Make It Work is a column by Justine Haemmerli that takes a peek into the lives of folks with unconventional careers — the entrepreneurs wearing many hats, the doers of many things, the folks with full-time jobs and big side hustles — to shine a light on those doing good in unique ways.
Jos Duncan felt like she had blood on her hands when what she wanted was her heart on her sleeve.
“Why is Eric Garner’s name in my grant application?” she asked, her voice quivering with exasperation.
Jos looked down at the ring of foam at the bottom of her cappuccino cup. A cloud passed over her face which, up until now, had been so pulled together. We sat at a small table at Square One Coffee in Center City, a block away from the CultureWorks coworking space. That’s where Jos’ newest project, Love Now Media, is receiving fiscal sponsorship through the CultureTrust program to help the fledgling nonprofit get its work off the ground.
Jos looked effortless in a suit, heels and chunky necklace, her hair unfrizzed in the muggy morning. But as we settled into breakfast and talked about the start of her career at the intersection of film and social justice — her first nonprofit brought the griot storytelling tradition into African American communities across Philadelphia as a tool for healing and social justice work — her cool exterior gave way.
“My cousin was killed by the police in 1998,” she said. “At that time, this was something that wasn’t talked about so much. It was more like a family secret. A shared wound. But I never felt right moving through my career and my life and not addressing it.”
Jos remembers working as an art teacher early in her career and “hearing kids refer to each other as numbers, the way the news would each night — like, ‘If you don’t watch yourself, you’re going to be #342 [to be killed in Philadelphia this year]'” she said. “The dehumanizing way their lives were spoken about was seeping into their vernacular. And I needed to do something about that.”
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So Jos went back to graduate school for film while running the storytelling nonprofit she founded in 2007. Her work was gaining traction: She consulted with corporations around diversity and inclusion, help organize the BlackStar Film Festival and collaborated with then-rising filmmaker Ava Duvernay.
Then the George Zimmerman verdict was announced on her birthday.
“It was a punch to the gut,” Jos said. “I revved up my work; I brought in new storytellers; I did citywide projects with a team of documentarians recording our work around resilience. Black Lives Matter was coalescing. We tried to capture the outrage rising up. We tried to be direct. We couldn’t go on telling folktales when this was happening in our community.”
And while the work was incredibly meaningful, something felt wrong about it.
“I felt like I was capitalizing off the blood in these communities,” she said. “Why am I invoking Trayvon Martin’s name to get money? I know this community. I don’t need grant funding to get access to them. To hear their stories. To feel their pain. But I did need that money to survive and do that work. And there felt something very exploitative about that. So I needed to stop.”
After a brief stint in Los Angeles when she explored the idea of pursuing film full-time, Jos returned to Philadelphia to figure out what was next. She started teaching communications, storytelling and film as an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania, Temple and UArts, and she loved the work. Yet she still felt compelled to return to her work as an artist.
“I wanted to continue my work in social justice, but in a less explicit way — in a way that gets to the core of the work,” she said. “And for me, that is focusing on love. You can’t have social justice without love. You can’t have equality without love. You can’t have real social change without love.”
It was while documenting the Black Lives Matter marches in 2015 that she encountered a fork in her professional road.
“The thing that stood out to me as the Black Lives Matter movement really picked up steam was all the different faces in the crowd at these protests,” she said. “I sometimes saw more white people in the marches than people of color. And while some folks might feel like, ‘Where were you all along?’ — which is a valid question — what that looked like to me was love. I saw love in those faces, and I wanted to give that love its due attention.”
Jos was also tired of seeing the same narratives around social justice work over and over. She craved to see more about how creativity and artistry could be interwoven with problem-solving. She knew that was happening — but those weren’t the stories that were getting the most airtime.
And so in 2016, Jos created Love Now Media, a nonprofit that tells stories that lean toward justice, wellness and equity. She uses her unique skills as a filmmaker, storyteller and activist to provide video production services for social justice, wellness and education organizations. She creates her own original content through her Love Now interview series that profiles Philadelphians while exploring what they love and how that love leads them to do good in the world.
“My work has always been rooted in Afrofuturism, and the question of how we create the universe we want to live in,” she said. “And the work I’m doing now is that visioning. Capturing small glimpses of the ways things should look. And I’m not exploiting the problem now — I’m showing how people are solving it.”
In the coming year, she plans to grow her client list to include larger companies and initiatives that can benefit from storytelling that centers love and its transformative potential at the heart of their stories.
This July, Love Now Media is hosting its ambitious first live event project: 11 Days of Love. The mini-festival will feature free events across the city ranging from time travel to yoga, film screenings and women’s empowerment — and of course, all through the lens of love. As someone working tirelessly to get her nonprofit growing, Jos is excited both about the visibility this will bring to her new organization and the stories, practitioners and work that will have a light shined on them through these events.
For so many of us working in the social service sector — whether through nonprofits, B Corps or volunteering — the heaviness of the problems we are striving to solve can weigh us down. In trying to untangle the knots of injustice we’ve committed to breaking apart, we can get bound by the very strings we seek to untwist. We hear and tell the same stories. We settle into opinions and perspectives. We lose our agility, creativity and vision as we’re worn down by the work.
It’s hard and essential for those working to fix the brokenness in the world to take time regularly to do as Jos does: zooming out the lens; reframing the picture; spending as much time listening to solutions as problems; bearing witness to love and healing and allowing ourselves to clarify a vision of the future to which we aspire. And we have to push ourselves to believe this isn’t ignoring the problem. This, too, is the work we all seek to do.
Jos’ path to Making It Work also serves as a reminder to check in with ourselves consistently as practitioners of this work, to see where our own efforts are stemming from — and to return constantly to a place of generosity, love and higher vision, even when the daily grind can drag us down.
“I realized I don’t have to be angry doing this work,” Jos said. “I need to be conscious of the climate and what people are thinking and feeling.”
It’s from this place of selflessness and listening that true healing work comes — and that healing work looks a lot like loving.-30-
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