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Setting out with a camera to change the world for the better

Family’s housing hardships shape student filmmaker’s passion

When Mariah Barrera sat for an interview in early March, in a coffee shop crammed with students, her head was spinning with all the things she needed to do before graduating: finishing her senior course work at City High Middle School; waiting to hear back from college applications and lining up scholarship interviews; traveling to Houston, Washington, D.C. and New York City for awards and recognitions. 

“My whole senior year has been deadlines,” she said a little wearily. “I don’t even know how I do it.” 

Mariah Barrera has been accepted at Columbia University in New York City, where she will major in media studies

Less than two weeks later schools shut down, the deadlines eased up and her travel plans were canceled. Although distressed by the pandemic, she welcomed the letup from the nonstop pace.

“Honestly, it’s been very nice,” she said by phone recently. “I’m used to being stressed about everything. With this break I’ve been able to take a breath and give myself time to regroup, spend time with family and do the things I want to do.”

In the interval she’d also cleared up where she’ll attend college: Columbia University in New York City, where she’s long dreamed of beginning her career as a filmmaker, on a full scholarship in the school’s media studies program. She would be the first in her family to graduate from college. 

“It’s such a hard thing to wrap my mind around,” Mariah said. “I didn’t think this was going to happen. I’m super happy and excited. It’s just really unbelievable.”  

Given how much she’s already been recognized for her film and photography work, perhaps it’s not so unbelievable after all. 

Mariah Barrera directs a shoot in Riverside Park for a video promoting a City of Grand Rapids greening initiative

Garnering Awards in Film & Photography

Her artistic drive is matched by her passion for social justice, informed by her own family’s experience of homelessness. She’s planning on a career of raising important conversations through her films, which already have won her plenty of honors. 

Those include “Red, White & Green,” a short film about being told as a girl she was white, not Mexican, which won a $1,000 prize in the 2019 Mosaic Mobile film contest. She also won $1,000 in a Spectrum Health version of that contest, for her video “Behind the Wall” about societal divisions offering opportunities for empathy.  

Her work was also recognized this year by the National YoungArts Foundation and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation Youth Awards. And her photos earned her a dozen honors this year from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Despite the massive societal setback of the pandemic, Mariah is more determined than ever to spark needed change through her art, especially film. 

“There are so many things going on in our world right now, and there’s so many stories and issues that don’t get enough attention,” she said. “(Film is) one of the best tools to get these stories out and start important conversations that people otherwise wouldn’t be having.

“Everyone can change the world in their own way,” she added. “I think my way of doing that is going to be through art.” 

Mariah Barrera shooting in New York City for a music video about the Washington Heights neighborhood

Mariah is well on her way toward that goal, said Ryan Huppert, her principal at City High Middle School

“Her work has themes of social and environmental justice, and is truly moving,” Huppert said by email. “I believe her award-winning work serves to motivate people to create a better world, and I admire her for that.” 

A Child’s Own TV Show 

Mariah has been passionate about becoming a filmmaker since ninth grade, when she collaborated on an inspiring video promoting Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ “Greening Initiative” to increase the city’s tree cover. As a student at the West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology, an after-school enrichment program, she was asked by other students to direct the project. The next day they began shooting at Riverside Park. 

“It was that day that solidified, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Mariah recalled. “I got so much fulfillment out of doing that – making a film, being the person who has a vision and being able to work with all these other people to bring that vision to life.” 

She’s stayed with WMCAT through high school, honing video and photography skills she first tried out as a child. That’s when she started hosting “The Mariah Show,” wherein she interviewed her sisters and friends, videotaped by her mother, Sherry, and edited by her father, Robert. 

‘Everyone can change the world in their own way. I think my way of doing that is going to be through art.’

– Mariah Barrera, City High Middle School graduate

After her parents gave her an iPad for her 10th birthday and she downloaded a video app, she was really on her way. She was also going great guns as a fifth grader at Mulick Park Elementary School, where she was a star student and started a monthly school newspaper, 5 Star News. 

Teacher Helen Gillespie remembers her as a child with “a bright light in her eyes and a smile that lit up a room.”

“Her leadership skills were evident, and it didn’t take me long to recognize her as the self-motivated trailblazer that she is today,” said Gillespie, who’s stayed in touch with Mariah and still teaches at Mulick Park. 

Mariah Barrera in a shot from a video she directed in New York City, where she’ll attend Columbia University

Hardship Fuels Motivation  

Mariah’s bright light hit a darker reality in high school, when her family was priced out of its Southeast Side home and had to live for two years in relatives’ basement – six of them stuffed into one room. She remembers reading her homework by the light of her phone after the others went to bed. 

She transformed their experience into a short film, “Metamorphosis,” likening herself to a butterfly leaving a cocoon – an artistic statement of the determination she forged then. Her family’s hardship motivates much of her artistic concern over housing affordability and other justice issues.  

“That’s where my inspiration was consistently coming from: I don’t ever want to see my family in this position again, and I’m going to do something about it,” said Mariah. 

Her determination – and inspiration – are evident as well in her response to the pandemic. Although she laments the loss of prom, the class trip and other long-anticipated events, she sees glimmers of promise in people’s acts of kindness, and in the lessons learned for her generation.

“I think I and members of my generation will come out of this with a clear mindset of what it is that is important to us, and what it is we want to do,” she said. “If everyone can figure out ways to have good humanity during this time, once we’re out of this I think things have the potential of being better.

“I think a lot of us are going to come out being more grateful.” 


Mariah Barrera’s website including her award-winning videos and photographs

Mariah Barrera reflects on her generation’s lessons taken from the COVID-19 pandemic
A positive view of New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood 

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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