When the world starts listening to children or young adults, great things happen. Over recent years, more and more children began advocating for their cause – whether it is Greta Thunberg and her work around climate change or Malala Yousafzai and her fight for female education – and their voices influenced not only public opinion but also caused political action. However, children still aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Holly Carter wanted to change that. Her organization BYkids allows children and young adults to produce documentary films and show their world from their perspective. ABILITY Magazine’s Karina Sturm talks to journalist, filmmaker and founder Holly Carter about the organization, as well as to Faith Guilbault, one of the young adults producing a film about her life with cerebral palsy.
Young filmmaker Faith Guilbault
Faith Guilbault is a 17-year-old who lives in Baltimore and loves horseback riding and sky diving. “Sky diving is freeing for me. I am not tied to a chair or walker, and you can just float,” Faith says. “When Faith had a major surgery where they broke her tibias and femurs, the one thing she was looking forward to was when she finally can go back to skydiving,” mom Karen says. Faith’s favorite subject at school is science. On her list of occupations she might want to have once she graduated is becoming a daycare worker, a photographer, or an author.
However, the one thing Faith is most passionate about is raising awareness for people with cerebral palsy, a group of disorders affecting a person’s muscle tone, movement and posture, a condition she lives with herself. Additionally, Faith has cortical visual impairment and epilepsy and uses assistive devices to maintain balance and posture. “I need help a lot, but I do as much as I can alone. I am improving those things because I want to live on my own,” Faith mentions. Living independently is important to her, as she states several times throughout the interview. Due to her disabilities, everyday tasks, like tying her shoes, putting on clothes, and cooking are hard. “But I can make microwave food by myself,” she says.
Cerebral palsy can affect everyone differently, as Faith knows. “People should ask questions if they don’t understand cerebral palsy. Some say, ‘I understand you.’ And I respond, ‘Yeah, you understand me but in different ways. But that’s okay because that’s what makes you different and unique.’”
Faith walked the runway at the New York Fashion Week
Since Faith is so outspoken about her life with her disabilities, she was invited to be part of the Runway of Dreams Foundation’s annual fashion show for adaptive clothing. She walked the runway at the New York Fashion Week in 2019 and participated in a virtual version in 2020. “It was a super long day, but worth it. I got to meet a lot of inspiring people,” Faith remembers. “I was so afraid I was going to fall off the stage. With my vision, it is hard to tell where to go. But I did see people in the audience smiling, and I liked that they heard my story.”
Through the Runway of Dreams Foundation, BYkids became aware of Faith and contacted her to be involved in the film project.
BYkids: Seeing the world through children’s eyes
BYkids is an educational non-profit organization, which uses documentaries made by children on topics like antisemitism and ableism to support the development of skills like empathy, social and self-awareness.
Holly Carter is the founder and executive director of BYkids and has more than 35 years of experience in the media world. “I was a print journalist at the New York Times, and I saw superficial storytelling too often,” Holly says. “Sometimes, people who didn’t know anything about another country would fly in, write a story, and it would be on the front page.” Back then, in the 90s, only a few major news outlets existed. It really bothered Holly that she couldn’t give a proper voice to the people for whom these stories are their lives. “I describe my career as a necklace, but I only found out it was a necklace later,” Holly says. What she means by this is that each step in her career resembled one pearl and all of these pearls together brought her to BYkids. “Being a print journalist at a major metropolitan newspaper was phenomenal to understand the power and reach of storytelling.” Her first kernel of wisdom. “I really wanted to give people a voice.” Fast forward to when she had her own children, she began to realize what actually mattered in journalism. “It dawned on me one night when we came home from a dinner party, where everyone was bragging about their Pulitzer Prizes, and my kids had a much fresher and authentic view on what went on in the world because their ego and the politics didn’t get in the way,” Holly explains. “So what if we gave the power of telling stories to the community, and what if we let the kid be the reporter rather than the outsider?” The idea behind BYkids was born.
Shortly after, Holly found her way into filmmaking and created the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. “I love filmmaking because it’s messy, collaborative and dysfunctional, whereas journalism is very solitary.” A few years later, Holly meets her friend, Albert Maysles, a popular documentary filmmaker, and pitches her idea. “I said, ‘We are revolutionizing journalism and American education by letting kids tell their own stories rather than a bunch of experts who sit at their desks at the UN.’ And he was immediately all in, and we had our first mentor.”
BYkids creates documentaries about social issues around the globe
So far, BYkids has produced 13 films with children and young adults from countries worldwide. “We wanted to plant a garden where these stories that are very personal and sophisticated in the way they access climate change or what it means to be disabled help people who don’t have the tools and the comfort level to lean in to a conversation,” Holly says. One example of this is Michael Martin’s story. Mike was incarcerated when he was 17 years old and shares in his documentary what it means to be young, male, black and wrapped up in the juvenile justice system. “We wanted to give people a personal way in rather than starting from fear,” Holly explains.
BYkids finds their young filmmakers by following a specific process. First, the board and Holly determine a globally relevant topic they want American students to learn about; then, they collaborate with a non-profit in the chosen country to find a child to work with. “We are partnering with those organizations because we are not the experts in this particular topic, so the non-profit is widely valuable to us,” Holly says. The children then get paired with established filmmakers, including Anja Baron (Last of the First), Joyce Chopra (Smooth Talk), Evan Mascagni (Circle of Poison), and Cat Papadimitriou (Nia on Vacation). “We chose mentors who are not ego-driven. They don’t use the kid to tell their story. They gently put their hands behind the child, seeing through their eyes,” Holly says. The filmmakers only offer technical support. “The children begin to feel their own power,” Holly states. “It’s really amazing to see these kids step into their light.”
In season three, teens from the United States, Germany, and Bhutan document their struggles and triumphs in dealing with the challenges they face due to disability, antisemitism, generational trauma, and globalization. One of these teenagers is Faith, who produced a documentary film called Faith’s World.
Faith’s World portrays the 16-year-old Faith and her daily life with cerebral palsy (Trailer). With guidance from filmmaker Joyce Chopra, Faith shines a light on her world, inviting viewers to focus on the similarities rather than differences between people with and people without disabilities. Furthermore, she emphasizes that she does not want or need anyone to feel sorry for her because Faith is resilient, hard-working, and determined to realize her dreams. “I used to be in front of cameras a lot when I was younger, but now I got some social anxiety – not a lot of people know that about me – so it is good for me to get out of my comfort zone,” Faith says. The camera team filmed Faith in New York for two days and then accompanied her in her hometown in Maryland for another eight days.
In Faith’s World, the audience follows the teenager through her daily life from school to physical therapy over skydiving and walking the runway in New York. One sequence that particularly stands out is a scene in which Faith talks to her friends about how they all just feel ‘normal’ and don’t understand why people call them ‘inspirational’ for living with a disability. When Faith learns that I was very surprised but also impressed that teenagers her age already know about the concept of ‘inspiration porn’ – a typical narrative by mainstream media to portray a person with a disability as an inspiration for simply living their life with their disability – she says, “I think I get the smarts from my dad.” Her mom sits next to her and laughs. “I didn’t really know how things turn out. I just kind of rolled with it,” Faith says. “And it wasn’t for the fame; it was only for advocacy.”
Faith hopes that her film will teach her audience that people with disabilities aren’t victims. “People with disabilities can do whatever they want, and they can achieve their dreams,” Faith emphasizes.
BYkids reaches 84 million households
FILMS BYKIDS air on PBS and therefore reach 84 million people combined. Additionally, they host online screenings and panel discussions at schools, show their films at festivals, and broadcast the films to 1.6 million teachers through PBS LearningMedia. For each episode, BYkids offers study curricula, which can be downloaded, and video-based resources. They also provide online lessons via PenPal Schools, a collaborative learning community for students between 12 and 18 years, to discuss the films with peers around the globe. “Kids not only observe their world through moving images, they also express themselves with moving images,” Holly says. “We really have to meet kids in the language that they speak.”
When Holly is asked where she wants her organization to be in ten years from now, she says, “BYkids 2.0 would be a national brand that people know to use as a resource. I would hope in the future, we are not a film library but a conversation factory and that we spark global conversation and inspire kids. And the real goal for me is: Wouldn’t it be great if American education would not be about every kid knowing when the civil war started, but instead the child was able to own and use their voice for social good?”
Faith has big plans for her future as well. Not only does she want to make a new film, she even thinks about having a reality TV show! “It should be about me living on my own and all its challenges and opportunities.” So maybe, in a few years, we will see Faith’s World 2.0, a reality TV show about people living with a variety of disabilities. Wouldn’t this be a step forward in terms of inclusion and diversity in the entertainment world?
By Karina Ulrike Sturm