Growing up in a housing project in Milwaukee, Patty Loew didn’t meet many other Native American people. Loew is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, and throughout her career she has written books on the Native people of Wisconsin. Today, Loew is a journalism professor at Medill, often leading trips to reservations so that her students learn how to cover stories about tribal sovereignty.
Raised by an immigrant single mother in the projects of New York City, Villy Wang longed to tell her mom’s story. That longing forged a passion for media because of its power to share and shape narratives. So Wang founded the Bayview-Hunters Point Center for Arts and Technology (BAYCAT), a nonprofit social enterprise in San Francisco that helps young people from low-income communities capture and tell untold stories and create social change.
After 15 years, BAYCAT has educated more than 4,000 students, and its recent graduates have gone on to work at Netflix, Lucasfilm, Pixar, HBO, Universal Studios and other production companies.
“I had this crazy idea: What if I could have this place where we teach young people the value of how their story matters and who they are matters?” recalls Wang, a Northwestern Law alumna. “Nobody ever told me that as a kid. And it’s certainly not represented in media — even today.”
As she contemplated creating what would become BAYCAT, Wang observed firsthand the lack of resources in schools that were teaching the arts and digital media in lower-income communities — just as Silicon Valley was beginning to explode.
“We’re in one of the wealthiest, most innovative technology cities in the world, and I remember walking into one classroom that was a trailer, and part of it was burned down, and there were not even outlets for computers,” Wang says. “This is what we were dealing with, the gigantic contrast between that and how wealthy the Bay Area is. Solutions to equity and racial justice start with access.”
Today BAYCAT youth learn what the pros learn — training on the latest technology in video production.
“These skill sets are transferable to anything,” Wang says. “We don’t expect every kid to want to be a filmmaker when they grow up, but we have created this pathway from education to employment.”
Women and people of color are highly underrepresented in the media industry. Their stories are not being told, Wang says, which results in further underrepresentation in all forms of media.
“Change the storytellers, change the story” is BAYCAT’s motto, and Wang says the organization’s mission also is about breaking the cycle of poverty and helping to end racism and sexism.
BAYCAT has employed and placed more than 200 young adults in digital media, including Iman Rodney, now a 26-year-old three-time Emmy winner and cinematographer for the San Francisco Giants, who started in the program when he was 13 years old.
“Thank God I had BAYCAT,” says Iman’s mother, Regina Rodney, of San Francisco. “The forces of the street were calling him. As a mother, I didn’t know what to do.
“Villy was able to pull out Iman’s potential,” Regina adds. “She was able to say, ‘This is not your best. You can do better.’ I saw his maturity and growth.
“They say, ‘It takes a village.’ I say, ‘It takes a Villy.’ ”