Q&A with Patrice O’Neill

Co-Founder & Executive Producer, The Working Group
Executive Producer, Not in Our Town

Patrice O’Neill is an award-winning media producer dedicated to telling stories about everyday people transforming their communities. As Co-Founder and Executive Producer/Director of the Oakland-based non-profit strategic media production company The Working Group, she has produced successful national series on PBS for fifteen years and led a multi-platform approach that utilizes documentary film, social networking, outreach and organizing efforts to encourage dialogue and spur action.

Read more about Patrice.

Q: How do you define public media?
A: I think our vision of what public media can be is changing. My definition may be rather broad, but here goes: Public media is non-commercial media that seeks to serve the public, further our understanding of the issues, events and culture of the day and connect people to each other in a significant way. I am so excited about this moment and the openness that exists for those of us that see ourselves as journalists and public media makers. There is an opportunity to encourage and foster participation from the people we (public media makers) are trying to serve. The Internet and mobile technology have opened up not just distribution and interactivity, but our vision of what public “interest” media can be. The traditional public media has tremendous experience and a local/national infrastructure in place that can help coalesce this broader group of media makers—with a new force—citizens as participants. Once we unleash this new resource, and understand the kind of content that we make available affects interaction, it will change the relationship with the people “formerly known as the audience.”

Q: The Working Group’s 1995 story of how the town of Billings, Montana, responded to a rash of hate crimes, Not In Our Town, is said to have set a new standard for television impact. What began as a half-hour PBS special has turned into a national movement. How did you create a national movement?
A: I began as a filmmaker who wanted to tell stories that could empower people to take action. Incredibly, luckily, I found a story that showed us how powerful a simple story could be.It changed how we make films and directed us to a new approach to engagement. After the original film aired on PBS in 1995, people started taking the story of Billings and making it their own. They created their own local methods for responding to hate and preventing hate crimes. All we did to instigate this was to encourage people to hold town hall meetings and provide them the tools to do that. Then, they started forming their own NIOT city forums and events. We felt compelled to document that activity, and present it in new films and videos—which reinforced their actions. Not in Our Town has swelled into a movement. For the last 15 years we’ve been chronicling this incredible local innovation.

Q: The Working Group is using multiple platforms to extend the message. To what extent are you employing digital media beyond TV and how powerful can it be in encouraging citizen participation?
A: We are looking at the tip of the iceberg and there is so much potential underneath. It’s all about connections. With the new niot.org, which we are beta testing now, we want to connect communities across the country and enable them to share stories. Our part in it is storytelling and filmmaking, and that is our strength. How can we surface those stories, both personal and community-wide, that help people learn from each other? People can grab our films offline, throw them up in a town hall meeting, share them with each other and create their own and share them. At the same time we have the new social networking tools where people can engage in deeper conversations about complicated issues. We are at the beginning of an exciting new outburst of connectivity and creativity.

Q: Specifically what are some of the tools you are using?
A: We wanted to visualize the movement and the challenges of hate. So on our site you will see a map of where hate crimes are happening and you can begin to see patterns. But I think the key feature of our map is seeing where people are taking action. You can find stories of people taking action. You can look at where others in your own area are who want to do something about building inclusive community. Action on the map comes in a variety of forms: video, conversation, reporting. We also have a section called Local Lessons, a wiki kind of thing, that presents and builds on lessons that people have learned. We have posted 30 original videos and we are getting more and more user-generated videos. There are group sites that are Facebook-like where you can post events and start conversations in your own community. It will be interesting to see what features of this site will be most useful to people. The point is to have tools help people connect and do something. How do we move it from the online world to the real world? That will be the measure of our success.

Q: Sounds like you believe firmly that the potential for building a dialogue is here.
A: I’ve seen it. Just last week there were people faced with a hate group coming to their town, and they didn’t know what to do. They went online and found videos we had posted about a town on the east coast whom the same group had visited. The video from the first group helped guide the next. Then we posted the second video and another group facing the same problem, in a town in southern California, saw their story. You can see how people learn from each other.

Q: What would you like to see happen at your panel about public media at the We Media Miami conference Thursday morning?
A: I look forward to a conversation about our relationship with the audience and digging deeper with some very talented journalists who will be there. Joaquin Alvarado is brilliant and has an inspiring vision of the future of public media. Jessica and Tracy are raising some exciting questions about how we evaluate media. They have opened up some very important ideas about what success looks like. One of the things I look forward to discussing is how the game has changed. We have to look at things in new ways. Of course it’s challenging, but I think it’s very exciting as well.

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