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Locally Produced Film Tackles Transit Access as Civil Rights Issue

Brent Warren Brent Warren Locally Produced Film Tackles Transit Access as Civil Rights Issue
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In 2011 the city of Beavercreek, Ohio refused a request from the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority to extend an existing bus line an additional three stops. What sounds like a minor local news story turned into much more, and a new film documenting the resultant civil rights complaint and the eventual overturning of the Beavercreek city council’s decision is about to make its Columbus premier.

The film, Free to Ride, was produced in-house by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. It recently won Best Documentary at the DC Independent Film Festival.

“We’re thrilled with the result from DC,” said Matthew Martin, writer/producer of the film and Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute. “It’s a story that we think really needs to get out there…it’s a timely and important story, given the state of racial politics in America right now.”

Kirwan’s involvement with the project started as a simple request to produce a series of maps for a group of legal aid attorneys in Dayton. The attorneys, along with a coalition of local community groups, were working to show how the refusal to build the stops impacted different populations.

Beavercreek is a suburb of Dayton that is over 90 percent white. The proposed bus stops were meant to provide access to a portion of the community that had become a major jobs center, attracting workers from across the region. Riders had been forced to walk more than a mile from the end of the bus line – over a freeway overpass with no sidewalk – to reach those jobs.

“They reached out to us to make some maps, to show disparate impact, and we were able to show who gets hurt most by not building the stops,” said Martin. “As a research institution, our work focuses on the importance of access to opportunity for all communities, with a particular focus on racial equity.”

Two years after Kirwan supplied the maps, the Federal Highway Administration found Beavercreek to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act.

“Initially we just wanted to get the word out about the legal strategy that was used in this case,” said Martin, “but the more we learned about the whole story, the more we met with people, the more we started thinking that we could do more.”

The result is a 60 minute film, directed by Jamaal Bell, the Director of Strategic Communications for the Kirwan Institute. Bell also directed the institute’s first film, A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The eventual goal for Free to Ride, according to Martin, is distribution on public television, but the plan for the next year is to continue to build recognition by submitting it to more festivals. Kirwan has already developed an educational companion to the film for use with high school and college students.

“This is a real modern civil rights victory,” said Martin. “It’s really a story that transcends public transit – you see this not-in-my-backyard phenomenon happen with housing and schools, too – but this story shows the result and impact that a multi-racial coalition can have if they’re persistent and determined.”

Free to Ride is screening at Knowlton Hall on the OSU campus on Wednesday, March 1 at 5:30 p.m., with discussion to follow. The official Columbus premier of the film is scheduled for April 12 at the Gateway Film Center.

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