Summer Documentary Program Alumni Profiles

In celebration of all the emerging media producers from ten years of our Summer Documentary Program, and in an effort to continue to share stories of social change, MISC is excited to profile our alumni and the inspiring work they're up to around the country. This week we're proud to introduce Eli Plenk, a graduate of Hampshire College working toward restorative justice in Massachusetts.


I serve as Program Manager for Our Restorative Justice; a nonprofit in Lowell, MA that works with school, courts and communities to implement alternative approaches to justice that disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. The role is a sort of catch-all job that involves a fair amount of on-the-ground work with criminal justice involved youth as well as more structural and strategic work for the organization. The on-the-ground part of my job involves shepherding young people through a restorative justice diversion program, which is an alternative to regular court in Lowell. Our model centers on the belief that those closest to a case are the ones most qualified to resolve it and as a result our work is really about bringing together important people in a young person's life and coalescing a system of support around that kid. We work with young people for at least six months, and over that time meet regularly with them and their family and facilitate a series of restorative circles. In circle folks collectively problem solve, with the goal of healing harm and addressing the root causes of the young person's criminal justice system involvement. Beyond that work I'm also working to expand the organization's reach; both topically and geographically. We're building a restorative justice program in Boston and recently began taking status offense cases. As far as we know we're the first organization to ever design a restorative justice model for status offenses, which is incredibly exciting given how many young people end up endlessly system-involved as a result of those cases. I like this work because I think restorative justice is a viable alternative to mass incarceration that addresses harm without resorting to retribution. It does a good job of actually dealing with the things that lead young people into the system and as a result it feels much more sustainable than our country's traditional approach to justice.

Education: Hampshire College, 2013 (American Studies major, Education minor)

2009 Summer Documentary Program video: A Home of My Own

Would you like to share any of your recent work?
Last summer I wrote a piece for the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy on faith, race, and social change. It was a profile of my friend Yehudah Webster; a deeply religious African American Jew who I met while involved in organizing against police brutality in New York. The piece emerged from a series of conversations we had, which challenged me to think differently about faith, and in particular about faith based activism. The piece has a number of typos since clearly neither I nor the team of Harvard grad students who edit that publication can spell even the most basic words. Nonetheless it's something I'm proud of and I hope people will take a look if they're so inclined. The journal is linked here and my article is on page 75.

What is a lasting memory from your summer with MISC?
I remember sitting with the other fellows (in a basement I think?) brainstorming possible documentary topics. I was astounded by the depth of my peers' ideas and by their commitment to a brand of thought that borrowed from both organizing and media making. I was new to Portland and new to adulthood and new to media and that summer I was just beginning to learn what intersectional political work entailed. Those conversations about what to cover, why to cover it, and how we as media makers relate to larger social and political movements will certainly stick with me for a long time.

Can you recommend a film, podcast, book, or media work?
I recently finished reading Yo Miss: A Graphic Look at High School  and loved it. As a former teacher and current youth worker I'm very leery of books or movies that depict urban education. They tend to gravitate towards two problematic extremes; either the kids all live these totally hopeless lives and the teacher comes in and instantly saves them with literature or science or whatever, or the text is so busy trying to prove that urban kids are great that it over steers in the other direction and doesn't address the challenges that many young people face. I appreciated Yo Miss because it was the first book I read about urban education that was able to capture a more nuanced reality; one that felt true to my experiences as an educator working with low-income kids of color. It's a graphic novel about a teacher working at an alternative high school in New York City that's designed for young people who have not done well in traditional schools and are at risk of dropping out of high school. It doesn't shy away from the very real and sometimes painful struggles that young people in a school of that nature face, but it also doesn't let those struggles define the characters. The author (who is a teacher at this high school) takes the time to explain the cast of characters in a way that's neither rosy nor judgemental and does a good job of illustrating what teaching is like on a day to day level without losing sight of some of the structural factors that inform that reality. Each young person and adult in the books has a lot of pain and a good amount of joy and relates to this school in a slightly different way that's based on their personalities and histories. Overall it's an incredibly fun and honest book that doesn't take itself or it's characters too seriously (think Dykes to Watch Out For about urban ed). In addition it's eminently readable and you can easily get through the whole thing in an afternoon or two. When people ask me what they should read to better understand urban education this is the one book I unequivocally recommend.

Thanks for sharing your work with us, Eli! And thanks to all the alumni who shared their work and stories with us. This is the last alumni submission for now, but you can learn more about the Summer Documentary Program and if you are an alum, please email with your story. 

At the base of the American dream is homeownership. But, as current economic troubles tell us, it is not so easy. A Portland-based program helps to place families in land-trust homes. A short profile by students from the 2009 Northwest Institute for Social Change summer program.