Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself? [We are] challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.
– Rachel Carson, American nature author, marine biologist, and conservationist
When I asked Jeanne, in our interview in February, how she came to the Breast Cancer Fund (1388 Sutter St., Suite 400, San Francisco, CA 94109-5400, 866.760.8223), she admitted that her biography doesn’t reflect a resume that would align with her current position. She began her career as a nurse, with passionate interest in women’s health and public health in social justice issues. After she was drawn into the music, film, and theater world, which was also a great love of hers, she spent a decade doing pro bono work for nonprofits engaged in health, social justice, and environmental causes.
Engaging in breast cancer activism
While Jeanne produced benefit concerts and other activities during the AIDS crisis, she hadn’t done any pro bono work around breast cancer until she volunteered to produce the premiere of “Rachel’s Daughters: Searching for the Environmental Causes of Breast Cancer” at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre in September 1997. Allie Light and Irving Saraf’s documentary, which was produced by Nancy Evans, was a response to the breast cancer diagnosis handed down to Light and Saraf’s then 39-year-old daughter. The film was named in honor of American marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson, who died of breast cancer in 1964, two years after the publication of her groundbreaking environmental science book Silent Spring, which exposed the dangers of synthetic pesticides and thus helped to spur the global and American environmental movements. Reaction to the book led to the ban of DDT for agricultural uses and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Rachel’s Daughters” highlighted the efforts of a group of activists whose goal was to unearth the science of breast cancer and the politics of the breast cancer epidemic. Light and Saraf wanted to introduce a proactive response to the disease and raise public awareness of known and suspected causes of breast cancer, and potential strategies to reduce the risk of and even prevent breast cancer. This approach proposed a radical shift away from the then-current retrospective public health campaign of detection and treatment.
The premiere sold out, and afterwards Andrea Martin, founder and executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund and breast cancer survivor, reached out to Jeanne for help to organize a 1998 mountain climb of Alaska’s Mount McKinley, also known as Denali, and a film about the event. Despite her ongoing work on a project about war widows in Vietnam and a concert with Grammy Award-winning Sweet Honey in the Rock, and despite having never produced a film, Jeanne jumped at the opportunity: “I said yes, I said yes, I would do this.” She was already thinking about leveraging music to help tell the story of 12 women, including five breast cancer survivors, whose mission was to scale the highest peak in North America. With all her connections in the music industry, including the Indigo Girls, Sweet Honey, k.d. lang, Nanci Griffith, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jeanne said, “I felt that’s what I could bring.” Her role grew to include fundraising and being executive producer. “Climb Against the Odds” won multiple film festival awards, earned international acclaim, and aired on PBS stations across the country, but most importantly, the documentary raised awareness of breast cancer and the Breast Cancer Fund’s call to action.
Through Breast Cancer Fund board member Donna Westmoreland’s connections, the nonprofit organization partnered with the Lilith Fair, a concert tour and traveling music festival that comprised female-led bands and female solo artists, which allowed Jeanne to further leverage her music connections. Through this partnership, the Breast Cancer Fund was chosen as the nonprofit breast cancer group that would tour with the festival. In the years that it ran, from 1997 to 1999, Lilith Fair raised more than $10 million for various women’s charities in North America. Jeanne played a significant role managing the Breast Cancer Fund’s participation on the tours, while still running her own business. “I just kept getting drawn in to one project after another,” she explained. More importantly, she was also intrigued by Andrea’s work in the area of breast cancer research and the environmental causes of the disease.
A Shift in focus
Up until 1998, six years after the Breast Cancer Fund was founded, the nonprofit was focused primarily on raising funds and giving grants to researchers who were trying to develop non-toxic treatments and alternatives to mammography, and to support access-to-care issues. While the work was important, Andrea felt that something was missing, Jeanne recalled. “She was really among the first people to raise the question of environmental causation – factors in causing breast cancer that were not the known and accepted risk factors,” Jeanne said. She was fascinated by Andrea’s quest to drill down into environmental causes. Jeanne accompanied her to board meetings and other meetings, conferences, and study groups with researchers and public health officials that the Breast Cancer Fund hosted, all the while still running her business.
When Andrea was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in May 2001, she stepped down as executive director. Given her involvement, Jeanne offered to help on a temporary basis to stabilize the nonprofit that she cared deeply about. When the board asked for an extension, she figured she could stay a year longer. “I didn’t leave,” she said, with a laugh. “I forgot to leave; the board forgot to ask me to leave. And at the end of the year, I thought: This is my calling.” Jeanne dove deep into the science, commissioning a report called the “State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment.” “We had to ask and answer the question: Is there enough scientific evidence to justify this organization focusing on the environment? And that’s what we did,” Jeanne declared. “We said, ‘That’s our mission – to focus on reducing exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation.'” The purpose of raising funds shifted from giving out grants to developing programs “to aggregate, translate, and communicate the science” for the creation of public policy and market-based campaigns, Jeanne explained.
From Mount McKinley to LUNAFEST
You could say that the seeds of LUNAFEST – or the relationships that were instrumental in the creation of LUNAFEST – were sown on the climb up Mount McKinley in 1998. When Jeanne was helping to organize the mountain climb, which she laughingly admitted she knew very little about, the climbers told her they needed good food – including energy bars – that wouldn’t freeze at the summit. PowerBar, the best-selling energy bar at the time, was already too hard and would be inedible at high altitudes. In a moment of serendipity, Jeanne discovered Clif Bar while on a bike ride in Oregon. When she returned home and found that Clif Bar (1451 66th Street, Emeryville, CA 94608, 800.254.3227) was based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she reached out to founder Gary Erickson, who enthusiastically came on board with the project and supplied the climbing team with his energy bars.
Jeanne and Gary stayed in touch and then got together again in 1999 to discuss the launch of LUNA, Clif Bar’s healthful energy bar for women. Gary, whose mother was a breast cancer survivor, committed to putting the Breast Cancer Fund logo on the bar wrapper and giving a percentage of proceeds to the nonprofit organization. The collaboration continued as the Breast Cancer Fund and LUNA began brainstorming the establishment of an “art reach program” – reaching people through art and building community. During this time, while “Climb Against the Odds” was making the rounds of the film festival circuit, Jeanne noticed that many screenings paired feature films with short films by women filmmakers. She brought her observation back to LUNA, and LUNAFEST, a national traveling festival of short films “by, for, about women,” was born.
In the first year, 35 filmmakers submitted applications. The following year, around 100 films were considered. Now, under the amazing direction of Clif Bar Co-owner, Kit Crawford, LUNAFEST draws nearly 1,000 submissions and more than 150 cities across the country are participating in the 2014-2015 season, validating its legitimacy as a respected, sought-after festival by both filmmakers and film aficionados. The festival also appeals to supporters of breast cancer prevention – the Breast Cancer Fund is the main beneficiary – and local nonprofits – each host city or local organization supports a designated nonprofit to receive a portion of the proceeds.
LUNA and the Breast Cancer Fund determined early on that LUNAFEST would not be a festival about breast cancer films, that the subject matter would not be a criterion for acceptance. “We wanted it to be a combination of showing different filmmaking styles and skill sets,” Jeanne explained. “We wanted stories that felt authentic and were well done.” In the 14 years since LUNAFEST’s founding, every year these stories “by, for, about women” still reflect this authenticity, which, coincidentally, also reflect Jeanne’s personal code – to be honest and true, and, therefore, to be a better person fully present in the world.
Postscript: Jeanne will be an honored guest at the VIP event hosted by the LUNAFEST East Bay Committee on March 21st at 6:00pm, 638 Clayton Avenue, El Cerrito. Following the reception, the LUNAFEST film festival will be shown at 7:30pm at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Center, at 540 Ashbury Avenue, one block up from the VIP event. Jeanne will open the festival with the welcome and will be available to meet after the screening. Come visit with her at either event. You can purchase tickets (for the VIP event/film festival or just the film festival) here or contact me directly.