The 10 Most Powerful Documentaries of 2017

To say the year in politics has been a whirlwind would be an understatement. Expensive natural disasters ravaged great swaths of the country, immigration and tax reform provoked wicked political attacks from both the right and the left, and stark revelations from women exposed a culture of sexual assault that touches almost every industry. And that’s just been the last four months.
In film, though, it was a year of fantastic documentaries that moved, inspired and challenged us. Here, our top perspective-changing films of 2017.

“Chasing Coral”

Years of overfishing and boating have caused coral reefs around the world to vanish, as they transform from once-vibrant homes for a diverse array of wildlife to colorless rock devoid of life. “Chasing Coral” follows a team of scientists, photographers and divers as they try to answer the question: Why are the world’s coral reefs are disappearing, and what we can do about slowing their untimely death?

“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”

The rise of the LGBTQ movement is often talked about through the lens of gays and lesbians, but very little ink has been given to how the drag and transgender communities played an equally significant role. One of the most prominent names in the fight for equality was Marsha P. Johnson, a transwoman and activist who was well known in New York City’s gay scene for decades, beginning with her role in the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969. But her mysterious death in 1992 has been debated for years. Was it an inside job by the mob? The NYPD? Or was it all just a tragic accident?


In Huntington, W. Va., the opioid epidemic is killing people at a rapid pace. The small city’s fire department fields dozens of calls a day relating to overdoses, but it has few resources to help everyone who needs it. This short documentary follows three local women as they battle the crisis in the city known as the “overdose capital of America”: the fire chief who dispenses life-saving drugs, the church leader who helps get women off the streets, and the judge who keeps addicts out of jail and with their families.

“I Am Evidence”

Mariska Hargitay, best known for her role as Detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: SVU,” has been one of the most vocal activists for getting rape kits tested and prosecutions made across the nation. Her film, “I Am Evidence,” explores the widespread problem of untested, backlogged rape kits, and the thousands of women each year who don’t get to see justice because of it.

“I Am Not Your Negro”

This Rotten Tomatoes certified-fresh movie is wholly inspired by the unfinished work of writer and social critic James Baldwin, an openly gay black man and civil rights activist famously known for his debate in Cambridge against William F. Buckley in 1965. The movie, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, is an intensely sobering look at race in America, and how far we haven’t come in mending racial wounds.

“Nobody Speak”

We all had our love/hate relationship with Gawker, the now-defunct website known for its dogged, and sometimes unapologetic, journalism covering (and skewering) anything celebrity- and media-related. But the company’s brash take on free speech was challenged in a lawsuit brought by Terry Gene Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, after Gawker published a sex tape starring the former wrestler. The court case was a mix of jaw-dropping legal tap-dancing and dark money that traced back to Peter Thiel, one of President Trump’s earliest endorsers in Silicon Valley that had some major beef of his own with the website.


Filmed over the course of 10 years, “Quest” looks at the life of one family in North Philadelphia and juxtaposes the question of what it means to be a typical American family when gun violence and danger lurk everywhere in the neighborhood you call home.

“Rat Film”

Like it or not, rats are very similar to humans. Beyond genetics, we are just as filthy and opportunistic as the rodents that ravage our cities. In Baltimore, there’s not just a rat problem, “there’s a people problem,” as one of the film’s subjects points out. The documentary examines the rodent infestation in one small area of Baltimore — a city plagued by poverty and high crime rates — and how the issue speaks more to the divide in quality of life between white and black communities than adequate pest control.

“Strong Island”

In 1992, Yance Ford’s brother, William Ford Jr., was shot and killed in New York. Ford Jr. was black, the shooter white, and the jury refused to indict. Decades later, Ford has channeled his frustrations into a true crime documentary that questions the investigation into whether his brother’s death was a murder or an act of self defense.

“The Work”

Imagine being put into a prison for four days with hardened criminals. What would you learn about them? About yourself? “The Work” profiles three men from the outside who join a days-long group therapy event at California’s Folsom State Prison. The men get an inside glimpse into what it really means to be incarcerated in America, and the challenges inherent with rehabilitating oneself.


The 10 Most Inspiring Books of 2017

This year’s top news stories sometimes made it tough to remain optimistic, given the mass shootings, hurricanes and wildfires, controversial legislation and the threat of nuclear war. In times like these, when the daily headlines can feel so oppressively grim, we often turn to longer works to put our historical moment in context — to show us that there’s a better way forward in organizing healthcare, dealing with crime, addressing climate change and stabilizing government. That’s where this list comes in. Spanning both fiction and non-, essays and memoirs, these are the books that gave us hope in an otherwise tumultuous year.

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women” By Susan Burton and Cari Lynn

After her 5-year-old son was accidentally killed by a cop, Susan Burton descended into a crack addiction that landed her in prison — over and over again. As detailed in this heartfelt memoir, Burton eventually got the help she needed and now runs A New Way of Life, a scrappy nonprofit that offers sober housing and treatment for formerly incarcerated women at five safe houses in South Los Angeles.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” By Dan Egan

The Great Lakes used to be a cesspool of industrial chemicals and municipal sewage, until Congress intervened in 1972. A massive cleanup followed, but that ongoing recovery is being threatened today by invasive species inadvertently dumped into the lakes. Dan Egan, a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, lays out a natural history of how foreign fish and filter-feeders arrived (then spread through the nation’s waterways) and how government regulators can adapt.

Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission” By Barry Friedman

Ever since the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, policing’s become a hot-button topic. Rather than blaming cops, Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University, tries to move the conversation forward, arguing that judges and ordinary citizens alike need to do more to restore the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” in a time of heightened surveillance and militarization among law enforcement.

Janesville: An American Story” By Amy Goldstein

On a frozen morning in December 2008, the nation’s largest automaker, General Motors, closed down its oldest assembly plant, laying off thousands of workers and hollowing out Janesville, Wisc., the hometown of Rep. Paul Ryan. Amy Goldstein, a reporter at the Washington Post, picks up the story there, poignantly describing the efforts to shore up a vanishing middle class.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions” By Valeria Luiselli

Why did you come to the United States? What countries did you pass through? Did anything happen on your trip that scared or hurt you? Depending on how they answer those questions, unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America are either granted a pass or sent back. Writer Valeria Luiselli, a volunteer who administered the questionnaire, details her first-hand experiences with the immigration system in this 120-page essay.

Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America” By Mary Otto

One in three low-income adults avoids smiling. That’s a consequence of treating dentistry as optional, allowing tooth decay and gum disease that afflict the poor to be written off as failures of personal responsibility. Mary Otto, a veteran health journalist, makes a stirring plea to close an unacknowledged gap in our medical system.

Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption” By Benjamin Rachlin

In 1988, after a neighbor came forward to claim a $1,000 reward, Willie Grimes was convicted of breaking into a 69-year-old widow’s house and raping her twice. Two decades into Grimes’s life sentence, DNA evidence exonerated him. In this meticulously researched book, Benjamin Rachlin explores North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first body of its kind to hear wrongful conviction pleas and restore integrity to a system that’s locked up thousands of innocent people.

The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic” By Ganesh Sitaraman

The Founding Fathers curiously left any reference to wealth out of the Constitution, believing that America was a country where citizens were born equal, rather than becoming so, as Alexis de Tocqueville later put it. In a treatise packed with historical anecdotes and political theory, Ganesh Sitaraman, a Vanderbilt law professor, makes the case that America’s “middle-class constitution” is straining under an economic divide and offers corrective reforms.

A Kind of Freedom” By Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

The lone work of fiction on our list, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s epic debut novel follows three generations of a black New Orleans family, from World War II to the War on Drugs of the 1980s to Hurricane Katrina at the dawn of a new century. Even as they struggle to get by, in a country where racial progress has always been fitful, the family members display remarkable endurance.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” By Timothy Snyder

Another book about how to save our democracy, this slim volume dispels the notion that a republic can persevere without an engaged citizenry. “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor, begins, as he shares how totalitarianism gobbled up Eastern Europe a century ago and what can be done to prevent its creeping approach today.

Meet the Women Who Blasted into a Male-Dominated Industry, a Smarter Way to Fight Prejudice and More

Onward and Upward, Vogue
In this stunning photo essay, take a look at the women who power NASA and learn about how far they’ve come since the time period depicted in “Hidden Figures.” With job titles ranging from research biologist to mission integration manager, the significance of their hard-found positions within the aeronautics industry is not lost on them. It won’t be on you, either.
In Response to Rising Biased Rhetoric, Muslims Run for Office, NPR
With hate crimes on the rise, some members of the American Muslim community are confronting the problem in a bold way: by running for office. Campaigning inevitably puts them in the spotlight and often brings about further vitriol, but many see it as the only way to move the conversation forward.
Surgeons Were Told to Stop Prescribing So Many Painkillers. The Results Were Remarkable. The Washington Post
The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has killed tens of thousands during the last decade, and the overprescription of drugs is largely to blame. A small trial in New Hampshire uncovered a simple, data-driven solution that could lead to a huge cutback in prescriptions and ultimately, addictions.

For This Century-Old Civil Rights Nonprofit, the Real Work Is Just Beginning

The New York Urban League (NYUL) was founded in 1919, at the start of the Great Migration, to connect blacks who left the agricultural South with jobs in the industrial North. At the time, descendants of slaves poured into a metropolis where they had to fight against housing discrimination and boycott stores where black job applications weren’t accepted. Nearly a century later, Arva Rice, a NationSwell Council member and president of the New York Urban League, is continuing to fight for equality within New York City’s education system and job opportunities. NationSwell spoke to her recently about the ongoing fight for civil rights, as the nation’s first black president leaves office.
New York Urban League is approaching its centennial. What issues are you anticipating will be core to the league’s next century?
One challenge for us is how the conversation about race has changed over time. When I meet with others, I talk about the importance of this particular time in history. The fact that when I first came to the Urban League in April 2009, President Obama had just been elected and we were hearing, “You all have a president. That’s the ultimate level of equality.” Unfortunately, in the last seven years, we have also had Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and all things in between, like the intentional voter-suppression laws and attacks on the Voting Rights Act. The work we do is more critical than ever. There’s a generation that cares about racial equity, but we need to engage them in different ways. Maybe they want to march and be involved in grassroots movements, some want to be engaged in policy discussions and some want to become part of the establishment themselves and run for office. All of those ways are correct and right, and we have to figure out how to support that going forward.
Besides equal access to education and employment, the NYUL’s mission statement references working toward a “living environment that fosters mutual respect.” What does that mean to you?
Envisioning a world of mutual respect means that folks can not only tolerate but appreciate difference. I’m fascinated by how we define diversity and inclusion. Diversity is inviting people to a party, where inclusion is getting everyone to dance. I think that distinction is important, because to get everyone dancing, you have to think deliberately. You need to think about what is going to include people across generations, and most importantly, you need to be intentional in order to create environments that bring others to the fore. You have to be thoughtful, because it’s not going to happen by accident.
The racial biases pointed out by Black Lives Matter and the rising economic inequality in American cities were both on the minds of many voters last year. In what ways does New York reflect and buck the trends of what we expect from cities?
New York is often leading the way. We’re the ones who were really pushing for higher wages, with the Fight for 15 campaign. We’re also second place for technology and innovation. That’s why the New York Urban League is focusing some of our work on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], giving young people the opportunity to not only play with technology but also be creators. There are some folks that say, “Oh, people of color aren’t interested in tech, because it’s not cool enough.” And I push back on that. This is not about being cool; this is about being accessible. Without having somebody who you know, any experience, any interaction with someone who works at Facebook, Google, Twitter, how can they know that’s something they can do? We’re helping to break through that, and then provide skills. The fact is that people of color will be passed over if, once again, they are not included in intentional ways. The reason why I feel privileged to lead a historic black organization is because you’re constantly focused on making sure that there really is equality. Until the day we feel like there truly is real parity, we’re not finished.
What have you learned about leadership during your time at NYUL?
I have learned that leadership is about doing things that make your stomach hurt. And that just because your stomach hurts doesn’t mean that you’re unusual. If you are doing it right and pushing yourself and the people that you manage and your stakeholders and your donors, there are going to be times when it’s uncomfortable. It’s a growth pattern. The other thing I’ve learned is that the only people who don’t make mistakes are the ones who aren’t doing anything. So I need to forgive myself for those times I made mistakes, figure out what I learned, dust myself off and go on to the next thing.
What are you most proud of having accomplished so far?
We have a program called Empowerment Days for our young people, which is basically Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work days. We take 200 girls and 150 boys on the first and last Friday of March, respectively. They’re able to go and meet people at places like O, The Oprah Magazine, black enterprises, the Yankees, Google and Microsoft. Basically, they spend the day with people who may look like them or have similar backgrounds and experiences, and find out how they got into those careers. And one of the reasons I’m so proud of that is because we have a level of access, as an organization that has a 97-year history of impact on communities. So I can call people and get my calls returned at a level that I wasn’t able to in any other position in my career. Every time we do an Empowerment Day, the young people are excited about a senior vice president or a receptionist that they met. That’s fantastic, because we would not be able to do that, if it were not for the relationships that the Urban League has within the city.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
Continue reading “For This Century-Old Civil Rights Nonprofit, the Real Work Is Just Beginning”

Where Does the YWCA Go From Here?

After the YWCA of the City of New York sold its uptown Lexington Avenue headquarters — its home for nearly a century — and moved downtown in 2005, the organization was looking to reinvent itself. Enter Danielle Moss Lee, a former teacher and administrator with a doctorate in education and decades of experience in nonprofit leadership. After taking the reins as the YWCA’s CEO in 2012, Moss Lee expanded the nonprofit’s after-school and summer programs while redoubling efforts to reach out to girls of color in underserved neighborhoods. NationSwell spoke with Moss Lee about the new direction for a 158-year-old charity at the YWCA’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan.
What’s the YWCA’s biggest need right now?
Ensuring the future sustainability of the organization. We’ve been out of the game for a little bit. How do you make something that’s 158 years old new again, so that people care about it and want it to continue, in terms of manpower, woman-power, volunteerism? We’ve got 2,500 kids whose lives we hope to impact in some way. It’s not all the kids in the city, but we can do our best to do our part.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
I like the questions that young activists are asking, because it positions us for a different America. We can say without a doubt that all of our lives have been materially and visibly changed by the civil rights movement. But now we’re addressing issues around institutional and structural racism that I don’t think prior generations fully understood: Health services, education, the police and the banking system all really conspire together to advantage some and disadvantage others. I’m excited about these new movements. Protesting and social media campaigns are important. I hope that, at the end of this, the way we live and experience our daily lives will be similarly transformed like they were with desegregation and all of the access and opportunities that civil rights opened up.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
The best advice I’ve gotten over my career was to be someone that I would want to follow myself. It’s been important advice because it’s made me more conscious that who I am and how I show up is really important to the people around me when I’m in a leadership role. It keeps you honest and conscious.
Where do you find your inner motivation?
It’s always different, but one thing I think about is all the kids I’m not serving. I hear lots of folks in this sector say of college-access or girls’ programming: “We have 200 girls” or “We have 1,000 girls,” whatever the number is. But then when I think about how many girls actually live in this city, that’s what keeps me going.
Years ago, I was teaching a graduate course on urban youth policy, and one day the discussion got really personal. A young woman getting her master’s degree told this story of how her family’s apartment had burned down in Brooklyn. At first, friends and family were willing to house them. As the months dragged on, they went into a homeless shelter. At some point, her mother, in a desperate attempt to provide for her kids, made the decision to join the Armed Forces. The student said, “Do you realize we lived in that shelter with no adult and nobody noticed?” And then she said, “I didn’t know that there were middle-class black people. I didn’t know for a long time that something else was possible for my life.” A lot of mentoring is focused around Manhattan. Let’s be real, people aren’t going out to Coney Island (where the YWCA has programming) or other far-flung Brooklyn neighborhoods like Flatbush, East New York and Brownsville. It’s always at the convenience of the volunteer, but that’s not necessarily where the greatest need is. I can always recall that student’s voice asking, “Where were you?” — to which I didn’t really have an answer. She said, “All these civic organizations are always talking about all the work they do in the community, but I never saw them.” Nobody asked her if she wanted to go to college. That’s our job.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently” [by Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur]. It’s really about how you develop teams with people who just think differently. I started to think about this because there’s been a lot of emphasis in some new progressive nonprofits in the sector around organizational fit and building a specific kind of culture within their organizations to drive results. There’s a value in that. But a lot of those organizations have challenges around having a diverse staff.
I was listening to two managers have a semi-debate. A young white woman was talking about two of her staff members: Her white staff member was really great with data, Excel spreadsheets and metrics — things she really valued — but this staff person wasn’t as good at relating to young people and doing outreach to families. And so while the person of color was much more relatable with the young people in the organization, it was almost like her skill set wasn’t seen as a value. We all operate predominantly with different sides of our brain. How can we tease away some of the judgment that comes with very different strengths and make sure that we’re not using this idea of “fit” really to only work with people who look like us, share our experiences and perspective? You’re probably not growing if everyone agrees with everything you say.
What’s your perfect day look like?
No bad news, and a big check in the mail — in that order.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I recently had the opportunity to have a reunion with students I previously worked with at another organization. First of all, to see them now as college-educated adults and hear all the amazing things they were doing was a reward in itself. Back when I was working that job, I was also raising my daughter and going to graduate school. I remember one of those kids saying, “I didn’t know anybody else who had a doctorate. When I came into your office and saw your degrees on the wall, I knew I couldn’t just get a bachelor’s. Tell me: What do you have to do to get a master’s degree? What’s a dissertation?”
I’m just blown away by the number of students, many first-generation college students, who have graduate degrees. That changes not just the trajectory of their lives, but also their families’ for years to come. It was nice to know that I had that kind of impact.
To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.
Homepage photo courtesy of YWCANYC.

This Is Possibly America’s Most Immigrant-Friendly City, Using Burgers to Bring Police and Community Activists Together and More

How an Ohio Town Became a Model for Resettling Syrian Refugees, Vice
Many politicians don’t believe that the U.S. can properly screen refugees from the Middle East. Yet one city in Ohio is welcoming them with open arms. In Toledo, multiple organizations provide Syrian immigrants with much-needed assistance, helping them locate housing, receive English language lessons and more.
Diverse Wichitans Gather for Barbecue with Police, Wichita Eagle
Across the nation, Black Lives Matter protesters and police officers face off against each other in the streets. But in Wichita, Kan., these two groups came together over hamburgers and hot dogs to discuss the importance of community policing, how poverty and lack of education cause racial disparity and why racial bias still exists.
Meet the Dangling Goddess of Street Art at Ozy Fest, Ozy
Low-income students who receive a strong arts education are more successful at challenging coursework than kids whose schooling is light on the arts. Which is why street artist Alice Mizrachi is teaching urban youth how creative expression can fight poverty and racial inequality.
MORE: Why Sleeping in a Former Slave’s Home Will Make You Rethink Race Relations in America