Filmmaker, Mother, Family Leave Activist: an Interview with Krystina Wilson
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND.
Personally: Mother. Wife. Dancer and performing arts enthusiast. Proud UGA Alumni (Go Dawgs). Avid Cheesehead (Go Pack). Paid Family Leave activist. March of Dimes fundraiser and supporter. Lover of travel. Hibernophile.
Professionally: I’ve always known I wanted to work in Post Production. I graduated college, applied to every job in NYC and LA that I could find and my [then boyfriend, now husband] and I agreed that wherever one of us received an offer at first, we’d pack up our cars and drive. Los Angeles won.
I started in VFX as a receptionist, working my way up the ranks as a Crew Manager, Commercials Producer, Animation Production Manager for Academy Award nominated film Real Steel, Executive Producer, and now Managing Director for the Chicago office of the world renowned creative studio and technology powerhouse – Framestore.
TALK ABOUT ZERO WEEKS. WHAT’S THE DEEP AND BRIEF OF IT?
Zero Weeks is a documentary and a call to action about America’s Paid Family Leave crisis. The United States of America is the only country on the planet [other than Papua New Guinea] without a Paid Leave policy. The film follows various subjects – a working mom who is forced to fit chemo treatments in on her lunch break, new parents who must leave their baby in the NICU while they go back to work, a teenager who has to drop out of school after her father dies to get a job so her family can survive – to illustrate the very real impact that lack of Paid Leave has on individuals. The film interviews experts, activists, companies with progressive policies, and politicians about the economic, financial, and societal implications that the lack of a national Paid Leave policy has on our global economy and our people. Paid Family Leave is at its core a human rights issue versus a political issue, with an overwhelming majority of both major parties in favor of it.
Lack of a national Paid Leave policy is also directly linked to a woman’s (in)ability to achieve workplace equality, discrimination of mothers in the workplace, equal opportunity and equal pay.
Our workplace policies in this country were written during a time when men went to work, and mothers stayed home. They are antiquated. Today, 8 out of 10 moms are working and 4 out of 10 are the primary or sole earners. Women make up 47% of the workforce and we give life to our country’s future workforce and tax base…but our country ultimately punishes us by not giving us access to Paid Leave or job security. We are forced to go back to work before our bodies and minds are healed, and our children are forced to be apart from their mothers before they are fully nurtured, adjusted and thriving.
"We continue to overburden women and under value men when it comes to “roles” at home."
We continue to overburden women and under value men when it comes to “roles” at home. And until we change our policies to place just as much importance on paternity as maternity and eliminate the antiquated thinking that women should bear more of the responsibility at home and care giving… we will never achieve equality in the workplace.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE FAMILY LEAVE?
Paid Family and Medical Leave is for a serious life event–illness or injury of yourself or a family member, birth or adoption of a child, caring for a sick or aging parent - that requires more time to tend to / recover from / take care of.
A few things people get confused when it comes to Paid Family Leave are:
a) Paid Family Leave is not just maternity leave. It is inclusive of maternity leave, but it is not only for maternity leave.
b) It differs from Paid Sick Days. Sick days are used for routine illnesses that require only a few days to recover. And here’s the crazy part: Our country doesn’t even mandate paid sick days! It depends on the state you work in and/or the company you work for.
c) People mistake FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993) for Paid Family Leave. FMLA is unpaid for up to 12 weeks for a life event, and there are limitations to qualify such as the amount of time you’ve worked at the company or the number of people that work for the company. Freelancers, small businesses of under 50 employees…they don’t qualify to receive FMLA.
d) Paid Leave works like an insurance program. It is a very small payroll tax - equivalent to less than a cup of coffee a week - that is paid into a state [and ideally one day federal] fund. If (when) an employee has a life event and needs to access Paid Family Leave, they receive a portion of their regular wages during this time. Right now this varies state by state - as only 6 states + Washington DC have passed paid leave laws - but the goal is to have a national Paid Family and Medical Leave policy.
"I will never forget that harsh, cruel, almost inhumane response to the death of our children..."
WHAT DREW YOU TO FAMILY LEAVE AS A SUBJECT MATTER?
My husband and I suffered the tragic loss of both of our twin daughters in 2015. There are no words to describe what it is like to lose a child, the trauma a parent suffers, and the unrelenting, unpredictable grief you must learn to navigate. The company I worked for when we lost the girls allowed me to take the time I needed to heal physically after giving birth and to grieve. Conversely, when my husband asked his HR department if he could take a few UNPAID weeks to grieve and care for me, their response - and I quote – was: “Well, I guess technically you had two deaths instead of 1. So we’ll give you 6 days instead of 3…”
There is a quote from me in the film about what 6 days after the death of two children is like…
I will never forget that harsh, cruel, almost inhumane response to the death of our children for as long as I live. My entire life, it had never occurred to me that there wasn’t some type of system in place for one to take some extended time - even just a week or so – to recover from illness, injury, trauma, a new baby, an aging family member, the death of a child… without worrying about your job or your next paycheck. I mean… 25% of women go back to work 2 weeks after having a baby. 2 WEEKS! I could not believe it. And that’s the thing about Paid Leave: you don’t know that you need it until you really need it. As Ellen Bravo says in the film – these are human rights that every other country in the world gives to its citizens. It shouldn’t be about winning the “Boss Lottery.”
After our experience, I vowed that I would do everything in my power so that no human being ever had to suffer a trauma without time for recovery. In the midst of my grief, I needed a cause to direct my energy – and I chose to become a Paid Family Leave advocate.
In December 2015, I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about director Ky Dickens and her Kickstarter campaign for a film called Zero Weeks. Serendipitously, she was a Chicago-based director and we worked in the same industry. While I was five months pregnant with my daughter Isabella, I reached out to Ky and her producer regarding donating post production services, and also told her a little about why the cause was so important to my husband and me. I wasn’t expecting Ky to ask to meet with us, much less ask if we’d consider being subjects in her film as we recounted our experience and they followed my subsequent pregnancy. While telling our story and reliving our experience on camera was something we never considered and were not prepared for, after one dinner with Ky and her producer Alexis, we knew it was something we had to do. For ourselves, for others, and for our girls.
DID YOU TAKE TIME OFF TO CREATE THE FILM? OR, IF NOT, HOW DID YOU BALANCE WORK AND ZERO WEEKS
Luckily Ky and Michael (DP) always worked around our schedule, shooting on weekends and around work. There were multiple interviews at home and around our neighborhood, and Michael was also there the day we brought our daughter, Isabella home from the hospital.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU IN THE PROCESS OF CREATING ZERO WEEKS? SOMETHING YOU LEARNED, SOMETHING YOU NEVER COULD HAVE PLANNED FOR, ETC.
Two things. One being that, like me before we lost our daughters, most people don’t know what Paid Leave is until they need it. So creating an awareness of this very real crisis in America became my ambition, and my story became my platform.
The second was discovering the true definition of activism.
I had always thought that to be an “activist,” you had to donate something. Your time. Your money. Attend a protest. Those sort of things.
What this experience taught me was the impact of sharing our stories. As Ky has said:
“Our stories are the foundation of activism. Activism impacts policy. And policy changes our lives.”
I have traveled with the film to festivals, screenings, and to Washington DC as it premiered for members of Congress. I had Washington State Senator Joe Fain respond to my question of whether parental bereavement had been considered in creating a national paid leave policy by saying: “No… but after hearing your story, I guarantee you it will be included in every discussion, in every room moving forward.”
The impact Zero Weeks and my family’s journey has had on people is something I am both overwhelmed by and immensely proud of. Sharing our story and the concept of co-destiny – how doing good in your child’s name can extend their legacy – has been healing for our family. Through this film, we know that our daughters will live on and never be forgotten but more than that – their story could affect policy change that will impact peoples’ lives forever.
We now have two more little girls – Isabella and Alessandra – and raising my daughters inspires me daily to keep up the fight. I believe our country will get there eventually. But we must create an awareness for Paid Leave and support family-friendly policies in the workplace so the United States can catch up with every other country in the world.
Anything could happen tomorrow. And there is nothing more important than taking care of yourself, your children, and your family without fear of losing your job and your income simply because you needed some time off for self-care - or to give care - during this unpredictable journey called life.
WHAT CAN OUR AUDIENCE DO TO SUPPORT FAMILY LEAVE?
Start by talking to your company. Organize a screening of the film. You will be surprised by how many companies are not properly informed about Paid Leave, especially if they are non-US owned but have offices in the States. Because people outside the US view Paid Leave as a right and not a privilege, they are dumbstruck by the fact that our government has zero Paid Leave policy on the federal level.
Before I joined, my current company did not have a Paid Leave policy as all of our offices, with the exception of Illinois, were either outside the US or in NY or California. NY and CA had already passed comprehensive paid leave policies, so really it was only our Illinois employees who didn’t have any access to Paid Leave. After hearing my story, our HR team worked with Global Management to pass a comprehensive Paid Family Leave policy across the group, using New York State’s policy as the framework so that all employees in our US offices had access to the same benefits, regardless of geographical location.
I also highly recommend getting connected with Family Values at Work – www.familyvaluesatwork.org – and visiting www.zeroweeks.com and clicking GET INVOLVED.