In December 2019, when Betsega Bekele returned to Washington, D.C., as project director for PBS American Portrait, she would never have predicted how well her interests would connect to her new job.
“In my 20s, I worked either in the music industry or in faith-based organizations,” Bekele says. “In my 30s, I wanted to learn more and develop myself.” That desire to build on her marketing background, coupled with the endorsement of friends who had studied human and organizational development at Peabody College, led her to Vanderbilt in 2012. “I have always been fascinated by people, and also saw the importance of leadership and structure,” she explains.
At 33, Bekele began studies in the master’s program for leadership and organizational performance at Peabody.
“What I learned at Peabody is that people are key to your success,” Bekele says. The group work she did with her grad school cohort gave her the confidence she needed to try new things. “Sometimes you have to swing the bat and see what happens,” she says.
Her latest leap has her helping lead American Portrait, a multiplatform, national storytelling project tied to PBS’ 50th anniversary celebration. The digital-first initiative is centered on this question: What does it really mean to be an American today? The ambitious undertaking launched online in January 2020, right after Bekele returned to PBS, where she had worked after grad school. (The website will continue to take submissions through June.) In partnership with RadicalMedia in New York City, Bekele and the PBS team turn user-generated content, self-shot on mobile phones and tablets, into TV specials, public art installations, short-form content, educational resources, a digital miniseries and more.
The production staff has culled 10,000-plus responses to 14 prompts they have posted online, encouraging viewers to tell their stories and share their perspectives. “Every day, we highlight someone’s story,” Bekele explains, “and we create weekly reels with a shared thread.” The education arm of PBS also works with teachers and students on historical reflection, filmmaking and storytelling.
“I am really lucky that I just need a laptop, internet and a great team,” says Bekele, who began working from home in March 2020. Last spring, the staff put out a new prompt: “I never expected …” The responses ranged from “… to be going home and moving back in with my parents,” to “… to have COVID and be pregnant with twins.” Those answers led to three 30-minute TV specials that aired last year.
In January a nationally televised docuseries also called American Portrait, created by Bekele and her team, debuted on PBS stations, providing an intimate look at the lives of Americans. The four episodes focused on the American Dream, work life, preserving traditions and social justice.
“I like to think of myself as a curious person,” Bekele says. “But this experience has taught me that there is still so much I don’t know. Seeing people be so open and vulnerable, and learning from them, has been incredibly rewarding.”
—Elizabeth Cook Jenkins, BS’99
Share your story at pbs.org/american-portrait and explore stories from thousands of people across America. The website will continue to take submissions through June.