Sheila Nevins, Documentary Powerhouse
Ms. Magazine calls Sheila Nevins, president of HBO’s documentary and family division, "the most powerful executive in television" and, alternately, "the dominatrix of docs."
Nevins calls herself "a fundamental pain in the ass."
"In corporate life," she says, "you have to summon up the courage to be what may appear to be difficult in the name of your talents."
Nevins has amassed 39 primetime and 42 news and documentary Emmy Awards and 25 Peabody Awards. She has been the executive producer of 15 Academy Award-winning documentary features and shorts. It is no surprise, then, that she was recognized for her lifetime of achievement at the News and Documentary Emmy Awards last year, the first time the National Television Academy has given that honor to a documentary filmmaker.
"Gut, gut, gut," Nevins says, to explain how her success has been driven by her basic instincts. "You could be wrong, but chances are you wouldn’t have survived this long if you hadn’t been right more than you’d been wrong. That’s what is exciting about documentaries. You can’t base it on precedence; it is always a new experience."
She says one of her favorite recent experiences was producing "All Aboard: Rosie’s Family Cruise," an HBO film about Rosie O’Donnell’s cruise for gay families. "What seems to be just a film about a seven-day cruise with a TV star stands for something so much more," she says. "It is about American politics, about hatred, about love."
Among her many credits as executive producer have been groundbreaking works about women. In 2002, "A Rape in a Small Town: The Florence Holway Story" profiled a courageous, 76-year-old rape survivor who worked to reform New Hampshire’s sexual assault laws. Nevins produced Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary, "4 Little Girls," which focused on the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
In 2002, Nevins guided the production of "The Execution of Wanda Jean," a profile of the first African American woman to be put to death in the United States. "Crimes of Honour," in 2000, examined the murders of Muslim women by their relatives. And "Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen" in 2001 chronicled the lives of young girls competing in beauty pageants.
After 25 years at HBO, Nevins likes to be surprised. Choosing which documentaries to produce is less a science and more like, well, childbirth. "I love all my children differently," she says when asked which of her projects she most favors.
Nevins cultivated her signature approach to producing films–risky, passionate and unapologetic–without a template: "I never had a role model. I am my own role model." Then she laughs. "I’m always looking for one, if you’ve got a recommendation."
— By Courtney Martin.
Josette Perard, Haiti’s Center Pole
Josette Perard’s heart has never been anywhere but her home, Haiti. Her great laugh and greater works, though, have affected the lives of thousands elsewhere.
At 25 years old, faced with the daily threat of violence in Haiti, she went to the Congo (now Zaire) to help women adjust to their new lives, finally free of colonialism. She was given the opportunity to go because they needed French-speaking social workers.
Six years later, she left "those troubled, but strong African women," as she puts it, to take up residence in New York City.
She went to school and pursued accounting to support her two young boys, who adjusted quickly to the United States. But Perard never felt like she belonged despite 20 years of living in the city. "New York is a city where you have to be young and grow there," she says. "I was always waiting to go back to my Haiti."
After two decades as an accountant in New York, Perard finally got her homecoming.
In 1987, after president Jean-Claude Duvalier fled, she returned to still-turbulent Haiti and embarked on a lifelong dream of providing social work in her native land. After a chaotic U.S.-installed military regime, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president in 1990. Most of his term was usurped by a military coup d’etat (i.e. more violence), but he returned to office in 1994, the same year that Perard co-founded the Lambi Fund of Haiti in Port au Prince, a nonprofit created to help poor women create economically and environmentally sustainable communities throughout Haiti.
Today the Lambi Fund of Haiti has supported over 100 projects throughout Haiti’s nine regional departments with foundational support and private donors.
These days, Perard spends most of her time organizing regional groups of women to create self-sustaining agricultural and community projects.
Most recently, for example, the Lambi Fund of Haiti helped a rural community build its own sugar cane mill, which provides jobs and income to local workers. Before that, community members–mostly single mothers–walked miles and paid exorbitant prices charged by a rich landowner who controlled the other local mill. "When the situation is bad where I live and I’m concerned, I go on location," Perard says, "and when I meet the women, my spirit goes up."
Women, Perard believes, are the heart of Haiti, especially given that violence has left so many families fatherless. "In a voodoo temple," she says, "there is a pole in the middle and everything goes around that pole. The women are that pole in Haitian society."
— By Courtney Martin.
Gail Twersky Reimer, Keeper of the Stories
If Gail Twersky Reimer has one goal in life, it’s to make certain that Jewish women see themselves accurately represented in Jewish history, women’s history and U.S. history, and that others see them represented there too.
"Women grow up knowing nothing about what Jewish women have contributed," she says. Jewish women, she says, are largely overlooked despite their numerous contributions to labor, civil, environmental and women’s rights.
To correct the historical record, Reimer founded the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass., in 1995. There she works to ensure that the accomplishments of Jewish women are recognized, documented and made available–through manuscript collections, exhibits, primary source materials, media guides and research fellowships–to serve as an inspiration to future generations of women.
Reimer is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and she grew up hearing stories about how her mother helped other women survive the concentration camp where she was imprisoned. She was in charge of a printing press run out of the camp and often asked for additional help in order to protect the weakest women from forced hard labor they appeared unlikely to survive. Yet Reimer found that when she researched the period, the heroic efforts of women like her mother were rarely mentioned.
Reimer said that more recently women–such as Bella Abzug, the New York congressional representative; labor, tenants’ and civil rights lawyer; and anti-war activist who in 1990 co-founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization–continue to be overlooked in media, from books to exhibits to radio series. Even in film, Jewish women are stereotyped more often than not, Reimer says.
Reimer had an "aha" moment in the early 1990s while co-editing an anthology of Jewish women’s writings about the Jewish high holy days. "We’re always grasping at straws trying to construct narratives with very little information," she says about working with biblical texts. That realization led her to believe that unless someone made an effort to preserve the stories of modern Jewish women, they too would be forgotten.
Reimer holds a doctorate in English and American literature from New Jersey’s Rutgers University. She formerly taught Victorian studies and English novels while on the faculty of Wellesley College and was awarded a prize for excellence in teaching in 1987.
Reimer and her husband, Joseph, have two daughters, Tamara and Ziva, who are an inspiration for her work. "I want them to have access to their full legacy," she says.
— By Karen James.
Victor Rivas Rivers, Anti-Violence Advocate
The public face of the campaign to end domestic violence has historically been a woman’s, a fact that has left men on the margins of the movement even though they are at the center of the problem.
That began to change about six years ago, when professional football player-turned-Hollywood actor Victor Rivas Rivers opened up a magazine and saw an advertisement about a domestic-violence program that rekindled memories of his own years of abuse at the hands of a brutally violent father.
Rivers–a one-time Miami Dolphin who went on to act in movies including "The Mask of Zorro" and "Amistad"–asked his publicist to call the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C., to see if the group wanted a new celebrity spokesperson.
"Who is she?" the network’s then-director inquired, to which Rivers’ publicist responded: "No, it’s a he."
Soon after, Rivers became the group’s first male spokesperson and was among the first in a small club of prominent men to champion the cause. The emerging presence of men in the movement has encouraged more men to join, either by coming out as victims of abuse or by actively working to end it, Rivers says.
Women, however, are still the leaders–and most of the followers–in the fight to stop domestic violence, Rivers concedes.
"Most men are good men," Rivers says. "But we stand by silently."
Not Rivers. Since joining the network in 1999, he has used his celebrity to draw attention to domestic violence, a torture he endured as a child until he left his family at the age of 15 and went to live with a series of foster families.
He has also written the acclaimed "A Private Family Matter: A Memoir." The title of the book, published in April 2005, echoes the response law-enforcement officers gave the then-12-year-old Rivers when he sought protection from his father by removing his clothes to show the police his fresh and extensive wounds.
Rivers has begun to notice more men joining the movement to end domestic violence. "It’s usually me and the women," Rivers says about many gatherings at fundraising events and conferences. Now, more men are gradually beginning to appear. "It’s really kind of gratifying to see that more men are seeing this issue as one that touches everyone."
— By Allison Stevens.
Elizabeth Schweitzer, Spreader of Financial Know-How
Elizabeth "Bibi" Schweitzer was just 10 years old when she got her start in business. That was the year her father gave her $100 to invest in the stock market. Figuring that she and her friends liked McDonald’s so much that others must too, she promptly bought stock in the fast-food restaurant chain. "I couldn’t believe that I could check the stock price in the morning, go to school and come home to find out that the price per share had gone up," she says. The stock grew in value, split several times and, most important, taught her about investing.
Buoyed by the success of the venture, she began to consider a career in business. At 13 she attended Camp StartUp, an entrepreneurial summer camp at Dana Hall in Wellesley, Mass., where she learned about and wrote a business plan in two weeks. As the only female in her high school’s investment club, Schweitzer won a stock-trading competition. In her spare time, she enjoyed reading about inspirational businesswomen such as Estee Lauder, founder of the multi-national cosmetics company, and Andrea Jung, chair and chief executive officer of Avon Products. Throughout high school she also worked part-time at a children’s boutique where the young owner encouraged Elizabeth’s business interest.
She is now in her second term as president of Wharton Women, an undergraduate networking organization of 400 aspiring businesswomen at the famed business school in Philadelphia. There she enjoys mentoring other young women to help them break into and succeed in their chosen careers. Under Schweitzer’s leadership, Wharton Women has doubled its corporate sponsorship and begun an annual conference to teach low-income women from West Philadelphia about business skills and financial independence. In the course of a day the women learn about budgeting, reading credit card statements, writing checks and other basic financial tools that everyone needs to know.
"We’re women with skills in business; we should pass that along," Schweitzer says.
— By Karen James.
Willa Shalit, Producer of Peace
Willa Shalit is one of those women who thinks like an economist and feels like an artist.
The combination has brought this artist and activist to wonderful and strange places.
She has scouted theater space alongside Eve Ensler to produce the Obie-award winning play, "The Vagina Monologues," which in 1998 spurred the development of V-Day. Together, they created "a global movement to stop violence against women and girls." V-Day has raised $25 million to date to fund anti-violence efforts around the world, according to its Web site.
Realizing that women often cannot escape violence without a source of income, Shalit has been working to link Rwandan basket-weavers who were widowed by the 1994 genocide with Macy’s, the retail giant based in New York, an ocean away.
Shalit’s work with the women of Rwanda began with her first trip to the country in 2002, under the auspices of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. There, her artist’s eye fixed on the beautiful baskets created by a group of the genocide’s widows who were members of Avega, or "the place where tears have dried."
In collaboration with Ronnie Taffet, vice president of public relations for Macy’s corporate marketing, Shalit founded the Rwanda Path for Peace Project, which sells peace baskets created by both Hutus and Tutsis in Macy’s stores. Shalit worked with Avega’s Rwandan organizer, Aurea Kayiganway, and the enterprise now has more than 2,000 weavers in Rwanda, generating income that is used by the women for food, housing, clothing, education and health care for their families.
In April, Shalit turns her attention stateside when an anthology of 67 original essays she edited, "Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing up Female," published by Hyperion, hits bookstores. "My desire to reveal the inner stories of people is a conceptual thread that runs through all my work," says Shalit. "I thought a book of women’s life stories told from the heart would be an exquisite tapestry, revealing something untold."
— By Courtney Martin.
Irene Trowell-Harris, Advocate for Veterans
Irene Trowell-Harris spent her childhood days picking cotton with her parents but dreaming about working on the planes that flew overhead.
Her lofty goals drew scorn from her mother, who wanted her to be a nurse, and ridicule from her 10 brothers and sisters, who doubted that the daughter of a cotton farmer could grow up to enter a field not readily open to minorities.
But it was Trowell-Harris who had the last laugh.
After graduating from high school, she earned a nursing degree and later became a flight nurse in the Air National Guard. She rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a flight nurse instructor, then the first nurse to command an Air National Guard medical clinic and finally the first African American woman to serve as a general officer in the National Guard and retiring as a major general in 2001.
Along the way, she picked up master’s and doctorate degrees in health education and served as a representative to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services for the Air National Guard and as Air Force representative in 1997 for the Committee on Women in the NATO Forces Conference.
Concurrent with her position in the Air National Guard, Trowell-Harris served as the director, Office of Healthcare Inspections for the Washington, D.C., region of the Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General. In this position, she directed a multidisciplinary staff of inspectors responsible for conducting oversight reviews to improve the economy, effectiveness and efficiency of veteran’s programs.
In 2000, after a stunning career spanning more than four decades, she was ready to retire.
But she reconsidered after hearing stories from female veterans about the difficulties they were having in obtaining benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The VA was basically designed for men," Trowell-Harris says. "When they started to get women veterans coming in, they were not treated the same way. They were not treated with dignity and respect."
Trowell-Harris has worked to rectify that as director of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans, as a White House political appointee at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The work is paying off, she says, noting that the numbers of female veterans receiving benefits in the areas of health care, education and mortgage loans is increasing rapidly. "It’s getting better but we still have some work to do," she says.
— By Allison Stevens.
Karen James is a Women’s eNews intern; Courtney Martin is a writer, teacher and filmmaker in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Allison Stevens is our Washington bureau chief.
Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].
For more information:
The Lambi Fund of Haiti:
Gail Twersky Reimer
Jewish Women’s Archive:
"Becoming Myself: Reflections on Growing Up Female":
VA’s Center for Women Veterans: