About "Spirit Song"

It’s like a proof for human connection: Every place has a song, and every people has a story. Art is the ultimate connector between generations and cultures. Within art, music is the language that unites us all. That was the concept behind our new film. Spirit Song explores the evolution of indigenous art in the United States, based on the album Voices of the Guardians, which is a collaboration between a 19 year old (!) Native American flautist, Gareth Laffely, with producer/pianist Lance Bendiksen and some of the brightest minds in Western music today, with the intention of bringing forward ancient Native American stories in a way that shows the modern relevance of indigenous stories and traditions.

A little backstory: when we were in the very early days of Citizen, we had some downtime from a conference in DC. We headed out of the convention center and made a beeline across The National Mall, straight into the National Museum of the American Indian. The vision for our startup agency was to help build awareness and generate market interest in underserved communities, and we were drawn to the Native American story early on, particularly because of the richness of the stories and traditions, but also because of the lack of current content that shares an optimistic message about these communities. This is a world of a million beautiful stories that should be celebrated and shared!

So when we were approached by “Visit The USA” to develop this film, we didn’t think twice! The assignment was, in part, to showcase the development of the Voices of the Guardians album while profiling the sacred tribal areas and nearby indigenous cultures that inspired it, as a way to drive interest in these locations for tourism. People travel for unique cultural experiences, and that market demand is what we’re hoping to nurture - driving tourism dollars to areas that need it most - while celebrating the stories these communities are sharing with us. We also had a chance to explore the unique sounds and the sense of place each location presented. It was inspiring to see how the characteristics of each location, from the climate to the animals, and even the sounds - like the sound of the waves crashing into boulders (in Maine) or flowing over shells (in Alaska) - influenced every aspect of local indigenous art, and how that influence continues to evolve today.

While the assignment to explore these local Native cultures was exciting, we were especially keen to help share a positive story for a community generally lacking them. Native American cultures have long been portrayed through a sort of tragic lens, and while there’s a great deal of tragedy in the collective Native American story, there is so much beauty and positivity. There’s a lot of room to show what’s good, and to celebrate the many cultures that have been here since time immemorial! It’s that beauty that Gareth and Lance are pulling forward with their album, to show the rest of the world that these cultures and their stories aren’t dead, and they’re certainly not irrelevant. Their stories are as relevant as ever.

What was hidden away and almost lost is a beacon of light in American history. And to say that we were honored and humbled to see that firsthand; to sit with Elders across the country, listen to their stories, hear their songs, and check out their artwork… that’s a huge understatement. It was the experience of a lifetime, along with filming the album recording sessions. The people we met were big hearted in a way I cannot describe, and I hope you feel even a fraction of that in watching the film. (We also shared this with an amazing crew, comprised of some of our own family members and the epically talented DP Jasper Newton, who can often be found jumping out of helicopters and filming on skis; and the always-inspiring photographer Daniel Volland, himself an Alaska veteran who moonlights as an optometrist for distant indigenous villages only reached by snow mobile. One of my favorite editors, Scott Gibney from Cutters, sat with me for no less than 4 weeks of story-weaving. (And we’re still friends!)

A note about that album: it’s incredible, and the people involved - including their families - are amazing (listen to Voices of the Guardians here). We started the film with the album recording sessions at Skywalker Sound in California. Skywalker Ranch is next-level for talent, but we can’t talk about it because of the NDA. What I can say, personally, is that being on the sound stage with the Skywalker Symphony or in the studio with Leslie Anne Jones while she’s mixing those epic sounds is to be exposed to feelings of bigness, like seeing a cathedral or ancient temple intended to show the power of the Almighty. Aside from Gareth, Lance, the Symphony and Jones, the room was filled in with other various legends: Charles Rose of the Muscle Shoals Swampers, Toby Scott who’s produced every Springsteen album there is, John Zoltek who is the conductor for Glacier National Symphony… And actor Wes Studi did the narration of various chiefs and sacred elders in his native Cherokee language. We stayed for the recording, and then set out across the country to visit the sacred Native places and communities that had inspired the songs on the album. You’ll see...

For now, the full 25 minute film is only available on GoUSA TV. Download it here.


An Investment in Water

A couple of months ago, we had the opportunity to create a documentary for Catholic Relief Services in El Salvador. Specifically we were tasked with creating a short for Azure, developed and led by my good friend Paul Hicks of CRS. Azure is a water development project that empowers local communities to manage their water systems by bringing technical and engineering expertise, training and financing to local water service providers.

The goal for the documentary was to give potential investors and those just interested in the project a way to understand the problem and give an overview of how Azure works to bring change to this large scale problem in Central America.

We had been working with Paul over the past couple months with design work and materials for investors, but it's one thing to talk and write about something versus being on the ground and seeing it in person.

A broken pipe being repaired by a team member from the Santa Cruz Michapa water co-op.

A broken pipe being repaired by a team member from the Santa Cruz Michapa water co-op.

The thing that struck me the most was the resiliency of the Salvadoran people. As a western outsider, I had no idea so many people do not have access to reliable water (almost 2/3 of Salvadoran water systems are in need of substantial work), even if they live in small towns and cities with existing piped infrastructure. It is typical that water is rationed during the day as well as completely unavailable on others. I kept thinking that there would be rioting in the streets if this were back home. But in my travels, I never saw bitterness or anger... just a resolve to figure out a way to live life and provide for the families regardless of hardship.

On days when piped water is unavailable, Dora and her daughter make a 45 minute round trip hike, three times a day, to obtain spring water. Each of them carrying a 5 gallon jug weighing approximately 40 pounds when full.

On days when piped water is unavailable, Dora and her daughter make a 45 minute round trip hike, three times a day, to obtain spring water. Each of them carrying a 5 gallon jug weighing approximately 40 pounds when full.

It also became apparent that on many levels, women play a significant role in finding the solution to this problem. I met a woman who ran a little restaurant in the beach side town of Tunco. She shared the story of how vital access was to her business, and how it had ripple effects into the community. Without clean, reliable water she would not be capable of maintaining her business, which meant she could no longer pay her employees, who in turn would not be able to pay for the educational needs of their children. The mayor of Santa Catarina Masahuat, has championed water in her community and has begun the hard work of improving the infrastructure system, knowing that the effort will go far beyond her term in office. Finally, I met Dora, the protagonist of our story. While the men in the family had to leave the home to earn wages, it was clear that the women of the family were responsible for the well-being and health of the household. Dora is a charming and articulate woman who knows there is a better future for her children. In the mean time, she rolls up her sleeves and makes the 45 minute round trip to a local clean stream three times a day when the tap is dry. When she described her dream, she simply asked for water 24 hours a day and that "would be a blessing."

Dora cleaning vegetables at "el chorro".

Dora cleaning vegetables at "el chorro".

When we started this company, this is the type of work we knew we wanted to pursue. We wanted to create and share stories that tapped into a larger understanding of humanity, and shed light on those voices that were typically unheard. This film is being screened at the Vatican for the Vatican Impact Investment Conference. We could not be more proud of supporting this incredible organization and doing our part in making the world a better place.

Evolution of An American Dream


I recently did a talk for Qualtrics for ExperienceWeek in Provo, UT. Usually I get asked to talk about work or something related to content/brands, but this was different. They wanted me to talk about a particular experience that shaped how I looked at life. At first, I was a bit hesitant. If anyone knows me well, I don't love to talk about feelings. But I thought it would be good for me, so I agreed to do it. Oddly enough, it was a bit of a life changing choice. It allowed me to think deeply about a subject I tend to gloss over and really look at how I got here... the sacrifices my parents made... the hardships and the successes that followed.

I was born in Hong Kong in 1970. My parents, like so many others before them, fell in love with the American dream.

Shortly after I was born, we immigrated to the United States to embark on this new adventure. The goal for many immigrants is to assimilate, and that’s exactly what we did. Through a lot of hard work, my parents began to accumulate the trappings of an upwardly mobile American family. We lived in a nice house in the suburbs of San Francisco. We went to good schools. We took family vacations to Disneyland. I recently came across this interesting series of photos of myself where, as I grew bigger, so did the TVs. My banker dad was following his version of the American dream, which entailed filling our driveway full of fancy cars. This last one was the James Bond car from The Spy Who Loved Me, which honestly, as a 12 year old, was an awesome car to have. At this age, it became clear to me that stuff meant success.


But that all changed when I was about 12. It started with the cars being taken away, one by one. My parents were arguing a lot and the final blow came when the house was foreclosed on. My parents split up. My sister and I... we went with dad. The three of us took refuge in my aunt’s spare bedroom. Not only was it a tight fit for us, but the room was more like a small loft, open to the downstairs below and everything that was going on down there. For my sheltered and privileged 12 year old self, that new reality came as quite a shock. Every bit of security I had known was gone.

One night, my cousins, they’re about 10 years older than me, threw this insane rager of a party. The house was filled with booze. There were drunk people dressed in all kinds of crazy costumes. It wasn’t even a Halloween party. It was just a Wednesday in the ‘80s. I was talking to my sister about it and she reminded me that the speakers for the room were actually inside our room, and they were blasting a nonstop playlist of funk, soul, and disco down into the party below. I distinctly remember lying wide awake at 3 a.m. in my itchy Sears Roebuck sleeping bag, music blaring, the reflection of police lights flashing against the curtains, drunken party goers below, repeating the following mantra to myself, “Never, never, never.” This was my never again moment.

From that time on, I would know exactly what I did not want from the future. Whenever I had to make a decision, going to college, getting a job, getting fired, dating someone, breaking up with someone, getting married, having kids, getting fired again, starting an agency, I would find myself back in my aunt’s bedroom, willing the future me to avoid the landmines of life.

I would go on to graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a fine arts degree in sculpture, and my never again voice had some serious issues with that decision. “What were you thinking?” it said. Listening to it, I threw myself into graphic design. I put away the welding equipment, I got a real job that paid well, and also satisfied my inner voice’s need and desire for security.

I began squirreling money away. I was a serial saver and a famous cheapskate. My parents actually had this long running joke, it was way too long, but a long running joke that whenever I opened my wallet, moths would fly out. It’s a pretty good one. Fortunately, I would go on to marry the love of my life, Jen, who also turned out to be a big cheapskate. That’s her when we ... I think that’s 20 years ago. We raised two beautiful, intelligent daughters, Hanne and Orla, also now well-schooled in the ways of the cheapskate. For a long time, I took a typical design career path and I did this at small agencies and I did this at big companies like Napster, Yahoo, and AOL. After a lot of career success and recognition, I found myself on the branded entertainment team of AOL and I hit the boredom wall.

Squirreling away money wasn’t enough. What was I going to do with it, anyway? My dad had long cured me of the desire to fill our driveway full of expensive cars.

So, I took a chance and I left my comfy job. I remember sitting in my boss’ office telling her that I was going to quit. I could feel the cold sweat running down my back and my heart was just pounding in my chest, [th-thump, th-thump, th-thump. My never again inner voice was pleading with me to turn back, but I took a leap of faith into the unknown and I hung up the design guns and I abruptly switched careers. I have always had a passion for film and storytelling. It was a classic right time, right place situation. I was surrounded by talented people who took me under their wing and I was in an environment that allowed me to take a lot of chances and risks creatively, without the worry of failing too hard.

I would go on to head the Vimeo brand’s studio, where I had the good fortune to create over 60 films in just under four years. These were branded content films, but they were beautiful films. Films that pushed the boundaries of branded entertainment. I got to work with innovative and influential filmmakers. I received accolades and awards. I’d like to just show you a little bit of that right now.

It should have been enough. Why wasn’t it enough? I took this question to a good friend of mine, Kerry. Over a breakfast of runny eggs and bacon, he answered that question with another question. “What do you want to do?” When someone asked that question, I had always heard it as, “What are you going to do to make money, so you don’t end up broke and moving back into your aunt’s spare bedroom with your family in tow?” But I had a discovery moment. I thought about all the things that I had just created. I was just making stuff. The same stuff that could be gone in the blink of an eye. I now heard that question as, “What do you want to achieve in life?”

A good friend and former client, Ashley Davidson, and I had been thinking about doing our own thing for some time. We dreamt of a different kind of content agency. One that could incorporate all of our experiences, and interests, and community activism, design, film, photography, furniture design, and urban planning. What we were attempting to do in hindsight was not design a company, but design a life in which we could do all the things we’ve wanted to do. Things that could not only sustain themselves, but also bring us fulfillment and purpose.

It wasn’t good enough to be good. I had to do good. We wanted to create experiences that would change the world, and so Citizen was born.

Fortunately, we’ve been busy since we’ve opened. We are creating content that showcases the beauty and diversity of America, we’re working with Catholic Relief Services, and we’re actively developing models that bring local communities together through education, collaboration, and design. It feels good to be moving towards passion and away from fear.

That seminal experience when I was 12 years old, which shaped how I looked at life, and as tough as it was, it made everything that followed possible. It took a long time to step out of that room and tune out those voices, but I stand here before you transformed with a new voice in my head, one that will not accept anything less than finding meaningful passion in life. My parents’ American dream did not end that evening. It continues with me. It serves as the foundation for mine. For me, the American dream is not about the accumulation of stuff. It’s really just a simple question. What do you want to achieve in life? I think once you can figure that out, you can truly live the life you were destined to live because your inner passion voice will demand it.

I still find myself thinking about that night in my aunt’s bedroom, but it’s no longer the pain of it that stands out anymore. I now see that as the moment when my journey towards the American dream began, and I can truly appreciate the words of wisdom from the legendary band, Earth, Wind, and Fire: “You’re a shining star no matter who you are, shining bright to see what you could truly be.”


Shoot Diary: Suttons Bay, MI

Alberto, Dylan, Ramsay and "Sound Mark"

Alberto, Dylan, Ramsay and "Sound Mark"

It was a pretty windy, overcast day in Northern Michigan. That morning, we shot an interview up in Northport with the incredibly kind, JoAnne Cook, who shared her perspective on this beautiful part of the world.

We were making our way down state to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to capture some stunning footage of the coast. It was probably the giant lunch and the warmth of the car, but we were all feeling pretty sleepy. Maybe it was just the lack of general sleep while being on the road. Fortunately we were alert enough while driving along HWY 204 to spot the 9 Bean Rows Bakery in Suttons Bay, MI with its massive pumpkins. Of course we had to stop.

I'm pretty sure Alberto wanted to just get a shot of himself to send to his wife. Ramsay never missing a photo opp quickly joined the shot. Dylan was waved over, and I can distinctly recall him saying, "I don't want to do this," as he begrudgingly squatted into the shot.

It still makes me laugh when I see this shot.