When Susan Sherk left her home in Boston and took a job “on a fluke” in North West River, Labrador some 50 years ago, little did she know that decades later, she’d be a mentor to a rising star in the local filmmaking community with ties to the area.
For the past six months, Sherk and Jessica Brown (an Inuk producer, screenwriter and filmmaker from Happy Valley-Goose Bay currently based in St. John’s) have been working together as part of Business & Arts NL’s “Grow to Lead” mentorship program.
Initiated in 2021, Grow to Lead connects leaders in the arts and business sectors to build connections within the community and ultimately, help strengthen the local arts sector. (To learn more about Grow to Lead, read our previous posts on mentorship pairs Geoff Davis & Diana Daly, and Connie Boland & Nancy Dahn.)
With her father being from North West River, Brown says “having that personal connection (with Sherk) was really nice.” That connection, Sherk adds, immediately helped break the ice and lay the foundation for their mentorship to flourish.
While both women come from different backgrounds (over the course of her career, Sherk has worked in senior positions within education, government, business and the non-profit sector, with much of her work focusing on governance), they’ve learned much from each other. Earlier this year, Brown founded her production company “Ujarak Media,” as well as the non-profit “Northern Film Initiative,” which aims to amplify Indigenous representation in front of, and behind, the camera, and help Indigenous creators and crew succeed by providing guidance and professional development.
“Not having a business background, but an arts admin background, I found it was really valuable for me to participate in this program…I went in with an open mind, knowing that I don’t know everything. I’m early in my career, I have so much to learn. This has been a busy year for me and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have taken part,” Brown says of Grow to Lead.
As one of five participants chosen for PictureNL’s Producer Accelerator Program (presented by the Whistler Film Festival), and with a new TV show called “Here to Stay” (about Indigenous artists in St. John’s) premiering in January on Bell Media’s Fibe TV1, Brown has indeed been keeping busy. She was also recently honoured with ArtsNL’s Emerging Artist Award (with Sherk accepting the award on her behalf, due to Brown working in Ontario at the time) and Women in Film and Television – Atlantic’s 2023 Emerging Talent Award.
Sherk was also recently honoured by ArtsNL with the Hall of Honour Award for a distinguished lifetime contribution to the cultural life of the province. This past spring, she also received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Memorial University for her work in community development and entrepreneurship and her dedication to the province’s arts and culture sector. (In addition to creating the magazine Decks Awash, published by Memorial’s Extension Service, Sherk was chair of Wonderbolt Circus, a board member with the Winterset in Summer Literary Festival, and was instrumental in getting the renowned Bonavista Biennale up and running, to name just a few of her contributions.)
Sherk recalls one of her earliest meetings with Brown, when she enquired one afternoon as to whether or not she had a strategic plan. She gave Brown a template and asked her to fill it out within a week or so, at which point they’d go over it together.
“At 11:30 that night, she sent it to me. I was just bowled over. Never in my entire life have I had anybody get something back to me that was so good – I have to emphasize the good – as this,” Sherk recalls.
“I knew then that Jessica was going to be going places.”
Since then, the two have met up for chats over coffee and have had conversations over phone and email, their mentorship blossoming into a friendship. And neither sees the mentorship ending anytime soon.
“I feel like in such a short period of time, I’ve learned so much. I started my businesses earlier this year…and I think that having a mentor like Susan gave me a confidence boost for sure,” Brown says.
“I feel lucky to have been matched with Susan. She has such great energy.”
Out of all the things she’s learned so far, Brown says, one of the most crucial is “that it’s important to pay attention, to take notes, to listen and to deliver, to follow-up on the advice that’s given to you. Taking it into consideration is one thing, but putting it into action is another.”
“And maybe someday, I’ll be able to mentor somebody,” she adds. “My goal, down the road, is to be able to give back as well.”
For Sherk, Grow to Lead has given her the opportunity to share her experiences and lessons learned with the next generation of leaders, like Brown, to help them reach their full potential.
“I love this program because now at this point in my life, I can give back. I was too busy working, really, to be able to do a lot of things,” she says.
“I feel that when you go through life and have done so many things as I have, I’ve been lucky to share that experience with other people. And when I see so much of the brightness and the wonderful people that we have, and the talented people we have, in this province…to me, it’s just exciting to help the people who are going to take over from me, or have taken over from me.”