Kathy Im, Director of Journalism and Media, writes about MacArthur’s shift to support storytelling that helps create new national narratives that reflect an inclusive democratic society.
MacArthur has a long history of supporting journalists and non-fiction storytellers working to hold the powerful to account and ensuring Americans have access to the information they need to be active, engaged citizens. Many of our long-time grantees have been leaders in creating content that not only informs, but also inspires action, and uncovers important underreported stories to reveal new truths about the American experiment.
Supporting investigative and explanatory journalism and documentary films continues to be central to our strategy. Recently we have begun to expand the types of media makers in our portfolio to include those using narrative storytelling, comedy, and other forms of popular culture in fresh and innovative ways. They are striving to create new national narratives–stories that we, as a society, use to define who we are and what we value–and to counter deeply ingrained, long-held myths that undermine our ability to build a more equitable and inclusive society. They are working to replace myths, such as “if you win, I lose”, with affirmative narratives that reflect our interconnectedness and demonstrate respect for others who may be different.
With the rise of political polarization, the splintering of media into echo chambers, and the emergence and ascent of anti-democratic forces in Washington and state houses across the country, many civil society organizations have been doubling down on these types of narrative and culture change strategies. Organizations such as IllumiNative, the Pillars Fund, and the Inevitable Foundation were established to engage in narrative and culture change work to combat inaccurate and damaging stereotypes about their communities. They have launched fellowships for storytellers from their communities to strengthen the pipeline of writers and creatives in Hollywood with lived experiences. Some have negotiated “first-look” deals with studios and streamers for their content. These efforts are leading to more accurate and nuanced stories coming out of Hollywood that appeal to mass audiences, such as Sterlin Harjo’s hit series Reservation Dogs about teenage life on a Native reservation and Ramy Youssef’s comedy-drama Ramy, which chronicles the life of a Millennial Muslim-American living in New Jersey. These new series not only celebrate the everyday lives of people from historically underrepresented groups, but they also help to counter negative and inaccurate stereotypes that Hollywood has historically perpetuated and policy in Washington has reified.
We are also supporting work to experiment with and test new approaches. The ;Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) at American University has become a leader in studying and applying the use of comedy for social change. Research shows that humor can be a powerful tool for bridging difference to reach new audiences, and it can create safe space to discuss sensitive topics. Through its “Comedy Think Tank,” CMSI is partnering social justice groups with comedians to collaboratively develop comedic content to achieve these very goals. Similarly, it launched the “Yes, And… Laughter Lab”—a competitive incubation lab, pitch program, and showcase that lifts up diverse writers and performers creating new comedy about topics that matter. The Laughter Lab introduces comedians to social justice organizations, philanthropists, and activists who can help bring their work into the comedy marketplace and into movements for social change.
This year we made our first investment in an independent narrative film through a grant to Array Alliance for Ava DuVernay’s Origin, which had its theatrical release in early December 2023. Origin is based on Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning book, Caste, and tells the story of the ways in which difference has been weaponized for political and financial gain around the world, including through the social construct of race in the United States.
We believe these investments in new forms of media making complement our long-standing support for journalism and non-fiction storytellers to further strengthen our democracy and build a more equitable future for all. As the media and political landscapes shift and evolve, we are committed to adapting and expanding our strategy to meet the challenges of the day and uplift new forms and approaches to media making that lead to a more just, inclusive, and democratic society.