A year ago, Shandell Maxwell created a local sensation with “Black Behind the Orange Curtain,” a documentary film focusing on the social struggles of different minorities in Orange County. The film, which Maxwell created with a budget of only $700, received recognition from many local organizations and community members.

In addition to opening the eyes of many to the plight of black people in Orange County, the film inspired Maxwell to think even bigger. The Southern California native, who graduated from Anaheim’s Western High School and received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Management and Leadership from Pepperdine University, has taken her activism to another level.

She continues to reach out to her community and will eventually organize a community forum to identify further needs. She wants to unite all the black and nonblack communities via a community forum to discuss social concerns and opportunities to work together to find solutions.

This summer, Maxwell will attend Antioch University and begin working to earn her PhD in Leadership and Change. Maxwell said she plans to continue serving the Orange County community until she sees it thriving.

This week, she sat down with Voice of OC to talk about where she has been and her plans for the future.

Tell me about your upbringing and what made you choose the path you are currently on?

When I was 14, I lived in Riverside and I experienced my first confrontation with discrimination from a police officer. I remember being outside and seeing a police car parked in front of my neighbor’s house. Later I learned that the officer was responding to a break-in that occurred at my neighbor’s house.

At that time, my family and I lived in a newly developed area where my parents were able to buy a house and have it built from the ground up. As I waited for my sister’s school bus to arrive, the officer noticed me and immediately ordered me to “freeze.”

So the officer saw me there, pulled his gun out, and told me to get down. I got down and put my hands behind my head. Then the police officer accused me of being in the wrong neighborhood. While he was telling me to do these things, and walking towards me with his gun pointed at my head, I began to see things in slow motion and I was flooded with confusion.

As he was putting the handcuffs on me and after reading me my rights, he began to ask, “why are you here?” And I keep telling him “I live here.” And he kept saying “no you don’t.” During this dialogue he called for backup. The other officer arrived as I was contesting that I lived right next door to the house that was burglarized. I then told the officers that “I can prove it, my dad is sleeping let me go knock on his window.”

They finally gave me a chance. Still handcuffed, we walked to my dad’s bedroom sliding door. I knocked on the window and my dad finally opened the blinds and he actually started laughing a little bit because it was one of those moments of disbelief!

The officers eventually apologized and that was my first experience with discrimination. After that experience I kept wondered why they didn’t believe I lived in my neighborhood. That experience has always been with me. I think a seed was planted for me to use my experiences to help my community become more socially aware and sensitive.

From that experience, I learned how to be compassionate about others. I also had to look at the world around me differently after that experience; you can say I had a paradigm shift. I learned that discrimination exists and even those people who are sworn to protect you can also be against you.

What do you think is lacking in the Orange County community to help promote social awareness of discrimination and social injustices?

Orange County needs a centralized place for the community to feel comfortable enough to talk about social matters that are affecting them, blacks and non-blacks.

There are several black organizations serving Orange County, I’m just not fully aware of how active these organizations are in the community as a whole. I’ve been to several community meetings over that last year where the Hispanic and Asian community are represented but in most cases I was the only black representative in the room, and I don’t have all the answers.

I truly believe a centralized and safe space to discuss social matters between different populations will induce social sensitivity and awareness in Orange County.

Can you explain the motive of creating the documentary “Black Behind the Orange Curtain?”

The purpose for the film and this movement is to help people understand that we are all in this together. Together we have to help Orange County thrive; differences aside. You might be someone who experiences a different struggle, but we can help understand each other by sharing our stories. One of the first things I wanted to do after graduate school was to write a blog about my experiences with discrimination and inequality here in Orange County.

But something was telling me to think bigger. And I was like, think bigger than a blog? Yes! And that’s when I decided to produce a film. I needed a bigger platform to help spread the word about recent acts of hate crimes in Orange County, such as the stories about the Yorba Linda family and Khalid Flimban who was found hanging in Laguna Hills.

I don’t consider myself a filmmaker but apparently I now am. In my opinion, the film, is a collaboration of everything I am passionate about, from creative arts to social empowerment and people; I put it all into the film.

Have you noticed any specific social change in Orange County that you attribute to a greater awareness brought about by your film?

I did two screenings of the film last fall at UCI when the film was released. And at those screenings is where I saw the initial impact of the stories and the message of the film.

I invited the community to come see the film and boy did the community come out! We had a diverse population of people that included white, black, Asian, Hispanic, disabled, nondisabled; it was a mix of people. After watching the film, we had a great discussion about the importance of the film and community engagement.

Those who attended also told stories about their own experiences with social injustices and offered comfort and words of encouragement to each other; it was as though color didn’t matter, it was all about comforting each other. So I was fortunate to witness the impact of storytelling and sharing at the screenings.

It goes back to the saying, “United we stand, divided we fall.” We have to stand together as a community, no matter what color, gender or sexual orientation.

What do you see as the primary road blocks to the growth of the African American community in Orange County?

A lot of it comes down to the availability of jobs and adequate income to meet the cost of living in Orange County. In terms of job availability, it’s also about having the skills needed to perform jobs that are in demand. In addition, Orange County is one of the most expensive places to live in the entire country. If you can’t get a job because of the lack of experience or because of stereotyping, then you can’t afford to stay in Orange County!

I’ve worked in the county for over 15 years and I have used my work ethics and ambition to thrive. In my opinion, being a part of the two percent black population in OC has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to employment because more often than not, hiring managers will hire people in which they’re familiar over someone unfamiliar; despite the latter having the desired skills.

In Orange County the people in charge of hiring are predominantly white, Asian, Hispanic and they are more likely to hire people they are familiar with; which is a disadvantage for the black job seekers. The advantage to working in Orange County as a black person is the ability to discount stereotypes and hopefully influence hiring managers to consider hiring more black people.

And again, it goes back to facilitating community forum that will allow people to gather and learn more about each other to help breakdown and discount misconceptions and stereotypes. .

Are you currently working on any other projects to promote awareness of social issues affecting the community?

My next project is going to involve facilitating a community forum for those who are interested in the black or nonblack community affairs. I want to know how the community identifies themselves culturally. And I want to know if they see themselves surviving or thriving in Orange County.

From there, my ultimate goal is to open up a cultural center in a strategically placed location. The cultural center will provide resources and programs to help intersect cultures as well as reintroduce the two percent black community to Orange County.

Kenia Torres is a part of Voice of OC’s youth media program and a UC Irvine student majoring in Literary Journalism. She grew up in Santa Ana. You can reach her directly at keniat@uci.edu

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