April 2021 Alum of the Month: Faith E. Briggs '06
Hotchkiss | Alum of the Month - Faith E. Briggs '06

Photo by Tracy Nguyen-Chung

Faith E. Briggs '06 is a documentary filmmaker and environmentalist who creates media content focused on the disconnect between social and environmental justice. Her work has taken her around the globe, fueled by her desire to diversify the images that exist in our shared mainstream imaginations.

She came to Hotchkiss at age 14, finding the School through a Google search. "Knowing very little about what I was getting myself into," she notes, "I was attracted by the track program, the fact that Hotchkiss was coed, and because its location wasn't too far from my parents." Briggs also considered Northfield Mount Hermon and Deerfield, but she set her heart on Hotchkiss after visiting and interviewing. A late applicant, she was ecstatic to learn she'd been accepted, and a summer visit to show her dad her new home confirmed her decision. "We saw DK (Dr. Richard Kirby) in front of Tinker playing with his kids. Though we did not intend to bother him, he recognized me and came right over and stuck his head in the car window to welcome us!" It was the first of the many transformative faculty relationships that she came to cherish.

Academics were challenging at first for this new lower mid and former straight-A student. "I got my first paper back and received a B- over C, not even knowing what that meant! I think it was in that class that I earned my first nickname, 'Comma Splice Queen'!" Briggs found the faculty supportive and engaging. "Along with DK, I adored Charlie Frankenbach, who called me 'Yeeee!' in a high pitched voice," she laughs, ("Ye of little Faith"). "I had a terrific experience with Athena Fliakos in English. Her class was very collaborative, and we covered identity politics, resulting in some difficult and valuable conversations. I had a similarly good experience in Nate Seidenberg's history class, where I wrote a 30-page paper on Marcus Garvey, igniting my interest in African American studies."

Briggs received yet another nickname from Ana Hermoso, who was her Spanish instructor and served as her dorm parent. "At Hotchkiss, I was able to travel to Panama and Honduras, becoming fluent and learning quite a bit of slang. Ms. Hermoso teased me about my own spin on the language, dubbing me 'Queen of Spanglish'!" A gifted runner, Briggs "loved" track and "tolerated" cross country, and captained both. Now she's a distance runner and laughs at her unenthusiastic beginnings. Other activities included her time in BaHSA, serving as a proctor in Bissell, and her service as School president senior year. "I loved Hotchkiss. While I was often outside of my comfort zone, it challenged me to be comfortable in my own skin. I learned that I didn't need to fit in, but instead, I could own standing out."

Briggs went on to Yale, where she continued to be involved in many clubs and activities. She double-majored in African American and film studies, and began thinking about media content creation as a career. "I picked up a camera for the first time junior year and fell in love. I'd worked at summer camps for years and realized that the media I created could interrupt the cycle of negative and limited narratives of the African American experience."

Deciding to pursue an M.F.A. in film, Briggs then matriculated at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts. "USC has an incredible film program, which is understandably Hollywood-focused. I was more interested in documentary, so I took a year off to film in rural Ghana, and upon returning, found the NYC documentary scene and New York University (NYU) to be a better fit. I finished my master's in documentary journalism and began three years as an author's assistant to James McBride. I learned so much about observing people in their everyday lives, and was fortunate to work for him while he finished The Good Lord Bird and wrote Kill 'Em and Leave; Searching for James Brown and the American Soul. I also worked as a fact checker for NYU Professor Pamela Newkirk's book, Spectacle, about human zoos and the Pygmy Ota Benga, who was brought to the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s. It was the very beginning of my understanding of deeply embedded racism in early environmental movements."

During her time with these authors, Briggs also worked at several jobs before landing a position in the documentary department at Discovery Communications. "It was an incredible experience, a step toward my career goals, and my first time working in the environmental field." In 2016, she was chosen as one of Columbia Sportswear's "directors of toughness." For ten months, she travelled the world "testing gear under every possible weather condition our beautiful planet could throw at us." Never expecting to be chosen as one of two from more than 4,000 applicants, her qualifications stood out. "They wanted people with proven grit, a love of the outdoors, and an ability to share stories with an audience - someone who might shine under the pressure of tough circumstances. As a lifelong runner, media scholar, and participant in the 2016 'Find Your Park Expedition' (a campaign that brought media influencers with content-creation experience into America's national parks), I fit the bill."

It was a profound experience. "At every step, whether halfway up Mt. Shasta or kayaking down the Klamath River, I met amazing people who wanted to share their passion for the outdoors. I drove a team of sled dogs in the Yukon across a frozen lake, the most remote place I've ever been. I ran in a 55K in the Alps during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc series. Throughout these experiences, I was often overwhelmed by the encouragement of strangers. While standing in the middle of a river in Kamchatka, Russia, and getting to the top of a steep ridge with a beautiful view during a 100K race in the Andes, I began to understand the urgency with which we have to protect these places. These experiences have also helped me to know that we all belong in these spaces, and they belong to us."

Briggs expanded her experience by working for and serving on the board of the Portland, OR-based nonprofit, Soul River, Inc. Through fly fishing, a skill Briggs first dabbled in at Hotchkiss, the organization focuses on bringing veterans as mentors and inner-city youth together into the wild rivers across the country to learn about protecting our natural world.

In 2018, she struck out on her own, creating a short film, working with an all-women team of adventure filmmakers. The film, This Land, focused on environmental justice and public lands protection. It was released a year later and has since played in more than 30 film festivals and been incorporated into many middle and high school curriculums. Collaborating around the film were the National Parks Conservation Association and The Wilderness Society. To create a wide-reaching impact and outreach campaign, Briggs became a grantee of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Her next project is a new podcast and media series called The Trail Ahead. This Merrell and Patagonia project aims to highlight conversations at the intersection of race, environment, history, and culture. Creating the project brought her to the border wall between Arizona and Mexico and interviewing a jaguar conservationist about the challenges the wall presents to wildlife, trail running in New Mexico with a city counselor, and picking up trash on a beach in Los Angeles with the first Black female host of an American science show.

"At Hotchkiss, I first learned about global citizenship and was afforded the opportunity to travel outside of the lower 48. I began to understand myself in a new context and to form a new definition of community. I was able to broaden my horizons about my place in the world and was encouraged to explore the complications involved in understanding race, class, socioeconomic background, religion, and the environment. When you're biracial, you often find yourself in- between groups. Rather than trying to hide to fit in, I was able to take up space. My sense of belonging expanded, and I gained role models. It was at Hotchkiss where I saw Liz Hines '93 (now Board co-president) visit campus as a trustee. I will never forget the awe I felt when seeing a Black woman with dreadlocks in that leadership role. I had dreads for 12 years after that, which I first started at Hotchkiss." 

Her advice for current students interested in documentary filmmaking? "Get started with whatever tools you have and reflect your passions. I never thought running would be a part of my career. I learned the best storytelling comes from being specific with your story and finding themes that have universal resonance."

Briggs continues to give back and was recognized very recently by being named to the prestigious annual Grist 50, a list that highlights "emerging leaders cooking up the boldest, most innovative solutions to save this here planet." She serves on the board of the Global Works Community Fund, which provides travel opportunities for youth from historically marginalized communities to do service and environmental work abroad. Additionally, she serves on the board of Oregon Wild, which works to promote and restore wildlands, wildlife, and water for Oregonians. She is also a director and partner at Camp 4 Collective.

"We all have a deeply hidden, innate connection with the natural world. I get excited when I see people get reconnected. My goal is to keep sharing stories that can help us see honestly a better world in which we all want to live, and to create it together. I've been in many places where people don't expect to see someone who looks like me, and while at times, that can be uncomfortable, I'm proud to be a part of an attempt to raise awareness, increase respect for indigenous communities, and represent more diversity in our public lands. I urge everyone to see that this land truly belongs to all of us."







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