I sit here, drinking my third cup of tea for the day, wondering where to begin. Outside, the Winter sun is already getting low. It’s been a long day of writing and rewriting scraps of thoughts that won’t come together. Where to begin? I could go all the way back, less than two weeks after my birth, when I was left on a street corner in China. Or I could start somewhere in the middle, tell you what it was like growing up in America as part of a white, adoptive family. I think I’ll fast forward through all that though; there will be time enough later for those stories. Instead, let’s start just a few months ago: Summer of 2020.
“Calling all nature lovin brown women,” began Chelsea Murphy’s post on her Instagram account. She went on to briefly describe a film project about Women of Color in the outdoors that ended with an open invitation: “We are accepting brown trans women. We are accepting brown LGBTQ+ women. We are accepting fat brown women. We are accepting ALL BIPOC women. If you fit the description above, your voice matters and we wanna create with you.” This Instagram post, in combination with further details on Chelsea’s website, was the official cast and crew call for the Brave Space Film Project.
When it comes to outdoor film festivals, there’s usually a severe lack of films about Women of Color or directed by women. Wanting to change that, Erin Joy Nash, a white filmmaker who has focused her work on elevating BIPOC voices, reached out to Chelsea. As a Black activist from the same mountain town as Erin, Chelsea strives to inspire Black and brown women to go outdoors with confidence. Together, Chelsea and Erin decided to show a different narrative of who belongs in and is in the outdoors by co-directing and co-producing a film about Women of Color in mountain towns. Their call for cast and crew members received almost fifty responses from places scattered across the country. These women were filmmakers, photographers, marketing experts, musicians, poets, writers, and above all––passionate about sharing or telling the myriad stories Women of Color have to offer about the outdoors. A small film based on the mountain town experience suddenly became an enormous project where dreams about filmmaking and community became possible.
One of those almost fifty women to respond to the call was me. I scrolled through Chelsea’s Instagram post, did a deep dive into her website, and then took a beat to think things over. Being involved in making an outdoor film about Women of Color was pretty much the answer to all my dreams, but on the other hand, I was risking rejection by putting myself out there. Chelsea had said, “ALL BIPOC women,” but was I really included in that? Allowing myself to dream, I typed out a response, trying to hide how desperately I wanted to be involved without sounding boring: “I’m so incredibly excited that this project exists. . . I would be thrilled be a part of this project in any way if there’s a spot for me. . . I’m a transracial adoptee. . . [If] you need someone to hold a light, do a coffee run, anything––I would so love to be involved. . .” I took a deep breath and clicked the submission button. Two weeks later, I was opening an e-mail from Erin: “We would love to set up a Zoom call and talk about what you might want to do, [and] how much time you would like to spend with this project. . .”
I had never expected to receive an e-mail from one of the directors so quickly, or for both of them to be so enthusiastically supportive of my joining the crew. Submitting a response to the call had been an experiment, a joke, a heartbreaking hope. Instead of a long, polite, eager series of paragraphs, I could have simply written, “Where do I belong in the construct of race?” and it would have sounded the same to me. In my head, it was important that I position myself upfront as a transracial adoptee, yet every time I offered that personal fact, Chelsea and Erin failed to ask for more racial credentials. Instead, they kept extending an invitation, a non-answer to my unasked question: “Come and find out with us. . .” I was unquestioningly embraced as a part of the project. There was never an interview process. If I wanted to be involved, then I was in; and it was the same for all the other women who responded to the call. So I entered the work cautiously and eagerly, and for the first time, I was a part of an outdoor community where I could bring my full self.
Left: Sam Ortiz during her interview. Photo Credit: the author // Top middle: Sanjana Sekhar filming an adventure scene. Photo Credit: the author // Bottom middle: Erin, the author, and Chelsea after a weekend of production. Photo Credit: Erin Joy Nash // Right: Elisa Lopez and Erin share a paddle board for an adventure scene. Photo Credit: Karen Francis-McWhite
Creating a brave space is an integral and intentional part of this project. On a monthly basis, small groups of women within the project gather virtually to talk about their outdoor experiences, discuss what it means to be in a brave space, share memes, and affirm each other’s presence in the outdoors. In turn, those discussions directly inform the prompts being used for film interviews. Those interviews have taken place at campgrounds, crags, and lakeshores on Coast Salish and Wenatchi lands. The film crew (Erin, Chelsea, and filmmaker Sanjana Sekhar) has stayed within Washington state, but the intention is to extend the project beyond these borders. Fall production has just wrapped up, and next steps include production for snow sports, film editing, and fundraising. This film is being made collaboratively, and will hold threads from many different perspectives. It is a gift from, to, and with this beautiful community, and hopefully only the beginning of what can be created together.
As for me, I find myself laughing with these women. I find myself in conversation, in vulnerability, in power, in resonance with them. How can I experience self-doubt about belonging in this space when it feels so restful? Stories are gifted and entrusted to me in every virtual meeting and on every day of production, making me realize that I’m the only one afraid of myself. This tension between my brown skin and my proximity to whiteness isn’t something I can reconcile in just a few months. But allowing myself to spend time with Women of Color brings me closer to doing so, and shows me I’m not alone.
I had the opportunity to interview Sanjana for a behind the scenes film last November, after most of the filming had finished. She made setting up for a virtual interview easy, graciously toggling three electronic devices so we could do this over nine-hundred miles apart. One of the questions I had was about her experience working on the project. Sanj’s response was immediate and unhesitating. “Working with this community of Women of Color was profound in ways that I did not expect,” she said. “I knew it was going to be something special, but I think you don’t realize what you’re missing until you have it. And as someone that has grown up in predominantly white spaces, as someone who has experienced outdoor recreation predominantly in white communities, I didn’t realize how powerful it would be to do those same things with people that look like me, and people that have experiences similar to mine. So, it was something that I’m still processing two months later, because it’s almost an addictive feeling to get to have that experience and to get to be around people that understand you subliminally without any conversation, you can just recognize each other and know that there is some shared history there.”
What is it to be a Woman of Color? Before this project, I would have been at a loss as to how to respond to that question, and honestly, I’m still a little confused. But know that this is for certain: A Woman of Color is to be like Chelsea: talkative and generous. It’s to be like Sanj: thoughtful and creative. It’s to be like Lia, and Catalina, and Camila, and so many others. To all the Women of Color who have touched my life––thank you. You are beautiful, intelligent, and inherently valuable. Being with you gives me rest, and it’s an honor to take my place beside you.
Written By: Rebekah Graham, Intern
Edited By: Chelsea Murphy, Co-Producer, Co-Director, Interviewee
Edited By: Erin Joy Nash, Co-Producer, Co-Director, Co-DP, Co-Editor