William J. Zellerbach Award for Social Change: Conversation with Villy Wang

Recently, the Zellerbach Family Foundation announced that the Bayview-Hunters Point Center for Arts and Technology (BAYCAT) had won the first annual William J. Zellerbach Award for Social Change.

Established in 2004, BAYCAT is a nonprofit social enterprise that exists to end racism and gender inequity through the education and employment of young people of color and women in the digital media arts. It offers free programs for youth (ages 11-17) and paid internships for young adults (ages 18-25) through BAYCAT Academy and professional social impact storytelling services through BAYCAT Studio, its professional video production house.

To learn more about BAYCAT and the change they are seeking to achieve, read this conversation between Allison Magee, ZFF’s executive director, and BAYCAT founder, CEO and president Villy Wang right after BAYCAT’s 15th Birthday party.

Allison Magee: Tell us about the Bayview-Hunters Point community.

Villy Wang: When I moved from New York City to San Francisco, I fell in love with the Bayview because it reminded me of my home. It was a little grittier, but it felt like a real neighborhood. I saw how much pride the people had in their community, especially in contrast to all the negative coverage media usually portrayed about Bayview-Hunters Point. People watched out for each other, they knew each other’s names, they said hello when they walked down the street. Even today, there’s this camaraderie; you could see the local business owners and leaders who co-exist and work together to uplift community.

Another thing I love about it is that it’s a community of faith, which is also something I grew up with. Bayview-Hunters Point is a diverse community, not just ethnically and culturally, but it also has a long history in San Francisco that is often forgotten or not taken seriously.

AM: The last 15 years have been so tumultuous in San Francisco, especially in the Bayview. What challenges are the young people in your community facing?

VW: Even though we are the hub of innovation and technology in Silicon Valley, it was haunting to me to see the status of the educational facilities, after-school programs and the lack of access to state-of-the-art technology in public schools and at home. Even having free broadband internet access was an issue when we were developing BAYCAT.

Housing and the rising costs of living are also huge issues. Bayview-Hunters Point is one of the most beautiful parts of San Francisco with literally the most stunning Bay view. It has had the most single family-owned homes and the greatest number of public housing units, but it’s been going through this process of gentrification. Our young people and their families have been displaced or fear losing forever the homes they grew up in. Bayview is also a historically under resourced community, and has housed a Super Fund site, sewage treatment and PG&E plant for decades. So, environmental and food justice, access to affordable health and mental health resources, and racial and social equity have all been issues our young people have long faced.

All these things work against the community, and the media has a tendency to amplify the negative about Bayview-Hunters Point. For young people in particular, it’s hard to know what is outside the confines of this neighborhood — especially if all they see or read of themselves in the media is negative. Things are changing. In the last 15 years, we’ve seen deeper partnerships form between community-based service providers, the City and with funders to improve many of these issues. Improvements include the rebuilding of the sewage treatment plant, the closing of the PG&E plant, the cleanup of the Super Fund site, the addition of the T-Third Muni and transportation improvements, more entrepreneurs and local business investments and more access to technology and free broadband.

One of our biggest gifts over the last 15 years has been watching our young people use their voices, stories and art to become social justice advocates. When they talk about their neighborhood, they share their points of view that are often not reflected in media and share their solutions, hopes and dreams of making their community stronger. They see the positive and especially when we showcase their work during our live world premieres, we feel their pride and that of the community.

AM: These challenges are so complex — where does BAYCAT fit in to finding solutions?

VW: Our new tagline is: we change the storytellers to change the world. Technology has changed so dramatically, and we look at millions of stories every day. Giving voice to our young people, and empowering them to tell their own stories, allows us — but more importantly them — to see that their stories matter.

For our 15th Anniversary party, I interviewed James Parker Pennington who grew up in Bayview-Hunters Point and has been with BAYCAT from when he was 11 to 18. I said to him, I started this business to end racism and sexism and bring social justice through storytelling; do you think we are doing that? His response was, “Yes. I would have never thought about being a filmmaker or telling my story without BAYCAT.” We’ve had the honor to work with hundreds of young people like James who grew up with us. We want to create a pathway from education to employment so there’s consistency in their lives. We want their stories to be heard and ultimately to change negative perceptions of them, their communities and the audiences that hear and see their stories.

By having an academy that educates our young people, and a studio that employs them and launches their careers in the creative industries, we are literally changing who the storytellers are, and the stories that are told to positively change the world.

BAYCAT Turns 15 – Forging the Future Video

AM: Your own story is pretty incredible. Can you tell us how you got involved in this work?

VW: I grew up in a household where there was an absence of stories. Because my Mom, Jow Wei Margaret Wang, was an immigrant, and a single mom raising me and my brother on her own, who grew up in conflict, from Japanese-occupied China to escaping the Communist, she was frightened and ashamed to share her story. I was never read to, and there were no conversations around the dinner table.

I eventually pulled those stories out of my mother while she was still alive, and it really changed me as a person. I had this business idea in my head 25 years ago fueled by my love of stories and my belief that stories could really make change. Because of the fire in my gut, and what my mother called, “sheer stupidity,” I quit my job as a corporate lawyer to start BAYCAT.

I became a fourth- and fifth-grade school teacher teaching youth from Bayview-Hunters Point as I was incubating the BAYCAT curriculum. I didn’t want to pretend to understand the needs and challenges of the youth and families nor the education system since I wasn’t raised here. I wanted to know, first hand, what the kids and families were going through. And whether there was a way to use digital arts to teach the power of story. Many of the children in BAYCAT’s first cohort were students of mine. That was super special.

My Mom even got to take a memoir writing class very early on. One day after she shared her story with other mothers, grandmothers and teenagers from the Bayview, she said to me that she finally understood why I wanted to start BAYCAT. From that day on, she supported BAYCAT 1,000%

AM: How will the award, and this partnership with the Zellerbach Family Foundation, support BAYCAT and make a difference in your work?

VW: It’s an honor to get this award — especially because it’s an inaugural award named after William J. Zellerbach, who was a leader and force in and of himself for establishing the Zellerbach Family Foundation as Chair.

We have worked with so many arts organizations that have been Zellerbach Family Foundation partners. Watching from the sidelines, we have always loved and admired how committed Zellerbach has been in supporting independent and underrepresented art voices that really need greater exposure.

And we are so proud to be affiliated with the Zellerbach Family Foundation because I know how much respect they have in the sector, and how much social capital they have, especially in this space at the intersection of art and story and social justice.

Beyond the dollars, the Zellerbach Family Foundation represents decades of wisdom from within and from other partners in their network that we are now a part of. I’m excited to see how together, we can make a bigger impact as we go forward.

AM: That’s really what the WJZ Award for Social Change is about — lifting up organizations like BAYCAT that are working to strengthen our systems to be more just and equitable. What calls to action would you have for policymakers, educators, media, or corporations about this issue?

VW: Look deeper. People cannot ignore that technology is expensive and that it is difficult to get into the hands of people without access. Young people might have smartphones, but they don’t have access to the storytelling tools that are the kinds that get them into the industry. It’s a different level of investment to provide ongoing and sustainable access and education to the professional quality tools, technology, and of course, all the soft skills they need.

When we hear policymakers refer to the thousands of people they reach through education, my question is how deep does that impact go? For example, James started with us when he was 11 and he is now 18 and going to college. If he truly wants to be a filmmaker, go to college and be able to sustain himself afterwards, who is going to be there for him?

We plan to be there for him and youth like him who haven’t had safety nets or sustainable support from their own families or networks. In public private partnerships, we need to look at how to support young people to retain the passion and talent. Especially for young women and diverse storytellers, initial improvements in recruitment are great, but how do we make sure they stay in the game, are retained and become the leaders of tomorrow? Our young people need housing, good food, health care — and to truly gain equity, I would add technology to the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy. Moving the needle systemically to combat centuries of racial and social injustices means long-term investments, partnerships and innovative solutions. We’re excited to forge the future together with the Zellerbach Family Foundation and to keep growing our village of social impact partners together while we change the storytellers to change the world.

If you are interested in hiring young women and diverse, talented graduates, please visit www.baycat.org. If your organization is interested in telling a social impact story, please visit www.baycatstudio.org. To learn more about the story behind BAYCAT, watch this TED Talk by CEO and Founder, Villy Wang.

To hear more from Villy and Allison about BAYCAT and the William J. Zellerbach Award for Social Change, please attend our Funder’s Briefing at Northern California Grantmakers on Wednesday, November 13th.