all know and love, but has a unique position as a populist institution where one doesn’t need an exclusive badge to gain entry. It doesn’t use an algorithm to filter content for its audiences. Instead, its purpose is keeping its citizens well informed, engaged, and inspired through a sense of solidarity and shared humanity—by making accessible artful storytelling that reflects the world’s diverse reality.
I know I say “accessible” a lot. Here’s what accessible means to me: that you can view films without barriers, have them interpreted for you in a manner that works for your language and ability so that you the viewer can fully experience these stories. Access is power.
That includes access to produce and present these stories, to amplify and nurture the authentic voices of filmmakers. Public media validates the importance of these artists speaking their own truths, and frames the conversation in a way that gives film participants, filmmakers and audiences the respect they deserve.
We owe this debt to ourselves and our audiences—even the segments outside of the fastest-growing ones—to bring them content that stretches them, that enriches them, and that sometimes will make them a little uncomfortable.
My question is, How are you going to make yourself uncomfortable?
Until audiences are treated in the way they deserve, inspiring action-focused dialogue and real material action, we are not going to move ahead as a diverse nation, as a diverse world.
Until we expect more from ourselves and our audiences, the action and effort to become better citizens of the world, we are never going to move ahead.
Until we decide that inclusion is not built on exclusion, we are not going to achieve any sort of harmony or justice. When someone feels left out, or marginalized, nobody wins, creating a vicious cycle of displacement and alienation. Still, true reconciliation requires some level of discomfort.
When people feel they have nothing to build for, they build against. And that’s one of the things we have to remember: Our job.
Now, I’d like you to think about a film that moved you in some way. Whether it made you angry, you thought it was ridiculous, or if it inspired you.
Think about what you could do with those feelings. How would you share that film with someone you know? What can that film make possible for someone who has the chance to experience it?
Think about why you want to share with someone, and what could happen if you did.
Now think about watching it again. One of the things I’ve found is that when I watch something more than once, I always see something different.
Just as I listen to people to understand them, try listening a little longer—not just to form an opinion, but to truly understand. You might find that sometimes your opinion
Albert Maysles used to say, “How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know your neighbor?” I don’t know if I’m filled with as much love as Albert was, but my feeling is, How can you understand your neighbor if you don’t know your neighbor? To me, seeing what people share about themselves, their lives and their communities through documentary film is one of the best ways to do that, and it is the duty of public media to facilitate that landscape.
We need to go beyond inclusion as a one-dimensional goal and to understand diversity as everybody’s problem and everybody’s issue. It’s not about getting out of the way, but standing in the right place.
Public media is a service for our national consciousness: the opportunity for every person in this country to have the right and privilege to share their stories, their ideas, their take. We need to put the “public” back in public media, to feel a sense of ownership. Not as consumers, but as citizens: what it brings you and what you bring to it.
As I moved along in my career, I found meaning, both personally and professionally, in making some kind of a difference. I became the first Black woman appointed to an executive director position at American Documentary, also executive-producing our POV and America ReFramed series. I’m proud to continue my dad’s tradition in using the airwaves to disrupt.
And I invite you all, the independent documentary community, to join me in demanding more of public media, demanding more of ourselves as a nonfiction community, and demanding more of people on the opposite side of the aisle to engage in productive discussion and interaction.
Demand more of each other; it is crucial that we hold each other accountable to build a better world for one another, together.
I fully hope and expect that I will hear from people who say, I agree with some of what you said here, and completely disagree with what you said here. And I’m looking forward to it— one just as much as the other. Thank you for listening.
Erika Dilday, a producer, journalist and media executive, is the executive director of American Documentary Inc. and executive producer of its award-winning documentary series POV on PBS and America ReFramed on WORLD Channel.
Most recently, she was the CEO of Futuro Media Group, a multimedia organization that gives a critical voice to the diversity of the American experience through award-winning journalistic content for and about BIPOC. Prior to Futuro Media, she was the Executive Director of Maysles Documentary Center where she oversaw community cinema, filmmaking programs and produced the acclaimed documentary, In Transit. Erika also held strategic planning and financial management roles at The New York Times, National Geographic Television and CBS. She is a graduate of Harvard College, the Columbia School of Journalism and Columbia Business School.
In 2020 she was a Knight Nieman fellow at Harvard University where she authored a piece for the Nieman Reports on authentic journalism in communities of color. Erika is a 2016 recipient of the Columbia Journalism School Alumni Award and a 2017 National Arts Strategies Chief Executive Fellow. Her latest film projects include Civil War with Rachel Boynton and Meanwhile with Catherine Gund.