You don’t have to sell us on the fact that filmmaking is one of the most important, powerful and influential media. That’s why, when we heard about the incredible work Scenarios does in empowering young people through film, we had to chat with Director of Development Cecilia Mejia. This week we connected with her on all things feminism, film, and the power of telling your story.
Introduce yourself! Tell us who you are and what you do.
Hi, I’m Cecilia. I’m the Director of Development for a Brooklyn-based national non-profit called Scenarios USA. Development, in most nonprofits, is the department that wears all the hats. You have to think in terms of finances, programs, compliance, creatives, and admin. I’m tasked with not only sustaining the organization but ensuring that it thrives financially through fundraising efforts, grant writing, and partnerships. My role in Scenarios is unique in that major events, like the Premiere, also fall under my jurisdiction. I help our talented program staff in their respective roles through film and education. My job is essentially to tell the story of the organization through the lens of our staff, our board, and most importantly our constituents to get people invested and interested in what we do. This year, I also took over the Communications department, which involved a lot of work in building our audience base and took me out of my comfort zone a little by having to tackle social media and all that entails.
How do you define feminism and how does that play a part in the work you do?
For me it’s about three things power, choice, and balance. My mother use to tell me that she wanted me to see the world (for myself) and to be stable enough to stand on my own before I settled down (of course now that her dreams for me have somewhat come to fruition, she’s pushing for the settling down part). My grandmother taught me how to cook and to sew because those were things she felt women should know and I’m not mad about that at all. My dad taught me how to read the paper, how to play baseball, play cards, talked to me about world history and instilled in me the importance of education and humility. “Never ever think you are better than anyone,” he would tell me, still tells me. He wanted me to be well-rounded because that’s what he thought would prepare me, his headstrong daughter, for the world. But all of it comes down to taking what I’ve been taught and what I’ve learned on my own and knowing what my power is, the choices I have, and how to balance all of it.
Feminism is not about moving ahead of a men. It’s about being able to stand beside them. I think men who can understand that are ahead of the curve and secure. I don’t think you’re less of a feminist if you decide you want to take care of someone or even allow them to take care of you. I don’t think women should have to explain themselves if they choose not to settle down and focus on their career. For me, I do want those traditional things and to share my life, and someday my limited wisdom, but I know it’s more of a desire than a need. It’s all about choice.
How does this play a part in the work that I do? It’s everything. I made this career choice. This was the path I took. I know that I have people watching me (especially young people), like it or not. I have a goddaughter who mimics everything I do. I know that I am responsible for a lot. I know that I’m being judged for how I operate, how I react because I am a woman. I can have the same sarcastic reaction to something that a male counterpart can have, but be looked at differently even told that I’m being too feisty. That’s the reality of it, but I see it changing. I feel it changing. Early on, I thought that showing weakness was a mistake but I learned that vulnerability, which I believe is large part of feminism, is strength. It takes a lot more courage to be vulnerable than it does to close yourself off to the world. In my line of work, you have to be brave enough to share at least a part of yourself and your story in order to be effective. So, yeah feminism plays a large part in my work because as I’ve defined it for myself within the context of three things I mentioned- knowing my power (not in the sense of control) but I mean I know what my strengths are, what my passions are and the kind of influence I have; I know that I always have a choice; and I know that I’m getting a little bit better at balancing all of that.
Tell us about the two young filmmakers you’re featuring now-why are their stories important to tell?
Leen and Mayraleeh are two very different, unique, smart, beautiful young women. I wouldn’t call them filmmakers, more like storytellers in their own right. They are at the point in their lives where they are figuring out where they want to be and what they want to do. Mayraleeh is this bright light. She’s at the top of her class, the prom queen. She’s really sweet, always ready for the challenge. Very intuitive, very strong-willed, knows exactly what she wants to do, and most importantly what she doesn’t want to do. Leen is reserved, intelligent, humble and very kind. It took a little bit more time to get to know her, but when she lets you in, you see that there is so much more beneath the surface. She’s very witty, very fast at picking up on a joke, which of course I love. She has an understanding of the world that I don’t think she is quite aware of yet, so unassuming of her own power. I know she worries a lot about making mistakes and saying the wrong thing, but I see her growing more and more confident.
I spent a lot of time getting to know the both of them and their stories. It wasn’t until the Premiere when I saw them both on stage, that I realized how much of an impact that time with them had on me. I have prefaced every conversation I’ve had with them by reminding them that they always have a choice. Right before they went on stage I reminded them again they can choose not to do this, but they could also choose to take this moment and make it their own. When they both looked at me and said they were ready, I knew that everything leading up to that moment was worth it – which is why I was adamant that their families and teachers be front and center because I know they were a large part of that. I actually started to cry a little bit because, even I, was not prepared for how they both rose to the occasion. I might have helped them prepare for that moment, but that was all them up there. (Of course, I was thinking of a plan b like turning the fire alarm on or something, if they happened to say they didn’t want to go through with it anymore).
You ever heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s danger of a single story? It’s not enough, it will never be enough, to tell one story especially now with the current dominant narrative. We’ve been saying that these two films are probably the most important films we have produced to date because of the subject matters they both cover. Mental health (which in a number of studies has been identified as the number one concern for young people, there is an alarmingly high suicide rate amongst teens especially in Mayraleeh’s school district), physical health, and family dynamics. For both of them, family was actually the main thing they wanted to focus on and I find that incredibly mature and wise. When they thought about love, they didn’t think of it in the romantic sense, they thought about their families. Love is a powerful force and motivator, it comes from all different places as Leen says. As cliche as that sounds, it’s important to believe in that, especially now.
But I will also say, as important and necessary as it is for us to push their films and these stories forward, it is just as important (maybe even more so) to make sure that they continue to tell their own stories- in their own way and in their own time. If we want to tie this back to feminism, for me personally, I want them to know that they have the power, they have choices, and I (and I’m sure their families and whoever else is in their world) will help them try to figure out that balance.
What have you learned from the young filmmakers you’ve worked with over the years?
I’ve only been with Scenarios for about 2 years now, Leen and Mayraleeh are the first students I’ve worked with from story to screen. I have spent a lot of time with the past winning writers and interns (we call them alumni). I also manage two young ladies on my team, both are the film world and very passionate about social justice. I’ve learned more than I ever expected to learn from them. I learned more about One Direction than I ever cared to learn, more about hashtags than I ever want to know. But seriously they are part of my everyday, literally, because I’m either in conversations with one or more every single day. I’ve definitely learned a lot about patience and about the importance of being honest and candid with them, even if it means they’ll be upset with me.Tiauna, one of our hosts and a former winning writer, told me once when I was trying to sugarcoat some feedback I had for her, that just wanted me to be honest with her. I’ve learned that it is more important be respected than to be liked, because when you’ve earned their respect, then you have their trust and their ear. What’s most important for me is to remember is that they are all different and to see them all as the same is a mistake. They share their stories in different ways, they don’t all want to be in the spotlight, they don’t all want to be filmmakers, they have different talents, and different interests.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned really has been around compassion, bravery, and acceptance. There is a fine line between sympathy and empathy. Bravery and courage are not always loud or forceful. First part of acceptance is accepting and loving yourself, flaws and all. They’ve taught me this, they also hold me accountable just like I do them.
How can our readers follow and support your work going forward?
Readers can definitely follow us by signing up for our newsletter and following us on our social platforms. They can definitely show support by viewing the films on our youtube page or on demand on showtime and by spreading the word about our work. We’re doing a massive overhaul on our website to make it a little more interactive for students, educators, and supporters. Our goal is to update in real time, so supporters can be informed as things are happening. This should be ready soon. I would encourage supporters to get to know the organization by coming out to events, by meeting with the staff and other friends of Scenarios. I’m a big advocate for having supporters learn about the organization by reading the stories, watching the films and by taking a look at the curriculum. I’m happy to talk to anyone who would love to know more about what we do or to point them in the right direction.