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How One Alum is Helping Students See Themselves in Film

After her time in the classroom, Laura Gomez-Mesquita (Chicago-Northwest Indiana, ’07) decided to follow her heart and pursue a career in film. At Chicago’s Kartemquin Films, she’s working to bring stories from underrepresented communities to the big screen.

February 6, 2019

A female Teach For America alum standing in front of shelves of film.

When Laura Gomez-Mesquita (Chicago-Northwest Indiana, ’07) was a high school English teacher in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, her favorite moments in the classroom were when her students got to truly express themselves. ”I really enjoyed seeing their creativity,” she says. As a student herself, Laura had many interests, but one she kept circling back to again and again was film. “Film had always been something I was really interested in, but it wasn’t the sort of career anyone I knew had, or a career that seemed possible without the right connections.” But seeing how her students pushed themselves to do things no one in their family had done before, after her time in the corps Laura decided to take the leap and enroll in film school.

Now, as the Programs and Engagement Manager at Kartemquin Educational Films, Laura has found a career that combines her passion for education with her passion for film. “Even though I’m not in the classroom, I still identify first as an educator,” she says. At Kartemquin, Laura runs several programs that are focused on bringing more diverse voices to the documentary field, which has been traditionally dominated by white men. She also works to bring nontraditional audiences to their work – focusing not on movie theaters and Netflix, but on screenings for schools, community centers, and nonprofits.

Founded in Chicago in 1966, Kartemquin is dedicated to creating documentaries that promote dialogue and democracy. This year, their film Minding the Gap, which explores the life of three teenagers living in a small Rust Belt town, is nominated for an Academy Award, and their series America to Me, which chronicles a year at Chicagoland’s Oak Park and River Forest High School, was a hit on Starz. Both explore the challenges that students across the country are facing.

“What I love about working in film is telling stories that haven’t been told before, and that was also what I loved about teaching English. Centering and uplifting the stories of people of color and young people, those that are often underrepresented and misrepresented in the media. These are the things I brought from my classroom to film.”

Laura Gomez-Mesquita

Laura’s time as an English teacher has informed her career in a myriad of ways. In film school, many of the stories that she told were pulled from her time in the classroom. She’s also found that the work of a teacher – juggling so many different responsibilities – is very similar to life on a film set. “On set, there are different groups of people, different needs, and different materials. The importance of knowing your script, your source material, from front to back was equally important in the English classroom.”

Looking ahead, Laura wants to increase Kartemquin’s outreach to local schools. She knows firsthand how students respond to film, and wants to help teachers build lesson plans and curriculum around their documentaries. “Education is a big part of our mission, and I know the films being made here can have an impact in the classroom,” she says. “It’s powerful when film and education intersect because they both lift each other up, and together can create more than a piece of art, more than a lesson plan can on their own.”