Everybody I Know and Loved is in a Cage and I’m Never Going to Be Okay With That

October 19, 2018

“I run a Los Angeles-based film company called Unlabeled Digital Media.

I started it in 2016 when I was a Soros Senior Advocacy Fellow.  We serve as a media company for the nonprofit community and our creative team is composed entirely of directly impacted people.  I just had a cumulative 280 years of prison experience working on a 28-day live event around mental health and its impact on incarceration.   In Hollywood, if they make a movie about fire fighters they hire fire fighters as consultants.  If it’s a movie about soldiers they hire soldiers to keep it real.  But when they make a movie about formerly or currently incarcerated people or foster youth, or immigrants, or anyone affected by a governmental system, they hire police, and that gives it a certain slant.  It’s inauthentic and not helpful.  So I employ directly impacted people at every level.  My camera operators have been to prison and my editor is formerly incarcerated.  Many of them go on to work in other jobs in Hollywood and then I train the next person coming up to do the same job.

The nonprofits we work with have amazing stories and phenomenal people doing powerful work, but they’re not good at talking about it, and as a result, most people have never heard of them.  So we help publicize their work and tell their stories.  Right now my main priority is producing the Justice Rocks event on Alcatraz Island, America’s most iconic prison.  It will be the first ever live broadcast from the island, which is now a national landmark, and it will include a national town hall about ending mass incarceration and a yearlong art exhibit.  We will have directly impacted people interacting on stage with celebrities, thought leaders, business leaders, politicians and formerly incarcerated people in positions of power.  In 1985, Live Aid was about ending famine and in 1986 Hands Across America was about fighting hunger and homelessness.  Justice Rocks will be about shutting down prisons.

I went to prison when I was 17 and got out when I was 40, so I grew up in prison.  While I was inside I got six degrees, three federal licenses, and six state certifications. I took every course I could find and when I ran out of courses I started teaching them.  But when I came home the survivor’s guilt of leaving everybody I cared about behind to rot hit me like a ton of bricks. Everybody I know and loved is in a cage and I’m never going to be okay with that.  So I got into activism to change the landscape and maybe bring some people home.  I realized that the most efficient way to change hearts and minds on a large scale is with a piece of media content so I set about learning how to do what I do.

My theory of change is based on the “Will & Grace effect.” Fifty years ago nobody thought gay marriage was going to happen.  But the positive media portrayals of people from that community, specifically Ellen DeGeneris and the Will and Grace TV characters had a humanizing effect, and people on the other side of the screen started to think, “I could have drink a beer with that guy and it would be okay.  He’s not the child predator monster I had in my head. In fact, none of them are, they are just people.” So that’s what we’re trying to do–use media to shift culture, and, to use military parlance, to shape the battlefield where reform can become possible.

Ryan is the founder of UnLabeled Digital Media, an independent film company which empowers those with systems impacted backgrounds to tell powerful stories of their lives and community while serving the non-profit community with professional media consulting, design, and production. Ryan is a 2016-17 Soros Senior Advocacy Fellow and a member of the 2018 JustLeadershipUSA Leading with Conviction Program.

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