The Little Film That Could: What Impact Really Looks Like

On a chilly spring day in 2006, a group of congressional staffers convened at the National Press Club to watch a documentary called A Doula Story. The film told the story of Loretha Weisinger, a quiet yet powerful woman who was curbing the cycle of teen pregnancy through an innovative community-based program in Chicago. Soon after that screening, a team of three congress people—whose staff were in attendance—petitioned for federal funding of such programs across the country.

And just like that, a small film contributed to big change. But it wasn’t serendipity. The screening at the National Press Club was the culmination of years of planning, strategizing and community-based activities led by Active Voice and Kindling Group. Since before the film was finished, we had been working with Health Connect One (formerly Chicago Health Connection) to develop a film-driven campaign to advance support for mothers in need. Together, we had defined a clear goal at the outset of the campaign: replicate the community-based model featured in the film.

For those of us working in media and social change, this goal setting is the most significant part of the story. It gave us a framework to develop and implement the entire campaign, which had a deliberate focus on cities and towns where replication was needed most. It also prompted us to convene the various organizations we needed to work with to make replication possible—from policy to advocacy to research to philanthropy—both on a national and local level.

In the first year of the A Doula Story campaign, we did community screenings in just five cities. We partnered with a range of organizations in each location, and identified a lead partner who cared about our overarching goal. And we asked them: What change do you want to see in your community? And how can this film help you get closer to that? As a result, our screenings were able to generate funding for fledgling community health programs, spark relationships between public health departments and grassroots women’s collectives, and recruit women of color to take on professions in reproductive health.

When tackling complex social issues (in this case, health disparity and the generational cycle of teen pregnancy), change doesn’t happen on its own, nor is there ever a one-size-fits-all solution. It takes changes on many levels and across different sectors. And powerful, character-driven film can be the “glue” that brings together these different players and gives them a common text by which to develop plans together. We call this an Ecosystem of Change.

These days, there’s a lot of talk about film and social impact. Measures of success tend to be focused on number of screenings and/or social media metrics. While these are valuable indicators, it’s important to remember that awareness does not translate to social change. In the early years of its life, A Doula Storyhadn’t had a lot of exposure in the public sphere, but we empowered organizations to host their own screenings and define their own objectives. We thought carefully about the audiences, and recruited an ecosystem of co-sponsors to ensure we got the right mix of people in the room. And immediately after each screening, we featured data about the benefits of the community-based model in the film, and profiled stories of local women in need. Today, all five of our initial screening communities have replicated aspects of the Health Connect One model.

What this means is that we cannot underestimate the value of strategy as a means to bring about sustained impact. As talented mediamakers continue to use their art to reveal complex social issues, we must acknowledge that change takes time and it occurs as part of an ecosystem. If we truly want to see impact, we must embed these stories within the work of those who are committed to addressing those issues in the long run. If it’s done carefully, change is certainly possible.

Written by Executive Director Shaady Salehi

This post was originally published on April 18, 2013 on the NAMAC artsENGAGE blog.