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Recognizing the Power of Storytelling, a Funder Collaborative Backs Media in the Global South

by Martha Ramirez

Originally published in Inside Philanthropy.

by Martha Ramirez | July 29, 2021

From oral traditions to streaming movies, storytelling is central to the human experience. But beyond simple entertainment, stories have the ability to impact people and advance social change.

Take, for instance, Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” which exposed conditions in the meatpacking industry and led to the passage of new food safety laws. The story of how Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus is often told to highlight the unjust conditions that Black Americans face and as a story of resistance during the civil rights movement. 

It’s no surprise, then, that many organizers and institutions working for change are harnessing the power of narrative to strengthen the impact of their work. There’s also a set of philanthropies that have come to recognize the potency of storytelling as a funding strategy.

Earlier this year, the Ford Foundation partnered with other organizations to launch the Reclaiming the Border Narrative project to support authentic narratives from people who live along the U.S.-Mexico border, with the hope of reshaping the national conversation about the region. 

Now, Ford is turning its attention to the Global South. In partnership with the Compton and Skoll foundations, Ford is launching the International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS), a $30 million donor collaborative that will seek to strengthen the impact of creative moving image content as it intersects with social issues.

IRIS is envisioned as a 10-year initiative and will launch with $10 million in seed money. Ford Foundation is providing $7.5 million in seed funding and anticipates another set of investments totaling up to $20 million. Compton Foundation, which is a spend-out foundation, is contributing $250,000. Skoll Foundation will contribute $450,000 for the initial year, but hopes the partnership will evolve and deepen over time.

IRIS will focus on regions in the Global South, including Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Ford has referred to the exclusion of certain communities from full participation in political, economic and cultural systems as “the defining challenge of our time,” growing worse along with inequality. According to Ford, cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance and inclusion are a primary driver of this inequality.

In response, IRIS will fund organizations, research and the creation of moving image content itself—including filmmaking, but also virtual reality, social media videos, and more—to create a collaborative network of storytellers and civic leaders.

This isn’t Ford’s first foray into funding storytelling. IRIS evolved from the Ford Foundation’s Moving Image Exploration project. Cara Mertes, who recently served as that project’s director, will also lead IRIS. Before working at Ford, Mertes was the director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program Fund. 

Compton and Skoll have both worked with Mertes previously, and have also backed narrative work. Storytelling has long been a core part of Skoll’s approach to social change, and Compton’s two main funding strategies are supporting leaders and “courageous storytelling.” So for both foundations, IRIS seemed like a perfect fit. 

During her time at Sundance, Mertes worked directly with emerging organizations in the Global South that were resources for nonfiction filmmakers. It was through this work that Mertes began to see a widespread need to elevate voices from communities outside the Global North. IRIS continues in that spirit, moving resources and knowledge to the Global South and then creating a conversation among organizations there and in the Global North.

“I think it’s critical that there are resources for creative storytelling that are working in concert with other strategies in social justice like advocacy, like policy work, like rights-based work,” said Mertes. “If you don’t have artists and creative storytellers working alongside and embracing these movements and embracing these sort of goals, then you leave a very, very powerful tactic off the table.”

The “lingua franca” of the the age

So why the focus on moving image storytelling? According to Mertes, Ford sees this medium as “a kind of lingua franca,” or common language of our time. It’s highly influential, and it’s the language of young people. By tapping into this, IRIS aims it can make the biggest impact while reaching the widest audience possible.

But moving image storytelling extends far beyond documentary films. Although nonfiction is important in social justice work and is what Mertes refers to as the “legacy approach to storytelling,” IRIS is broadening narrative storytelling parameters to include new media and fiction—formats that are not typically supported by philanthropy.

These include virtual reality and augmented reality, short-form media, hybrid, comedy, satire, animation, webisodes and social media content, among others. IRIS will look to distribute through a variety of platforms, including streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, TikTok, visual journalism, immersive storytelling and more. 

“We want this to be a place where donors can feel comfortable learning and experiencing and understanding this question of meaning-making and culture and progressive change,” said Mertes. 

At the intersection of storytelling and social change

Through a series of conversations with Mertes, Ellen Friedman, executive director of the Compton Foundation, “came to the understanding that this intersection of storytelling and organizing and social work was evolving into a pretty robust and important practice.”

One of the primary focuses of a recent global conference of grantmakers called Shimmering Solidarity was rising authoritarianism around the world. According to Friedman, one of the things that came up was the importance of lifting up narratives and stories about those who embrace a more inclusive and diverse future. 

“The power in this kind of work is in the combating of isolation and thinking that you’re in this alone, and IRIS is a beautiful example of saying, ‘No—there is a global network of people from North to South, East to West, that are actually working every day to lift up a different narrative of what the future can look like, and pushing back on authoritarian narratives,’” said Friedman. “And I think this is the moment—it’s a critical moment for a project like this to be launched.”

In addition to the rise of authoritarianism, some of the other challenges that IRIS hopes to address are climate change, polarization in societies, the erosion of civil rights, and involuntary migration due to both economic and climate-driven challenges. 

For Ford, as in all of its funding, the core focus is inequality and addressing its key drivers, said Martín Abregú, vice president of international programs.

“We know that one of the key drivers of inequality is related to narratives that exclude some voices and that bring forth a message that is basically perpetrating inequality,” he added. “So in that context, we wanted to ensure that we were paying enough attention to the question of cultural shifts, of building the narratives that will basically help us build the kind of global systems that will address inequalities.”

According to Abregú, IRIS will create the infrastructure needed to provide opportunities so that those historically excluded stories and voices will be elevated and shared globally. Mertes explained that IRIS won’t be dictating how that will happen, or whether something has to go to a particular streaming platform, for example. “We believe that it’s important to first create robust stories, build a narrative analysis, and then let the stories find their own pathway, and then to promote those pathways,” she said. 

Crucially, the majority of IRIS’ leadership will not be based in the U.S. Most of the core members of the team will be located internationally, as Ford has offices around the globe.

Connecting local voices to global audiences

Through its Moving Image Storytelling program, Ford has already been funding the kind of work it will support through IRIS. One example of this is its support of Jayro Bustamante’s feature film, “La Llorona,” a 2019 Guatemalan horror film that looks at the genocide of Indigenous Mayans in the 1980s. “La Llorona” was shortlisted for Best International Feature Film in the 2021 Academy Awards. 

Another prominent example is None on Record, which is a digital media organization based in Nairobi that tells stories of LGBTQ Africans, countering false narratives with personal stories. Started in 2006, None on Record documents stories from across the continent and produces content including documentaries and podcasts, with Senegalese-American journalist, filmmaker, radio producer and writer Selly Thiam serving as its executive director. 

Ford’s East Africa office supported None on Record with multi-year, general operating support to build its infrastructure. One of the biggest challenges facing the organization has been finding places to distribute the work. While it’s been able to use platforms like YouTube, in recent years, many countries have made it increasingly difficult to distribute content that discusses LGBT issues, even on seemingly open platforms.

“As more people have access to mobile phone data, more people are online in the continent, I think it has become an issue where people are seeing these distribution platforms as actual threats to society, however that’s defined,” Thiam said. “One of the larger challenges is finding distribution platforms that can keep the storyteller safe, can keep us as a team safe when we’re producing this content and distributing it.”

None on Record has been able to distribute its work through universities, podcasts, film screenings and festivals. Its Seeking Asylum series was distributed on PBS and the group partnered with the U.N. for its African Allies series. 

Thiam noted the importance of having a record, an archive, of these stories. For a long time, there was a prevailing narrative that there were no queer Africans.

“It’s a really painful thing when you are described as so far out of your culture that there was no way that you could have existed before colonization,” Thiam added. “It’s something that kind of renders you invisible. And I wanted to make sure that we had something where the next generation can see themselves and know that there are more people like them and how they organize themselves and how they tell their stories.”

Supporting research

As part of IRIS’ approach, the Compton Foundation will be working alongside Ford to create a fellowship to learn more about how the intersection between storytelling and organizing can be a more powerful force for social change. The fellowship will embed creative storytellers with civil society leadership.

Friedman said, “The idea right now is to pull together practitioners and really learn from them about what is useful, what is needed, what have they learned from this integration between storytelling and organizing and what would be helpful in investing in a fellowship that will help to promulgate those learnings.”

Mertes sees this role as a kind of “chief storytelling officer,” and refers to this body of work as narrative analysis, which seeks to better understand the structures of “meaning-making.”

“You can think of it as kind of multi-level,” said Mertes. At the deeper level are discussions about narrative structures themselves, and then at a higher level are the stories that draw on those structures.

Elevating voices for change 

While IRIS is launching with three funders, Mertes hopes that it can work with additional donors to really think about how creative moving image storytelling intersects with social movements around the world. According to Mertes, IRIS will be a space where donors with different agendas will be able to work together to create progress on issues related to inequality.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, both Mertes and Abregú echo the sentiments many organizers and advocates have expressed: that communities closest to the pain hold the keys to solutions. Indigenous communities, for example, have long grappled with issues like environmental racism and degradation. For Mertes and Abregú, these communities can, and often already have, developed solutions to these issues. 

IRIS seeks to “raise these solutions up, articulate them, circulate them, and really fight for their implementation,” said Mertes. “So this is one way of doing that in light of many other tools.”

IRIS will be a way of using the power and impact of stories as an additional tool to create a better future, not just for the Global South, but the world in general.

“It’s very hopeful, in my mind, to really identify the places and people that are actively and daily working to help all of us see a future that we want to live into,” said Friedman. “I don’t know if that’s too optimistic, but I think that’s what keeps all of us going, is that we’re laying down the pathway for that to happen, and IRIS, I think, is a critical step along that path.”

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