Mark Lane founded and runs the Minority Humanitarian Foundation in Spring Valley, Calif., a nonprofit that help migrants and asylum seekers on the San Diego-Tijuana border.
"You walk up to some very scared people," Lane says in "Borderlands," the opening video segment of "America Is an Idea, Not a Geography," a remarkable new content series from rideshare giant Lyft. "They don't know what to do. We immediately find out: 'What do you need right now?' It's almost always food and a shower. It's really simple."
In "Borderlands," we also meet Jose Galvan, who came with his parents to America from Mexico 23 years ago. A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipient—or "Dreamer"—he's lived in San Diego since he was 2 years old, and works as an artist and theater director.
"This country was founded on this idea of the American dream, that anybody can make something better for themselves," Galvan says. "But it's becoming a more narrow scope of, like, 'Well, who was the American dream actually for?'"
Both Galvan and Lane also work as Lyft drivers, many of whom appear in "America Is an Idea," which launched July 4 as part of the company's broader "Cities Talk Back" pro-immigration platform.
Developed by creative and production studio Even/Odd, the series mixes short films, long-form editorial and photojournalism to take a highly personal, often intense look at immigrant culture, with tales of triumph, tribulation and tenacity coming to the fore.
While the individual videos are on YouTube, the full content—which is incredibly rich and wonderfully packaged—is viewable on the "Cities Talk Back" site.
So far, six of 10 segments have gone live, focusing on folks who came to America from Mexico, Central America, Somalia and Iran.
Given President Trump's recent racist attacks on four Democratic congresswomen—he said they should "go back" to other countries, even though all are citizens and three were born here—the "American Is an Idea" segment with Cesar Virto, who grew up in Alabama not knowing he was undocumented, really resonates.
"Church leaders, friends, write to me privately, tell me I need to go back to Mexico. And that hurts. But it motivates me" to be a better person and work harder to succeed, he says.
"I don't think Jesus had a Social Security number," Virto says. "He was a refugee. He fled from the same circumstances so many people flee today."
Bringing a special perspective to the project, most of its directors, producers, writers and photographers identify as immigrants, first-generation or hyphenated Americans, and hail from the communities shown on screen.
"The value of this comes across in the conviction, details and intimacy of the work, and I believe is the secret sauce to just making the work as strong as possible," Even/Odd director and co-founder Mohammad Gorjestani, who immigrated from post-revolution Iran, tells Muse. "More than anything, though, it helped us deliver on a principle that served as a guidepost for our choices from casting to execution: Immigrants don't need hugs, they need respect."
In mainstream news coverage, "there are so many nuances about immigration and diaspora that are often missed, with the discourse focused too heavily on flavor-of-the-month issues and not enough on the greater culture of immigrant life and experience itself," Gorjestani says. "We often limit our engagement with immigrant stories to a newsworthy 'issue' or a social cause. That can feel exhausting and also limiting because it stymies our dimensionality and how we are represented as part of the American fabric."
He cites Anxy magazine as a key inspiration: "Anxy takes the topic of mental health, which is notoriously stuck in the monolith of the medical world, and reframed it in this beautiful and bold magazine that is essentially a cultural take within a very contemporary execution and context."
With the Lyft work, the ultimate goal, he says, is to "create authentic and specific narratives that look beneath the surface and examine the canon of immigration as the true culture of America, and not censor its shortcomings. And the only way to do that is through a complex and multifaceted lens—which is why telling many stories was necessary for this project, as opposed to, say, a single story or two or three."
However, the dense, multimedia approach of "America Is an Idea" cuts much deeper, providing an immersive, in-depth experience for its audience.
"We've seen an average engagement on the site that is around five to seven minutes—way beyond the industry standard," says Lyft creative director Shachar Aylon. "And they keep revisiting. It's remarkable that in an age where we're trying to create shorter and shorter content, people are still craving longer, more meaningful stories."
In just two weeks, the campaign has generated 35 million impressions and more than 3 million content engagements.
Perhaps that's because, in addition to presenting information, "America Is an Idea" succeeds on a profoundly tactile level. We can feel the heat, dust and fear of the border-crossing experience, and appreciate how Cesar's strong Christian beliefs help lift his spirit in times of adversity. By putting relatable faces on a charged, divisive topic, viewers gain a greater understanding of the toll immigration takes on millions of human beings in this country every day.
"We knew from the very start that finding the right subjects and stories was critical," says Even/Odd co-founder and executive creative director Malcolm Pullinger. "We were looking for subjects that could give us a distinct, cinematic and authentic picture of immigrant culture. We also wanted to tell these stories across a broad tonal range—from gritty and journalistic, to provocative and bold, to endearing and humorous. It can be a bit like putting a puzzle together, having to keep searching for the right pieces."
Overall, the team created a strong piece of social advocacy, with the brand's presence, by and large, well integrated into the narratives. (For example, Lane, in addition to driving, dispatches Lyft rides to meet migrants at the border.)
"It's always a delicate balance when it comes to brand integration in social impact projects," says Lyft creative director Joey Manin. "Brands can use their reach to stand up for important issues, but don't want to come across as self-centered or disingenuous. We purposefully let the brand take the passenger seat. These stories paint an honest portrait of the country we live in today, and we want those stories to be told and read in a sincere way. We want these stories to empower people to take action by helping organizations that we align with."
Each "America Is an Idea" story spotlights a nonprofit working on immigration's front lines. Lyft is pledging $150,000 in ride credits to those organizations. Additionally, customers can use the Lyft app to "round up" the cost of their ride and support RAICES, a group that provides legal assistance to asylum seekers at the U.S./Mexico border.
Creative Directors: Shachar Aylon, Joey Manin
Lead Producer: Ellen Black
Executive Creative Director: Tim Roan
Product Marketing Manager: Dave Kim
Senior Director, Integrated Marketing Operations: Jenny Ramaswamy
Consumer & Market Insights Manager: Kate Breña
Social Impact Manager: Joan Hanawi
CMO: Joy Howard
Creative Studio, Production Company, Casting: Even/Odd
Executive Producers: Malcolm Pullinger, Mohammad Gorjestani
Executive Producer for Content: Kacey Hart
Executive Creative Director: Malcolm Pullinger
Campaign Director for Film and Photography: Mohammad Gorjestani
Head of Production: Taylor Feltner
Editors: Ashley Rodholm, Olivia Merrion, Matt Sklar, Omri Shir
Contributors: Mohammad Gorjestani, Andrew Batista, Haya Waseem, Tim Hussin, Erin Brethauer, Safy-Hallan Farah, Rudy Mondagron, Rachel Barth, Ike Edeani, Widline Cadet, Chris Gregory, Jeff Mercado, Leban Mahmoud
Line Producers: Heron Bourke, Veronica Leon, Simran Mahal, David Feld, Andrew Scrivner, Rachel Barth
Directors of Photography: Allison Anderson, Logan Triplett, Mika Altskan, Justin Kane
Head of Copy: Sean Conroy
Color: Jenny Montgomery (Company 3)
Sound Design and Mix: Joaby Deal (One Union), Chris Konovaliv (Audiolux)
Website design and build: Hello Monday
Creative Director: Morten Sølvstrøm
Senior Producer: Nicole Maisonville
Technical Director: Johnny Slack
Senior Technical Developers: Terkel Gjervig, Virgil Spruit
Contributors: Rikke Hindborg. Aarti Shinde, Andreas Anderskou, Anders Sønderby Jessen