05/17/2013 10:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

"Parallel Conversations" at the Envision Film Program: Why Artists and the UN Must Converge for Better Maternal Health

"Yeah, but he was shot in the back of the head in a playground in Brooklyn back in 2011. You didn't know?"

That was how my involvement with the 2013 Envision Film program began this past April. Envision, which was founded in 2008, is a collaborative project between the United Nations' Department of Public Information and the Independent Feature Project (IFP). It's mission is to provide an annual gathering that "connects UN experts and NGO advocates with some of the most creative minds in filmmaking and new media, with the goal of finding fresh, compelling ways to create momentum for social change." I've attended nearly every gathering since it started given my work straddling the UN and film world and I was thrilled to be asked to speak this year.

I decided to invite a young poet named Sean Baucom Slaughter (who I have worked with for several years who is interested in international work) to the opening night. We met at a restaurant close to the Director's Guild of America (DGA) where the event was taking place. The conversation I was about to have with Sean had nothing to do with my work at the United Nations. It had nothing to do with Envision's opening night film (the heart wrenching, Sundance favorite, "Blood Brother"). But it had everything to do with the Maternal Health Revolution panel I would be speaking on the next morning.

Let me clarify.

Sean was 19 at the time I won a Pepsi Refresh Grant in 2010 to produce a song about maternal health for my site - an online community that unites artists and activists around maternal health. The $1,000 grant would buy us studio time in a professional recording studio for eight poets who would be writing and performing an original poem/song they called, "Life for A Life."

Prior to our recording, I held a workshop at the Urban Word NYC site - the nonprofit I have been affiliated with since 2003 - to share some knowledge and give some inspiration for their writing. The topic - global maternal health. The attendees - inner city youth between the ages of 13-19 who happen to be some of the most talented young poets and hip hop artists in the city.

I screened for them my films, Love, Labor, Loss on obstetric fistula in Niger and Not Yet Rain, on unsafe abortions in Ethiopia to spark a group discussion before they began their free writing session. Because they are writers and poets, and love similes, metaphors, etc, I also shared with them a quote I had heard once in Uganda.

"Every pregnant woman has one foot in the grave."

After a few "wows" and "damns", Sean wanted to share a story.

"I can relate to that quote," he said. "My mother was shot point blank in the stomach when she was pregnant with my brother."


It was jaw dropping to hear this story coming from this young man, whose friendliness and infectious smile exude nothing but positivity and happiness. He said it so matter-of-fact-ly, it stopped all of us in our tracks. He continued to tell the story as we all listened intently. The mother was involved in a robbery attempt. We were happy to hear she and his brother survived but soon our group discussion segued from maternal mortality in Africa into a focus on the NYPD's stop and frisk policy and the struggles of pregnant women in Brooklyn who live in poverty.

When I met up with Sean, now 23, before Envision, I realized I had not seen him around for a few years and asked what he was up to. With his big grin, he said he was doing okay and was busy and was excited because he was going to be competing in the national adult poetry slam. He also had published his first poetry book, that is sold at Barnes and Nobles. I was proud. He asked how I was doing and I told him I was also busy and mentioned the panel I would be speaking on the next day.

"Is it okay if I tell the story about your mom when she was pregnant with your brother?", I asked.

He paused for a second. So I continued, "He was okay, right? He didn't have any physical or mental problems from it."

He shook his head.

Then he said it.

"Yeah, but he was shot in the back of the head in a playground in Brooklyn back in 2011. You didn't know?"

So, with tears swelling up in our eyes, we talked collectively about the tragedy of his 23 year old brother, Rashad, whose life began and ended with a bullet.

I knew my brother could not talk his way out of funeral,

running towards him with the speed of a blink of an eye,

the bullet entered his head, and came out of mine.

My mechanism for breathing no longer functioned.

The room around me blurred, as the shooter's boots broke

the silence of a brotherhood written in blood,

when we exited calmly into the underworld.

- Pendulum Play: A Literary LP by Sean B

We continued on to watch the opening night film and probably were the ones with most tears and sniffles in the room. I left Sean and the DGA that night with that feeling you get when you feel totally raw and your heart has been ripped wide open - where you want to call your mom and tell her you love her, when you want to apologize to someone for the mean thing you once said and how you want to re-evaluate your entire life and all the nonsense you have surrounding you so you can focus on what's really important to you.

To me, this is the power of the artist. To take intimate situations and tragedies and translate them into universal stories and emotions we can all relate to. I've never read a report or attended a conference on maternal health where I was as emotionally moved as I was I was after hearing Sean's story and reading his poem. And I'm not the only one whose been affected by Sean's words. At my launch during the MDG Summit in 2010, Sean read and wrote a poem about maternal mortality in Sierra Leone that brought a high level UNFPA representative to tears. She explain how she knows the facts, have met the women but was surprised that it took a teen poet to "break" her.

I stepped onto the stage the next morning for my Maternal Health Revolution panel with more intensity than I had anticipated. As poets like to say, "we were about to have church in here." Thanks to the presentations of my wonderful co-panelists - Jill Sheffield of Women Deliver and Robin Smalley of Mothers2Mothersand our moderator, Laura Laski from UNFPA, I was kept to task. Left to my own devices, I'm not sure what I would have said.

I decided to focus my talk on what I call "parallel conversations" that are taking place between artists and the humanitarian communities. Integrating local artists in maternal health advocacy is a concept I have been promoting for many years. I believe both worlds share common goals of wanting to improve communities and save lives. However, they may have different ideas and ways of doing it but they aren't communicating or collaborating as much as they could. For poor maternal healthcare, for example, policymakers, funders and organizations may be focusing on ending early pregnancies, providing emergency obstetric care and addressing poor transportation at the international level. For socially conscious artists, it may be raising awareness of gang violence, domestic abuse and police brutality at the community level.

I didn't have time to tell Sean's personal story but I did spend my Day 2 at Envision with the energy and inspiration it gave me and I got a lot personally out of the great events that Envision lined up for the day. I felt members of the audience understood the point I was trying to make regarding the importance and urgency of storytellers finding ways to work with institutions and vice versa to tell these stories. And I heard other filmmakers and humanitarian representatives relay similar messages. Because we all agree - real women are dying every day needlessly from preventable and treatable childbirth situations, and real families and communities are experiencing great loss through the death of mothers, wives and sisters.

Aristotle once said, "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance." My hope is that the goal of Envision becomes a more universal one - that one day artists and institutions work more collaboratively to paint the whole picture on global health, break it completely apart, and reinvent it until we find better solutions.

Sean talks about his father getting news of his brother's death. Following that is a new poem/song called "Wailing Song" by Griot Blues - a new collaboration between Sean and Bekah Dinnerstein/Bekah Fly to raise awareness about the impact of gun violence on young people in America.