South Charlotte

She speaks for others from behind the camera

Melissa Mummert, 37, was raised to stand up for her convictions.

"My father is a minister in Missouri," said Mummert. "He raised me to be socially conscious."

Mummert knew she wanted to put her theater degree from Stephens College, a small women's college in Missouri, to constructive use. She moved to California and, after a series of jobs, decided to follow her father's lead to seminary school, earning a master's in Divinity from the Unitarian Universalism Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., in 2003.

Mummert has since combined her theater background and seminary training to produce documentaries intended to raise public consciousness about incarceration, an issue she has come to care about deeply.

As a seminary student, Mummert had an internship at FCI Dublin Prison in Dublin, Calif. She spent a great deal of time talking to incarcerated women, many of whom were serving long sentences, and it occurred to her these women largely were invisible as far as the media was concerned.

"I decided to use my tools from my other life and try to make some social change happen," said Mummert.

Her first documentary, "Perversion of Justice," tells the story of Hamedah Hasan, whom Mummert met at FCI Dublin Prison. Hasan was serving two life sentences for a nonviolent drug offense, and Mummert wanted to chronicle "her roller-coaster journey through the justice system and the impact of that on her three daughters, one of whom was born in prison."

The film, released in 2007, was well-received and earned some recognition at film festivals. More importantly, the documentary caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, which now represents Hasan. The ACLU now has a website devoted, in part, to Hasan - - and has made her a central figure in its sentencing commutation project.

Mummert continued her work with inmates when she moved to Charlotte in 2003, where her husband, Jay Leach, whom she met at graduate school, serves as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte.

Mummert, who now lives in Raintree, taught domestic-violence-education classes to female inmates at the Mecklenburg County Jail and currently teaches parenting classes to female inmates through her work with the nonprofit organization Changed Choices.

In 2008, while working for a nonprofit called Center for Community Transitions, she started the E-KWIP program, geared to empowering children of incarcerated parents. Mummert visited public schools and ran support groups for children with incarcerated parents and organized events for these children and their caregivers.

"It dawned on me that this had to be my next movie," said Mummert. She wanted to document how these children and families were coping, but she also wanted to showcase how successfully they were handling that challenge.

"It is ultimately an uplifting story, because these are great kids," said Mummert. She decided it would have the most impact - for both the audience and those involved - if the eight children profiled in the film could tell their own stories. Thanks to a small grant from the Arts and Science Council and a partnership with ImaginOn, Mummert was able to give each child a camera crew for the day and free rein to tell their stories. The result, "Life Without: Youth with Incarcerated Parents Tell Their Own Stories," showcases eight children - three of whom are brothers - and the impact having an incarcerated parent has had on their lives.

Indigo Smith, 37 - whose three sons, Cree, 16, Jeromiah, 15, and Skye, 14, are featured in the film - relished the opportunity to hear how her boys felt about their father's incarceration "in their own words" and document their feelings and coping mechanisms.

"It served as an independent verification that they're OK and that they're going to be OK," said Smith.

Her son Jeromiah perhaps summed it up best when offering advice to other children whose parents are incarcerated, telling them in the film they do not have to be defined by that distinction: "Just because your parent did a bad thing doesn't mean you're a bad person."