After six years at the helm, Martin Ludden is stepping away from the St. Paul Neighborhood Network (SPNN), a nonprofit media organization tucked between Interstate 94 and University Avenue in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood.
Ludden said it's time for someone with a different skill set and community connections to lead the organization as its executive director.
As new Executive Director Xavier Vazquez prepares to take the helm next week, Eye On St. Paul sat down with Ludden to talk about his time leading an organization whose main objective is to give underrepresented people a camera and teach them how to use it.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: Where were you before SPNN?
A: I had been at Comcast doing government affairs and investment, and we had a big shakeup there. And this popped up. I think I saw it early on and passed on it, and I got a call from a search firm. And I thought, "Ha, that changes your perspective a little bit when you get a note from a recruiter." Coming from Comcast, I knew a big chunk of our funding comes through cable fees. So I understood that.
I was a leader in the Army, and I loved leading and working with people and I hadn't been able to do that, and this was a chance to do that in a St. Paul organization. I'm also a St. Paul guy. I grew up at Prior and St. Clair, next to Widmer's [Super Market], and I live in St. Paul now. Otherwise, I lived in Minneapolis. And Iraq.
Q: You were you in the Army?
A: Yes. Army Reserve.
Q: When were you in Iraq?
A: '03-'04. And then '09 and '10.
Q: And what were your duties?
A: I was a bridge engineer.
In the Army, there are two or three bridges that we build, and one of them goes up in a hurry, floating, for rivers. And we didn't actually do much of that on our first tour. I think we built one bridge. The assumption was as we pushed north, the withdrawing Iraqis would blow up all those bridges [over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers]. But the invasion was so fast, they couldn't blow them up.
Q: What was your rank?
A: I got out as a staff sergeant. I was a squad leader, one of the best jobs I've ever had.
Q: How did that experience prepare you for this?
A: I was coming out of a corporate environment. And SPNN is very much a home for artists and activists and community. And it was a little bit of a shift. My heart is more in this organization than it is in those other places. One of the things I was taught in the Army was that a leader's job is to accomplish the mission and take care of your troops. And most of the time, if you take care of the people, the mission will take care of itself.
Q: What's the SPNN mission?
A: The mission is to use media and technology to empower people to make better lives, use authentic voice and find common understanding. Which is a lot of words. I think the short version is we use media to build community.
We have a documentary track that works with documentary filmmakers. And we also have an AmeriCorps program. And then we have our production teams. They're the folks who, when you see the Winter Carnival on TV, see the Cinco de Mayo parade, that's our coverage, usually.
Q: Why is it important for people to learn documentary filmmaking?
A: There are two sides to that question. One is the technology side of it is a vehicle. The more important part is giving people the skills and the avenue to tell their own stories. There's something really powerful about being able to own your own story.
Q: You have been here through the COVID-19 pandemic and a racial reckoning. What did that mean for you and how did it change the job?
A: We are a little like the libraries. We work in the community, but we have to look at community health and staff health, and we made the decision to close down and were in that space for a couple months. But we were trying to find ways to serve. We shifted some things online. We had a studio, we found ways to help.
Q: And then George Floyd was killed. Did having a community tell its own stories become even more critical?
A: Yes. It was kind of a crystalizing moment, mission-wise. [Filmmaker] Adrian Wilson called and said, "I need a camera." And we said, "Yeah, we need to provide that."
We figured out how to reopen on a fairly limited basis. People could come get cameras, go and tell their stories. What you saw, both through the actual murder, which happened on video, and through the grassroots efforts through the early unrest and the uprisings, the dominant media narrative and the narrative that came from law enforcement was proven to be not true.
Q: What was told that would not have been told?
A: Adrian's doc was called "A Letter to Bryson." It was to [Adrian's] son. He would be 5 or 6 now. Adrian wanted to have an historical document for his son when he got older. And because [Wilson] was there and not affiliated, he was just a guy, he got to have some really candid conversations with people just by walking and saying, "Hey, what's going on?"
Q: What changed for you?
A: I have a much better understanding for who I am and how I show up. I listen a lot more. I've become a better leader, because I have such good people. I know enough now to say, "I trust you, let's do it."
Q: Why step down now?
A: I realized that maybe I had kind of done what my skills allowed me to do here. What I did here was a lot of internal focus. A lot of work on internal culture and compensation. And now SPNN is well-poised to make a turn externally. Out into the community more. We're still the best-kept secret in St. Paul. [But] people need to know about who we are and what we do.