Starting At Zero: Meet Director Willa Kammerer

In a lead up to United Way’s screening and panel discussion of Starting at Zero March 18, we reached out to first-time director, Willa Kammerer to hear about her experience behind the camera and why she feels so passionate about bringing this documentary to life.
Starting at Zero brings together the voices of policymakers, educators, academics, business leaders, pediatricians, parents, and children. It examines the latest developmental brain science to demonstrate how essential the earliest years of learning are to maximize human potential. Key features of high-quality early childhood learning environments and experiences are outlined and then brought to life as the film delves into the evolution of Alabama’s #1 nationally ranked state pre-k program. 

Q: Starting at Zero is your first feature-length documentary. What about this project interested you in exploring the power of high-quality early childhood education?

A: The Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation approached me wanting to tell the story of how Alabama created the #1 ranked pre-K program in the country. They saw Alabama’s program as a model that other states could follow—and more broadly, as a powerful vehicle to help them achieve their ultimate goal of putting a dent in poverty through expanding access to high-quality early childhood education, which lays the foundation for success for children and families. At the outset, I didn’t know much about early childhood education, but I was inspired by the Foundation’s big vision and eager to learn more. 

I believe in the power of film and storytelling to educate and inspire around important social issues, and this project has been a meaningful opportunity to put those ideas into action—and hopefully help spark positive change across the landscape of early childhood education. 

Q: Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program is featured in the film. I imagine that you spent quite some time in Alabama during the course of production. Can you share a bit more about the “behind-the-scenes”—what are some of the things that made that program so successful and attract national attention?

A: We did spend quite a bit of time traveling throughout the state of Alabama during production, from Montgomery, to Mobile in the south and Huntsville in the north, and many places in between. We saw firsthand how Alabama has developed a strong framework and system of support for their state pre-K program. While backing for many state-run early childhood programs waxes and wanes through different administrations, it has remained consistent through multiple gubernatorial transitions in Alabama, and that consistency—of funding, and commitment to expansion and continuous improvement of the First Class Pre-K program—has been critical to its success.
There are many other features that make the program successful: there is a strong coaching component, to support teachers with personalized professional development at every stage, and pre-K teachers receive equal pay to teachers in the K-12 system, so the program is able to attract and retain talent. First Class Pre-K classrooms are run at the local level and funded through grants from the state and other sources; funding can be taken away if programs aren’t performing to Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education’s high standards of quality, so there is an accountability built into the system which helps ensure high quality remains consistent throughout the state. There are many other features that contribute to the program’s success, but we’ll leave that for the film!

Q: Was there an a-ha moment you learned when filming this documentary?

A: We interviewed policymakers, educators, academics, business leaders, pediatricians, parents, and children—in rural and urban settings, in red states and blue. Across this diversity of perspectives, we discovered so much commonality: a deep understanding of the importance of high-quality early learning, how to accomplish it, and sense of urgency to act. That was the real a-ha moment—that across professions and locations, there is so much more that unites us than divides us, and that we need to keep building bridges and sharing knowledge and resources to drive collective action, because the will is there. 


Q: What do you hope people walk away with after they watch this documentary? Is there one action that every person watching the documentary can do here in Central Indiana?

A: Our hope is that viewers walk away from Starting at Zero with an expanded sense of the importance of early childhood education, as an issue that not only affects parents and families with young children, but all of us. If we invest early and equitably and get it right from the start, we will spend a lot less money as a society trying to remediate problems that could have been avoided had we laid a strong foundation from the beginning. 
In Central Indiana and across the country, talk to your lawmakers, talk to your neighbors, and help expand the collective understanding of the key role high-quality early childhood education plays in building successful communities—one child and family at a time—for today and for the future.

Q: As a female director, what advice would you recommend to aspiring change-makers?

A: I’m a big believer in the power of action and just getting started, somewhere, wherever you are. If there’s an issue you care about, find some way to get involved in a way that feels authentic to you. Over time, you will build relationships and your knowledge of the space will grow, opening the door to opportunities and a deeper level of engagement that you maybe never thought was possible at the outset. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, wanting to know how it all fits together at the outset and where it will lead, but it’s often much easier to connect the dots looking backward; follow your curiosity and passion, and chances are it will lead you somewhere worthwhile. We all start as outsiders but become change-makers through showing up and taking consistent action. 


Q: What is next for you?

A: Speaking of change-makers, this spring I’m thrilled to be launching a new project that taps into my own passion and curiosity around change-making, The Firestarter Podcast, “people, ideas, and conversations that move us forward.” On the show I’m interviewing mission-driven entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and investors; thought leaders, researchers, and experts on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues about designing and thriving in careers of impact. Learn more and sign up for updates at 

Willa Kammerer is a documentary director and producer based in Providence, RI, and runs the creative agency Firestarter Interactive. Willa is committed to using film and storytelling to improve the wellbeing of people and the planet, and has deep experience working with education institutions, nonprofits, and foundations to bring this vision to life. Willa began her career as an intern in public radio, studied radio storytelling at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and holds a B.A. in Italian from Middlebury College, as well as professional certificates from Georgetown University in Social Impact Storytelling and Social Impact Partnership Design.
If you would like to host a free screening of Starting at Zero in your own community, school, or workplace, visit here.