Page One

AmeriCorps film is effort in action

Peter Crimmins Daily Planet Correspondent
Saturday March 10, 2001

“Isn’t that a Clinton thing?” “Didn’t the Republicans de-fund that?” 

AmeriCorps has gotten the short shrift in the public’s worldview. Filmmaker Rick Goldsmith says what he has heard from most people is only the most vague understanding of the government-sponsored volunteer program, which the Clinton administration spearheaded in 1993 to foment community improvement. 

From their office in the Fantasy Building on Tenth Street in Berkeley, Goldsmith (whose documentary (“Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press” was nominated for an Academy Award) and his filmmaking partner Abbey Ginzberg have created a documentary about the working side of the constantly budget-threatened AmeriCorps.  

“Everyday Heroes” will have a premiere screening this Sunday at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco at 5 p.m. Goldsmith and Ginzberg didn’t have to travel far to find subjects: In the East Bay there are dozens on AmeriCorps projects in action. 

The film follows eleven members during the 1998-1999 school year as they taught, tutored, and mentored school children in various disciplines from reading to gardening to HIV prevention. Participants in AmeriCorps were paid a small wage and earned an educational stipend at the end of their year-long term. 

Sonya Dublin is one such participant. As a recent college graduate with some grassroots community organizing experience – and a whole lot of waitressing jobs – she had been hoping to gain some professional training. 

“I went into AmeriCorps thinking I would do a year or two of community service,” said Dublin, who was placed in Berkeley High School’s HIV prevention program. “Now I want to do it for the rest of my life.” 

Another of the film’s subjects is Kelsey Siegel, was placed in the Edible Schoolyard program of Berkeley’s Willard Middle School.  

The Edible Schoolyard is a gardening project on the Willard campus which enables students to learn to grow, harvest, and prepare produce on the school campus. The project allowed Siegel to bring together his professional experiences in farming, cooking, and teaching. 

It also let him bring his passion for Latin American and African drumming to his job. “Drumming is important in the agricultural tradition,” said Siegel, who tried to instill in the middle school students drumming as a means of ceremony and celebration. 

Filmmaker Abbey Ginzberg has been on the lookout for community programs for at-risk youth for several years. Her previous films (“Movin’ On Up,” “Vanguard in the Vanguard”) have been about experimental social programs.  

Ginzberg said she was drawn to documenting AmeriCorps because it is designed to reward the participants as much as the kids they are teaching “Some members of the team could be considered at-risk themselves,” she said. 

Part of the program charter stipulates that members of regional projects work as a group, and meet weekly to discuss and plan the direction of their team. “Everyday Heroes” captures some of their meetings, which were prone to bickering and arguments. 

“It was the most diverse group I’ll probably will ever work with,” said Siegel, who admitted he was wary of the team element. “It could get intense.” 

The film witnesses heated debates about race, personal expression, and group leadership, snits not unlike what could be seen among the young people in MTV’s “The Real World.” But while most reality-television programs are propelled by cash or career advancement, AmeriCorps and “Everyday Heroes” places its altruistic motivation in the betterment of the community. 

Goldsmith first realized the documentary potential of AmeriCorps while working on another MTV production, “Summer of Service,” when he discovered there were many young people interested in this kind of work. 

Kelsey Siegel knew he wanted to be a part of the Edible Schoolyard before he learned AmeriCorps existed.  

When King Middle School told him he could not work there because they couldn’t pay him, they pointed him in the direction of AmeriCorps as a way to get involved.  

Although initially hesitant to the team dynamic in favor of working with kids in the garden, Siegel now says that he got more out of the AmeriCorps experience from the team, learning to find resolution and comradery among the group. 

He also got a job. King Middle School eventually hired Siegel as their Edible Schoolyard’s group supervisor, where he still works today. 

For information about this weekend’s screening of “Everyday Heroes,” call 415.355.9988 x10.