Episode 53: Cheryl Allison and Me Too

Cheryl Allison, an actress and film maker, made a documentary called Shatter the Silence, about the Me Too movement specifically in Dallas. Listen to her talk about that process and why it is an important topic for all of us, woman and men alike.

Learn more about Shatter the Silence here, which premiers April 28.

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.

George Mason: The Me Too movement has created all sorts of responses. One of them is a film maker who has said, "My legacy is partly in recording this for healing purposes for Dallas and beyond." Her name is Cheryl Allison. She'll be with us on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: Hello, I'm George Mason host of Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. And I'm delighted to welcome my friend and church mate Cheryl Allison back to the program.

Cheryl Allison: Yes.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God again Cheryl.

Cheryl Allison: Well thank you. I'm glad to be here.

George Mason: Yeah? Well, we had a delightful time talking about your growing up years at Wilshire Baptist Church and also your coming to terms with you being a gay woman and marrying Natalie and developing a sense of vocation as an actress. And in this episode, I'd really like us to pursue that sense of vocation a little bit more. So tell us a little bit about the connection for you between your own personal faith, and the work you do. How do you put that together, the God and the good so to speak, in terms of acting and directing and producing and all of that?

Cheryl Allison: Yes, yes. Well I think you know acting and singing, my career primarily has been on stage. Went to New York, did the Broadway shows, national tours, a lot of regional theater.

George Mason: And I just saw you in Casa Manana's Mama Mia. Fantastic.

Cheryl Allison: Yes you did.

George Mason: Singing and dancing and hysterical.

Cheryl Allison: In spandex.

George Mason: Oh my goodness. Fantastic.

Cheryl Allison: There we go. I think to me, theater is a wonderful way for people to escape their daily burdens and trials for a two hour period. And they come and they can forget all of their worries. So I find it a form of service. I am entertaining you, I am helping you to escape into a new world. And hopefully you know you leave feeling better than when you come to the theater.

George Mason: And maybe even it's not only an escape but maybe you might imagine your humanity a little differently because you've been to the theater, too.

Cheryl Allison: Exactly.

George Mason: You might say, "I wonder if there is another way to look at the world because I've had a different picture of it?"

Cheryl Allison: Oh absolutely. It's activism through art. I mean, all artists do that. We all make statements on social issues, political issues, through our art. And so I've always enjoyed over the years being able to take on ... put on other people's skin, I call it. And show these different characters and walk in their shoes. And not only I think does an audience maybe leave with a new perspective, I have as an actress.

George Mason: Yes. Okay.

Cheryl Allison: I have discovered things within characters that I'd played that I had never realized before. And it helped me grow or raise my awareness. For example, I had the honor of playing the lead in a movie called No Letting Go.

George Mason: What an important movie. Yes.

Cheryl Allison: Yes, it's based on a true story about a woman who has three boys and the middle boy is suffering from mental illness. So first of all being a true story I met with the woman who wrote the screenplay. It's based on her life, Randy Silverman. Wonderful woman. And it raised my awareness and changed the way I look at the mental health community and helped me see the stigma that surrounds it. And I became an activist for that cause because I wasn't aware that all of that was going on. So I changed through that role and I know the movie has helped open people's eyes to that. So I think art is very important that way. And that's why I formed my film company to take on projects that can continue to do that.

George Mason: Wow films.

Cheryl Allison: Wow. What a better name, right?

George Mason: Right, yes. And ironically you know not only Wow films but it turns out that we've started the Women of Wilshire.

Cheryl Allison: That's right.

George Mason: WOW being the t-shirt and you wore that at the border when you went down to help the kids at the border.

Cheryl Allison: Yes I did.

George Mason: So that was a fun little connection as well. Well Cheryl, one of your most important projects that you're working on right now is a documentary film on the Me Too movement that is titled Shatter the Silence.

Cheryl Allison: Yes.

George Mason: I know I've had a little bit of an opportunity to participate with that but what was the motivation for you to create this project and tell us what you're going to hope to accomplish with it.

Cheryl Allison: Okay. Back this last fall of 2017, when the big national reckoning was happening for women, and every day we were seeing men in power fall from their positions and more women coming out and speaking their truth. I started thinking that at some point the media will move on and it will die down, just like anything else.

George Mason: It always does.

Cheryl Allison: Right. And now they should be focusing on gun control and immigration rights and things like that. So I thought, "What can I do, what little bit of a footprint can I make in art to keep this going?" And I started to think about how Times Up was formed, you know, and it's helping on a national level. But I thought about my home, Dallas, the DFW community. What are our thoughts? What is our community doing? What initiatives are taking place at the local and state level to address this issue and raise awareness? So I didn't really know how it was going to start, but I started interviewing people from different areas, different professions ... religious leaders, like yourself. You're a very prominent voice in the film, by the way.

George Mason: Oh good. Happy to do it.

Cheryl Allison: It's wonderful. And so a couple of religious leaders, politicians. I had the wonderful former senator Wendy Davis, state senator.

George Mason: Oh I know and you filmed her at the church so I got to visit with her. It was great.

Cheryl Allison: I did, thank you for that. So and she's a prominent voice, obviously very high profile in the film. I brought together teachers and students, social workers who work in domestic violence services, people like that, to bring their voice forward and talk about this. So we do have some women that talk about their own Me Too stories, and some really horrible things that have happened to them. But then I also have people in the community talking about initiatives that are happening. For example, representative Victoria Neave, who is our representative for district 107 here in Dallas, she has formed the first sexual violence task force in our city. And she brings together you know district attorney, the head of police, fire department, hospitals, to all talk about what is going on, how can we address certain issues, and address the extensive backlog of untested rape kits in the state of Texas.

George Mason: It is extraordinary, isn't it? It really is.

Cheryl Allison: Yes. So what I find encouraging about this film and what I have found through my interviews is that there's a lot of grassroots movements happening.

George Mason: Good.

Cheryl Allison: There are things that ... one woman, Denise Lee, who's a fellow actress in the community ... you saw her in Mamma Mia. She played Rosie.

George Mason: Yes.

Cheryl Allison: She established Change the Perception. And through that organization, she has what she calls community conversations that occur ... I think it's the first Monday of every month. That may not be correct but it's like one Monday every month. And she will bring a social topic that can be polarizing and she brings people together and they discuss it.

George Mason: Good.

Cheryl Allison: So I filmed her when we were talking about you know the Me Too movement, and I was able to film you know community conversations. So there's a lot of encouraging things happening, which I feel this film will give people hope. And I also hope that people all over, even though it's about Dallas, people in a film festival in Tennessee could look at this film and say, "Well what is my school system thinking? What does my church feel about this?"

George Mason: Right, right.

Cheryl Allison: You know?

George Mason: And I think as we've talked about this and I've thought about your project, too, there are probably people who start out with assumptions that this is all about exposing what is wrong, that it's about punishing men and protecting women, and there's certainly ... if that's all it was, that would certainly be worthwhile. But it occurs to me that what we really should be hopeful about is to recognize that for men and women to honor one another and treat one another with respect and boundaries, to listen to each other and to have a kind of relationship of mutuality, is healing not only just for women but for men. I don't think people understand just how damaging to the male identity is this notion that we should be an aggressive sort of gender where we're going after what we want and we don't take no for an answer. It's demeaning of our humanity, in fact, to not recognize this mutuality and the depth of relationships, the quality of life, that exists in another person. When we treat them otherwise as just a potential for our own gratification, it's limiting and demeaning for both parties.

Cheryl Allison: Right. And you actually say this in the film, which is so beautiful. And you also say this is not about sex. It's about power.

George Mason: Right, it is. That's right.

Cheryl Allison: And you know I have several you know men allies in the film and we also talk about a reconditioning that needs to happen for society, because look at the way the pressure we put on young boys. You know? Be a man, don't cry, don't show sensitivity. You know they're sort of not given a chance from the beginning.

George Mason: Right.

Cheryl Allison: You know, they're told to put on that aggressive kind of exterior. And then you know the patriarchal system that's been in place. And there's one section where I had this wonderful gentleman who talks about sayings that occur that we don't even think about. Like how many times do coaches say to a young boy, "You throw like a girl."

George Mason: Yeah right.

Cheryl Allison: "You're running like a girl." So to that young boy, not only is he embarrassed now because he's being called a girl, but also girls can't throw. That's a put down.

George Mason: Of course.

Cheryl Allison: So there you go with the imbalance of power. It starts at a young age. So you know it takes a long time to recondition things like that.

George Mason: Well and furthermore, I mean, women should be able to grow up celebrating their intellect and their initiative and their creativity beyond just the supportive role to men. If we want a society in which everyone can experience the full outcome of the gifts that God has given to each person, then limiting them to very specific roles is really detrimental to the way God made us to begin with.

Cheryl Allison: Yes, exactly. And I think that one thing you said in the film that really hits home for a lot of people is you said this has been a pressure cooker for a long time. It's been simmering. And last fall, the lid blew off. And it seemed very extreme to people. And a lot of people were, you know, falling from grace and for things that had happened 20 years earlier. And that can be extreme. I get that. But you said if it makes us as men feel uncomfortable right now, imagine how women have felt for years?

George Mason: For years and years.

Cheryl Allison: So if we have to sit in our uncomfortableness, then so be it. And I think that that was a very powerful thing that you said. Because it's true. And I think that starting the communication like this between men and women, raising awareness about this, it will help. But it's a big thing when this has gone on since biblical times.

George Mason: Well it absolutely has. And I think it's helpful to say that at certain moments in history we have breakthroughs. You know and we maybe at one of those breakthrough moments. But history is still not going to progress on a straight path. It's going to be back and forth and it's going to be up and down. So we've got a long way to go. But the beautiful thing, one of the things that Martin Luther King Jr said that's so powerful I think is that the moral arch of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Cheryl Allison: Exactly.

George Mason: And we have this imagination, especially as people of faith, of the great shalom of God. When the dream of God for the world is going to be true one day and we live into it. So anyway, let's pick that up a little bit more as we explore more about this after the break.

Cheryl Allison: Okay.

Wendy Davis: The more time that I spent as an office holder, both on the city council and then later in the Texas Senate and even as a gubernatorial candidate, the more I came to fully understand the challenges that still in 2018 women are up against. And it's really phenomenally disappointing.

George Mason: We're back with Cheryl Allison, director, producer of Shatter the Silence which is a film about the Me Too movement and talking about how people in Dallas are being creative and helping constructively to take advantage of this moment for good. When is this going to be released?

Cheryl Allison: Good question. No, actually, it's coming along really nicely. I have now edited, because I am editing it as well, 50 minutes of the film. So I see the film being you know edited by you know in a couple of weeks, about August 13th. And then our hope is to go through post production by the end of the year and then we will hit film festivals worldwide in 2019.

George Mason: Good.

Cheryl Allison: And then we will be in talks for distribution. Documentaries don't have too big of a life in the theater, so we will have a premiere here at the Angelika on Mockingbird which is very exciting.

George Mason: Great, wonderful.

Cheryl Allison: And then we will look for online platforms, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, iTunes. And hopefully on our local regional PBS station KERA.

George Mason: Great, great.

Cheryl Allison: There's some connections there.

George Mason: Well we'll probably air this closer to that time, as a matter of fact. So we'll have a little bit a way to be able to promote that for you.

Cheryl Allison: Great.

George Mason: But you know it struck me. This past week, we had an episode at our church. And you reported this on Facebook, it was actually hysterical the way it all happened. I met you afterward in the Narthex and as it turns out, you'd been editing all night long and were going to cut church because you were exhausted, which you know-

Cheryl Allison: Playing hookie.

George Mason: ... I have to give you some amnesty for that. But Natalie is sitting in the pew and she texts you and tells you, "Get over here."

Cheryl Allison: Yes.

George Mason: Because we had some protesters out in front of our church.

Cheryl Allison: We did.

George Mason: And they were mainly protesting our LGBT inclusion. But it struck you that that wasn't the only thing they probably had in their mind about their world view and the like. And so here comes Cheryl.

Cheryl Allison: Here I come.

George Mason: With her camera.

Cheryl Allison: Camera, shorts, baseball hat, tank top. Did not look ... not church attire. And I approached them and just started to talk with them a bit. And told them I was doing a documentary.

George Mason: Which is true.

Cheryl Allison: About the reckoning for women and the Me Too movement and I wanted to get their views on women and patriarchy and the church and that sort of thing. They did not want to have their vigil on film but they did allow me to film their audio.

George Mason: That's fascinating that they didn't ... I mean, they're out there protesting. You would think that they would be glad to ... well anyway ...

Cheryl Allison: That makes you feel like don't they know at some level that maybe they're on the wrong side of this when they are ready or saying they don't want their face being show? But I did explain to them that although I may have differing opinions, that as a film maker it's my responsibility to hear both sides. And that they had a right to express their opinion. And they did. So you know I'm editing that in right now.

George Mason: So one of the fascinating things that they told you ... I'm still trying to get my head around is that one of them said that there is, in his understanding of things, a clear hierarchy that starts with God.

Cheryl Allison: Right, then goes to Jesus.

George Mason: Then to Jesus.

Cheryl Allison: And then went to man.

George Mason: Man. Males.

Cheryl Allison: Males. And then went to angels.

George Mason: Then angels.

Cheryl Allison: And then women.

George Mason: And then women down here. Okay.

Cheryl Allison: Yes. So but they were quoting the bible and things like that. I asked them about divorce. I said, "Have any of you been divorced?" And one man had. And I said, "Well the bible talks about divorce being a sin and you shouldn't be divorced." And then he said, "Well that's when I was living in sin and I've come to confess that."

George Mason: Come to the light, yeah.

Cheryl Allison: And things. So you know. Sometimes you can't argue with the extremism like that.

George Mason: No.

Cheryl Allison: But you can certainly I think as Christians, when we communicate our point or defend our position, it can still be with respect and love.

George Mason: Well I think that's an important thing that we tried to do on Sunday and we struggle ... I think everyone struggles with people who are expressing their difference from others in the church and from the church toward others as well. There's ... it's so easy to demonize someone who is different from you. And as a gay woman, you've especially experienced that of course. Sometimes as a minister, I have from those who disdain religion generally. But even in the church, the liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional sort of dichotomy is made into a kind of irretrievable binary, where progressives can't see anything of value in the positions or the persons who are more traditional. And vice versa. And so I think the healing of our society, if the church is going to learn how to do that, we have to stop looking down on one another, dismissing one another.

George Mason: We've got to figure out a way to say, "I can't agree with you about this but I want to hear from you." And then in that listening and that deep listening and offering the cup of cold water of friendship and all of that, that's part of it as well. You still can be a part of my life. Now there's a limit, as we've talked about. You know, if your boundaries are being trampled upon and your sense of self is being trampled upon, that's one thing. But we were talking off camera about turning the other cheek.

Cheryl Allison: Exactly.

George Mason: Say a little more about your understanding of that.

Cheryl Allison: Yes, you know, well growing up you hear about turning the other cheek and you know just don't say anything. Or laugh it off. Or things like that. And what it does, I think, to young boy and girls when they hear that in the church is that it stops their growth and development of self empowerment. Because it says, you know what? Your worth is lower than just turn the other cheek. And it took me a long time to realize that turning the other cheek to me doesn't mean I don't put up a healthy boundary and say, "This is an incredibly unhealthy situation or relationship for me. So I need to now remove myself from that situation." But it means I can remove myself from that situation without feeling hate in my heart for the other person. Because that only does me harm. So I think that that's something that these phrases of turn the other cheek doesn't address.

Cheryl Allison: And there was one question I asked you when we were filming Shatter the Silence, because we were talking about sexual harassment in the church because I also interview another wonderful woman, Reverend Yvette Blair, who was pervasively sexually harassed in the Methodist church here in Dallas. So I asked you how Wilshire would handle that and you told me that while we are an all inclusive church and welcoming of all, that if that occurred you know obviously church leaders along with the person who's being victimized and the you know accused abuser would talk. We would try and reconcile it, say that there's no tolerance for that. Zero tolerance. And then if the behavior continued, you said we ultimately would have to exclude them from the church because when the community is violated, we all are violated. And to me that was so wonderful because that was saying you would to have to set up a healthy boundary, there comes a point.

George Mason: It's one of the things that's so difficult to articulate at times when you ... out in front of our church there's a sign right now that says everybody.

Cheryl Allison: Everybody.

George Mason: And by the way, it's stated not just everybody but every body because sometimes as Christians we only think of that in sort of ethereal ways and we are bodily creatures. And we are different in that respect and we want to respect each body and every body as they come. But when you say that, that can sound very Pollyanna-ish and very you know ... and well, do you really mean it? Everybody? Well everybody is welcome and everyone is loved. But there has to be from everybody a respect for every body. And if that's not true, then there's a corrosive cancer at the heart of a community. People are not safe, people are fearful about their life with one another. It's not about love then. It's about a kind of permissiveness that allows people to run roughshod over one another. That's not love. Love requires respect and it has appropriate boundaries not with the intent of excluding but with the intent of honoring.

George Mason: And I think that's the thing that people don't fully realize. You can't continually degenerate and dishonor someone and claim that you have the right to do that because you're included. That's not the way I think God has made God's inclusive realm for us. So I agree. I think it's one of the hardest things in the church to do is to have appropriate boundaries for that. But you know I sort of liken it a school principal whose job it is sometimes to go out on the playground and make sure that everyone gets to play. If somebody's bullying someone else, it takes all the fun out of the playground. It takes all the joy and the safety out of it.

Cheryl Allison: Exactly.

George Mason: And so sometimes discipline like that is meant not to punish but to allow everyone to flourish and to celebrate together. And so sometimes that's the role of leadership, right?

Cheryl Allison: Exactly. And I think what's interesting is because there is some empowerment happening, especially with women right now, that because of this turn the other cheek mentality and especially in the south they kind of sweep it under the carpet, don't say anything, laugh it off, has been simmering like you said. Now they're using their voice. And it's spewing out and it shocked people, like where is this coming from? But they have finally ... there's this self empowerment that's happening, that they're saying, "I am putting up a healthy boundary. That's not appropriate." And so people are like, "Well, what? It was appropriate you know five years ago. You didn't say anything last week." And finally women are going, "You know what though? I'm going to say it." And I think it's happening in so many different areas of our community. Maybe it's a sign of the political times. Maybe you know I don't know.

George Mason: Well I think what's happened is there's been a breakthrough now where women believe that it's possible for them to affect change. When you were ... and I know you were in Steel Magnolias years ago as well.

Cheryl Allison: Yes I was Truvy.

George Mason: But to be a steel magnolia was about all you could hope for. That is to say your turning the other cheek was your feeling of having agency where, okay, I can't change the whole culture but you can't own my decision about how I handle my own feelings about this and how I behave. And I think the same is true in the Civil Rights movement, where there was a time when the most you could imagine doing was I won't give you my soul.

Cheryl Allison: Yes.

George Mason: You can't own me. That's my turning the other cheek is to say again and again, I'm owning the way I feel about this and you don't own me on the inside. But thank God we've come to a place where we can imagine now ... it's more than just putting up with it and owning my attitude. Now I can actually believe that change is possible.

Cheryl Allison: Right.

George Mason: And that's a beautiful thing.

Cheryl Allison: Because of the Rosa Parks who said I'm not going to just turn the other cheek. I'm going to sit at the front of the bus. And the Gloria Steinem's and the equal rights you know movement and then the suffragettes of course who I have a lot of archival footage in our film of that.

George Mason: Do you? Okay.

Cheryl Allison: And it's quite chilling to see the latest women's march and then you see right after it, you know, the suffragette march. We've been doing this for over a hundred years. You know it's quite amazing. But a lot of change. And you know, one thing I didn't realize was that my mother early on could not get a credit card in her own name.

George Mason: Incredible, right? Yes.

Cheryl Allison: It has to be Mrs. Brian Allison. So look at that, you know? Look at what we fought for in this different little areas. And so a lot of people have been doing that work and now there's this huge like I said reckoning. And I think it's shocking people and it may feel extreme to some. But I think we have to go there in order to come back and then meet together.

George Mason: Right. Wonderful. Well thank you for both helping us go there and also having the spirit of how we're going to meet together as well. I always love that about you and so it's been a delight to have you on this podcast.

Cheryl Allison: Well if we're not together, we can't move forward, you know?

George Mason: That's exactly right. Thank you Cheryl.

Cheryl Allison: Thank you.

George Mason: All right. Good.

Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White, guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Good God, conversations with George Mason, is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2018 by Faith Commons.

Wendy Davis: The more time that I spent as an office holder, both on the city council and then later in the Texas Senate and even as a gubernatorial candidate, the more I came to fully understand the challenges that still in 2018 women are up against. And it's really phenomenally disappointing.

Speaker 5: The church has a responsibility to stand up and to speak out and to say, "This is horrible."

Speaker 6: Women testify that they are reluctant to testify out of fear they will not be believed. They will be blamed for their own attack. They will be in greater danger for telling and their attacker will be protected rather than held accountable. This has to stop. And the church has to demand that it stop.

Speaker 7: I just don't think that this is man bashing. I'm embarrassed for the behavior of many men. And I believe absolutely 100% that women and men need to stand up against that kind of behavior.

Speaker 8: If you know it is happening in your house, cut out the cancer.

Speaker 9: We have a huge backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in our state. And our state is not fully funding this issue like it should.

Speaker 10: Here we are in 2018. We still are not able to look those women in the eye and say to them, "Your experience mattered enough for us to finally test the darn rape kit."

Speaker 9: It just feel like some tentativeness about talking about it, which is kind of the problem, right?

Speaker 11: I've told my closest friends and that's it.

Speaker 12: We look at the victim of this crime first. And say, "Well what could you have done to change this? Why didn't you change it?"

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