Filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom ‘92 on Inequality in America and the Power of Storytelling and Empathy
On Tuesday, January 12, 2021, Branson alumna Jennifer Siebel Newsom ‘92 joined Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz, Branson's Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for a conversation about her latest film, The Great American Lie.
Jennifer, an award-winning filmmaker and advocate, is the founder of The Representation Project, a nonprofit dedicated to breaking down limiting gender norms. The organization uses documentary films, education, and activism to shift the public’s attitudes and behavior around gender. Her latest film, The Great American Lie, tells the tale of America’s widening economic inequality and its disproportionate impacts on women, and particularly on women of color, through the voices of everyday Americans, community leaders, and experts on America’s inequity crisis.
Jennifer and JuanCarlos used their conversation to expand on many of the movie’s themes, including the importance of empathy and exposure to different cultures, navigating privilege and the responsibility that comes with it, the continued role of hypermasculinity in America, the power of storytelling to transform lives, and the necessity of shifting towards a culture of compassion, care, and partnership.
After a welcome and introduction from Director of Alumni Relations Rebecca Hutchinson Houser ‘92 and Head of School Chris Mazzola, JuanCarlos opened the conversation by asking Jennifer about her time at Branson and how it influenced her understanding of empathy, a key theme in her films and advocacy.
Jennifer spoke about the role of Branson teachers and administrators in impressing values upon their students, and its result in “a beautiful culture of kindness and empathy” at Branson. She also talked about the impact of a few of her own Branson teachers, in particular, Donna Gude (English) who showed her the “beauty and power of narrative storytelling” and introduced her to great literature. She also credited Margaret Cecchetti (Spanish) with giving her the tools not only to speak the Spanish language but also to better understand the LatinX community, which she noted has been very helpful in her role as First Partner of California.
As she put it, “unless you put yourself in those situations where you’re interacting with people who are different than you, it’s really easy to be focused on oneself.”
JuanCarlos also brought up privilege. In particular, he asked Jennifer to speak to her own ability to navigate the discomfort of talking about and having privilege (racial, socioeconomic, etc.). “I think you have to sit in it, breathe through it,” she began, before diving into the importance of seeing that privilege as a responsibility and using it for good. In her view, “you don’t need to waste time feeling guilty about your privilege, just jump in.” Jennifer also talked about her desire to be “a platform for other people’s voices...particularly women of color,” a goal that clearly drives much of the storytelling in The Great American Lie.
JuanCarlos and Jennifer also touched on gender inequality and the toxic culture of hypermasculinity in the United States, two issues that are shown to compound economic inequity in The Great American Lie. Jennifer’s other films, Miss Representation and The Mask We Live In, also tackle these topics head on. Jennifer believes we can find solutions to extreme gender binaries by “deconstructing what it means to be a human being.” As she puts it, it’s about “taking a step back and looking at your own socialization, deconstructing the parts that were harmful, and re-creating or reenvisioning what it means to be human.” Her goal at The Representation Project is to “right the ship and create more balance.”
Whether discussing how to navigate difficult topics with your children, inequality and privilege in American, or harmful gender binaries, Jennifer’s message rang clear: put yourself in other peoples’ shoes, listen to other people’s stories, find empathy, and think beyond yourself. These values couldn’t align more perfectly with Branson’s mission, and we were so grateful to Jennifer for showing us how she not only lives by those values, but puts them into practice to be a force of change.