Documentary filmmaker returns to UT as dean

December 6, 2017

Before moving to Toledo in 2007, Charlene Gilbert was a tenured professor at American University in Washington D.C. teaching documentary filmmaking. Her interest in administration and desire to raise her kids in the Midwest brought her to the Glass City.


Gilbert is now the dean of the College of Arts and Letters. 


"I think UT is an amazing university,” Gilbert said. "What I love about [the College of Arts and Letters] is how broad it is and how we have all the arts, all the humanities and all the social sciences in our college.”


Growing up in a military family, Gilbert moved frequently, from Georgia to Texas, Maryland, Colorado, New Jersey and finally Connecticut, where she graduated from college.


Her love for books encouraged her to be studious and perform well in school. As a kid, she looked up to the journalist Nellie Bly, who piqued her interest in journalism.


"I liked the part about journalists being engaged in social activism," Gilbert said.


In the 1800s, Nellie Bly became famous for smuggling herself into a mental health institution in New York City and writing an exposé about its poor treatment of patients.


“So, I liked the notion of kind of being able to help people by telling the truth through journalism,” Gilbert said.


In high school, Gilbert practiced her skills by writing for her school newspaper. In college, she wrote for the Yale Daily News, covering stories about sexual harassment. Gilbert often spent her summers, working at newspapers like MacNeil News Hour, Philadelphia Inquirer and even a local cable station. 


The four major TV stations at the time included ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, where Gilbert interned. At PBS, she was assigned to the international desk, ripping copy for producers at the top of every hour.


"I remember taking the copy to one of the producers and saying, 'Do you want me to fact check that?' and he was like, ‘Nope,’” Gilbert said.


Within weeks, Gilbert was beginning to question her job. The idea of being a journalist felt different from what the reality was, she said.


"And then one day, a woman walked in and she had on a white T-shirt, blue jeans and comfortable shoes. She had been doing stories on Mexico and the economy in Mexico over the summer. She put a tape on the desk, she dropped off a camera and walked out the door—and I was like, whatever she does, I want to do that," Gilbert said.


In that moment, Gilbert decided she wanted to become an independent documentary filmmaker.


Her first documentary was about a textile worker in North Carolina. Gilbert said she assembled a volunteer crew and produced a documentary on a woman’s involvement in leading a campaign to organize textile workers in her town.

"I was very passionate about it, and I still am,” Gilbert said. “I just loved every minute of it.”


This encouraged her to continue training until she landed her very first pay check from PBS for filming a documentary on Haiti.


“I remember I made a copy of a check and was like, ‘I can't believe I'm getting paid to do something I love,’” Gilbert said.


It wasn’t until she really explored the field of journalism that she realized how much she enjoyed documentary journalism, Gilbert said. She added that documentaries are important because they allow filmmakers to go into depth and talk about an issue, or tell a story based in reality.


While filming her first documentary, Gilbert shared that she hit a point where she didn't have enough money to finish up her production. She thought about closing her production office until she could raise more money. However, the very next day, she got one of the grants she applied for.


“I also am a woman of faith, so my faith has carried me through those rough times,” Gilbert said.


Gilbert said she never imagined her life would end up the way it did, but her drive to succeed in life never stopped her from going after what she wanted.


"Okay, so they're telling me all the things I can't do, so I intentionally said, ‘What are all the things I can do?’ So, then I made myself do all the things I could do," Gilbert said.


She wasn’t allowed to play contact sports, so she settled for tennis, where she made the varsity tennis team. She joined the newspaper and yearbook, remaining determined to overcome adversity.


“In my own mind, I came up with my own plan on how I was going to get through it,” Gilbert said.


Even as a little kid, Gilbert said she was always a planner and still implements this practice today.


“Even now, I'll be at a meeting and making my five-year plan and my 10-year plan,” Gilbert said. “Sometimes I'll look back at my plan, and cross something off my list and be like, ‘Yeah, I did that.’”


The first time Gilbert came to UT was in 2007, when she served as a professor and chair of women and gender studies. Gilbert left to become the director at Ohio State University for three years and has now returned as the dean of the College of Arts and Letters.


Her advice to students is to focus on doing what they’re passionate about and not to let other people change them and make their story smaller. Years after you graduate, very few jobs ask you what you majored in, Gilbert said.


“It’s like [being] on your own journey in the forest: As you ride through it, people will try to scare you off, and that's happened to me. People were like, 'You can't do that, that’s not going to work.' Stand up, ignore them, make a plan. You have to work really hard, but don't let other people define your goal and your life dreams,” Gilbert said.


She added she would like to be remembered as someone who worked really hard to create opportunity for talented students, regardless of their background and economic situations.


“I hope every student in this college understands, at the end of the day, no matter what they major in or do, I hope when they leave here, they are good members of their communities and they remember to speak up for other people," Gilbert said. "I really want people to be caring toward each other and not turn a blind eye when you see something wrong going on."



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