Every Thursday at 4 o'clock, Seheri Swint and her classmates lug film equipment from the JHU-MICA Film Centre on North Avenue six or so blocks to the Village Learning Place in Charles Village. There, the 25-year-old writer, producer, and filmmaker teaches a few dozen Baltimore fifth-graders about documentary filmmaking.
"These kids have very little exposure to filmmaking at all," she says. "We teach them camera skills, talk to them about their stories and what their lives are like. We give them an outlet to create and share their stories. They're enthusiastic and full of energy, they dance around. It's been a great experience to come in and share our art in service of helping them tell their stories."
The experience, she says, is transformative.
"Through filmmaking, they're expressing their agency," she says. "When you tell your story, there's a certain amount of care and reflection that naturally goes into the process and catalyzes healing."
And Swint knows these kids might need healing—just like she once did.
Swint, who graduated last year from the Johns Hopkins School of Education with a master's degree in urban education, grew up in Detroit during the city's economic crisis and bankruptcy. She described her experiences in a speech delivered at the school's commencement ceremony last year. She recalled the looming, skeletal remains of vacant houses in the rapidly declining city and the unlit streets she would walk on her way to and from school.
It was, she said, her ghost town. And her teachers were the ones who shone a light into her world. She says she feels compelled to share that light with others.
"Part of my work as an artist and as an educator is sharing my story and being vulnerable—sometimes to the point of embarrassment—in order to create a safe space where identification and healing can occur. It's important to show my students that I encountered what they've encountered, and that I could overcome it," she says. "I believe that one of these students I work with could one day be the next Ryan Coogler or Shonda Rhimes. But if they don't have someone who recognizes that and nurtures that within them, it would truly be a loss."
She adds: "For people like myself who are empowered through our education, the onus rests upon us to give back and empower others to realize their dreams."
Swint's drive, hard work, and sense of service caught the attention of the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, which funded her undergraduate degree at Pepperdine and her first master's degree at Johns Hopkins.
Last month, Swint—who is pursuing a second graduate degree in film and media from the Krieger School's Advanced Academic Programs—was named a Luce Scholar, a prestigious fellowship that will enable her to spend a year in Asia, where she hopes to collaborate with established filmmakers and continue her work with young people.
Launched in 1974 by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Luce Scholars program identifies potential future U.S. leaders to promote cross-cultural understanding between the two regions. Swint is one of 18 students from across the U.S. to win the fellowship.
"Seheri is a thoughtfully determined and warmly engaging person whose drive inspires the people around her," says Jeannette Miller, the assistant director of the National Fellowships Program, which guides Johns Hopkins students and alumni as they apply for fellowships. "Spending 12 months immersed in an Asian country will allow Seheri to expand her experiences in community building and filmmaking in a context that would not have been possible without a Luce Scholarship. It's exciting to work with Hopkins students as they pursue opportunities that allow for such a deep level of cultural exchange."
Though her placement country is not finalized, Swint has been focusing on Southeast Asian countries and has a director in mind whose work inspires her.
Swint, who is in the midst of producing a narrative short film as well as a web series, sees the Luce as yet another step forward on the path to creating her own production company. She has ambitions to tell not only her own stories, but also those of filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. She aims to one day found an arts-integration school or non-profit organization in Detroit that provides students access to the arts.
"I'm interested in exemplifying with my life what it means to lead a life of service," she says. "What that means to me is cultivating a spirit of service that characterizes my career and permeates everything I do. In my life, that is the question I will continue to ask and that is the question that will lead my path: How can I be of service to others?"