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Detroit Narrative Agency

DNA grows out of and embodies Allied Media Projects’ definition of media-based organizing: any collaborative process of using media, art, or technology to address the roots of problems and advance holistic solutions. This framework itself grows out of the Detroit Summer Live Arts Media Project, a participatory storytelling and organizing project that took place between 2006 and 2010. It is inspired by the long legacy of Detroit movement media projects such as Ruth Ellis’s printshop, Ron Scott’s work on radio and public television, Broadside Press, and so much more. These projects have been generating counter-narratives about Detroit for decades with a deep knowledge of how the media we produce and consume shapes our reality.

In 2015, Allied Media Projects received a grant from the Just Films program of the Ford Foundation to incubate narrative-shifting moving image projects, in line with their strategy to address structural inequity in the city.
Rather than simply re-grant the funds to professional filmmakers, AMP designed a program to resource community-based storytellers to develop short trailers and pitches for films, all while modeling a more transparent, community-governed model of grantmaking.

Artist-activists ill weaver and adrienne maree brown coordinated the first phase of DNA, from January 2016 to June 2017. They assembled an eight-member advisory team of Detroiters with extensive backgrounds in media-based organizing and narrative-shifting work, which included Paige Watkins, Wesley Taylor, Carlos Garcia, Sacramento Knoxx, Taylor Aldridge, Kate Levy, Lottie Spady, and Halima Cassells. Together, the DNA staff and advisory team co-designed the DNA grantmaking guidelines and process.

They began by conducting an audit of existing moving image media about Detroit, which involved cataloguing thematic patterns, rating media for aesthetic and content quality, and researching the budget sizes of the films, and demographic information of their producers.
From their audit of existing media about Detroit, DNA found that the majority of well-resourced media projects had high aesthetic quality, but lower content quality, and were created by people either new to Detroit or living outside of the city (very often white cisgender men). Work produced by Detroiters, especially people of color was typically under-resourced, with higher content quality but lower aesthetic quality.

DNA then conducted a community research process to build a narrative map of the stories Detroiters are sick of hearing, the stories that need to be uplifted, as well as the infrastructural needs to shift those narratives. This process involved more than 200 community members.

Results from the research can be seen below, displayed as a spectrum of narratives about Detroit, arranged from positive to negative, which served as a set of narrative-shifting priorities for the Seed Grant Program of DNA’s first phase. This program gave preference to projects proposed by life-long Detroiters who reflect the demographics of the city (majority Black and people of color), as they are typically the least likely to be funded and supported.

On May 10th 2016, DNA launched its call for Seed Grant applications at a public event held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which was attended by over 200 people. They produced an infomercial about the opportunity and circulated it widely online, and promoted the opportunity at community events.

DNA received 148 applications and selected ten projects to participate in the Seed Grant Program. Those ten projects, developed by Detroit-based storytellers ranging from ages 19 - 53, were chosen for their strong narrative-shifting, moving image and community engagement components. They ranged in format from documentary film and web series, to virtual reality and interactive installation. Read their synopses here.

Between August 2016 to June 2017 DNA supported these 10 projects with $6,000 in funding, one-on-one coaching, and a series of trainings. Trainings included technical skills, budget development, content, community engagement, and more.

DNA at AMC2017

The Seed Grant Phase culminated at the 2017 Allied Media Conference, where project teams presented their work to a room of potential funders and supporters in a closed feedback session. They were also celebrated on stage as part of the conference’s opening ceremony.

Following a period of evaluation for the Seed Grant phase and visioning for what could come next, DNA 2.0 was launched with two primary goals: to provide additional support to the seed grantees that were ready to produce 10-12 minute short films and to cultivate the narrative-shifting and moving-image ecosystem in Detroit. The DNA staff team also transformed at this point; adrienne maree brown transitioned from coordinator and facilitator to advisor, ill Weaver became the Program Director, and Paige Watkins joined the team as Associate Director.

DNA 2.0, is now underway with renewed support from the Ford Foundation and the Acton Family Foundation. In this phase, DNA has selected five of the 10 seed grantees to participate in a fellowship which includes additional funding, training, and mentorship. By the end of 2018 all five projects will have completed a short film and submitted it for screening in a major film festival.
Additionally, DNA is supporting the projects to create community impact strategies that will embed the content and distribution of the films within a larger ecosystem of community organizing and storytelling around the issues they are addressing.