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In Conversation with Filmmaker Lincoln Mondy

By Tiyanna Stewart, Youth Advocacy Program Associate, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Lincoln Mondy (Muhn-dee)
Pronouns: He/him | @LincolnMondy on Instagram

Lincoln participated in our February 24, 2021, virtual Conversation on Intergenerational Tobacco Use and Its Cultural Impact on Black Communities.


When I first joined the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, there was a name that kept popping up: Lincoln Mondy. His film Black Lives / Black Lungs was on my onboarding checklist, and after watching, it became immediately clear why the chorus sings his name.

It was a joy to speak with Lincoln about his previous and upcoming films, what motivates and grounds him in his work, and how he’s embraced being the “uncomfortable person in the room”.

Lincoln Mondy is the Associate Director of Strategic Projects at the national reproductive rights organization, Advocates for Youth, where he designs cultural-change campaigns, visuals, and strategies focused on the health and power of young people. Prior to Advocates, Lincoln was a Senior Account Executive at BerlinRosen, a public relations firm where he supported progressive organizations on a range of issues including criminal justice, reproductive health, and racial equity. He is the filmmaker behind Black Lives / Black Lungs, a short film documenting Big Tobacco’s 50+ year campaign transforming menthol into a "Black cigarette."

Conversation lightly edited for clarity

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Lincoln Mondy, I use he/him pronouns, and I design campaigns, visuals, and strategies, really all focused on young people's health and power. At Advocates for Youth, I focus on young people's sexual and reproductive health and rights, and through my film Black Lives / Black Lungs, I've been able to document young Black activists and public health researchers who are fighting back against the tobacco industry.

I’m curious, with your background working in advocacy and your film, is there a personal connection that motivates you to do this work?

Lincoln speaking at South by Southwest conference

A hundred percent. I think across the board, I'm led to projects where I am either challenged or I have questions about. I feel like what's been happening or what's been done is not the future I want for me or my community.

When it comes to my work around Black Lives / Black Lungs, it's really steeped in understanding, from a young age, the different life experiences and trajectories that race can take you on. Being able to see so clearly that my white mother and my white family’s relationship with tobacco was through chewing dip. In the rural Texas area, dipping is a big thing and non-menthol. Whereas my Black father and my Black family, they seem to all exclusively smoke menthol. And I grew up associating menthol with Black culture without really questioning it.

Growing up as a Black queer young person in a rural area of Texas, where the last time that Texas' sex education curriculum was updated was the year of my birth (1994), I really was left up to my own devices to figure out what relationships looked like for me, what my future looked like, what my sexuality and my health outcomes looked like.

And that's the reason I focus on young people’s health and power, and do the work I do today at Advocates for Youth to make sure there are resources out there, because I understand, when you feel silent and isolated, it can be a breath of fresh air to be able to get free, unfettered access to people in community, people that look like you, who are not only surviving but who are thriving and who are offering resources.

We’ve kind of talked around Black Lives / Black Lungs. It’s been out for a while so I won't ask you to give a full spiel, but what do you think is the most important takeaway? What do you hope people take away from watching your film?

The tobacco industry found their unique flavor – menthol – that increases addiction and served it up on a platter to Black people.

Black Lives / Black Lungs is not meant to be the end all be all, it's meant to be a start to a conversation. What I want viewers to take away from it was that there's a strategic and successful 50 plus year infiltration into Black communities. When you look at the facts and you understand how disproportionately Black people have been impacted, that's the takeaway.

The tobacco industry found their unique flavor – menthol – that increases addiction and served it up on a platter to Black people. When they didn't take it freely, they spent billions on hiring Black people to tell them to take their platter. They spent millions on littering neighborhoods with advertisements and on price discounts to encourage Black people to purchase menthol. They spent millions courting lobbyists to strike down any mentions of menthol bans immediately by saying that they're racist.

So if someone were to take just one take away from the film, I hope it would be that there has been a very public, very successful decades-long infiltration into the Black community with menthol products specifically.

So, the moment we’re in right now, we summarize with “everything that’s going on,” we don’t know what to call it, but we know that something is going on that feels different, at least for our generation. A lot of the time, I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, despite everything I know to be true and everything I have hopes about. So my question is how are you staying motivated to continue to work, to continue to fight? What grounds you?

I think specifically what grounds me in this work is definitely the Black young people, the Black mentors, the Black experts that I've had along the way, because they've been able to really talk game to me. They've been able to help me understand what is in my control and what are institutions that will just push back no matter what.

I started this work, Black Lives / Black Lungs, in 2015, and at the time I was 21 years old. And bringing a project with the name Black Lives / Black Lungs, featuring Black Lives Matter activists, featuring discussions around Black Panthers, featuring discussions around the health and the well-being specifically of the Black community, and not being focused on anyone except the Black community – it was hard.

I was really, really hungry. I wasn't afraid to be the uncomfortable person in the room. I got advice from people like Dr. Phil Gardiner and Dr. Valerie Yerger – who had been in the space for decades – about how we have to maneuver differently when we're asking for things that pertain to our community, or when a Black person, specifically Black women, are asking for it or are trying to change the status quo.

So I would say now, in 2021, as organizations and people are having what they're calling public reckonings and posting quotes on Instagram – I am very bitter, and I think a lot of Black people are bitter (laughing) and have some type of feelings about having to kind of convince people of our worth and our talents and our abilities constantly. And now it feels like there are some institutions and some places that are finally listening, and I think that's great, but I think it's only going to be useful if Black people are centered.

Lincoln with Dr. Phillip Gardiner, Public Health activist and Co-Chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council (AATCLC)

I am burdened with disillusion all the time and bitterness, but I think what keeps me going is people like you, Tiyanna. And people like Dr. Phil Gardiner. It's people who are doing this advocacy work alongside me, because I think that's the key, right? That you don't have to do all this alone. 

And it does feel like a very scary, academic, buttoned-up space with a high amount of gatekeeping, but I think what motivates me is that there's so many Black people and Black-led organizations, and Black futures that are being built around the health and well-being of our community. I'm excited.

You beat me to the punch. Black History Month comes around and I'm sure you probably get a lot more calls.

Mm-hmm. Yes

Do you have anything more you want to say about organizations who are having their reckonings, their new diversity statements, their new hires? Anything you would say to organizations seeking to do it in a way that is not transactional or tokenistic? Any feelings about it?

I think accountability and action is needed and I think we need institutions who are having their reckonings to put their dollars and their budgets to what they're saying. Because you can talk about values all day long, and you can have grid posts and you can have statements and you can have PR plans, but if your values don't align with your budget then it doesn't do anything for Black people. If you're not accurately compensating Black talent for what they're worth – Black experts, Black interns, Black staff – then it's really just a shroud. I would warn those institutions that it's very easily seen through. I don't think it is as strategic as they think it is.

I don't want to work with organizations or institutions that give me a scope of work and tell me what to say or do. I want to work with people that understand the audience and the power of Black people, and understand that my experience and other Black experts' experiences are crucial.

So I do want to talk about your upcoming project. What are you working on?

Since 2017, I've been watching the tobacco industry use the same tactics for different products now. The thing with traditional tobacco is that we have decades of research. We have tons of scientific evidence. But for e-cigarettes, the usage was skyrocketing, whereas the innovative research and surveys were not keeping pace.

There has been a very public, very successful decades long infiltration into the Black community with menthol products specifically.

So as I was talking about [Black Lives / Black Lungs], I saw the industry trying to hold the public's eyes, and say, "You got us, cigarettes are bad. We will be regulated. We will have Surgeon General reports. We cannot advertise on TV, we cannot advertise on radios, we cannot have flavors except if talking to Black people like menthol, they were good." Then say "So now we're gonna start on this other lane that is new and so different and innovative, and that you can't regulate the same way because it's different."

The second film will definitely focus on making sure people understand that Big Tobacco just got bigger. It's the same thing. Big Tobacco bought e-cigarette companies, they bought e-cigarette products, and it's going so fast that they're not being held to the same accountability or regulation that traditional cigarettes are being held to.

So, the film is definitely doubling down and updating on what their strategy is for the future. So, there's Black Lives / Black Lungs, where we've really focused on the past and how it's impacted the Black community. The follow-up film will focus on where we're headed, not only with the oppressive systems and institutions that are the tobacco industry and policing, but also where we're headed as communities. The film will touch on questions like, how are young Black people creating campaigns these days around tobacco? How are Black researchers adapting their tactics? Where do we go as a community in the future?

You said something earlier that was interesting to me. You talked about learning how to embrace being the uncomfortable person in the room. What is your experience being that person in the room, and how did you get to the place where you stand in that?

I think the simplest advice I would give to people is to know your strengths and your people. I came into this space. I'm not a public health expert. I have no interest in getting a medical degree or going to school for public health or working academically. So, at first, it felt like there wasn't space for me.

I’d suggest thinking about your role, not so much as fitting into an institution or fitting into a system, but your role as how would you disrupt that system to make it better. Because at the end of the day, if that's your goal, that makes this space better. If your goal is to be like – "How do we make this more impactful, more authentic, more this or that?" – you're gonna have to change systems, you're gonna have to change processes. We get so apprehensive of doing that because "if it's not broken, don't fix it," but let's ask if it's broken, let's do intentional research and listening.

You don't need to do everything on your own. I think with this generation, it’s like, you, this one person, should do A through Z and then present it and everyone's going to be so impressed that you did everything by yourself and you struggled and you had this story. But that's not sustainable, right? That's not how we're going to build power in our movements.