Student and Faculty Documentary Focuses on Minority Voices Ahead of Election

Zinhle Essamuah and Imani Cheers' newest project, “The Minority Vote,” explores the most pressing issues facing millennials.

Minority Vote
“The Minority Vote” follows millennial voters as they grapple with the country’s political system. From left to right: "The Minority Vote" team, including Kelly Guo, Ashley Le, Imani Cheers, Zinhle Essamuah, Olivia Martinez. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
October 31, 2016
By Julyssa Lopez
No one in the documentary “The Minority Vote” has quite the same background or experience. The six students featured in the film have their own set of convictions, their own roster of beliefs and their own unique passions—but they are all united over the question of how to make their voices heard in one of the most polarizing and confounding presidential elections in history. 
The Minority Vote” follows millennial voters as they grapple with the country’s political system. The film is the brainchild of Zinhle Essamuah, a second-year graduate student who conceived the project as her final capstone as a master’s candidate in the School of Media and Public Affairs, and Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs Imani Cheers. The film also features an entirely original score. But the project isn’t just a documentary—it’s an entire interactive, digital effort that encourages millennials to cast their ballots.

On, students can register to vote, document their voter registration volunteer hours through Noble Hour and connect with others online. There will be two preview screenings of the film this Thursday, Nov. 3 and Friday, Nov. 4 at GW.

"I think that a lot of times, people overlook the fact that voting is a big part of service to your community,” Ms. Essamuah said. “So the idea was that we didn’t just want to make a film. We wanted to make something that will mobilize people to get out and vote and help them get informed about the candidates and their options.”

As the recipient of Steven and Diane Robinson Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service Learning this year, Ms. Essamuah is also working with the Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service to launch the Minority Vote Award. A cash prize will aim to incentivize GW student organizations to log volunteer hours registering voters or working with organizations that support minority communities. SMPA Associate Director and Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs Kimberly Gross advised the service learning portion of the project.

Ms. Essamuah, who is a second-year Presidential Administrative Fellow, is not new to filmmaking. As an undergraduate student and recipient of the Manheim-Sterling Undergraduate Research Prize last year, she traveled to Ferguson, Miss., and Baltimore, Md., to chronicle the Black Lives Matter Movement. 

Her resulting 28-minute documentary, “Hands Up,”  received an award from the Alliance for Women in Media and made it into seven film festivals in the U.S. and Vancouver, British Columbia. Since December 2015, she has held more than 30 film screenings—several of which took place in GW courses throughout the school year. The film is coupled with an educational toolkit and resource guide used in colleges, high school and community groups around the country.

For “Hands Up,” Ms. Essamuah was advised by Dr. Cheers. They collaborated again as Ms. Essamuah brainstormed topics she could take on for her graduate capstone. With a particularly divisive election cycle brewing, Ms. Essamuah wanted to study political issues through the lens of minority communities, who she felt are often overlooked. So she and Dr. Cheers decided to co-direct the film.

They launched a call for participants this summer while Ms. Essamuah was studying abroad in South Africa and heard from a range of students, hailing from all over the country. They chose to hone in on six millennial voices—young people identifying as black, Latinx, Native American and Arab American—and share their experiences. These students include members of the GW community, as well as one student from Howard University and one activist supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

“I think audiences will be surprised by the insights and reflections in the project. What we saw throughout the filmmaking process is that voting isn’t black and white—it’s not one party or the other. It’s a complicated decision for these young voters,” Ms. Essamuah said.

An activist supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is featured in "The Minority Vote."

Dr. Cheers, a longtime educator and award-winning filmmaker, said she has been inspired by how politically motivated and socially engaged millennials are about issues important to them.

"We wanted to give this particular demographic an opportunity, in their own words, to share their perspectives on this historic election season," she said. "This film is only the beginning. Millennials are going to change the world!"

The duo also pooled talent from the GW alumni community and current students to put together a team of two film editors (freshman Ashley Le and  senior Kelly Guo), a social media strategist (Olivia Martinez, B.A. ‘15), and a web/graphic designer (James Surdam, B.A. ‘15)  to help with the project. Ms. Martinez had seen “Hands Up” and explains that she was eager to lend a hand in Ms. Essamuah’s newest effort.

“When she told me she was covering the election from the perspective of minority millennials, I definitely wanted to be a part of it. It's very easy to get caught up in the candidates and what seem to be daily scandals, while forgetting that the election has dire consequences for many people in America. ‘The Minority Vote’ serves as a reminder that we must include these voices and take their issues seriously,” Ms. Martinez said.

Ms. Essamuah said that the topic also had a profound personal significance to her. She is a first-generation American, born to Ghanaian and Ugandan immigrants. “The Minority Vote” gave her a chance to reflect on America’s democratic system. It’s one that she says has its share of imperfections, but also boasts potential for improvement and collaboration, if people are willing to work through difficulties.

“If you Tweeted, if you’ve used a hashtag, if you’ve complained to a friend about the election cycle, you should get to the voting booth and voice your opinion that way. Change can’t always happen overnight, but we should never forget that we have a lot of great freedom and this country, and I hope people will use it to exercise their right to vote,” she said.



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