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Celebrating female trailblazers for women’s suffrage centennial

Starting Monday, PBS will be airing a two-part series as part of its “Trailblazers” initiative, celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage in America. The documentary, titled “And She Could Be Next” follows women candidates and organizers who are transforming American politics. Hari Sreenivasan spoke with the producer and the director of the series, Grace Lee and Marjan Safinia.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Starting tomorrow evening, PBS will air a two part series as part of its "Trailblazers" initiative celebrating 100 years of the women's vote. Co-produced by POV, the documentary titled "And She Could Be Next" follows women candidates and organizers at the heart of a movement called the New American Majority, who are transforming politics from the ground up.

    Grace Lee and Marjan Safina are producer and director of the series. I recently spoke with them about the documentary. Marjan, let me start with you. What were you setting out to do and perhaps Grace, the second part of that question, what was the story by the time you actually looked at all the footage? So, Marjan?

  • Marjan Safinia:

    You know, we're in this really interesting moment in this country where there's this sort of rapid demographic shift that's sort of changing a lot of the paradigms and norms and sort of power dynamics in this country. And, you know, we our whole team sort of we define ourselves as members of the New American Majority to, you know, we are all women of color, immigrants.

    And so what we were setting out to do was have an examination of how do we have a functional democracy when there's such a gulf in the reflective nature of our leadership and the connection between what our leaders know and have experience and lived. And what now the the soon to be majority of the country experiences. So it was really sort of coming from an exploration of just particularly fascinating political moment we're in in this country. And something that we thought was a little bit underground, not everyone's tuned into this story or wasn't when we started filming. But as we have learned in the last few weeks, clearly people are tuning in now to this problem.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, Grace, there is there's the idea and then you've got hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage. What are the stories that you started to see emerge that you knew would connect with an audience?

  • Grace Lee:

    I think when we first started out, we were really looking at women of color who were running for office. But very quickly, it became apparent that leaders come in all different shapes and sizes. And the organizers sort of lifting up the movements that allow women who are, you know, the characters that we follow. The organizers are really kind of the hidden figures behind the scenes. Right. Making things happen. So we really wanted to look at this movement.

    We didn't really want to make a campaign film or something, you know, just focus on an election which, you know, becomes old news very quickly. But looking at this movement that brings together candidates and organizers who are working to, you know, sort of redefine what democracy looks like. How can we actually have a government and that reflects who actually lives here? You know, the movements are the key places that are doing that. And we see that playing out right now in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of all this unrest. And, you know, as you saw episode two, the voter suppression, you know, the people on the ground are the ones that are calling it all out.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Marjan, how did you decide to go after the specific people that you went? I mean, you've got candidates from El Paso to Michigan to California to Georgia.

  • Marjan Safinia:

    We wanted to pick women not just because they were women of color, but because each of them, you know, centers in their dialog, both their race and their gender and the issues that they're fighting for, which are the ones that keep me up at night, whether that's Islamophobia or guns or healthcare or immigration and the border.

    So we wanted to sort of find a collection of women who we felt could kind of represent this larger moment and the movement. And we picked pretty well because with the exception of, you know, Stacey Abrams, we understand what happened in that race. They all won. So I think we had pretty good pictures.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, Grace, I want to come back to something that you mentioned. When you were filming the long lines in Georgia, did you think that we would see that again?

  • Grace Lee:

    Yes. I didn't predict that we would have a pandemic that would add to the, you know, the dysfunction of, you know, trying to get someone's vote out. But, yes, I think, you know, people have been working for a long time to combat voter suppression. And it's unfortunate that we're seeing it in full swing right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Marjan, there's a candidate that you follow that Bushra Amiwala in outside of Chicago in Cook County. She goes on to campaign again and win a school board seat. But what was intriguing to me is that part of the inspiration for doing it again came from watching Stacey Abrams not win the gubernatorial election, but continue to be active.

  • Marjan Safinia:

    We have to dust ourselves off and pick ourselves up and try again. Part of the reason that her story is so inspiring to include is because these fights are big, right? And they're not going to be won overnight. But if we persist and if we find community, we find a tribe of people who are with us eventually, you know, I think folks will prevail.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Grace, there's also several scenes in the film where you kind of see just the human side of these women that are running for political office. And once they become representatives or senators or whatever they are, we have a tendency to either lump them in with their party or a particular position that they might have had or some sort of political debate. But there was a scene with Lucy McBath, who's a representative from Georgia, and she was thrust into this partly because of or mostly because of the tragic loss of her son to gun violence. And you catch up with her on Mother's Day and she's going to visit her son. And it's just kind of heartbreaking scene. And as kind of a storyteller, I was trying to figure out, well, how did either your videographer or yourselves what was the decision making process to include that?

  • Grace Lee:

    Well, you know, first I should mention that, you know, it wasn't just Marjan and I making this film. We're the co-director is, but we had a really amazing array of field directors. Yoruba Richen an accomplished filmmaker was with Lucy in that scene when she goes to the cemetery to visit her son Jordan's grave. I think that's just part of what we do as documentary filmmakers. You know, we're really trying to build the relationship with the people that we're documenting. It's not just, you know, headline news that we're trying to, you know, explore an issue. We really want to understand what makes them tick, what are the lived experiences that, you know, make them unique as people going into politics? So I think, you know, the women that we chose and who we follow are all understand, you know, the importance of their story and how it it matters to see stories like this. It matters to see people like Lucy says, you don't see people who look like us in the halls of power and government.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Who are you both most surprised by? Marjan, let me start with you.

  • Marjan Safinia:

    Actually, the thing that was most kind of regulatory for me was seeing the work of the organizers, seeing folks who are undocumented in this country, who live with all the fear that come alongside that, and the structural obstacle to becoming American when they lived here practically their whole lives to see how hard they were fighting for this democratic kind of privilege of having the vote.

    They're not voting, but they're doing everything they can to participate in this democratic process because it's all they can do. They don't have the luxury of that vote. For me, that was one of the most kind of moving moments, was recognizing how those of us who can vote in this country can be a bit lackluster about it.

    And then Congress is saying people who don't have that right, but whose lives are directly affected by the outcomes of these elections, leaving everything on the line to try to sort of fight for as many people as possible to be able to participate. That kind of took my breath away.

  • Grace Lee:

    We didn't start out to make a film about organizers, but it quickly became clear that these are the, you know, the backbone of all social movements. Women of color have always been the backbone of social movements in this country and in Georgia. I mean, as an Asian-American, finding, though, organizers in Georgia was also really exciting because, you know, we tend to have, Asian-Americans, as one of the people in the film says, ah, you know, not necessarily known for, you know, being politically active and to find people, young people who are doing it in language, you know, going out and, you know, gathering elders to help them go vote in a place like Georgia where laws are established, you know, that are often preventing people to go out and vote because of exact match laws or whatever, was really exciting and heartening for me to see as well.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Going into 2020. And I don't know if you're still in touch with all these different characters, but are they as engaged, as excited, as committed as they were in 2018? Marjan, let me start with you.

  • Marjan Safinia:

    I mean, I would say more so. Right. More so because they the fight continues. We are very much in touch with the organizers. They're all very much so organizing. And you know, this this in the Georgia primary, despite the outrageous suggestion that these documents would be the voter turnout was even higher than it had been in 2018. So, you know, I'm not an expert on the details of what's happening in Georgia today, but I've become a bit of an expert on this movement of the New American Majority.

    And in the end, it is a nationwide movement. Right. The uprisings that we've seen in the streets are the New American Majority. It's a very diverse group of Americans who just have a very different vision for what this country should be. And now there's enough numbers that there is a real sort of opportunity to empower.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Grace?

  • Grace Lee:

    Yeah, I mean, I would just add that what what we see on the news every night with, you know, these massive protests and people coming out for the first time to sort of express, you know, their feelings about what's going on in this country.

    I think, you know, there's definitely a connection to these civic engagement organizers who are saying, well, you know, you can protest with your voices, but you can also, you know, use every tool in the toolbox, which includes protesting electorally. You know, the alarm is sounding. You know, we see every day on the news in the Georgia primary and the Kentucky primary, how COVID is also, you know, preventing people from actually making their voices heard. And I think this is going to be an ongoing issue leading up into November.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Grace Lee, Marjan Safinia, the film is called "And She Could Be Next" airing on PBS. Thank you both for joining me.

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