5 Questions with filmmaker, Lisa Russell

Lisa Russell

She’s danced with P. Diddy, Busta Rhymes and Usher, won an Emmy and taken a very long ride with a group of storytellers on Willie Nelson’s tour bus.  Sure, Lisa Russell has some fantastic names to drop on her CV. But, that’s not the story that this passionate, talented and concerned filmmaker wants to tell.  Lisa Russell is focused on #Create2030, and has her eyes set on becoming a UN Arts Envoy.

Here’s 5 questions tailored toward teaching all of us a different vision for being “an advocate for change” and shifting the story.  

What drove you to start #Create2030?

#Create2030 is a new film and creative campaign to engage artists, storytellers and other creatives in helping to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) -17 Global Goals set by the United Nations as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.  My drive to start #Create2030 is my 15 year career straddling the arts, social justice and global development work with UN/NGO agencies.  Although I have been producing films and curating artistic performances at high level UN events for my entire career, my main focus now is on building institutional credibility for artists at the United Nations and other global institutions.  Why is this important?  When I was attending the Town Hall meetings for the drafting of the SDG Outcome Document, there was only myself and another creative professional – a radio personality from the Caribbean – who were advocating for arts and artists to get incorporated into the document that would then help shape national policies around the world.  With more artists in the room, we could have had a louder voice.  But, accessing the United Nations is complex and sometimes intimidating.  My goal is eventually to become the UN’s Arts Envoy – advocating for artist’s needs and rights at the United Nations and also inspire, educate and train creative communities around the world to learn about the SDGs, promote them to those who may not have access to the information, and advocate for change.

Who is the biggest influence on your work? 

My work is shaped by a variety of people, because I wear many different hats, and straddle the artistic and humanitarian worlds.  With that said, my mentor – Jonathan Mann, who was the head of the first UNAIDS program who tragicly died in a plane crash in 1998 – helped me develop my voice as a global activist.  His principles around health as a human right and his no-nonsense way of dealing with bureacratic limitations inspired me to stay true to my roots, speak truth to power and be able to manuever equally comfortably between the highest levels of the United Nations to the poorest communities around the world.  In terms of artistic inspiration, most find it unusual that I don’t credit filmmakers for inspiring my film career. My film career has been mostly influenced by young spoken word poets I have worked with since 2003.  Their emotional, powerful means to confront social and racial injustices created the lens in which I viewed my global health and development work.  In other words, I see the problems of women unnecessarily dying in childbirth in African countries and young black men dying at the hands of police officers in the United States as coming from the same root problems. I only could learn this by being equally involved with the UN/NGO community and the poetry scene.

If you could learn anything, what would it be? 

If there’s something I want to learn – or in my case have to learn – in order to elevate my work, I’m usually do it.  Things I don’t do now that I would like to do?  DJ, paint and code.

Why is your favorite Hip Hop song important to you? 

Hard question to answer, but I would say one of the most impactful songs was “Nuthin But a G Thang” by Snoop Dogg because that song came out when I was dancing in a hip hop troupe in Southern California, and at the same time, running a girls group home. It was played during warm ups and also by the girls in the group home, as we drove down the 101 to pick up girls in Compton.

You’re someone who gets activated when they are fired up. What’s got you fired up?

In May of this year, I jumped on an old Willie Nelson tour bus with a bunch of other storytellers – filmmakers, a musician, a painter and artists with Pixar – to travel around the “rust belt” exploring innovative and unconventional ways that educators, maker spaces and others were redefining education. During the tour, I met an educator who is disrupting education in poorer, black neighborhoods.  He told me the story of his home town and a growing civil rights case taking shape that no one was really talking about.  He insisted on driving me to his home town for the day and I was so enraged by the blatant racism displayed by the city towards its residents, I decided to do the film.  In July, I returned to film for a week, and today, I’m on my way back for another week to collect some basic footage to start putting together a pitch reel.  I made it to the second round of the IFP/HBO True Stories development fund and crossing my fingers I can get the resources and support to bring light to this case and contribute my part into breaking down the systemic barriers that still exist for so many people in this country.


@lisarussellfilm, @create2030, #create2030, Lisarussellfilms.com

Check out her TEDx presentation here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEsVhuD9a_M

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