A Place in the Middle


    by Michael Schneider - IndieWire

    The Corporation for Public Broadcasting may have a documentary problem.

    At a House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, CPB president/CEO Patricia Harrison heard mostly support from Congressional members on attendance. With House critics of funding for public broadcasting mostly absent, the focus was on how public radio and TV stations support education, veteran, health and safety issues across the country – particularly rural areas.

    One Congressperson even asked Harrison how the CPB would allocate its funds if its annual appropriation was doubled from its current level ($445 million annually). The hearing came just weeks after Donald Trump’s proposed budget suggested a complete elimination of CPB funding.

    The hearing was mostly devoid of fireworks, except when Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) took issue with a handful of recent documentary titles, such as “Baby Mama High,” which aired on “Independent Lens.”

    Although the title gives the impression that it might be a salacious reality show, “Baby Mama High” was a short film that examined the startling stat that 52% of American Latina teens become pregnant. The doc followed the story of one young Escondido, Calif., mother whose boyfriend wants her to quit school.

    Harris also took a swipe at the 2014 doc “Kumu Hina,” which follows the story of a transgender native Hawaiian woman who teaches hula and is an activist for Native Hawaiian issues.

    “When you produce shows like ‘Kumu Hina,’ almost a third of a million dollar investment, or “Baby Mama High” [which cost] $50,000, which you know $50,000 pays for the healthcare of ten individuals on the Affordable Care Act,” Harris said, “I have to respond to people in my district… and in fact they would resent if I was publicly funding that. Similarly with ‘Baby Mama High.’ I read the summary here. I haven’t seen it. I should probably see it. But then again, I’m not sure I want to watch something that says someone shouldn’t get married.

    “I can’t explain to the people in my district why CPB invested $302,000 in ‘Kumu Hina,'” he added. “You give me the explanation, how I go to my constituents and say that was a good investment of their tax dollars. I’m in a highly Republican, conservative district.”

    Responded Harrison: “In terms of public media, the documentaries we do, the work of Ken Burns or Dr. Henry Gates, I would say in the aggregate it brings people together.”

    Harrison pointed to another “Independent Lens” documentary, “Half the Sky,” which raised awareness about sex trafficking and forced prostitution around the globe. “Maybe we don’t get it right 100 percent of the time. But I’m willing to bet we get it right 90%,” she said. ” We deserve the appropriation because we can prove we make a difference in the lives of Americans, not just the 1% but a majority of Americans who can’t afford their cable bill or market solutions.”

    Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) took issue with Harris’ comments, arguing that her constituents might like “Kumu Hina” and “Baby Mama High.”

    “My constituents may not like a lot of the programming that your constituents like,” she said. “The point is, in America I thought we had a free press, and I thought the First Amendment ruled, and I thought it was OK to disagree or agree. That’s the beauty of PBS and NPR. This zeroing out of PBS flies in the face of our democratic principles.”

    Harris wasn’t done, however, attacking one more PBS “Independent Lens” documentary: 2014’s “The New Black,” which explored the fight for marriage equality in the African-American community. Harris took particular issue with the term “marriage equality.” (It should also be noted that all three docs singled out by Harris focused on different stories about women of color in America.)

    “I know a lot of people who don’t like the term ‘marriage equality’ because they don’t believe anything is equal to marriage,” he said. “But this public broadcasting station chose a politically charged term and then compared those who are for it with someone who is ‘against marriage equality.’ Words have meaning. This is biased. I don’t have to see it to know it’s biased, I just read the description. This is not education, this is agenda. I beg you. If you come for government funding, you must remove as many vestiges of political agenda as you can.”

    Harris said he was particularly concerned because, when running for reelection, “I don’t want an ad run against me that says I voted for funding a film that inspires ‘a tomboyish young girl to claim her place as leader of an all-male hula troupe.’ I can see the ad. That’s from ‘Kumu Hina.’ I beg you, please remove the agenda from education. This has to be neutral content. If you come for public funding and claim free press, it’s government-funded press and my citizens will resent some of the agenda. You’re absolutely right, 98% 99% of the time you get it right. But 1% poisons the well.”

    Responded Harrison: “We are tasked with two things: A firewall of independence for content providers and ensure balance and objectivity. These are sometimes clashing objectives. I think overall, we’ve done pretty well.”

    Founded in 1967 by the Public Broadcasting Act, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a nonprofit organization, funded by the government, to fund programming and also hand out grants to public television and radio stations to help cover some operational costs. Per its mandate, around 71% of CPB funds from Congress must go to local stations.

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    On March 28, 2017 during the Congressional Subcommittee Hearing on President Trump's plan to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Rep. Andy Harris (R, Maryland) singled out three PBS broadcast documentary films that he thought should not have been supported by public dollars: The New Black (directed by Yoruba Richen), Kumu Hina (directed by Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer), and Baby Mama High (directed by Heather Ross).

    Each of these films focused on different stories about women of color in America. We encourage viewers who appreciate seeing these and other stories of diverse, independent voices on public TV to contact their representatives. You may wish to tell Rep. Harris that you support the CPB by contacting him directly: https://harris.house.gov/contact-me.

    The New Black, which aired through the national PBS series Independent Lens, tells the story of how the African-American community is grappling with gay rights in light of the the equal marriage movement and the fight over civil rights. The film documents activists, families and clergy on both sides of the campaign to legalize gay marriage. The New Black takes viewers into the pews, onto the streets, and inside family kitchens as it follows the historic effort to pass Maryland’s marriage equality bill and charts the evolution of this divisive issue within the black community.

    Rep. Harris attacked and mischaracterized the film unfairly based on its written description alone without ever viewing it. He said the film was biased because in its description of the film, the local PBS station Maryland Public Television used the phrase “marriage equality.” Congressman Davis actually said “I don’t have to see [The New Black] to know it’s biased. I just have to read the description.”

    In fact the film has been lauded precisely for how it treats characters on all sides of this issue, with The New York Times review stating that “the film never allows political urgency to overwhelm its individual voices” and the New York Post writing that Richen commendably doesn’t caricature the opposition. The conservative preachers and other opponents get some time to state their case in a thoughtful way.”

    Kumu Hina is film about the struggle to maintain Pacific Islander culture and values within the Westernized society of modern day Hawaiʻi. It is told through the lens of an extraordinary Native Hawaiian who is both an honored and respected kumu, or teacher and community leader, and a proud and confident māhū, the traditional term for individuals who embrace both male and female spirit. The film follows Hina as she mentors a young girl who dreams of leading her school's all-male hula troupe, and as she searches for love and a fulfilling relationship in her own life.

    Kumu Hina was watched and appreciated by a wide cross-section of the American public through its broadcast on Independent Lens, for which it won the 2014-15 Audience Award. It helped curious viewers learn more about the history, culture and traditions of America's Pacific Islander communities, which are among the most under-represented and poorly understood minority groups in the country. The film's stories provide a real-life example of what Hina calls “the true meaning of aloha” - unconditional acceptance and respect for all – and help deepen understanding of gender diversity and inclusion by providing a Hawaiian cultural perspective.

    Although Rep. Harris attacked Kumu Hina by telling CPB to “please remove the agenda from education,” the film and engagement campaign have actually provided much needed resources for American teachers. A Classroom Discussion Guide and clips from the educational version of the film, which are available for free on PBS LearningMedia, have been downloaded and used thousands of times by the over one million users of this trusted source of digital content. In fact,the National Education Association honored Hina, the title character in the film, with the Elison S. Onizuka Human and Civil Rights Award for “significantly impacting the achievement of equal opportunity for Asians and Pacific Islanders.” The only “agendas” of this educational work is to empower girls and all young people to achieve their maximum potential and to extend cultural understanding, a pillar of our democracy and essential to CPB’s mission.

    Baby Mama High did have an agenda, but not a political one: it was part of the CPB’sAmerican Graduate initiative, tasked with using media to create dialogue around increasing U.S. high school graduation rates. The short documentary uses the story of one teenage mother, Yessenia, to illuminate rarely-discussed, but common, obstacles that parenting students must overcome to finish school. Says Representative Harris: “I haven’t seen it. I should probably see it. But then I’m not sure I want to watch something that says that someone shouldn’t get married, that it’s actually better to stay a single mother with two children instead of getting married.” Had Harris seen the film, he would have understood that its heroine was struggling with an older boyfriend’s pressure to drop out, coming to a head in an attempt at an ambush wedding on one of Yessenia’s crucial last days of school. Verite-style profile documentaries like this one can build empathy and fill in the story behind statistics—but only when they’re actually watched.

    Rep. Harris’ speech is a tired ploy straight from the late 1980s and early 1990s “culture wars,” when groundbreaking PBS documentaries like Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, which also featured subjects who embodied ethnic and sexual diversity, were singled out for discrimination by culturally conservative Senators seeking to impose their values on public programming as justification for defunding of the CPB and PBS. Then, as now, the criticisms were lodged publicly by representatives who had not actually viewed the programs in question nor had they experienced or researched the response in communities across America that appreciated the films. These films strengthen our democracy and help to bridge cultural and political divides. Had they taken the time to view they would have discovered high quality programming that fulfills the mission of public media “to provide programs and services that inform, educate, enlighten, and enrich the public and help inform civil discourse essential to American society.”

    Besides bolstering civil society, studies show that PBS’ independent documentary programming features greater racial, gender and regional diversity among subjects and creators than any of the commercial channels. That’s because it is part of public media’s mission; rather than answering to shareholders or a bottom line.

    We believe the right side to be on is that which supports democracy, diversity and free expression in public media.

    Please join us in helping to keep public media alive and fulfilling its vital mission of educating, engaging and fostering dialogue across diverse communities.


    Yoruba Richen, director of The New Black

    Heather Ross, director of Baby Mama High

    Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, directors of Kumu Hina

    The Indie Caucus Steering Committee:

    Claire Aguilar (IDA), Katy Chevigny, Giovanna Chesler, S. Leo Chiang, Heather Courtney, Angelica Das, Johanna Hamilton, Tim Horsburgh, Byron Hurt, Ciara Lacy, Brad Lichtenstein, Paco de Onís, Dawn Porter, Gordon Quinn, Julia Reichert, Yoruba Richen, Pamela Yates.

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  • "Growing Up Trans" - PBS Frontline

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  • Sexual and Gender Diversity in Native America and the Pacific Islands - National Park Service

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    October 22, 2016:

    (or How to Get on Netflix by Really Really Trying)

    By: Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson

    Making a documentary is a lot of work. But once the final frame is finished, how do you make sure that your film is seen and has the impact you're hoping for? What we found for our PIC-supported documentary KUMU HINA is that outreach, distribution and engagement are just as demanding, and as important, as the filmmaking itself.

    The process began five years ago, when we were incredibly fortunate to meet Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a kanaka maoli teacher, cultural icon and community leader who also happens to be māhū, or transgender. We thought her life and work would be a good topic for a public television film, and were delighted when she agreed to participate, allowing us to film every aspect of her life from teaching at a charter school to meetings of the O'ahu Island Burial Council to intimate moments at home with her new husband. Our mutual goal was to have Hina tell her story in her own words, creating a personal narrative that would organically inform and engage viewers about Hawaii's tradition of embracing gender diversity.

    The first step in our outreach – letting people know about the film – was to identify the potential audiences. We expected KUMU HINA to have special appeal to Pacific Islanders, many of whom are struggling to maintain their identity and cultural connections amidst the pressures of living in a heavily westernized society, and to the LGBT community including māhū, transgender individuals, and anyone who falls outside the rigid confines of mainstream concepts of gender and sexuality. We also hoped that the film would offer opportunities to educate and engage a broad national audience by showing a side of Hawai'i rarely depicted in mainstream media.

    Social media provides one of the most powerful tools for outreach because of its built-in ability to target networks of like-minded individuals. We started our efforts by establishing a Facebook page early on during the filming process, reaching out both to Hina's large network of friends in Hawai‘i and Pacific Islander communities, and to our own established LGBT networks from previous projects. By posting several times a week, both about the film and related news topics - ranging from the protests on Mauna Kea to Caitlin Jenner's transition - we gradually built up a following that has now, with the addition of Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram pages, reached some 20,000 supporters.

    Blogs are another popular outreach medium, especially for topics that require longer explanations than a typical Facebook post or tweet. We focused our efforts on the Huffington Post, which has the advantage of including pages devoted both to Hawai‘i and to Queer Voices, again posting both about the film and related topics.

    Our plans for distribution – getting the film out into the world – began with festivals, a time honored way both of introducing the project to the public and obtaining the notice and press that is key to success across platforms. Sticking with our strategy of starting at home, we decided to premiere the film at the Hawai'i International Film Festival, and were very fortunate to be picked as the closing night film for the Spring Showcase. With the support of PIC, and a wonderful performance before the film by Hina and musical contributor Kealiʻi Reichel, this turned into an amazing event, selling out the historic Hawai'i Theatre with a diverse and enthusiastic audience.

    Over the next year, KUMU HINA played at over 100 film festivals around the country and world. While the absolute numbers of viewers at such screenings is limited, they play a key roll in generating buzz and enthusiasm. Among the many highlights were Frameline – the large LGBT festival in San Francisco, where KUMU HINA won the documentary jury prize – and FIFO Tahiti – the only Pacific Island documentary festival, where the film came away with both jury and audience awards.

    The major distribution channel for KUMU HINA was, of course, public television, which has a long tradition of introducing viewers to new and sometimes controversial topics and ideas. We were very fortunate to have the film selected for Independent Lens, PBS's prestigious documentary strand which, by virtue of its reputation and Monday night prime-time slot on the national feed, attracts close to a million viewers every week. Despite initial hesitation from PBS executives, who thought the topic might be “too obscure,” KUMU HINA did exceptionally well, winning the audience award as the most popular film among voting viewers for the 2014-2015 season. This turns out to be the third PIC- supported film that has won the Independent Lens Audience award (the others are Nā Kamalei: Men of Hula and Heart of the Sea), speaking directly to the large demand of Pacific Islanders to see their stories on television.

    While the PBS broadcast certainly reached the most viewers at any one time, other forms of physical and digital distribution are needed to make the film available on an ongoing basis; e.g., DVD, download, streaming and video-on-demand. Because there are now so many different platforms available, each with its own particular delivery and contractual requirements, we decided early on that it would be difficult to do it all ourselves, and began searching for an established commercial distributer to collaborate with. This led us to Passion River, a medium size distributor with an emphasis on social issue films, many on Netflix. Another advantage was their willingness to contract on a non-exclusive basis for educational distribution, an important consideration.

    By the day after broadcast, the film was available to buy for home use on Amazon, rent or download on iTunes, or obtain for education use on Alexander Street Press, Kanopy, or our own website. It was also added to the inflight entertainment system on Hawaiian Airline, a wonderful way for visitors to learn about this little known aspect of Hawaiian culture.

    Netflix was more difficult. The film was rejected at first, and again even after it won the Independent Lens Audience Award. Only when KUMU HINA was honored as best documentary of the year by GLAAD, the country's preeminent LGBT media organization, did Netflix finally make an offer – which was accepted with alacrity.

    Engagement – connecting the film to action for change – is perhaps the most complicated yet important stage in the life of a documentary. Our aim was educational: to make the teaching of Kumu Hina available beyond her small Honolulu charter school to students, educators and families across Hawai‘i, the nation and the world. One obstacle that quickly became apparent was that although the feature documentary was well suited for college students in a variety of subject areas, it was too long, and in some senses too complex, for the most important target audience: elementary, middle and high-school students. This motivated us to cut a shorter version of the film, A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE, that focused on Hina's work with an eleven year old girl who aspired to join the school's all-male hula group. By telling the story from her point of view, and the use of colorful animation, we produced a 24 minute piece that kids enjoy watching.

    A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and went on to screen at Toronto International, Tokyo Kineko, and children's festivals around the world, but the real work was making the film useful and available to teachers. We began by collaborating with several educators and experts in Hawaiian and gender studies to produce a discussion guide that includes background information about Hawai'i and māhū, discussion questions, lesson ideas, and guided activities. We linked the material to the Common Core Educational Standards – a key element for educators in today's world of standardized testing - and to the new Nā Hopena Aʻo native learning outcomes developed by the Hawai'i Department of Education. This was bundled with several additional resources, including a DVD and a Pledge of Aloha, and made available to educators at no cost through the support of PIC and the Ford Foundation.

    We began the educational campaign at home by introducing the curriculum to local educators and families through a series of screenings and talk story sessions at public libraries, many of which are located in public schools, and a screening on PBS Hawaiʻi combined with a PBS Insights discussion on “How Can Our Community Better Understand Gender Diversity?” Despite the trepidation of some DOE bureaucrats, we were subsequently able to distribute the resources to every school in Hawaiʻi, where they have been well received by teachers and students and are now being used in K-12 classrooms statewide.

    At the national level, we soon discovered that there was a real demand for resources about the hot-button issue of gender diversity, especially from a cultural and historical point of view. Online portals hosted by educational organizations have proven to be a convenient and efficient mode of dissemination. One of the most successful collaborations has been with PBS LearningMedia, a trusted source for educational media with over 1.8 million registered users; A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE is now the most frequently used resource on the transgender topic in their large collection. Similar collaborations were established with Teaching Tolerance, Welcoming Schools, Our Family Coalition, Not In Our Schools, and the Native Hawaiian Education Council, each with its own constituency and networks.

    Perhaps the most important lesson we've learned through the KUMU HINA project is that there is no “one size fits all” solution that works for all films or all audiences. It's important to be flexible, and to be willing to work a little extra (e.g. cutting a new version of the film) to have the most effective outreach, distribution and engagement. We think it's well worth the added effort to bring beautiful and meaningful Pacific Islander stories to the public.

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  • "A Place in the Middle" on The Laura Flanders Show

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  • Free Gender Diversity Resources for Educators

    As the new school year begins, communities across the country are searching for ways to help ensure that all students, including transgender students, can attend school in an environment free from discrimination.

    To help educators seeking to deepen their own understanding and get students thinking and talking about how to create a welcoming and inclusive school climate, a powerful resource modeled on Hawaiian culture's tradition of gender diversity is being made available for free to all interested in putting them to use in the classroom.

    A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE is the true story of a young girl who dreams of leading the boys-only hula group at her Honolulu school, and a transgender teacher who empowers her and other students through sharing the importance of treating all people with dignity, honor, and respect.

    This inspiring youth-focused PBS Learning Media film includes a Classroom Discussion Guide with background information on Hawaii, conversation triggers, lesson plans, and links to Common Core Educational Standards.

    A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE has been reviewed by cultural and education experts and recommended for use in elementary, middle, and high school, with special relevance for grades 4-12. It has also been incorporated into the Perspective for a Diverse America anti-bias framework and Expanding Gender: Youth Out Front curriculum.

    The film, teaching guide, and resources are all available for free, and a team of professionals is also available to help with workshops for teachers, administrators, and students interested in additional training.

    For more information contact:

    Joe Wilson

    A Place in the Middle

    Community Education Coordinator

    e: QwavesJoe@yahoo.com

    t: 808-629-9864

    All project resources can be viewed & downloaded at these links:

    Complete Short Film

    Classroom Discussion Guide

    What People are Saying about A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE

    "An amazing tool to help educators understand the need for acceptance for each and every child regardless of gender expression."

    - Tracy Flynn, Welcoming Schools

    "One of the most positive films about the transgender experience I've ever seen."

    - Jennifer Finney Boylan, Professor, Barnard College of Columbia University

    "This educational project is part of the continuing revival and growth of awareness of kanaka maoli traditions that are so relevant in Hawaii today."

    - Puakea Nogelmeier, Hawai'inuaiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, Univ. of Hawaii

    "A valuable teaching tool for students of all ages, as well as for parents and educators."

    - Carol Crouch, Ele'ele Elementary School, Kauai

    "An inspiring coming-of-age story on the power of culture to shape identity, personal agency, and community cohesion, from a young person's point-of-view."

    - Cara Mertes, Ford Foundation

    "A powerful film that breathes with life ... a true 'Whale Rider' story."

    - The Huffington Post

    This PBS Hawaii conversation may also be helpful:

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  • Kumu Hina Receives the NEA's Ellison S. Onizuka Award for Human & Civil Rights

    National Education Association

    Press Release – June 28, 2016

    Educators to honor Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu for commitment to Hawaiian Culture

    Annual gala marks 50th anniversary of the NEA-American Teachers Association merger

    WASHINGTON — The National Education Association has recognized and honored those who have fought — and continue to fight — for human and civil rights at a moving and inspiring awards gala since 1967. This year, NEA will thank and honor the outstanding work of Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu and 12 of America’s social justice heroes at its annual Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner on July 3 in Washington.

    NEA will also recognize the 50th anniversary of its merger with the American Teachers Association. ATA, which represented Black teachers in segregated schools, originally created the Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner. As part of the merger, NEA agreed to carry on this important tradition.

    “Like the brave visionaries who forever intertwined the NEA and ATA in social justice advocacy 50 years ago, we honor these 13 American human and civil rights heroes because they are doing what we know is right, just and courageous,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “They are confronting the most controversial and pressing issues facing our country. They are standing up for those who have been knocked down. They are offering a beacon of light to those left behind. They are making sure the voices of those drowned out by institutional racism, inequality and disenfranchisement are heard. They motivate us, they inspire us through their deeds and actions, and they embody what is just and right about our world.”

    A native Hawaiian, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, also known as Hina, is a dedicated kumu (teacher) and this year’s recipient of the NEA Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award for her work in educating others about Native Hawaiian culture.

    Stemming back to her first years in college, where Hina began her transition from male to female, Hina knew that although her family and respective community embraced her transition, there were many young adults still afraid of being shunned as a result of the westernized Christian view of marriage. Finding pride, dignity and refuge in her Hawaiian culture, Hina wanted nothing more than to share her culture with others. With her background in education, she taught Hawaiian language, hula (dances), oli (chants), and history. Hina has also provided guidance on appropriate curriculum and protocols that preserve the Native Hawaiian culture.

    Among Hina’s greatest accomplishments is the development of a multi-award winning PBS production called “A Place in the Middle.” Through this 25-minute kid-friendly film, viewers are left with a powerful message that focuses on acceptance, love, and anti-bullying. The film has gone on to be the most widely used resource on Hawaiian culture at PBS Learning Media. Whether it’s teaching hula or sharing her journey through a multi-award winning film, Hina has made it her mission to always place her native Hawaiian culture at the forefront of all her endeavors.

    To view full bio, click here. For a full list and bios of this year’s winners please visit here.


    The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, and students preparing to become teachers.

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  • "UOTeachOUT To Screen Documentary on Transgender Teacher" - Eugene Weekly


    by Claire Rischiotto - May 5, 2016

    A multitude of misinformed ideas about gender and bathrooms has permeated the national discussion as of late, but here in Eugene, the University of Oregon is addressing homophobia and transphobia in public education through UOTeachOUT, its annual series of events on sexual orientation and gender identity.

    Each year, UO education professor Julia Heffernan and her colleagues invite a guest speaker to provide insight on LGBT-related topics for future educators and the general public. This year, UOTeachOUT has invited Hina Wong-Kalu, a transgender woman and educator in Hawaii, who is featured in the documentaryA Place in the Middle.

    According to a recent climate survey in Eugene School District 4J, 7 to 9 percent of secondary students in the district identify as LGBTQ, and 54 percent of secondary students in 4J suffer harassment on a monthly basis due to sexual orientation.

    Heffernan, Tina Gutierez-Schmich, equity director of Bethel School District, and UO seniors in Heffernan’s class about homophobia all helped organize UOTeachOUT.

    On May 12, UOTeachOUT hosts a screening of A Place in the Middle, followed by a discussion with Wong-Kalu. The film’s directors will also be present.

    “This is such an important topic, and Hina’s story offers us a window into what it can look like to have safe, welcoming and inclusive schools for diversity to thrive,” Heffernan says.

    A Place in the Middle shares Wong-Kalu’s transition story and how she supported a female student, who identifies as male and female, to lead an end-of-the-year dance performed by male classmates.

    When Wong-Kalu was 18, she began transitioning, which she describes as a “slow and painstaking transition process.” She was concerned with looking like a woman and being beautiful like her mother, she says.

    She explains that she didn’t want to look like a boy in girl’s clothing. “I wanted to be my family’s daughter,” she tells EW.

    When asked about what educators and future educators can do to be allies for transgender students, Wong-Kalu says, “Stop identifying with penis and vagina and thinking about what’s between people’s legs.”

    Wong-Kalu says she believes that getting to know someone should be the focus. She adds, “What’s the great difference on the inside between a transgender person and a non-transgender identifying person? Do we not all have feelings? Do we not all have goals, some kind of aspiration, some kind of want, some kind of need? Do we not all have likes and dislikes?”

    At the UOTeachOUT, Wong-Kalu says, “I hope to share that there is a particular feel and flare to the transgender experience and [in] the Polynesian and Asian context, and that I am but one example of that.” — Claire Rischiotto

    UOTeachOUT kicks off with a BBQueer fundraiser starting 3 pm Saturday, May 7, at Claim 52 Brewing, 1030 Tyinn Street. The screening of A Place in the Middle begins 6 pm Thursday, May 12, at Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, Room 180, on the UO campus. Admission is free. Find more event information at uoteachout.com.

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  • Reframe Gender Through Film - A Gender Spectrum Conversation with Joe Wilson & Dean Hamer

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  • "A Place in the Middle" Included in New Resource: "Expanding Gender: Youth Out Front"

    Download FREE Curriculum & Action Guides HERE.

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  • Making Democracy Work -- A League of Women Voters interview with Kumu Hina

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  • UOTeachOUT: Leadership Summit & Educational Series on Gender Identity & Sexual Orientation Issues in Education to Feature A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE

    The University of Oregon's UOTeachOUT is comprised of a series of community and university educational events focused on gender identity and sexual orientation issues in education.

    These educational events and activities take place each May for UOTeachOUT and include:

    1.) A community wide celebration and BBQ fundraiser to support LGBTQ youth leadership opportunities.

    2.) A GSA Youth Leadership Summit for five regional school districts

    3.) A professional development event for educators, youth advocacy workers and families

    4.) A public art display related to the topic.

    5.) An open-house and author talk for university students and the community at large.

    6.) A Teacher Education Leadership Summit on topics related to gender identity and sexual orientation issues in education.

    Save the Date: Thursday, May 12, 2016

    UOTeachOUT 2016 Youth Leadership Summit

    Featuring: Documentary filmmakers Joe Wilson & Dean Hamer and teacher and keynote speaker Kumu Hina.

    And screening two amazing new documentary films: A Place in the Middle and Kumu Hina

    Additional guests and specific events will be announced in January.

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  • "How Can Our Community Better Understand Gender Diversity?" -- Insights on PBS Hawaii - Nov.12, 2015

    Following broadcast of "A Place in the Middle," Insights on PBS Hawaii hosted a one-hour on-air conversation to help promote understanding, acceptance and inclusion of all people, across the gender spectrum, in our communities.

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  • Penn Museum Film Series Explores Gender Boundaries with Hawaiian Stories

    by Ray Simon - PGN - October 8, 2015:

    “Gender Across Cultures” is the focus of the Penn Museum’s Second Sunday Culture Film Series, which begins Oct. 11. Two documentaries about Hawaii will be shown: “A Place in the Middle” and “Heart of the Sea.” The screening takes place at 2 p.m. in the Rainey Auditorium of the Penn Museum, located at 3260 South St. Museum admission applies ($15), giving attendees access to the museum’s exhibits.

    The film series is cosponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum and the William Way LGBT Community Center, among others. The theme, “Gender Across Cultures,” compliments the PHF’s yearlong exploration of the topic “Sex.”

    There will be six screenings between now and March. All of the films are relatively recent documentaries that examine how gender is shaped and understood in various cultures. At each screening, a knowledgeable speaker will provide context and answer questions from the audience.

    For Kate Pourshariati, curator of the series, these screenings are an excellent opportunity to see films that are not widely distributed.

    “I usually try to find films that are really pungent and interesting but that haven’t been seen much yet or are not easy to stream online,” she said.

    “Heart of the Sea” is a 2002 documentary about Rell Sunn, an accomplished female surfer who succumbed to breast cancer in 1998. Sunn, Hawaii’s number-one female amateur surfer for five years, was also a passionate advocate of traditional Hawaiian culture and an environmental activist.

    As a woman equally comfortable dancing the hula and spear-fishing, Sunn confounded stereotypes.

    “This person is really stepping outside of what was the normal, expected thing coming up, even in the 1960s, to not just be the girl on the beach watching the guys surfing,” Pourshariati said. “She stepped right into it, and she was a very strong, powerful person.”

    That afternoon’s other film, “A Place in the Middle,” will be of particular interest to PGN readers. The 2014 documentary by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson follows 11-year-old Ho’onani, a young girl whose goal is to lead the all-boys hula performance at the end of the school year.

    Ho’onani is encouraged by her teacher, Kumu Hina, a transgender woman. Kumu Hina’s life’s work has been to reintroduce native Hawaiians to their traditional culture, which includes the concept of being “in the middle.” People “in the middle” possess both masculine and feminine traits and were traditionally accorded respect.

    In one scene, Kumu Hina explains to the teenage boys why a girl, or wahine, is being included in a performance representing masculine spirit, or ku.

    “You have a biological wahine standing over here in front of you because she has more ku than everybody else around here, even though she lacks the main essential parts of ku,” Kumu Hina says. “But in her mind and in her heart, she has ku.”

    The concept of being “in the middle” is just one manifestation of a worldwide phenomenon, according to William Wierzbowski, who works as a keeper in the Penn Museum’s American Section. Wierzbowski is an expert on Two-Spirit culture among Native North Americans and will be on hand that day.

    When Europeans first encountered Native Americans, Wierzbowski explained, they were surprised to meet people we would now call gay. These people lived openly within their tribe and were accorded great respect. French trappers and explorers called them berdache, which was slightly pejorative. That perception gradually shifted as Native Americans began to reclaim their heritage.

    “It was Native-American activists who happened to be gay that coined this term Two Spirit, which basically means that the individual embodies within — and I’m going to speak specifically about males here — that embodies within himself both the male and the female. So it’s actually quite a beautiful, almost poetic term,” Wierzbowski said.

    Being Two Spirit or “in the middle,” he added, is not limited to any specific sexual behavior. Instead, it encompasses a wide range of attitudes, practices and roles. Within traditional cultures, for example, people like Kumu Hina and Ho’onani could be said to bridge the male and female aspects of the universe, actually helping to bind it together.

    Those are big ideas, but it should be noted that the two documentaries being screened are neither pretentious nor didactic. On the contrary, they are colorful, eye-opening and fun to watch.

    Pourshariati hopes that the film series will prompt attendees to be more receptive and respectful of other people and to consider new ideas. But she also wants them to enjoy themselves. Movies are an ideal medium to accomplish both goals.

    After a screening, Pourshariati said, “Everyone has something in common: You’ve already seen the film together, so now you can talk about it. I find that really invigorating.”

    For more information about the Penn Museum’s Second Sunday Culture Film Series, visit www.penn.museum/culturefilms.

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  • Hawaii State Public Library System Sponsors Kumu Hina's Bullying Prevention Campaign

    Hawaiian Anti-Bullying Film to Screen at Libraries Statewide

    An educational toolkit for safe and inclusive schools.

    HONOLULU, HI, Sept. 14, 2015 - The Hawaii State Public Library System will present "A Place in the Middle" - a short Hawaiian film at the heart of a new bullying prevention campaign centered on cultural empowerment and gender inclusion - in a series of screenings at eight selected public libraries statewide from Friday, Sept. 18 through Wednesday, Oct. 28. (See list below for screening locations, dates, and times.)

    Created by Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, and directed by Emmy-winners Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, "A Place in the Middle" tells the true story of a young girl who dreams of leading the boys' hula troupe at her Honolulu school, and an inspiring teacher who uses traditional Hawaiian culture to empower her. After each screening, the team will talk story with the audience about the film and educational campaign - supported by Pacific Islanders in Communications, Hawaii People's Fund, Ford Foundation, and PBS Learning Media.

    "We encourage our patrons to learn more about Hawaii's rich cultural heritage through our libraries' resources and programs," said State Librarian Stacy Aldrich. "As community hubs, libraries serve as the perfect venues to host discussions that enable our patrons to connect, learn and celebrate Hawaii's indigenous and diverse cultures."

    This one-hour program is suitable for students, parents, and educators interested in Hawaiian culture and community-based efforts to make schools safe and inclusive for all. Free DVDs and teaching guides will be available for participants committed to using them in their work.

    "A Place in the Middle" Film & Talk Story Events

    Sept. 18 (Friday) - 6:00pm: Thelma Parker Memorial Public & School Library (Kamuela, Hawaii Island)

    Sept. 29 (Tuesday) - 6:00pm: Kahuku Public & School Library (Oahu)

    Oct. 3 (Saturday) - 3:00pm: Kihei Public Library (Maui)

    Oct. 7 (Wednesday) - 6:30pm: Waianae Public Library (Oahu)

    Oct. 14 (Wednesday) - 6:30pm: Waimanalo Public & School Library (Oahu)

    Oct. 15 (Thursday) - 6:00pm: Hawaii State Library (Honolulu)

    Oct. 22 (Thursday) - 6:00pm: Hanapepe Public Library (Kauai)

    Oct. 28 (Wednesday) - 5:00pm: Molokai Public Library (Kaunakakai)

    For more information, contact Library Development Services Manager, Susan Nakata, at (808) 831-6878.

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  • "Countering Bullying, with Aloha" - The Huffington Post

    It's back-to-school time in Hawaiʻi. Over 200,000 students will enter grades K-12 this year, full of curiosity and ideas. Unfortunately, many of them will have their studies disrupted and hopes crushed by bullying.

    Despite our reputation as the "Aloha State," surveys show that one-fifth to over one-half of students in both public and private schools have been bullied or harassed. And even though more than 90 percent of voters say that "bullying is important for the state of Hawai'i to address," attempts to pass a statewide Safe Schools Act have failed repeatedly in the legislature. Some parents, such as a father whose two young children were bullied for years without intervention in East Hawaiʻi schools, have even resorted to suing the Department of Education.

    We're fortunate that several local groups have stepped in to develop their own anti-bullying programs; the E Ola Pono, Adult Friends for Youth Anti-Bullying and Violence Convention, and Mental Health America of Hawaii Pono Youth Program are outstanding examples. Even local comedian Augie T is helping out through B.R.A.V.E. Hawaiʻi, a program started by his daughter after she herself fell victim to bullying.

    But bullying doesn't occur in a vacuum; it's the product of underlying stigma and prejudice. That's why it's time to move beyond telling children that it's bad to be mean, and start showing them why it's good to be inclusive and accepting - not just for the targets of bullying, but for everyone in the school and community.

    We had the opportunity to witness first-hand the effectiveness of this approach during our two years of filming Kumu Hina, a nationally broadcast PBS feature documentary about a Native Hawaiian teacher who empowers her students at a small public charter school in downtown Honolulu by showing them the true meaning of aloha: love, honor and respect for all. It's a powerful lesson for children and adults alike.

    In order to make Kumu Hina's teaching available to students and teachers in K-12 schools across the islands, we've produced a youth-friendly, short version of the film called A Place in the Middle that focuses on the story of one of her students, a sixth grade girl who dreams of joining the boys-only hula troupe. This might make her a target for ridicule and bullying in many schools, but the outcome of this story is very different. It's a powerful example of why students who are perceived to be different, in one way or another, deserve to be celebrated precisely because of those differences, not simply tolerated despite them.

    Overcoming bullying in Hawai'i requires a systemic, long-term, multifaceted approach. The true story of a local girl who just wants to be herself - and in so doing helps her fellow students and entire school - is a good place to start.

    A Place in the Middle is available at no cost for streaming and download from PBS Learning Media and on Vimeo, and the accompanying Hawai'i Teacher's Guide can be downloaded from the Hawai'i Educators Website. The program will be touring Public Libraries across the islands beginning this fall.

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  • Educational Video "A Place In The Middle" Distributed with Subtitles in China

    In a new partnership between the Kumu Hina Project and Queer Comrades, the educational video "A Place In The Middle" is now available online to viewers in China, with Chinese subtitles!Queer Comrades is a project operating under the Beijing Gender Health Education Institute and receives support from the Ford Foundation and the Worldwide Fund Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

    The mission of Queer Comrades is to document queer culture in all its aspects in order to raise public awareness on LGBT matters. As queer issues are at the forefront of social debate in China’s present-day society, we believe that the need for information about LGBT and sexual health issues will continue to grow during the coming years.

    We aim to inform both the LGBT and the non-LGBT members of Chinese society in a relaxed and unrestrained way on the various aspects of queer culture, by sending out empowering images of queer life .

    Our main medium is a 3-monthly online show which discusses the dynamic characteristics of China’s burgeoning queer culture and the newest developments in the global gay movement. Another important medium consists of online video news items which cover important Chinese and foreign queer information and events.

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  • A Place In The Middle: An Educational Toolkit for Cultural Empowerment & Gender Diversity

    A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE tells the true story of an eleven year-old Hawaiian girl who dreams of leading her school's all-male hula troupe. The only trouble is that the group is just for boys. She's fortunate to have a teacher who understands what it means to be "in the middle" - the Hawaiian tradition of embracing both male and female spirit. Together they set out to prove that what matters most is what's in your heart and mind.

    This youth-focused educational film is a great way to get K-12 students thinking and talking about the values of diversity and inclusion, the power of knowing your heritage, and how to create a school climate of aloha, from their own point of view!

    The film is accompanied by a Classroom Discussion Guide that includes background information about Hawaiian culture and history, discussion questions, and lesson plans aligned with the Common Core State Educational Standards and additional educational benchmarks.

    The complete film, Discussion Guide, and other resources, including a displayable "Pledge of Aloha," are available for free at APlaceintheMiddle.org. They are also available on the trusted educator's website PBS LearningMedia, and in hard copy upon request.

    From the Berlin and Toronto International Film Festivals to classrooms across the United States, A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE is proving to be a powerful tool to talk about the intersections between gender, identity and culture, and the positive outcomes that occur when schools welcome students with love, honor and respect.

    View the short film trailer HERE.

    What people are saying about A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE

    "An inspiring coming-of-age story on the power of culture to shape identity, personal agency, and community cohesion, from a young person's point of view.

    -Cara Mertes, Ford Foundation

    "A valuable teaching tool for students in elementary, middle and high schools, as well as for parents and teachers."

    -Carol Crouch, Eleʻele Elementary School, Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi

    "An amazing tool to help educators understand the need for acceptance for each and every child regardless of gender expression."

    -Tracy Flynn, Welcoming Schools

    "One of the most positive films about the trans experience I've ever seen."

    -Jennifer Finney Boylan, author and writer-in-residence at Barnard College

    "Uniquely accessible for youth."

    -Gender Spectrum

    "A true-life 'Whale Rider' story."

    -The Huffington Post

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  • "Making 'A Place in the Middle' in Every Classroom" - Teaching Tolerance

    By Dean Hamer, Co-Producer/Director of "Kumu Hina" --

    Many U.S. schools serve groups of kids who are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, age, religious or non-religious belief, national origin, family situation, ability, sexual orientation and gender identity. This diversity is especially vibrant here in Hawai'i, where many people describe their ethnic background as “chop suey,” Christians are in a minority and gender-nonconforming individuals are not only accepted but are respected and admired for their important role in perpetuating cultural knowledge and traditions.

    For two years, we were given the opportunity to film a remarkable māhū (transgender) native Hawaiian teacher, Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, as she created a “place in the middle” where every student at her small Honolulu charter school felt welcome, included and ready to learn to the best of their ability. Hina's story is portrayed in our PBS feature documentary Kumu Hina, which is being nationally broadcast on Independent Lens as of May 4, 2015.

    But we also wanted to bring Hina's teaching to K-12 schools, which led us to produce a youth-friendly, short version of the film called A Place in the Middle that has been excerpted for the Perspectives for a Diverse America anthology. Here are some ways these video clips can be used to help students appreciate the value of inclusion, the strengths they inherit from their cultural heritage and their own power to create a school climate of honor and respect.

    Celebrate Difference. In the scene “Welcome to Hawai'i,” Kumu Hina is preparing the students for a hula performance by handing out lei necklaces, yellow for boys and white for girls. But 11-year-old Ho'onani decides that she wants to wear both colors—a decision that her classmates meet with envy rather than scorn. In a later scene, “Kāne-Wahine and Wahine-Kāne” (Boy-Girls and Girl-Boys), Hina explains that she has created this “place in the middle” so that gender-creative students have a specific space they can call their own.

    These clips are a reminder to teachers that students who are perceived to be different, in one way or another, deserve to be celebrated precisely because of those differences, not simply tolerated despite them. And it's a jumping off place for students to think and talk about how every person's identity is comprised of multiple interacting facets. A good discussion prompt is to note that Ho'onani is in the middle between male and female, then ask how many other ways people can be “in the middle”; for example, being more than one race or bilingual, being part of two households after a divorce and so on.

    Use the Power of Heritage. In “Hawai'i Poniʻī,” the principal of the school urges her students to take seriously their lessons on Hawaiian culture because, “We didn't get to sing ‘Hawai'i Poniʻī’ (the Hawaiian national anthem) in our schools. We had to pledge allegiance to the flag that took over Hawai'i.” Her approach works: By the end of the film, even the students who began the year with little enthusiasm have become full participants in the school's activities.

    You can use this clip to inspire students to inquire into their own heritage, starting with well-known aspects, such as food, holidays, etc., and progressing to a deeper conversation that incorporates social, cultural, political and historical contexts. Ask students to bring in food dishes typical of their heritage, and after the Smorgasbord is consumed, ask what ideas, values or practices their home cultures could contribute to their classroom or school.

    Another clip, “Hawaiians Live in Aloha,” uses Polynesian-style animated figures to tell the history of how early Hawaiians respected and admired people with both male and female spirits, giving them the special name of māhū. Asking students to interpret images from this animated portrayal of Hawaiian history prior to and after viewing the film is a good ice-breaker for what some consider a sensitive topic. You can follow up by asking them to draw their own interpretation of what it means to be “in the middle.”

    Teach With Aloha. Many people think of “aloha” as just a cute way to say hello or goodbye, but as Kumu Hina explains in a clip about her transition, the deeper meaning is to have love, honor and respect for everyone. Ask students how the characters in the film demonstrate aloha, and then how they do (or could) demonstrate it themselves. Most important, how do you rate your own classroom and school on living up to this standard?

    You can help spread the concept of aloha by hanging a Pledge of Aloha poster in your classroom or by handing out Pledge of Aloha postcards that can be signed and returned to Kumu Hina in Hawai'i. The module can be considered a success if students use this opportunity to share what they've learned about Hawai'i and its uniquely inclusive approach to gender and many other types of diversity.

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  • "Kumu Hina and A Place in the Middle: New Inspiring Films Explore Gender in Hawaiian Culture" - Welcoming Schools

    By Beth Sherouse, Ph.D., May 01, 2015 - Welcoming Schools:

    Numerous indigenous cultures across the globe have traditions of recognizing a third gender, people who don’t fit within traditional gender binaries or whom we might now call transgender.

    While European colonialism sought to suppress or marginalize these identities, some of these traditions have survived and are seeing renewed interest and attention. In some indigenous North American cultures, for example, people identify as two-spirit. In Thai culture, people assigned male at birth but who live as women identify as kathoey.

    In native Hawaiian culture, people whose gender identity or expression is somewhere "in the middle" of the binary sometimes identify as māhū, which is the subject of the new documentary, Kumu Hina, premiering Monday, May 4 on the popular PBS series Independent Lens. The film follows the story of Hina, a teacher (or a Kumu in Hawaiian) who identifies as māhū, and her 11-year-old student, Ho’onani, who describes herself as “in the middle.”

    The filmmakers, Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer have also made a shorter version of the film called A Place In the Middle – which focuses on Ho’onani and her dream of leading the boys-only hula group at her school – available as a resource for educators to help facilitate discussions on gender. The film is available to stream or download for free from their website.

    Filmmaker Dean Hamer explains that "Kumu Hina recognizes that when the class lines up, boys on one side and girls on the other side, there needs to be a place, an actual physical space in the middle” for Ho'onani and other students who don't naturally belong on one side or the other."

    “In the end, Ho'onani becomes an incredible force and leads the boys into the final performance of the school year, and they come to not only respect her, but really embrace her,” says Hamer. “The strong girl wins at the end.”

    “Unlike most educational films, it’s not just about kids, it’s for kids,” says Hamer, and Ho’onani narrates much of her own story. Hamer and Wilson have prepared a guide to help teachers facilitate discussions based on the film about “how gender is interpreted by culture, and how instead of just accepting people who are ‘in the middle,’ this culture celebrates them.”

    HRC Foundation Welcoming Schools consultant Tracy Flynn has used A Place In the Middle to work with educators on what welcoming school environments can look like for LGBTQ and gender-expansive kids.

    “This film shows one culturally specific story with the universal message of acceptance,” Flynn explains. “It’s an amazing tool to help educators understand the need for acceptance for each and every child regardless of gender expression.”

    For more ideas on talking about gender in the classroom, check out the resources available from HRC’s Welcoming Schools. For ways to support transgender and gender-expansive children and youth, visit hrc.org/trans-youth.

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  • "PBS/Independent Lens Premiere of ‘Kumu Hina’ to Launch Educational Campaign" - Teaching Tolerance

    April 28, 2015:

    Mark your calendar for Monday, May 4 from 10 to 11 p.m. (EST)! PBS’ Independent Lens will be hosting the national broadcast premiere of Kumu Hina, a documentary by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson that addresses themes of gender diversity and fluidity, inclusion and cultural empowerment.

    Kumu Hina focuses on a transgender teacher in Hawaii named Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, also known as Kumu Hina. Viewers learn about māhū, a Hawaiian term that refers to people who embrace feminine and masculine spirits. Kumu Hina is one of these people; the film describes Hina’s transition from being a timid high school student into a profound teacher and cultural icon. Kumu Hina is also the director of an all-male hula troupe at an inner-city Honolulu school and supports Ho’onani Kamai—a sixth-grade student who occupies “a place in the middle” on the gender spectrum—in becoming the troupe’s student leader.

    May 4 also marks the launch of an educational campaign from the creators of Kumu Hina. Hamer and Wilson created a 30-minute educational version of Kumu Hina called A Place in the Middle, distributed for free on PBS LearningMedia. Ho’onani’s inspiring story takes center stage in A Place in the Middle. Viewers can commit to making their schools more inclusive and welcoming by taking a #PledgeofAloha—an expression of love, honor and respect for all. Additional educational resources can be found in the free discussion guide that accompanies A Place in the Middle. (Look for references to the Teaching Tolerance Anti-bias Framework!)

    We hope you tune in and watch Kumu Hina on May 4! In the meantime, you can access excerpts from A Place in the Middle in Perspectives for a Diverse America. To find these excerpts, search for the title in the Central Text Anthology.

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  • PBS Learning Media Unveils Kumu Hina Educational Resource: 'A Place In The Middle' A Place in the Middle

    Learn about the native Hawaiian approach to gender diversity, the power of cultural heritage, and the true meaning of aloha – love, honor and respect for all – in this short film about an eleven year-old girl who dreams of leading the all-male hula troupe at her school in Honolulu. She's fortunate that her teacher understands the traditional Hawaiian embrace of māhū - those who are “in the middle” between male and female. Together they set out to prove that what matters most is what's inside a person's heart and mind. For further background and materials to support student understanding of the issue see the Classroom Discussion Guide.

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  • CHILDRENʻS JURY AWARD 2015: Childrenʻs Film Festival Seattle

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  • "A Beautiful Look into Hawaiian Culture and Living Outside the Gender Binary" -- AfterEllen.com

    by Miranda Meyer - AfterEllen - January 30, 2015:

    A Place in the Middle is a documentary short about a young Hawai’ian person growing up “in the middle” of the gender binary; about the reclamation and celebration of Hawai’ian culture; the wounds of colonialism; the bonds between students and teachers; about acceptance. It is as much the story of Kumu Hina, a teacher and cultural activist, as it is of Ho’onani Kamai, her 11-year-old student, and much of the emotion that pours through the screen emerges from the profound differences in the experiences of these two “middle people” growing up.

    I want to say up front that it can be tempting to try to evaluate the concepts and statements made in the short on the basis of my own understanding of post-colonial life, or of how we usually talk about trans, genderqueer, genderfluid, or agender people in the mainland United States. But I am not Hawai’ian, and so I have chosen to discuss these concepts in the filmmakers’ terms, sometimes skipping terminology that feels more familiar or “appropriate” in the contexts I am used to. This may feel jarring at times (I struggled with wording a lot on this basis), and I hope I’ve managed to stick to their terms without hurting anyone here—if I messed up, I hope we can talk about it. Also, though Ho’onani’s gender identity is certainly not cis-female nor specifically transfeminine, she is consistently referred to by those around her using female pronouns and does not seem to object, so I will do the same here.

    The film states its subject right at the start, informing us that “In the Hawaiian language, kāne means ‘male’ and wahine means ‘female.’ But ancient Hawaiians recognized that some people are not simply one or the other.” We then go immediately to Ho’onani, in a backwards cap, playing ukulele and narrating herself in a mixture of Hawai’ian and English words:

    Sometimes Kumu says I have more kāne inside than most of the kāne. And some kāne have more wahine than the wahine. Some people don’t accept it, they tease about it, but—I don’t care. At all. Because I’m myself; other people are theirselves.

    Already we know a lot about our protagonist! She is certainly aware and conscious of the ways her gender is unusual, and that others sometimes object to this. Her gender is a topic she has thought about.

    But what is maybe more remarkable in her, to my eyes, is how self-possessed and articulate she is. This 11-year-old kid has more confidence and security in herself, pouring out of her every word and gesture, than most adults or kids I know, and seeing that in her affect immediately makes the viewer feel safe. We are not going to watch terrible things happen to Ho’onani. It is obvious that she is loved by people who support her. This all happened within the first minute and already I felt like I was in a group hug.

    We move quickly to Ho’onani’s school in Honolulu, where it’s immediately obvious that the support you intuit from her brief speech is real. Kumu Hina, her teacher, is passing out leis, declaring that yellow leis are for the boys; all the boys should be in yellow leis. Kumu then checks in with Ho’onani: “You’re happy? You’re in a boy lei.” And indeed she is. She considers the question for a second, looking over a boy in his boy lei next to her, then perks up with all the force of a great idea: “I wanna just wear both!” The girl on her other side (in her white lei) looks up with an expression like Ho’onani has just won the lottery or cracked the code of life. SHE GETS TWO LEIS, GUYS!!!

    I can’t hear what she says next, but she turns to Ho’onani—presumably to express her congratulations—and Ho’onani makes all kinds of triumphant “nailed it” gestures. Without questioning it, Kumu brings her a white lei and puts it on her, saying to the room at large, “You get both, cause she’s both.”

    Honestly, I would love to describe the entire film in such detail because everything is just so great, but that would be unwieldy and spoilery. But this sequence very much sets the tone: Ho’onani’s gender, her bothness, is supported by her teacher and accepted by her peers. This incident is in no way a big deal to anyone in the room (except perhaps Kumu, but more on her later). Not only is she accommodated by her school in her self-expression, she is actively supported in a way I wish so much every kid could be. She didn’t have to speak up to ask for another lei; she was asked what would make her happy, and given the time to consider it.

    The narrative thread of A Place in the Middle is preparations for the end-of-year school hula performance. This story is interspersed with some beautiful animated sequences explaining briefly and clearly some aspects of traditional Hawai’ian culture and it’s suppression by US colonial authority, as well as Kumu’s perspective. (I wish there were gifs out there somewhere of these animations, as their fluid quality of motion is really arresting, but alas we will have to make do with screenshots.

    The animation introduces us to māhū, or people in the middle, who prior to the cultural destruction of colonization “embraced both the feminine and the masculine traits that are embodied within each and every one of us.” As will happen frequently in these animated sequences, there are small but significant choices in how to illustrate concepts that make an enormous difference. The māhū icon does not appear already demonstrating their status of “in the middle;” instead, they stand between a male and a female icon who respectively offer them a flower and a spear. That these symbols of gender expression are shared freely reinforces the message that māhū were supported by and integrated in their societies.

    We learn about the traditional role of the māhū, who were “valued and respected as caretakers, healers, and teachers of ancient traditions,” as well as the Europeans’ rejection of their existence. (The animation, again making important choices, illustrates this in definite terms of Christian missionaries without the narration having to say so.)

    This description of māhū’s place as transmitters of tradition is in some ways the real heart of the whole film, as it underlies Kumu Hina’s life mission and even young Ho’onani’s role in the school performance. Kumu, we learn, grew up in the middle but without the support her student has. She speaks about the gendered bullying she endured and how she found strength and solace in native Hawai’ian culture; how her life’s work is the responsibility of carrying on Hawai’ian identity and imparting it to the next generation. (The movie was her idea, which makes perfect sense.) She refers to her “transition” without going into any detail, though we see “the old me” perform a traditional song. The presentation of this fact of her life as significant but not lurid or needing explanation is deeply refreshing in a world where trans and genderqueer people are so often pushed to provide some kind of play-by-play of how their genders and bodies have changed and interacted over time.

    Kumu is not the only one who feels strongly about Hawai’ian heritage, however. We meet Ho’onani’s mother, who wants her to learn Hawai’ian language and culture because she herself never had the chance. We watch the school’s principal implore the students not to take the instruction they get at school for granted, because earlier generations never had it. Everyone cries. Ho’onani cries, Kumu cries, the principal cries. I cry too. The offending teenage boys gather around Kumu Hina and hug her en masse.

    Lest my slightly flippant description sound maudlin or in any way eyeroll-y, I promise you this is not how the scene goes down. This little film is absolutely bursting with sincerity. The wounds these older women feel are very real, and their students’ appreciation of that, when faced with it, is real too. Māhū, we were just told, were traditionally healers, and the entire enterprise of this school feels like a collective, cross-generational process of healing.

    In a more intimate version of that same dynamic, we watch Kumu Hina let Ho’onani be in the high school boys’ dance, not the girls, and cast her as the leader of the number. We see teacher advise student that others in the future may expect her to “stand in the girls’ line” and that she may have to just roll with it while she’s still young. But “When you get to be my age,” Kumu tells her, “You’re not gonna have to move for anybody else.”

    Concepts of gender and sex are treated throughout the film with a degree of easy fluidity I have rarely experienced. Even in spaces dedicated to discussion of cissexism and all its handmaidens, sometimes the laudable and important desire to unpack our assumptions and include everyone with our language leads to a granular hashing out of terms and categories that doesn’t afford the kind of comfort that is demonstrated and modeled here. (This is essential work that should by all means continue! It is just different from what is happening in the movie.) Please note that I don’t believe for a second that the adults involved have not thought long and hard about the subject. What I mean is that they are discussing it with their charges in such a way that it doesn’t feel, at least from this side of the screen, like it’s fraught or exhausting. Nor does it feel flippant or underserved. It feels like a world where gender is discussed calmly and kindly by authority figures and where there is room for everyone’s expression.

    In the first rehearsal we see, Kumu informs the guys, “You have a biological wahine standing here in front of you because she has more kū [male energy] than everybody else around here.” (Ho’onani is thrilled with this.) “Even though she lacks the main essential parts of kū. [Ho’onani laughs.] But in her mind, and in her heart, she has kū.” The idea that genitals are “the main essential parts” of any gender is one that is generally very unwelcome with me, but I am in no position to police Kumu Hina’s language and you could not pay me to try; I wrote down these words as one of several examples of how gender is addressed over the course of the film.

    Later, as the boys wait to go onstage, Kumu Hina will start to say that Ho’onani isn’t a boy, but—and the boys will say, “He is.” “He is.” “He is.” Those same dancers will still later declare that “she has more balls” than any of them. (TEENAGE BOYS SAID THIS ABOUT AN ELEVEN YEAR OLD GIRL WHO WAS PUT IN A LEADERSHIP POSITION OVER THEM, YOU GUYS! WHAT ALCHEMY IS THIS!!!) Her female classmates will say that she’s in the middle and that it’s not a big deal, including the information that she plays ukulele and sings—these are all just facts about her. Her mother accepts her gender expression but barely comments on it at all, focusing instead on love and family. These various statements do not necessarily match up with one another precisely in the way gender discussions I’m used to often try to pin down—note the pronoun changes at different moments—but that is never an issue. This is what I’m trying to get at with words like fluidity and comfort. Gender here is dynamic and individual, and given the room to be so.

    Moreover, it seems that while Kumu and Ho’onani are both in the middle, they are not in the middle in the same way; this is never really an issue. No one tries to sort them into subtypes or distinguish between their assigned-at-birth genders. There is an underlying feeling of space in terms of letting people be that permeates everything that happens here, but that space is never taken for granted. A Place in the Middle makes sure you can’t finish it without understanding that that place has had to be fought for and reclaimed, and that it cannot be found everywhere.

    In the end, the performance goes beautifully. Ho’onani, dressed differently from the guys but standing front and center, opens her mouth and chants in a voice of such strength and depth that it’s nothing short of inspiring, and the crowd screams in joyous welcome. Her mother tells her over and over that she is proud. I cry some more.

    At one point, Kumu Hina tells the group that she wants everyone to know that “if you are my student, you have a place to be.” “In the middle,” Ho’onani interjects. “In the middle! In the middle,” Kumu agrees. As Ho’onani’s mother said earlier, love means letting people be who they are, embracing them for who they are. A Place in the Middle tells us more than once about the true meaning of aloha: love, harmony. In this story, aloha means standing in the girls’ line or the boys’—or out in front, with two leis; different, but not alone.

    Kumu Hina: A Place in the Middle will play at the Berlinale Film Festival, and will be available to educators and communities who would like to show the film. For more information, visit aplaceinthemiddle.org

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  • "Kumu Hina: A Place in the Middle" Premieres at the 65th Berlinale Film Festival

    Jan. 17, 2015:

    Produced & Directed by O'ahu residents Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson in association with Pacific Islanders in Communications, the film tells the story of a young girl who aspires to lead her school's all-male hula troupe and a teacher who uses Hawaiian culture to empower her.

    A true life Whale Rider!” -Huffington Post

    January 20, 2015 – (Haleiwa, HI) – KUMU HINA: A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE is one of 65 films from 35 countries selected for the 65th Berlinale's Generation programme, a slate of state-of-the-art world cinema devoted to children and young people seen by more than 60,000 attendees annually.

    Firmly grounded in their respective cultural contexts, the selected films paint sensitive portraits of extraordinary characters often living in hermetically sealed worlds. “We experience young people who bear too much weight on their shoulders,” as section head Maryanne Redpath describes one of this year's recurring themes. “The high degree of self-determination with which these children and adolescents liberate themselves from their predicaments is striking.”

    A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE is the educational version of Hamer and Wilson's feature documentary KUMU HINA, which was the Closing Night Feature in the Hawai'i International Film Festival's 2014 Spring Showcase. The film has traveled the world for festival, campus, and community screenings, and will have its national PBS broadcast on Independent Lens on May 4, 2015.

    In A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE, eleven year-old Ho'onani dreams of leading the hula troupe at her Honolulu middle school. The only trouble is that the troupe is just for boys. She's fortunate that her devoted teacher, Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, understands first-hand what it means to be 'in the middle' – embracing both male and female spirit. Together, as they prepare for a big year-end public performance, student and teacher reveal that what matters most is what's in one's heart.

    With nearly 500,000 visitors each year, the Berlinale is the largest publicly attended film festival in the world. A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE was one of over 5,000 submissions to the festival this year, and the only selection from Hawai‘i.

    An inspiring coming-of-age story on the power of culture to shape identity, personal agency, and community cohesion, from a young person's point-of-view.” -Cara Mertes, Ford Foundation's JustFilms

    I know that this film will bring understanding and enlightenment to all who view it.”

    -Leanne Ferrer, Pacific Islanders in Communications

    Festival info: Berlinale 2015

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