After the mandated school closures and stay-at-home orders were announced in mid-March, Zachary Brasher also heard that the Riverside County National History Day competition wouldn’t be taking place.
“When I first heard that the event was cancelled, I was kind of sad that I wouldn’t be able to compete, because I wanted everybody to see my project,” Zachary said. “But when they made it a virtual event, I was kind of happy that I didn’t have to be interviewed by the judges. The interview makes me kind of nervous, but I do like to see the reaction from the judges if they like the project.”
The seventh-grade student from Dr. Augustine Ramirez Intermediate School in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, had worked hard on his individual documentary project entitled Sisters in the Brotherhood: Burning Barriers in Firefighting. The film follows the story of Brenda Berkman, who fought for the right for women to become firefighters while becoming one herself. She survived the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and retired from the New York Fire Department as a captain in 2006.
Zachary’s project was named a champion at the Riverside County competition and at the virtual National History Day-California competition in mid-May. His documentary will compete with nearly 100 other documentaries from middle school students across the United States at the National History Day competition set for mid-June.
“I wanted to find a topic on a famous trailblazer that I knew nothing about,” Zachary said.
“After starting my research, I emailed her, and she agreed to be interviewed,” Zachary said. “I was really surprised that she replied after only a couple of days.”
For last year’s National History Day project, Zachary’s documentary project, Mendez vs. Westminster, 1947 – A Landmark Triumph Over the Tragedy of School Segregation, included a personal interview with one of the students at the center of the case, Sylvia Mendez. He was awarded an honorable mention at the state level.
To tell Brenda’s story, Zachary’s family soon traveled to New York and Zachary brought his lights, tripod, camera, and microphone along to interview Brenda at the 9/11 museum.
“I was kind of nervous to interview her, but I thought it was really cool that I got to talk with her,” Zachary said. “She thought it was cool that a boy was doing this type of project about women’s rights.”
“What most impressed me about Brenda was her determination to break the discrimination barrier in firefighting that I didn’t even know about before,” Zachary said. “People bullied her and were mean to her, but she didn’t give up.”
For his project, Zachary interviewed nearly 30 individuals—many of them at firehouses in California and New York. He set up the interviews, recorded them, and edited them himself—including an exclusive interview with Brenda Berkman.
“In all my interviews, everyone said that there is no more of the discrimination that was there before,” Zachary said. “Many said that women could do the job the same as, or better than, men.”
It was nearly a year ago when Zachary first had the idea for the project. Since that time, he has used his video production skills he learned at school to spend more than 100 hours editing his film.
“The most difficult part has been narrowing the project down to 10 minutes. The original version of the script I wrote was 45 minutes long,” Zachary said. “And, the fact that our dog kept chewing the microphone cable that was dangling from my computer and we kept having to buy new ones.”
Marcy Brasher, Zachary’s mother who is also a teacher at Dr. Augustine Ramirez Intermediate School, has recognized how much her son has grown by pouring himself into this project.
“He’s really shy and doing all these interviews has been good for him. I can see how much he’s grown and learned when comparing his first interviews to now,” she said. “It was hard as a parent because it’s easier for you to handle everything for them, but we tried to keep our hands off and just guide him.”
Marcy also reports that a trait that defined Brenda Berkman’s success has also been something she’s observed in her son.
“What a great experience this was for him to see the project through to its completion,” she said. “Now, I’ve noticed that he’s become less likely to give up on things.”