And…ACTION: Saving the World One Guilty Pleasure at a Time

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer poster hangs prominently on my office wall. As I am ostensibly an adult, I tell people I keep it there because the tagline is an example of perfect messaging: “Pert. Wholesome. Way Lethal.” But the truth is, I like the entire concept of Buffy. I am a fan.

When the TV series debuted in 1997, I watched every episode as it aired. And remember: this was before DVD and On Demand. While I was trying to make my way as a woman in male-dominated Washington, D.C., Buffy was kicking ass and taking names. For seven seasons, I relished having her as a role model – even if I did view this weekly indulgence as a guilty pleasure.

Flash forward to 2014 and my start in the Aspen Institute’s Henry Crown Fellowship Program. This two-year opportunity challenges leaders to think beyond their current roles and find ways to create significant change in the world. As a fellow, I had to develop a project that would stretch my leadership skills. Since I run advocacy campaigns for a living, anything that looked remotely like a campaign was off the table. Instead, I had to come up with something that could create an impact – but was entirely new to me. It was like telling Buffy to dust a vampire without using a wooden stake. I was stymied.

Then last fall as I watched How to Get Away with Murder while trying to think up a project that would save the world and satisfy the Aspen Institute’s criteria, the socially and politically tinged dialogue of the program caught my attention. I began to wonder if there was a way to make it easy for cause organizations to harness the power of film and television storylines to push their issues.

And suddenly, it hit me. Buffy wasn’t a guilty pleasure – she was the solution.

I would use stories for social good. But I wouldn’t try to change what was on TV or coming to theaters. There are already great groups doing that. Rather, I would take stories already scripted, taped and produced, and help groups find creative ways to use them. Before the discovery shot of Murder flashed on my television screen, my project came into focus.

I would connect groups working on civil rights and race relations to relevant story arcs coming up on Scandal and The Good Wife. I’d make sure groups working to stop sexual abuse on school campuses knew that the second season of  American Crime, set to air in early 2016, will feature a central plot line around this issue and offer them tips for how to use the show to drive chatter among their networks – and reach new audiences. I’d encourage nonprofits tackling climate change or addressing homelessness to check out the upcoming film Chloe and Theo and I’d give other organizations ideas for using Mark Wahlberg’s upcoming movie Deepwater Horizon to take aim at the fossil fuel industry.

Why would advocacy groups working on critical issues devote time to popular television programs and movies? Simple. They need good stories. Though nonprofits are making great strides in building their own storytelling skills, the head writer for the Emmy-nominated Empire still has most of them beat. Organizations need to be able to tell their own stories – but they can also tap into the state-of-the-art storytelling television and movies have to offer, while connecting with new audiences on a very personal level.

Enter And…ACTION, a new way to connect cause organizations to upcoming film and TV storylines that are relevant to their work – and give them the lead-time needed to prepare online features, social media or other events that use the stories to engage viewers on their issues. TV and film creators are masters at getting people to feel something, and when people have feelings, they act.  Even better, the television and film industry tells hundreds of new stories every day – and most of them are free. And best of all, And…ACTION is poised to break down the barriers that currently keep groups from taking advantage of this resource.

1) Groups don’t know where the opportunities are. And…ACTION will help groups be opportunity omniscient. Users can follow @andactionnow and (once it’s up and running) visit the website to find out what upcoming TV and film storylines could offer opportunities to drive their issues.

2) Even when advocacy groups are aware of upcoming storylines, they don’t know how to use them to support their work. And…ACTION will feature lessons learned from organizations that used movies like The Help to improve the lives of domestic workers or Law and Order SVU to address the issue of the rape kit backlog. Sharing behind-the-scenes examples of how groups have leveraged these opportunities will spur creativity among other organizations and encourage experimentation with this genre.  Additionally, the website will feature a toolkit with tips for using storylines in different ways – and the encouragement groups need to try it themselves.

3) This is new territory. Organizations are wary of how to tap into this resource in a savvy, media-literate way. If a storyline is inaccurate or negative, can organizations still use it?  Of course. For example, police dramas sometimes involve a detective strong-arming an immigrant with questionable status into telling what he knows. This, of course, is a false stereotype – immigrants are statistically much less likely to be involved in crimes. And…ACTION will offer counsel on sophisticated ways groups can use these scenes to start a conversation that ultimately gets viewers to question myths, misperceptions and stereotypes.

And…ACTION is a big experiment. When it comes to stretching my skills in a new direction – a focus of this fellowship project – I can definitely check that box as I find ways to bring together cause organizations and the entertainment field. But there’s something else good here. This project has the potential to bring social change to life for many more people in a variety of compelling ways. We are just in our pilot phase, but have already hired a project director, launched our social media and started pulling storylines set to air during the fall premiers.

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This post originally appeared on Spitfire Strategies

Posted: August 19, 2015