Introducing his documentary “Wake” to a crowd of students, faculty and staff on Feb. 3, documentarian Jake Mejias, a Penn State alumnus who attended Brandywine, emphasized his hope that the documentary would spark action in the community.
The hour-long film follows the racial protests in Philadelphia after the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and invites viewers to critical conversations surrounding race, systemic racism and policing in the United States. For the premiere of “Wake,” many of the experts and subjects from the film were on hand to participate in a panel discussion aimed at continuing these conversations.
They included Mejias as well as his friend Joshua Yeboah Gyasi, a rapper and student whose decision to take action following Floyd’s death was part of Mejias’ inspiration for the film. Christian Whittaker, a rapper who contributed music and moving commentary for the film, was also in attendance. Jeremy Branch, Brandywine’s senior assistant director of enrollment management, and Curtis Ghee, a former Philadelphia Police officer, rounded out the panel.
Facilitating the panel discussion was Marinda K. Harrell-Levy, associate professor of human development and family studies, who was featured throughout “Wake” providing expert insight.
Opening the conversation, Harrell-Levy asked panelists to introduce themselves and share what had brought them to the table: “What brings you to this topic? In other words, where’s your passion for this issue?”
“What brought me here is just my love for the community and my love for the world. I think that this film is something that can really stand the test of time and make a difference for many communities,” Mejias began.
Noting how he essentially grew up on the Brandywine campus as the son of a campus admissions counselor, Mejias said “If you had told me as a kid that 20 years later I would be doing this, I would have never believed it. So thank you all for your support. And I'm really happy that I get to bring this here to you all.”
"I think that this film is something that can really stand the test of time and make a difference for many communities."
—Jake Mejias , documentarian and Penn State alumnus who attended Brandywine
For Whittaker, he said it was his entire lifetime that led him to be seated on Thursday’s panel — from the legacy of his grandfather, the most decorated African-American solider in Louisiana state history, to his son, Justice, who he said “has shown me so much. And the fear that I have lived with in the process of just wanting to have a better world for him.”
Ghee, who worked as a Philadelphia Police officer for 29 years, explained that “what brought me here, [was] my wife, who is Sgt. [Falesha] Ghee here at Penn State Brandywine.
“She [Falesha] told me about Jacob. And so I came in just to offer my support to him. I was the one who was out there during the protest as a police officer. And it really touched some things that made me look beyond policing. Not long after that, I left the job. And now I'm looking to work more with youth. I learned early on in my career that locking people up is a necessary evil at times, but it's not the overall solution. I'm more interested in not cuffing people but using my influence to help handcuffed people's potential,” Ghee said to a response of supportive applause from the room.
"I was the one who was out there during the protest as a police officer. And it really touched some things that made me look beyond policing. Not long after that, I left the job. And now I'm looking to work more with youth."
—Curtis Ghee , panelist and former Philadelphia police officer
Panelists covered questions surrounding the documentary’s critical themes including systemic racism, police brutality, and the industrial-prison context.
They addressed audience questions as well, including the challenging question of “What comes next?”
Ghee responded by sharing his experience from being “on the front line.”
“From June 1 to I believe it was June 9 down by City Hall, we were hit with a variety of insults by people who were upset. And my question was the same, ‘what happens when the dust clears?’ When everybody calms down and all of the signs are put away, all of the T-shirts are folded up and put away, what's next? Where do we go from here?” Ghee said.
A student asked a similar question of the panel further into the discussion. Referencing the death of Floyd, he asked “when these events happen it’s the biggest thing in the world for about a week and a half and then people leave. What suggestions do you have to keep that from happening?”
Harrell-Levy stressed that an important response to the questions was making it known that “not everybody leaves.” “So then the question is, are you joining those folks who actually get to work and roll up their sleeves? The question is, who stays and does the work?”
Mejias noted that “the purpose of this documentary was for people to take action in their own way, and I think that you should do that with whatever you're passionate about.”
“A lot of the topics that were talked about today were things that I've learned through the making of this documentary, things that I wanted to share and some of the things that I'm passionate about as well,” Mejias explained.
“That may not be the same for everybody here. And as much as I would love for every one of you to go out and peacefully protest every year or every time there's a new issue that arises, I don't think I can ask that of people,” Mejias said. But what I can ask is for all of you to do something that you're passionate about and something that's going to give back to the community. Like I said before, if we all put in the work and we all do our part, then this world is going to transform.”
A second screening of "Wake," open to community members will be held at Penn State Brandywine on Thursday, Feb. 10. Full details, including snow dates and registration, are available online.