If there is one thing that can be said about Jordan Salvatoriello, MFA ’12, creator of the award-winning documentary Graceland Girls, it is that she is not willing to settle. She is looking for what “rips your eyes open” in this world, and is committed to making a real and sustainable difference. And she clearly has the passion and determination to do so.
Salvatoriello graduated in 1999 from Boston University with a BA in Journalism and went on to write for various publications. She then made a move to the public relations field. During that time, she learned “how to tell a story” and gained skills in the area of interactive media. Although she was learning a great deal, she felt something was missing. She wanted a career that brought “more personal satisfaction” and contributed to social change. She had always loved documentaries, and this led her to research Emerson’s MFA degree program in Media Art. She applied, was accepted, and thrived in the program.
Come her second year, it was time to start thinking about her thesis. All Salvatoriello knew was that she wanted to contribute to a cause that was important to her, “not just by telling a story, but by living it.”
She found that cause through a friend, a high school teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her friend was considering teaching at an all-girls school in Kenya called Graceland for the summer. She asked Salvatoriello for advice; Salvatoriello responded, “You should go. But only if I can come with you.”
So the two of them embarked upon the adventure. In Kenya, they soon learned that only 42 percent of the female population attends secondary school; the rest are usually married off around age 12. The country’s government is currently working to change this reality. In fact, the girls of Graceland often quote the slogan coined by the government: “When you educate a man, you educate a man. When you educate a woman, you educate a community.”
Upon settling in and developing relationships with the bright and hard-working young women studying at Graceland, Salvatoriello was powerfully affected by the realization of just how deep an impact education can have when granted to women: “There is a ripple effect made by small differences, one woman at a time getting an education. It’s slow, but these ripples can and will come together to break the cycle of poverty in the country.”
She decided that there was no one better suited to tell this story than the girls themselves, and the result is a quietly powerful film. The film is partially composed of still photographs taken both by Salvatoriello and students who were given cameras (many of which were donated by Emerson). The remainder features interviews with students and faculty, and a brief clip of one student’s family when she went home to visit.
Determined to change the future not only for themselves but also for their families, the Graceland girls’ pure and hopeful spirits, optimism, and resilience in the face of challenges is truly extraordinary. Salvatoriello was struck by their maturity, saying, “Many of them were born into an environment in which they had to grow up too fast.” At the same time, she noted that it was not hard to forget that these girls were teenagers, and teenagers across the world, regardless of vastly different backgrounds and cultures, tend to share certain similarities. She recalled, “There was gossip, self-image issues…I was asked if I knew Justin Bieber.”
Upon returning home and finishing the film, Salvatoriello received positive feedback at her thesis defense (particularly from Associate Professor Kathryn Ramey, who had provided support throughout the entire process). She also received numerous honors, including a Caucus Grant for producers, writers, and directors (which provided finishing funds for the film); a peer award from her former Emerson classmates; and invitations to participate in the prestigious Chicago International Social Change Film Festival (CISCFF) and the Women’s Independent Film Festival in West Hollywood.
Salvatoriello was undoubtedly changed by her experience at Graceland, and is committed to further fundraising efforts to send more girls to the school. The source of Salvatoriello’s inspiration? The teachers and the girls of Graceland.