Portia Cobb has always seen the world as a series of stories, and through art she has made a point to tell the stories of the people in her community.
Raised in California, Cobb started her professional career in radio, where she learned the art of storytelling using music and audio. Eventually, she transitioned into video when she started thinking about attending graduate school. Driven to talk about the struggles of homelessness and what it meant to be black, Cobb would continue to use video as her chosen medium to talk about experiences close to her.
While pursuing the theme of the African diaspora in her work, she flew to Burkina Faso in West Africa to attend a prominent film festival focusing on the topic. It was on that trip in 1991 where she met a UW-Milwaukee professor, who recruited her to teach at the college and lead UWM’s Community Media Project (CMP). Cobb never expected to be a teacher, nor did she expect to live in Milwaukee, but all of the unexpected happened in 1992. She found herself in a new city helping young people tell their stories with a video camera.
The CMP was started in 1985 as UWM’s effort to provide artistic programming to underserved groups around the city. “The CMP existed as a way to empower—to tell the stories of those we weren’t seeing,” explains Cobb. She would partner with community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club and the Midtown Neighborhood Association to find participants in the program. In addition to learning the mechanics of a camera, the students would have the opportunity to meet prominent video artists brought in from around the country.
Cobb would constantly be changing her programming to fit the needs of the students. After first getting to know the students, Cobb often realized they were already activists with goals for changing the narrative. She simply gave them the tools they needed to amplify their voices. “They already had stories. All we did was bring the equipment,” she says.
The CMP still exists today, but it doesn’t have the funding and influence it once did. In its prime in the late 1990s, Cobb would bridge the gap between Milwaukee’s Central City and the East Side by bringing students to the college or by going into their neighborhoods. Now, however, the CMP functions as a mentoring program for anyone that reaches out.
The CMP created ripple effects throughout the Milwaukee community, being one of the first programs to regularly show films by artists of color. They would focus on themes about the black community and the African diaspora. Cobb sees the program’s influence in organizations like Black Lens, an organization that has been bringing films by African American artists to the Milwaukee Film Festival. Directing the CMP since living in Milwaukee has allowed Cobb to view the city through the lens of the people she’s worked with. As Cobb reminisced about these experiences, she flashed a broad smile and reflected on how much her students have inspired her.
Learn more at uwm.edu/arts/film/documentary-media