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How IRIS Uses Storytelling to Drive Social Change

July 12, 2022

International Resource for Impact and Storytelling (IRIS) is a new donor collaborative focused on strengthening civil society through narrative strategies and creative storytelling for impact. A sponsored project of RPA, IRIS supports donor partners and field-led efforts to deepen integration between storytellers, movements, and civil society leaders with narrative analysis, with the aim to promote advancement on social justice issues.

As part of our celebration of our 20th Anniversary, RPA had the chance to catch up with IRIS leaders: Cara Mertes, the Founding Director of IRIS, who previously served as Director of JustFilms at Ford Foundation, Director at Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Fund, and Executive Producer at PBS’ P.O.V. series; Graciela Selaimen, Regional Lead for IRIS work in Latin America, who previously served as Senior Program Officer at Ford Foundation’s Brazil office; and Laila Hourani, Regional Lead, MENA, who previously was Senior Program Officer at the Ford Foundation MENA office. Cara, Graci and Laila joined us to discuss the origins of IRIS, the role of storytelling for social impact in today’s fast evolving world, IRIS’ work and challenges in the Latin America and MENA regions, and the initiative’s plans for the future.

How did the idea of IRIS take shape and what does it aim to achieve?

Cara Mertes: The seed for IRIS was planted at the Ford Foundation, where I started eight years ago as Director of JustFilms, the foundation’s documentary portfolio. Historically, Ford Foundation has activated the storytelling aspect of their social justice work through its support of the independent documentary in the US, and more recently, internationally. In 2014, while supporting non-fiction content and the field that surrounds it, I began to think more broadly about narrative analysis and narrative change as an emerging field of practice. I came back to the same question: what is the difference we can make with our stories as we work to achieve more just societies? Rather than thinking about funding single stories, the challenge was to think more systemically about compounded impact, multiple approaches to storytelling, and funding content and nurturing talent linked to creating benefits for community most impacted by inequality.

With others at Ford, I also began to think about how we can build a storytelling strategy in a major philanthropy that responds to the 21st century realities we face. I concluded that while non-fiction is necessary, it is not sufficient to rise to the challenges. We needed to broaden our storytelling categories, thinking about the future of storytelling: virtual reality, short forms, social media – all forms of creative storytelling need to be in our sights if we want to attain social justice progress.

All these learnings began to come together: Ford Foundation leadership invited us to incubate a new approach through a cultural strategy that rested on visual storytelling, social impact, and narrative analysis. That is the intersection that IRIS now works in. We spent two years piloting this with the international program staff and created an internal structure at Ford. However, we found that there was so much interest among philanthropy more broadly that we had enough traction to launch IRIS with five founding donors as a time-bound initiative at RPA.

You’ve worked in many different roles throughout your career, from producer and curator to teacher and writer. How have these experiences shaped the way you approach your work at IRIS?

Cara Mertes: In my eyes, my role has always been centered on supporting independent moving image artists and platforming them as leaders in society. My roles in public television allowed me to experiment with broadcast and community engagement for independent film and video art, pushing the envelope on what topics and styles audiences would respond to, and thinking about what ‘audience’ actually means and how best to serve multiple audiences. Sundance Institute as a platform allowed me to delve deeply into the nature of creativity and how best to support the artistic voice. I saw free and independent expression as a vital part of a strong democracy. In philanthropy, I was able to experiment with building a more inclusive portfolio of content and content makers, coupled with non-fiction field building and networking internationally. All of this was part of imagining what the future of this work could be. IRIS, in a way, is an extension of learnings across all these arenas.

A final note is that we are seeing a trend across philanthropy to ‘de-silo’; that is, to think about how to see connections across issue areas. And culture is a natural glue, a natural connector. People don’t live their lives in issue silos. For example, you can’t think only about gender justice. Instead, we want to think about how multiple issues like climate change, gender justice and the future of work intersect, because that’s how issues are experienced by people. That is the way we try to think about strategy with our donors.

IRIS is a donor collaborative supported by Ford, as well as Skoll, CIFF, OSF and Compton. What is it like being at the center of a donor collaborative, having to manage different agendas and interests, but also being able to leverage the strengths that multiple donors bring to the table?

Cara Mertes: I’ll answer that by talking a little bit about the work that I did at Ford, because IRIS is quite new as a donor collaborative. Working at Ford, I spent a fair amount of my time collaborating with colleagues at other foundations. I approach my work in a highly collaborative way, and with a belief that more minds are always better when addressing complex problems.

At IRIS, collaboration is a key value, and we believe in our donors and their expertise. We’ve found incredibly talented people working inside philanthropy, often from the field, who didn’t have the capacity to really maximize what it is that they know and want to act on as funders. So, in a way, IRIS is a sort of collaborative extension of the program teams that we are working with. Ultimately, we are creating a space to bring our donors, our field leadership, and field stakeholders together so that there can be experimentation and problem-solving. And we want our grantees, our field leadership, and our philanthropic leadership to be sitting at the same table.

In terms of leadership styles, I’ve also learned that in certain circumstances, it can be very powerful if your leadership style is supportive, curious, facilitative, and invites leadership at all levels to contribute to ideas. When people see their contributions reflected, that builds trust and encourages them to invest more of their expertise. This is how we had all 10 international offices and up to 40 program staff working on incubating this approach at Ford Foundation. That is not something that typically happens at foundations, because people are not incentivized to work across their teams—they simply don’t have time or capacity given the way most foundations are structured. In our incubation, using a cultural approach which blends well into topic-based strategies, we were able to create a lateral flow of information, ideas, and strategy that complimented the vertical structures.

What advice do you have for someone who is trying to be more inclusive in their leadership?

Cara Mertes: I would offer that it is not only about listening, but also hearing, understanding, and acting. It’s important to be clear about overall goals and vision, and to stay consistent within those parameters across all the different teams and people that you work with. And a great lesson from Martín Abregu, Ford’s Vice President of International Programs, was to make sure that the people you work with know that your success is tied to their success, and theirs to yours.

At Ford, the invitation to join our work was very much opt-in and participate on your own terms, which I think helped with our success. This kind of work in culture and creativity is something that everyone wants to do, and often they’re not incentivized or resourced to do it. When we created a space to experiment, it became a gathering that everybody wanted to come to because they all had ideas to share. With that invitation came a lot of goodwill and good ideas. Not every initiative may get the same response, but culture has a universal kind of appeal. We often say that if you leave a cultural approach out of your strategy, you have left one of your strongest tools behind.

How well aligned is your organization to one of RPA’s Operating Archetypes and how would you classify yourself? Does looking at these archetypes raise any insights for you in terms of your organization’s core approach?

Cara Mertes: I think the archetypes are great because they help you set goals and boundaries, and then plan more incisively. We saw ourselves in a number of the different archetypes, often depending on the donor’s interests. As an initiative, we resonate most with three archetypes: Talent Agency, Think Tank, and Field Builder. If we look at our specific activities, however, we also have characteristics of the Campaign Manager, Venture Catalyst, and Designer archetypes. Aside from these archetypes, I would note that there isn’t a category that includes time-bound efforts, which IRIS is designed to be. We see a 10-year life cycle, to 2030, timed to the global projected timeline for energy transition, decarbonization, and the goals outlined in the SDG’s.

With polarizing narratives, rising inequality, COVID, etc. how has the role of storytelling for social impact evolved over the years and how has IRIS had to respond to that? How do you see IRIS responding to that in the coming years?

Cara Mertes: That’s a very big question, and it makes me think all the way back to the ’70s with the emergence of the independent media field which was linked to rights-based progressive social movements in the US. This included civil rights, labor, women’s rights, LGBTQI, environment, anti-war, etc. Decades later, new generations of storytellers are continuing to tell stories based in some sense of justice and a common good. That hasn’t changed. What has changed—as we have moved into the information society—is that we’ve started to see the emergence of social media platforms and the full commodification of communication and access to information. Our behaviors are tracked and marketed. Human connection and exchange are the products—the new “oil” being drilled. We get misinformation and disinformation throughout the system because the algorithms are incentivizing the spread of this kind of fear-based content. That will only increase as long as we don’t see regulation.

But IRIS is not a policy organization. What we want to do is maintain a sort of haven for independent storytellers, for creative storytellers, for authentic community voices to emerge, and try and keep a space that is active. We know that some of those voices will move into the marketplace, but IRIS is focused in a fundamental way on thinking about how to maintain a space for voices and perspectives that are not defined by the marketplace.

Finally, I think being a connector across issue areas is key. Instead of investing in specific issue areas, we see a sort of tapestry of connection across issue areas; that is another kind of response to the current moment.

What is your vision and hope for the impact of IRIS’ work in the Latin America region? How do specific cultural factors shape or influence the way you approach storytelling for social impact in your region?

Graciela Selaimen: Our vision for Latin America is to foster a robust, vibrant, and well-connected narrative change ecosystem with diverse networks and coalitions, in the hopes of bolstering social-environmental justice. This includes facilitating the development of strategic alliances between storytellers, media and cultural institutions, and social justice organizations. It also entails the development of critical institutional infrastructures to provide support to creators and social justice actors to connect, experiment, innovate, and learn together.

One of IRIS’ efforts to respond to the cultural nuances in this region is overcoming language barriers. Many of the activities IRIS is coordinating include Portuguese, Spanish, and English speakers, as we also work with some organizations in the Caribbean. Therefore, interpretation and inclusive language are essential factors to ensure full participation and collaboration among the actors we’re engaging in our activities. At the same time, we see huge appetite to map, document, and make visible the knowledge and creativity that exists in the region when it comes to transformative storytelling and narrative change. The recognition of local capacities, resources, and innovation has been opening avenues for deeper conversations on what impactful storytelling can mean to the promotion of social and environmental justice in Latin America.

What is your vision and hope for the impact of IRIS’ work in the Middle East and North Africa region? How do specific cultural factors shape or influence the way you approach storytelling for social impact in your region?

Laila Hourani: The IRIS MENA portfolio runs in partnership with MIMETA. It’s informed by the geo-political context in the Arab region eleven years into the Arab Spring. The popular uprisings in several countries of the Arab region, and the authoritarian crack down that has followed them, has placed storytellers from this region face-to-face with the social and political issues of their times, as well as with the communities most influences by these issues. Equipped with nothing but cameras, creative storytellers have been at the forefront of telling the story of what happened in those historic times. While living and documenting the protests, they came close to the possibility of revitalizing a region rich in culture, history and diversity. The current crack down on civic space in the region, resulting in war and displacement in some Arab countries, and a tough bumpy road to democracy in others, is characterized by an attempt at total erosion of that story and the narratives of change it has seeded. This stifles the voices of independent storytellers, putting them at risk in terms of their safety and ability to express themselves freely. Yet, creative storytelling is still thriving in the Arab region today, affirming itself as one of the main forms of survival, resistance, and resilience.

It is crucial that these storytellers are not left alone in their struggle to hold on to the narrative of change. IRIS can support the pillars that hold their efforts to continue to tell the story. These are the independent cultural institutions developed by courageous cultural actors and artists over the past two decades, and growing networks of solidarity amongst them, and between them and the wider civil society. Sustaining these two pillars as beacons of creativity, free expression, civic engagement, and critical thought will ensure creative storytellers and narrative shapers are resilient and vitalized. IRIS will also pass one their stories and models of resilience to funders to inform their own theories of change and strategies on change towards social justice. This region has as much to take from supporters of narrative change, as to give to them. Despite having survived some of the toughest human crises: war, occupation, displacement, dictatorship, revolution and counter revolution, the region has not given up on seeking change and telling the stories of resilience and hope, offering the world—shaken by a global pandemic and its aftermath—so much to learn from.

What is next for IRIS this year and beyond? What are some key areas of focus or priorities in terms of approaches for your organization in the near future?

Cara Mertes: This first year was used to launch and operationalize a new way of working and undertaking several initiatives with our donor partners, like the Circle of Us visual storytelling fellowship with Purposeful in Sierra Leone and Kenya/Tanzania. We’ve used this time to bring on our core team and we’ve attracted some really talented and experienced people, making IRIS’ overall skillset compelling and multifaceted. For instance, the IRIS team so far includes Portuguese, Russian, English, Spanish, French and Arabic speakers. Graciela Selaimen is conducting new research in narrative change and story-for-impact in Latin America. IRIS’ narrative lead, Brett Davidson, is building directory for narrative focused initiatives, with a Global South focus and is in pre-planning for a narrative summit with an international focus in 2023. Laila Hourani, IRIS’ MENA lead, is building a portfolio of key MENA narrative/story/impact grantees and their roles in port-conflict regions. Mia Deschamps, IRIS Impact and Operations lead is designing a research protocol for innovating measurement and evaluation reporting to harness the more intangible outcomes of cultural strategies like storytelling for impact. IRIS has launched the SaferStorytellers research and mini-site hosted by the Rory Peck Trust. IRIS will be supporting the emergence of global and regional networks of film impact producers. These are just a few examples.

In the next phase, we are seeing ways to connect our donor partners with field leaders and offer learning and convening opportunities across networks, as well as continuing to launch initiatives and finding our place in the emerging international eco-system of storytelling and narrative change.


Photo by Jacob Owens on Unsplash.

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