The Magic of Connection: Dawn Valadez and Youthbuild at the Stories of Change Lab

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Dawn Valadez, John Valverde, Katie Galloway, Jennifer MacArthur and Joel Miranda at the 2017 Stories of Change Lab. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Jen Fairchild

Stepping off of the plane at the Salt Lake City airport, I could feel the chill in the air. It was October and I knew the temperature was dropping. For the first time in my traveling life I decided to pack lightly, so I forgot my warm scarf and my gloves, and I didn’t bring enough socks. I knew better—I had been to Utah a few times in the fall and winter: the film festival, road trips through the national parks, and visiting friends. But I was so excited to join this incredible group of filmmakers, social entrepreneurs, and mentors that I completely forgot about being comfortable.

The Stories of Change Lab is a unique residential program that brings filmmakers and Skoll-awarded social entrepreneurs together. The gift of this lab was getting the opportunity to work with filmmakers who understand the power of storytelling, social entrepreneurs who know the importance of the issues and challenges facing our world, and mentors from both host organizations. We became fast friends, with deep love and appreciation for how difficult our work is and the great need for these stories and programs.

I’m a weird filmmaker, I know. I resisted working in media for a long time. I grew up as a cynical Xicana-Irish queer girl with punk tendencies in Hollywood in the ’80s (yes, that Hollywood). After being recruited for the Chicano-Latino Educational Opportunity Program at the University of California Santa Cruz—the first in my family to go to college—I put away my dreams of being in the arts and fully embraced my work to cause positive social change by working with youth and families. But once the filmmaking bug catches you, it’s impossible to ignore it. I’ve been working on documentaries since my mid-30s after becoming a social worker. Fifteen years later, I am very active in Latinx, women’s, and social justice filmmaking circles. Yet my toes are still in my home base: social welfare work.

I was invited to join the team of The Pushouts after meeting Katie Galloway at a Film Fatales meeting. I knew of her work—I had seen most of her anti-prison-industrial-complex films. I admired her and was excited to work on a project so near and dear to my heart. And I was looking forward to working with our producing partner, Daniella Sueuga, an established producer who cares deeply about equity, youth, and finding solutions.

“There are an estimated 4.9 million young adults ages 16–24 in America who are neither in work nor school. Of these, there are estimated to be as many as 3 million youth living in poverty” (

The Pushouts provides an intimate and urgent vantage point from which to grapple with the enormous potential of and obstacles still facing America’s “at-risk” youth. They're labeled “dropouts”; these youth are pushed out of the educational system by harsh discipline policies and the effects of trauma, poverty, racism, and academic challenges that go unsupported. Our Skoll Awarded Social Entrepreneur partner, YouthBuild, has spent the last 40 years working with this population of young people.

I was nervous when I arrived at the Lab. Katie and I had never met with John Valverde and Joel Miranda of YouthBuild for more than a brief conversation, but we knew that there was a potential for incredible synergy between our nearly completed film and the mission of YouthBuild. My anxiety melted away the moment I met John and Joel—who understood immediately how their mission and our goals for the film were deeply connected—and over the course of the Lab we got to know each other over meals and through laughing at each other’s stories.

The Pushouts/YouthBuild team, along with our mentor Jennifer MacArthur, had the luxury of four days of getting to know each other, understanding alignment between our work, and establishing goals for our work together. And when we shared our rough cut with the group (which was also very stressful), we received very important feedback that has already made the film stronger. We left at the end of the Lab not wanting to go but with promises to reconnect and continue our planning. We now have a roadmap, the beginning of a timeline, and connections that will last for many years to come. Having time to really explore the topics, challenges, and goals in person, in such a beautiful place, and with guides was a truly magical experience. We are well on our way to launching our campaign in 2018.

Lead photo:
Dawn Valadez, John Valverde, Katie Galloway, Jennifer MacArthur and Joel Miranda at the 2017 Stories of Change Lab. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Jen Fairchild