Erin Levin – Producer of African Children’s Choir Film

[quote style=”boxed”]When I have an idea that I am passionate about and believe can make this world a better place, I relentlessly work towards making it a reality.[/quote]

Erin is an award-winning storyteller. Her production and outreach experience ranges from ABC and CNN to the Peace Corps and non-profits around the world.

At CNN, Erin worked closely on the 2008 election coverage and found a niche in covering Africa, musical activism, and the changing face of homelessness. She also became an abolitionist through her coverage of human trafficking, and worked on the following CNN Presents documentaries: Songs of Hope, Black in America, Latino in America, Gary and Tony Have a Baby, Rescued: Haiti’s Earthquake, Muslim Youth and Taliban. Most recently, Erin worked as the community and social media manager, as well as the filmmaker, at Better World Books, an online social enterprise bookstore.

Erin is now working full-time on the African Children’s Choir Film, her first documentary feature. She is also a freelance writer for the Huffington Post and Paste Magazine, and is a social media and outreach guru for small businesses and non-profits hoping to share their work and passion with clients, fans and donors.

What are you working on right now?

I am producing a documentary feature film about the Grammy-nominated African Children’s Choir.

Where did the idea for the African Children’s Choir Film come from?

The summer of 2007, I graduated from the University of Virginia and worked as the outreach coordinator for Dispatch:Zimbabwe, a three-day benefit concert hosted at Madison Square Garden to raise funds and awareness for the dire needs in Zimbabwe. We invited the African Children’s Choir to perform with the band, and I fell in love with the joyful children from Kenya and Uganda. The group was made up of orphans and extremely vulnerable children who would not have made it to second grade. Thanks to the choir, these children were sponsored through university. I thought it was brilliant!

Before I had a chance to process the enormity of the choir’s story and impact, I left the U.S. to serve in the Peace Corps in Madagascar and thereafter worked long hours on the presidential election for CNN. The summer of 2009, I took a break and went to volunteer for a month in Uganda with my friend’s grassroots non-profit. It was there that I ran into the African Children’s Choir again. This time, I had a camera. I filmed the children telling their stories of transformation through the choir and brought it back to CNN. My mentors there encouraged me to follow the choir for a little while and see what I could put together. After a few months of filming the various choir projects throughout Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, and the kids on tour in the U.K., U.S. and Canada, I wrote a 30-minute news documentary that aired on CNN International.

I wanted more people to know the story of the choir. I longed to film one group from start to finish so the audience could glean the incredible difference the choir makes in these kids’ lives, as well as the lives of everyone they encounter. That’s why I’m here today–fundraising, networking and producing a feature on the best story I’ve ever experienced.

What does your typical day look like?

Oh gosh, there really is no typical day. When I am in Africa I get up early with my crew (the director, director of photography, audio mixer, translator etc.) and spend the entire day and night filming the kids’ backstories of poverty and hope in their communities. Our vehicles break down. We climb up buildings under construction to film sunrise and sunset time-lapses. We interview the children, their families and former choir members now contributing greatly to society. When I am in the U.S. I film the kids practicing, staying in their host family homes, and trying new, “American things” like sandwiches. We shoot performances and eye-and-heart-opening experiences for the children and the Westerners around them. I also spend a lot of time fundraising for the film and transcribing our footage so we can write a great script. Later this year, we will even get to film the kids perform with music legends for packed houses!

How do you bring ideas to life?

When I have an idea that I am passionate about and believe can make this world a better place, I relentlessly work towards making it a reality. I am very persistent. I also try to harness my energy into completed work and share it with those who work with me. Finally, I think maintaining a positive attitude and sharing my ideas with anyone who may have advice is very important to my success.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I love that social enterprises are becoming more popular. It’s exciting that business can be a part of the solution to ending global problems such as poverty and a lack of education.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I’ve been very fortunate to have never had a bad job. I’ve done everything from working at TCBY to teaching wake-boarding at a summer camp to interviewing the Dave Matthews Band for a CNN story. Maybe one reason no job ever seemed bad is because my mom taught me to find the good in every situation; I’ve worked hard to do that.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Wow, is it bad if I say nothing? I have obviously made mistakes, but I’ve learned from them and needed to learn those lessons somehow. People say I am too idealistic, but I think that if I wasn’t, I would never have tried making this film in the first place. So don’t let haters get you down!

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I pray. When you are taking the path less traveled it can be scary, overwhelming and discouraging. When I have friends, family, mentors and the African kids around, I am encouraged and given peace and love. Sometimes, though, those people are not around, so all there is to keep me from freaking out and quitting is my faith that God is with us.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

At this phase in the game, I feel like I encounter a problem almost every day. Most recently, I encountered one yesterday. I bought a bunch of African crafts and jewelry in Uganda last week to use at home to help raise money for the film. When I unpacked, I saw that a large bag of Ugandan necklaces had been stolen and replaced with a large bag and Ugandan peanuts. Rather than let my heartbreak get to me, I posted about the problem on Facebook and Twitter. Within 10 minutes, a number of friends offered to help pay for new necklaces to be bought by a friend who mentioned she is heading to Kenya next week. It’s amazing how powerful social media can be for problem-solving!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I have always loved taking photos, but never thought I was talented at it. In Africa, though, everything looks beautiful, and my director of photography actually thinks that some of my still photos from our recent trip are worthy of purchase, so I am going to sell them to help fund the film!

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

Every child deserves a good, free education. If I had all the money and time in the world, I would spend it making sure each child on Earth has access to that. Thankfully, making this film is a small step in that direction. The African Children’s Choir has created a clever, compelling, entertaining and sustainable way to educate children across Africa and people around the world. I am humbled and honored to share their success story as an example of how we can all help make a difference.

Tell us a secret.

People tell me I look like Reese Witherspoon. It is my secret dream to play her little sister in a movie. I’m hoping she sees this, because I would donate my salary to this film.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

I have to pick five, sorry! I’m a huge social media nerd.

  1. Facebook because it’s an incredible way to stay in touch with friends worldwide.
  2. Twitter because it’s a fun (and sometimes even effective) way to reach celebrities and role models.
  3. Pinterest because it’s entertaining, a guilty-pleasure, and an interesting way to find new recipes.
  4. Instagram because it’s a creative way to share photos.
  5. Pandora because its music keeps me sane.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz is my all-time favorite book! She is the Founder of the Acumen Fund and is one of my mentors. Her story is so inspiring!

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

  1. @HPGoodNews because I think we all need a little more good news in our lives.
  2. @MarkMasai because he is a former African Children’s Choir member who was abandoned as a baby, and thanks to the choir, is now a leading news anchor for CCTV!
  3. @CNNEmma because her tweets make me informed and happy.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

This morning getting coffee with one of my good friends. I’m not sure what was so funny. We just laugh a lot!

Who is your hero?

Nelson Mandela because he peacefully brought peace.

Why did you decide to be a storyteller?

I strongly believe in the power of media and music to help make this a better world. The news business started out as a public service, and I’d like to bring it back to that. I love sharing meaningful information in creative ways for all people.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?

White-water rafting down the Nile River! Twice.


Erin Levin on Linkedin:
Erin Levin on Twitter: @makinggoodnews
African Children’s Choir Film on Twitter: @accfilm
Erin Levin on Facebook:
African Children’s Choir Film on Facebook:
African Children’s Choir – The Film’s Blog:
Erin Levin on Pinterest:
Erin Levin’s Facebook app: