An Independent School • Grades 5-12

The following interview transcript is from a conversation between Ashley Ellis ’04 and Lakeside magazine editor Jim Collins for "In Our Own Words," from the "Black at Lakeside" Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Lakeside magazine. Photo by Jerry Metellus.

Lakeside Magazine:

What do you remember about the transition from being in your home community to being at Lakeside? What was that like for you?

Ashley:

Okay, where do I begin? I came to Lakeside in sixth grade, so I was just shy of the earliest class that you could join. And I was a commuter. I lived in Bellevue on Sammamish, and there weren’t a lot of people at that point who were coming from that far away. I can remember that there were maybe only a couple of us that lived anywhere near each other, and we weren’t even necessarily coming from the same exact neighborhood, but there were a couple of other Bellevue or East Side kids. So I definitely felt like… I just remember this sort of visceral feeling of traveling that far. I think it was a 40-minute drive for my mom and I? I was going through parts of the city that I didn’t interact with that much on a daily basis before that. So, I had this feeling of like, gosh, I'm going to this kind of faraway place. Cool.

Before that, I had gone to other really small private schools. So that wasn’t really so much of a stretch for me. I went to Cougar Mountain Academy, which is also on the East Side. It’s closed now for elementary school. It was a tiny, tiny school up on the hill. And I had gone for one year of fifth grade, to the girls’ Catholic school at Forest Ridge.

So, it wasn’t a huge culture shock in terms of the environment, but what was unique about Lakeside, and something that I definitely felt right away, was just that I was amongst peers who really had demonstrated already at that age some kind of love of learning and who were really serious academic students. I had come from a school community with girls who… there was more of a range, I suppose, of how seriously the girls took their academic study. And I was a huge nerd, to be frank. So, I was really inspired by this sort of healthy, competitive academic environment and where, yeah, young people were already bringing different knowledge sets and backgrounds and experiences to the classroom. And the teachers were really challenging us. Not just challenging us in terms of workload and curriculum, but challenging our imagination.

Lakeside Magazine:

How was it socially for you at Lakeside? Did you feel comfortable right away, or was that a process of adjustment for you?

Ashley:

It was a process of adjustment, because I’d had the same tight-knit group of friends — it was three other girls who has gone with me from my elementary school. I was really shy, and I was nervous about how I was going to fit in socially at Lakeside. I didn’t know a single other kid who went there. My mom was really adamant that I needed more of a challenge academically. And I come from a family where I suppose our family dynamic is quite unique. So just a little personal background on me. I don’t know if it’s really relevant to the story that you’re trying to tell, but neither of my parents are from the Seattle, the greater Seattle area, originally. They moved there because my dad was a professional basketball player back in the day. He played for the Seattle Sonics at the time. So they were traded up there from Dallas. I think I moved at nine months old, and we were really isolated.

My mother is from California, my father is from Georgia, and they were young. I think my mom had me at age 25. Both of my parents were first generation in their family to obtain a college degree. My mother went on to obtain her master’s degree, and they both became very successful, my father at this sort of very elite level, right? That few people ever reach professionally. And they felt very strongly that they wanted to give me opportunities that they had never had. But with that came also me sort of stepping into spaces that nobody else in my immediate family had firsthand experience with. And so I think my mom was really aware of that. And she kind of talked to me. I was really fearful about going to Lakeside.  think I even said something along the lines of What if nobody likes me?, like that whole kind of thing, which any kid can experience.

And my mom was just kind of encouraging me that I was going to be amongst peers in terms of the academic piece, and that everything would be okay. And also gave me the self-assuredness that not everyone has to like you, but there’s this kind of broader reason why you sometimes make choices for your own self-development. I mean, obviously she didn’t say it to me as a sixth grader in that language, but I think that was the general point that she was trying to get across.

When I got to Lakeside, I entered a much warmer climate than I think I was expecting. And even though I was one of the few Black children in my class, I always had maybe a little bit of, I don’t know — I want to be careful about my words — but like, especially amongst my boy classmates, once there was word on the street was that my dad played basketball, that was always this conversation starter for me that allowed this nerdy, shy kid to have sort of an open space to get to know people and make friends. So that was essentially kind of what happened for me. I just realized that people were really nice. The staff was really nice, and I loved it. I think that first year I just I felt like I was in this a great place that was really for me.

Lakeside Magazine:

That makes me think that your mom knew what she was doing. She was there to protect you, but she was not going to let you not experience that.

Ashley:

Yeah, for sure. I mean, there were definitely ways that we were not the norm or the standard Lakeside family. I was my parents’ only child, so I didn’t have any older or younger siblings who also attended Lakeside or were in classes above me, and things like that. I felt like my mom encouraged me to do things that were not a part of our experience. I did things at home that were introduced at Lakeside. And sometimes that was, like, cause for funny moments, sometimes that was cause for some tension or friction. And sometimes that was an opportunity for my mom to really also feed back to the Lakeside community that maybe there were ways in which they weren’t being as sort of aware of different social contexts and different home contexts and just different cultures that people were coming from. Everybody was sort of expected to seamlessly blend into the program at Lakeside. And so, there were learning opportunities that came out of that. I think for everyone involved, too.

Lakeside Magazine:

Talk about being among a small number of other Black students of Lakeside. Did you feel separate in some ways? Did you feel a part of that community as well? Or were you really most connected with the other nerdy kids who were excited about learning?

Ashley:

It was definitely the latter. I have a different vantage point looking back on these things now in my adulthood, than I did then. Maybe there were certain things that I was feeling or going through, and I wasn’t able at that point to even associate it with this thing that had to do with identity, representation, the differences in backgrounds. So that might’ve been there, they obviously were a part of my experience, but I didn’t have that sort of ability to understand them that way.

Now we’re all sort of reflecting on the intersectionality of these issues, right? So, race being an aspect of difference that can come up in different kinds of communities, but also other issues such as class or culture or differences in ability and things like that, which can shape experiences and can also shape how people feel like an outsider or not fully accepted into a community. I say that, because for me, even though I one of the few Black kids in my class, part of my reality also was that like socioeconomically I was amongst peers. So, there were certain — it might sound horrible to say, but it's actually the truth, right? — there was such an experience as where I didn’t feel different in terms of things I could do outside of school; opportunities for other kinds of experiences that I had; the things that make up our social world and allow us to build social capital and feel like we are part of the community. It could be something even as simple as returning to school from the summer vacation and then sharing the experiences about what you did with your friends.

For a young Black person whose family might have been relying on a scholarship in order for them to attend Lakeside, or they might have come from a previous school environment that had a completely different makeup in terms of the demographics, for them, maybe there was more of a self-difference in terms of like— I’m totally just making this up for the sake of example — maybe I spent the summer doing things at home. And now I’m hearing all these stories about other people who took trips with their families or had these amazing experiences.

So I guess it’s nuance. All of our experiences have nuance, but mine was, like, on the one hand, I was probably the only Black girl within my close circle of friends in my class. But at the same time, I felt like, socially, in terms of what I could afford to do, what I could afford to experience and the spaces that I had access to, I was also amongst peers.

So it didn’t feel that different. And also, because you know, the people in my class overall, there were not moments where I felt like I was looked down upon, lesser than, disliked. There were not moments for me or experiences where I felt like people treated me a certain way because I was Black. So, there was this type of awareness that I looked different than everyone. But at the same time, there were different aspects that allowed me to fit in socially that had to do with resources that my family had. These are difficult conversations to have. I’m trying to choose my words carefully because I don’t want things to come across the wrong way, but I’m also trying to be forthright and honest, you know?

Lakeside Magazine:

These are really important things to talk about. I’m curious about some of the things you’ve been involved with, and the strong social justice streak running through your film work. Where does that come from?

Ashley:

So, I’ve been reflecting on this a lot in my own life and as a process of understanding self and what motivates me and why, and I don’t have all the answers. I do think there are a couple of seeds that were definitely planted at Lakeside. I mean, maybe in one way, the question that you asked previously fits into this right? Because there could be sort of like a natural response to that difference coming out in another way as well. Right? Where I didn’t necessarily feel like I was made to be “the other,” in the social environment that Lakeside, but I was also very aware of difference out in society. I was aware from a very young age that I was in a privileged space. That I was having opportunities that other young people like me, that who looked like me, sorry, generally speaking often are left out of, or don’t have access to those kinds of spaces, access to that kind of education.

So, I think that for a long time, since I was very young, I carried a kind of sense of responsibility. Not in a sense of guilt, but in a sense that part of having had the experience that I’ve had means paying it forward, means trying to draw attention to these issues, means trying to create spaces of access in different kinds of contexts for other people. Particularly for other young people who are growing up after me. I think that’s one piece that definitely shaped my identity. And that also comes from my home environment. That’s also a reflection of the way I was raised. It comes directly from my parents also being hyper-aware that I was just a kid was growing up in a predominantly white environment in terms of my neighborhood, in terms of the schools that I went to. This is probably why I didn’t feel out of place coming to Lakeside, either, because Lakeside looked demographically like all of the schools that I had gone to in my life up until that point.

My friends were predominantly white. You know, that’s sort of, I’m putting this in air quotes, “minorities” that I interacted with were not necessarily Black, and all those things were beautiful, too, because they gave me a more diverse and broader understanding of the human experience. But at the same time, they wanted me to realize, and to always know who I was and where I come from in terms of like a family line and also a broader sense of Black community and what it means to be a Black American and the history of that. So, I was already bringing those things at a young age. My mom tells jokes about me standing on a soap box. I think this was even pre-Lakeside and my literally lecturing my fellow elementary school class about like the civil rights movement and how it was just plain unfair that I would have been treated differently just because I was Black.

I think I even made some other little kids cry. That’s a sort of injustice. So I think part of it is who I am. Also, there’s the curriculum level at Lakeside, as well, which I think is important to know, because I have had the privilege to travel the world to have access to all kinds of other educational environments. Right  now I'm engaged in Ph.D. studies at University of Cape Town. So I’m having a different kind of education outside of the United States context. And also at work and socially I’ve met incredibly smart, incredibly talented and successful people from all parts of the world and walks of life. And I have still felt that there are special parts of what we were taught and how we were taught at Lakeside that even in some of the most privileged academic or school environments, or other highly ranked schools, it's just not the same.

And one thing I think that really stands out is the attempt to really have a global education. I don’t know what the curriculum looks like today, but when I was there in eighth grade, we had world area studies, and it really challenged us to look at world history through the lens or from the vantage points of other geographic locations outside of the American context. In high school, it was like the same thing. And I guess that education really allowed me to draw threads, to see — How do I say this? — to see events and things that are happening in the world as moments in time that are connected to other historical moments and to other places in the world, too. So, for example, now I (maybe this is getting a little too lofty and broad) I live in Cape Town, South Africa, and I’m able to find conversations that I’m having with friends there around injustice or the need for social change or the need for policy change, how to develop community and things like that. And I’m able to draw sides to context here or contexts elsewhere in ways that I think a lot of people would have struggled to have that broader, deeper, more informed context. I’m not saying that that’s a reflection of me being smart. I’m saying that that’s a reflection of the education that I had at Lakeside. I really liked sort of crafting my ability to do that. That’s a skill that I think whether others are conscious of it or not, or work that skill often or not, that others could all be bringing to their professions or fields across contexts. And I just think that’s one of the more amazing things about getting a Lakeside education.

So, one example a little bit closer to home: I moved down to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California, and I kind of planted roots there for many years after I graduated. I ended up going to grad school there, too. I intended to get into film, so of course, being in Los Angeles, it’s sort of the perfect place to do so. But I was really uninspired around the landscape, and the way in which Hollywood is set up to welcome people with into a sort of model. And there’s nothing wrong with that sort of mail room to executive track, but I just felt like I didn’t see diverse stories of complication being communicated, or many opportunities to tell them in that sort of mainstream.

I immediately started to work on the fringe, independently. I wrote a film of my own, just after finishing as an undergrad, around a very long-running wildlife research project being run by a husband and wife who I happened to meet at an event for conservation in Los Angeles when I was just getting ready to graduate. I was so inspired by the story they shared around their work that I just asked them, “Has anybody made a film about you, and if not, can I?” At the end of this event, we started talking, and I think they were probably taken aback by this young person who was so adamant about working with them. And then we realized that we had each gone to Lakeside, probably two decades apart or something like that. After that experience, I kept making stuff and people would bring me other ideas or opportunities to work on. That’s how I ended up going to Haiti, I think just shy of three months after the earthquake.

I’ve also needed to support myself to do these sorts of completely independent, often self-funded projects, and so I’ve done a lot of work with nonprofits at the same time. I’ve worked in southern California training high school students to kind of engage in video journalism, around issues that they’ve identified that are important to them and their communities. I realized that for me, it was also not just about creating films that shed light on important issues, which can also come with a lot of self-imposed pressures around how to tell those stories around the politics of representation, especially when you're working in communities or in contexts that are outside of your own experience. So when I went to Haiti, I had never been to Haiti before, I knew that it was a really important issue to unpack. I felt like there had been all this attention in that moment around raising funds to support relief efforts of Haiti and probably more news coverage than the country had gotten in recent history. And all of that was great, but there were two pieces that were missing, like the Haitian voice and really understanding what it was that Haitian people hoped for and envisioned for a recovery to look like, and also historical context. So that those are the things that I tried to bring to that film. It was really difficult because I was just learning about the culture. I had done a bunch of research about history. I didn’t speak the language, though, and I was coming with all of this relative privilege and I’m trying to tell a story to represent other people. And so, what this leads me to is like, yes, I’ve done and will continue to do projects that are like that.

But I also realize it’s equally important that people are given such empowerment with things such as training or skills building and equipment and platforms for sharing their stories, to be able to tell their own stories with their own voice. And so, for the last five years or so, that’s really what my work has been focused around. And that’s what my Ph.D. research is and hopefully continuing initiatives after that, which is around teaching high school-age youth in resource-poor communities how to tell their own stories through the filmmaking practice.