By: Movement Generation

  • josh and michelle on set
    Artist in Residency Josh Healey with collective member Michelle Mascarenas-Swan reviewing the shot list for the day on filming location. (Photo credit: Brooke Anderson)

As social movements continue building to combat some of our communities’ most pressing problems—the climate crisis, gentrification, detainment and deportation—the role of cultural workers is critical. But they are usually an afterthought, brought in at the end of a campaign to design a flyer or images for social media. What would it look like for organizations to truly invest in culture and storytelling? Movement Generation has taken an unprecedented step. Along with Rosario Dawson, the Oakland, California-based ecological justice organization is co-executive producing The North Pole, a web series that tackles some of our nation’s most pressing issues, through the eyes of North Oakland.

The North Pole first debuted in 2017, introducing viewers to Nina, Marcus, Finn, and Benny, four Bay Area friends who are watching in real-time as gentrification rips communities of color from their homes and scatters them beyond the city limits where they experience the effects of the climate crisis. Their neighbors, friends, and family members are becoming “endangered species” in North Oakland, and it pushes the friends to political action.

Season two of the web series premieres September 10. To learn more about the show’s impetus, Movement Generation’s investment in culture and storytelling, and the nuts and bolts of an entire organization acting as executive producer, we had a conversation with Movement Generation’s Josh Healey, Quinton Sankofa, Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan, Mateo Nube, and filmmaker and North Pole Show director and co-writer, Yvan Iturriaga.

Before we jump in, why is the web series called The North Pole?

Josh Healey: One day, I was hanging out in downtown Oakland with [producer] Dania Cabello, who said she had to head back home. Her house⁠—on 44th and Telegraph⁠—is the house that’s Nina and Marcus’ house in the show. But the way she said it was, “I gotta get back to the North Pole.” I grew up in D.C. so I didn’t know what she was talking about, so she broke it down. She explained that if you grew up in North Oakland in the 90s, folks on the North side called it the North Pole and the people who lived there called themselves polar bears. In that moment, I was like, “boom, there it is”; everything clicked. We assembled a writing team and set out to tell the story of what was happening in North Oakland artistically, while looking at the issues politically.

Quinton Sankofa: Josh came to me with the idea and I told him we had to tell the story. We are a collective, so the idea had to be pitched to the collective. Honestly, some people were like, “What the hell?” But as they heard more, they realized this is what we should be doing. We want to build a movement and we understand that a clear narrative and storytelling is what drives social change. The parallel between the climate crisis and its effects on polar bears, and gentrification and its effects on North Oakland residents, was so powerful. This kind of storytelling is something we should all be investing in. Honestly, it’s what’s missing from many social justice organizing spaces.

Let’s talk more about investing in storytelling. Why is this important?

Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan: The grounding for a lot of our work has always been that humans are narrative creatures. We make meaning out of the world through stories. If we’re not conveying the narratives that are key to a just transition, we’re doing a disservice—and they won’t sink in through people’s hearts and spirits and souls. Stories move people, and storytelling is central to our work.

Mateo Nube: The obsession with story is a key part of what drives [Movement Generation]. Telling stories in deep, heartfelt ways gets people feeling deeply. As an organization, we’ve known for a long time that storytelling needs to be at the center of our organizing efforts. But it’s also important to say that struggle sucks. We need to be real about that. Being in the street resisting is politically necessary, but that doesn’t mean its pleasurable. Resisting is a tortuous, shitty process and for a person like Benny [on the show], you see that play out. Storytelling is like the gateway drug for fighting for a right relationship with home.

“Right relationship with home” is a good segway to talk about the political points made in The North Pole Show. While it is a comedy, characters like Nina drop knowledge pretty regularly.

MN: We’re an ecological justice organization and the framework that we are working with is that “ecology” means knowledge of home and the struggle to protect home, “Economy” means managing home ideally, in right relationship with home. The North Pole Show actually connects these dots in a creative way; it gets us out of a narrow understanding of “ecology.” The climate crisis is real, but we are talking about the nuances of what happens when home is mismanaged—told through the story of North Oakland. Power has been aggregated in the hands of a few and these people are deciding how our home should function. The show is a comedy, but there is an authentic parallel being drawn between what’s happening globally and what’s happening locally.

QS: At MG, we are disturbed and unhappy about the fact that white, male faces get to do most of the talking about ecology. They explain the problem and offer solutions. With this show, we wanted to put our folks out there front and center. Nina is the resident ecologist on the show, but how many people see Black women from Oakland as ecologists? We know our people have deep knowledge about community building and relationships to the land; we know our folks are ecologists, herbalists, farmers, etc. So, the show reflects the reality we see in our communities every day.

To make The North Pole Show happen, there’s basically two teams. There’s Movement Generation and there’s the cast and crew of the show. The go-between is Josh, who’s a lead writer on the show and former member of Movement Generation and current Artist In Residence. This seems like it could be a challenging collaborative process.

JH: It’s 90 percent awesome. But yeah, there are unique challenges for everyone. I guess the biggest issue for the organizers and the writers is that nobody gets everything they want. We work through it and it’s a really unique process because everyone understands that the stories come first. Folks at MG are these really brilliant and revolutionary activists, but they’re not rigid. As far as I’m concerned, the more people working on the show, the more ideas, the more points of reference, the more interesting stories.

MMS: Josh has played a key role in building up projects around storytelling, supporting cultural workers, grassroots organizers, and activists to share personal narratives about how they relate to a just transition. Because we are a collective, what we put into the world comes from our collective brain. MG is putting out frames to shift our gaze and perspective to the roots of the climate crisis and who needs to guide solutions to address it. The writing team creates the characters and storylines and scripts them. They handle the fundamental elements of crafting the show, and then they partner with us to talk about the framework and messaging. These two skill sets are coming together to give important messages a much further reach.

Yvan, what’s the process been like for you, as the director and co-writer of the show?

Yvan Iturriaga: As a filmmaker who cares about these issues and who wants to affect change, I feel like this is a really important relationship to have with the organization, and it only makes our work better. I can have this character arc and these ideas about how a story will play out, but then the organizers will give me feedback from the real world and I’ll see where things need to shift or change to be accurate and informative. Sometimes creative work is done in a vacuum, but this is a different kind of creative work and it’s been a really fulfilling, fruitful process. No filmmakers I know have this relationship with an organization, but it’s one a lot of them could benefit from.

What do you want people to get out of the show, what do you want the takeaway to be?

QS: As people come into consciousness about the climate crisis, the rise of fascism, and all of these other issues we’re facing, they’re asking what can I do? Nina, Benny and the homies provide a model for what can be done. She is responding to the conditions in her community and she is saying, “Fuck this. This shit is too much. We need to do something.” Everyday people are becoming community organizers and building movements. I hope the show inspires more of that.

YI: I want people to watch the show, turn off the device they’re watching it on, and then do something. In Season one, we posed some major issues and in season two, we’re offering creative solutions. We are facing a lot of problems as a country, but we need to start envisioning what winning looks like. How are we part of the problem, and what are the hard changes we need to make? Our characters, like a lot of people, are facing overwhelming circumstances, but they’re not looking at them in a defeatist way. There is hope and we have the power to change things. So what are we going to do?

In the meantime watch the trailer for season two!