By Natasha Robinson ‘04
PP55 Development Officer
At age 28 while in seminary, Katrina Browne ’89 received a booklet from her grandmother detailing the history of her forefathers, the DeWolf family. That booklet would send Browne on a nine-year journey to tell the story of her DeWolf ancestors’ role as the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history in a documentary called Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North.
Katrina joined the Project 55 family in 1990 as a member of Project 55’s inaugural fellowship class at The Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C. Katrina’s PP55 Fellowship experience launched her into a career in public service, an interest that has continued to grow and strengthen with time.
After her Project 55 Fellowship, Browne co-founded Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program that seeks to advance new leadership to strengthen communities, nonprofits and civic participation. The fact that Public Allies’ mission is closely aligned with that of Project 55 is no mistake. “What Project 55 had done for me was what Vanessa [Kirsch, co-founder of Public Allies] and I had in mind for an organization; assisting young people into becoming civic leaders who were experts on the needs of their community to make social change.
Katrina credits John Fish ’55 and Charlie Bray ’55, co-founders of Project 55, as instrumental in assisting her and Kirsch to start the program. Public Allies had its founding conference at Wingspread Conference Center housed at the Johnson Foundation, where Bray was on the board of directors. It was there that Browne and Kirsch met a charismatic community organizer from Chicago, Barack Obama, who suggested his wife, Michelle, become the Chicago Executive Director of Public Allies, a position she held from 1993-1996.
Public Allies currently operates in 15 U.S. cities across the nation and is led by CEO Paul Schmitz, who expanded the program to Milwaukee, Wisconsin soon after its founding. “The founding of Public Allies was an amazing ripple effect of Project 55 and an example of how Project 55 believes in young people,” Browne states.
Browne says that her experience in fundraising to start a nonprofit organization from the ground gave her the valuable skills she needed to produce her first film, Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North, which had its national broadcast premiere on June 24, 2008 on PBS’s documentary series P.O.V. Browne reflects, “This film epitomizes the course of my thinking after Project 55 and Public Allies. It is all about internal and external transformation. What are the attitudes that getin the way of social justice and social policy? what are the emotional blocks for Americans?”
The film follows Browne and nine other DeWolf descendants as they retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade, visiting the DeWolf hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island, slave forts on the coast of Ghana, and the ruins of a family plantation in Cuba. “There were so many moving parts—logistics, post-production, 10 family members, 3 countries, one of which America has embargoed. It was a lot to take on,” Browne reflects.
In the film, Browne pushes her family forward as they struggle through the minefield of race politics. With growing calls for reparations for slavery, Browne’s family struggles to make sense of their history and contribute to “repair.”
When asked how the film is relevant for today’s society, Browne states, “For white Americans, it’s not part of our legacy and everyday experience to think of race, which is one of the hallmarks of privilege. The legacy of slavery has so many permutations: homeownership rates among African Americans, rates of incarceration, lack of college education and the lack of healthcare. It’s important that a national conversation on race is brought out and discussed openly.”
The film has received critical acclaim from Stephen Holden of The New York Times, who wrote, “A far-reaching personal documentary examination of the slave trade…the implications of the film are devastating.”
Throughout the years, Princeton Project 55’s alumni volunteers, partner organizations, supervisors and mentors provide opportunities to expose fellows and each other to systemic issues and solutions and leadership development. Browne’s work on the film Traces of the Trade exemplifies Project 55’s goal to encourage fellows to remain civically engaged and bring about social change—whatever the medium.
To learn more about the film Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North, visit http://www.tracesofthetrade.org