VMA Department set to offer gun violence prevention video class


The VMA department will debut a new 400-level course open to undergraduates and graduates to create gun violence prevention media for Massachusetts General Hospital. Katie Redefer / Beacon Staff

By Katie Redefer, Staff Writer

The Visual and Media Arts Department at Emerson plans to work in collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital through a new class centered around the creation of gun violence prevention videos. 

This past July, The Boston Globe reported 17 shootings over a span of five days within the city of Boston. Despite Massachusetts having some of the lowest rates of gun-related deaths when compared to other states, gun violence harms many area neighborhoods. 

Dr. Chana Sacks, who approached the college with the idea for the class, said she hopes the videos will bring awareness to this local issue.

“There are so many misperceptions about what gun violence even is,” Sacks said in a phone interview. “Boston is often hailed as one of the safest cities in one of the safest states in the country when it comes to gun violence, and in many ways it is, but still many victims of gun violence are right here in our city and I think their stories are undertold.”

Starting in spring 2020, the VMA Department will offer VM420, a partnered studio class, meaning students will work alongside doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital. The students enrolled in the class will create videos showcasing gun violence within Boston for the hospital to use as they see fit. According to Sacks, they have not yet decided what they will do with the completed videos but anticipate they will be distributed for educational purposes. 

The class, titled Topics in Media Arts: Practice: MGH/Gun Violence Prevention, is worth four credits and is available to any junior or senior. Professor Jong Ougie Pak will teach the class this upcoming semester and said the course is also open to graduate students. 

The hospital will provide the class with a $10,000 budget to go toward production components of the videos such as equipment and travel costs, according to VMA Department Chair Brooke Knight. He also said the college will not profit from their partnership with the hospital.

At this point, the class is only guaranteed for the upcoming semester. Knight said the VMA Department would be interested in renewing the class for future semesters if the first run of the class succeeds.

Ougie Pak said he plans to allow students to create documentary-style videos showcasing people directly affected by gun violence.

“I feel like in many ways the truth is crazier than fiction,” Ougie Pak said in a phone interview. “If we can create compelling content, not necessarily manipulative, that honestly portrays the way people have been affected by gun violence in its various forms in America, then I think that would be pretty successful.”

Knight helped create the class after doctors from MGH reached out to him with interest in forming a video-creating partnership with the college. 

“I was looking for a way to more deeply engage with [MGH] and students to talk about this issue,” Knight said in an interview with the Beacon. “President [M. Lee] Pelton has also been a real advocate for gun violence prevention, so I knew that this was a topic that was important to him and the rest of the campus community.”

MGH will collaborate with the class by offering guidance on the direction of their videos. Sacks and Dr. Peter Masiakos are co-directors of the hospital’s Center for Gun Violence Prevention, a multidisciplinary initiative whose goal is to prevent firearm-related violence, according to their website.

Ougie Pak said he thinks working with the doctors offers students a unique chance to document the issue of gun violence at a human level.

“The doctors are really open to ideas for the kinds of stories we can tell, and they have access to people who’ve witnessed gun violence at all kinds of levels,” Ougie Pak said. “I think this is a very interesting opportunity to get a very human perspective behind the issue.”

Sacks approached Knight with the idea for the class so she could provide her patients with informational videos on gun violence prevention. 

Izzy Hessler, the executive co-director of Emerson’s March For Our Lives chapter, said she supports the mission of raising awareness about gun violence prevention, but worries that the course could take advantage of survivors.

“I would have some reservations about how students [who] are making the videos come across,” Hessler said. “A lot of gun violence survivors have reservations about being televised with their stories because a lot of times it can feel like trauma porn. It’s difficult because you want to raise awareness but you also want to make sure you’re siding with the survivors and not just taking their story and running with it.”

Sacks said that she wants to emphasize the importance of approaching this topic with sensitivity while contributing to this class.

“Everything that we do is about having that perspective and keeping survivors at the center and having this [class] be an informative, educational process as we move forward,” Sacks said. “We are an academic medical center that is approaching this as the public health issue that it is. This is not about getting clicks, this is really about pursuing change on multiple levels.”

Hessler said that despite her reservations about this class, she thinks it could effectively inform students about how gun violence affects their community.

“Especially at Emerson, where we don’t really experience gun violence too much because we’re kind of in a little bubble in a safe area in Boston, a lot of students don’t realize that this does affect the city a lot,” Hessler said. “I think it’s important to recognize the privilege we have here and using that to help survivors.”