People 21 January 2018
Filmmaker, business owner, mom and painter, Rochelle Leanne White is no stranger to using her voice for good. She grew up in Reading, PA, a small city not far from Philadelphia, which gained national coverage in 2011, for being recognized by the New York Times as the poorest city in the country. That same year, White moved to New York City to chase her dreams of working in the entertainment industry. She wasn’t sure in what capacity, but she knew that there was more out there for her than the confines of Reading, Pennsylvania.
"I was always a dreamer. I always wanted to share and express the way the thoughts would play out in my mind so others could understand it," says White. "Just to be able to express that and have people enjoy it or at least critically think about it."
White got her start as a filmmaker filming yoga videos for her mobile yoga company, Creative Mindz Yoga. But she’s always had a passion for social justice causes too. "I knew I was always going to do something social justice oriented I just didn't know what and I didn't know how, but there's always been an underlying passion in me to fight for what's right, and not only fight for what's right but embrace what's right and progress. I don't believe in being stagnant," says White.
Inspired by filmmakers like Michael Moore, White began to take her camera with her when she would attend social justice marches in New York City. “I started to go out to these events and rallies and bring my camera. From there you have to do something with the footage, so I would process the footage and put it online. I noticed that it was getting a better response than the written content that I produced.”
One march in particular, the Millions March NYC, which took place after a grad jury deliberated not to indict the officer responsible for killing Eric Garner, turned into one of White's first documentary films. P.S. I Can't Breathe a film that found White on the frontlines, in the streets of Manhattan documenting the public's voice and frustration in what she believes is a flawed criminal justice system.
She wasn’t sure what would come of that footage, but she knew that she had to do something; she had to document the moment. P.S. I Can’t Breathe has since went on be screened at a number of film festivals including the Winter Film Awards where it received an award of recognition for the Best Shorts Competition. The film, which is accompanied by a study guide, is currently being used by universities and colleges both nationally and internationally.
As White matured (and learned that she wasn't all that good at memorizing lines), she moved away from wanting to be in front of the camera and found her niche behind it, helping to bring other people's stories to life. "My ultimate goal is for my work to create change, to create a social movement...a social impact, that people can refer to it and it actually has done something to change their lives in some way, or to change the world, that would be my ultimate goal," says White.
Her latest feature film, Middlemen aims to do just that. With P.S. I Can’t Breathe serving as the catalyst, Middlemen picks up where Ava DuVernay’s 13th left off, exploring modern day policing with a special emphasis on how current policing models affect communities of color. In the film, White attempts to tell both sides of the story, that of the general public, as well as that of those whose sole purpose is to protect and to serve.
"I see these two groups of people and I want them to just come together and merge because they're both being treated in ways that are creating this environment,” says White. “Upper management needs to change it for the betterment of the community, and for the officers that work those communities, to create an environment where there's less likelihood of people being killed, period."
White started working on Middlemen three years ago, just a year and a half after she released P.S. I Can’t Breathe, and has for the most part funded the entire film on her own with the exception of a $5,000 grant that she received from the Riverside Church Sharing Fund. She is currently in the post production phase of the film and still working hard to raise money for post production costs. The film features parents of victims of police brutality, including the mother of Eric Garner, the father of Sean Bell, the mother of Amadou Diallo, and others. In the film, White explores the idea that unknowing police officers (middle men) may be contributing to mass incarceration and racism under the CompStat policing model. White’s ultimate goal is to earn a broadcast deal for Middlemen, and to get the film out to as many people as possible.
When she’s not trying to save world as an activist filmmaker, White does yoga and meditates regularly to try and maintain some sense of work and life balance. "God is very instrumental in my life. I keep pressing forward, that is the number one thing," says White. "I just do, I don't really think twice about it. If I have something to do, I just get up and do it. I do try to focus on productivity."
Meet Lila Green, a film about a woman who overcomes domestic violence through entrepreneurship, sisterhood, and giving back is White’s next feature film, that she’s hoping will make it into the Sundance Film Festival. White is also in the process of developing two apps that will help her yoga and production companies run more efficiently.
Middlemen will be released in the fall of 2018. Follow this link to make a tax deductible contribution to post production costs.
In 2016, I finally found my voice. I always thought I had one, especially as a business owner and mother of two vocal toddlers, but I had been wrong.
For more than 30 years, I had been struggling with the fear of being my true self and speaking my truth. Then the repressed memories of my childhood sexual abuse unraveled before me while raising my 3-year-old daughter, and my life has not been the same since.
Believe it or not, I am happy about that.
The journey for a survivor like me to feel even slightly comfortable sharing these words, without fear of being shamed or looked down upon, is a long and often lonely one. For all of the people out there in the shadows who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I dedicate this to you. You might never come out to talk about it and that's okay, but I am going to do so here and I hope that in doing so, I will open people's eyes to the long-term effects of abuse. As a survivor who is now fully conscious of her abuse, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, quite frankly, it may never go away.
It took me some time to accept that and I refuse to let it stop me from thriving in life; therefore, I strive to manage it (as do many others with PTSD) through various strategies I've learned and continue to learn through personal and group therapy. Over the years, various things have triggered my repressed memories and emotions of my abuse--from going to birthday parties and attending preschool tours to the Kavanaugh hearing and most recently, the"Leaving Neverland" documentary (I did not watch the latter, but read commentary about it).
These triggers often cause panic attacks. I was angry when I read Barbara Streisand's comments about the men who accused Michael Jackson of sexually abusing them, as detailed in the documentary. She was quoted as saying, "They both married and they both have children, so it didn't kill them." She later apologized for her comments. I was frustrated when one of the senators questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (during the Kavanaugh hearing) responded snidely that Dr. Ford was still able to get her Ph.D. after her alleged assault--as if to imply she must be lying because she gained success in life.We survivors are screaming to the world, "You just don't get it!" So let me explain: It takes a great amount of resilience and fortitude to walk out into society every day knowing that at any moment an image, a sound, a color, a smell, or a child crying could ignite fear in us that brings us back to that moment of abuse, causing a chemical reaction that results in a panic attack.
So yes, despite enduring and repressing those awful moments in my early life during which I didn't understand what was happening to me or why, decades later I did get married; I did become a parent; I did start a business that I continue to run today; and I am still learning to navigate this "new normal." These milestones do not erase the trauma that I experienced. Society needs to open their eyes and realize that any triumph after something as ghastly as childhood abuse should be celebrated, not looked upon as evidence that perhaps the trauma "never happened" or "wasn't that bad. "When a survivor is speaking out about what happened to them, they are asking the world to join them on their journey to heal. We need love, we need to feel safe and we need society to learn the signs of abuse and how to prevent it so that we can protect the 1 out of 10 children who are being abused by the age of 18. When I state this statistic at events or in large groups, I often have at least one person come up to me after and confide that they too are a survivor and have kept it a secret. My vehicle for speaking out was through the novella The Survivors Club, which is the inspiration behind a TV pilot that my co-creator and I are pitching as a supernatural, mind-bending TV series. Acknowledging my abuse has empowered me to speak up on behalf of innocent children who do not have a voice and the adult survivors who are silent.
Remembering has helped me further understand my young adult challenges,past risky relationships, anger issues, buried fears, and my anxieties. I am determined to thrive and not hide behind these negative things as they have molded me into the strong person I am today.Here is my advice to those who wonder how to best support survivors of sexual abuse:Ask how we need support: Many survivors have a tough exterior, which means the people around them assume they never need help--we tend to be the caregivers for our friends and families. Learning to be vulnerable was new for me, so I realized I needed a check-off list of what loved ones should ask me afterI had a panic attack.
The list had questions like: "Do you need a hug," "How are you feeling," "Do you need time alone."Be patient with our PTSD". Family and close ones tend to ask when will the PTSD go away. It isn't a cold or a disease that requires a finite amount of drugs or treatment. There's no pill to make it miraculously disappear, but therapy helps manage it and some therapies have been known to help it go away. Mental Health America has a wealth of information on PTSD that can help you and survivors understand it better. Have compassion: When I was with friends at a preschool tour to learn more about its summer camp, I almost fainted because I couldn't stop worrying about my kids being around new teenagers and staff that might watch them go the bathroom or put on their bathing suit. After the tour, my friends said,"Nubia, you don't have to put your kids in this camp. They will be happy doing other things this summer."
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to have friends who understood what I was going through and supported me. They showed me love and compassion, which made me feel safe and not judged.