Sahar Driver: Active Voice’s Moral Compass

While taking stock of 2020, leaders like Sahar Driver, Shaady Salehi, and Sonya Childress shine bright in a very difficult time. The intelligence and spirit (humor too) they brought to Active Voice over our first two decades is incalculable.

Sahar Driver joined our team in 2008, seeking new challenges after working in Hollywood, and before that, Benin, and earlier, Italy. At a time when “impact” was starting to merge with marketing, her profound commitment to our grassroots partners shook things up in the best ways possible. 

With Sahar’s global view in mind, I asked Nike Jonah to talk to her about the role of stories in movement building. Their exchange about equity, pop culture, funding, and more reveals the dynamic fusion of creativity and strategy. Onward! (Please see their full bios, below.)

Sahar, you’re sort of a critical friend, whereby you’re “signposting”, knowledge sharing, mentoring, possibly going on to advocating for them in their work. It’s a nice way to ensure that funding goes far wider than the money, isn’t it, because money alone is never going to keep a project going.

Yeah, it’s true that money is critical but there’s more to supporting a film’s impact potential than that. It’s about getting clear about where a film sits in movements for social change. In that way, I have always been movement facing in this work — that started at Active Voice. To have that bird’s eye view; to be looking at organizations and learning to really listen. What are people focused on? What are people doing to advance social justice on an issue, What do people need? What resources do I have that I can offer to help support? I look for points of intersection and points of possibility. That’s what gets me most excited.

You’re also doing work with Ford Foundation [see this report: Beyond Inclusion]. I love the fact that you’re looking at the critical role of people of color in the US documentary ecosystem. I worked at the Arts Council for a number of years and they put huge amounts of money into equality and diversity schemes. So why are we still talking about structural barriers 15 years later? You don’t really see the legacy being rolled out or all the recommendations being taken on board by the organizations. I think this is critical for us to move forward. 

Yeah, that’s exactly the point: putting money into diversity and inclusion trainings and other schemes isn’t enough and you can’t just “opt-in” to equity. If we are serious about it then interventions have to be about shifting structural power so that people of color are also making decisions and helping to design the programs, rather than being invited to play by other rules and terms that don’t always work for people of color filmmakers and leaders. — Sahar

So that the organizations that have made explicit commitments to supporting people of color over the long-term are centered. That’s what that report points to.

One of my favorite things that I was able to do at Active Voice and that I’ve continued to do is research, designing engagement around a film in plans that were informed by the key stakeholders of those issues. Honestly, I’m so inspired by all the wonderful organizers and leaders that are fighting the good fight and doing the good work all across the country, particularly in these moments of despair that we’re all experiencing. But yeah, a report isn’t enough; it needs to be backed by action and uptake like you say.

Can you explain what you do to someone who doesn’t know the language of the [social impact] sector?

I do a lot of things and it varies, but basically, I work at the intersection of mostly non-fiction film — although there are some outliers — and social change.  What’s the potential and strength of a particular piece of content, say, a documentary? How does that intersect with what a movement is doing? How do we create an architecture around that story to support what the social movement is doing and all the different players within it who are working to solve the issue? That’s the ecosystem of change model. 

I learned a lot of this from being at Active Voice, but there are other ways and other models that don’t center impact producers — like training nonprofits to do the work themselves or working with faith-rooted leaders and helping them to figure out how to adapt these skills and capacities and put them in the service of people who could use them. 

I love that and love seeing people like you who are actually learning on the job and see the need to shift and change. Because, of course, that also gives others the permission to build on your knowledge.

I hope so! Right now the way I support impact strategy on film campaigns has mostly been focused on cultivating strategy and in a very limited way — for example: doing an evaluative pilot. And by that, I mean a contained number of screenings that I’m observing and sharing back what I’m learning about how the film is playing with different people or with different partnerships. That helps the process of mapping out what a campaign will look like. It’s beyond listening and talking; it employs all kinds of things I’ve learned from Active Voice and other spaces about evaluative learning, participatory research, and more.  

What are you particularly proud of, or what was the most challenging at Active Voice?

I think probably the stand out was Welcome to Shelbyville, which was early in my career there. It’s the story of a small town in Tennessee that was dealing with rapid demographic change and the ways that community members came together to make sure that refugees, particularly from Somalia, were welcomed and could feel safe in the face of some pretty racist attitudes.

Ellen Schneider, at Active Voice Lab, spent a lot of time with the filmmaker, Kim Snyder, before and throughout production identifying what the pro-immigrant movement needed at that particular moment. And because of that, and what I’m proud of is, the impact campaign that we created was so responsive to the needs on the ground of the organizers and the activists who were trying to build more welcoming communities. Just last week, one of the faith-rooted organizers we worked with 10 years ago (or longer) presented Shelbyville and the resources we created to a group of faith rooted activists for a set of labs that we’re developing.

The original film was a long feature-length film broadcast on PBS. We created a behind the scenes look at the organization that helped to organize a lot of the community members to support the new refugees. It’s a 30-minute piece. 

Another one was a 30 minute called Hawo’s Dinner Party, which is about one of the characters in the film that audiences wanted to know more about, which drove deeper into specifically Islamophobia against the Somali refugees.

It’s really sad how much the film still resonated with the audience in the room…it continues to be the case that immigrant communities from Muslim majority countries are targeted and scapegoats. But it is a really strong indicator of the power and potential of an impact campaign when years into it, organizers are still working with it. That’s because they clearly are seeing results. Another film that I recently worked on, called CARE by Deirdre Fishel and Tony Heriza about the eldercare crisis in the United States is also still being used. And that’s very exciting to me. It means we really did find the sweet spot for the film’s impact potential. 

I see in arts and social justice that people have to cooperate. And what I found in England is that organizations sometimes don’t bother with each other. They’re always competitive. They don’t have this sense of we’re better and stronger together. So every time I hear about The Prenups, I think, gosh, we’ve got to figure out a way to really promote that approach, particularly in the arts. Can you tell me more about them?

Sure. Active Voice Lab created the Prenups for Partners, which is a tool to help filmmakers, funders, and organizations or groups that are doing work on the ground to understand where each other is coming from. It’s a set of questions and a way of talking through various areas of concern that can cause tensions in partnership cultivation.

For example, I’m using it with one of my clients, The Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn, where we’re trying to bridge relationships between faith-rooted engagement people and film teams. We asked Ellen if she could customize the Prenups for those two communities, because, depending on what faith tradition you’re talking about, filmmakers don’t necessarily understand the orientation [of these potential partners.] And people in faith-rooted communities aren’t familiar with all the different variables that a filmmaker is working with, what distribution life looks like, etc.  And so this is a guide for people who want to work together to begin to cultivate a relationship that is ethical, accountable, informed, and effective.

It’s really about all the partners feeling safe and equitable; to trust each other. We all need every tool available. And it’s not a quick fix. 

I think there’s often this sense among impact producers as if, ‘Well, we’re going to help them”—whoever the them is—solve that problem.” But faith-rooted communities have a relatively sustained commitment to building community and solving community problems that are way less transactional than that. When impacted communities are involved in planning from the outset, then program design will/should necessarily shift to reflect what those communities and partners are already doing. 

So, how do we collaborate in an aware and intentional way, who do we need to be bringing in and how do we want to cultivate trusted relationships? What are we learning from one another (are we learning from one another, is it a two-way street), what are our expectations, and what are we actually pushing for? And does everybody actually agree with that? 

And you’re right, there’s no single tool or easy way to know which questions need to be asked. But to have the intention of beginning that process and deliberately cultivating the “right relationship” is valuable to us. And I think the Prenups for Partners can help avoid some of the blindspots if used in the right way.

That’s brilliant. I see that you’re also managing funds. As somebody who’s worked in fund management before I know It’s a lot of work. How did you get involved with this?

Through my work at Firelight. The Impact Campaign Fund is aimed at resourcing filmmakers and impact producers of color with a vision for telling stories and designing impact campaigns that are not necessarily aimed at an “imagined white mainstream in America” [Instead, some] campaigns are much more focused on either a particular community or particular region rather than a huge national campaign. They might want to have a sustained conversation instead of a big policy shift. 

But [in terms of funding] bringing certain communities together across identities to build power in more discrete ways aren’t always necessarily the most competitive kinds of impact campaigns out there. Firelight saw this and other trends and ultimately decided to form a fund to resource this deeply meaningful and sometimes more discrete work. And we’re there for these filmmakers not just in terms of funds and resources, but to support them in all kinds of other ways so that they can have as much success as possible.

How about you, Nike? What are you up to right now?

I’m working on a project called Reviews in Transit. It is about reviewing films, documentaries, TV shows in the online TV space platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, IG TV  I’m interested to understand how they talk about migration via different lenses. How do you view the world of an Asian immigrant who grew up in another country? So I want to be able to provide tools and training to support critics from a range of backgrounds (writers, artists, etc.) to do written, audio, or video reviews. Basically, it’s how can we influence and develop the diversity of the critical conversation on open platforms…because we know reviews are done by white, middle-aged Americans.

I get it. At Active Voice, we always used the beyond the choir model, which, like a lot of words, has been eroded of its meaning that we had at Active Voice.

When we were talking about it then (we were always talking at Active Voice), we were identifying who was the nuanced, relative to the movement core, values-based “beyond the choir” audience for each film. For example, a target audience for The New Black, a film by Yoruba Richen about gay rights, marriage equality, and the Black church, was black churchgoers who had not made the connection between LGBT issues and civil rights. Or for A Place at the Table, it was local food system leaders who were working to address hunger but had not seen the connection between hunger and obesity. In other words, they were committed to health food systems but just hadn’t yet made that connection, so they were beyond the choir but connected based on that commitment. We were always very specialized and very specific. Now “beyond the choir” seems to mean anyone in America who is part of an imagined white mainstream. So now I don’t use that phrase anymore.

And the term “impact” also has shifted so much. It was helpful at one point to be able to name a certain set of strategic tactics that would help solve a problem. But now it means so many different things that I don’t find it all that useful to say that I’m an impact producer. Basically, I focus on the intersection between what the social movements need, what the film is communicating, and who we need to focus on.

Sahar Driver, PhD, is a documentary impact and engagement strategist. In her work she helps filmmakers, funders, and movement leaders advance their strategic use of film and media to support meaningful and sustainable change on a range of issues. Campaigns and projects that she has contributed to have gone on to influence public discourse and measurable change related to aging and eldercare, immigration, racial justice, worker advocacy and more. Sahar is also an educator and researcher and a consultant to the Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn where she is piloting new impact models at the intersection of faith and film; the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms for whom she recently authored the report Beyond Inclusion: The Critical Role of People of Color in the U.S. Documentary Ecosystem; and to Firelight Media where she supports grantaking and impact.

Nike Jonah works in strategic development across the cultural and creative industries worldwide. Since the early 90s, she has developed innovative approaches to much successful music, fashion, television, design, visual, and performing arts projects for several influential organisations in Africa, America, and Europe. Nike is currently a Research Fellow at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama; University College London and currently a Visiting Research Fellow at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She serves as Counterpoint Arts’ lead for the Pop Culture and Social Change initiative. Previously, she launched Pan African Creative Exchange (PACE) in partnership with the Vrystaat Arts Festival in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Nike led the highly acclaimed Arts Council England’s Decibel Programme, which was designed to support and increase the profile of African, Asian, and Caribbean artists in England. In 2010, Nike was acknowledged as a Woman to Watch and an “outstanding leader in the diversification of the arts” by a panel of the UK’s creative industry luminaries. Nike is a Trustee on Boards of the European Cultural Foundation, The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, The Royal Africa Society, and The Bush Theatre.

Banner photos: Left: Sahar; center: the Active Voice/Lab team circa 2013; right: Sahar receives reward from Dept. of Justice, 2012.