Jo

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HI! My name is Jo Rochelle and I’m a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. I was born and raised in Minneapolis and my parents were born and raised in Jamaica. I grew up as a “Jamerican”, straddling two cultures, two worlds at once.

It took me a while to embrace the filmmaker in me. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t see a lot of directors who looked like me growing up.

When I was in fifth grade, I fell in love with acting and storytelling, thanks to my wonderful drama teacher, Mrs. Landis. I received a BFA in Drama from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. It took me a while to embrace the filmmaker in me. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t see a lot of directors who looked like me growing up. So, I didn’t feel like I had permission to call the shots and make my own content. But I learned that I do. Anyone with a vision and a story can do this. In my senior year of college, I took a step back from acting to co-create a seven-episode mockumentary series called, Dorm Therapy, which is about a quirky Resident Advisor and her floor of residents. Putting on the hats of producer, director, and editor while collaborating with my fellow classmates made me feel certain that I had found the job I would jump out of bed for. It was tiring, months of work, but we created a project with a clear vision from start to end. And I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

My mother is the strongest woman I know. She left Jamaica to move to the United States when she was 7 months pregnant with me. I can imagine her getting on the plane, barely able to get the seatbelt around her belly, full of nerves and anxiety at the thought of leaving her home.

My mother is the strongest woman I know. She left Jamaica to move to the United States when she was 7 months pregnant with me. I can imagine her getting on the plane, barely able to get the seatbelt around her belly, full of nerves and anxiety at the thought of leaving her home. She and my father sacrificed everything to ensure that I would be an American citizen and have more opportunities than they did growing up. I watched my mother fearlessly chase her dreams, no matter how difficult they were. No matter how scary or how far away they seemed. Her childhood dream was always to be a nurse, and throughout my childhood, I watched her study, take exams, become an LPN, then an RN, and now she’s the Director of the Nursing Program at the college she received two degrees from. Our household always supported her. When my mother came home from the night shift, the porch light was left on for her. Even though he had work and I had school in the morning, my father and I stayed up until 1AM (sometimes later), waiting for her to come home. I’ll never forget the first time she saw a patient die. She came home and told us the entire story and we listened. We listened because it was all we could do and all we needed to do. My mother successfully chased her dream and I do the same. She used to read a children’s book to me about Grace, a dark skinned Black girl (who looked a lot like me) and dreamed of playing Peter Pan in the school play. But everyone told that she couldn’t because Peter Pan was a boy and he wasn’t black. But Grace knew she could be anything she wanted to be. She auditioned for it and got the part. My mother and I read this book together at least 100 times. And it started to seep in: I can do anything I set my mind to.

I wouldn’t have had the courage to fly to New York City and audition for college if Mrs. Landis wasn’t a part of my life. Her strongest influence on me was teaching tolerance and compassion through the arts.

My drama teacher, Mrs. Landis, had a strong influence from the ages of 8 to 18, and beyond. She was an elementary school drama teacher and my homeroom teacher in high school. We had a phrase we would always say: “Spread the happy”. My freshman year of college, I put up a poster in my dorm room that said the same thing. In addition to my own mother, Mrs. Landis was a woman I could trust, someone who nurtured my talent in an encouraging way. I wouldn’t have had the courage to fly to New York City and audition for college if Mrs. Landis wasn’t a part of my life. Her strongest influence on me was teaching tolerance and compassion through the arts. In theater class, we would perform scenes from The Laramie Project, a play centered around the reaction of the 1998 hate crime and murder of Matthew Shepard. Mrs. Landis also led me to believe I could be anyone I wanted to be. Through school plays and drama class, I played a variety of characters I never thought I’d have the chance to perform. One that stands out was a geiger counter operator in Sarcophagus, a play that explores the victims and aftermath of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. My wardrobe was a pair of overalls and I had a small monologue about the equipment going haywire. It’s silly, but I still remember Mrs. Landis telling the class that I dropped into the character, dropped into the trauma of what it would be like to be alive then. Those words of affirmation buoyed me. I felt like Grace from my favorite childhood book. I could do anything I set my mind to.

There are systems in place that would like us to believe that “there can only be one”. Only one woman can get a studio directing job or only one “diverse writer” can work on that acclaimed television show. It’s simply not true.

I definitely don’t agree with the ideology that women are one another’s competition. There are systems in place that would like us to believe that “there can only be one”. Only one woman can get a studio directing job or only one “diverse writer” can work on that acclaimed television show. It’s simply not true. I think it’s really difficult to work, love, and live if you’re constantly comparing yourself to others. I’ve found that it breeds a lot of unhappiness and distracts you from your own purpose, your own goals.

One thing that I hear often and sometimes from well-meaning people is that “It’s a great time to be a woman of color.” This phrase is usually referring to all of the diversity programs/initiatives in the entertainment industry. I cringe whenever someone says it. I cringe because it implies that before right now, it’s been a terrible time to be a woman of color. It also implies that we are getting jobs now just because of our race or because we’re women. So if you are a woman who hears this often and it hurts, know that you’re not alone.

My words of advice to women out there would be to just try to be the person you wish you had. When I first moved to LA, I wished that I knew someone who would see me, help me, encourage me and believe in me. So, now I’m always looking for ways to affirm and encourage the women I meet. Even though I don’t feel like I personally have a lot of power or influence, I’ve recommended two friends for jobs this year and they both got them. It feels great!

So, now I’m always looking for ways to affirm and encourage the women I meet. Even though I don’t feel like I personally have a lot of power or influence, I’ve recommended two friends for jobs this year and they both got them. It feels great!

My mother showed me how to ambitiously, relentlessly chase my dreams. My drama teacher taught me to look at the world and other people’s stories with compassion. And my picture book, Amazing Grace, reminded me that I can do anything I set my mind to. These influences have shaped me into the woman I am today: a storyteller. I write and direct so people can experience the flavors of life in my work. I tell stories about ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances. I’m so grateful for the confident, bold female role models who have shown me how to use my voice.

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