Working with CUNY Students on National Parks: New Yorkers’ Memories

October 2nd, 2009

By Daniel T. Allen
Community Engagement Coordinator
Friends of Thirteen, Inc.

Watch National Parks: New Yorkers’ Memories

In 2007, as an intern for Friends of Thirteen, I was the first line of defense in screening the 1,500+ user generated war stories for our producer to use in a local companion to Ken Burns’ The War . From that experience I learned the ropes of “localizing” a national program and the potential for such projects to engage new communities.

So when WNET.ORG President Neal Shapiro asked Friends of Thirteen to help recruit college students to help produce a local program related to Burns’ latest, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, the answer was a resounding yes!

Film student Daniel Cowen hangs around on location in a Brooklyn rock climbing gym.

I first turned to Daniel Cowen, a Macaulay Honors Scholar (MHC) and film student at Hunter College here in Manhattan. He founded the CUNY Film Festival last year and works hard to cultivate the cross-campus CUNY film community.

Daniel introduced me to Andres F. Otero from Hunter College, an accomplished documentarian who has free-lanced for the NY Daily News and NY Post, and Davi Santos, another MHC Scholar who hosts a TV program at Lehman College in the Bronx.

At our first pre-production meeting with producer Cyndee Readdean and project researcher Michael Skocay, the students were charged with creating a pilot video that would illustrate how each National Parks interview would flow.

Without delay, Daniel and I shot and edited an interview with Justin Yu, an editor for, who had recently returned from a harrowing ascent of Yosemite’s Half-Dome mountain with eight of his close friends.

With the Justin interview in the can, we got the green light. The next month was a blur of thirteen hour days, circuitous trips around the city in my gold Hyundai Elantra and gallons of hot black coffee.

We made arrangements to use the black box theater space at the Macaulay Honors College building on West 67th Street to conduct the bulk of our interviews. Andres shot an on-location interview with National Resources Defense Council President Francis Beinecke and THIRTEEN hired a professional crew to shoot Neal Shapiro’s interview with David Rockefeller, Jr.

Finding interview subjects was not a great challenge because we had a treasury of wonderful stories that folks submitted to our website. We also had pure luck. Our intern Charmaine Charmant contacted Kadafi Marouf and Vivienne Lu, a French couple who told us about their incredible encounters with wildlife, through Facebook. With hours of HD footage and high-resolution images of their trips to over a dozen National Parks, they were an editor’s dream.

As we moved the project into post-production with our editors, Daniel Cowen contributed another of his talents to the project. He composed and recorded several original melodies in his dorm room that we used throughout the final piece.

Before our big premiere, we did our best to generate buzz about the project. We distributed a press release on the CUNY Newswire, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one of our local media partners, published an ad to encourage tune-in and I made a guest appearance on Justin Yu’s The 404 podcast.

Thanks to the teamwork within the station and with college students, I am proud to have worked on this project as the community engagement coordinator for Friends of Thirteen.

For the students I think it was an invaluable learning experience in public media. I believe I speak on behalf of the station when I say that WNET.ORG looks forward to future collaborations with the next generation of New York’s film and television producers.