An interview with ‘Agents of Change’ producers

Abby Ginzberg and Frank Dawson discuss their film that will show Thursday evening, as part of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival.

Vineyard summer resident Abby Ginzberg co-directed “Agents of Change.” — Michael Cummo

Full length version of the story that includes interviews with both producers.

Through the previously untold stories of the young men and women who led protests for greater minority representation on college campuses in the late 1960s, “Agents of Change” examines the struggle for an integrated and diverse education system. The powerful film shows this Thursday evening, August 13, at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival.

Martha’s Vineyard summer resident Abby Ginzberg co-produced and co-directed “Agents of Change” with Frank Dawson. Ms. Ginzberg has directed and produced awardwinning documentaries that address issues of race and social justice for 30 years. She won a Peabody Award in 2014 for “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa,” and was a consulting producer for “The Barber of Birmingham,” which received an Oscar nomination in the short documentary category. Her other work includes “Soul of Justice,” a profile of one of the first African-American federal judges, and “Sowing the Seeds of Justice,” about the first Latino appointed to the California Supreme Court. We recently spoke with Ms. Ginzberg about the making of this impactful film.

Mr. Dawson spent 20 years in Hollywood managing the production and development of TV shows and movies, including “Miami Vice,” “Alice,” and “Private Benjamin.” After 15 years as a professor of media studies and a department chair at Santa Monica College, he is now the associate dean of career and technical education. We recently spoke with the two of them about the making of this impactful film.

MVTimes: Tell me about the origin and production of this film.

Abby Ginzberg: We chose to focus on San Francisco State and Cornell because they are, in many ways, good opposites of each other when it comes to presenting the black and white student protests on college campuses in the ’60s. One is urban, public, and diverse, the other rural, private, and predominantly white. We felt the story was misrepresented in the media, and we wanted to use the documentary to say what really happened.

The stories we chose allow you to meet the characters and feel the contradictions, to reflect why students of color found the conditions on campus intolerable, and understand why people felt like they had to act.

We got the idea and did our first interviews in 2009. By 2013, we had gotten some funding and were trying to generate interest in the film, but it was hard. With the protests, we’ve gone from “nice idea, good luck” to people who are excited to bring the film to their colleges and communities. We’ve always believed in this film, but it’s hard to sustain that belief when no one is interested or wants to give you money. We’ve kept the flame burning all these years. The context changed, and now the film has a place.

Frank Dawson: I had written a movie on the subject for Universal Pictures in the 1980s that did not get made, like most Hollywood pieces. Seeing other films about that period, the characters are almost caricatures, so I began thinking about another form in which to tell that story. As fortune would have it, another professor at Santa Monica knew Abby, and introduced us in 2009. We had two individual experiences, but really vibed in understanding that time, even though we never met at Cornell.

MVT: What was it like being part of the Cornell protests?

AG: Frank [Dawson] was the class of ’72 and I was the class of ’71, a sophomore. Frank was one of the hundred black students who took over that building. I’d gotten a call in my dorm, you’ve got to come here, you’ve got to support the black students taking over the building. We went, there was a freezing rain, and we were marching around in a circle, giving out leaflets indicating what the black demands were, until they brought the police. It’s silly, but we felt like the security around the building. We knew it was the right thing to do.

FD: That was a very special time in my life. I was a freshman at that time, 18 years old. When I was 14 I participated in a demonstration down in Washington, D.C., but other than that I was pretty distant from that. But to live through the assassinations of Malcolm X and J.F.K. and R.F.K. and M.L.K., it was a time that captured your attention more than your individual desires. It just was kind of organic, if you were in tune with what was happening at the time. I grew up in a public housing project in New York City, understanding the lack of equality and opportunity. I was blessed to go to Cornell, because I’d been previously blessed to go to a boarding school, which was almost all white. I just became engaged.

I was part of a group of freshmen students who came in together, the first time Cornell aggressively recruited from the inner city, and we really, really found ourselves together because we came from the same place and understood each other, and felt like this was an alien environment in Ithaca, N.Y. We trusted each other, and every time we did something, we were all in it together.

This was just going to be another demonstration, but we were kind of called together when word circulated that a cross had been burned outside the black women’s housing on campus. So we went to the temporary headquarters of the proposed African studies program, one by one — we didn’t have social media or cell phones — and the upper-class students meeting upstairs came up with a strategy about how we were going to react to this atrocity. Fifty of us had gathered, and we were told we were going to have a demonstration. And that’s what we did.

We had no idea that it was going to escalate to a story that was so important that we’re still talking about it today. A lot of the issues we faced then have not gone away. I really feel the timeliness of what’s going on today, and the reception we’re getting from anyone who sees this project.

MVT: What is the significance of this film in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, which “Agents of Change” addresses during the film’s final minutes?

AG: It’s all about activism. About pushing back, and saying we have an obligation to make things better. Black lives matter, black education matters, and black opportunity matters. Before the protests of the past 12 to 18 months, our film might’ve interested a few black-studies students. Now, it’s a film that has significance and meaning. Black Lives Matter didn’t happen in a vacuum. This film connects for white people and black people equally, showing a straight line from what happened in the late ’60s to the present. People are seeing today’s story against the backdrop of the film.

FD: It has a real opportunity to look at the continually widening gap in achievement between privileged and underrepresented African-American and Latino communities. The importance of the focus on education says there’s a certain responsibility we have to take. We have to own some of that, and really take advantage of education as an opportunity, so we’re not as often in situations in which we’re more vulnerable. We need to really use education as a tool to pull our communities out of this continuing cycle of poverty.

MVT: The police in “Agents of Change” are the antagonists. They beat students and threaten unarmed crowds with pistols during protests. How does this relate to the more recent focus on deadly overreaction by some police during encounters with people of color?

AG: In spite of what they’ve seen in recent protests, people will still be shocked by the images from San Francisco State. The protesters were not prepared for the level of brutality they encountered. No policeman was ever disciplined, and that’s what people are still reacting to today. We go from the past, where police acted with impunity, to the present, where police act with impunity, and that leads to mass protests both then and now.

FD: Something that hasn’t changed is the culture of police departments nationwide, and the underlying racism that still exists. This predates the civil rights movement; it’s rooted in racism and supported by law enforcement institutions, and really needs to be addressed. Who is being protected, and who is being served?

MVT: Halfway through the film, the author of “The Black Campus Movement,” Ibram X. Kendi, says of minority students, “Everywhere they looked, when they were not looking at each other, they saw white people and white ideas.” How has that evolved since then?

AG: When you look at the outcome, it was the creation of black studies and Latino studies and, later, LGBT studies across the country. The difference with the young leaders today, like those in the I, Too, Am Harvard movement, is that they have fabulous people of color as professors who wouldn’t have had a job back then. We have whole new academic disciplines that have come out of people wanting to study issues of black and related themes, and that was one of the central demands of the protests.

FD: A number of places have gone away from recruiting from urban centers, and returned to the suburbs. The black students are once again from the middle class. There are students of color, but if you look at the socioeconomic background, it’s a really different focus. There are many fewer hardcore urban students.

MVT: Relatedly, the film revolves around the idea of “knowledge is power” and the importance of education.

AG: Right. We can’t change things unless we understand the history. The more we take the blinders off, the better we’ll be at understanding why the police overreact. If we don’t come to grips with implicit bias — the ways in which stereotypes affect how we see people of color — and do something about it, we are doomed to continue to see the kind of outrageous situations that have led to the Black Lives Matter protests, and education is a huge part of that.

FD: Growing up as a kid, my grandparents were born on four different Caribbean islands, and my grandmother would say “Education, education, education!” That was a core value in my family. Because I didn’t see the positive benefits around me in my community, I didn’t make the connection to education until I went to boarding school, becoming 1 of 10 instead of 1 of 50 in the class. There was this preconceived notion of what I was capable of doing, of having to prove something, and that’s when I became a good student.

MVT: Tell me about your background as a white woman and how that led to you devoting your career to these issues.

AG: Growing up in Manhattan and going to public schools was the key. For a lot of people who grew up in all-white suburbs, this never crossed their mind. I grew up in the real world, in a very multiracial environment. I took a lot of that for granted, so when I got to Cornell — it was a very white institution, even by the standards of the time — that made me sensitive to issues of equality. I didn’t want to live in a world with this gross inequity. Race is central to the American experience. I’ve worked on these issues my whole life because it gets me closer to the world I want to live in. Even part of the reason I come here, to Martha’s Vineyard, is because it has a black population. The idea of me going somewhere all-white, that’s just not an option for me.

MVT: The soundtrack is very present in “Agents of Change.” Why were those pieces chosen, and how do you feel they contribute to the film?

AG: These songs, for many people and myself included, are the soundtrack of the era. When you think back to that period, these are the songs that are in the back of your mind. They are critical to evoking the spirit of the times: This is the music people were listening to, these are the iconic songs and artists.

MVT: What do you see looking forward?

AG: Having worked on this issue my entire professional life, I’m beginning to see light in the darkness, because people are starting to ask the right questions. Having Obama as president, finally speaking out on these issues, that’s also a good thing. We’re seeing a change that’s enabling all of us to think about this in a new way, and to maybe educate ourselves in a new way. I’m very cautiously optimistic.

FD: We’re at a critical time, a time in which there’s a decent number of Americans that are open to listening to other ideas in regard to race. It’s a topic that’s not so taboo once again, and because there are so many stories highlighted, I think people are starting to pay attention and say “Hmm, here’s another case of police killing a person of color.” I think it’s a good time to really elevate the discussion. That’s one of my biggest hopes for our film, to again open up this discussion and have it lead to real action and real change.

Abby had never worked with a co-producer before, and I had never developed a documentary project aimed for a broad audience until now, and the compromises we’ve made to each other working on this project have really been a good experience for both of us. We’re very proud of the work we’ve achieved as partners on this film.

“Agents of Change” will show from 5 to 6:30 pm this Thursday, August 13, as part of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival at the Performing Arts Center, Martha’s Vineyard High School. The film runs an hour, and will be followed with a discussion with Mr. Dawson and Ms. Ginzberg, moderated by the journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, one of the first two black students admitted to the University of Georgia in 1961. For additional information on the film, visit