Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



WL native documents life as a minority in the suburbs

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Melissa Lowery's film, Black Girl in Suburbia, sheds light on issues she faced as an African-American growing up in West Linn. Shortly after Melissa Lowery graduated from Pacific University with a bachelor’s degree in media arts, her six-year old daughter, Jayla, told her about an encounter she had with a friend at Brookwood Elementary School in Hillsboro.

Jayla’s friend made a remark about her hair, and asked why it looked so different compared to other students at the school. That, in turn, prompted Jayla to ask her mother why she was the only “brown” kid in her class.

It was an experience Melissa Lowery knew all too well, having grown up as an African-American in West Linn. Watching her daughter struggle with the same identity issues sparked a fire in Lowery, and set her off on a project that would, in her words, become “like a third child.”

That project, a documentary film called “Black Girl in Suburbia,” will debut June 7 at the Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro. The filming and editing took three years — far longer than Lowery ever anticipated — but the extra time proved necessary for a documentary that explores everything from racial identity to stereotypes and diversity in the school system.

Over the course of the filming process, Lowery interviewed two groups of high school age girls about their experiences, as well as teachers and administrators across Oregon.

“My purpose is to get people talking to each other about race and about culture and about identity,” Lowery said. “There’s a lot of people who feel that those subjects are very scary to talk about. And it’s really not. I just want the film to kind of spark something in the people that watch it.”

Lowery made clear that the film is not a “woe-is-me” tale, but rather a means to open up discussions about feelings and experiences that often bubble beneath the turbulent surface of adolescence.

“I had a great childhood, I had great friends,” Lowery said. “But this is one piece of my experience out here that a lot of my white friends didn’t know about because, of course, I never talked to them about it because they would never understand.”

It was the little things, when a friend would describe someone as “a black person” walking down the street and then tell Lowery, “no offense,” or when she left home with fresh braids and returned home with her hair in tatters after her classmates insisted on touching it.

“For most of them, it came from a very innocent place,” Lowery said. “This is where they grew up — there’s nothing outside of West Linn.”

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Round Table Pizza was a popular hang-out spot for Lowery and her friends.

Lowery always tried to laugh at these incidents, yet at times she couldn’t help but feel slighted by the words and actions of her classmates. She never felt fully comfortable with her identity until her senior year at West Linn High School.

With “Black Girl in Suburbia,” Lowery hopes to help foster that feeling of comfort at an earlier age.

“I just wanted my girls to see that there’s other girls, and there’s so much more than being in this box,” Lowery said.

At first, Lowery envisioned the project as a personal beacon to her own children. It soon became apparent, however, that this was an issue that struck a chord with people across the county. Just two days after opening a Kickstarter account for the project, Lowery had raised more than $3,000 from people she’d never met before.

A professor at Lewis & Clark University donated $1,000, despite having never met Lowery.

“She told me, ‘I really don’t have $1,000 to just give, but I just felt so compelled to donate to your project because I believe in it, and I believe it’s so needed,’” Lowery said.

The Kickstarter fund churned out more than $13,000 when all was said and done, more than enough to fund Lowery’s first feature film. Though the process took longer than she anticipated, Lowery said the learning process was well worth the time.

“It’s like having a child — you can never be too prepared,” Lowery said. “Because there’s so many things that can throw you off balance or things that you haven’t thought about. We filmed during summer of 2011 and I thought I could finish the whole thing in six months. Not so much.

“But I’ve grown so much in this process and the project itself has kind of taken on a life of its own.”

When the film debuts at the Walters Cultural Arts Center June 7, Lowery expects a full house of about 200 people. Moving forward, she’s also interested in taking the film on the road and holding discussion session after each screening.

“That’s the main thing,” Lowery said, “getting people to start talking and sharing their experiences and their perspective.”

Further down the line, Lowery is also interested in pursuing a documentary series, where she could “can focus on those bits and pieces, like interracial adoption or stereotypes or lack of teachers of color in Oregon.”

“There’s a lot of projects like that that I would like to do,” Lowery said.

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By Patrick Malee
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by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lowery's film is set to debut June 7, and moving forward she would like to create a documentary series on race and identity.

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