By Hipolito Navarrete, Managing Editor/Publisher

Dr. Lani Cupchoy is a storyteller who wants to spotlight the positive changes brewing in communities such as her native Montebello, who experience monumental changes for the better, but receive little exposure because in the mind set of the mainstream media, these events are unlikely to happen and when they do happen, they seem unlikely to create sustainable opportunities for their community, and especially for their youth. Dr. Lani Cupchoy, Ph. D., is an educator and a filmmaker, and believes passionately otherwise and is focused on changing this perception. Her last documentary “Truth Seekers,” told the story of the fifth grade students from Bell Gardens Elementary School who played a crucial role on the passing of Assembly Bill 146; “This bill would, for purposes of encouraging the incorporation of survivor and witness testimony into the teaching of human rights, include the unconstitutional deportation to Mexico during the Great Depression of citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States within the definition of human rights…” Her work on this story not only documented the voices of these school children and the support they received from their teacher and their community, but also helped document a process of empowerment that can create understanding, hope and change.

Dr. Cupchoy is intent on giving her community and others that need it a voice, a very loud one. She is not only making sure that voices are being heard, but also that voices are being considered, discussed, understood and followed. She is intent on providing a spotlight to those events and projects that are leading to positive results in communities of need and have been under represented in media, on purpose, or because those making coverage decisions don’t connect with those stories or simply don’t care about them. Dr. Cupchoy is taking on a challenge that fits her social justice advocacy, her focus is her community either at her offices at California State University Los Angeles  or as a Board Member of the Montebello Unified School District, she is always thinking about her constituents and students. We had a conversation with her to get more insight on who she is and what drives her in this added endeavor to the list of responsibilities she embraces. The new documentary she is developing, “School Grown,” will focus on the story of the school garden movement and how it has affected and changed food consumption through the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in many of the food deserts in some of the most impoverished areas of Los Angeles County. Her goals is not just to bring awareness, but to help others understand, discover and create these opportunities in all communities.

1) Dr. Cupchoy, tell us a bit about yourself as a filmmaker. 

In 2016, I produced-edited-filmed the award-winning documentary short Truth Seekers, which recounts the journey of fifth-graders and their teacher from Bell Gardens Elementary school, who successfully helped champion the passage of AB 146 requiring that Mexican Repatriation be included in California textbooks. From this experience, as a Latina filmmaker, my passion for visual storytelling, social justice and community engagement further deepened and connected to my work as a scholar and educator in the departments of History and Chicanx Latinx Studies at California State University at Los Angeles. Based on my personal involvement with the School Grown Movement since 1993, I felt compelled to encourage the co-founders to share the struggles and success of movement in a cinematic way. Through a mutual friend, I met Director Adam Steel of Grow Awareness Agency who shared a common vision and has a track record of creating documentaries rooted in community and social justice. From there, we developed a plan to create a trailer and move forward with a campaign to fund the film.

2) What is the story about?

Initiated 24 years ago by a group of Mexican immigrant students, this is a story of a school-based garden movement’s extraordinary passion and fight for food justice in urban Los Angeles and how this grassroots program transformed their neighborhoods and schools into healthier communities becoming the first of its kind in the United States.

3) Why do you think this is an important story to tell?

The lack of healthy food in low income communities of color remains a human rights issue that stems from grassroots struggles and U.S. organizing traditions such as the civil rights and environmental justice movements. The story addresses a movements’ fight against childhood obesity and diabetes, food desserts, as well as the continuing lack of access to fresh produce and health opportunities for urban communities. Urban Seeds highlights the cultural wealth and ancestral heritage of the Los Angeles Latino community as well as the struggle for equal rights for food justice dating back to past indigenous and social movements such as the work by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers. The story seeks to inspire other school districts and communities to create and successfully implement a practical model of green spaces in schools through school-based gardening and pathways as well as developing healthier food and nutrition models emerging from indigenous knowledge. Urban Seeds serves as a powerful example of new innovative solutions and proactive strategies to invest in our communities while demonstrating spaces where students are empowered and have a voice to change their schools and communities.

4) Tell us a bit about how you are connected to the story.

The story is near and dear to my heart. I have been involved with the School Grown Movement since its creation in 1993 as a volunteer, mentor, grant writer, and project coordinator for the Campaign for a Healthier Bell Gardens. My mother, a retired employee from the Montebello Unified School District is a co-founder of the movement along with retired teacher John Garza. Together, coupled with the support of thousands of students, parents, administrators, classified staff, partners, teachers and volunteers, we have been able to infuse food justice, food sovereignty, and sustainable agriculture into a community school model throughout the entire district of Montebello Unified (27 schools total) where I currently serve as member-elect on the Board of Education. After 24 years, with all of the success, we felt that it was time to get this story out to inspire others about the way in which youth, educators, and community partners can come together to serve as agents of change.

5) Who is this story important for?

From a micro to macro level, this story is important for all of humanity since health remains a universal concern. Diabetes and obesity continues to be a national epidemic and our youth are affected on a personal level, especially when they see their parents and grandparents ill. This story seeks to evoke consciousness and empower individuals to be active agents in their own family and community health.

6) Why has it not been told before?

Throughout our work in the community, we have graced various books and articles including Marketing the Green School, LA Times and La Opinion but now we want to make a global impact as we continue to reach broader audiences. And also continue to maintain a sustainability with the School Grown Movement in the school district. As voices from communities of color are often overlooked, this film represents an opportunity to share our story and inspire others about the transformative power each one of has both individually and collectively.

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