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MFA Student Develops Self-Sustaining Non-Profit Organization

SOC Sylvia Johnson

Sylvia Johnson, SOC/MA, is a freelance filmmaker and Fulbright scholar whose thesis film has grown into a self-sustaining non-profit organization providing scholarships for young adults pursuing degrees in the marginalized, poverty-stricken district of Alagados, Brazil.

Johnson originally came to AU to pursue her MA in Film and Video and received the Fulbright grant. She’s back at AU this fall extending her degree to an MFA in Film and Electronic Media, which requires one additional year of coursework.

Johnson says her documentary on the Brazilian community has been featured in film festivals all over the world. That exposure led to the 2009 Alagados Project, which achieved non-profit status in less than a year.

“I’ve always been interested in using creative media to launch outreach initiatives,” Johnson says. “This project has grown organically. We never started with the plan—it’s evolved as the need has evolved.”

The project aims to build a movement for change in the community by providing education opportunities to students who are required to develop a community service project as a part of their financial aid. There are six first-generation college students in the program, and the project is looking for funding for two students.

“We’ve chosen people who are warriors,” Johnson says. “We’ve found people who are going to be successful anyway, they just need a little help to get there.”

The community is already seeing progress, says Johnson, and the Brazilian team that runs the project is looking for ways to expand, including submitting a short film for a LinkTV “View Change” online video competition that could award $20,000 to the project.

“We’re starting to see a ripple effect,” she says. “These students are becoming role models to others, we’re starting to see people wanting to emulate them.”

One of the biggest challenges as the program has expanded, Johnson says, goes beyond the filmmaking and creative skills for marketing projects—it’s the entrepreneurial skills she says she’s learned as the project has evolved.

“I’ve had to wear all different kinds of hats,” she says. “There are things I never thought I’d be doing that I’m doing now.”

Johnson says her grassroots approach came from her experience growing up in Latin America, where both of her parents were involved in development projects. 

“What I was exposed to at that time has impacted how I’ve shaped my approach," Johnson says.  "I think it’s best to start by empowering local people.”

Professor Pat Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media, says that her former student’s efforts to make media that matters is inspiring.

“We can all learn from her,” Aufderheide says. “This is what is so gratifying about teaching at American—that our students do creative, innovative, meaningful, important work that enriches our teaching and learning.”

Johnson says the balancing act between school and her work on the Alagados Project will be challenging, but that she’s happy to see it all coming together.

“It’s exciting to be at a place where I can look at the big picture now,” Johnson says. “We’re getting big enough that I think I’m going to need more help. I need an intern.”