If awarded the Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Arts Award, I will pursue an MFA in Film, concentrating on either Directing/Production or Screenwriting. Numerous industry professionals and the graduate programs themselves have advised me in this decision, as these two tracks are the best possible avenues to the knowledge, internships, and career opportunities that will get me where I want to be in my career: I want to be an independent filmmaker-- both as a writer and director-- and eventually a showrunner for a television program. An MFA program would allow me to hone my craft, gain valuable filmmaking experience, and network extensively (which is key for a career in film and television
Simply put, film is my passion. I have always enjoyed crafting stories, primarily through writing initially, but when I took my first film class, I fell in love with the challenges and capabilities of medium. I am the sort of person that can find joy and learn how to be happy in most situations, but with film, the joy comes effortlessly. For my shoot over the summer, I spent 16-hour days shut in a small, un-air conditioned apartment with a flea-ridden dog for no pay at all. None of it fazed me. I was just so happy to have the opportunity to make a movie. The satisfied exhaustion I felt at the end of each day made me realize that this is definitely what I want to do for the rest of my life.
What are your long term career plans?
Even as I am in the process of completing my undergraduate degree and applying to graduate programs, my eye is on the future, and I am taking steps to ensure my success. Someday, I hope to direct feature independent films and perhaps break into television. Cable networks, like HBO and Showtime offer, opportunities to pursue a level of artistry and craft consistent with the medium of cinema, but operating beyond the restrictions of censoring entities such as the MPAA and FCC allows programs on these channels to develop content that pushes boundaries. I firmly believe that television has the potential to be great art, and I would love to play a part in its creation.
Many current showrunners are head writers and executive producers. This is a path I intend to follow. Over the summer, I wrote, directed, and produced a feature-length film which I will be screening as a part of CineSLAM/Pride of the Ocean, a week-long workshop for LGBT filmmakers, festival programmers, and development personnel. This will give me the opportunity to hear critique of my current work and, perhaps most importantly, allow me to network with individuals currently working in the field and glean important information regarding how to get future projects off the ground.
Please explain why you have chosen each of the universities listed above as your preferred institution(s) for your graduate studies.
In addition to the schools listed, I applied to Chapman University in Orange County, CA and have yet to hear from them regarding acceptance.
The programs I have applied to consistently show up on industry lists of top film schools in the world based on the quality of their curricula and work churned out by their students and graduates. I visited numerous institutions to find the school that would be best for me. As a result, there are two conspicuous absences from my list: USC and UCLA. Although these are excellent programs that produce talented filmmakers, they simply did not feel like a good fit.
As far as the programs that did make my list, I believe that “iron sharpens iron,” and that in order to be my best, I should be surrounded and supported by faculty and peers who challenge me to achieve my highest level of artistry and skill.
American Film Institute is, arguably, the best film program in the world. Its conservatory environment and selectivity appealed to me. The same goes for Chapman, another highly selective school with extensive resources. Loyola Marymount’s program is new and very small, but it is definitely making waves in the industry. I had wonderful conversations with students and faculty from all three institutions, and they all seemed to embrace the ideals I sought in a program-- artistic freedom, hands-on experience, and integration into the professional world. These three programs are in and around Los Angeles, which is a key location for filmmaking opportunities. Conversely, although University of Texas-Austin is far removed from the LA/Hollywood sphere, their program is excellent, and Austin has a distinctive and truly independent film scene, and the graduate program at UT offers internship and employment opportunities in Los Angeles.
I was born in a tiny town in Arkansas to dirt poor parents who divorced when I was five. My mother, who retained custody, suffered from an undiagnosed hypothyroid (that often left her bedridden) and borderline personality disorder (which is a separate essay in and of itself). My first stepfather was mentally and sexually abusive; my second stepfather tried to kill me. I was bullied throughout school relentlessly, both for being poor and for identifying as bisexual.
I left home of my own accord for the first time at 14. I did move back periodically, but rarely for more than a few weeks at a time, and I always maintained economic independence from my mother; in fact, sometimes, I supported her and my brother in addition to myself. I worked as a prostitute from the ages of 14 to 19 and used drugs through most of this time period. When I left the life, I latched on to the first man who would have me, got married, and had a son, thereby jumping from one unhealthy, abusive situation to another. I left my husband less than a year after we married and have been a happy single mother ever since.
I returned to college when my son started kindergarten. That was always my plan. However, whereas I had anticipated my education opening doors to career opportunities, what I found when I returned to school was so much more. I engaged with my community and became and activist and an advocate. I embraced the intellectual challenge of rigorous coursework. I re-discovered my passion for art and stories, and, more importantly, learned that a career as an artist was not, as my culture had led me to believe, a pipe dream. Rather, it was a feasible reality for someone with talent and drive and a work ethic; I have since found that the blue collar work ethic that nearly prevented me from pursuing filmmaking has made me an asset on a film set, as I take great pride in the long hours that go into film production.
I am set to graduate from Loyola University New Orleans in May of this year with degrees in both Psychology and English: Film and Digital Media. With valuable life and work experience under my belt and a tremendous amount of ambition and toughness, I find that for the first time in my life, my future is defined by my hard work and potential, not by limitations.
Discuss why your art expresses you.
In a more physical sense, filmmaking, as a process, tends to demand organization, collaboration, adaptability, and endurance, all of which are traits that I feel I possess and that I like to put to use, like exercising muscles. As a result, I love every step of the filmmaking process, from casting to scheduling to creative decision-making on set.
More abstractly, I believe in the magic and the power of well-crafted stories—for both the audience and the storyteller. I find that as a filmmaker, I am drawn to creating stories that I can relate to. I like strong female characters who overcome obstacles and characters who subvert socially constructed sexual orientation or gender norms. I like creating stories that I find compelling and that reflect my values or sensibilities. I feel like the overtness of film, the audiovisual nature of it, provides a great forum for self-expression, but it also presents a challenge—how to create subtext or subtly in a medium where the “big picture” is all laid out for the audience—and I find the process of overcoming that challenge extremely gratifying.
Above all, I just love a well-crafted film. A film that is painstakingly constructed—from the screenplay to the cinematography to post-production—affects people, even those who watch movies casually, on a surface level, but for those of us who know about the work that goes into making a movie, a well-articulated film is like the inside of a watch—this wondrous compilation of bits and pieces, and even knowing exactly how the pieces interact does not detract from the magic behind a great film, which always seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. I feel like my expression, as a director, is that whole and its effect.
What one thing about your art would you change and why?
It almost goes without saying that the film industry is highly commercial. As a result, funding tends to go to high concept projects that are widely marketable. I want to tell my story, informed by my experiences on the fringes. Unfortunately, I fear that my thinking in developing projects is unduly influenced by the knowledge that in order to secure funding or an audience, I have to include characters or events or humor based on appeal rather than their connectedness to the story, which undermines my artistic integrity. For example, when directing “Perry & Emile,” there was a scene where some nudity would have been completely appropriate, but I did not include any because I did not want to limit my potential audience. Similarly, when writing the screenplay, I felt like Perry’s vernacular was not reflective of her station, but for the sake of keeping the project PG-13, I limited her use of expletives. Frankly, I am not proud of these decisions, but I have learned from them and intend to stay truer to my instincts in the future, regardless of the potential financial or exposure limitations.
Every summer Tante, a domestic servant in my grandmother’s home in Haiti, welcomed me with open arms, spoiling me with my favorite treats. Tante and her family, who also worked for my grandmother, lived in a one bedroom house in the yard. My valued playtime with her nieces and nephews was often interrupted when they were called to carry buckets of water into the house, clean the yard, wash dishes, or cook. Although they worked incessantly, their labor never afforded them the luxuries of education or healthcare. These early experiences influenced my decision to study law in order to give voice to people facing challenges similar to those of Tante and her family.
Social responsibility was a major theme in the legal education I received at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Through Loyola’s sponsorship, I returned to Haiti in 2008, after a 12-year hiatus, on a charitable mission. I sought out Tante, but learned that she was sent away because my grandmother was too ill to manage the household. What town was she from? Did she have a home to return to? What was her real name? After nearly 30 years of working for my family, no one there knew, and, frankly, no one seemed to care. This troubling realization compelled me, with the help of other association members, to found Konbit Pou Edikasyon, “Working Together for Education,” an organization that provides financial support for academic instruction for thirty-three Haitian children at risk of becoming child laborers.
Back at law school, I discovered I was most interested in the courses on intellectual property. In addition to my studies, I worked on copyright and trademark issues as an associate at a law firm, at a major corporation, and as a journalist with the Bureau of National Affairs on its Patent, Trademark, and Copyright Journal. These experiences provided me with the fundamental skills and knowledge required to navigate the complicated terrain of intellectual property law. Still, I had not yet found a way to use that knowledge as an avenue for helping disadvantaged communities.
After receiving my law degree, I researched organizations that use intellectual property to contribute to the economic growth of export industries in low income nations. Ghana’s Kuapa Kokoo cooperative is one of the best models I have found for providing people the opportunity, wages, and education for economic advancement. It pays farmers fair prices for cocoa beans, trademarks the products made from the cocoa, allows farmers to learn and participate in the international sale of cocoa, and invests in social projects for the community. Knowing that Ghana’s people face many of the same challenges as Haitians—domestic servitude, unethical working conditions, and lack of access to education—I am inspired to understand more deeply how, in only thirteen years, Kuapa Kokoo built its brand based on a successful model of fair business practices.
Although I was powerless to influence the outcome of Tante’s life, I hold myself responsible for creating systems that provide low-income communities with real economic and social options. Infusing trademark protection into business models for low-income producers can move their communities from mere survival to economic breakthrough, providing a bridge toward healthcare, education, and housing—social tools Tante never had access to.
STATEMENT OF GRANT PURPOSE
Branding Ghana’s Fair Trade Cocoa Exports
The purpose of my project is to study how the Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative and Divine Chocolate Limited have used branding to maximize their earning potential and alleviate poverty. I will focus my research on how Kuapa-Divine have developed reputable and valuable trademarks that promote Ghanaian culture, progressive business practices, and community development. To fully understand the context in which each brand evolved, I will research the history of the regulation, trade, and marketing of cocoa beans in Ghana, in addition to the fair trade industry as a whole.
Ghana serves as an excellent model for sustainable fair trade as the world’s second largest cocoa producer. In 2007, Ghana reached a $547 million compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a United States foreign aid agency. The compact is aimed at reducing poverty by raising farmer incomes through private sector-led and agribusiness development. Kuapa-Divine’s business strategy is directly in line with the farmer sustainability initiatives the United States is funding in Ghana.
In 1993, Kuapa Kokoo established the only farmer-owned, fair trade–certified cocoa cooperative in Ghana. The farmer members own a 45% share in Divine Chocolate Limited which produces chocolate products. Cocoa sales support the member farmers’ communities through social projects aimed at education, health, safety, and economic empowerment. The Divine brand allows consumers to “play a part in an equitable partnership” by choosing to patronize a company who is directly contributing to the socio-economic advancement of its employees and their families.
Aside from shareholder investment, the crux of Kuapa-Divine’s sustainability is its reputation whose integrity comes from managing the cooperative transparently, and successfully navigating international trade politics and domestic export regulations, whereas many other brands focus solely on consumer satisfaction. Successfully building a brand based on such capricious factors is why, as a Fulbright fellow, I will explore how Ghana’s legal, trade and economic policies governing the cocoa industry affect Kuapa’s production, organizational practices, and community development and influence Divine’s brand development and reputation.
I have already made the necessary contacts to successfully execute this project in Ghana. I will collaborate with Dr. Dominic Ayine, lecturer at the University of Ghana’s Faculty of Law – the leading institution for legal research related to Ghana’s development. Dr. Ayine’s expertise in international trade will be a valuable resource for my research on current events within the cocoa export industry. He will provide me with access to the Faculty of Law’s library and to professionals who can assist me with understanding Ghana’s legal and economic systems. Further, Charlotte Borges, Divine’s Director of Public Relations, has agreed to be my liaison between Kuapa and Divine. She will help me establish contacts at the cooperative for arranging visits and interviews and answer my questions regarding Divine’s brand development.
My legal education and work experiences give me confidence that I have the necessary resources to conduct this intensive study project within one year. As a law student, I mastered courses in trademark law and was a research assistant for Professor Gary Myers, an intellectual property expert. In this role, I had the opportunity to edit the new edition of an intellectual property case book, and to research emerging trademark issues. Under his supervision, I first learned about trademarks being used in export industries in developing nations. The topic was so intriguing that I began to write about intellectual property initiatives through a blog entitled Intellectual Property and International Development. Since then, I have read extensively about trademark protection and development for agricultural industries. Additionally, I will apply the data collection and analysis skills I developed interviewing parents and students through my organization’s work in Haiti when I confer with farmers, professors, and government officials.
There are three objectives I hope to achieve while pursuing this project. First, I intend to connect my network in the United States with the project through a weekly online photo-journal that will capture my experiences and convey my research. Second, I plan to write a series of articles on Kuapa-Divine’s brand development for BNA’s Patent, Trademark, and Copyright Journal, the Metropolitan Black Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Section’s newsletter, and Investir.ht, a business news site. These publications have already shown interest in publishing my work. Third, I will complete a research paper on the best practices from Kuapa-Divine’s brand history to use as a guide for my future career building and protecting similar trademarks throughout the world.
To accomplish these goals, I will spend September and October researching Ghana’s trademark laws, as well as, its international trade and domestic policies regulating the cocoa industry. I will also calendar visits to Kuapa headquarters in Kumasi and village societies in Akumadan for November and early December. Thereafter, I will obtain permission from village elders to interview Kuapa’s farmer members in the Ashanti, Brong Ahafo, and Western regions from January through May. I will conclude my project by comparing the qualitative data collected from my interviews with the promotional data from Divine to draw conclusions about how Ghanaian culture and politics influenced Kuapa-Divine’s brand and the challenges to and best practices for upholding the principles perpetuated by the brand.
This is the right time for this type of project. There are immense opportunities for spreading awareness about fair trade brands in America because of the recent movement for consumer awareness about food origin. The public is interested in understanding where its food comes from and the business practices that bring it to their tables. My research will educate Americans about the best way to support fair trade brands in Ghana—and elsewhere. It will also encourage Americans to lobby their favorite brands to establish business practices that sustain, rather than exploit, producers at home and abroad. Additionally, it will highlight a country-led solution to diminishing poverty through sustainable agribusiness branding that can lead to less dependence on United States foreign aid— a guiding principle of the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
I am excited about contributing to the discourse on trademark law from the fair trade perspective in the developing world as a Fulbright Fellow to highlight a different approach the United States can use to help Ghana lead its economic future.