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Filmmaker Terry Strauss Works for Social Justice Through the Lens

Terry Strauss has lived in Mill Valley since 1979 and on the same Sycamore Park street for more than 20 years. She met her husband, “bad boy” Mike White, at the old Sweetwater.

MVP: Where are you from?
TS: I’m originally from Darien, Connecticut. I transferred to Berkeley from the University of Wisconsin because they had an undergraduate school of Criminology. It was 1968 and we were trying to stop the war and end the draft. I got very involved in alternatives to prison and alternatives to the criminal justice system because it seemed like anyone who wasn’t going along with the war was being locked up.

MVP: What’s a girl from Darien doing studying prison reform?
TS: It all started with a class at Wisconsin based on the book Primitive Rebels by Eric Hobsbawm. It was all about the social protest banditry that occurred centuries ago, the true stories of Robin Hood guys. My basic theory at the time, and I still think it’s true, is that if you develop alternative programs for people who are doing things because of their situation, if you have that for kids headed down the wrong path, then the number of people that actually have to be locked up for real criminal behavior becomes small.
Think about it, wealthy people have the resources to send their kids on Outward Bound or to volunteer in South America or to other special programs if they get off track. Yes, of course some people need to be locked up, but there are others who have a chance.

MVP: And did you move here after Berkeley?
TS: Oh no, I was all over. Out of college I got a job working for John Lindsay, the mayor of New York. I didn’t have a masters degree, but I had that Berkeley experience and Berkeley was at the forefront of the movement.

MVP: How did you go from criminal justice to making documentaries?
TS: After many years, the criminal justice system was changing and I knew I couldn’t stay in that business. When I was asked to work on a project building super-maximum security prisons in the middle of the desert on Indian land, I knew it was time to go. So I moved to Aspen.

MVP: And went from prison reform to ski bum?
TS: Sort of, but then I heard they were looking for someone to do the weather on the local television station and I became the weather girl. It was a little cable station and we had a lot of freedom. I quickly realized I liked being able to tell stories.
Eventually I decided to move back to San Francisco and I got my first job on a show for KBHK-TV. It was social issues oriented. Then I got a job working for a show called The World of People. It was a nationally syndicated, half-hour magazine show and the producers were in Sausalito. So in 1979 I moved out here.

MVP: And did you know Michael then?
TS: No I met him at the Sweetwater. He had on a t-shirt with cut off sleeves and red paint splattered across the front that said 'Bad Boy.' I said, 'There’s my future husband.'

MVP: Where did you live?
TS: I lived on Stadium Avenue, behind . I lived there for almost 10 years. When (daughter) Sasha was five months old, we moved to a rental on Valley Circle. Five years later, we bought the house across the street from the rental, and then five years later we moved back into the rental to remodel. In 2000, we moved back into our own house for good.

MVP: And you’ve stayed in the film and production business?
TS: For years I was finding my way as a producer. I was in my early 30s and didn’t have a lot of mentors. But eventually I got more and more work. Then I just tried to make it a mixture of broadcast and corporate work. I did some educational stuff for Scholastic, some CD-Roms and other things. I did some pieces for Lifetime. I did a fun show about books, First Edition, a magazine style show about authors. One of the most unforgettable was Maurice Sendak. I would mix that kind of work in with corporate jobs for companies like HP and Kaiser.

MVP: And are you still interested in social justice? 
TS: It took me a while to get back to stuff that had social or political impact. When Sasha was born I realized I wanted to get back into the meaningful work. The shorter, more motivational work also allowed me to be home more. I didn’t have long shoots and edits. So as much as possible I did things that were foundation funded or funded for a non-profit.

MVP: What are some of the more meaningful projects you’ve done?
TS: I did a video called I Wish I Were a Princess. It was only 14 minutes and it was interviews with children ages 4-13 talking about living poor in the city. These were homeless or public housing kids whose mothers were often abuse victims. The kids talked about the things that are so painful to us in a very matter-of-fact way. At the end, when we asked the kids what they wished for, every single one of them said something about wanting to help others, and to keep other kids from feeling fear or hunger. The title came from a little girl who said that if she were a princess she could help all the people to have a place to live. These were kids who are in the worst possible circumstances. It just showed us that the simple core of their spirit is generous and elegant.  That’s what we lose when we lose these kids.
I also did a documentary for Disney in the early 90s on learning disabilities. It was called The Mind’s Eye, the Experience of Learning. Disney ended up airing that film every year for a month for ten years because there was nothing else out there about it. Every time it aired they would get calls from parents begging for help. People were in so much pain and at the time there was nothing out there to help them.

MVP: What are you working on now?
TS:  It’s a really fun project, a series called Ultimate Restorations. It’s eight one-hour specials on all these restoration projects with Bob McNeil who is a passionate restoration guy. One is on the “Movie Star Car,” the locomotive that was used in all the old movies. It was in Petticoat Junction and Back to the Future. There is also an 1891 Steam Yacht, the world’s largest pipe organ, and a carousel. We have one hour on a World War II spy plane and we’re now editing a 1927 fire truck from Kansas City. We have a preview deal with PBS going out in September and they have offered it to their stations nationally.

MVP: Do you think Mill Valley is a good place to raise kids?
TS: Yes, in many ways it’s a fabulous place for kids to grow up. The kids can walk to school, there’s so much natural beauty and so many places for them to explore. Kids are encouraged to be themselves and there’s a lot more openness about quirkiness and being different.
At the same time there is also a great amount of pressure to achieve. One of the unseen consequences of this affluent town, with a large number high achievers, is that a lot of parenting is done with the “boardroom mentality.” There are some parents who are absolutely driven in their control of their children’s lives. Potlucks are organized on Excel sheets, school lunch programs are scrutinized within an inch of their life, and children are scheduled with these corporate type calendars.
Mill Valley’s not alone in this, but it seems that kids just don’t go out in the street to play baseball anymore because they’re “working” at baseball. It’s part of what they’re doing to get somewhere. I’m not suggesting wasting time is good and the kids hanging out at 7-Eleven certainly aren’t doing themselves any favors, but there’s got to be a balance.

MVP: What do you like to do in Mill Valley?
TS: I love so much about Mill Valley. I love the of course and . I like to hike the mountain and I love Tennessee Valley. When the kids were school age, we would drop them off and there were always a few moms who would get together and do a loop. That was so great. I never get tired of driving toward San Francisco and over the bridge, and driving this way and seeing the Headlands. Even just driving up Miller Avenue. I never get tired of that. Sasha and I always used to say, 'There’s our Mt. Tam!' We said it when she was just a tiny thing in a car seat, and now she’s graduating from college and we’re still saying it.

whitney July 19, 2012 at 02:43 PM
great attitude and perspective! Would love to reconnect. Whitney
Tracy H. July 20, 2012 at 02:46 PM
Wonderful interview with one of our local treasures, Terry Strauss! I remember those loops on the mountain after school drop off--good times.
terry July 28, 2012 at 10:03 PM
Thanks and Absolutely! Email me at tlstrauss@aol.com.

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