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Webinar details Project Shiphunt and career inspiration

Tirrea Billings promotes social justice using film/media

Courtesy Photos Project Shiphunt participants from Arthur Hill High School were selected to participate in 2011, searching for shipwrecks and documenting their adventure. Now, Tirea Billings, second from right, is moving forward in her filmmaking career after being exposed to the craft when she was on the Project Shiphunt team. Tirrea Billings operates a camera at right.

A webinar, Using Film to Drive Social Change, will tell an inspirational story about how a high school experience powered a jump into a filmmaking career for Tirrea Billings.

The webinar, from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, is open to the public here and all over the world. Anyone with internet access can register at https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/2160293366302456334. Registration is required.

In 2011, five high school students undertook the adventure of a lifetime during Project Shiphunt to hunt for a shipwreck, investigate its identity, and document it in 3D for future generations. Accompanied by a team of scientists and historians from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and other partners, the students conducted a full-fledged research mission, as they searched the deep waters of northeastern Lake Huron.

“I remember my high school counselor suggesting that I apply for this opportunity,” Billings said.

That ended up being one of the best decisions of her career.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be chosen, and I definitely didn’t expect it to be as incredible of an experience as it was,” Billings recalled.

Originally from Saginaw, Billings was one of five students from Arthur Hill High School to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime project.

“It was really impactful, and it kind of just showed me how big the world is and how opportunities are endless if you seek them,” Billings said.

On Thursday, join Billings to learn more about this experience and how it helped shape her love for film and storytelling, her journey as an entrepreneur, and how she uses her gifts as an activist in digital spaces.

Billings explained that the webinar will focus on how being involved in Project Shiphunt “paved the way towards discovering my love and my passion for storytelling and filmmaking. And then I’m going to dive into how I further developed that growth in college and after college as freelancer, and then eventually starting my company, Reflct Media, and how I use film and media production as tools for activism and social change.”

She started Reflct in 2018 with her business partner Monte Jones.

“Reflct is a docu-style storytelling company whose mission is to uplift and highlight stories around social justice, human rights, and the experiences of people of color,” Billings explained. “So we really aim to be a platform for marginalized communities in order to uplift their voices and their experiences that are often left at the margins or misrepresented or even ignored completely, especially by mainstream media.”

She said especially now amid a divided political climate and the Black Lives Matter movement, advocating for social change is vital.

“During this time, we’ve been doing a lot more community work,” Billings noted. “So really getting out there and documenting what’s happening, whether that’s through photography or through video, going to a lot of the different protests and community-organizing events. Mainly in the Kalamazoo/Grand Rapids area because that’s where we’re located.”

In addition to documenting community actions and reactions, Reflct Media has worked with a number of notable organizations that advocate for social justice.

“We work with a lot of nonprofits and organizations that are rooted in social justice work,” Billings explained.

Reflct Media has worked with the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Rootead, Teach 313, Strategic Community Partners, the Society for History and Racial Equity, and the Sojourner Truth Institute of Battle Creek, among others.

“As a Black woman, and as a person of color, I really saw the need to build a platform that centers our stories,” Billings said. “Again, in a world that often completely silences our lived experiences and our realities.”

Billings’ webinar is being supported by a grant from the Community Foundation of Northeast Michigan Women’s Giving Circle. An honorarium to the presenter will be funded with the grant.

As for Project Shiphunt, Billings is grateful for the experience, which not only taught her about the science and technology behind searching for shipwrecks, but introduced her to her passion of filmmaking.

“It was really exciting,” she recalled. “But I remember specifically being more intrigued and interested in the film production side of it.”

Film is her platform of choice because she loves all the ways you can reach and inspire people through visual productions.

“I have always been a writer, and passionate about writing and telling stories that way,” Billings said. “And so when I discovered film and media, I really liked how it was a visual representation of the stories I wanted to tell. And I think film is so powerful because of that visual component. I’m a firm believer that the images that we consume help us shape and understand the world around us.”

She explained that we have to strive for a more well-rounded perspective.

“If we’re constantly consuming one side of the story, or one side of some experience without necessarily having the opportunity to be exposed to an alternative perspective, then I feel like our views become very limited,” she said. “That’s why I appreciate the visual component of film.”

Katie Wolf, liaison to the Friends of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, explained that Project Shiphunt was a partnership with Sony and Intel and NOAA.

“So the students got to use this really amazing 3D technology,” she said. “And sonar technology, to identify shipwrecks. And they were fortunate enough to identify two — one was the M.F. Merrick, which was an 1863 Schooner that sank just off of Presque Isle in 1889. It was hit by another ship in the fog. And then the other ship that they found was the Etruria, which was only three years old. It was a ship that was built in Cleveland, and it sank in 1905.

“So that was a pretty extraordinary experience for these students to have that opportunity,” Wolf continued. “Not too many high school students can say that they found shipwrecks.”

Wolf explained that originally they were going to have Billings come in person and present at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, but since it has been closed because of COVID-19 restrictions, the format was switched to Go To Webinar.

“She has her master’s degree now from Western Michigan University in film studies,” Wolf added about Billings. “And she now works for Kalamazoo College for the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. She’s using her filmmaking skills to serve as an activist, taking inspiration from her experience with the Sanctuary, and turning it into a career. And it’s been really exciting to keep in touch with her over the years.”

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