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Foundations launch $30M storytelling initiative for global south

By Stephanie Beasley

Young people who participated in filmmaking projects discuss communications and historical memory of their community on a radio program in Colombia. Photo by: Katherine Ko / ACDI/VOCA / USAID / CC BY-NC

By Stephanie Beasley | August 24, 2021

The FordSkoll, and Compton foundations this week announced the launch of a 10-year initiative to help “frontline communities” in the global south — including Indigenous people, as well as women and girls — spread their own messages through short films, animation, social media, and other visual content creation.

The foundations plan to spend up to $30 million over three years on the International Resource for Impact and Storytelling to help communities in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia combat inequality driven by “deeply rooted cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance, and inclusion.”

“IRIS is a response to an era shaped by polarizing narratives, deepening inequality, technological disruptions, and rising authoritarianism,” said Ellen Friedman, executive director at the Compton Foundation, in a statement. “In the face of these complex global challenges, we recognize the power of storytelling as a critical element in organizing for cultural and political change.”

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“New cultural organizing approaches are needed to complement philanthropy’s more traditional funding in research, advocacy for policy change, rights-focused legal strategies, and organizing,” according to Friedman.

Cara Mertes, founding director of IRIS, told Devex that the initiative could help dismantle the “white gaze” — or narratives that prioritize white people and their experiences — in philanthropy by elevating the voices of communities that have not always had an opportunity to tell their own stories.

As Devex has previously reported, some civic leaders see this kind of change as key to “decolonizing” global development.

“I think when you actually put resources into raising up voices that are not about a Western and a white gaze, then you’re doing something to break apart the dominant paradigm, which is very, very devastating for so many communities around the world in various ways,” said Mertes, who has also served as project director for the Ford Foundation’s Moving Image Exploration program and was previously director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program and Documentary Fund.

“In the face of … complex global challenges, we recognize the power of storytelling as a critical element in organizing for cultural and political change.”— Ellen Friedman, executive director, Compton Foundation

She said IRIS will adopt a distributed leadership approach and not a top-down model, with plans for regional leads in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Currently, an all-women team is behind the initiative, Mertes added.

IRIS was launched with over $8 million in seed funding, but additional funders may soon bring that figure closer to $10 million, said Marc Climaco, a spokesman for the Ford Foundation.

The initiative will be housed under its fiscal sponsor, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and is expected to soon launch a fellowship program.

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