From lost decade to last decade: Blanks took long path to Alumni Award

Geraud Blanks is the co-founder of Black Lens and the chief innovation officer at Milwaukee Film. He’s an app developer, a former social worker, a history lover and a film buff. He is also a 2023 winner of the UW-Milwaukee Alumni Association Graduate of the Last Decade award.

“What’s ironic about that is, for a lot of people who know my journey, I have this thing I call ‘The Lost Decade,’” Blanks said. “I’ve been working my (tail) off for the last 10-plus years to make up for that gap.”

Blanks grew up in Milwaukee and started college at UWM in the late 1990s. He had a track scholarship, a major in mass communication and a love of film. Outside of class, with the help of his then-girlfriend and another good friend, Blanks co-founded the student organization SCOPE (Student Creative Outreach Providing Education/Entertainment), which provided sociocultural programming for students and even brought Maya Angelou to visit campus.

“For better or worse, SCOPE ended up taking all of my time,” Blanks said. He stopped attending class to focus on the organization, to the detriment of his grades. UWM sent him a cordial letter – “basically a breakup letter,” Blanks joked – informing him of his precarious academic standing. In 2001, Blanks left UWM without a degree.

So began the Lost Decade.

Making a mark in music

After he left UWM, Blanks landed in Milwaukee’s music scene. He worked as a promoter and manager for local hip-hop bands, and founded the hip-hop group Black Elephant. The band ended up on several Milwaukee “best of” lists and played gigs like Summerfest, in addition to touring on the road.

“It was cool, but it was a constant hustle,” Blanks recalled.

Along the way, he earned his associate degree, founded a business, Kairo Communications, and worked as a freelance journalist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Tired of the grind, Blanks left the music scene in 2009 and turned to social work instead. He did stints at the nonprofit organizations Public Allies and Safe and Sound before landing at Sojourner Peace Center, a domestic violence shelter.

Back to college

And though he learned a lot and gained invaluable experience, Blanks always regretted leaving UWM. So, in 2012, he went back.

“I made a pledge to myself: I’m going to do it right this time,” he said. “I have this issue where, when I get locked into a thing, I get locked into a thing. I was obsessed. I wanted an A in every course.”

Now he found himself in a different sort of hustle: Many of Blanks’ credits hadn’t transferred and he needed 51 credits to graduate. And so he did, finishing his journalism, advertising and media studies major, and adding a major in African and African Diaspora Studies as well.

He was so dedicated to his work that he even finished his math homework at the Clark County Public Library in Las Vegas on his honeymoon.

Blanks graduated in 2014 and immediately began work on a master’s degree in media studies at UWM, finishing in a year and a half so that he could apply for his doctoral studies at Northwestern University in time to start the fall semester. Now there’s only a dissertation standing between Blanks and his PhD.

Making up for lost time

Since graduating from UWM, Blanks has been trying to catch up.

“There’s so much I learned from that 10 years grinding, and social services really shaped me. … But I look at where I think I could have been if I had just come to this maturity sooner,” he said.

Even so, Blanks has already made an indelible mark on Milwaukee. The Black Lens film program has been a boon to emerging Black directors and filmmakers, and it’s given rise to other programs like the Cultures & Communities Initiative and Cine Sin Fronteras. In 2021, he won the Chris Abele Catalyst Award and he was just named the 2022 Chief Marketing Officer of the Year by the Milwaukee Business Journal.

When his accomplishments are highlighted, Blanks smiles. He’s worked hard and he’s grateful for his success. But he still feels a sense of urgency.

“I’m making up for lost time,” he said.

Q&A: Blanks discusses accomplishments and the importance of innovation

Joining Milwaukee Film and co-founding the Black Lens Program

My friend from college, Dr. Donte McFadden, was a volunteer for Milwaukee Film in 2014 when he reached out to me and said, “They want to start a new Black filmmaker series. Would you be interested in getting involved?” The Milwaukee Film CEO already knew me because I reviewed films for the Journal Sentinel during the Milwaukee Film Festival. When he pitched the idea for Black Lens, I was sold immediately.

In 2017, we hosted a 20th-anniversary screening of “Love Jones,” a film that resonates like few others in the Black community, particularly among Black women, our core audience. We brought in the star, Larenz Tate, and had about 900 people come out for that event. “Love Jones” changed everything for Black Lens. The two years preceding our screening of the film were challenging. We couldn’t give the tickets away, and I mean that literally. Black Lens was brand new, and many communities of color had yet to engage with the Milwaukee Film Festival. Slowly but surely, we assembled a team – which included fellow Alumni Award recipient Ranell Washington – to help us get things moving. It worked! And next year, we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the program.

Why programs like Black Lens are important

It’s two-fold. There are people, and I respect their opinion on this, who will tell you that a program like Black Lens segregates Black filmmakers’ work. I’ve heard words such as “ghettoizing” used, and I hate the tenor of that terminology.

In reality, most film festival programmers are white, so programs like Black Lens provide a platform for Black creatives whose work is too often overlooked. And while showcasing Black film is an essential part of our work, our outreach and connection to communities of color is most important. Black Lens acts as an entry point or portal for communities of color in Milwaukee to find their way to the Milwaukee Film Festival and Oriental Theatre.

Developing the Blackistory app with his mother, Deborah Blanks

One of my mother’s greatest gifts to me is her love of history – African American history in particular. When I was in middle school, she wrote a book tracing important historical Black cultural moments from the Atlantic slave trade through the early 1990s. She decided not to publish but instead broke the text into a vast binder of questions in specific categories.

That binder, which I memorized most of in seventh grade, later became a card game with a workbook and finally an app with help from the App Brewery at Lubar. Now anyone can go into the app store and download it.

His favorite film and its impact

One of my favorite films we’ve ever screened is “Imperial Dreams,” starring a young, aspiring John Boyega (“Star Wars,” “The Woman King”).  During the festival’s post-screening conversation, director Mark Vitthal asked me in front of the audience why I had booked his film for the festival.

My voice cracking slightly from the emotion, I told him that his movie portrayed aspects of Black masculinity and fatherhood rarely depicted with such rich tenderness and vulnerability. The film’s subject was deeply flawed, yet his search for redemption and the care with which he was raising his son represented Black humanity in its fullness. Circulating authentic images of the lived Black experience is central to the mission of Black Lens.

Being promoted to director of cultures and communities, and then to chief innovation officer

I am transparent about stealing the name “Cultures & Communities” from UWM. The name was a perfect fit for my concept for a new initiative I wanted to implement at Milwaukee Film in 2018. At first, I was going to pitch Cultures & Communities as an employee resource group for staff of color who were passionate about Black Lens and our nascent Cine Sin Fronteras and  GenreQueer programs. I wanted to cobble together the shared resources of each group to support one another’s work.

As the idea developed, I started to think bigger, and I ultimately pitched a work team that would focus on programming for and outreach to Black, brown and queer communities. After leading that initiative for a year, we expanded, creating an Innovation department to oversee Cultures & Communities and other related work teams. My position then changed to chief innovation officer, allowing me to take full advantage of my unique skill set, which encompasses a bit of everything – marketing, programming, community outreach, fundraising, and strategic partnerships. I do it all.

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