Storytelling for Social Change: Interview with Pablo Toledo

Pablo Toledo
Echoing Green’s Heart at Work interview series highlights individuals whose changemaking paths we admire. Pablo Toledo, creative director at Camino PR,
is a digital artist and community filmmaker and is inspired by the power of personal narratives to create social change. Read Pablo's story as he uncovers his Heart at Work.

Pablo, I am really excited for this interview. I’m a big believer in the power of the arts to create social and environmental change, which your story so clearly illustrates. So let me start out by asking, considering the number of projects you are working on, how would you sum up your work in the world? 
I help people tell their stories.

What about when you were a kid? What did you want to be when you grew up?
The first thing I wanted to be was an illustrator. I wanted to draw comics for the paper. I bought Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbs books at the used bookstore for a quarter. I thought: What a great thing–to put ideas into pictures this way.

The other thing I wanted to be was a coach, a player maybe, something to do with athletics. No one in my family is untouched by athletics. For us, sports are about more than trophies, basketballs, and Gatorade bottles. They are about a sense of community, about knowing your teammates and the 200 people courtside—their lives, everything about them.

And it seemed like I would have a nice college stint, but my career was cut short by an injury and by malaise.

What do you mean when you say malaise?

I mean partying.

Anyway, I realized that I wasn’t going to be a sports star. Around the same time, I went to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing with my mom. It was the first time I saw someone who looked like me, talked like me, and cared about what I cared about—sports, urban youth, and social justice. I wanted to explore what it was like to tell stories about these things through moving imagines, the way Spike Lee did, instead of the pencil. So I asked my mom, “What’s a director?” She said “Go look it up.” I went to the library and checked out a book that Spike Lee wrote about his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, and his experience in film school. Then I enrolled in a Super 8 Short Film class at a junior college Arizona.

For the first time I felt that I could make the transition into something other than sports. Making films felt like a natural extension of my interest in both art and sports in many ways.

How was it an extension of your love of sports?
I coached a girls' basketball team my first year in college. That work of coaching, it set me up to be a director later in life. Both the game and the film were my vision translated through other people. And whether it was players in a game, or people on a screen, I gave them the opportunity to show themselves at their best.

So I went to my junior college career counseling office, and looked up the best schools in film. USC was #1; NYU was #2.

I decided to apply to USC.

It was hard to even get letters of recommendation because everyone knew my academic record and couldn’t see how anyone could get from a junior college in Arizona to USC Film School. So I locked myself in my room and studied everything I could about film making in classes and on my own. I spent months writing letters to people. I researched alumni and professors and reached out to all of them. I visited campus and everyone I talked to said “You’ll never get into film school with these grades.” And I didn’t. Not to film school. But I got into USC, and figured I could transition in to the film school after proving myself. Lots of people tried to do that and failed, but I was determined to make it happen.

Around the same time, I was asked to play at a Division II school in Colorado Springs but I passed it up to focus on USC.

At USC, I took as many classes as I could within the film department. My plan was to get all A’s in those classes, and secure letters of recommendation from all of those teachers, to convince the film school to let me in. It worked.

I left classes at USC inspired, I didn’t know all the answers or know my path, but I had this emotional reaction of inspiration that gave me the belief that anything was possible. So in terms of using Echoing Green’s Heart + Head = Hustle frame, I started with the heart and let that be a road map to the head.

Runnin at MidniteHow did you find your way to making your first feature film, Runnin’ at Midnite?
I’ll never forget watching an ESPN story about a midnight basketball league in Chicago. My basketball coach in Arizona used to run them too. The story profiled these two guys, teammates in the same league. They were sworn enemies everywhere but the court. One of the guys even told the reporter he’d fired a shot at the other guy and tried to kill him once, but he continued to play with him and support him on the court as a teammate.

That became the inspiration for a short film I did in college, which eventually became a script for a feature film. After film school, I was despondent about getting the script made. I was living with someone in Arizona; we were fighting; I was sleeping on the couch. It was not a good time. Around then, my old basketball coach called me and said we have to have lunch. I said I didn’t have any money and I didn’t feel great, but he said that we had to have lunch…today. So I went.

Over lunch, he looked at me and said “we have to make this film. We have to. If we have to do it for $400, then fine. I’ll be there by your side the entire time.” I left lunch inspired, and went to Circuit City. I called my girlfriend from the store and said “Hey J-rod, guess where I’m calling you from? My new cell.” She got mad, said I couldn’t afford it, and I told her, “I bought it because I need a production phone. To start my film.”

That was September 28, 1999. Within three months, we got everything together—a crew, locations, actors. The model I used to make it happen was a community model. I wanted the community I grew up in to have ownership over the project, so I went everywhere—businesses, nonprofits. I said, This is what we’re doing. Here’s how it’s going to benefit the community. Do you want to be part of it? We got meals, hotels, all kinds of things donated. I wanted to fill all of the acting rolls and some of the back stage roles kids in the neighborhood, so I went to every boys and girls club, visited with probation officers, and went up to kids on the streets and talked to them about the film. Over 300 underserved kids showed up to audition.

This one kid struggled through all of his lines and I later realized that he couldn’t read. I was amazed. He was from a pretty tough neighborhood, but he wanted this so bad that he was going to show up and do this audition even though he couldn’t read. I’m still in touch with some of the kids today. Some are in jail. Some are actors. The story, for me, wasn’t the film. It was giving them an opportunity.

The film got a lot of publicity. It played in four countries, dozens of festivals, broke the box office record at our local theater. We partnered with the school district and bussed kids from every school in for a movie screening and Q&A.

How did your career change as a result of that film?
I started teaching film at the University of Arizona, and spent three years working for the New Media Project which taught 14 to 18 year old kids in the juvenile justice system new media skills. Most were about a 2nd grade level in terms of reading and writing. I had helped kids tell their stories through my film; now I was helping them learn how to tell their stories themselves. The difference between these kids, and the kids I taught at the University of Arizona was huge.

Then I had the opportunity to go to Los Angeles, and had the fortune to connect with Venice Arts, which provides art classes to low income youth—photography, documentary. In 2008 an opportunity came up at Camino Public Relations, which provides story-telling and media support for nonprofit organizations. Social change organizations need to tell their own stories through a lot of different channels, and because I’d always been on the front lines of the issues they work on—poverty, gang violence, and so on—I was asked to be the Creative Director.

We not only work with a lot of organizations on their traditional media needs, but we also look at their creative media needs—web design, creative scripts, online advertising, etc. Those things all come through my desk, though every staff member contributes to everything we work on. On a typical day, I juggle about eight or nine projects.

So, what’s next?
My last year in LA, I started a new project for kids on the border near where I grew up that is still ongoing. Now I am now looking for another partner, a youth center, so we can build a bricks and morter story telling center and train people on the ground so there is actual mentorship around these tools. I want to start with drawing. Provide them teachers, mentors, drawing supplies, and start from there. There will also be a film component very similarly to Runnin’ at Midnite.

How would you describe your purpose path in a tweet?
I’ve been fortunate to not only have amazing experiences but to be able to meet even more amazing people, so my career has been all about people. Partnering with, teaching, and empowering people. Sometimes your tank runs a little empty, but I’m fed when I work with and on behalf of other people.

Not exactly tweet-length, but well said. Finally, what advice do you have for Millennials trying to access purposeful careers?
Invest in relationships. Not in a “What can this get me?” kind of way, but really try to see the authentic side of people and connect with them in a way that empowers both parties, and amazing things can happen. Also, look for partnerships and people in places that you don’t always travel. It keeps your sense of wonder alive, and you are more vulnerable in those relationships, which is powerful.

Pablo Toledo is a digital artist and community filmmaker interested in how storytelling motivates people to action, and the Creative Director of Camino PR, a firm committed to sparking positive social change through media advocacy, publicity, communications strategies, social marketing initiatives, and crisis communication. In 2001 Pablo wrote, directed, and produced Runnin’ At Midnite, a feature film about youth and midnight basketball. He was awarded the Tucson Pima Arts Council Media Arts Fellowship and named to the Arizona Artists Roster. He founded the New Media Project, a federally funded program through which film and video skills are taught to highly at-risk youth. He also served as Lead Artist and Director of Film and Digital Arts Education at Venice Arts. Inspired by the potential of narrative to reach and engage large audiences, Pablo develops projects that transform society through the innovative use of storytelling, digital media and communications strategy. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.