2007 Youth Scholar — Ryan Brown, Denver School of the Arts, Denver, Colo.
Ryan expresses her passionate commitment to civil liberties through her documentary film work.
Her first documentary, “A Small Voice, But a Strong Voice,” told the story of former Colorado governor, Ralph Carr, who, during World War II, sacrificed his promising career by taking a stand against the internment of Japanese-Americans. The film won several awards including first place in the 2006 National History Day, History Channel Award of Excellence in Documentary Film and the Merit Award in video/film production, NFAA ARTS Recognition and Talent Search 2006-2007. The film was a finalist for Best Documentary in the 2006 Denver Academy Film Festival for Youth. The film was screened for various activist organizations and featured on the local news in Denver.
Ryan’s current film project addresses the “school to prison pipeline” crisis prevalent in today’s urban schools and explores the relationship between public education and incarceration in the Denver public schools.
Ryan’s research on Governor Carr led to an essay, “Governor Ralph Carr: A Study in the Protection of Civil Liberties,” which took top honors in the ACLU of Colorado’s 2006 Rights Project for Teens Awards. Her words were so compelling that the ACLU of Colorado was inspired to create a new award: the Ralph L. Carr award for devotion to a significant contemporary issue.
In addition to her film work, Ryan has been involved in many extracurricular activities, including writing, peace exhibitions, and school politics.
Ryan's Personal Essay:
Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts. —Salman Rushdie
Granada, Colorado. As I stand in the motionless expanse of sand and rock, I can think of only one thing. Dust. It is in my shoes, my hair, even my eyelashes. When I blink, my eyes water mud. As a tumbleweed charges by and I poke at the hard ground with my feet, I realize in astonishment that when I awoke this morning I was in Denver. This place, this harsh, uninviting expanse of desert, is less than a five-hour drive south of my home. And yet I have never felt so far from everything I know.
It is only then that I began to understand.
60 years ago, 9000 Japanese-Americans were interned here, at the Amache Relocation Camp. None had been convicted of a crime; two thirds were born American citizens. As I step gingerly through the plains, I think of them.
I am here because the study of history is one of my passions, but this love is not one of dates or names or facts. It a love of places and human faces, of grasping people and their experiences. Most importantly, it is a passion for taking apart the world and simply trying to see how it works.
I visited Amache last spring as I was finishing work on a documentary film about former Colorado governor Ralph Carr. During World War II, Carr was one of the only western leaders to publicly stand against Japanese-American internment, decrying it as an egregious violation of civil liberties. In the end, this courageous stand cost him his reelection and ultimately his entire political career. Yet, he never regretted his decision, and pledged that he if he had to do it over again, he would change nothing.
I had first read Carr's poignant story several months earlier while surfing the internet. I was looking for a topic about which to create a documentary for the National History Day competition. As soon as I heard about Carr, I knew I had found the perfect subject. His story was not only compelling, but powerfully timely. Here, I saw, was a man who had stood for the rights of immigrants and tried to protect the civil liberties of Americans during wartime. I knew studying him would give me insight into more than World War II internment; he would teach me about my own world.
With this in mind, I began my research. For the next ten months, I would rarely be far from Carr. I read books and articles, trying to absorb as much information as I could on the governor's life. On weekends I visited archives, thumbing through Carr's speeches and the letters of hate he received for defending an unpopular minority. I read countless newspaper articles and magazine features. However, the most powerful experience of all came in conducting interviews. Over the course of my project, I spoke with several men and women who had been interned. At the end of each interview, I asked the same question. What do you think was the greatest tragedy of internment? Some told me it was the violation of their civil rights, others judged it was the time they lost. However, many said something else entirely, something that surprised me. The greatest tragedy of internment, they said, was that my generation had forgotten it.
I walked away from these interviews burdened, but also inspired. My documentary, I knew, must do more than impart information. It must tell a story and carry a message: civil liberties are more than just lofty ideals. I knew this was easy to forget. How many times in my own life had I taken for granted my freedom to attend church, to read any book I wanted, or to voice my opinions. These actions had never been seriously challenged. Yet, as my research on Carr was revealing, civil liberties are not givens. What is more, they must be constantly guarded, their destruction consistently heralded against. When we forget this, I saw, we risk repeating the tragedies of our history.
Knowing this, I threw myself into completing the project. Last March, I took the finished product to the district level of the National History Day competition. As my film played, I surveyed the dark room. The audience was mostly students, and I expected glazed eyes and bored, sullen faces. Instead, I was surprised to register something else entirely, interest. They were watching my documentary intently. Later, some even approached me and told me that my film had been jarring. They never realized something so long ago could still mean so much.
I left that day with more than a blue ribbon. I felt a spark this was what a historical documentary should do — inform and mobilize. I decided I would show my film to as many people as I could. Over the next few months, I played my documentary for many audiences. The Japan-America Society of Colorado presented it for their board of directors. It was screened at two film festivals and a conference of youth humanitarian activists, where I gave a presentation on using film to inspire change. However, the culmination came in June of this year, when I presented in the finals of the National History Day competition. Before a packed lecture hall, my film played alongside those of other state champions. As I stood before the crowd and the judges, I could only smile. I was doing just what I wanted. I was telling a story that needed to be told.
As I move through my last year of high school, that realization remains poignant. I am currently working on a new documentary, about the negative effects of harsh discipline policies in the Denver Public Schools. Like my Carr project, it is a story, and one so important I believe it cannot be ignored. That is why I have chosen to tell it.
Yet, even as I launch into this new project, Carr has not left my mind. He is still here with me each time I open the newspaper to read about the Patriot Act or bills to limit the rights of immigrants. He is here when I write to my congresspeople about issues of civil and human rights. And he is here most of all when I think of how I want to live my life. Injustice is not always preventable, I have seen, but that does not mean we should not fight it with all we have. Apathy is sometimes as potent as destruction. We can never be silent in the face of evil; we must all be Ralph Carrs. I discovered this as I made my film, and I can only hope that through the documentary, I have shown others this as well.