The new nonprofit Gazillion Strong is something of a storyteller. It’s designed to help marginalized community members tell their stories, whether they fall under the labels of LGBTQ, people of color, adoptees or foster kids.
The nonprofit has lots of work in the pipeline. Staff are planning an online film festival. They’re showcasing comics that feature minority voices at book shops — the first one in February was standing room only. And they’re launching free workshops called Through Our Eyes that teach teens the basics of film production.
A recent Through Our Eyes screening at The Third Place Gallery was packed with more than 100 people. The teen participants came from places including Jordan, Minn.; St. Paul and Linden Hills, and their film shared a bit of their struggles, their artistic talents, and their hopes for the future.
“A lot of stories are absolutely unique to individuals,” said Kevin Vollmers, executive director of Gazillion Strong. “But it’s very striking to me that there are some similarities and overlaps despite the fact that teens are coming from completely different backgrounds. … How each of them were seeking their own identity countered the traditional narrative.”
The teens took quick lessons in storytelling, filming, editing and video distribution. Then they developed interview questions and documented each other’s stories.
“What we were able to do in those eight hours was really amazing,” said Eleonore Wesserle, facilitation director of Line Break Media, a partner in the project.
The resulting video includes the story of Mark, who said his mom is preparing to relocate to Texas. Mark will stay behind with three older kids, while he works three full-time jobs.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I live by that,” he said. “I always find myself in some kind of crappy situation, but I always find a way out.”
A Jordan High school student named Cole is transgender, born a female, and today lives as a male. He said he grew up seeing abuse, alcoholism and drugs.
“I didn’t want to be like those people, and I didn’t want to go down the wrong path,” he said. “I think, personally, that I can make a difference in this world, and that’s partially the reason why I’m here today, so I can learn how to put my voice out there through filmmaking and really show people that it’s okay to be different than the normal norms in society. … It’s okay to be who you want to be.”
Gazillion Strong is looking to expand Through Our Eyes and another program called Comics from the Margins nationally, perhaps starting with Portland.
At Comics from the Margins, authors and comic book connoisseurs talk to teens about comics in which the central character is a person of color, LGBTQ, adoptee, foster child or disabled. Upcoming dates include March 21 at Ancestry Books in North Minneapolis and April 18 at Moon Palace Books off Minnehaha Avenue.
Vollmers lives in the Seward neighborhood. He was adopted from Korea at the age of seven by a Minnesota family, and he has become a voice for adoptees who is quoted in media outlets like the New York Times. He founded Gazillion Voices, a subscription-based monthly online magazine, to help amplify adoptee voices. He also hosts Gazillion Voices Radio on KFAI, which covers issues ranging from adoption and race to performance and social movements. He recently interviewed Korean adoptee Adam Crapser, who was adopted twice by families who never finalized his naturalization, and now has a wife and children and risks deportation to Korea.
Vollmers wants conversations about adoption to expand beyond the adoption community. Adoption intersects with much broader issues, he said, like war, immigration, and struggles to balance an identity between cultures. Locally, black youth can identify with adoptee experiences if they grow up in foster care, he said, or grow up in white families.
“If people can see themselves in each other’s lives, they can identify with each other, and it’s through identification that people are motivated to do something together,” Vollmers said.
Gazillion Strong keeps a list of projects in the wings that need additional donor funding. One such project is a film that profiles Ethiopian adoptee Aselefech Evans, who travels to Ethiopia with her daughter to visit her biological family. Another project would expand Gazillion Voices magazine to Korea.
Long-term, Vollmers anticipates opening a brick-and-mortar home for Gazillion Strong. He has no qualms about juggling so many ventures at the new nonprofit.
“If you’re not busy and you’re running the place, there’s something wrong,” he said.
Photo of Kevin Vollmers by Erin and Troy Photography