Where Are They Now? - Q&A's With Notable Jenks Grads
Crystal Kayiza - Emmy Winner and Social Advocate
Crystal Kayiza discovered her voice in a Jenks film class and is now a voice and an advocate for those who need it most. The 2011 JHS grad, and subject of this week’s “Where Are They Now? Wednesday” profile, is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker who has traded the small-town feel of Jenks to the fast pace and bright lights of New York City. Learn more about how Kayiza is using her interest in law and politics to affect a variety of causes with the ACLU, and what’s next for her filmmaking career.
What are your fondest memories of attending Jenks High School?
Kayiza: Some of my best memories at JHS were in film and video class. It was a space where I felt like I could be myself. I spent a lot of time there trying to find my voice and figure out my place at JHS and it was an environment that encouraged me to purse the things I’m passionate about. There were a lot of incredible opportunities and friendships I never would have had if I didn’t take a chance and apply.
What kind of impact did Mr. Raphael – JHS Film Teacher - have on your life and on your filmmaking?
Kayiza: Mr. Raphael is the type of educator that impacts your life beyond the years you spend in a classroom. He always respected every student in his class and treated us like adults. There’s something really powerful about having a mentor that invests in your potential. His class was really challenging but for every hour I stayed after school to finish a film he spent twice as much time helping me get there. I take the lessons I learned in his class with me to work every day, the most important being how to be a compassionate and effective storyteller. He still takes the time to check in and see how I’m doing. He’s a phenomenal mentor.
How did you discover your passion to be a filmmaker?
Kayiza: In high school, film was the medium that facilitated my love for storytelling. My life was filled with very expressive performers and storytellers and films were an important part of my childhood. I signed up for the film and video after a presentation in my 9th grade English class. I watched a few of the student films and I knew that it was something that I wanted to do. At the time I didn’t know where to put my passion for politics and art. Documentary film gave me that space.
How did your experience at Jenks help set you up for future success?
Kayiza: There were so many opportunities at JHS. There aren’t many high schools where you choose from a long list of interesting classes, be President of the International Club, play viola in the orchestra and make documentaries at the same time. I had a lot of responsibility as a student and that rigor really prepared me to embrace other opportunities and challenges. I felt really supported.
How did you decide to feature Boley – a historic Black town - in your documentary “All That Remains” and what impacted you the most about the project?
Kayiza: I was doing research for a new documentary and came across a rodeo that takes place in Boley every year. I wasn’t sure who I would talk to or what I would find but Mr. Raphael encouraged me to go. I hadn’t learned a lot about Black history in Oklahoma and knew nothing about all-Black towns so the story of the community really interested me. When I first went to Boley the folks there were really kind and welcoming. Everyone had a story to tell. The pride that the elders took in the history of the community was what pushed me to go back. There’s really amazing Black history in Oklahoma and I think learning about how folks that look like me contributed to the rich culture in the state was a really impactful experience.
Describe your reaction when you were told you had won an Emmy Award for “All That Remains.”
Kayiza: I decided to stay in Ithaca that summer and work in the admissions office at my alma mater. It didn’t even occur to me to go back home for the ceremony because I didn’t think I would win. I got a call from Mr. Raphael that I won and I was very surprised! It’s always a great feeling to have my work recognized especially by a community of such respected media creators.
What are your primary roles/responsibilities with the ACLU and what appeals to you most about the job?
Kayiza: I currently work in Advocacy at the ACLU, focusing on criminalization of poverty issues, specifically debtors’ prisons. My primary responsibility is supporting statewide efforts for reform and coordinating strategic advocacy plans with ACLU affiliate offices. I love living in New York City but this new position gives me the opportunity to work with state leaders and advocates from across the country. My passions and interests center racial justice work so it’s been a great opportunity to build programs that challenge racial and economic inequality. It’s great to come to work every day surrounded by brilliant legal minds and advocates. As a young person figuring out my career path it’s an inspiring place to be.
From Jenks to New York City...what is the best part about living in the big city and what do you miss about Oklahoma?
Kayiza: I love living in New York City. It’s great to have access to such a diversity of film, art, food, and people. I interned in Manhattan throughout college and never thought I’d end up moving here but it’s been a great place to be postgrad. When I go home I do miss the pace of things and enjoy the quiet of my hometown. Jenks was a great place to grow up but luckily I’ve found people and places in New York that remind me of home.
Are you still involved with making films and documentaries? If so, what are some of the ideas or projects you’re most excited about?
Kayiza: I took a break from filmmaking after college to explore my interest in law and politics. I learned a lot over the past year but I miss creating things and working on new projects. I’m looking forward to getting back to it this year.
Why is social justice important to you and what are the areas of our society where you want to see dramatic changes occur?
Kayiza: An important lesson I took from college is making the personal political. I think that my passion for social justice work stems from my commitment to my community. Whether it’s film or nonprofit advocacy I tether my work to the narratives and experiences of communities of color, specifically the African diaspora. Investing in racial justice means the inclusion of many issues (education, gender, sexuality, class, criminal justice, and immigration, etc.). As a first generation American and woman of color it’s important to me to lift up communities of color and challenge the violence and unequal conditions we experience. Today, my work focuses on creating dramatic change in criminal justice and economic justice policy, specifically addressing how low-income folks of color are criminalized in our legal system because of their poverty.
What is next for you both personally and professionally?
Kayiza: I think now more than ever it’s a difficult but exciting time to work in progressive advocacy. There is so much work to do but a lot of energy and commitment. I’ve always had a plan and a detailed path forward so I’m trying to embrace uncertainty and purse the things I love to do. I’ve been really fortunate to work at the ACLU. I’ve been thinking a lot about films I want to make, things I want to write and mediums and artists that I want to explore. I’m exciting to get back to that work this year.