By C.J. Hirschfield
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In Oakland, a remarkable woman warrior for social justice has worked hard–and successfully– to bend that arc over a ten-year period, and a new documentary reminds us just how powerful one passionate person can be.
Clarissa’s Battle, with its Bay Area premiere June 4 at the 21st San Francisco DocFest, follows the journey of Clarissa Doutherd, a single and formerly unhoused mom, whose heartbreaking effort to obtain affordable childcare for her son was channeled into activism for the cause.
Producer/director Tamara Perkins accomplishes much in this excellent and beautifully shot documentary. She has chosen a particularly charismatic person to feature. Not only are we inspired by Clarissa’s commitment, resilience, passion, humility and humor, but we are schooled in the history of national efforts to provide affordable child care and early learning, much of it thwarted by institutional racism and sexism. From its beginning with chattel slavery in the 1800s, to WWII investment and then de-investment, to a near -successful vote in Congress that was ultimately vetoed by President Nixon, Clarissa’s Battle brings us to the onset of the pandemic, where the issue is greatly exacerbated by essential workers’ inability to find affordable places for their kids to play and learn.
The factual information included in the film is presented with a background of beautiful animated drawings with a warm, watercolor feel.
For those not completely familiar with just how much blood, sweat, tears—and time—it takes to work through the political system to enact real change, Clarissa’s Battle provides a most excellent primer.
There is the initial organizing, and advocating to electeds. The footage of longtime Alameda County Supervisor and passionate children’s advocate Wilma Chan shot prior to her untimely death is a poignant reminder of her decades of dedicated service.
To put a measure on the ballot to finance childcare for homeless and low -and middle -income families of color, Clarissa and her team needed to hold rallies, attend hearings, gather signatures, create phone banks, organize get- out- the- vote efforts, build coalitions, establish and staff a campaign headquarters, and travel to the nation’s capital to meet with senators open to supporting the cause. They do all of this with a positive attitude—and lots of (pre-Covid) hugs.
As Clarissa trudges through Oakland’s hills to drop off door-hangers, her quote “Heat, steps and an old burrito” succinctly summarizes the unglamorous aspect of grassroots activism. “Neverless, she persisted,” the expression adopted by the feminist movement in 2017, could not be more appropriate here.
Accompanying her through every step of her journey is her son Xavier, who was only three when the campaign began. His presence in the film, in addition to showcasing a sassy and sweet young man, serves to show another side of Clarissa; the devoted mom, whose love and dreams for her son are what started her on her political journey.
But the journey doesn’t come without a cost; in Clarissa’s case, elevated blood pressure that at one point lands her in the hospital.
Ultimately there is failure and a pandemic, and then resilience and success, with Alameda County’s Measure C bringing over $3 billion for childcare and its teachers. Through it all is Clarissa; always humble, and constantly acknowledging the committed coalition in which she serves.
Clarissa and team are now joining a national fight, which is gaining momentum. “The battle is just beginning,” we’re told.
Acknowledging the significant gains of the movement around the country, Clarissa says that “What’s unstoppable is also my mouth.”
Clarissa’s Battle will screen at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on June 4, and available for streaming June 1 through June 12.
The 21st San Francisco Documentary Festival full schedule of In-Person and Virtual Screenings is here.
Tamara Perkins is an award-winning filmmaker and changemaker focused on documentaries that inspire transformative change through dialogue, healing and advocacy through her company Apple of Discord Productions. Perkins’ films (Life After Life (2018), Rebound (2021), Clarissa’s Battle) were each inspired by a personal connection to the subject matter and provide an often overlooked proximity in storytelling. As a national speaker, Perkins’ repertoire spans from filmmaking to prison reform and human rights. She is a recipient of Evident Change’s Media for a Just Society Award. Perkins’ work has become a catalyst for change, learning and advocacy for some of our nation’s most misunderstood and overlooked issues.
Read an interview with Perkins.
Clarissa Doutherd is the Executive Director of Parent Voices Oakland, an East Bay chapter of Parent Voices California. Clarissa has been a strong advocate for mothers like herself who were caught in the crosshairs of ineffective public policy. As a collaborative movement builder, Clarissa has forged deep partnerships with large local government agencies including the Alameda County Social Services Agency, Public Health, and Behavioral Health Services. After stepping into leadership as the Co-Chair on the Alameda County Early Childhood Policy Committee with First 5 of Alameda County, Clarissa led efforts to refocus the group to become a cross sector collaborative which brings together community based organizations, parents and service providers to advance innovative strategies for County-wide systems change; and works to elevate parent leadership in public policy. Clarissa has received the following honors: Gloria Steinem “Woman of Vision” award; East Bay Women’s Political Alliance’s “Advocate of the Year”; First 5 of Alameda County “Parent of the Year” award, an award for excellence in Human Relations from the Alameda County Human Relations Commission. Clarissa resides in Oakland, California with her son Xavier.
To learn more read “Clarissa’s Battle and the Campaign for Child Care Subsidies” at Early Learning Nation magazine.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”