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Vanessa Baden Kelly
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Vanessa Baden Kelly has spent the past 10 years of her life toggling between community organizing and television/film. A graduate of Florida State University, Vanessa holds a degree in Sociology and in Media Productions with a minor in Creative Writing. As a community organizer she has been an organizer on staff for organizations such as Community Coalition, the Center for Health Environment and Justice, and Obama for America (2008). Vanessa trains organizers for the Children’s Defense Fund’s YALT initiative, and is one of the original members of the Dream Defenders. She also serves as a consultant for the Trayvon Martin Foundation. Her work in film and media varies from work with Nickelodeon, TVLand, and The Laugh Factory. In 2013 she embarked on her hardest job yet: being the wife to a freakin sweet drummer.

Entries by Vanessa Baden Kelly

Why I Support Michael B. Jordan and Not Internet Hype

(20) Comments | Posted September 25, 2015 | 11:18 PM

Michael B. Jordan is my friend.

I'll say that right now. Up front. We don't talk often. We don't text. But when we see each other it's a warm catch up session, heartfelt "I'm so glad to see you's, and the deep knowing that we have someone rooting for us...

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Jamycheal Mitchell: Mentally Ill, Criminalized, and Killed by the System

(17) Comments | Posted September 2, 2015 | 2:06 PM

Stories like the one of Jamycheal Mitchell, the 24-year-old young man who was found dead in his jail cell on August 19, are particularly hard to hear. What the police ruled "natural causes" turned out to be that he starved to death. The crime? Shoplifting. Mitchell, who had a severe mental illness had been ruled permanently disabled and was unable to work. In April, he stole a zebra cake, a Snickers, and Mountain Dew from a local 7-11 in Portsmouth, Virginia. It would be a month before he ever went before a judge. A judge then ruled him incompetent to stand trial. He should have been transported to a local mental health facility, but he wasn't. Apparently there wasn't one that had room for him. Three months later, the 6'3" 180lbs Mitchell was found dead in his cell. No meds had ever been administered. He had never made it to a mental health facility. He had lost nearly 80 pounds from refusal to eat. All for less than $5 worth of snacks he stole while in a mental health crisis.

There are more than 300,000 inmates in American prisons that are diagnosed with mental illness. Meanwhile, there are only around 30,000 mentally ill patients in psychiatric facilities throughout the country. If that number is staggering to you, it should be. America is "treating" mental illness through incarceration -- and the price we are paying as a country is enormous. That's why Brave New Films is releasing a new film series entitled This is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health (Part 2 available above) to open dialogue about what needs to be done to start treating mental illness as a health issue, not a crime.

The state of our mental health care system is nothing short of a public health crisis. The privatization of mental health care by the Reagan administration made access to mental health care a high price luxury as opposed to a basic human need. And thus, mental health issues are largely ignored and untreated, particularly in minority and low-income communities. The privatization of mental health happened almost simultaneously to the privatization of prisons. No coincidence.

What happens when, like any medical condition, mental illness rears its symptoms? Without community mental health programs, police become the first responders to everything from psychotic breaks to schizophrenic episodes. What should be immediately treated as a welfare issue and medical crisis for the individual experiencing the problem becomes criminal threats and illegal behavior, punishable by imprisonment - or sometimes, death. It is without doubt that the profit made from Jamychael and others like him being in that prison bed far outweighed the humanity of allowing a suffering man to be treated. In many cases, his infraction would have allowed for him to be released to family, or transported directly to a mental health facility. But without a national template for how we treat people suffering from mental illness, how it is dealt with is determined precinct by precinct.

Unlike the Virginia case, many diagnosed with a mental illness receive the first treatment they have ever received in prison. But not without also being abused, neglected, and often put into solitary confinement (exasperating their condition). Guards and policeman, untrained in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) or other mental health diversion, see their symptoms as non-compliance, not as something completely out of the person's control until they receive meds or other treatment. Sadly, while prisons provide continual triggers and violence, they are also one of the only places people with untreated mental illness have to go other than the streets. Upon release, medications and access to medications cease, and the mentally ill are left on their own. With confusing conditions of supervised release and no meds, recidivism for the mentally ill is extremely high.

This is inhumane. This is profiting off of human suffering. This must stop.

Many police departments across the nation have adopted CIT training to train officers on how to be first responders to calls involving mentally ill people. They arrive in plain clothes. They do not use their command voice as they are taught in the Academy. They have learned to de-escalate the situation without use of force when they were non-violent. Moreover, they don't take the individual to jail. They take them to mental health facilities, in some places, facilities that have been created specifically for this purpose.

The outcome would shock you. Precincts were spending over $600,000 in overtime pay having to wait with individuals at the hospital for psychological evaluations. Taxpayers saved money by spending on average $350 for diversion programs per incident versus $2300 when jailing a mentally ill person. San Antonio alone saved $50 million dollars over the first five years of implementation of CIT/Diversion programs. That was including building and staffing the facilities. And of course, there is the ability to save, rather than destroy, a human life. Like in the case of Jamychael Mitchell

As long as mental health care and prisons stay privatized, making mental illness a costly luxury for the rich and punishable by law for the middle class and poor, they will keep corporations' pockets lined. The illusion that is presented -- that treating the mentally ill with state and community centers will cost taxpayers -- is simply untrue, and in fact time and time again SAVES taxpayers' millions of dollars.

That's why cities like New York and Los Angeles and organizations across the country are fighting back. Mayor DeBlasio is launching, with the help of New York nonprofits, a task force to combat the criminalization of mentally ill people. The proposed plan includes CIT training for officers, centers that police can take people suffering from mental illness to, instead of taking them to jail, and much better coordination of medication management. This plan will save New Yorkers millions over time. Most importantly, it could save some of New York's most vulnerable citizens from being victims of systematic abuse of the poor and those with mental illness.

Los Angeles County, with its largest local criminal justice system in the country, has recently announced spending $120 million to create a new Office of Diversion and Re-Entry focused on treatment and alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill people. That investment will return huge dividends in human and financial capital.

Watch the Brave New Films three-part series This Is Crazy: Criminalizing Mental Health, with new episodes released weekly, and see for yourself just how important it is to fix this...

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We Can't Rely on Media to Discuss Racism

(9) Comments | Posted June 19, 2015 | 6:35 PM

The last thing Tywanza Sanders shared on his Facebook page was a video we produced called White Riots.

Tywanza Sanders, of course, is the 26 year old killed in Wednesday night's race-fueled terrorist attack at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. Eight others would also die, including Tywanza's aunt, Susie Jackson. He reportedly had stepped in front of her to protect her from being shot. In the end, his valiant effort was no match for the racism that met him at Bible study that night.

Racism at Bible study. What year are we in again?

These days it's hard to tell. Unarmed black men and women are shot in the street almost weekly for nonviolent crimes and the mainstream nation tells us they had it coming. They shouldn't have run. They shouldn't have broken any laws. They should've had better parents. Better community leaders. But a shooter who kills 9 people at church is a tragic display of wayward youth and mental illness, and is brought into custody with a bulletproof vest and escorted on a private plane. In short, how polite an alleged criminal is determines their treatment. Charges play no role. Racism plays a huge role.

Black and brown people are 4-10 times more likely to be arrested and 21 more times more likely to be killed once in custody. Of course, racism plays no role there either, right? No, it's lack of leadership, it's criminal mentality, it's...what did Bill O'Reilly say, "black people's rejection of education."

Now I won't say that bad choices don't lead to bad consequences. They do. But like New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, study after study proves that the more physical and mental stress you are under (like poverty, joblessness, you know, the stuff RACISM does), the more difficult it is to make good decisions. You are thinking about pure survival. Not long term goals. That makes sense to mainstream America when Dave Ramsey shows them how their stressed out spending habits keeps them in debt. But talk about black bodies doing it and the resounding chorus yells "they need to get a job and stop looking for handouts.

Enter the power of social media.

If the only way I consumed news was through mainstream America, I'd probably hold those same beliefs. When I hear gang violence I'd think "black people" (53 percent of gang homicides are committed by whites. Did you even know there are white gangs?!). I would totally understand why white women are taught to fear rape by a stray black man on the street (white's lead ALL RACES 2 to 1 in forcible rape). Hell, I am black and I've come to believe we are more violent than others by watching the news (83 percent of white murder victims are killed by white people... and there are 6x as many white people so you don't have to be a mathematician to know that is WAY more murders). So basically, I would believe the racist bullshit. As much of America does.

Social media doesn't rely on supervisors or advertisers dollars. We can just say what we want. Because of social media, I knew about Charleston long before CNN decided it might be worth it to disrupt their programming. Because of social media, young men and women like me got me ready to face the truth: the media would try to say this young white man was a good kid, quiet, and gone down the wrong path. (There is actually a social media bingo game about this gone viral. I won in 15 minutes.) Because of social media, I connected with millions who were as hurt, appalled, and devastated as I am. We had a place where people listened, maybe even disagreed, but we could all vent and say what was on our mind and be angry about how we are treated both in the media and in day-to-day society

Because of social media, I also saw how in the dark mainstream America is about how we feel and the facts. Social media showed me how many people who are my "friends" don't really care for black people but a select few of us are the exception. Social media showed me that years of politely avoiding racial discourse at places like work or at parties made them believe that black and brown people were "doing fine". Thus our frustration we are sharing now are from race baiters like Al Sharpton and that communist president. We were fine until they were allowed to stard discussing race in the media I take partial blame for that. Maybe I should have talked about my little brother crying because his high school girlfriend's mom said she couldn't date black boys and my surfing, football playing brother was a "thug." I guess I just didn't feel like it was the right time.

Finally, social media showed me how people really feel. It showed me how Megyn Kelly still has a job. How "I'm not racist but..." is the predecessor for something racist, and how even if a young man ADMITS to killing for racial pretenses, it can still be flipped that there is STILL no race problem in America.

I'm thankful for my job at Brave New Films where we utilize social media to tell a narrative that mainstream America is largely ignoring. I'm grateful for bosses like Robert Greenwald, who let you get your rocks off on national blogs when you're so pissed off you really just want to scream and cry. And I am thankful we are bold enough to do films like Racism is Real and White Riots. I know we are hitting a nerve with mainstream America who doesn't want to talk about this. I know we are speaking for people, like Tywanza Sanders, who identified with our film, not knowing that he would fall martyr shortly after and his death and be subject to the same racist media rhetoric that he recognized happens.

Who is going to call Tywanza a hero? Who is going to call Sen. Pinkney a hero? Who is going to call the other 6 people killed heroes? Because they were! They felt the same things I feel, they shared the same things I shared, and when a white man walked into their church, they welcomed him. So much so that he admits he almost didn't go through with it because they were so nice to him. They knew what was going on around them, what kind of world we live in, how much vitriol is spewed about people who look like them by media and in whispers about the latest police shooting, and this young man was still welcome. That's heroic. They stood up to hatred with arms and prayers wide open. And they paid with their life.

Is CNN going to call them heroes? Will ABC? Fox News damn sure won't. And because they won't do it, neither will America. Like four little girls in Alabama, their names could easily be forgotten outside of a major speech. I am committed, Robert Greenwald is committed, and Brave New Films is committed to NEVER FORGET. We will light timelines, playlists and Twitter feeds up to remind this nation that there is something still VERY wrong. That the days of trying to be polite about it are over. That there are heroes among us that we are failing to acknowledge because it would implicate THIS NATION as the bad guy. Tywanza stood up for his aunt. Lets stand up for him.

Media be damned. We'll report it...

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Keeping Truth Legal: It Is Our Right to Film Police

(21) Comments | Posted May 21, 2015 | 9:56 AM

Without the video from the cases of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott, these cases and many others would have gone uninvestigated and unnoticed; with many holding staunchly to the belief that whatever is written in a police report is fact. Still, even with these cases, large public outcry, and overwhelming evidence, there is still mistrust and demonization of the people decrying their treatment by law enforcement. The bias is so bad, in fact, that as opposed to doing further investigation into the claims of misconduct on a larger, more comprehensive scale, such as those seen in our video above, local law makers and states have attempted to curtail the filming of law enforcement that bolsters the claims.

That's right. Instead of admitting that the state of policing in this country is hugely problematic and working with communities to fully uncover depths of the problem, many are systematically working to cover up any trace that a problem exists. Some of the more notable attempts as of late:

· Just this March, Texas State Rep. Jason Villalba(R) tried to pass a law in Texas that would make it a class B misdemeanor to film police within 100 feet if they have their handgun out.

· In Missouri, State Senator Doug Libla opposed a bill that required police to wear body cameras. Instead, he proposed his own bill, that not only didn't require body cameras, but would have exempted all footage of police encounters from state open records laws.

· Twelve states have adopted what is known as a two party consent eavesdropping law that police have successfully used to confiscate and arrest anyone filming them on duty. These laws simply mean that if someone, including police, has "a reasonable expectation of privacy" when they are filmed, they have to give their consent to be recorded.

The problem, of course, is that public servants, such as police, should NOT have a reasonable expectation of privacy while performing their public duties, in public spaces, amongst the public. It IS punishable to interfere with an arrest or their work, as it should be. But if all protocol is being followed, filming should not be considered interference.

Luckily, the Supreme Court seems to agree that outlawing citizens' right to film is not constitutional. The First, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeal and New Jersey have determined that forbidding the video and audio recording of police officers and public servants IS ILLEGAL under the First Amendment. SCOTUS refuses to hear the cases because they have ceded to these precedents set by the lower courts.

So why is this still an issue? Why are we still arguing and attempting to legislate something that has already been proven unconstitutional? Why was the man who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore arrested, with no probable cause, along with countless others over the years?

We know that even if arrested and convicted of an eavesdropping law, few cases would ever hold up in appellate court. But that's not the point. The point is the mere THREAT of being put through the legal system is enough of an intimidation tactic to dissuade people from being brave and doing this civic duty. Not to mention that the legal process takes a ton of time. If in that time, the footage of police brutality can be inadmissible in, say, a homicide case, it was well worth the loss on appeal for that city government.

All of these tactics are tools in the politics of oppression; ways to keep control and disempower the average citizen. These are not laws about protecting the public or creating a more just society.

Brave New Films' new Film The Police, is a strong, reminder of how important it is for all of us to fight for our rights. It is absolutely legal for you to film the police. Moreover, organizations like the ACLU are creating apps for people to directly send their videos to be seen by attorneys, just in case phones are illegally confiscated

So take a look. Share it. But most importantly, know your rights. America is built on a Constitution that will not be overlooked because it doesn't suit the needs of those in power. We should all be equal under law. Even police....

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Racism Is Real: The Real Reason Behind Baltimore Uprising

(148) Comments | Posted April 29, 2015 | 2:31 PM

The death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police sparked outrage and protests by thousands of Baltimore residents and people of color around the world. It seems that almost daily, the headline "Unarmed Black Man Killed By Police" has pulled back the veil on what many white Americans, liberal and conservative alike, have been blinded to by privilege: racism is real in American society. Our new film, which we have shared here, highlights it.

With the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the success of entrepreneurs like Oprah and Tyler Perry, and the increase in African Americans attendance in college, about half of white American's have wrongly concluded that the US has entered a "post-racial" phase, where race is no longer the determining factor in inequality.

This couldn't be further from the truth.

The crux of much debate surrounding the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent civil unrest by both moderate and conservative media and pundits lay the blame squarely on the backs of the protestors and victims of such assaults. They contend that these deaths and protests are a result of those unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. That criminal activity and arrests are a result of poor choices and poor moral character. That, in this post racial society, everyone has equal ability to change their circumstances if only they try hard enough.

What happens when we try to qualify those beliefs?

Well, we find that blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, but blacks are four times more likely to get arrested for it, and six times more likely to go to prison. This certainly proves that arrest has a whole lot more to do with what you look like than the actual crime.

Or what about when we compare resumes, and find that identical resumes sent to the same employer have a 50 percent less chance of being called if they have a "black sounding" name. This certainly demonstrates unequal ability to change your circumstances.

Want to complain about all of this to your local Congressperson? Good luck. People with black sounding names consistently see less responses from their representatives -- in both parties. So much for taking responsibility!

The truth is, Jim Crow grew up, cleaned up, and started writing laws. Laws that create institutionalized racism without having to have a sign that reads "whites only." Our current policies and criminal justice system do that implicitly. To get a real handle on what is going on in Baltimore, Ferguson and around the nation; to understand why people feel stuck, angry, and frustrated, we have to be willing to face the fact that racism has not disappeared. It has instead morphed into less conspicuous white privilege and social and economic inequality. One that many American whites are unwilling to face out of guilt and the belief that they have somehow "earned" a position in life that they have, in fact, inherited by virtue of simply being white. At Brave New Films, we have produced a short film entitled Racism is Real that can be seen here. It highlights institutionalized racism in America. It is by no means exhaustive. But it is a start. If America wants to hold onto the belief that what we inherit is unabashedly what we deserve, then we must be willing to acknowledge that we force minorities to inherit inequality at no fault of their...

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What Students Are Doing for Trayvon This Easter Weekend

(5) Comments | Posted April 6, 2012 | 8:26 PM

It is holy week. Across the nation and world people are gearing up to celebrate and reflect on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It seems that America as a whole has found new meaning for the word. The Faith Community is gathered in Texas for the Esther Call, a multi-denominational...

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