Donte Woods-Spikes empathizes with you

The caring community created through the local filmmaker's social media presence has led to a new project, 'Empathize With Me.' The artist is also debuting a new documentary, 'As a Matter of Black.'

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Local activist/filmmaker Donte Woods-Spikes on the corner of High and Spring streets Downtown where his billboard is shown.

Editor's note: This article was previously published on Feb. 12, 2021.

The whole thing started as a whim a few years ago. Every night, Donte Woods-Spikes began telling his Facebook friends he empathized with them.

“To anyone feeling depressed tonight, I empathize with you.”

“To anyone who is angry tonight, I empathize with you.”

Loneliness, financial hardships, suicidal thoughts — empathizing with these emotions and struggles became a ritual, not just for Woods-Spikes, but for his ever-growing group of friends. “We don't have to be perfect all the time. We have down moments,” Woods-Spikes said. “I just wanted to address that.”

Woods-Spikes also began regularly asking questions on his page. “I’d ask, ‘When you were younger, where you bullied?’ Or, ‘When you're angry, how do you calm down?’ … It's not a debate. It's not an argument. It's us addressing something that is going on inside of us,” Woods-Spikes said. “Before you know it, all of these people have different answers, and some of them become friends. Some of them start bonding.”

With these two simple acts — expressing empathy and asking questions — Woods-Spikes inadvertently created a diverse online community of people who listen to each other and care for one another.

When the pandemic hit last year, Woods-Spikes could see the way the coronavirus was challenging his community. People were stuck at home. They were tired of the toxic political landscape. Their hearts were broken by injustice. But they were also finding ways to get by, and he wanted to hear those stories and those voices.

“We're all struggling right now in so many different ways, and I felt it would be good for us to see genuine, authentic moments from some of the most well-known people in Columbus, all the way down to some of the people no one has ever seen before,” he said. “Let’s all have a chance to listen to someone who is talking to us about things that we go through on a daily basis.”

So Woods-Spikes, a filmmaker, launched a new venture, Empathize With Me, where he posts short on-camera interviews with artists, business owners and everyday Columbus citizens. “You don't need any statistics. You don’t need to be informed about current pop culture. You just need to bring your authentic self and be comfortable with sharing your story,” said Woods-Spikes, who also started a Patreon page.

The project has restored his faith in humanity. “As much as you think people don't have your back, or aren't supporting you, or aren't aware of what you're doing, it's not true,” he said. “Sometimes that one bad experience from years ago can haunt you and control you in a way where you no longer ask for help and you don't share what you're doing and where you need support. But as I've asked for help with this project, I have received every single thing that I asked for from people I had no idea cared about me.”

For a long time, Woods-Spikes said he resisted support from other people, partially because he didn’t believe he was an artist. “I was lucky to come up under a lot of people that were already established artists in Columbus. I'm hanging around people like Richard Duarte Brown and Hakim Callwood and Bryan Moss and different poets in the city,” he said. “Looking at them do what they're doing, I'm like, ‘I ain't no artist. I'm just picking up a camera and putting it in people's face while they talk about stuff.’ But as time is going on, I'm seeing how important documentation is and the role that it plays in artistry and preserving history.”

Brown, in particular, pushed Woods-Spikes to pursue his other recent filmmaking endeavor, “As a Matter of Black,” a short film funded through a grant from the Greater Columbus Arts Council that recently screened at Sundance and is on view virtually through Feb. 19 via the Wexner Center.

Woods-Spikes didn’t set out to make a film about the uprisings over racial injustice that erupted across the country in the spring and summer of 2020, but he also made sure to bring his camera along to document the local protests and the art being created around them. “I just give myself the opportunity to constantly be creative and not wait for someone to tell me what to do. I’m prepared for whatever is going to come my way,” he said.

Looking through his footage, Woods-Spikes realized he wanted to make a film about the intersection of art and activism. But he needed a push from Brown to go after it. “He's the first person that said, ‘Donte, you got to do this film,’” said Woods-Spikes, who received at $5,000 grant through GCAC’s Art Unites CBus Photography and Film Awards.

Woods-Spikes knew he wanted two artists and two activists to anchor the short film (available in a five-minute version and an extended, 17-minute version), which opens with the dismantling of the Christopher Columbus statue on the campus of Columbus State and commentary by activist Stacey Little, who was the first person Woods-Spikes remembers seriously pursuing the removal of the statue.

He also included muralist Francesca Miller, who compares her role as an artist to being a medic on the front lines, providing healing to the community. Woods-Spikes then paired his artistic mentor, Brown, with activist Adrienne Hood, whose son, Henry Green, was killed by plainclothes Columbus police officers. Woods-Spikes was on hand to film an evening Hood hosted for the family members of Columbus citizens killed by gun violence — some at the hands of police. Brown painted portraits of the deceased relative for each family.

“When [art and activism] combine with each other, this is what happens,” Woods-Spikes said of the film. “It's a form of healing that is so powerful and leaves such an imprint. What if we did this all the time?”

"As a Matter of Black” has taken on a life of its own, Woods-Spikes said. He plans to screen the film at colleges and arts institutions in the coming months. At the same time, as vaccine distribution hopefully leads to the fading influence of COVID-19, he’ll be looking for ways to expand Empathize With Me beyond video. In fact, those recorded conversations were originally envisioned as in-person events, with workshops and audience participation. With the support of his community, he’s confident it can still happen.

“When somebody has your back, your confidence level rises up and you don't second guess what you're doing,” he said. “Having someone say, ‘You are an artist. You're creating art.’ I finally started to believe it. And look what happened!”

Local activist/filmmaker Donte Woods-Spikes.