Sunday, June 2, 2013

Getting right with TED

I was honored to be asked to present a TED Talk last month in Traverse City, Michigan.

I thought about the message that could be delivered that would do justice to all that I have spoke to that have changed my life since I started making documentaries.  A friend helped me with a couple or slides of some of the incredible heroes that have dedicated their lives to standing up for the voiceless, the forgotten and cast aside.  Being that I had never been asked to talk at anything where the time constraints were so tight, or so strict, I prepared more than I had in the past for the 15 minutes.

I wanted to seize the opportunity; to tell people about how they could do better, about how small moments can make big difference.  As I prepared I found it difficult to get it down to the fifteen minutes as I wrote notes, anecdotes, and a few lines that I thought would grab the attention of the 1,000 people who would be watching live.  The pressure was on…could I do this, could I seize this opportunity to really express myself, my message and the relevance of my work in 15 minutes.

As the day got closer, I was still dragging in new thoughts and sentences, struggling to figure out where I would edit, what would resonate, the tone at which it should be delivered to strike the right chord.  It was exhausting, though I never outwardly wanted anyone to know that I cared about it, as I thought that caring and failing would be far worse than being seemingly indifferent and failing.  (I know this sounds so ridiculous but it is an ego thing that is not easily shaken, and is mostly a defense for times when feeling insecure.)

Finally it had come.  I was on the final leg of my flight from Detroit to Traverse City and was on the phone with my friend Chip.  We were talking but I was really thinking about my schedule, the sound check that I had that day, the talk…my god the talk ran through my head like Carl Lewis—trying to make it a bit faster but still making it impactful. Then, in a moment when I stopped to actually listen to what Chip was saying, I heard “Man, just speak from your heart—tell your story, that is what will be most impactful.”

I hung up and got on the plane.  When I got to the sound check I said I would scrap the slides that I sent in… I would just stand on the stage with a handheld microphone and tell the story of how I got here, the struggles, pain and tears that people had shared with me that had changed me.  The difference and opportunity that I saw for me to help and the generosity that had been extended to help me do it.

After all of the preparation, all of the editing, rewriting, and practicing—I scrapped it all and stood on that stage and told the easiest story of all—mine.  It was the abridged version, as I still only had 15 minutes, but it was the way it had been from the very first time I was asked to speak—holding back tears as I could see the faces and hear the voices of those I hope my films help.

It wasn't perfect, it showed all of my flaws, as a speaker, a storyteller and as a man—and that was best message I could have hoped to deliver.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Gift From A Friend

When we were shooting These Storied Streets we were in Columbus, Ohio.  We went to where we had been told many homeless had built tents along the tracks.  We were told it was unsafe, dirty, and the “ugly part of town”—perfect!

We cautiously approached and after a short time found ourselves sitting with 3 men and a woman.  They were honest, intelligent, and unfortunately didn't want to be filmed.  We sat anyway, listening to where they came from and what had brought them to this point in their lives.

As we got up to walk away, one of the guys pulled out a pocket watch.  It was old, very beat up.  I asked him where he had gotten it and he teared up and said “A gift from a friend.” I never got anymore information, he wasn't willing to share it.

Today (tomorrow for the printed version) Lawrence Toppman wrote a really kind article about the documentary films I have/am producing.  He went into a lot of detail, good and bad, but mostly good.  I read the article and thought of that man in Columbus today.  This opportunity, to chase these stories and the dream of telling them, has been a gift from my friends. 

I am the front man of the band, but the music sounds like shit without the rest of you.  Thank you for your support, for your kind words, your encouragement when I needed it most and for kindness you have extended to me and my family in support of the effort.  

You make this possible, you make the difference and are vital in creating positive change.  Thank you for allowing me to be the front man of a really kick-ass band.



Monday, October 8, 2012

Everything Looked Different This Time

I went back to Kathmandu for the second time in just a month to start the production on our filmWaitingfor Mamu.  I had tried to give the crew a heads up on what we would experience, the workingconditions, the cultural differences and everything that was so far away from our America.

When we arrived this time everything felt a little different.  It wasn't just that it was familiar or that I was prepared for what was in store, it seemed far greater than that.  It not only looked different, but in a very unexpected way, it felt almost sacred.  I was sitting on the edge of my bed the first night, trying to put my finger on what it was—on what had changed this time, what was skewing the way that I saw this place.  I couldn't.  I chalked it up to being over tired from the nearly 30 hours of sitting on a plane.

The next day I went back to ECDC, back to Pushpa and the children, and as I walked in the gate Prashna, that little man that a month earlier walked out of the prison gates in Pochara with me, came running from the house-- a smile on his face, his arms wide open, running as fast as he possibly could. I held back the tears that welled up and I suddenly knew was so completely different.  Though I had seen Prashna the day before, he in fact came with Pushpa to pick us up at the airport and fell asleep in my arms as we drove back the house, it wasn't until now that I could identify what had changed.  I had come back.

For Prashna, as with most of the children living at the Pushpa’s orphanage, they get used to people coming to help and I sense that they get used to people saying they will return.  But for these kids disappoint, the pain of leaving a parent, and the pain of seeing other “brother and sisters” leave the house when their parents return from prison, all have become common.  Their skin has grown thick. I sensed that we were friends the first time I came, but coming back changed everything about our relationship.  I promised to come back and a month later I did, very few people in their lives have promised them anything—let alone followed through—with the only exception being Pushpa.

I realized as I stood their holding this 3 year old boy that I was truly “uncle” now—that I was part of his world, his family, and the same could be said for the other children.  I was honored, and I was crushed by the feelings that ran through me in that moment.  I didn't cry then but I did in the silence and dark of my room that night.  All happy tears, grateful, hopeful for them and hopeful that I could live up to such a great trust.

When I left this time Prashna told Pushpa that he would not cry and he didn't.  He laughed and smiled, though he seemed close to tears at times.  I suppose he didn't cry because now he knows that I will be back—that I can’t stay away.  That he and the other children are part of my heart… and I will always be uncle.

I am thankful and I know that I will return.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

September 25, 2012

Alaina Beverly

Donald Gatlin


Reps. Alcee L. Hastings and Eddie Bernice Johnson bring Director/Producer Tom Morgan to Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON, DC – Members of Congress Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL 23rd District) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX 30th District) hosted an exclusive congressional screening of These Storied Streets, a soon-to-be-released documentary film, produced by film director Tom Morgan, about the lives, trials, fears and personal triumphs of individuals experiencing homelessness across America. The film was screened in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in an effort to share the realities of homelessness in America with policymakers.

Tom Morgan characterized the film as providing a “window” into the struggles of homelessness. He said, “the more people we talk to who know homelessness first hand—families, veterans, young adults—the more I realize that they live lives very similar to mine and yours. When I hear how they have come to find themselves homeless, I know we could all be just a few missteps away from finding ourselves in the same situation. And as they struggle to get out, the rest of society sees them as a nuisance or an eye soar, if they even see them at all…Then there are these incredible stories of those who have committed their lives to fighting homelessness. These stories, coupled with the fact that right now homelessness is growing at an unprecedented rate in America, is the genesis behind These Storied Streets. The film will provide a window into their struggles, question stereotypes and change the way you feel about homelessness.”

The ninety minute event was followed by question and answer with Director/Producer Tom Morgan, and National Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director, Neil Donovan, who is also featured in the film. These Storied Streets chronicles the lives of a diverse population of homeless individuals—Morgan shares the often untold stories of individuals experiencing homelessness and emphasizes the critical need for individual action, community leadership, and policy reform.

National Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director, Neil Donovan said, “As lawmakers wrestling with how best to support and preserve our nation’s social safety nets, These Storied Streets hits The Hill with more impact and insight than any recent documentary. These Storied Streets travels the roads of forgotten America only to find the most memorable of people whose lives are marred by persistent poverty and filled with expressions of hope. The film succeeds through a first-person objective analysis of homelessness in the United States, from personal tragedies to individual triumphs.”  

“I was pleased to host the screening of These Storied Streets,” said Congressman Hastings. “The film addresses the gravely important issue of homelessness in all of its manifestations across this nation.  Tom Morgan lifts up what I call ‘stories of gigantic proportions’. . . the stories of men, women and children are too often overlooked. This film is a reminder both of why we in Congress do the work we do, and that one person can make a tremendous difference in the lives of those who are without a home.”


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Knowing how much I don't know

I recently returned from Nepal during the pre-production work for Waiting for Mamu.  Everyone said the trip would “change my life.”  Most spoke about a spiritual enlightenment that would take place—a peace that would wash over me from being at such a place.  Others thought the change would be different and that I would find religious relationship of deeper meaning.  I truthfully didn't know what to expect, or if I would know  enlightenment even if it walked up and hit me on the head.

What I ultimately found in this journey across the world was simple, beautiful and moving.  I saw children smile. 

Having four children of my own, one might assume I see this all the time, and I do.  My kids laugh and smile all the time and are extremely happy.  So what’s the difference?.  At first there wasn't one--the 44 children I met ran around, played and laughed just like my kids.  They climbed onto my lap, just as my kids do, and were on the receiving end of tickles—just as my kids are--as they begged for me to stop. “Uncle”, they called me.  They were kids, no different than my own.

Later in the week and deeper into the trip, we talked about the interviews and logistics for filming the movie later next month.  I asked specific questions about each child to determine how we best tell their story.  Pushpa shared a story for each child, where they came from and how long they had been there. It was then that I was jarred as the reality and the severity of their pasts were made clear—words like child-trafficking, rape, abandonment, torture awoke me from a deep sleep of suburban American isolation.  Stories of the children not eating for days, of being traded as child laborers, sold as prostitutes, of watching parents killed in front of them and ultimately, after all of this, they had landed on the floor of a prison. These stories played horrifically through my head while I watched them play, just like my kids, in the courtyard outside.

It wasn't the countryside, the temples, the Buddhist monks or statues that had made this impact; it was the resilience of the human spirit, of these kids, as they found hope and peace from their terrible pasts and the gift of a woman determined to re-write the course of their lives.

They smiled, Pushpa smiled, and all seemed right with the world.


Monday, March 26, 2012

The Ripple Effect

As we get close to completion of These Storied Streets, or whatever the name ends up being when we are through, I often wonder about the impact that we have made or that we might make.  The goal of the film has always been to not just raise awareness but to call people to take action, to create change themselves, to make a difference in someone’s life by reaching out.

I told a friend that I get emails from time to time about people that have decided to help because they were made more aware by our film clip on the website, a conversation with a member of our crew, or by something they heard about the film.  I said of all of the things that have happened along the way, these are when I feel best—when I feel like we are getting closer to what we set out to do and when I hope that the ripples in the waters of lives go far.  At least they were the most impactful.

The other night my kids, my wife and I were messing around playing a game that my daughter Kylie had been taught at a recent acting class.  It was a game of improv and was quite funny.  We laughed and joked as we each took our turns trying our hand at acting and humor.  We come up with a lot of stuff like this and these games provide some hilarious moments that I will never forget as a father.  But tonight, for a couple of seconds, the laughing stopped.  My son Bryan, who is 10, referred to someone as a “hobo” basically a bum.  I stopped and said, “Bryan, let’s not use those kinds of words.” He said ok but I could tell by the look on his face he wasn’t sure why.  I explained that those were words used often to describe the homeless, usually in a derogatory way.  I thought we would just go on with the game but I looked over to find Bryan crying.

I took him aside and asked what was wrong.  He said he was so sorry and just couldn’t stop crying.  I again said it was ok, he really didn’t mean anything by it and he certainly didn’t say it with any sort of malice.  He looked up and said, “Dad, when you said that all I could think of is Mr. Phillip and the last thing I want to do is say anything bad about him—I think he’s been through enough, don’t you?”

Phillip Lewis is a 30 year old man that happens to live in Charlotte, and happens to be in our film.  He was a stay-at-home dad but when his wife lost her job, they went through the little savings they had, and neither could find work so she took their kids and moved back to Baltimore with her family.  Phillip was not welcome, as it seems being the man makes you the provider and when he couldn’t provide the doors were closed for him.  I realize that I have one side of the story, but knowing Phillip, I believe that it is the way that he says it is.  Phillip is now homeless and lives at a men’s shelter.  He gets up every day and walks an hour to work, 5,872 steps to be exact, with 70 pounds (everything he owns) on his back, works a full day as a cook or a dishwasher—depending on what the restaurant needs—and then loads up the 70 pound sea bag and walks an hour back to the shelter.  Rain, snow, heat, whatever… 5 days a week he makes that walk.  With what he pays in support for his sons, the bills to keep a phone on, etc. Phillip, like nearly 40% of the homeless population, just doesn’t make enough money to afford an apartment.  To try to help, we started having Phil over for dinner once a week.  While he was here we would do his laundry.  From time to time he would stay over, but the logistics of getting everyone to where they needed to be in the morning made him feel like he was a bother, so he didn’t stay much.

What was amazing is that the meal and the laundry were secondary to the time he spent with all of us.  He couldn’t wait to play my son Bryan in basketball or ping-pong, he would challenge my 5 year old in whatever Xbox game he may know how to play, and he would talk to my daughter about playing basketball or books that she was reading.  We all look forward to having him as much as he looks forward to coming.

I have to say the sadness of Phil leaving is more than just seeing a friend going.  It is the reality of where he goes and what he goes through between the time we see him and the next.  He has recounted for me the ridicule, harassment, and humiliation that he suffers on a pretty regular basis.  He smiles and shakes it off and says “It’s all part of the journey.”  He has an amazing heart.  We gave him 5 winter jackets before he kept one, always finding someone who needed it more than he did and giving it away.  I found a guy that wanted to give him a bike, but before he could even deliver it, Phil said “listen, I know this old guy who can really use it—can you check and see if it is ok for me to give it away.”  He promptly did, smiling as he received it knowing HE was going to be able to help someone with it.  He is an incredible guy. 

Phillip has changed us as a family and we will never be able to repay him for all that he has taught us about ourselves.  It was most evident that night, with my son Bryan crying, fearing that he in some way had said something “bad” that would be insulting or further humiliating to Mr. Phillip.  This is when I thought that maybe this “ripple” was a little bigger and maybe it would move a little longer—not because of just Phillip or because of Bryan, but because of the relationship, the friendship, that would not allow my son to ever look at a homeless person in judgement.  Instead I do believe he looks at them in awe, appreciating where they have been, what they face every day, and the mountain they are climbing trying to get out.

My son Bryan has a great heart, following in the footsteps of his friend, Mr. Phillip.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Understanding the Greatness of MLK

I realized yesterday how incredible Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. truly was.  On Monday I heard his words, read them on the internet and heard them as I passed by stations on the television and radio. Each time I found myself captivated.  I have to tell you, in the past MLK Day was simply a day that my bank closed and my kids had the day off of school.  But this year, for some reason, it meant something to me.
I reflected on what he had done, how he had engaged and empowered the powerless, how he captivated and encouraged them all to push in the same direction.  Maybe it was because this year I have seen the people that he spoke too, those cast out by our society, marginalized and left without hope.  Myself and several others that worked on These Storied Streets, the documentary on homelessness, experienced firsthand the feelings of those treated as second class in our society.  The desperation, loneliness and pain that seem to grab a hold of each of us as we listened to them tell their stories.
There is an issue in my town that has bothered me, that is so wrong minded and suppressing to the homeless that I thought “I can do this… I can follow in the footsteps of Dr. King.  I am going to organize a protest.”  The issue is anti-panhandling laws that have been instituted.  The law essentially makes it illegal to ask for money, for help.  I am of the mind that you can decide when asked if and when you want to help, but it is everyone’s First Amendment right to ask.  So I set out to do it, to protest, to stand up for what is right.  I mean really, how hard could it be?  With all of the support that I had received from so many along the way, getting 100 people to show up on their lunch hour to protest should be a piece of cake—right?
This is when I really began to understand and to really know the incredible gift the Dr. King had.  For what I did not expect or anticipate was fear.  I assumed it would be easy because I assumed that verbal support automatically translated into action.  What I know now is that is far from the truth.  There is a great fear that I realize now of standing up—of standing out—of taking active participation in an issue.  A fear that in doing so they will be associated with “that group” they protest in defense of, associated with the issue, and to a certain extent maybe with me—this crazy guy that has gone taking up this issue that a year and a half ago he knew nothing about.  Interestingly, what I have heard from those who have responded by email was something like “I will support you in all other ways, but professionally it might be potentially damaging to take part in a public protest.”   Or more interesting was a long time and dear friend who said, and I paraphrase, “I’ve been approached by several of ‘those guys’ and most of them were drunk, so sorry I cannot support this.”
I thought about this a lot today.  I guess it is sometimes my nature to dwell on the losses more than all of those who have said they will be out, with additional friends, in full force and are 100% supportive of the effort—(and thankfully there are plenty of them).  What I thought about the most was how we have lose ourselves in our society.  Suddenly we rationalize that our clients would rather have someone who stands for nothing, who sits and watches from the sidelines, than someone who they may have one issue they disagree on.  We seem to have become a place where we are afraid of saying what is important to us.  And, sadly, we seem to have become a society where people tend to stand on the side of those that they know will win rather than on the side they feel is right.
So I press on with my protest plans, with a great respect for those who are willing to stand on the street that day with me, and an even greater respect for the work of Dr. King, for the masses that he was able to get to stand up for what they believed in, when it certainly would have been easier to sit on the sidelines and watch.
Thank you to all those who stand up, not just for this cause, but for all causes all over.

The protest will be at noon, February 1st at the corner of Trade and Tryon.  Email me at if you can help.
Oh, by the way, if you feel the way my dear friend feels about panhandling, I urge you to watch this clip.  It is not mine, but one done by 60 Minutes.  Pay particularly close attention at about the 10:58 mark of the clip and think about how you feel about panhandling when it is over.