Langley resident Jerry Millhon always wanted to shine a light on those who leave a mark on their communities.
So he teamed up with a group of videographers and social entrepreneurs to tell the stories of movers and shakers. The organization Millhon cofounded, Thriving Communities, has turned into an advocacy storytelling organization that shows everyday people that they, too, can make a lasting impact.
“Once I got into this work, it just wouldn’t let me go,” Millhon said. “These people have powerful stories, and people need to see the work they do. To be able to visually see their stories has allowed people to have deep conversations around their work.”
At the core, Thriving Communities strives to connect people in communities. It all started “six or seven years ago” when Millhon, who was the Whidbey Institute director at the time, pondered how he could connect some of Whidbey’s idea makers with one another. After seeking advice from one of South Whidbey’s most active movers and shakers, Hearts and Hammers founder Lynn Willeford, she suggested that he organize an event to bring various sectors of the non-profit scene together. The first Gathering of Thriving Communities in 2012 did exactly that, and Willeford became a cofounder.
Wanting to reach a wider audience, Millhon and Willeford connected with South Whidbey-raised filmmaker Aimie Vallat. The new medium was a way to better impact viewers and raise awareness of the causes covered in their films. Since Thriving Communities began to profile these “extraordinary people,” the organization has produced films about Good Cheer Food Bank, Hearts and Hammers and stories throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The organization has made 32 films to date, and now has a team of coordinators from various states.
“We’re creating stories about people with an idea who realized they couldn’t not do something about it,” Millhon said. “They don’t care about acclaim, they just do the work. We want to show people those stories so they’re connected and inspired.”
The latest short film from Vallat, “Little Rebel,” is slated for a public viewing at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 in Zech Hall at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. The 10-minute documentary, made by Vallat with her film company Reel Witness, follows the courageous journey of Isatou Jallow, an asylee from Gambia who currently lives in Seattle. Jallow works with the asylum and disabled communities in Seattle, using her personal story to connect with her clients. Since the film is an example of advocacy storytelling and made by the same filmmakers, Thriving Communities is showing the film on South Whidbey.
The viewing is free and open to the public. A discussion with Jallow and filmmakers Vallat and Guido Ronge will follow the film. The filmmakers and Jallow will use the funds raised from “Little Rebel” to expand on Jallow’s story, as they plan to film a future trip to Gambia. In her county, Jallow is working to pass the country’s first disability act.
According to Vallat, Jallow’s story was ideal for Thriving Communities’ advocacy storytelling. Stories of refugees and asylees have never been more important to tell, she said.
“This project came out of a frustration at the current administration’s travel ban, and I wanted to transform that energy into some sort of advocacy or activism,” Vallat said. “I was looking for an extraordinary person through which to tell a powerful story. It only took a few minutes to realize Isatou was that extraordinary person.”
Through Millhon’s vision, Vallat says, “quiet community heroes” are connecting with each other in a way that might never have happened. Millhon is happy to see that, as his ultimate goal was to give people the platform to collaborate on their own.
“These quiet community heroes are really in every town,” Vallat said. “This organization finds the common human threads to bond them together to generate even more ideas.”