Filmmaker Heals and Restores

Shakti Butler has dedicated her career to healing racial divisions in the U.S., and her latest documentary focuses on restorative justice as a solution to mass incarceration.


Shakti Butler

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

With her wide smile, gift for empathy, and artist’s eye for storytelling, Oakland filmmaker and workshop facilitator Shakti Butler has for a quarter-century championed the healing of racial divisions in the United States.

Butler, who describes herself as a “multiracial African-American woman of African, Arawak Indian, and Russian-Jewish descent,” is the founder and president of World Trust Educational Services, a small nonprofit in Oakland that has earned a national reputation for addressing racial issues in ways that emphasize solutions and cooperation rather than blame.

“I choose to put my energy into addressing issues and building bridges when I can,” said Butler, who started World Trust in 1993. “We get to make choices. I am going to work to uplift everyone and have a critical eye to what prevents that from happening and doing what I can to move that needle forward.”

Asked about whether society has made any progress, given the tenor of race relations in the era of President Trump, Butler acknowledges the strain of the moment. “There is a struggle going on for what kind of world we’re going to live in in the United States. It’s saddening, terrifying,” she said.

She nevertheless studiously avoids dwelling on the negative. “To only look at what’s not working, what will it get me? It will not inspire me. It will irritate me, make me mad, make me sad,” she said. “I need to work at the level where I say I’m a seed planter.”

Butler’s latest documentary, Healing Justice, is a case in point: Released in October, it directly addresses the mass incarceration that has led to the confinement, in particular, of so many African Americans in the United States, but it focuses largely on an alternative approach, specifically, restorative justice and diversion practices, which it suggests could end “the current school-to-prison pipeline,” get better results for victims, and produce lower recidivism rates. Restorative justice typically includes people convicted of crimes confronting their victims or their victims’ families and friends and attempting to make restitution rather than simply getting locked up.

Butler said many people already know that the justice system needs structural and policy changes, but “our society also faces a crisis of imagination in terms of how a healthy system of justice could operate.”

Featuring interludes of dance interspersed with interviews of government officials, activists, a former criminal, and people from different minority groups, the film aims to change people’s hearts and minds, Butler said.

“Shakti shines a bit of light down the path so people can see how to move forward instead of retreat into fear or throw their hands up because they don’t know what to do,” said Connie Campanang Heller, the co-founder of the Linked Fate Fund for Justice at the Common Counsel Foundation in Oakland.

The tenor of Butler’s work reflects her own diverse background and experiences growing up.

Her father was a child of slaves who moved from Barbados to New York City, where he married Butler’s mother, a Russian-Jewish émigré whose family disowned her as a result.

Butler grew up black in Harlem, but her parents put her in a private school on the Upper West Side from the third to eighth grade, and there she learned what it was to be socially excluded by her peers as a person of color. She later attended the racially diverse public High School of Music & Art and went on to graduate magna cum laude from City College of New York and earn a master’s in guidance and counseling from Bank Street College of New York.

Butler moved to Oakland in 1977 with her then-husband, with whom she had two children and ran an Ethiopian restaurant at 44th Street and Telegraph Avenue. During that marriage, Butler also had a career as a financial planner, specializing in serving teachers.

She took a radical turn in 1985, divorcing and then marrying her current husband and creative collaborator, Rick Butler, a documentary filmmaker who has won multiple Emmys. The two had another child, and Butler enrolled to get a doctorate from the School of Transformative Learning and Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

While studying for her Ph.D., Butler started World Trust and began making her first film. The following year she launched a program called Heart to Heart Conversation, which runs workshops with the aim of helping people share feelings about race and culture.

These days, Butler, a mother of three and grandmother of five who lives in Oakland, travels frequently around the country showing her movies and conducting training workshops for a wide variety of clients, ranging from schools and other government agencies to nonprofits and large corporations. World Trust employs three full-time staff people and seven independent workshop facilitators.

Jeremiah Jackson, director of equity and inclusion at the private College Preparatory School in Oakland, said he first learned of Butler’s work as an undergrad at the University of Miami.

This spring, Jackson hired Butler to do a training session for about 50 people at College Prep for people from different organizations interested in promoting diversity.

“If you do this kind of inclusion work you’re probably going to have heard of Shakti,” he said.

Jackson made it a point to meet her soon after moving to the Bay Area to take his current job in 2014.

Butler’s first film, released in 1998 and called The Way Home, featured 64 women representing a cross-section of cultures talking about racism in America. Her second film, Light in the Shadows, focused further on 10 of those women.

Next was Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible, which Butler made to address a disturbing dynamic in which white people felt blamed and became defensive in workshops. The film provides testimony from “role models,” or white people committed to racial justice.

The fourth film was Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial Inequity, which focused on institutional and structural inequities in society. Healing Justice is the fifth.

In keeping with the times, World Trust is planning to host an event at the Oakland Museum of California this June that will showcase the use of virtual reality technology together with film, a combination that tests show can boost people’s feelings of empathy, Butler said.

Butler wants to develop a virtual reality experience centered on the concept of restorative justice. “The piece I want to do for the event in June would look at the victim-offender dialogue. I don’t even like that term. There is someone who experiences crime, and the person who commits the crime is also damaged,” she said.

Butler said she plans to keep working as long as she can because she finds what she does so enlivening.

That said, after 25 years, Butler is hoping in the near future to hire someone to help with the administrative tasks of running World Trust so she can focus more on creative projects like making films and virtual reality experiences.

“That is the work that I love to do,” she said.

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