Erin Levin is a Peabody and Emmy award-winning humanitarian journalist and filmmaker. She first fell deeply in love with Africa and its people on her assignment to Madagascar with the Peace Corps. Her production and outreach experience includes ABC, CNN and with non-profits around the world.
The summer before her Peace Corps assignment, Erin served as outreach coordinator for Dispatch, the top-selling indie rock band. It was then that she met the African Children’s Choir for the first time and the dream of Imba Means Sing was planted. For the three years it will take to create Imba Means Sing, Erin is devoting her time to fundraising, marketing and producing the film. She also continues her activism through regular columns for Huffington Post, Paste and Rejuvenate magazines.
Plywood People: What is your greatest success so far with Imba Means Sing! ?
Erin Levin: I think my greatest success so far is simply that we are still in production. I know that sounds a bit too realistic for an idealist like me, but making this film has been by far the hardest project I have ever attempted. Every day I face new and difficult challenges in everything from funding to relationship management to technology issues. I am excited to say that we are now 13 months into producing the film and only have five months left until we finish shooting Imba Means Sing. We are also almost halfway funded. I would have loved to be completely funded by now and have that be my greatest success – but it takes time and perseverance and an immense faith in God’s timing rather than my own.
I am also very proud of the drop dead gorgeous footage my crew has captured this year. When I look at the story that is coming together and think about the millions of people that will hopefully be inspired by this film, it is worth all of the struggles. My hope for this film to really make a difference in our world fills me with the drive to keep going.
Plywood People: How have you been propelled forward from winning the Idea Competition at Plywood Presents?
Erin: Getting to share a glimpse of the story of the African Children’s Choir and telling hundreds of change-makers and local leaders about little Angel’s dream of becoming the first female President of Uganda was such an honor. I am forever grateful to Plywood Presents for catapulting the awareness about Imba Means Sing forward in one fell swoop. Ever since last August, I feel like in almost every coffeeshop and at every other hip mover-and-shaker event and even just walking along the Beltline, strangers stop me and say they loved hearing my story at Plywood. In the midst of making this film and sometimes feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, hearing that I encouraged another person gives me a huge boost of energy to continue this work.
Not only was I given the opportunity to speak, but I was also given funding. The winnings from Plywood gave us confidence that we could win more funding from other organizations, that people cared about what we are doing, and that we would eventually be able to get the entire film funded.
Finally, becoming a deeper part of the Plywood community through the Idea Competition really helped me personally. I gained a whole new network of friends with similar hopes, dreams and ambitious goals to make this world a better place. This community, more than the grant funding, is really the most valuable takeaway – both personally and professionally.
Plywood People: What’s been the biggest obstacle?
Erin: Funding. Thankfully the broader economy is improving – however, many corporations and foundations still have a defensive cash management outlook. Making a beautiful, meaningful, marketable film is an expensive endeavor. There are far more costs than I expected and fundraising has been more time consuming than I imagined. It makes the days a lot longer than are healthy, often times I end up working about 100 hours a week.
Within fundraising it is also very hard to learn not to take any of this personally. While this film is like my baby, it’s still not all I am or should be. I feel like producing Imba Means Sing has put me on a roller coaster ride with incredible highs and also devastating lows. Trying to balance these emotions has been an ongoing personal struggle. I have been both pleasantly surprised by incredibly generous donations from people I barely know, and also confused by the lack of donations from some of the people I hoped would be more involved. As much as anything, this has helped me recalibrate my expectations – it has been a hard-fought learning experience. Imba Means Sing is not Erin and Erin is not Imba Means Sing. It seems like this is a practical lesson that all of us social entrepreneurs are learning together with as much grace as possible.
Plywood People: What has been the biggest help in your startup?
Erin: God has helped me create Imba Means Sing more than anything or anyone. My decision to leave CNN was based on a calling I felt to tell this story, to inspire viewers to get involved in the global education crisis. My friends, family, and boyfriend have all been like rocks to hold me up along the ride. There is no way I could do this without them, but it is still God who is the only one with the power to make this film a reality, while keeping my crew safe, healthy and productive. I can see the Lord working through the kids in the Choir and it’s my hope that people see Him through our film as well. That’s the only way Imba Means Sing will be truly successful.
Plywood People: What are your next steps?
Erin: Good question! We have three shoots left: Atlanta, North Carolina and then a month with the Choir in the UK and Uganda in November. After the last shoot, we’ll write the script so we can officially begin editing in 2014. My hope is for Imba Means Sing to release in Spring 2014 in big and fun ways. The film is more than the story of these children: they represent the millions of kids around the world (and even here in Atlanta) who cannot afford a proper education. We will be launching a movement around the need to lobby for better education at home and abroad; we also hope to partner with other organizations bringing music and arts education to children living in poverty – both in our own neighborhoods, and also in the developing world. I am also donating 100% of profits from Imba Means Sing to the Choir’s work on the ground in seven African countries. Just thinking about the film coming out and the possibilities of the positive impact it can have are giving me goose bumps right now and making me smile :).
I also want to give a quick shout to Embagga Means Party, an event we’re hosting in Atlanta on Thursday, July 25. It’s a chance for our awesome community to meet the Choir kids, see a short clip of the film, and enjoy an evening of incredible music, as groups like ATL Collective perform with the Grammy-nominated African Children’s Choir. You can get $10 off General Admission tickets with the code “plywood” just for reading and sharing this story!
Do you have an idea that you need funding for, and help developing? Apply for our Idea Competition!