Filmmaker Bailey Webber speaks to us about taking on the government and her school's "fat letters"
When we see something that makes us mad, it’s easy to complain and wish things were different. Still, when we do feel called to action, it’s hard to know where to start — and even when we know where to start, it can be so intimidating that it’s tempting to just post about it on social media and never actually do anything. That’s not what Bailey Webber did, and that’s why we are so inspired by her documentary, The Student Body, which is now available on Netflix.
In case you haven’t seen it yet, the documentary (which began as a high school research project) details Webber’s tenacious investigation into why schools were sending out what students termed “fat letters.” The letters informed students they were overweight based on state-required Body Mass Index (BMI) testing. Webber, along with her friend, Maddy Karimi, didn’t think that was right, so they did something about it — and today, Ohio schools no longer send the letters out.
Webber is now a mass communications student at Wright State University in Dayton, OH. We caught up with her to find out more about her experience and get some advice about speaking up for what we believe in.
On her relationship with Maddy Karimi (her classmate, whose presentation to the school board spurred Webber to begin her investigation):
“Our friendship extends beyond the plot in the film. I consider her one of my best friends and she actually lives in the same neighborhood as me. If it wasn’t for her bravery to speak out, this film wouldn’t have existed. I am a big believer in the power of one voice, and Maddy’s is one that inspired the film…
On juggling filmmaking with being a full-time student:
“When we shot the film, I was in high school and with that came a lot of traveling in order to interview parents, students, lawmakers, and experts at the highest levels … I remember when my dad and I were in NYC, I was preparing for three interviews for that day along with studying for my chemistry and English exams … It was difficult sometimes, but I wouldn’t wish it any other way.
This issue needed to be exposed, and quitting wasn’t an option for me and my dad. The film was released when I was in college … Once, I missed a full two weeks of classes traveling from our New York City premiere to our D.C. premiere. I didn’t know how exactly it was all going to work, being a full-time student, but my professors were very supportive and helped me reschedule exams and turn in homework. I was really worried about how I would do everything, but, again and again, people were very supportive of our mission with the film.”
On being a filmmaker with a learning disability:
“Ever since I was little, I struggled with a learning disability that affected the way I hear language and speak. I was even in speech therapy for most of my life. When I started this film, I felt like the last person who should be doing this, but my parents taught me that I can do anything with God, who gives me strength.
Remarkably, through this entire journey, I actually overcame my learning disability. Now, the things that were my weaknesses are my strengths. I am a completely transformed person because of this film. I wanted to make a documentary to empower other people, but in return the experience has empowered me.”
Advice for those of us who are ready to take a stand:
1. Always be respectful.
“Taking a stand, speaking your mind, and challenging authority doesn’t mean you have the right to disrespect another person in the process. Otherwise, you’ve just done something wrong yourself!”
2. Find a mentor.
“My friend, Maddy, had a strong, smart, loving mother who was willing to stand behind her when she protested. For me, my dad had my back all along the way as I challenged authority at every corner. This can help give you the courage you need when taking on big challenges and getting outside of your comfort zone.”
4. Use your powerful voice!
“It’s surprising to learn that many people might feel the same way you do, but everyone is just waiting for someone else to speak up. Well, maybe you should be that someone! Start the conversation … You’ll be amazed at the change that can happen when you finally choose to use your voice … It’s amazing, it’s simple, and it can really change things for the better. You can do it, too!”
And we will, Bailey!