Interview with CUNY BA Alumna Emma Francis-Snyder (Social Documentation, Brooklyn College, ’15)

Interview with Alumna Emma Francis-Snyder (Social Documentation, Brooklyn College, ’15)

Interview by Pasani Dharmasena (Medical Anthropology, City College ’22)

What was the motivation behind your area of concentration, and why did you choose to pursue CUNY BA over a traditional degree?

            I’ve been an activist for a very long time. In 2012, I was involved in the student movement while attending Brooklyn College, where I was really trying to find my place within the larger social justice and racial equity movement in the United States. I wanted to learn more about successful movements in history. I grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Westchester and I have always felt very comfortable sharing my opinion. When the tuition increased at Brooklyn College, it obviously affected me because I had to pay for increased tuition, but there were people who were disproportionately affected. I wanted to document what we were doing while supporting and uplifting the voices of my comrades who were impacted more severely by this. At the time, I began thinking about the impact media has and how it can be used as a tool for effecting change. One of the students in the Brooklyn College Student Union recommended I look into the CUNY BA program.

            It is amazing that I was able to create my own degree through the CUNY BA program. I was able to craft an area of concentration that allowed me to pursue and satisfy my intellectual curiosities. CUNY BA allowed me to work, intern, and take classes that I felt were important to my learning and interests; I was able to marry all of these things to create Social Documentation – which ultimately helped me to create Takeover, which began as my student thesis film. CUNY BA gave me the space and time to do my research, make the connections I needed, and gain real-world experiences, all while getting credit for it. The ability to get credit for internships and the film jobs that I was doing helped me have a manageable amount of work per semester without creating so much stress. The “real world” work I did while in the program gave me insight ahead of time, so when I jumped into the documentary field after I graduated, I already had a good understanding of how it worked. The program is a gem that alleviates unnecessary pressure and stress due to the arbitrary rules and regulations most other schools have while allowing students to explore their intellectual interests. Truly, what else is college for? 

What specific classes were you able to take as part of your Social Documentation concentration as opposed to a regular film major degree at Brooklyn College?

            I was able to do many independent studies, which was very cool! The first one that I took was Civil Rights of the Black Power Movement with Jeanne Theoharis. At this point, I wasn’t fully sure if I wanted to go into film. You’re allowed to adjust and change classes as you move forward with CUNY BA, so I had an idea of what I wanted but I wasn’t sure what it looked like. I was filming on my own, taking classes like history of nonfiction film, studying the civil rights and black power movement, and taking other sociology classes. Through this, I was able to get into the mindset of a sociologist and go into filmmaking with that foundation. I essentially got to look at the world as a sociologist and see the institutions and structures that impact the way we experience the world. Filmmaking, like everything else, is subjective; I was very intentional about the lens by which I told stories and was very aware of the power that the camera holds. The way you position the camera can change how the audience thinks about a certain subject. To work in media comes with a lot of power, so it’s important to be thoughtful of one’s perspective and very mindful of what you’re trying to say. I carry this into the work I create.

How did your experience in the CUNY BA Program nurture your interest in social documentation?

            CUNY BA really allowed me to craft and explore social documentation and what that meant to me. The program is so open-ended and allows you to explore, learn, and create. I got to find out what that meant to me and what I wanted to learn, as well as how I could share that with the world. The concentration I chose reflects what I wanted to learn and ultimately how I have come to understand life. The freedom I had to do things that were really important for me was a reason that I felt as if I didn’t have to go to graduate school; I had such a specific concentration that allowed me to explore this very niche area. I feel very grateful for having that experience and it was phenomenal. CUNY BA was a little safe haven where creative and critical thought is encouraged, which is so special. What other institution gives you so much freedom? Unfortunately, public institutions are often so structured in a way that prevents students from exploring beyond standardized testing which frequently doesn’t allow much space for critical thought. CUNY sees students from across the spectrum of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and everyone has the opportunity to apply to this program, which is a beautiful thing. CUNY BA delivers this dream and goal of going to college to explore your own intellectual thoughts and philosophies, form them, and then get credit for it.

I know you began the foundation for your film The Takeover during your undergraduate career. Can you explain how CUNY BA helped influence your film?

            CUNY BA allowed me the freedom to explore my interests. I started studying the Civil Rights and Black Power movement and I wrote a paper which is where I learned about the Young Lords and their effect on public health policy. I was blown away by how these 17-year-old kids changed the course of healthcare history in the United States but were not credited for it at all. Learning about the Young Lords while studying film gave me the opportunity and space to create a film for my thesis. 

I took classes for sociology, like visual sociology and introduction to sociology, but that wasn’t really where I wanted to go with this topic. When I started taking documentary and film classes, I was able to bring my interests together and create Takeover. With the lens that I have as an activist, I wanted to make a documentary that felt like an action movie and was engaging for young people. I learned about the Young Lords when I was 26-years-old and I wanted Takeover to get you closer to a piece of history that wasn’t shared or known well enough. A lot of the scenes are recreations, which is something I studied in my film classes; I wanted to create something that makes the audience feel like they were there. The recreations I filmed were also based on first-hand research I conducted by doing interviews. The fact that I was a student and had written a paper helped me gain the Young Lords’ trust and learn about something that wasn’t researched about much before. 

            The creation of Takeover was my own reckoning with American history. I grew up in a fairly liberal place, but the way that I learned about the Black Power movement is not the reality of why it came to be. The Black Power movement was a response to institutionalized racism that affected their ability to move through life with dignity and ultimately the desire for self-determination and community control of institutions. Ultimately, the struggles and wins that people of color have fought for have benefited every person in this country. I was so inspired by their [Young Lords’] work that I wanted to share it–a successful story of when someone won, how that affected us, and how it all connects us in ways that we don’t think of.

What sparked you to focus on healthcare and medical inequality for this film?

            When I was 26, I lost my health insurance when I aged out of my parents’ health insurance. I got really sick and had nowhere to go. There have been so many cuts to services related to healthcare while health insurance and care have become more and more expensive. I wondered, what is the world in which a number of 17-year-olds who were told that they weren’t important could show up and say that they have the answers and will show everyone a better way to conduct healthcare? The Young Lords had the confidence and intellect to fight for healthcare rights in the face of an incredibly repressive institutional regime. I wanted to explore how healthcare should be and can be; studying the Young Lords and seeing how successful they were at revealing a problem while creating a solution blew me away. 

            The Young Lords took on public health, which is a field that is so fundamental since quality healthcare affects everybody. I had the support and trust of the Young Lords and at that point, I felt that it was a responsibility to finish the film. I feel so lucky and grateful that I chose to work on it and that it’s now accessible to so many people!

What are your plans for the near future, and how has CUNY BA helped you on this path?

            CUNY BA has definitely helped give me the tools to believe in myself and my vision. It gave me the space to do the research needed for Takeover. There was no space for error in the film, and it needed to be fact-checked and historically accurate. As a result of CUNY BA, I spent a year and a half learning how to conduct research and perform the fundamental work of connecting to interviewees, establishing relationships, and laying the groundwork for my film. 

            I’m developing a new film right now about the Elder Care System and my personal experience navigating it. It’s about my relationship with my dad which is also very personal. He wrote a novel about the way he imagined an afterlife, so the film is a little humorous as it weaves together these stories of helping him visually realize his unfinished memoir and how our relationship and our roles are changing as I take care of him.

            The eldercare system offers very little support, and few resources, but is still so grossly expensive. It’s really important to document and share how difficult it is to navigate these systems and advocate for improvement. I want the film to be entertaining and engaging. The background of the film is all of the logistical nightmares we have to jump through to provide him with good care.

If you can offer one piece of advice for current CUNY BA students, what would it be?

            One piece of advice is to explore. Don’t be afraid to take classes you are interested in, give yourself space and time to explore, and see where things lead you. CUNY BA allows you to incorporate classes and other opportunities into your concentration. Get credit for your internships and experiences because you are learning and making real-life connections that will benefit you in the long run. Don’t be afraid to pursue your creative and intellectual endeavors, be open to where your interests may lead you, and trust the process!