Youth exposed to career options
"If you can't see it, you can't be it," said Paul W. Chavez, executive
director of the Owens Valley Career Development Center (OVCDC) in Bishop,
"Native youth often don't get the chance to see many career options because
of a lack of money, training and opportunities. We're working to change
that through our nation-building efforts, and nation-building begins with
promoting healthy individuals and families."
Two years ago, with the help of Native professionals in the entertainment
industry, his organization created a digital film and music academy that
has trained more than 240 underprivileged Native youth in filmmaking and
Now called Akatubi Film and Music Academy, AFMA has produced 23 short
films, seven of which garnered film festival awards, recorded more than 60
songs, and placed more than 10 percent of academy participants in positions
within their field of interest in entertainment. It is proving to be one of
the most powerful prevention programs offered to Native youth today.
Many of the students have excelled, creating award-winning films and music
ranging from hip-hop and rap to rock, metal and even traditional tribal
songs that were compiled into two compact discs. Several students are now
pursuing specialized training and working in Hollywood, or planning to
attend film school in college.
Chavez, a former chairman of the Bishop Paiute Tribe who has devoted 25
years to economic development initiatives, took advantage of federal, state
and tribal funds aimed at reducing welfare dependency to create job
opportunities in film and music that many Indian children could only dream
"We offered professional training to show them they can be actors, writers,
directors, producers, musicians and recording engineers," he said. "We've
been able to give our youth some great experiences that have broadened
their expectations of their options in life and motivated them to be
Exposing talented youth to career options in the entertainment industry
seemed logical, considering Hollywood's long relationship with the Sierra
Nevada and Owens Valley (four hours north of Los Angeles) where hundreds of
old Westerns and contemporary movies were filmed.
Though many Indian people from California reservations live near the
entertainment capital of the world, historically they have lacked the
resources and connections to break into the lucrative arts and
OVCDC is providing the educational bridge to get from the reservation to
the profession of their dreams.
As part of a broad range of prevention programs offered to families
striving to improve their lives and stay off welfare, OVCDC's Temporary
Assistance to Needy Families program formed the film and music academy to
give tribal youth hands-on experience in filmmaking and music production.
"The goal of the program is to unveil hidden talents and creativity of each
student, and to provide creative space where each child's unique voice can
be expressed and heard," said actor/producer Yvonne Russo.
Russo co-founded the program with actress/director Kimberly Norris-Guerrero
and her husband, producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Johnny
Guerrero who directs the academy's music program. The group had presented
workshops on reservations and in urban settings for several years.
"We recognize the tremendous responsibility and honor it is being able to
teach and mentor our students," said Norris-Guerrero. "Storytelling has
always been such a vital part of our culture as Native people. Creating
original music and storytelling through film are very powerful ways in
which we can connect with our past, look with honesty at our present and
move with confidence and hope into our future."
After the first 10-week summer session with 27 students in Bishop, the film
and music academy was a major hit, and the program was offered in
Bakersfield and Tule River, Calif. and will continue touring communities
"These are some of the most talented kids anywhere - period," said
acclaimed Cherokee filmmaker Randy Redroad, who won the NHK International
Filmmaker's Award at the Sundance Film Festival. "They may not know it in
the beginning, but when it comes out, it comes pouring out ... and it's a
beautiful thing to watch."
Redroad is one of the academy's instructors, which includes documentary
filmmaker Dan Goldin, producer/director Heather Rae, William Thoms and
recording artist/songwriter Star Nayea, all of whom have helped the
founders shape the program through their dedicated work and strong bonds
with the youth.
Students attending the digital film academy spend the first weeks tapping
into the creative spirit that segues into learning the craft of
screenwriting, acting and filmmaking.
They work in a safe, nurturing environment to encourage students to learn
how to break down barriers that prevent them from personal expression while
tapping into body awareness, voice technique, stretching and creative
Then they begin to form story ideas, writing, casting, and scouting
locations. Scripts are finalized and polished and production teams are set.
Production teams then begin shooting principal photography on digital
They also learn how to edit on state-of-the-art software and then prepare
for public exhibition of their films. Headshots, resumes, biographies and
press kits are created for the students to enable them to enter the world
The process not only gives each student a sense of accomplishment and
pride, it also contributes to increased self-esteem, confidence,
teambuilding, and promotes healthy lifestyles and relationships.
"One of the things I stress to the kids is that people who make it are not
any more talented than they are. They're usually luckier, more privileged
and more confident. So we start with building confidence, then move on to
being dedicated and teaching them to never give up," said Redroad.
Students in the digital music academy are taught the basics of songwriting
and music production by producer Johnny Guerrero. His students include
composers, lyricists, producers, singers, instrumentalists and recording
"We give each student artist respect and encouragement, teaching every
participant to take artistic chances and sharing constructive criticism. I
believe this approach builds confidence and make way for pure artistic
Foundational instruction in music theory is taught along with course work
identifying and understanding alternate music styles. This allows students
to make knowledgeable choices about what kind of music they want to create
Students work with the music instructors on developing and recording their
own songs. Some students may wish only to learn the technical aspect of
recording and will assist the instructor on engineering and mixing each
Music students are encouraged to perform their work live before their peers
and receive technical performance training to ensure onstage confidence.
Students then showcase their films and music on stage for the first time
with a public audience on Premiere Night, a semi-formal event with a
The program culminates with students accompanying their instructors to
several industry establishments in Hollywood including Capitol Records, ABC
TV, FOX, the Gage Group, Wes Craven Films, Renee Haynes Casting, Eileen
McKnight Casting, and Wenda Fong, who produces "American Idol."
AKATUBI ENTERTAINMENT LABEL
After realizing how much talent and opportunity was out there, OVCDC
decided to bring things to the next level by forming Akatubi Entertainment
Company as an economic development venture, said Chavez.
Akatubi (Paiute for "red stone") has a host of projects slated that will
include the film/music academy, a film production company, a record
company, a state of the art recording studio in Bishop, and a summer
institute promoting higher education in the entertainment arts.
Akutubi Entertainment is currently developing a feature-length documentary
focusing on hip-hop in Native America, said Russo. They are seeking
distribution with a major record label and plan to employ second-year
academy students who will work alongside industry professionals.
For Chavez and OVCDC's board of directors, it's all about "nation-building
and developing tribal economies while strengthening our families and
communities. We're shaping a future that will revitalize and strengthen
many of our traditional practices that are the foundation of our identity,"