Good afternoon, YouthMundees! Storytelling is a powerful medium- to inspire change, to foster empathy, and to entertain. Within the past couple of decades, there have been many examples of creatives and leaders utilizing media to pave the way for systemic change. As a social impact producer, Jennifer Gottesfeld uses storytelling to bridge the worlds of entertainment and social impact, questioning the narratives that surround our daily lives.
How did you find your niche within the entertainment and non-profit industries as a Social Impact Storyteller?
I started my career working in global health because I believed there was no human right more fundamental. It took me from running global partnerships for a leading NGO to developing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging strategies for nonprofits, to working on the Ebola recovery in Sierra Leone. Throughout the years, though, I felt increasingly frustrated at how reactionary nonprofit work often is – catching people falling through the hole, but not stemming it. I left global health in search of what could solve for those root causes.
That search first took me to the corporate social responsibility department at Goldman Sachs, to see if changing their ways could stop perpetuating some social ills. There, I worked on projects that have grants of millions of dollars to nonprofits, which was important work, but it didn’t scrutinize the problematic business model of where those millions came from. My search then took me to get a Master’s at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where I thought maybe policy could be that solution I was seeking. But with the Trump administration in office, it showed me that the policies from one administration can be completely dismantled by the next.
What I realized is that both of those approaches are top down. And top down never works. To really make the changes in the world that we need, we need to start with what people think and believe. And what is more formative in shaping how people see the world than entertainment? That revelation brought me to the work I am doing now, focused on storytelling that is culturally accurate, authentic, inclusive, and deconstructing dominant stereotypes and tropes.
What is unique about storytelling that makes it an especially impactful vehicle for change?
We now know that people understand the world, each other, and themselves through stories and narratives. Research shows that stories are at least 12x more likely to stick in a person’s memory than facts. To that end, stories are much more effective in influencing people’s behaviors and beliefs than facts alone. In fact, the confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of their evidence, but of the coherence of the story. This is in part because stories have the ability to make us feel like we are connected to something greater than ourselves.
However, while stories can reinforce uplifting, positive, inclusive narratives, they can just as easily reinforce problematic, negative, ignorant narratives. This means they can inspire empathy by transporting us, and allowing us to live in someone else’s shoes, but they can also inspire and reinforce bigotry, hatred, and fear, depending on which narratives the story is upholding. And so we must be intentional and mindful in what stories we tell and who is telling them.
How would you describe the job of an Impact Producer?
Impact Producers are hired onto films (most commonly documentaries) that have a message or point that could have an impact on society. For content with prosocial messages, filmmakers sometimes want to not only raise awareness of the audience, but help take that awareness to the next level - action. This is where the Impact Producer comes in.
Most commonly, an Impact Producer is hired close to the end of a production and sometimes even after the piece of content is complete. It is their job to figure out what social impact the piece of content could have and then design and implement an Impact Campaign to achieve that social impact. The campaign goals can range from trying to get a policy changed to fundraising for a cause and can look like everything from holding a screening and discussion for a Congressional Caucus to introducing a major private sector player to a nonprofit organization to help create a partnership to holding a big conference or event to developing an in-class curriculum. Whatever the campaign ends up looking like though, it is using clips of or the entire piece of content as the central piece of the change work.
Who are some standout examples of storytellers and their projects that were successful in making long-term, systemic change?
Some change has taken decades, where larger movements were supported by storytellers. A successful example of that long term support for change was Ellen, Will and Grace, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which were some of the first shows to bring queer stories into people’s homes who might not necessarily know someone who was out at that time. This helped change the narrative in the U.S. to the tipping point of ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ to the landmark success of marriage equality.
A more recent example of a storyteller working to advance change is Ava DuVernay. She has focused much of her content on criminal justice reform and works in tandem with the Law Enforcement Accountability Project to continue to push issues forward. Time will tell the extent of her contribution to the work being done to dismantle the current law enforcement model.
However, one should note that in many of these examples, it was not necessarily the intention of the filmmaker to have a social impact.
You spent some time in Sierra Leone helping the government design their Ebola Survivor Strategy. How did you get involved with this and what is happening there today?
My career before working in entertainment was in global health, so when I was asked by Partners In Health to help lead their Ebola recovery team it was an honor to be of service. As part of my job, I worked with the Sierra Leonean government on their emergency response to recovery plan. There were many big lessons - best practices on how to respond to an epidemic; how to care for survivors who experience lasting effects from a disease; how to strategically prepare for future epidemics. Unfortunately, pervasive Western narratives like “it could never happen to us,” or “prevention is too costly and not worth the investment,” or “we’re smart, we’ll be able to figure it out if we need to,” contributed to the arrogance, ignorance, and negligence that allowed for the mass proliferation of the COVID-19 pandemic that followed only a few years later. Two narratives that were very much upheld in this instance are that ‘humans don’t learn from their mistakes’ and ‘history repeats itself.’
What issues are at your forefront today? What can our readers do, as young artists and activists?
The unfortunate truth is that any singular issue that is at the forefront today will be forgotten tomorrow, before it’s been solved. And it makes sense, because there is so much that is broken in society. Just in the past week we’ve gone from the UN Climate Report’s horrific findings, the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the terror as Afghanistan is taken by the Taliban, and this all in front of a backdrop of the many horrors of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Each reader may have an issue that is important to them, and they should think about how they want to communicate about that issue in their art or activism. And that is important work.
But more than any one issue, it’s about recognizing our own biases and ignorance and how it manifests in the work that we are putting out into the world. And then doing the work to dismantle that in ourselves and in the stories we tell. It doesn’t matter your background, we have all inherited narratives that we believe to be inherently true, when in fact, they are just stories we’ve been enculturated to believe are natural law. Being able to see those in ourselves and take them apart, that’s the systemic work.
Thank you all so much for your continued support. We look forward to bringing you the voice of more inspiring artists and changemakers in 2021.